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David

Chapter Four - The Ferry

    The Jobs Abroad program required participants to report to the European offices in Brussels. The idea behind checking into the offices in Brussels was to receive proper visas and paperwork to hold a job in various countries in Europe. The main agency worked with other employment brokers, like the one in England. The English office was located in Manchester, where they placed mostly ‘family helpers’ as they called it. 

    Once you arrived in Brussels, you made your way to the main office at 133 rue De congress where you received names and locations your new employers. Then you were responsible for finding transportation to the job, wherever it may be, England, Germany, France, Switzerland, or Sweden.

For an American student unaccustomed to public transport, it presented a sharp learning curve. But neither Bonnie nor I questioned the ‘toss ‘em into the water’ aspect. That was the way I felt the morning of our job consultation, because Bonnie’s and my briefing at the Jobs Abroad office in Brussels lasted less than an hour. And the last comment uttered by our work placement staff was,

    “England requires work visa’s and your’s have not arrived, so just don’t mention you are are working” said our councilor as if it was normal and everyone did it.

    Besides names and locations in England, we were given train times and instructed to make it to the ferry to cross the English Channel and beyond that, figure it out for ourselves. Because both Bonnie and I were in essence newly hatched, neither of us asked much of anything, but once on the street again, questions bubbled up in my mind.

    “What do we do about not having the right documentation? Do you have any ideas Bonnie?” She did and proceeded to explain her plan to tell customs she was an exchange student. She mentioned that college was a logical choice, because it lasted for a year and advised me to do it as well.

    Her confidence empowered me and believing the problem solved, we spent the rest of the day as tourists, gawking at old buildings, because everyone knowns tomorrow is, after all, tomorrow.

    But the next day arrived sooner than I expected.

    “The train to Ostend leaves in thirty minutes.” Bonnie’s voice pierced my sleep. I sat up, suddenly awake.

      Bonnie and I dressed like demons, made our train and arrived at the port on schedule.

      The ride from Brussels lasted an hour, and what ifs floated through my head like feathers never landing, each sentence fluttering away before I could settle on a believable scenario? In my mind, I had hours to figure my school lie because according to my itinerary, the ferry was a five-hour ride. So I choose to forget it.

    The port terminal reminded me of a modern airport, with automated luggage belts and uniformed attendants. It was a stark contrast to the medieval brick constructions in the Ostend seaport.

    “Good god” Bonnie grabbed her nose as we approached the gangplank.

I copied her, lifting my hand to cover my face in defense, hoping to counter the murky, sulfurous goo and thick air around the docks.

    The boat was not enormous in the sense of a cruise ship, but I wouldn’t call it tiny either. It had inside and outside seating and, at this moment, a view of pilings and metal sheds. Inside, the seats sat side by side, facing one direction and most filled with travelers. “Let’s sit outside, it’ll be more fun.” Bonnie said.

    I nodded in agreement, pulled on my jacket, and we huddled on a deck bench and waited.

“Shouldn’t we be on the move by now?” Bonnie said, looking at her watch. As I opened my mouth to speak, there was a rumble and tingles spread up my legs. Then a jerk, a wobble, and the boat finally moved.

      As the ferry chugged into the English Channel, I fought the urge to worry about my impending date with customs. This became infinitely easier when I met a 28-year-old Englishman named David and became mesmerized in less than five minutes.

I am sorry to admit, I cannot recollect our conversation, but I do recall becoming so engrossed that Bonnie needed to interrupt us hours later asking if I wanted to see the White Cliffs of Dover. I did. And David and I joined her, leaning wide eyed on the railing as the boat approached the English Coast.

    Forty minutes later, the ferry docked and passengers began filing into a white prefab hanger-like building. Once through the door, the line split, and David disappeared down a citizen only ramp. It was at this point I realized there might be a problem, because this was nothing like customs in Brussels. In Brussels it was a ‘hi and a handshake’ but this seemed serious. I followed Bonnie, and we joined passengers forming a line to access the metal staircase, spiraling toward the building floor.

    Nine podiums spaced evenly apart filled the cavernous space. Officials dressed in black uniforms manned each pedestal. Bonnie and I split up, feeling it better for our story. Initially, I was on board with the school fiction, but as the moment neared, my certainty diminished. Pretending we were students meant I would have to fabricate, or not be truthful, or, OK… Lie.

    Lying was never my strong suit, and lying to authority was even worse. Burnt metallic fumes from waiting trains seeped into the building, which, combined with the rotten egg fumes of low tide, did not sit well on my stomach. I fought an involuntary convulsion and, with effort, kept Bonnie’s brown hair in my peripheral vision. Her line dwindled faster than mine. She quickly got her passport stamped without any issues.

    I followed her with my eyes as she moved toward the exit. For a moment, I wished it was me. I caught her eye, and we nodded.

    “Passport” The word floated into my ears and in the time it took to move my eyes back to front, every recollection of why I was here left me.

    A uniformed agent stood mere inches from me, his brown eyes focused only on me.

    The side of his lip softened and I let out a breath. He repeated;

    “Passport”

    Although “Passport” is an English word, it sounded foreign when he said it. My wandering mind snapped to attention in seconds and I quickly retrieved the blue case from my satchel, nervously presenting it to the black-uniformed agent. Delicate fingers held the case open, his face hidden by the pages, and my breathing became shallow.

He lifted his chin, stared straight at me, and asked,

    “How long are you planning on staying?” I blinked, because this was easy; no lie here.

    “One year.” I said.

    He nodded, glanced at my travel document, and without looking up said, “What will you do while you are here?”

    A tornado of contrary thoughts whirled around my brain. Because here it was. The lie was eminent, the lie was about to happen. I reminded myself Bonnie had her passport marked, so it must be possible and I sucked in a breath and said “school”.

    He nodded and smiled, or maybe I imaged he smiled. I relaxed and glanced at the stamp on his podium with envious eyes.

    The clock ticked. I waited. Each breath got longer. Then he asked a question. NO, not “A” question. THE question.

    “What’s your major?”  You ever have one of those questions that catches you off guard. And when you hear it, you generate a response before thinking it through. And he asked in such a casual, offhand manner, his hand holding the stamp as if ready to mark up my passport. I breathed out empowered, feeling suddenly mature, thought I would make this a joke, and laughingly blurted out the one word that changed my life forever.

    “English”

David 

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