I felt like I was trapped in an uncomfortable elevator-ride-with-the-boss that wouldn’t end. As I impatiently glanced at the handle of the handicapped bathroom stall at Chicago O’Hare airport, my longtime friend Morgan was pumping breast milk into a bottle and chatting about the wonders of childbirth. I was mortified. I tried my best to sound excited, but after our first flight had been canceled, the only thing on my mind was not missing our final shot at getting to Germany in time for our river cruise.
Morgan continued to ramble nonchalantly about her baby and how she was having second thoughts about leaving her behind to go on vacation, worried that the freezer full of breast milk would not suffice in her absence. All the while I was thinking “There’s a tiny toilet plunger attached to your nipple − and it’s going to make us miss the plane.”
“I’m going to have to do this three times a day,” she said, completing her 15-minute talk on why breastfeeding a newborn is healthy for the baby. “Otherwise I’ll stop producing milk. But I also brought my electric pump so I can do both sides at once after we are on the ship.” Her speech left me contemplating the idea of getting my tubes tied. “When you have kids someday, you’ll see,” she finished. I cringed at the thought.
The two of us − like any true best friends − were as opposite as night and day. After college, we parted ways. I took off to see the world, leaving behind friends, jobs and men in order to get my travel fix. I was an irresponsible and reckless soul, while Morgan was a stay-at-home mom devoted to her family and her faith.
When the opportunity arose to take a free holiday cruise and I was allowed to bring a guest, I thought it would be a wonderful way to rekindle our fading friendship. For the first time, I could share with her the one thing that I was truly passionate about. Traveling brings people together – or so I had thought until I saw her pouring breast milk down the drain.
During our absence, our departure gate had been transformed from a United Airlines area into a Lufthansa-operated zone. Their signature yellow logos unfolded like a medieval coat of arms, proudly displayed above the check-in counter. From down the hall, I could hear a chorus of heels clicking on the tile floor and growing louder as the Lufthansa employees approached their temporary kingdom.
“Whoa. I take it this is our cabin crew,” Morgan muttered as she stepped out of the bathroom just in time to see an army of men and women marching toward us in freshly pressed uniforms. Lufthansa’s army operated like a well-oiled machine and within minutes we were in the air.
After nine hours of outdated movies and failed attempts at teaching Morgan a few key phrases in the German language, I watched the last of our fellow passengers collect their belongings at the baggage claim in Munich. We were left alone staring at an empty conveyor belt and reported our lost luggage (so much for Lufthansa’s well-oiled machine). A short time later, having boarded a train, we traveled through the snow-covered countryside and the woman next to us looked on in disgust as I dried my socks on the rattling heating vent. In Munich, our hostel was on a side street just outside the main train station. As I strolled past the cheery Christmas scene and breathed in the smell of mulled wine and hot chocolate, Morgan trucked her way to the entrance.
Our first challenge was opening the door to our room. Try as we might, neither of us could get the time-battered key to work. After a hard-fought battle, we called Arlo, our mysterious and attractive desk clerk, who came upstairs to help us as we gave him our sweetest smile.
“Drücken,” he said, giving the door a slight push as it swung open with ease. I swore up and down – in English − that we had tried pushing it already, but he clearly couldn’t understand a word I was saying. I realized right then that Arlo and I would never work out.
We quickly shrugged off our embarrassment because we had at last arrived safe and sound an entire day before our cruise set sail. My tingling hands and toes needed several more layers of lost luggage, but I was ready to walk around the city. Before Morgan could go anywhere, however, she announced that she needed to pump. When I had first suggested Morgan travel with me to Munich, I had no idea that “needing to pump from time to time” would mean she’d be transformed into Bessie the cow every four hours.
“I can’t find the hand pump,” Morgan suddenly groaned.
“What are you talking about? You just had it in the airport bathroom. I watched you put it in your purse.”
“No, Amber, it’s not here. I mean, it’s here, but I’m missing the most important part. It must have fallen out of my purse when we got off the plane.”
“Well, don’t you have that electric one?”
“Oh, yes! You’re right.” She started rummaging through the carryon bag, but a conquered look instantly crossed her face. “The electric converters are in the checked bags, which are in Chicago.” She covered her face with her hands and wailed “my boobs are killing me.”
“It’s alright,” I said. “We’ll go to the train station and get a new converter. They have to sell them somewhere.” Twenty minutes later, we shelled out five euros and headed back to the hostel with hopes held high.
“Aha, it fits,” Morgan announced triumphantly as the American adapter fit snuggly into the European converter. The moment she plugged it into the wall, though, sparks shot through the air and the lights in the room went out. We stood in defeated silence while I scrambled to come up with something comforting to say. Instead, I blurted out the obvious: “Umm, Morgan, your breast pump is on fire.”
A horrible, burning-plastic stench filled the room as smoke poured from the adapter. We yanked it out of the outlet, rushed into the hallway and slammed the door shut. She slumped down against the wall and I could see from the tears welling up in her eyes that she was reaching her limit.
“It’s alright, we’ll find another pump. Women in Germany have kids too,” I said, trying to sound as optimistic and convincing as possible − despite my growing doubts.
“You don’t understand, Amber. My boobs feel like they’ve been inflated, but the air won’t go out. It’s like someone is taking a knife and stabbing me in the chest. I need to get the milk out now.”
“Can’t you just squeeze it?” I offered, completely clueless as to the mechanisms of breastfeeding. Perhaps I should have been paying closer attention to her bathroom lecture in Chicago.
“What do you mean? Like milk myself?”
I felt awful. I wanted Morgan to see how incredible traveling can be, and instead she was a minute away from a complete meltdown. “Alright, let me take a shower and see if the heat helps. I’ll try and squeeze it out,” she said, barely holding herself together.
“I’ll go down and ask the front desk where we can find a pump.” I had no idea how I was going to do this, or how I was going to explain to Arlo that the power was out on the entire fourth floor because my best friend’s breast pump had blown the circuit.
I soon found myself flailing my hands at Arlo in an attempt to mime babies and milk pumps like some twisted game of Charades. I felt confident that my ’electricity-is-out’ gesture only confirmed to Arlo that, in addition to my stupidity (for not being able to push a door open), I was also officially crazy. Pretending the pen I gripped was an injection needle, I finally managed to express the need for a pharmacy. Circling something on a map, Arlo tapped his watch indicating that it would be closing soon. Either that or he meant that the heroin dealers in Munich stopped selling after nine o’clock.
With my complimentary tourist map in hand, I pounded on the door to the bathroom and shouted the escalating crisis situation to Morgan, who had already failed at her self-milking efforts. We took the stairs two at a time and headed down the dimly-lit street toward the giant glowing green cross that symbolized a medical center – and hope. All the while I secretly knew that the chances of the pharmacy being open and carrying a breast pump were slim to none. But then, a miracle happened.
“I see one!” Morgan shouted, pointing though the frosted glass window. Like a track star, she sprinted toward the door and pulled at the handle in desperation. It didn’t open.
“No! How can it be closed?” She was beaten, and would never forgive me for dragging her along on my selfish globe-hopping while her husband tended to her five-month-old daughter without a clue as to what he was doing.
“Hey come back,” I said on closer inspection of the glass door. Morgan looked up through her tears and I repeated the simple phrase mothers everywhere are forced to hear when they can’t possibly take another second of pain.
“Drücken,” I said. “You have to push.”