What is panic?
I don’t know what panic is, but I know what it feels like. Panic sets in the moment you bop one of your kids on the head in Wal-Mart. You feel this knot in your stomach, and then you look around to see if the Wal-Mart security camera saw you because you don’t want to be the next viral video of an angry mother on You Tube, especially if all the ad revenue goes to some 20-year-old security camera tech who never dealt with a toddler who wants a Sponge Bob cherry lollipop. (You can tell this is just a creative story, because I would never let my kids watch Sponge Bob. There is enough foul language in this house already.)
There was another time I panicked. Last summer, I boarded a train from Brussels to Paris for a day trip. I imagined I’d stroll down an avenue lined with cherry blossoms (even though it was summer) carrying a pink parasol (even though I do not own a parasol) and posting instagrams of the Eiffel Tower from my cell phone (without a signal).
That’s not what happened. When I got off the train in Paris’ north station, I looked around at the chaos and thought, “Uh. Now what?” I didn’t think about how I was actually going to get to famous places around Paris. I had no idea what to do. There were no tourist signs, no pictures of the Eiffel tower and an arrow pointing to the right, no glossy brochures, no little blue “i” information kiosks that I could inquire at.
So here I am in a foreign country alone– without a translator, a clue, or a plan. I can only ask three things in French, and one of them is highly inappropriate. (I got punched by my sister when I asked my French brother-in-law this question, so I knew it meant what I thought it meant.)
Eventually, I figured out how to ride the city bus to the Eiffel Tower, noticing that the stop I needed was the one when the bus driver yelled angrily at me. Afterward, I took a little canal ride that explains what the Notre Dame is for all the people who think it’s a football team. From there, I hiked to the Louvre museum and looked at the Mona Lisa even though I don’t know anything about art history. I just figured this was what you’re supposed to do if you go to a famous place.
So, I figured out how to navigate in another foreign country, but I will never forget that moment of initial panic when I got off the train. It’s exactly what I felt like after we bought rental properties and got a letter in the mail from the city saying that our building was 30 days from being condemned. True, one of these moments was infinitely more expensive than the other.
On the bus to the Eiffel tower, there was a Portuguese couple who were also having trouble with getting around the city. As they were talking to each other, I could tell that they were making plans. Together they were solving their dilemma. Neither of them spoke French, but they were figuring it out together. That’s when my panic turned into something else, and I knew what loneliness felt like too.