Writer On the Road: NOT. SCHENGEN!
Picture it: you schlep up to the Delta International counter at Logan, lugging a suitcase full of 62 pounds of orange clothes. You know there are 62 pounds because that's what the digital readout says when you gruntingly wrestle the suitcase onto the scale. You know the clothes inside are orange because you're going to Holland on book tour and the Dutch national color is orange; therefore in the past several months you've spent a thoroughly indiscriminate amount of money on clothes that make you look, as your partner put it, like the world's best-dressed prison escapee.
You hand over your passport and boarding pass and are rehearsing what you hope is charming banter that will make them let your 62 pounds of clothes through without an extra charge when the ticket agent frowns and says "Uh oh."
"What uh oh?" you say.
"There's a problem," she says.
Your face, hands and feet go numb.
"What do you mean, a problem?" you ask. "What kind of problem?"
"Let me go get a red jacket," says the ticket agent.
She hustles off and returns with a Delta manager in a red jacket. Who frowns at your passport.
"I am sorry," she says, in some indefinable accent. "There is a problem. We cannot let you on the plane."
You smile. "What?" you say.
"They will not let you off in Holland. Your passport must be good for 40 days after your return date. I am sorry."
You keep smiling. "What?" you say.
"I am sorry."
"So wait. What do you mean, 40 days after?"
"Your passport expiration date must be valid for 40 days AFTER your travel," she repeats.
"Sooooo....." you say, smiling widely. "I'm sorry, I don't understand. My passport expires in November. It's a valid passport." You point to the expiration date. "And you're really saying you won't let me on the plane?"
"I am sorry, Madam."
"But--" You cast about, stammering for some combination of words that will convince her. "But this is a business trip. My Dutch publisher arranged it. There are events that've been scheduled months in advance. People are waiting for me--readers!"
"I am sorry, Madam."
"I can't believe this," you say. Your voice is calm. It's not this woman's fault. Still, this can't be happening. "What can I do?" you ask. "There has to be somebody I can talk to--at immigration? There has to be some way."
The red jacket lady shakes her head. "I am sorry, Madam," she says. "It is international law. It is the law in Holland. It is Schengen."
* * *
Back up 14 months. You've been to Holland before. Once in college, so of course you can't remember it, and once in April 2011, when your Dutch publisher, the amazing de Boekerij, imported you because your novel THOSE WHO SAVE US/ HET FAMILIEPORTRET went bestseller (Ex. A: Writer On the Road, The Latitude of Gratitude). Every morning you sit on the prayer rug in your study--really a kilim--in front of your book's Dutch cover every day and say, "Bedankt, de Boekerij! Bedankt, Dutch readers!" Dutch readers are a miracle. De Boekerij is a miracle. You love all your publishers, who have been Glinda to you and your books. But de Boekerij is the business. They put novels on billboards.
They bring American writers overseas to meet Dutch readers. They put you up in an insanely beautiful hotel overlooking a canal, so your view is like a Monet but with more bicycles. They arrange for high teas, luncheons, dinners by the North Sea.
It's a writer's fairy tale come true.
That's what you tell your friend Sarah McCoy, whose novel THE BAKER'S DAUGHTER, or DE BAKKERSDOCHTER, is newly out in Holland and doing beautifully. De Boekerij, who publishes you both, has invited you over to tag-team-tour. The hope is HET FAMILIEPORTRET will act as sort of Bronte aunt to the already popular and pretty BAKKERSDOCHTER, making sure she meets everyone she needs to know.
Plus, your 2nd novel, THE STORMCHASERS/ IN TWEESTRIJD, has just been released in paperback, so it's hoped both FAMILIEPORTRET and BAKKERSDOCHTER will give this younger sibling a lasting bump on the bestseller list.
* * *
It is impossible to exaggerate how excited you and Sarah are about this trip--nor how much preparation and anticipation go into it. You met Sarah via email and became fast friends on Twitter and Facebook; then, when you met in 3 dimensions at the Tucson Book Festival in March 2012, you became the sisters both of you always wanted.
T minus 3 months & counting: When your shared de Boekerij publicist, lovely Jorien deVries, suggested you and Sarah tour together, you tumbled around with excitement like two puppies in a dryer.
T minus 1 month & counting: When Jorien confirmed the trip was a GO, your and Sarah's texts exploded with emoticons. Every day you consulted: What clothes should you pack? Who has extra power converters? What gifts should you bring for Jorien?
T minus 3 weeks & counting: You get an iPhone 4S because it works overseas, so you and Sarah can tweet your trip to folks back home. You order new business cards with Dutch covers on them.
T minus 2 weeks & counting: You buy an orange fascinator headband. Gold platform sandals to wear with your orange prison-escapee jumpsuit. A trench coat because smart Sarah looks up Dutch weather and reminds you it's Holland's rainy season.
T minus 1 week & counting: You fly from Kansas to Boston, from which you will fly to Holland and where your dear, dear friends, whom you miss so much, give you a special furry traveling companion:
T minus 1 day & counting: you buy 4 pounds of chocolate chips to bring to a homesick American reader who relocated to Holland for love. Repack your suitcase in a vain attempt to make it lighter. Try to sleep. Can't. Too excited. You text Sarah. She texts back: I can't sleep either!!!! I can't believe I get to see you & live our Dutch fairy tale in a few hours!!!!!
The day of: You check your passport. Check your passport. Check your passport. You go to Logan with your bulging suitcase. You check in. You check your passport. You drag your suitcase to baggage drop.
* * *
What happens next?
Nothing in the sense of this story having a happy ending and somebody waves a wand, or you say just the right thing to the right person, and you get to go to Holland.
You don't get to go.
Because of the Schengen Agreement, which indeed stipulates that travelers visiting Schengen countries must have passports valid 40 days AFTER their stay, and which nobody, including the travel agent who booked your ticket with your passport in his/ her hand, has apparently ever heard of. But whatevs. Schengen is international law, meant to thwart terrorism, and you respect that.
On any regular day, you could bypass Schengen. You could go to the passport office and get an extension. Zip back to Logan. Get on a plane the same night. Be in Holland with Sarah the next morning, wiggy with jet-lag but otherwise intact.
However, your flight is on the Friday of Labor Day weekend. The earliest you could get a passport extension, the red jacket Delta lady explains to you, is Tuesday morning.
Your flight home is Wednesday.
All your and Sarah's events, at bookstores, libraries, department stores, in restaurants, and on boats--painstakingly planned and promoted for months--will be over.
So what do you do?
You let de Boekerij know--via Twitter--what's going on. (It's late at night in Holland--the publisher's offices are closed. But on Twitter everyone is still up having a few drinks. Thank God for Twitter.)
You call Sarah. She freaks out. You freak out. Then she has to board her plane. You say, "Go, go. I'll join you if I can."
You call Delta. You call the State Department. You call the Consulate. You get a lot of recorded messages because it's Labor Day weekend, and everywhere you try, you run up against:
You take your 62 pounds of orange clothes and go back to Kansas.
* * *
What is the point of this story?
There isn't one.
At least not in the traditional sense of the protagonist learning a valuable emotional lesson she can then apply to the rest of her life.
What I learned about Schengen was that, since its requirements appear nowhere on any travel document ever, I should have looked at the website of the country I was traveling to just in case there was some requirement I hadn't fulfilled. Yeah, because we all do that.
You know I'm not in the habit of writing "Wah Wah, Poor Me" stories. Nor is this one. My friend June Getsug Banet said of my change in travel plans, "It was bashert"--my favorite Yiddish term, meaning "meant to be." And this was. My flights back to Kansas were smooth, even early. A tight connection miraculously vanished. I got to come home to my partner and dog, our house full of love, a place I've always wanted to be. Not to mention writing books, having them out there and being invited to Holland in the first place! If that isn't lucky, what is?
And I was thrilled to watch via Skype and Facebook as Sarah took the Netherlands by storm, as I knew she would. Every hard-working writer-girl--and boy!--deserves to live the fairy tale.
I believe everything that happens can be used (what kind of writer would I be if I didn't?), so I present this story as a cautionary tale.
Dear Writers On the Road: if you are traveling overseas, don't just check your passport's expiration date . Check the website of your destination country for their entry requirements.
Otherwise, you too might end up SCHENGENED!
Jenna Blum is the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of novels Those Who Save Us, The Stormchasers, and The Lost Family as well as the novella "The Lucky One" in anthology Grand Central. Jenna is also one of Oprah's Top 30 Women Writers. Jenna has taught for GrubStreet since 1997 ; she currently runs the master novel workshop and seminars focusing on craft and marketing.See other articles by Jenna Blum