Adam Dachis wrote that a single bad episode can negatively taint the memory of an otherwise pleasant event (“Your Brain Can Fool You Into Hating Something You Actually Like,” http://lifehacker.com/5948851, see also “How to Beat a Bad Day Before it Starts,” http://lifehacker.com/5754196/how-to-beat-a-bad-day-before-it-starts). It is so easy to fall into a negativity trap, and it actually takes some self-awareness and creativity to short-circuit the negative process your mind would normally take.
I’m actually very fortunate to have had my goofy Dad as a silly, but wonderful example. All his life, Daddy had the ability to see the humor in the kind of things that wreck other people’s whole day—and usually it was his own clumsiness, lack of planning, or just plain stupidity. Take for example the time we were camping in Palo Duro Canyon when I was four years old. It had rained overnight, and my three-year-old brother and I had left our sneakers outside the tent. In the morning they were soaking wet when we woke up. Daddy set fire to the trash in one of the 55 gallon drums that the park used as trash cans, put a grill from the barbecue on top and set our shoes on the grill to dry while we had breakfast. Halfway through breakfast, Mom wrinkled her nose and said, “What is that smell?” The rubber soles of our sneakers had melted.
Another man might have gotten upset, after all, this would mean cutting the weekend short. Another man might have gotten angry at us for leaving our sneakers outside all night. But Daddy was able to see the humor and his own fallible humanity in melting our sneakers, so he just began to laugh. And when he began to laugh, we all began to laugh. What could have been an ugly incident was turned into one of our funniest family stories—one that I immortalized in my book, “Hannard Productions,” a memoir of Daddy.
The other day I used that same skill to navigate the difficulties of trying to get to the airport in Wroclaw, Poland. The desk clerk at my hotel in Kalisz helped me figure out how to get back to Wroclaw, recommending the bus, rather than the train because of some unexplained difficulties that would have me getting off the train at some point and taking a bus the rest of the way. She called a taxi for me, and told him where to take me (it was too far to walk with a suitcase). When I asked about how to get to the airport from the bus station, she recommended a taxi.
On the bus, about an hour after starting the trip, we were suddenly sitting at a dead halt in the woods somewhere. In fact, the driver had turned off the engine. A few cars passed us coming the other way, and those were the only times the driver turned on the engine and inched forward. Finally a fire truck pulled up and exchanged words in Polish with the bus driver. I asked the woman next to me what was going on. She said that there was an accident blocking the road, and the fireman was advising us to turn around and go another way. With admirable skill the driver turned the enormous bus around on the tiny two-lane road, and backtracked to the last town we had gone through.
He chose another route, and before long we had stopped again. The road was completely shut down due to roadwork. So he turned the bus around and headed back to town, choosing another route. By the time we got to Wroclaw, the bus was about an hour late, and I still needed to get to the airport.
I followed the other passengers into the bus station, and found the information booth. But the woman there didn’t speak English. I pulled out my phrasebook, looking for the Polish phrase: “I need to go to the airport.” The phrasebook has the following useful phrases:
Where’s the . . . ?
road to . . .
How do I get there?
Where can I buy a ticket?
I want to go to . . .
Which bus goes to . . . ?
Please take me to . . .
In fact, it has every useful word and phrase for getting around in Poland except the word “airport”! And I couldn’t remember the name of the airport, so I couldn’t even ask it that way. I went to look at the departures board, but that was as unintelligible as Sanskrit. I felt panic rising in me as my check-in time approached, knowing that the taxi ride had taken almost an hour from the airport to the city center.
I wanted to chuck the phrasebook in the trash. How can it have phrases like “What a great film!”, “Do you like horseback riding?”, and “Where can you go to hear folk music?” and not have the word airport?
I went back to the information window and tried again. Upon hearing the word airport, she wrote 408 and a Polish word in indecipherable scratch. What does that mean? Do I need to look for bus number 408 to wherever this says? I was as uninformed as ever.
I went to the ticket window for the bus and asked the woman there if she speaks English. She shook her head no. I asked her how to get to the airport, and instead of selling me a bus ticket, she wrote on a slip of paper 408 and a Polish word as illegible as the other. What to do?
I saw a sign for bus tickets at the pharmacy, and seeing that the woman behind the counter was young, I decided that it couldn’t hurt to try and ask her. Usually it is the younger people who speak English. The woman ahead of me talked and talked, and I fought hard to contain the panic and wait patiently. Finally after several false exits in which she turned and said something else as she stepped away from the counter, she finally left. The young woman did speak some English, and she advised me that my best bet was to take a taxi to the airport. I asked where I might find a taxi because I hadn’t seen a single taxi in this part of town. She told me where to find the taxi stand.
I easily found the taxi stand, and when I said the word airport, he popped my bag into the trunk and whisked me away. I made it on time, and with no further difficulties. And I said all that to say that my scary moments at the bus station might have soured me on Wroclaw or even ruined my day. But I started thinking of how the folks at Lonely Planet had overlooked something very simple, but essential to the traveler. And I started laughing right there in the taxi as I thought, Well, at least I know how to ask people if they like horseback riding!