Thursday, September 01, 2005

Looking Back

Now that it's over, I don't know where to begin.

If I just start in chronologically, I won't be able to give you the feeling of the whole experience. You may have gone on a tour yourself, seen this sight or that site, but it can't have been anything like this, unless you went with someone like Ken, and there is no one exactly like Ken.

The main thing about him is, he's good company. I mean, there's more than that to why I married him -- intelligence, honor, honesty, sense of duty, pride, commitment, besides (I hope I am not embarrassing him) great bone structure and an irresistible smile. But from before our first date, from the days spent learning the lab from him and hanging out on the patio, I was attracted to him because he's such good company. Friendly, funny, teasing, insightful, enthusiastic, a great listener.

I just spent a month with him in a place where no one else spoke English. In that month we shared nine-hour car rides (this was, in the end, a road trip) and tiny hotel rooms, and a tent. Of course, we did get on each other's nerves a little, once or twice, but looking back, those moments are sorta sweet, each of us nervous that the other was somehow disappointed...

That was in Switzerland, which was a disappointing place because we camped the whole time, outside of Lauterbrunnen, which turned out to be an annoying resort town, all over-priced sporting goods and luxury hotels, like ski towns in Colorado, with nothing to do but extreme sports and nowhere else to go (though we tried, contending with narrow mountain roads, construction, signs that made no sense. We were defeated, and then defensive.)

Still, our tent looked out along the floor of the spectacularly green valley to the Monk, the Jungfrau, and the EIger, snow capped and huge, hanging in the sky. Clouds snagged on them, and the moon sped over them, unnaturally fast, before they finished glowing from the sunset.

And we watched the sun rise over the valley wall, late, sending a bright shaft across to the opposite side, making rainbows on the Staubbach falls (a wispy trick of water, but so, so tall) and then slowly angling toward us. When it was finally day time on our side of the valley, the season changed. The bitter cold which had kept waking us up in the night (we ordered glasses of whiskey and water, no ice, in the campgrounds bar before going to sleep, just to warm us up) melted away. We went into town, to this little bakery where we got breakfast and coffee, and when we got back it was summer. We worked on our tans.

We went for a couple of runs, along the road, which is probably a lot older than the town, and along the river path, which must be. We saw cows, and people raking hay from steep fields, and trees and bridges and buildings that looked like they got there by accident, and felt better.

So that was one end of the spectrum. Amsterdam was the other end. A city so packed with people that they crowded the cars off the roads. They kept crowding me, on foot, into the path of the cable cars, which were also packed. You'd stop to avoid being hit by the hundreds of bicycles suddenly turning the corner in front of you, and be rear ended by halter-topped teenage girls, who would decline to notice you were there. You'd step over the wares of some street vendor only to put your foot down in a rotting banana peel blown from one of the overflowing trash cans. On our way to the hotel through all of this, laden with all our bags, we saw break dancers. Amsterdam was wild.

But we never ran out of things to do there. Medieval churches and the multimedia Heineken Experience. We kept having to take the Metra (Worst. Light Rail System. Ever.) out to the park-and-ride where we left the car (because I kept forgetting things) so we'd work our way across town to Central Station, then get off on the way back at Wterloo Plein, by the flea market.

That was one of our favorite attractions in Amsterdam, along with the Royal Palace (once a combination courthouse and capital building, decorated in a fearsome and awe-inspiring symbolic style) with a room especially for issuing death sentences, and one designed to evoke the sky. And the Holland Casino, where Ken turned twenty euro into fifty-three euro at the Black Jack table. We found a McDonalds to eat at, because there's a whole conversation in Pulp Fiction about McDonalds in Amsterdam. But not only did this one not have beer on the menu, it also didn't have large coffees (Ken spent the entire trip longing for a twenty ounce cup) or Diet Coke (only sickly-sweet Coca Cola Light, and I am not addicted enough to drink that). It did have the worst egg McMuffin sandwich Ken ever ate, though.

I pretty much insisted on being back in our hotel room by five every night. The crowds scared me even during the day. I can't imagine what it must be like when everyone gets off work. But neither of us is really a party person, so we retreated.

The hotel room was hilarious. It was a "small single." It had one bed, the size of a cot, and this bathroom, the size of a bathroom stall. The bathroom had a sliding door (no room for the swinging kind) with the inside handle broken off. It contained a sink, a leaky toilet, and a shower-head, but no separate shower as such. Everything got soaked, including the floor of the room outside. There was no ventilation, so everything stayed wet and smelled musty. We did try opening the window one night, and the next morning, found a half-dozen giant spiders on the ceiling and behind the furniture. It was a basement room, see, so the window was at ground level. There was one chair, and nothing on TV but snooker. We watched a whole tournament. And hung out together. Ken is good company. We had a great time in Amsterdam.

To tell the truth, we were just glad to be back indoors, even if the hotel room wasn't exactly the honeymoon suite. After Switzerland, you see, we'd had only one night of hotel in Germany, before embarking on four more days of camping. The hotel was in Koblenz, which we barely saw by daylight. That was the end of a long day of driving, so we showered and ate and rested before venturing out, after dark, to watch fireworks across the Rhine, above the castle.

We had to watch sitting down, from an out of the way spot, because the crowds were so thick and the air so smoky from everyone's cigarettes that I felt faint. But we could still see, and the fireworks were different from anything we'd seen before. A lot more spiral patterns and spheres insight spheres, interlocking rings. And the kind that burst, and then each point showers into a little shower of shimmers as it falls.

Before and after the fireworks we watched the people, everyone happy and friendly and incredibly '80s. Denim jackets and big hair. I think it's like that in every city in Germany.

The next day, we left Koblenz for Cochem, and set up our tent again. Cochem is a small, wine-growing town on the Moselle. Its biggest tourist attraction is its castle, a real medieval fortress built on a high mound above the river. We climbed up to it twice, and the second time, took a tour (secret doors, deep wells, and 5-liter wine jugs) had a meal, and watched the falcon show. A falcon landed on my head and then Ken's shoulder.

The other highlight of Cochem, for us, was the Rewe-Center superstore. We got some little pans of charcoal there, disposable grills, and Ken cooked up fresh bratwursts from the deli. We'd been wanting to do this back in Switzerland, but were shocked to find European campgrounds don't give you fire pits. Thanks to the superstore and the Einweg Grills, we ate better in Cochem than anywhere else on our trip -- even though they did make you pay for your plastic bags.

It rained or threatened rain the whole time we were there, so at one point I was holding an umbrella over the coals, and we had to pack up our tent while it was still wet (again. It's rained on us everywhere we've ever camped.) But in the intervals we covered a lot of ground, and went for a run along the river, which brought us into town and out the opposite side, back among the grape vines.

We managed to run in each place we visited, including twice in Amsterdam's Vondel Park, which I forgot to mention. It was big and lush and very clean, compared to the rest of the city.

In Paris it was just quick laps around the Georges Brassons park, but we got to see their vineyard, and their badminton players (people played badminton everywhere in Europe, in places where Americans would play frisbee) and a ridiculous aerobics class.

By the time we left, we felt pretty at home in the park, and home in the supermarket down the street, at home in our room, Paris was a really comfortable place, for us. We mastered the metro system; we learned the streets, and we saw all the sights. Eiffel tower, Arc de Triomphe, Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame, the Louvre, you name it. Oh, and the science museum, Palace of Discovery, or something like that. The exhibits were all labeled in French so we stuck to the physics and math rooms, where we kind of knew what the labels were supposed to say. Then we went to the planetarium show, also in French, and I nearly fell asleep.

We walked so much in Paris, from one side of my map to the other. But we were trying to notice street signs, traffic lights, which roads were one way, because a the end of our five days there we had to pick up the rental car, drive it to the hotel, and then get to a highway.

Driving in Paris is scary. The streets are the furthest thing from a grid. Many are one-way. Some are dead ends. And these motorcycles keep zooming up from behind you to cut you off when you least expect it. Once, toward the end of the trip, a half dozen of them came screaming down the white line between the lanes, just as Ken was being forced to merge. These people are suicidal.

Oh, I forgot to mention -- at our campground in Cochem, there were a bunch of "trikers." Guys with three-wheeled motorcycles towing tricked-out campers. One, black and chrome, said "The Addams TRIKE Family." I'm thinking they lived on the road full time.

But back to Paris. Ken did all of the driving, and I tried to navigate, hampered by the fact that the highway Multimap calls "E5" is known on road signs as "A6."

We had to get onto, and off of, the highway which rings Paris at least three times, to change direction, looking for a sign that didn't exist. It took us a lot of wrong turns, traffic circles, and dead ends to find our way back to it each time.

But Ken handled it, and all the highways that followed. The Swiss motor ways (forty euro toll, paid on entry) and the Amsterdam park-and-ride, and all the way across Belgium, with three stops at gas stations, to fill up on diesel (!) and look for souvenir shot glasses to prove we'd been there. We settled for a souvenir Belgian beer glass (Duvel.)

That highway, and the French tollways, and one more nightmare trip around the Perpherique ringing Paris and connection A3 to A6, brought us finally to our last stop, the Loire valley. I was pretty stressed out by then, and my maps didn't even show the town we were going to at all. Onzain. An empty white patch.

We found the campground anyway, though, in the middle of nowhere, threatening rain. We set up our tent and then the rain came, and came down all night, and drizzled on still when the roosters (there were three, at the campsite) started crowing around six. I knew roosters crowed at dawn, but I never knew they kept crowing all morning long. With no hope of falling back asleep, we knocked the giant snail off our tent ("They eat your kind here!") and waited two hours for the camp's store to open. We sipped overpriced vending machine coffee and wondered how everyone else could possibly sleep.

As soon as registration opened, we paid an outrageous ten euro for half an hour of internet access, and searched for a hotel in Blois, a city which had looked stunning as we passed through the night before. The deal we found seemed too good to be true, but we took a gamble, and paid in advance.

It was true, a studio apartment, which was ours for four days, complete with kitchenette, right by the train station, across from a an abandoned chocolate factory. (We did have some trouble parking, since there were doing construction on the street in front of it, and we had no cash for the meters at the train station, and had no idea where to find an ATM. Ken ended up dodging not one but two steamrollers, and then not moving the car again until we checked out.) We bough all our favorite microwavable foods at the local supermarket, including little fresh pizzas, and lived like normal people for the last few days.

Blois was as beautiful as it had looked from across the river, in a gentle, old-fashioned way. Hauntingly beautiful, otherworldly. Its medieval churches were still used as churches. No entrance fees, no other tourists, just the smell of incense from a funeral earlier in the day, and organ music, and relics (were those bone?) and stones that looked _old_.

Its chateau was more authentic than any other castle or palace we visited, mostly empty, no velvet ropes or electric light, but painted in dramatic Renaissance colors, gold and blue and burgundy, and paneled in wood. Of all the places we went, it was the only one in which you could imagine ghosts. We stayed two hours, and still didn't see everything. We lingered too long, I think, over the display of locks and keys and iron pots, spurs and fireplace pokers and all the metal minutiae of daily life in a distant time.

But we had tickets to a magic show at the Robert Houdin house, a 19th century museum of smoke and mirrors and clockwork, in honor of the man after whom Houdini named himself. The magic show was not in French: it was like a live cartoon, or a silent film, a farce set to very strange music. Two stage workers making each other's lunch disappear, and so on. It was great.

As we left the building, four gold dragons emerged growling musically from the windows. How can you possibly see something like that coming? Mechanical monsters, elegant automata. Really, they were So. Cool.

Blois was all steep, twisty medieval streets and mysterious stone walls, and half timbered houses, and parks, with old people playing Bocce Ball. It was a charmed city, and my favorite part of the trip.

(I wanted to get a birthday present for my sister there, but all of the clothing in the stores had nonsensical English slogans on them. "Same, Same -- but Different" or "Please Please, this shirt was manufactured especially for ME." Nothing in French. I gave up on getting her a shirt, but I did eventually find something else, which I can't reveal yet.)

On the last day, we stayed in bed until nearly three, trying to sleep, and then set off to see Chambord, the most visited chateau in the Loire valley. It was more spectacular than Blois's on the outside, but utterly without ghosts. They had filled it with modern art installations and taxidermy.

Then onto Charles de Gaulle airport, to spend the night. The beginning of a 50 hour, three airplane, five airport odyssey which taught me a lesson about non-refundable tickets.

We all but kissed the ground in Chicago. And then we went home.


Anonymous said...

Loved the story of the journey.

Simon W said...


Oh, for what it's worth, European "E" routes are simply labels stuck on to other roads. So the E5, as well as being the A6 around Paris, may well be the N4 (for instance) in other bits of France, and turn into something else at a border, etc., etc.

But you've probably figured that out by now :-) So now you can be smug in knowing that you've probably seen a lot more of (western) Europe than most Europeans. Certainly more than this one.