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Scott Graber

A little bit of uncertainty in one’s life is healthy

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It is Friday, and we’re in Italy — actually a small, sun-bleached town called Fiumicino. It is early, and Susan and I are awaiting a flight to the United States.

I am unhappy.

I am unhappy because today’s 12:30 flight was canceled, and we have been re-booked on an 8 a.m. flight tomorrow. I don’t mind the delay — I’m drinking espresso in an outdoor, waterfront trattoria — I do mind the uncertainty.

Yes, I know there is a shortage of pilots; that many flights have been canceled; and there are miles-long lines of angry people trying to get themselves re-booked or struggling through security in an effort to get home. I do mind the prospect of standing in those angst-filled lines, wondering if they’re going to confiscate my last bottle of Pantene Conditioner.

Some years ago none of this would have bothered me.

In the early 90s, I did some traveling in West Africa. We’re not taking Cairo or CapeTown, we’re talking Kinshasa, Bangui and Abuja.

I those days I traveled on Air Afrique departing from JFK late at night. The Airbus was usually packed to capacity with large, robe-wearing Africans who brought duffle bags aboard and jammed them into the overhead bins. One would watch this jamming and, of course, wonder about one’s own carry-on and whether the contents had been pulverized.

Eventually I learned the African duffel bags were filled with shampoo—soon to be sold on the streets of Dakar and Abidjan.

Once in Africa, connecting flights down the coast were often delayed by problems (deflated landing gear wheels) and replacement tires had to be flown in from Paris. This meant a delay of 6 hours or more.

I was OK with those delays because I always traveled with someone else, and that person had a sense of fatalism about third world airlines who pretended to have an arrival and departure schedule. My companions also had a fondness for the local beer and a capacity to tell stories that might consume several hours in a hot, gritty, “First Class” lounge where one could actually watch the repairs underway.

But these days I’m freighted with a Samsonite-heavy imagination, toting around the belief that there are bad outcomes associated with loss of memory, sight and muscle mass. And I don’t believe that “travel anxiety” really captures my sense of dread.

Throughout this trip I have managed to keep this sense of dread at bay. My wife and I have used railroads, almost exclusively, and I’ve made paper duplicates of our cellphone-imaged, digital tickets. I also learned to say words like “binario” and “biglietto”; knowing full-well that I won’t understand a word of the Italian-spoken answers to my questions. And I haven’t been reluctant to call my son, Zach, when all else fails.

But even Zach cannot control striking railway workers (in the UK) or a shortage of pilots (apparently the problem with our return flight to JFK) or the various Covid-testing protocols that stranded thousands of Americans (in Europe) until the middle of June.

I was able to dull that sense of disaster with two glasses of Chardonnay — or two fingers of single malt Scotch in Scotland — and perhaps a small bowl of olives. This alcohol-based analgesic was bolstered by Susan — sitting across from me in pubs from York or Perugia — re-telling my old, shop-worn, dinner-party stories of being interrogated in Abidjan, being robbed in Dakar and being shadowed by French (or Congolese) intelligence in Brazzaville.

The anxiety that attends foreign travel can, or course, be eliminated by not going overseas at all. Or one can book a cruise ship that comes with its own theme park and a smorgasbord of non-stop eating and drinking.

Or one can remain on one’s own deck, reading John Le Carre’, and simply examine the marsh that is part and parcel of our Lowcountry landscape.

But putting a little bit of uncertainty in one’s life is, I think, healthy.

I say all this not knowing whether we will aboard Delta Flight 9927 (tomorrow at 8 a.m.) headed for the confusion, customs and chaos of JFK. I say this knowing that keeping anxiety and depression at bay is an American obsession earning Big Pharma millions of dollars and employing hundreds (thousands?) of hard-working millionaires.

(Author’s Note: We did make the 8 a.m. flight. Delta did pay the tab for our Hilton room, lunch and dinner.)

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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