Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Adventures of an overseas traveler

Almost any parent will tell you that it is tough traveling on business. I say “almost” because I have met parents who, I am sure, count the days until they can get away from the little delinquents that they unfortunately spawned.

While I enjoy the travel that comes with my job, I prefer it in small time increments. Usually I am gone for slightly more than 24 hours, enough time to blow into a hotel that morning or the previous evening, perform stand-up comedy at some point, and then hop a plane back to Chicago.

So naturally I was hesitant when I was invited to join a Sarasota, Florida-based insurance company on a trip through Europe.

For eight days.

For the insurance folks, this was an incentive trip, the kind that is currently being slammed by watchdog groups and stockholders as excessive. However, this company (which shall remain nameless simply because I liked its employees) was privately owned, did not accept TARP bailout funds and therefore operated on a “we will do as we please and we will have fun doing it” principle.

They would be socializing, drinking and enjoying the fruits of their efforts. They would start in Amsterdam, end near Frankfurt and stop along the way in towns I’ve never heard of including Xanten, Cochem and Treer.

Note: The Microsoft spell check has apparently never heard of those towns either because all come with a squiggly red line underneath when typed into a Word document. The red line is Microsoft’s way of saying, “huh?”

I would perform stand-up comedy, assist with the company’s awards program (not an easy task aboard a moving ship, as I found out later) and, in general, keep these top salespeople and their spouses laughing and entertained for five days.

Tack on three days for travel and you’ve got eight days.


On business.

I took an eight-day trip in 2004 sans kids. But my wife was with me and this trip was entirely pleasure. We left the kids with my in-laws, who possess the best baby-sitting item ever invented. Better than a nanny.
An in-ground pool.

Trust me, when your kids are small, they can spend an entire summer wearing two articles of clothing: diapers and bathing suits.

Now they are 12 and 7, with schedules that would astound some CEOs. They go to SCHOOL, then they have ACTIVITIES and then they have MORE ACTIVITIES. And don’t forget HOMEWORK!

I don’t care if your kids have the disposition of a Golden Retriever and your relatives the patience of Job, eight days of playing “who needs to be where and when” and “I need help with this math problem” can have lasting consequences. Wills are often revised around Day Six.

So, even though the insurance people graciously invited my wife, we decided I would go to Europe solo while she stayed home in her office, which is another way of saying, “the car.” It would be the longest I have ever been away from my family and, as I found out, a true test of communication skills.

We would correspond via overseas phone calls. A quick call to Sprint revealed that my ever-present Blackberry, which plays music, takes photos, surfs the Web and can connect to YouTube in an instant, would NOT work in Europe. The Sprint salesperson suggested I purchase a cheap international phone.

“Have you ever heard of a website called eBay?” he semi-whispered, as if eBay were a secretive, CIA interrogation camp.

Eventually I rented an international phone – over the phone - from a company called CellHire. Helpful salesperson Mike informed me that the phone would come with two SIM cards, one for the Netherlands and one for Germany. All I had to do was swap out the cards, depending on what country I was in, and I could easily dial home – for 80 cents a minute.

Note: I have no idea what a SIM card is and it always amuses me when technology salespeople assume you are versed in their jargon. Sometimes I feel like I am talking with Doc, the Christopher Lloyd character in “Back to the Future,” who was always ranting about the “1.21 jigowatts” needed to power the “flux capacitor.”

When I’m on the road, calls home can often last upwards of 30 minutes, by the time I have talked to all three family members. And that’s if everybody had a good day. Bad day calls can last twice as long. The current recession has forced the Schwems, like most families, to make sacrifices when possible. We eat out less, drive less, and now it appeared we would talk less. We agreed that I would call home every other day.

That would be four calls over eight days.

I suggest that nobody ever use this formula. Instead, call whenever the mood strikes, costs be damned. Cancel HBO, take a second job or refinance the house if you have to.

Family communication, as I found out, is not something that should be scheduled. Establishing a time table ensures the risk of calling on days when there is nothing to say and being out of touch on days when the sound of a family member’s voice could lift your spirits exponentially.

To demonstrate, I will divide an eight day business trip into days zero to eight, using the “every other day” calling pattern, and will try and explain what occurs on each day:

An overseas trip doesn’t begin on day one; it actually starts on day zero. This is your first phone call, known simply as the “I am here,” call. This is the briefest call, because you’re calling the family when it’s your morning and their night, or vice versa, and that’s totally weird to both parties at this point.
So the call last about three minutes: “I’m here, how are you, how are the kids, I miss you already.”

You don’t talk to the kids on this call unless they answer. You talk to your wife. Before hanging up, you remind her that you both agreed beforehand to skip Day One. This doesn’t seem like a good idea because it means you’re not going to give her your first impressions of the trip until Day Two. But you think, “we need to stick to the plan,” so you say, “I’m probably going to just take tomorrow and catch up, get on their time zone, you know?”

This doesn’t seem to satisfy your wife even though she tries hard not to let it show.

“Uh, okay. We’re pretty busy tomorrow anyway.”

You hang up exhausted from jet lag, yet content that your first phone call only cost about $4 US.

On Day One you want to call but you can’t break the agreement that early, can you? No, that would be a sign of weakness. Sure, your wife and kids have your number so let them call if they must. Let them be the weak link. But of course they don’t because they are out to prove they’re as tough as you are. Therefore, there is zero communication on Day One and it kills everybody, although nobody will admit it.

The Day Two call is the best of all the calls. Everything is just as you hoped it would be. Your children, anticipating your call, eagerly wait by the phone and pick it up on the first ring.

“Hi Dad…we’re okay…I played softball and Amy played soccer…where are you?...what TIME is it there?...is it fun?... Okay Dad, we have to go. I’m going to a friend’s house and Amy has to practice piano. Want to talk to Mom?”

Now that’s a great call! Not only are your children coping with your absence, they‘re not really even sure you’re gone. Whatever were you worried about?

Your children are your most important concern on Day Two. You wife should be able to tough it out until Day Four. Sure, you talk with her but it’s small, pleasant talk: “How was your day?…anything interesting in the mail?… wish you were here.” It’s all very cordial.

Then you make one slight mistake.

You introduce cost into the communication process.

“Well, this call’s probably getting expensive so why don’t we call it a night, or in my case a next day,” you say.

You tried to broach this subject in a joking manner but it doesn’t work and the damage is done. Your wife says nothing but files it away about halfway back in her head where it’s easily accessible during a later conversation.

You hang up. In spite of the cost faux pas, you feel so good that you don’t even regret skipping Day Three. Ah, Day Three, the most stress free day on your trip. You know the wife and kids are fine because you talked to them yesterday. And you will talk to them tomorrow. On Day Three your phone stays holstered because you’ve vowed to make Day Three YOUR day. From the moment you get up, it’s all about YOU!

On Day Three, things just go your way. You always seem to have some unexpected free time. You pass a scenic European park while you’re wearing your jogging shoes. You weren’t planning to jog but you just can’t resist. So you begin a leisurely jog but stop mid-run because you happen upon a commercial shoot for a French perfume. And this commercial stars two equally hot French models.

You exit the park feeling healthy in every way. Even better, you didn’t get lost. You know exactly where you are and you continue on your journey armed with the French model story, one that you will be telling your neighbors for years.

You get lunch on the street and have the exact amount of foreign currency in your pocket to pay for it. At dinner you use your company credit card and order whatever looks good, since you aren’t paying for it. You eat at a bar and it just so happens that the guy next to you is foreign yet speaks excellent English so you have an animated two hours of conversation, discussing topics that you’d never talk about at home, like why every kid in the United States plays in four soccer leagues, six days a week yet we still, as a nation, kind of suck in soccer.

Actually, I think parents in the US want to have that conversation but they are afraid to because they are so busy plunking down thousands of dollars for their kids to play soccer.

So there you are, enjoying YOUR day, totally unaware that SOMETHING is happening at home on Day Three. That SOMETHING is never a good SOMETHING. It definitely involves at least two of these subjects:

1) Stitches
2) The transmission
3) A possible fracture
4) A totally unexplainable, out of the blue “F”
5) Your mother
6) The phrase, “I haven’t had time to even THINK about dinner

THAT’S what is going on in your house on Day Three.

Day Four…TIME TO CALL. Remember, you have no idea what went on at home during Day Three. No, you’re still feeling great from that massage you had on the same day. So you call. Your oldest answers the phone, the one who, for some reason, is suddenly ticked off at you.

“Hi honey, it’s Dad.”
“What are you doing?”
“Getting ready for school.”
“So you’re probably rushing.”
“You being nice to your sister?”
“Mmmm.” Then, “want to talk to Amy?”
“Uh sure. Have a great day at school.”

You’ve had more meaningful conversations via Twitter.

Now your second child, the youngest, gets on the phone and instantly makes you want to hail a taxi bound for the airport.

“Hi Daddy. You sound far away.”
“Well I am honey. Remember when we looked at the map and I showed you…”
“When are you coming home?”
You crank the volume on your rented phone but it’s no use. It’s not the connection; you realize your daughter is talking in a whisper, while trying to stifle sobs.
“Not for another four days princess. We talked about that too, remember? But Daddy’s already been gone four days. In four MORE days I’ll be home. That’s not that long, right?
“It seems like a long time.”
“I’ll be home before you know it. I miss your hugs and kisses. Can I talk to Mom?”
“Okay. I wish you didn’t have to go away. Ever. Ever ever again. I’ll get Mom.”

In the waiting silence that follows, you realize you are zero for two. One child hates you and one thinks you are orbiting the earth in the space shuttle. Then your wife picks up the phone. Her greeting is not warm and fuzzy but direct, as if your child had handed her the phone and said, “there’s a man on the phone who wants to speak to the lady of the house.”

HER: Hello?
YOU: Hi honey.
YOU: Uh, talking to you. What are you doing?
HER: A little of everything. Actually a lot of everything.
YOU: I missed talking to you yesterday. What did you do then? (Remember, this was Day 3. YOUR day)
HER: (LONG SIGH) Well Natalie had gymnastics but had to leave early. She said her foot is hurting. Her coach said something might be fractured (#3). We drove home. By the way, the car doesn’t sound good (#2). Then I looked at her homework. Do you know she got an F (#4) for not turning in an assignment?
Note: Day Four is the day your wife forgets you have been gone for four days and therefore would have no idea about the “F.”
“Anyway, we didn’t get home until 8. I was just trying to get the kids to bed when your mother called…” (#5)
Then, “What did you do yesterday?”
YOU: (THINKING QUICKLY, KNOWING YOU HAVE TO LIE) Nothing much. I’m still pretty tired from the flight.
HER: Well, at least you’re by yourself. I haven’t even thought about dinner tonight. (#6)
YOU: Yeah, um okay. So what happened with the missed assignment?
HER: It’s a long story. It would be too expensive to talk about now.

BOOM! The cost factor has leaped from the middle of her forehead, lasered directly through the phone line and lodged quite painfully in your ear. How could you have been so stupid?

But as you are mentally slapping your brain with your fist, she rescues you from having to continue the conversation.

I’ll tell you about it when you’re home.
YOU: That’s only four days from now.
HER: Uh huh. Seems like it’s going fast, I guess. Do you think it’s going fast?
YOU: Yeah. I suppose.
HER: Okay, I’ve gotta run. When you will be around tomorrow? Can I call you?
YOU: You mean the next day? Tomorrow would be every day, not every other day.
HER: (LARGE, DRAWN OUT SIGH) Okay, whatever. Call me.
YOU: I’ll do that. Love you.
HER: I love you. Bye.

The “bye” is what you remember; not the “I love you.”

Day Five is the hardest day to stick to the “call every other day” calling plan. Day Four’s call went so horribly that you want another chance. You don’t call but you have a miserable day anyway because every sight, sound, and decision comes with guilty overtones. You don’t stroll the cobblestone streets in the evening, poking your head into assorted pubs and engaging in conversation. Those activities came and went in Day Three. Instead, you eat dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, without attempting conversation. Whatever you ordered tastes bad and the wait staff seems so indifferent to your mere presence that, if a flaky European croissant lodged in your throat, you would have to perform your own Heimlich maneuver.

Day Five is the first day you turn on European TV in your room (or in my case, my cruise “stateroom.”)

You discover quickly that it is the same as American TV in that it has happy looking (for Europe) news anchors, a home shopping network selling European crap, sports that you don’t care about and a few American movies (dubbed in whatever language they speak in this country) that you recognize but never bothered to watch at home.
It differs only in that at least one channel – and possibly more depending on the time of day and your location –is showing porn.

Free porn.

Free hardcore porn.

The channels come up randomly as you click the remote; there is no rhyme or reason why the couple having sex is sandwiched (for lack of a better phrase) between CNN and futbol highlights. Or why another couple, this time both female, occupy the channel right past the cooking show. You tell yourself you don’t feel like watching but you can’t stop. Two hours go by and you’re still awake.

You wake up groggy on Day Six and decide you are ready to go home. Unfortunately, you have two days left and it’s brutal. Everything you see reminds you of home. The 1000-year-old castle perched high on the bluff looks inviting but not as homey as your back patio. You’re drinking heavy German beer from a massive stein but it’s not Bud Light (and never will be if you’re German). You miss your family, the life you know and the comforts that go with it. You can’t wait to make that phone call just so you can hear those chipper, sweet-sounding voices (from Day Two) that have crept into your head and refuse to leave.

Day Six is the day your long awaited call home kicks to voicemail.

“Hi, we can’t make it to the phone now. Leave your name and number and we’ll call you back.”

“Hi, it’s Dad. Was hoping to catch you guys. You have my number so call me when you get a chance. I miss you.”

You hang up, convinced your loving family has decided you are taking up permanent residence in Europe and have thus, moved on. The only thing comforting about this is realizing that, if you ever get a terminal disease, at least you know your family can exist without you.

Between tears, you will say, “It’s gonna be okay. Daddy will be in heaven. He won’t be with you but that’s not so bad, is it? Remember when Daddy went to Europe?”

Eventually your rented phone rings but you’re the only one that seems to have time to talk. Your family has scheduled the phone call right between assorted practices, car pools and dinner on the run because, well, that’s the only time they were all actually home together.

Like Day Four, the conversation is short. But at least there is a hint of anticipation in everyone’s tone. Your oldest no longer seems to despise you and your youngest is less pouty but still pouty enough that you buy both kids another present each to stick in your carry-on luggage.

Whatever crisis occurred on Day Three seems a thing of the past. Your wife never brings it up during the Day Six conversation. She tells you about plans she’s made for the next few days, plans that sweetly include the phrase, “if you’re not too tired.” Even though you are coming home in two days, the Day Six call is lengthy. You forget that you are spending 80 cents a minute. It doesn’t bother you in the least that your youngest “put the phone down” to find Mom and you were on hold for at least five minutes.

Note: I’ve always wondered why our house seems to quadruple in size when I am away. Our house is two stories and 4,000 square feet but I feel there must be secret passages, tunnels and hidden rooms that I don’t know about because, when I ask one of our kids if they can “get Mom,” they do just that and then I am waiting for an eternity before Mom is actually found. In the meantime, I’m treated to muffled sounds of, “mom….mom…MOOOOOOOMMMMMM…” over the phone.

Day Seven is the day you break the rule.

You weren’t planning to but it couldn’t hurt, right? You’ve already packed, taking extra care with the gifts you purchased abroad. You head out for one final European meal and you see something along the way that makes you reach for the phone. This time, your wife answers.

(SURPRISED) “Hey! I didn’t expect to hear from you. This is the off day, right?”
“I know but I was walking down a street and saw this little café and thought about how nice it would be to sit there and sip wine with you. Next time, you’re coming with me.”
“That sounds so nice. I’d LOVE to be there now.”
“No more eight day trips. I PROMISE.”
”It wasn’t so bad. And besides, it’s part of your job honey.”

Again, your spouse says just the right thing at just the right time. How sweet. Not only are you forgiven for anything that may have occurred while you were gone, (not that you could control anything that did in fact occur at home while you were 5,000 miles away) but if another eight-day business trip should ever arise, you might be going again. Call the masseuse!

You keep talking. You don’t care what the call is costing or that you will be home in 24 hours and could easily have this conversation face to face. For free. Tomorrow, when you open the door to your house, you want to make sure that EVERYTHING is totally cool and that you are up to speed on the events in everyone’s lives. Trust me, even if your last business trip was a nine-month tour of duty in Iraq, it’s still awkward, when your spouse says, “are you planning to come to school next Friday?” to respond, “what’s next Friday?”

So you talk. More than 45 minutes goes by and you are still talking. Remember, this was the day you weren’t supposed to call but who cares? The Day Seven call is horrifically expensive; you didn’t stick to the plan and, when you hang up, you feel like someone who returned to a bad habit one second after Lent ended.

But you take solace in the fact that the Day Seven call will be the last you make with your rented, international, 80 cents a minute, needs to be mailed back IMMEDIATELY or God only know what you will be charged, phone. Your next call occurs on Day Eight. You make it in your country, with your phone and it doesn’t matter who picks up the other end when you dial. It’s the shortest call you’ve made in over a week.

It starts with two words.

“Daddy’s home.”


Sally Edwards said...

Connected through LinkedIn and read your blog - hilarious - sounds like a great chapter from a book.

jkc said...

Next trip, look into Skype.