“Abbiamo iniziato la nostra discesa in Roma Italia.” We have now begun our descent into Rome, Italy were the words I was able to make out between the hum of the engine and the popping of my ears accentuating our movement downward. From there I would be traveling to Erice, Sicily and I was journeying there with a mere seven Italian words at my disposal. I had seven words for seven days, yet my stay was remarkably incident free. Getting to Italy, however, turned out to be the real adventure. I think my ill-fated adoration for romantic comedies was the initial culprit--that and the passport application process. These two things bring me to my travelogue tale and it’s a tale sans the blog on must visit Italian cafe’s or must see Sicilian sights. Instead, it endeavors to lay bare the life-changing lesson that getting to ones destination is often the most memorable trip of all.
My love of the happily ever after started with my mother’s passed down partiality for musicals. In a musical, breaking into song can solve all things. Whether “Bye Bye Birdie” or Danny and Sandy in “Grease,” when given the choice between addressing a problem or singing about it, the obvious choice is to sing. From there the brainwashing begins. Musicals, by way of their very construct, are manipulative. Everything sounds better when you sing about it. Try it: pretend you are the CEO of a major energy company. You are suddenly tasked with the responsibility of laying off a large amount of your staff, which is really only a preemptive strike to the fact that your company is poised for bankruptcy. With musicals as your means of delivery you can repeatedly belt out: “You’re Fired!” to the backdrop of a flash mob dance ensemble. Assuredly, people will be so impressed by your cadence and whimsy that they will momentarily forget you ruined their life.
It is in this same formula that romantic comedies are born. One of the staples in a ROMCOM is the etched in your mind love song. When the awkward but charming woman bumps into the handsome and equally charming man, the orchestra is cued and the soundtrack set up begins. A serenaded movie montage of bad first dates, followed by the serendipitous meeting of “the one,” culminating in the realization that they have both had their last first date, commences. The actors are no longer the ones cast in the film. Instead, I become the leading lady and what better place to have my last first date, but the overly romanticized locale of Italy. Although I was actually traveling on a professional trip, the obsessive thoughts I put into my wardrobe selections let me know that the ghost of ROMCOM past and present has struck again. After all, you never know when you might be invited to a Ball. ROMCOM enthusiasts suffer from this Cinderella syndrome, so I jumped up and down on my suitcase managing to fit at least one gown inside.
That was the plan: fly to Italy, catch up on some much needed sleep on the plane, do some writing, meet the one, possibly go to a Ball and return to the states with a story to be passed down to children and grandchildren for the ages. Even my VP pointed out, behind closed doors, “it’s different over there. What it means to be an African American in America is one thing, but over there they see skin color differently. They’ll love you.” It was as if I was being given the secret pass code into a sorority of black women exhausted by American attempts at love. The words “They’ll love you” echoed in my ears as I entered into my local post office to apply for my first ever passport.
Having already filled out the passport application, I immediately fell into line with the other would be world travelers. It’s been said that when you travel you can be bitten by a metaphorical travel bug that ignites a desire to see even more of the world. Whether a sign or a figurative symbol of my pending journey, as I stood in line behind a loud sighing, cell phone engrossed Los Angelino women, I noticed a spider crawling on her open stitch short sleeve cardigan. The spider likely crawled out from the untilled ivy growing every which way outside the post office, yet somehow it had made its way to the back of her sweater. This travel bug must have caught me eyeing him, for he abruptly stopped near the curve of his carrier’s shoulder blade, turned and stared directly at me. With courage as my new mantra, I contemplated how to deal with my fear of spiders, my Buddhist friend’s concern that I feel justified in murdering all spiders on sight, and this women who would likely take offense to me taking my purse and smacking her as hard as I can in her back. I opted for a compromise. There was no interrupting her blah blah blah, loud enough for all to hear phone conversation, so instead I thought maybe I could scoop the spider with the edge of my passport application, shoo it to the grown and then stomp on it with my recently re-heeled Bandalino boots. There was a tinge of excitement in this stealth operation of removing a spider from a thankless woman’s sweater. With the perforated corner of my passport paperwork I steadied my hand and leaned forward. In a simultaneous, yet seemingly intentional maneuver the woman flung her hair off her shoulder and hurled the spider to the ground. She was adjusting the merger between her phone and ear to find the perfect position for what I now ascertained to be a completely inappropriate conversation. Expletives paired with details about last night’s sexcapade gone wrong made me suddenly feel relieved for the spider. He was merely doing what travel bugs do and who was I to rob him of that?
As the spider scurried away an equally hurried man stepped in line behind me. I was engrossed in watching whom the spider would choose next when the man mumbled, “How long have you been waiting?”
“I’m sorry, what?” I replied.
He spoke to me as if I was hard of hearing and before I could decide which level of disdain I would employ in my response, he stepped back out of line and called over to a postal service employee restocking shipping boxes. Unsure of which direction to move in, he stood in between the line and the postal worker while brashly demanding a time frame for the passport process.
“I need to know how long this entire thing will take.”
“Sir you need to get back in line” was the only retort elicited from the postman. At least three times, and often without even looking up from his task, “sir you need to get back in line” was repeated without pause. The broken record was finally scratched when complete idiocy prevailed. In frustration the impatient man exclaimed, “I need to know how long because I left my baby in the car.”
The inner thoughts of all in earshot seemed written on everyone’s faces. Did he just admit in a federal building that he had left his child in a car while coming inside to apply for a passport? The shock of this reveal was matched only by the continued disinterest of his now USPS arch nemesis. With the same unaffected tone the postal worker replied, “well that would be illegal and stupid, so maybe you should come back another time.”
As the man stormed out of the post office a mixture of clapping and light cheering ensued. There was a palpable sense of camaraderie in the air. The illegal and stupid versus the rest of us. I was on team “us” when the Passport Princess called my name.
My reasons for calling her the Passport Princess will be revealed later on in my travel accounts, but for now it is worth mentioning that this is the moment in my travelogue where I was edified with two principles which I had sadly forgotten over the years.
Principle #1: Who you are is more than just your given name.
It turns out that birth certificates are taken pretty seriously in post 9/11 America. However, In 1978, when I was born, you could write down, alter, change your mind or your kid’s name with the mere approval of family and friends. Doing so without a legal name change was probably ill advised, but then again so are platform shoes, yet people still wore them in the seventies. Needless to say, two days or weeks or maybe months after the ink had dried on my birth certificate my mom decided she wanted to add an “e” to my given name Ryan. In the late 70’s, choosing a unisex Irish name for your African American child was already a breach of status quo and it seems the revolution my mom was waging couldn’t compete with the now pink onesie adorning daughter she had birthed. With that I went from Ryan without an “e” to Ryane with presumably a more feminine vowel at the end. All in all it just served to confuse people, and I was the only three-year old in preschool endeavoring to explain that my name is Ryane but the “e” is silent. Pairing that with a more traditional middle name of Nicole and my biological father’s last name Potts left me name predicament free for seven years. On the 8th year my mother married my stepfather and on the ninth year my sister was born. We’re now in the hot pink happiness, Madonna before Kabala, Michael Jackson when bad was good, My Addidas meets Walk this Way eighties, but one thing hadn’t changed: you could still revise your child’s name on school paperwork with no formal adoption needed. At age nine I inherited by stepfather’s last name of Jones and having no real connection to either paternal heir I moved ahead, same as before, Ryane “the ‘e’ is silent Nicole” with the optional last name.
I can fast forward through bulks of my childhood for there are no real juicy details to share. I survived through the nineties relatively unscathed, besides being stricken with the ROMCOM Cinderella syndrome, and in the new millennium I did as the movies do and married my college sweetheart. Needless to say, the marriage was shorter than a poorly made sequel. I thought I had finally found a last name for my seemingly hangman identity. Like the fill in the blank game fittingly featured in the 1978 Speak & Spell series, suddenly what’s in a name became more than just letters of the alphabet. As a then 27 year-old divorcee and a now 32 year-old passport petitioner, I learned that a name houses a multitude of things. In your moniker lives the parent who loved you, or the parent who didn’t, the failed marriage, the hangman identity kids and now the Passport Princess’ ability to hold my passport hostage while I explain the ways of the world for a Gaelic named black girl in America.
Principle #2: Just because you think you’ve figured out parts of principle #1 there’s always more to learn.
Because I had forgotten principle #1, I was blindsided by the onslaught of questions fired at me by the Passport Princess. Questions like where are you traveling, how long will you be staying and what is your purpose seemed better reserved for the airport, yet I admired her thoroughness and matched each question with an equally thorough reply. The problem arose when I had the eager audacity to ask her how much the passport picture would cost.
“Slow down there. We haven’t even gotten to that part” was her terse response.
Trying to lessen the new development of wrinkle lines on my forehead, I opted for humility mixed with a tinge of sympathy. I felt slightly bad for her when I noted on her badge that her parents named her Princess. While cute as a child, this is certainly not a name that can carry one into adulthood. Having struggled to embrace my own name, I felt a kindred connection, which was immediately obliterated by her betrayal.
“Yeah…so…you’re not going to be getting your passport approved today.”
The Ex-in excuse me was all I could mutter before she cut me off and continued on.
“None of your names match. It’s like you’re five different people.”
While we all have a few alter egos hiding in our inner psyches, I was certainly just one person and still could not formulate a coherent reply before her inquiry resumed.
“Your first name on your birth record says R-y-a-n, but with no “e.” Then your last name says Potts. On the other hand, your other verifying documents say Jones and then your license says Harris but your social security says Jones again. You also keep writing your name wrong on everything by adding an e to the end of it.”
If not for the fact that Ashton Kutcher hadn’t been doing the show Punked for a few seasons, I would be certain this was another made for TV moment in my life. I looked around for friends and family to jump out yelling Gotcha. Or Ciao. What a creative send-off for my first European trip. Maybe John Quinones from that show “What Would You do?” would also emerge with a camera crew and microphone excited to hear my comments. Either scenario, I was certain this had to be scripted. Was a woman named Princess truly chastising me for the pitfalls of my name? Sidebar daydreaming has often gotten the best of me and this instance was no different.
“Next. Next in line.”
Her nonchalant dismissal of my passport predicament snapped me into action.
“ Princess. Do you mind if I call you Princess?
“Great, Princess so as you have fittingly pointed out my life can be likened to one big name game.” In my mind I could hear a soulful Shirley Ellis singing Ryane Ryane Bo-Byane Banana fanna fo-fyane fee fy…but the nostalgia quickly waned as the Passport Princess didn’t find the humor in my metaphor.
“You need to fill out this affidavit explaining why you have so many names. Bring whatever you can find. Dissolution of marriage papers, school records and then get one of your parents to sign this explaining why there were so many changes along the way.”
“So I’m 32 and I need my mommy or daddy to vouch for my passport? And which father might I ask? There is not enough space here to write my life story. This has to be a joke.”
“Next in line”
Suddenly I was no longer on team “us.” I was having visions of being escorted out by the postal police for snatching Princess’ name badge off and dethroning her from reign. The man who left his baby in the car was back in line with a wobbly walking barely knee high toddler. If he is eligible to enter and exit the United States without question, I should be too.
And then there were the weeks that followed. Without passport or plane ticket I took my own trip down memory lane. Digging through files of retrospective hindsight, I found photos of my 1980’s fashion failings and a tattered report card with my first A in AP English. It was in that class where a teacher revealed to me the Anglicized meaning behind my Old Irish name. Loosely defined, Ryan means “little king” or in my case of barely 5 feet two inches I was dubbed little queen. A queen beats a princess any day and with newfound vigor I pieced together the name game of my life. From the social security office to the county clerks, followed by two visits to see my grade school nurse, chicken pox (check), braces (check), a diploma, then degree and a masters theses all combined to craft the human clay of my existence. Whether bent, pulled, torn apart and put back together again what’s in a name is nothing more than a character turned to script and sound passed down by the Greek alphabet. What’s behind the name, however, is the earthy material where our true identity is formed. With that I welcome all my names along with all my life experiences. They add clay to my pottery wheel and a constitution to my character.
I returned to the post office but it seemed to be the Passport Princess’ day off. As requested, I came with a flip file chronicling the molding clay of my various names and for good measure brought my mommy along with me to affirm my truth. The application was processed and four weeks later my U.S. passport booklet, with the infamous blue background and gold lettering, came in the mail. Printed inside were the three names I had narrowed things down to, but I needed none of them when I landed on Italian soil. For the first time I was not the black girl with the Irish name and a persona wrapped in contradiction. Instead I was simply that funny American girl with an even funnier accent. Lips spread liberally laughing loud, eyes wide open taking in every image, heart full and beating in sync with the Mediterranean air I breathed.
As admitted earlier my travel notes leave out details like the cannoli I ate baked by the hands of a once nun who’s now become the most sought after pastry chef in all of Italy or the sound my shoes made as I skipped over cobblestones to get a closer look at the moonlit sea. Instead I am simply reminded I had seven words for seven days and while the destination took my breath away the journey getting there gave me new life.