Friday, August 8, 2008

August 2004: Strangers in a Strange Land

Joe's father, a polish, and devout south-side Milwaukee man, spent time in the service in Okinawa, Japan. That's where he met Joe's mother, who is Japanese. His dad was persistant, won her heart, and they got married. When his time in the service was over, they came back to America, and Milwaukee, with baby Joe in tow.

Many years later, Joe and I were living together and talking marriage. Joe had purchased a ring. Well, we picked it out together. But once he had it, we had been playing a game of hide and seek with it all over the house. I was doing pretty well at finding it. But Joe wanted an opportunity to make an official proposal. I told him I wanted that ring by the end of summer (half-teasing).

We had been told that Japanese relatives were coming to visit the family towards the end of summer, but were not privy to any specific dates, names, or plans. Joe and I talked off and on about when his relatives might be coming. We should contact his folks and find out when. Find out if anyone needed a place to stay, and so on. But our timing was a little slow (as usual).

So, on a Sunday evening we received a call from Joe's parents. The cousins were in town and at their house. They wanted to meet him. For some reason I didn't go. Can't recall why. Joe called from me his parents house.

"Honey? Are you working this week?" I was inbetween jobs and temping at the time, so my schedule was somewhat flexible. I was scheduled to work part of the week, and said so. But, if needed, I could probably switch with someone. "My parents are wondering if you would escort my relatives to New York."

The scoop was...there were four cousins here from Japan. Three women (including a 12-year old girl), and one man. They had been told by many that if they were coming to America, they had to visit New York City. But they did not want to go alone. Joe's parents weren't up to traveling to New York, so they were trying to come up with a way to accommodate their cousins. Since I was temping, they hoped I would be able to get on a plane, or a train, and escort them to the city, then fly back home on my own. I told Joe to come home and we would discuss it.

While waiting for Joe to come back home, I went online and started researching. I checked plane rates, train rates, bus rates. Back in 2004 gas was much cheaper than it is today (well, in hindsight anyway). I figured the best way to handle this would be to drive to New York. We would borrow Joe's dad's van, pack it up, and drive out there. I found us great rooms just blocks from Times Square at a great rate (it wasn't even a slum). I found a parking garage where we could leave the van for a great rate and not have to worry about parking while we were there.

I presented this proposal to Joe when he got home.

We discussed it. I spoke no Japanese, so how could I possibly escort four people, that did not speak english, that I did not really know, to New York City and just dump them there all on their own? Besides, I've never been to New York City and here was an opportunity presenting itself. And, Joe had plenty of vacation time, he hadn't really taken any, so why not use up a few days worth?

The next evening we met with Joe's parents and his cousins to discuss our idea. Joe's mother served as translator, telling them our plan, and then telling us their response. They were relieved to know that they would not be left in New York City all alone.

That was Monday evening. We went home, made some calls. Made reservations for the hotel rooms online. Made a reservation for the parking online. I went out the next day and bought several English-to-Japanese-to-English dictionaries, a few New York maps and travel books, and started making notes and packing. Wednesday morning we loaded everyone into the van and started off for New York City.

Given more time to plan, I would have hired a NY college language student to come along with us on our travels and serve as translator. Joe's mom wasn't there with us, so I was piecing together sentences in a notebook so I could explain where we were, how far we were, if we were stopping at a rest area, getting food, and so on. They did know a bit of english, but not very much. The person who knew the most was Yuri, the young girl. She was learning english in school.

We quickly figured out a few words and motions to communicate, and showed maps, etc. when necessary. They had a map of NYC in Japanese, so we were usually able to compare and point out where we were going. I was able to make arrangements for them to go on a multi-language bus tour of the city where they had their own Japanese translator. You could see their entire bodies relax when they met the translator at the tour station. They would probably get a better tour of the city than Joe and I would.

The tour gave Joe and I some time to go off on our own. We decided to walk through the infamous Central Park. I was unaware, but Joe had discussed with his friends that this trip would be the perfect opportunity to offer me that engagement ring. He was hoping to take me on a carriage ride around Central Park and propose then. However...

My stomach...most likely in reaction to the stress of the impromptu trip, lack of sleep, and erratic eating, and, maybe, one too many Starbucks iced coffees (there really is one on just about every corner in NYC), stomach decided to revolt. So, there we were in the middle of Central Park, and I was desperate to find a bathroom. This was not cute. Not romantic. This was panic. We found one. I was a bit hesitant to go in, after all, this was Central Park in NYC. Surprisingly enough, the restroom was quiet, and pretty clean. Ah, relief. Joe waited patiently for me.

We started walking through the park again. It was mid-August. Hot. Humid. My relief didn't last long. Suddenly we were making another mad dash for the nearest restroom. We spied the Plaza Hotel not far in the distance and made a beeline for it. It's a lovely hotel. I can now highly recommend use of the restrooms there. I have no idea about the quality of the restaurants, rooms, or anything else. Just, thank goodness they have nice restrooms. I did tip generously.

So, no carriage ride, no proposal. We were all strangers in a strange land. Strangers to each other, strangers to the city. We were running late to meet up with the cousins after their tour. What would happen next...

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