Mr Marcel

The first time I met Etgar Keret, on the terrace of one of Tel Aviv’s many laid-back white cafés, he told me: “When you order a pasta, but the waiter brings you a cheese sandwich, and you say: ‘Ah, no matter, I’ll just eat the sandwich’ – that’s not the essence of life. But it contains a bit of that essence, and if I describe it really well, I might convey it to the reader.”

I thought about that as I was waiting at a check-in desk, while a middle manager from United Airlines was trying to solve a problem with my ticket to Philadelphia, where I was supposed to show our documentary about Etgar. The film festival had apparently made a mistake while booking my flight: they’d put my third name where my last name was supposed to be, so that the reservation was made out for Mr Rutger Stephan MARCEL, while I was trying to check in as Mr Rutger Stephan Marcel LEMM.

“I’m sorry Mr Marcel,” said the middle manager, a tall, lean guy with a business-like appearance that suggested he could solve anything, “I don’t think we’ll be able to solve this for you.” The flight was booked through Orbitz, offered by Lufthansa and operated by United, so it was unclear who was responsible. He handed me my passport and suggested I’d call Orbitz, before turning to another passenger with a problem. In Philadelphia everybody was asleep of course, and I had about an hour left to board the plane.

The Orbitz customer service employee spoke told me with his upbeat Indian accent that he could only change the name if I could prove that I got divorced, and then it would still take 24-48 hours for the change to get through. He connected me with the Lufthansa customer service, where an American lady told me that she could only change two letters. That was not enough. I needed to change all five of them.

In the middle of these futile phone calls, as I was listening to psychedelic hold music, I again thought about what Etgar had said. There was an essence in this weird, but also quite uneventful situation. But what was it? And how could I tell it right?

Actually, I was too tired to really think about that, because I’d spend two nights comforting our two-year-old son, who turned out to have a persistent ear infection. I’d spend the day before comforting my 7-months-pregnant girlfriend, who was close to a nervous breakdown at the prospect of me leaving. As I’d walked through the airport entrance hall that morning, I’d cried a little bit, out of sheer desperation.

But what now? Did I have to book another flight, hoping the festival would reimburse it? Should I just go, keep going? I noticed the rushed and panicky feeling in my belly, that ticklish feeling that puts everything in sharp focus and exhausts you at the same time, and I realised that I hadn’t felt this way in a long, long time. When I was in my twenties, I lived by this feeling, this exciting energy of always being too late. It pushed me forward, until it left me depleted. Nowadays, I’m seldom in a hurry.

Maybe it was Mr Marcel’s stress that I was experiencing. Maybe Mr Marcel still needed this speedy, relentless drive towards new experiences. Maybe it really was Mr Marcel who needed to go to Philadelphia, not me.

Another friend, a big handsome man who always wears a calm smile on his face, told me recently: “You should strive for a balance between two things: what you want, and what’s your responsibility.” It’s simple, but I live by it.

So I turned away from the check-in desk, and went back home to my family.

Yes, this stukje was in English. Bite me. And subscribe to my goddamn news letter: