Welcome the Traveler Home

Five days of jet lag and 700 pages of unexpected legal proofreading have kept me from the keyboard, and after meeting sleep and client deadlines I feel halfway human again.

Got hung up in Security at Heathrow in London because I forgot I had hand sanitizer and eye drops in my backpack, so it got routed to be tested for explosives, anthrax, or who knows what. The woman ahead of me had a gazillion little bottles of liquids in a plastic shopping bag (“They told me it all had to be in a plastic bag, and it’s in a plastic bag!”), and the security officer doing the testing took one bottle at a time to put into a quart-sized bag for testing. We were half an hour late leaving Prague because of congestion over Heathrow, and 15 minutes in the security line left me racing down a half mile-long terminal hall. Just barely made my flight. Nine hours later we touched down in America.

Spring in Europe was fragrant and lovely, and I’m home in time to see my flowers and apples ready to bloom. The ditch water’s filling the pump, the hoses are connected, and the weeds await. As do four clients who need editing and proofreading. And the avalanche of mail that my roommate collected. So I take a deep breath and declare that all will be finished at the perfect time. And so the adventure becomes memories. Fortunately, memories don’t take up much space and never have to be dusted. Maybe I’ll make more next winter–in Argentina or Belize or wherever inspiration leads me.

Winding Down

My fifth day in Prague, the longest stay of anywhere I’ve been in the last month. Tomorrow, early, I get my boarding pass at the Vaclav Havel airport, spend a couple of hours at Heathrow, then straight on to Denver. I should have stayed only four days here, and therein lies a story.

The food I’ve had on my adventure has been, let us say, not spectacular. Some has been downright awful, greasy, tasteless, strange. I don’t mind strange; I do mind shelling out big bucks for a Caesar salad that consists of iceberg lettuce, chopped tomato, and a slice of veryveryvery lightly toasted white bread cut into pieces that pretend to be croutons, all of it topped with a whole tablespoon of bottled mystery dressing. The list could go on, but why?

The story of timing and food combine because older taste buds tend to lose their finer perceptions, and anyone over 60 has probably checked the refrigerator for the car keys because the damned things just aren’t anywhere else! A goodly portion of my taste buds ran off with a goodlier portion of my brain cells and they’re somewhere on the planet Melmac creating offspring that won’t ever call or write or even send a Christmas card to dear old Auntie Jan. Which is why I showed up in Prague a day early, hungry and tired after 14 hours on trains and buses, only to find out that I had no room because the hotel was sold out and I wasn’t supposed to be here until Friday. Plan X went into effect, all turned out well, and in twelve hours I’ll be catching a few zzzzz’s somewhere over the Atlantic.

The Prague transit folks, probably realizing that seniors have enough challenges to deal with, allow oldsters of any nation ride any public transportation free. When one gets on a bus or subway just to see what will happen it’s an adventure, which is why our sturdy, if somewhat scattered, heroine finds herself in a cemetery on Tuesday that is so steeped in peace that she decides just to stroll, sit, sketch, write,  and breathe in the eternalness of life and death.

After a couple of hours of quiet, the intrepid traveler then metroes to the Vlatava River, walks over the Charles Bridge, and climbs 6,383 steps (but who’s counting?) to reach the Prague castle and old town square, just to say she did it. And being intrepid, how can she pass up absinth, aka the Green Fairy, the drink of legend and writers?  She buys the smallest bottle, shot size, hurries back to the hotel and breaks the seal. Holy Paint Stripper, Batman! It tastes of licorice and packs a 128-proof punch. No wonder drinkers in the olden days, that is the twentieth century, hallucinated and did really strange things while imbibing.

It’s been a long month, and it’s time to go home, to my own bed, my own kitchen, my own yard, my own peace. No regrets, no fears, no wishing anything had been otherwise. A helluva ride all the way, from the stranded train in Hungary to the straight-down alpen gondola in Bavaria, from the rail strikes in France to the trams that sway and rattle around Prague.

And so the adventure creeps to a close, at least for now.

Birthday Surprises

I turned 71 today in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria, on a day full of surprises. When I went down to breakfast the desk clerk wished me happy birthday. By the time I’d poured a cup of tea, she and the waitress showed up with a split of prosecco, a champagne flute and a jar of orange marmalade, all on a napkin wishing me happy birthday again. I had expected to celebrate by myself, and their kindness brought tears, a sign of a heart opening.

I went out to the garden after breakfast and sketched a beehive the likes of which I’ve never seen: an actual little chalet with a slotted metal plate in the front that lets the bees go in and out, and they have been busy as–well, bees–since I’ve been here. Spring flowers lure them with nectar waiting to be turned into honey.

I’ve been on the go for almost three weeks, traveling across five countries, walking for hours each day seeing the sights or running for trains, trying to cram as much in to my trip as I can. Today was meant for strolling. A lovely salad for lunch in the RichardStraussPlatz (town square) in the shade of a tree just leafing, watching the people congregate around street food trucks or sip coffee in the sun or just enjoy the perfect weather.

My Gastpass, courtesy of the hotel, entitled me to free entrance into the Spielbank, or casino (they charge 2.5 euros just to go in), so I figured why not? After the reception clerk entered my passport information (who knows why??) he gave me the entrance pass, a ticket for a free drink, and wished me happy birthday.

Holding a really large glass of beer (have I mentioned that beers are humongous here?) I wandered around, looking at machines, which are the same as the ones stateside except for the words on the buttons. Finally I found one that was in both English and German so I knew which button would cash me out. Stuck 10 euros and my player’s card in the machine and bet what I thought was 50 cents. Noooo! It was 5 euros. The reels spun, the symbols lined up, and suddenly I was 22.5 euros richer, on just one spin. I quit while I was ahead! Note: You don’t get a ticket to take to the cashier. The credit goes on your player’s card. I had to ask for help on that one.

On Marienpatz, the pedestrians-only street, an older man played the accordion, sitting next to his dog in the shade. “Lady of Spain,” always one of my favorites from the fifties, made me smile as I window shopped, all I could do as clothing stores, stationers, and other shops close on Sunday. When I walked past him I dropped a euro in his basket and petted his dog, who acted like I was his new best friend. The man played a tango and then went into a waltz, making me wish I had a dance partner. I dropped another euro and thanked him for his talent.

A quick stop in the bakery netted me a piece of cheesecake, one of my three top choices for a birthday treat, along with carrot cake and German chocolate cake. Which incidentally was invented in the US by a chocolate company named German Chocolate. Go figure.

This morning four older motorcyclists came into breakfast wearing BMW shirts emblazoned with “Life is a ride.” Which led me to philosophize. My life certainly has been an interesting ride, down smooth straightaways that encourage me to go as fast as I can. Or back roads and byways that wind through fields and farms and villages, giving me time to enjoy the scenery. Other times I’ve found myself on rutted, rocky one-lane tracks where the only choice is to move forward. Sometimes mountain trails hug cliff sides and drop away to infinity with no guard rails to keep me safe. At times there have been no paths at all. I wander, lost, with no option but to keep going and hope I make it back to myself. Somehow I’ve always reached my destination, even though it might not have been the one I set out for. Yet every road, every trail, every wandering has led to a blessing.

So as the adventure continues I say, “I am blessed.”

Another Adventure

Woke to a lovely morning yesterday, made it to the station in Cluj Napoca, ready to leave Romania behind. Had my schedule all laid out, using my Rail Trip app on my phone, courtesy of my Eurail pass. So sat back to enjoy my solitude in a six-seat compartment. All was well until…

Just half an hour into Hungary the train switched engines, which usually isn’t a problem, except the new engine apparently had to be built, tested, and shipped from Timbuktu! So much for my schedule. So on to Plan B–or maybe by now I’m up to Plan Q. This plan involved taking the metro from one Budapest station to another, a process I was familiar with, thanks to misreading the schedule when I left five days before. (See blog on police and passports and panic.)

In Budapest Kelenfoeld station I tried to get to the ticket counter to buy the required extra reservation ticket, and the Guardian of the Gate wouldn’t let me in. Oh, how I wish I knew enough Magyar to call him a pompous ass. So I figured the conductor would either let me pay on the train or throw me off, and I haven’t been thrown off–or jailed–yet.

Rolled into Vienna Meidling station, only to find no hotels anywhere around. My iPad was almost dead, my phone was down to 12% charge, but I managed to get to Booking.com and reserve a room. The taxi driver zoomed us down the street and I caught a glimpse of a Gasthaus (usually an inn of some kind) just down the street yet we were headed into the far-away, which seemed kinda like the Upside Down if you’re a Netflix fan of Stranger Things. But not quite so creepy.

The farther from the station I got the more my stomach churned. Would I be able to get back in time for my train this morning? What if the place was a real pit? What if I disappeared into the depths of Vienna and was never heard from again??? “Take me back to the station,” I shouted.

As I got out at Meidling station I said, “Just a crazy American.” The driver took his 13 euros, shrugged and drove off.

By this time dark had fallen as I walked through a pretty sketchy neighborhood to reach the Gasthaus. Which turned out to be a beer joint with a very rude bartender. Didn’t even let me use the toilet (and there are none in the station.).

So back to the station and another taxi. Phone had just enough charge to get the address again. The Do Step Inn turned out to be a hostel/hotel, the common room full  of people on whom I have about five decades and a million years in experience. And the Do Step Inn had no record of my reservation!

Just enough charge in the iPad to get my email for the confirmation number, only to find I was in the wrong damn place! Apparently the company also rents apartments near the station for short stays and I had rented one. The clerk, bless his little pea-pickin’ heart, canceled that one and rented me a room much smaller than Oprah’s shoe closet, in between answering the phone, answering questions, and a bunch of other stuff I barely understood.

Finally I lugged my case up two flights of stairs, brushed my teeth, set the alarm and slept for eight solid hours. Woke up with a gurgling stomach, as I’d had nothing to eat yesterday except a pastry, two tangerines, some bagel chips and a truly awful premade cold sandwich from the train’s restaurant car for which I had the privilege of paying eight euros (to convert to dollars, multiply by 1.30).

There was a tiny convenience store near the station but it didn’t open until 8:00, another 20 minutes. The owner saw me hanging about and let me in. I bought a quart of milk and a delicious salami, cheese, lettuce and chopped red pepper sandwich for 3.40 euros, less than half of what I’d paid on the train.

So once again I’m fed, watered, and only a few steps from the train toilet. Austria flows by the window like a travelogue come to life. This afternoon I’ll be in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the town where Rocky and I spent a few days in 2001. I’ll do laundry, stroll around town, buy a book at the bookstore, and take three days to relax and recoup. I turn 71 on Sunday and don’t want to trave on my birthday. By Monday I will have charged my devices, recharged my heart, and be on the rails again.

And so the adventure continues.

Random Thoughts

The Romanian post office in Sigisoara doesn’t accept international packages for mailing except on Thursday. God forbid they should just take the damn package, charge me for it, and put it on the shelf for two days. So now I get to haul the small box of souvenirs all the way to Germany to mail. Either that or try to find the post office in Cluj Napoca when I get there tomorrow. Germany it is!

People in Sigisoara are friendly, helpful, and most speak English. Chatted with the bartender last night for a couple of hours. Adrian speaks decent English (I got to talk again!!!) (and be understood!!!) and told me a lot about Romania’s history. Gave me perfect directions for getting up to the Citadel, the original town ruled by Vlad Tepes aka Vlad the Impaler, on whom Stoker base the character Dracula.

Tourist shops and beggars abound. I usually ignore both.

Even Romanians agree that their trains are the pits. Another five-hour ride tomorrow, fearing to drink anything because the toilets are unusable.

The sun’s out and warm for the first time in over a week. Mist covered the morning;  a blurred waning moon shone through the skylight in my room. An Impressionist dawn.

A magazine chinise (No idea why it’s called a Chinese shop other than the people who run it are orientals) kept me occupied for twenty minutes, and I found packets of Kleenex and dental floss in among the bras, kitchen gadgets, shoes, electronics, toys, and makeup. It was like a miniature Wally World. The towns I’ve been in tend to have shops that specialize in just one thing: groceries, clothes, cosmetics, and so forth. Haven’t seen a department store since I left Paris. And no bookstores that sell books in English.

A ten-minute walk from the train station in the rain led me to the Doubletree, the first “luxury” lodging I’ve found on my travels, except my friend Livia’s house in St. Jean Cap Ferrat. Since the rain increased from sandpails to buckets, and since my feet and back were ready to call the International Society for Abused Bodies, I sprang for a 50-minute massage. Oooooh, yes!

Now my random stomach reminds me that I haven’t eaten for almost eight hours, and I know it’s five o’clock somewhere.

Police, Passports, and Panic

Robbie Burns had it right when he wrote about the best-laid plans. Oh, did he ever!

Yesterday I got up, had a leisurely breakfast at the Griff Hotel in Budapest because my train to Deva, Romania, didn’t leave until 9:10. Unfortunately, I thought it left from the same station I arrived at. Noooo. Got to the station with 20 minutes to spare but couldn’t find my train number on the board. Finally approached a station employee (they’re ubiquitous) and showed him my itinerary on the Rail Planner app on my phone, shrugged and raised my eyebrows, the universal sign for confusion.

“Metro,” he said, gesturing toward the down escalator. When I started to speak, he made shooing gestures. So down I went.

Found another employee who said, “Wrong station. Take metro to Budapest-Keleti,” and shooed me toward a metro train that was loading. Eight fifty-four and I’m assuring myself that I’ll make my train in time. Nooooooo. Missed it by three minutes.

Now my choices were to sit in the station for 11 hours, take the night train (with three changes) and arrive sometime before sunup–or to go to Plan B. Yeah. I’m so good at waiting. LOL.

Plan B involved a fold-out map bigger than Denver, squinting and wishing I had a magnifying glass, and deciding to go to Cluj Napoca, which BTW is spelled about five different ways, depending on the map, the station scroll, and whoever says it. Cluj Napoca it was. Found the platform, found a young woman who spoke English, and finally the right train pulled in. Found a compartment with 8 seats and settled in. Then a 40-something man joined me, a chatty type–as long as we chatted in German, the second language of many Balkan inhabitants (they must have thought Hitler would win WWII).  I’d forgotten I knew so many words auf Deutsch. My grammar wasn’t the best but he didn’t laugh or sneer, and when he left, he said, “Goodbye. Have a nice day.” Probably some of the few English phrases he knew.

So where, you’re asking, do the police and the other P’s come in? About mid-afternoon, we arrived at a village only a few miles from the Romanian border that starts with B, like a lot of Hungarian towns on this route, and since we had a 20-minute layover, I went to the station to use the toilet. Then I strolled up the narrow concrete median that ran between the rail lines, and when I turned around, two police officers had me cut off.

The one in the lead, barely old enough to shave, said, “Your passport, please.” He took it to his compatriot,who scanned it in a handheld device about twice the size of the scanners grocery people use for inventorying shelves. He handed it back. “Next time, stay on the train.”

Okey-dokey, then. And on we rolled.

Ten minutes later we stopped again. This time the Romanian border police were checking documents. I tell you, the border police over here are hot! (If I were forty years younger and forty pounds lighter, I would have tripped him and beaten him to the floor.) And they speak English. “Your passport,” he said (must have left his smile in his other jacket). He examined it for a long minute, then said, “Why have you come to Romania? Where are you going? How long are you going to be there?”

Oh, crap. “I’m on vacation. Cluj Napoca for one night. Sighisoara for two nights.”

“I’ll be back.” Even Schwartzenegger didn’t make my heart go into overtime the way this guy did when he said it.

Minutes ticked past. A lot of minutes. The heart kicked into high gear. What if they threw me out?  Put me in jail? Confiscated my passport??? What had I ever done to him? Forcing myself to stay seated and pretend to read didn’t help, but I knew that following to find out what the hell would be the exactly wrong thing to do. Finally I told my guardian angels, “You guys take care of it.”

And the cop came back and handed me my passport.  “Thank you.” My angels should get overtime pay.

The train rolled through vast flatlands, then up into the Carpathians, more rolling hills than mountains, then back to the flats, and up again. Finally we reached Clug Napoca just before dark, under a lowering sky threatening rain. The only hotel in sight was right across from the station,and I think the second star on the door was a sympathy star. By that point even a flophouse would look good. But her credit card machine was broken and I was without any local currency. Without cash I couldn’t hire a taxi to take me to a hotel, even if I’d known which one I wanted to go to. Note: Euros are not useful in Romania.

Going back to the station, I decided to pee. Only, it turns out, I had to pay for the privilege, a Romanian leu worth about 26 cents. Which I didn’t have. And without which I would have to embarrass us all. Two young men were just leaving. I said, “I don’t speak Romanian. I’m American.”

The taller man pulled out a wad of bills and handed one to the gatekeeper. “Is fine. Don’t worry.” They smiled, I bowed with hands in prayer position and was able to go on looking for a place to lay my head.

By this time it was full dark. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d slept in a train station but I sure didn’t need another close encounter of the policey type. The clerk at the hotel had pointed to a dark street and said, “There is rooms in private house down there,” but I wasn’t wild about walking into someone’s home and asking if they’d let me stay. But I was kinda out of options.

Dark street, rainy night, abandoned buildings. A real walk on the wild side. I resorted to the street to stay as far as I could from hollow concrete shells and looming dark doorways. A bright light a couple of blocks farther on promised at least a few minutes’ respite from the night.

OMG! The Pensiune Junior is elegance surrounded by atrophy. And for only $38 a night worth twice the price. Hot shower, clean duvet, and time to decompress. Heaven on a back street.

Today is Easter Sunday, and I feel like I’ve risen from the tomb of despair. I decided to stay another night (until the banks open and I can change some euros for lei (the plural form). Took a long walk and up hundreds of steps to a park that overlooks the city. What seemed to be so fearsome last night turned out to be only slightly scary today. Everywhere renovation and remodeling are going on, turning cracks and peeling paint into classical elegance. Middle-class neighborhoods thrive along those of lower income, and the city has a feeling of rejuvenation. It’s moving on, just as I’ll move on tomorrow.

And so the adventure continues.

Metros and buses and trains, oh, my!

Getting around in Europe is easy, once you figure out the system, and each country seems to have a bit different system than the one you were just in. In Paris the metro, aka subway/underground, took me everywhere I wanted to go, once I figured out that I had to buy tickets at machines, but I could choose English on most of them and buy either a trip ticket or a day pass. Day pass is good but sometimes a couple of one-way tickets are cheaper.

Buses work pretty much the same way. In Budapest, you buy a bus pass from a kiosk on the median where you wait for the trolley. I bought a 24-hour pass for about $6.00 and rode all over the city. Much cheaper than the hop on, hop off tour buses. The pass allowed me to ride either the tram or the regular bus, and when I got tired, I jumped on a bus and said, “I guess I’ll see where I end up!” Which turned out to be across the Danube from the Hungarian Parliament buildings, which could have passed for a castle, a royal residence, or a cathedral built a few centuries before a kind young woman took a picture of me with them in the background during one of the rare moments when the sun was shining. I definitely recommend day passes if you like to explore without timetables or a lot of blah blah blah.

Trains. I use them almost daily, thanks to my Eurail pass. A friend gave me one that allows me to travel for 30 days with no restrictions. Just pick a train, jump on, and fill in the departure city, the destination and the time. The conductor checks it and my passport, stamps the ticket and off I go. The only drawback is having to buy a supplementary ticket for a train that requires reservations, usually a high-speed train with few stops. Note: Romania has a way different standard of high-speed than other countries, but that’s another story.

The train stations, even the small ones, have scrolling electric signs that show your train number and which platform to board from. The farther east you go, the better the chances of ending up in a compartment with six to eight seats, considered first-class coaches in Hungary and Romania. Second-class riders are relegated to rows of seats. Sometimes I think the second-class carriages are more fun, but stretching out across three seats for a nap is a good thing, too.

Some trains are luxurious, with bar cars and food areas. Others are barely bearable. One in Croatia had toilets that were unflushable but that didn’t stop anyone from using them.  Except me. Bladders can be very strong when needed.

To little old rural me, who sees the California Zephyr shoot past twice a day, the luxury of mass transit is a gift. One I’ll always remember.