Publication Date 6-20-19

I was talking with a friend about travel traumas. Not surprisingly, a lot of experiences involved traveling to places where I don’t speak the language. For instance, there was the GPS system in a rental car that popped up in the German language. It made sense, given that we were in Germany; it still wasn’t all that helpful.  And then there were the toll booths in several countries where I couldn’t decipher what the symbols for the various lane represented, and I had to make up my mind for which lane as I zoomed along at 70 mph.

People are pretty nice, though, and the only time I really got yelled at was at a gas station in Belgium. I still don’t know why. I was fumbling around at the pump when a guy leaned out the door and started yelling something at me in…Belsh? Anyway, in whatever language they speak in Belgium.

I didn’t know what he was yelling. I made an “I’m so sorry” gesture (I’m good at that), got back in the car, and drove away to find a less confrontational gas station.

Sometimes, being in a foreign country isn’t an excuse. I vividly remember some trouble at a gas station in Kansas. I was wearing a brand-new pair of polarized sunglasses and the screen on the gas pump was blank. I punched buttons and fumed for about three minutes until someone in the gas station leaned out the door and shouted, “Take off your sunglasses!”

She may have been laughing. I know everyone else was.

As it turns out, polarized sun glasses filter out the letters on those electronic gas pump screens.

And now you know.

That wasn’t a good moment, but it barely makes the list of cringe worthy events in my life. At the moment, the leading contender happened on a trip to Washington, DC. Some good friends lived there for a year and our kids were old enough to learn something about all our national monuments, so off we went.

An important point here is that we don’t have a lot of mass transit in Big Stone County. Five thousand people spread over 500 square miles doesn’t support much of a subway system.

The only subway I’d ever ridden, up to that point in my life, was the Paris subway system for a few days fifteen years before. As I remember it, when you bought a ticket and went through the turnstiles, you could ride anywhere you wanted until you exited and bought another ticket.

Pretty simple.

Washington, DC?  Not so much.

As it turns out, because the subway system there transits several states and the District of Columbia, you scan your ticket when you enter AND when you leave, and the technology subtracts the correct amount.

My opinion is that this is not explained clearly enough.

Anyway, the first day of our travels I purchased a ticket through a vending machine that would take only $20 bills, and wouldn’t give any change.

“No problem,” I said. “I’ll just run the ticket through, hand it back, and the rest of you can do the same thing.”

We did that. Lights flashed, buzzers buzzed, and a guy came out of a booth, yelled at us a little, and then explained, carefully using words of one syllables, what we’d done wrong.

We were in Washington almost a week, and we got to be pros at using the subway. On our last day, while we were actually headed to the airport we got on the subway for the last time. Our kids, very confident of their skills, were racing and ran two tickets through at once, jamming the machine. Lights flashed, buzzers buzzed, and the SAME GUY came out of his booth. AND HE RECOGNIZED ME!

I still remember his look of utter disgust at the sight of a man who could visit Washington, DC for a week and never figure out how the subway worked. We slunk away to catch our plane back to the prairie and I never returned, until the time came when I wore a suit for two days, in July, and slogged from office to office being nice to people.

But that’s a different story.

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