Girl Talk: (Not So) Independent Woman (Anymore)

Just a few years ago, I had a huge pair of balls. Big, old honkin’ balls. And then I moved in with my boyfriend.

He’s not a particularly “Grr! I’m a man! I’m going to take care of you!” kind of guy. But he does like taking care of me, so I try to let him do that, and it’s nice having him around to do the unpleasant stuff. He lugs the garbage downstairs twice a week. He carries the heaviest grocery bags. He’ll get up in the middle of the night if I think I hear an axe murderer padding around our kitchen. It’s sweet and I love it. But if I’m honest with myself, being taken care of by a guy for the first time is making me a little soft. And I know this because just a few weeks ago, when he was out at band practice, I was walking up the stairs in my high-heeled boots, and I thought to myself, “I hope I don’t fall trip and fall! That would be bad! He’s not around to help me if I get hurt!”

I wasn’t always like this, I swear! I used to actually be, you know, independent. Let me take you back to spring 2004 … It’s my junior year of college. I just turned 20 years old a few weeks prior. The other kids in my study abroad program in Prague have grouped together for spring break, but me, I don’t play well with others. On my spring break, I wanted to go where I wanted to go. So I marched myself down to the travel agency and bought a round-trip bus pass to Italy per uno.

My 10 days in Rome, a place where I could speak a foreign language only conversationally, was an experience I wouldn’t change for anything. But I’m not just proud of the vacation part: Yes, I rode a bus from Prague to Rome without anyone who spoke English, found my way to my hostel speaking only Italian, and enjoyably traveled alone in a strange city for 10 whole days. What I’m really proud of, actually, is getting robbed.

On my final day in Italy, just hours before hopping a bus back to Prague, someone — a street gypsy, maybe?— near the Termini Train Station reached into my purse and stole my passport holder which held all my important documents. My passport, my debit card, my parents’ credit card “for emergencies” — it was all gone.

I hustled back to the hostel and called my parents, so they could get on the phone with our banks. The told me to call the American embassy in Rome and find out if I could get a new passport quickly. If that wasn’t possible, they’d wire me some money through American Express. Obviously, if that happened, I’d need to book another bed in the hostel and change the date of my bus ticket back to Prague while I waited for a new passport.

So I called up the American embassy and a young man got on the line. “The only thing I have is a photocopy of my passport that I kept in my suitcase,” I told him.

“Oh, that’s fine,” this embassy person said. “Just use that.”

Well. OK. Photocopy of my passport it would be! I got on the bus back to Prague as scheduled. So, without any money whatsoever on my person, but with suitcase and photocopied passport in hand, we began to drive.

I sat the whole bus ride alongside an Italian man who didn’t speak any English, but I spoke enough Italian to tell him what was going on. (“Il mio passaporto è stato rubato da un ladro!”) He slept; I stared out the window at the gorgeous Italian countryside. Everything was going fine and dandy until we hit the Czech-Austrian border.

You see, in the early spring of 2004, Austria and Italy had already joined the European Union, but the Czech Republic had not. Travelers could breeze through the borders of countries already in the EU, but at the borders of countries that had not yet joined, we had to have our passports checked. According to the dude on the phone at the American embassy in Rome, this should not have been a problem for me and my passport photocopy. But then these two burly Austrian border guards started giving me a hard time.

I asked the guards — in English, Italian, French and Czech — what languages they could speak, but they kept saying they only spoke German. Well, s**t. There was no way I could explain to them about what the guy at the American embassy said. So, in English, I listed as many proper nouns as I could: “My name is Jessica Wakeman! I am an American! I go to school in New York City! New York University! I am at NYU in Prague! I’m an American student at an American program!”

“Blah blah blah blah Vienna,” the border guards said, looking at my passport photocopy and shaking their heads. “Blah blah Vienna.”

Did I have to go to Vienna to get an American passport before they’d let me cross back into the Czech Republic? That’s what they seemed to be saying, but they were speaking in German, so it was anyone’s guess. But what did they expect me to do? How was I supposed to get to Vienna? Who was I supposed to go with? How was I supposed to pay for it? Visions of getting raped by strange men in foreign countries danced through my head.

The border guards kept gesturing for me to get off the bus. I kept shooting worried looks to my Italian seat mate, who shot me worried looks right back. Then, for lack of any other options, I started to cry.

I’m not proud to admit this, considering how often I boast about being a feminist, but as soon as I started crying, the two Austrian border guards left me alone. Every single second that they were on the bus freaked me out, because all I could think was that I had no idea what I would have to do to get home if they forced me off the bus. But they checked out everyone else’s passports on board, disembarked, and let us on our merry way.

I made it back to Prague in one piece, of course, and everything turned out to be fine. Dad wired me money, our banks mailed us new cards, and for a ridiculously unreasonable fee, the Czech embassy issued this kooky American guest of theirs a new passport.

Clearly, the jerk at the American embassy in Rome gave me the wrong information. And though I know this sounds cheesy, six years later, I’m still proud of everything about that Rome trip. But more importantly, I’m grateful the whole thing happened when I have these less-than-independent moments with my boyfriend. Maybe these days I’m not lifting heavy milk cartons or hauling smelly bags of trash around. But there was a time when it was just me, two Austrian border guards, a language barrier and my wits.

(And by “my wits,” I mean “tears.” But who cares?)