Thanksgiving came and went like any other unremarkable Thursday in Barcelona. But no day is unremarkable; I am reminded regularly how remarkable my fortune is. Four and a half years after moving to Barcelona, I still can’t get over how lucky I am. The thought crosses my mind almost daily. And anytime I slide and take my situation for granted, it doesn’t take long for Life to slap me back to reality.
The last time I flew home from Barcelona was almost a year ago and it was quite the journey. To save a couple hundred euros, I began by flying three hours in the wrong direction to Istanbul, Turkey, only to double back and continue on to Chicago for an 11 hour and 40 minute flight.
I still remember walking all the way to the back of the plane in Turkey and the hissy fit going on inside my head when I reached the last row. I was in the last row where my seat would horrifyingly only recline a millimeter before being met by the back wall. My seat was right next to a bathroom where less than rosy smells would waft my way on and off for 11+ hours only to be quelled by the hordes waiting their turns in the narrow aisle between the door and my arm rest.
When l was already worked up, I saw the woman who dared to sit in my seat – in my aisle seat. I quickly informed her that she was in my seat and the flight attendant let her know that hers was one seat over. As the flight took off, I felt the woman’s elbow creep over the armrest and brush my body. I tried to play it cool, as if I was involuntarily pushing against that elbow – but I was working hard to defend my turf.
And then Life showed up, as it often does, at just the right moment to shove my A-hole behavior right back in my face. This was the woman’s third flight in her entire life – the previous two being earlier in the day. She began her day in Iraq, flew to Jordan and then on to Istanbul to board this plane to Chicago where she would then continue on to Texas. Wendy was headed to the U.S. as an Iraqi refugee.
She was given the nickname Wendy when she worked at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq – fearing that using her real name could put her at risk. She was so proud that she had worked to help the Americans but, at the same time, had lived in constant fear. While she kept her head covered in public, Wendy felt so free within the American Embassy that she could go without her scarf. She said she was so grateful to the Americans for being in her country to help the Iraqi people.
Five years before I met Wendy she had applied for refugee status. Two weeks before our flight she found out that she had been approved. She had no time to sell her house and asked her brother-in-law to help her. She went to the bank and transferred the equivalent of thousands of dollars that she had saved to give to her nephews. She had cared for them for years and they were only 18 and 19 years old when she left. She was hoping they could move to Turkey to be safe and be with some of her brothers who live there. She also has a brother who lives with his family in Australia. She was moving to the U.S. all alone. She is in her late 40s and looked forward to reuniting with friends who had left Iraq so long ago that she was afraid she wouldn’t even recognize them when they met.
I asked Wendy what she was most looking forward to in the U.S. and she said being able to go for a walk. In Iraq, she explained, people were always being watched.
I asked Wendy what food she was looking forward to eating in the U.S. and she reminisced about how she and the other Iraqi workers ate for free while at the U.S. Embassy and could even take leftovers home, which she often did to share with her nephews. She said that she loves fruits and vegetables and asked if they are affordable in the U.S. She asked if you always have to buy what you want by the kilo or if you could buy any amount you want. She was excited to learn that if you only want one single apple, you can buy that one apple and don’t have to buy an entire kilo of apples.
When she asked me if my whole family lives in Chicago, I said yes. I just wanted to keep it simple and not go on to say that my brother and his family live in Florida. We left it at that – there was no way I could possibly go on to say that I would be spending an entire week with my whole family in Puerto Rico.
Early on in the flight, right around the time that elbow brushed against me, I noticed that across the aisle there was a man talking a girl’s ear off. Right then I thought how lucky I was that the person next to me wasn’t engaging me in conversation. In the end I was so grateful that Wendy was seated next to me.
On Thanksgiving I naturally think about what I am thankful for but I become truly overwhelmed thinking of how amazingly remarkable my fortune is and the extremely privileged life I lead.