Yesterday I filled up the car at a Mexican gas station, wound my way through a different and unfamiliar border crossing, and attempted to converse with Spanish speakers who were explaining why our electricity had been cut off and how to pay our nearly-late telephone bill at a grocery store. Across the border in the US, I got the car washed and the oil changed, tasks I have often left to (sigh) my husband or my father. Much of this new life is navigating the unfamiliar, which might be why I’m tired at the end of the day like Mark and Jack, though I didn’t have to go to work or school. I do feel accomplished when somehow everything works out, whether or not I had anything to do with it. And when it doesn’t work out, well, at least I have the time to muddle through it all again tomorrow.
Well here we are, not only in Mexico, but on vacation in Puerto Penasco and without Zoe, for our first big holiday away from Louisville, home, and other family members.
In some ways it’s not so different. We’ve spent the last four Thanksgivings eating out or at someone else’s house, mainly to help me get through what is the most difficult holiday without my mother.
Today we’ll be on a boat heading to Bird Island, where sea lions bask and seagulls poop. It would be a great trip for photos except that our only camera is on our only working phone. Since we can’t spare it, it seems inevitable it would fall overboard, so we’ll leave it in the room.
This means I will have to exist in the present, which sounds like a great idea except that the present can include uncomfortable emotions — sadness at missing Zoe, boredom on a long boat ride, gears grinding at the little irritants that accompany an event designed for tourists.
So I will work on my gratefulness in the present — for warm weather, for the company of my husband and son, for my mother’s inherited timeshare points (frustrating as they are at times), for the memory of her love of trips and family dinners, for the anticipation of talking to Zoe later today. And for the funny stories that are likely come out of a Thanksgiving trip to see lions and poop.
We have spent our first month in Tijuana trying to find our own two-state solution — how to get an affordable international phone plan so that we can communicate in and from Mexico and the U.S.
To make a long story short, we discerned that T-Mobile is the best option. We have four lines with AT&T.
But the process of paying off an early termination fee and unlocking the AT&T phone in order to transfer the lines — without losing our phone numbers — was absolutely Orwellian. We were told by AT&T that we couldn’t do it. And we were told by T-Mobile that we had to do it or we would have to trade in perfectly good phones and buy new ones to get the T-Mobile plan we wanted.
Over the last few weeks, we had visited the AT&T store in the Plaza Bonita Mall three times, the T-Mobile store four times. These stores are about 10 steps away from each other across a mall aisle. Back and forth, back and forth. There was no solution. But we did have a T-Mobile salesperson we liked who was bearing with us.
Finally yesterday, Mark, Jack and I went back again to the T-Mobile store to throw up our hands and trade in our old phones for new ones. We got hung up on yet another question about AT&T unlocking them. My voice started rising. And then our salesperson said, there really IS a way to get the phones unlocked and keep your numbers, we see AT&T customers do it all the time!! I promise!! Just go across the aisle and talk to them!! Again!! I’d go with you but I’m in a pink T-Mobile shirt!!
We agreed, but I told Mark he had to do the talking because I was ready to kill somebody.
We crossed the aisle. I was so ticked off, I did the talking anyway, before Mark could interrupt. The very young AT&T employee who was helping us explained that why yes, we could make it work, but T-Mobile had to take the first step. No, no!! I said. It won’t work that way!! Yes it will, he said.
And then he added: I’ll walk over to T-Mobile with you and explain.
THIS was unexpected, especially as he was wearing a blue AT&T shirt. He told his boss where he was going; his boss looked confused and wary. But before the boss could say no, our young man hurriedly joined us and ushered us across the aisle.
We met up with our T-Mobile salesperson. The two salespeople sort of agreed on the solution, but not really, until another T-Mobile employee, who had earlier defected from working for AT&T, joined us.
It can be done, he said. I’ve done it. Here’s how. You have to call AT&T customer service and tell them THIS. The young man from AT&T agreed that he was correct.
Still dubious, my negotiating team and I decamped to the food court to call. As expected, the AT&T customer servicer rep on the phone said it couldn’t be done. Then I said oh yes it can, a live AT&T person told me so. I said it calmly. She said she would research it.
And then, reader, she said that was right and did what we needed.
We are still in the midst of it all, so I can’t declare total victory yet. And the biggest lesson I’ve taken from it is that the American people are hostages of predatory phone companies.
But I’ve also determined that there are six morals to this story about negotiation and diplomacy that perhaps even Israel and Palestine could learn from. And they are:
1. Diplomacy requires a fed-up person/population who keeps saying this is insane, it doesn’t make sense, I don’t understand (me). This person/population might be on the verge of violence, or sobbing. Something important must be at stake — like the inability to talk to your child across the border, when she calls in anguish about a problem, without mentally ticking off how many dollars a minute it is costing you to provide aid and comfort.
2. Diplomacy requires a really young person/new perspective who hasn’t been fully trained in self-protection or corporate self-interest yet (the AT&T rep in the blue shirt).
3. Diplomacy requires a more mature person/experienced perspective of someone who has studied both sides and understands them (the T-Mobile guy who had left AT&T).
4. Diplomacy requires at least one mediator that the ticked-off people have a relationship of trust with (the salesperson in the pink T-Mobile shirt who had been trying to help us).
5. Diplomacy requires persistence. Even after an agreement is negotiated, the interests of each side are so entrenched that it may require herculean efforts to make the agreement work. Some people in power on one or both sides will still say the agreement isn’t in effect, or it doesn’t work that way. The ticked-off people have to insist that it will.
6. Sometimes the trained diplomats (Mark) don’t even have to speak up. They just have to be there, as a back-up, in case the ticked-off people lose control.
Shew. It is exhausting solving the world’s problems, much less our own phone tussle. And ours might not even be solved.
Then again, nothing ever gets completely solved, right? Our goal is to be able to communicate freely (if not entirely free) with our family on both sides of the border. And we’re one step closer, which is give us the energy to take the next step, and the next.
Finally, after three weeks in Tijuana, the first small shipment of our belongings arrived. The larger shipment will come in another month or so.
It was a relief to find our familiar “essentials” — blankets, pots and pans, dishware. Time to switch out the “welcome kit” items the consulate provided and replace it with our own stuff.
But then I started to feel kind of disappointed. We’re replacing the four crisp royal blue coffee cups in our welcome kit with about twice as many cups of our own — and not a single one matches. The cheap dishes we bought awhile back are scratched up and clunky compared to the shiny blue and white striped ones we’ve been using. And the silverware, my heavens! Of the nice stainless steel we got from our wedding 20 years ago, we have every single salad fork, knife, and serving utensil — but only one regular fork and one small spoon. The rest are the cheap, plain forks and spoons you can buy in a box at Kroger. Our welcome kit had included a decorative matching set.
If there’s a metaphor here, it’s that, while we have brought hopes of shiny new life with us to Tijuana, we have also brought along our old stuff, some of which serves us just fine. But some of it drags us down at times. And while it’s tempting to just throw it away and buy something new, we can’t afford to. We just have to make it work.
Really, I don’t want to throw away the newspaper-related mugs or the delicate little white cup of my mom’s that holds just the right amount of coffee for me. But there’s certainly room and time to change out some of the baggage we’re tired of carrying.
All of which calls for even more trips to the beach.
So late yesterday afternoon, Jack and I got caught in rush-hour traffic crossing back across the border into Mexico. Mark was catching a ride home from work from our neighbor. Then I got a message from him — “Locked out.” I felt terrible. I had left without remembering that the main door was locked from the inside with his key. As we crept along, I felt worse and worse. What would he do? Call security? Go to the neighbor’s? Finally, an hour after his message, we dragged into our garage and Mark appeared just behind us, out of the night, smiling. He had wandered over to the small playground/park in our neighborhood atop a Tijuana hill. “I just sat there, enjoying my view,” he said.
Brand new in Mexico, we’ve wondered how to take in the authentic Day of the Dead celebrations this weekend.
I asked the mom in another consulate family. She didn’t really know. Tijuana, she explained, is more like the US than other parts of Mexico, where one might enjoy a more authentic experience.
Then again, what is authentic?
I first participated in a Day of the Dead celebration four years ago, about six weeks after my mother had died unexpectedly. Our church, First Unitarian of Louisville, asked people to bring pictures of their departed loved ones for the service that Sunday. I did so. I sat with my kids in the sanctuary and, when Lydia and Nora Grossman began to sing a beautiful folk tune in honor of the departed, I started crying so desperately I felt I could not control the muscles in my face. I rushed out of the room and phoned Mark to come stay with the kids so I could leave. Not long afterward, Zoe left the sanctuary, also sobbing.
Our sense of loss was too fresh to celebrate communally.
Now, four years later, it still seems too soon in some ways. And yet I’m also encouraged by a ritual that allows me to acknowledge reality, honor memory, and learn, if only gradually, how to join in the communal celebration of death and life.
Love you, Mom.