Saturday, September 5, 2009

Manneken Pis...sed Off


We made the best of an unexpected stay in Brussels. Eight years ago, my fiancé (now husband) and I were on our way back to New York following a visit to his family in southwest France. We were flying Sabena, the national airline of Belgium that was in service from 1923 to 2001 (they declared bankruptcy not long after our trip). September 3, 2001. We were of course ignorant of what lurked just around the corner of history. If I'd known it would be the last time I'd fly with my safety taken for granted (as silly as perhaps that always was), I would have enjoyed the flight experience more, despite the hassles we encountered. The hassles themselves, in fact, would have seemed like nothing compared to the immigration nightmares to follow. The way our "layover" started was this: Despite having boarded our originating flight in Toulouse without a raised eyebrow, once in transit (in a different country, where we knew no one and could not call for someone to return to the airport to fetch us) my husband was stopped at the moment of boarding, disallowed on the plane because of some oversight on the part of his employer. My husband was working in the States on an HB-1 specialty worker's visa, and the visa had been transferred from one employer to another not long before, but something was amiss despite the validity of dates shown on the visa (I can't remember the details anymore, they got lost in the years of green card hell that came after). My husband was thrown for a loop, upset, and in this situation powerless. I tried my "this is a simple misunderstanding" approach, then righteous indignation, to no avail. No way was he getting on the plane. What I recall with the most emotional immediacy is that the blonde Sabena attendant, standing at the gate in her blue uniform a) suggested that there was nothing preventing me from boarding the plane, as if I was going to just leave my fiancé stranded in Brussels while I flew merrily home, and b) when I said neither of us would fly, requested that I identify our baggage to make it easier to offload. I looked at her blankly for a moment before the anger took over. I know it was petty, belligerent, and "ugly American" of me, but no way was I going to help her evict us from our flight—a flight that I knew we had every right to be on. My husband was legal, damnit. I flat-out refused to cooperate. I mean, if they wanted to prevent our boarding, fine—we could hardly force ourselves onto the plane—but no way was I going to make it easier. I was pissed off. Ultimately, though, I was "manneken pis-sed." Maybe you don't know about the statue/fountain of the little boy urinating in the heart of Brussels. I had never heard of him. He's called "le petit Julien" in French. Apparently, he is costumed at various times of year, and he's quite the tourist attraction. We ended up paying him a visit. I will say that Sabena was nice enough to rebook a flight for us for the following day, plus (once they hauled our luggage off the plane), they put us up in a hotel with a meal voucher as well. Now that I think of it, maybe this is one reason Sabena folded—too nice; no one nice ever made it in the airline industry. Ultimately, we turned our surprise stay to advantage: once the visit to the consulate and the post office (for requisite money order or what have you) were complete and my husband's visa properly stamped, we enjoyed the Manneken Pis, some ale-brewing attraction, and a copious serving of moules-frites before heading back to the airport with our fatigued bodies, our tired luggage. The rest of our trip passed without incident, and we had a peaceful week back home before other, more shattering episodes rocked our lives. Thinking of Brussels in retrospect, our fiasco has humor in it and fun, adventure and a sense of "two for the road" (before things went bad in the movie by the same name). Still, someday I'd like to go back when it's a planned trip. We'll say hello to the little bronze boy, drink more monastery ale, buy socks and clocks and who knows what other Tintin merchandise for our son . . . and we'll have no cause for getting pissed. Maybe.

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