Odysseus was trying to get home; he missed his wife. To reach Ithaca, his ship was forced to navigate a perilously tight passage flanked by two sea monsters, Scylla and Charybdis. Upon the advice of Circe the enchantress, he sailed closer to Scylla, losing six of his crew but preserving his ship.
Travel makes me anxious. Being in transit, being temporarily homeless, knocks the floor out from under my privileged security. While I’m traveling, every choice I make, however inconsequential, feels like a Scylla-and-Charybdis-scale conundrum.
And bureaucracy makes me neurotic, because I hate seeming impotent and dumb. Bureaucracy is, perhaps, more like Circe’s other recommended travel plan: the Planctae, or “Wandering Rocks” which skulk beneath rough waters, ready to smash ships to splinters if their captains don’t plot the exact right route. The Planctae are as likely as any myth to be the source for our expression, “caught between a rock and a hard place.”
And at the crossroads between travel and bureaucracy—at the crash-point roundabout where Scyllae, Charybdes, rocks and hard places all meet—you’ll find Service Canada, the Passport People. There I found myself this week, adrift and clutching to a few stray documents. I wasn’t trying to get home, like Odysseus; but I did miss my friends, and if I couldn’t talk the passport clerks into helping me, it seemed nearly impossible that I’d get to see them in Japan this summer.
Service Canada will print you a temporary passport if your original is lost, damaged, or inaccessible—and it’s that last one I was counting on, since as far as I knew, my passport was still in the hands of a Scylla at the French consulate who was unwilling to deliver it unto Charybdis, aka FedEx. I hoped that my own government would prove the most sympathetic bureaucracy of the three, but I also knew that “inaccessible” was a grey area, and when something is fuzzy in government bureaucracy, clerks get nervous. No one wants to set a problematic precedent.
Knowing this in advance, I put on my friendliest, babe-in-the-woodiest face. Sitting, waiting for my letter-number combination to be called, I inwardly chanted a mantra of empathy: These people are like me, they want to be good; they want to follow the rules; they want to be the heroes of their own stories. I surveyed the row of pale faces behind glass partitions. I’m an actor, I thought confidently, and a writer. If anyone can make them heroes, I can.
Up I went, and I explained my convoluted tragedy to the bemused old lady behind the glass. We commiserated—yes, the looming Canada Post strike made us both feel unwilling to send anything important through the mail; yes the French can be rude and inscrutable. She hemmed and hawed and pursed her lips. She wanted to help. She went to check with the manager.
I felt optimistic, powerful. No longer would I have to wait for faceless paper-pushers in another province to deliver me from evil. I was charting my own course. I was Odysseus and Circe, and I would navigate the hazards with no loss of life. While I waited, I surveyed the other petitioners around me, and slowly my smugness dissolved. I saw young mothers and old men. I saw refugee families with many children. Suddenly, I felt the familiar pang of hubris. How could I make somebody feel like a hero, when the only thing on the line is a midlife vacation reunion? And then, more damningly: How could I be a hero, if all I really care about is getting the vacation I feel I deserve?
I was a fraud, a hustler. And the only reason that my passport was “inaccessible” was because I, myself, had forbidden the French consulate from mailing it, for fear of losing it in the strike. The entire crisis was my fault; if I’d said nothing to the consulate in the first place, they would have mailed it over a week ago, and it would be in my hubristic hand. Fate didn’t land me in rough waters; I set sail without a map.
The clerk returned. Apologizing, she said I didn’t yet have sufficient proof that my passport was truly inaccessible. I would need a statement from the consulate, saying they tried but failed to return it to me. And I needed “the actual emails” exchanged between us, not mere transcripts. And I had to come back later—as late as possible—let’s see, it takes two days to print a replacement, and my flight leaves on the 22nd, so come back on the 19th, maybe?
At an earlier stage of this Kafkaesque clusterfuck, her statements would have incited disbelief and rage. Now, these impossible rules had the bitter taste of justice. I deserved every spoonful of their gobbledygook, for invoking the Devil from its resting place beneath the Deep Blue Sea. I thanked her and left.
I sat amid the placid indoor fountains of Canada Place and prayed. I was past begging for my passport; now, I begged to be shown how I might pay this whole experience forward, whether I made it to Japan or not. One of those families of refugees, I reflected, someone who needs to get home, or who needs to find a new home. Show me how to make heroes out of them, and I will. Because I remembered that this summer was partly about reaching the threshold and turning away, but I didn’t want to have to do it now without somebody getting something they want.
I returned to my Mom’s, where we’re staying in Edmonton. There was a Canada Post envelope in her mailbox.
It held my passport. The consulate had mailed it after all. Those beautiful French bastards.
Suddenly, Scylla and Charybdis and the Planctae were all in the rear-view mirror. It was surreal. I went inside, still filled with gratitude and generosity.
Mom asked me if I’d given any more thought to bringing X with me to Nepal next spring.