The art of being Californian, it seems, is to cultivate a loose-limbed insouciance while secretly working away like a frantic ant.

--Richard Fortey The Earth: An Intimate History

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Euroromance: Day 1: They Can Take My Luggage, But They Can Never Take My Freedom

As the day of my departure drew near, I started preparations for my extended time away from home and my son. I began finishing up my experiments, getting my son excited about his time at Nani’s house, and not packing.

As the days flew by, my work load decreased, my son grew more and more expectant, and I still didn’t pack.

Finally, I brought my research to a point where I could stop for three weeks and flew with my son to Reno to leave him with his Nani and Papi. After a couple of days in Reno with family, I returned, childless, to San Diego.

Work: done.
Child: done.

And still not packed for Europe.

You see, I suffer from an inability to pack and (later when I’ve returned from my trip) unpack in a timely manner. I don’t have a problem laying out potential clothing for the trip (in fact, I’d been sleeping in a corner of my bed for weeks because all of my potential clothing choices were neatly piled over the majority of said bed), but I do have a problem with committing to the final few. As one of my friends once nicely noted, I don’t like choosing things—I want both and all. I fear bringing too few items of clothing for my needs and bringing too many clothes all at the same time. I also fear forgetting the perfect thing I will want to wear (which sort of I did). So I wait to pack.

And wait.

And wait.

Until it is 9pm on the evening before I leave for Europe at 5am.

Then I just start throwing random articles of clothing into my bag. Tanks, pants, skirts, shoes, 25 pairs of underwear, 15 pairs of socks. Whatever can fit goes in. Until I’m left with a bulging bag that I have to sit on to get zipped shut.

Further comes the stress of choosing what to bring in my carry-on. Of course the essentials go in like toothbrush and deodorant, but what always stymies me is what books should I bring and of those lucky ones chosen, which ones should I a) put in checked luggage and b) put in my carry-on. The determination of the answer to this question is no small feat. I must assess hours before the fact, what book moods I could possibly be in for an extended (in this case 14-hour) travel period (the time I won’t have access to my checked luggage) and what book moods I might visit during my entire trip. Further, if the checked luggage gets lost (which has happened to me twice—once internationally and once domestically), I must ensure that the books chosen as carry-ons can get me through my reading needs until I can reach a bookstore and supplement my reading material.

All of this deliberation makes me think of the Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler. In that book, Macon Leary (the travel-writer protagonist) tells his readership that one only needs a single, solitary book for traveling purposes. That one must never overestimate the free time for reading one might have while traveling. But I argue that Macon misses the point of bringing books on a trip altogether. It’s not to amass a load of read books that you then have to drag around from place to place or release into the uncertain wild; it’s to have a delicious variety of material that you can either sip from at your leisure or gulp down in delightful eyefuls. The point of bringing books on a trip is not to finish them but to read. And to read often and variously.

With that mentality, I ended up packing 9 books, 4 magazines, and 5 poetry collections as well as miscellaneous science papers to read. Of those, 5 of the books, 2 magazines, and 3 poetry collections made it into my carry-on. Add this load to my computer, and you did not get a light bag.

Finally, in the early morning darkness, I frantically tossed in a few scarves and a rubber duck as toppers for the carry-on. The scarves for obvious reasons. The duck, well, I think the reason is obvious: he was to be my travel companion. My Amelie gnome, if you will. Plus he is a cool science duck that I got from a vendor at my lab. I thought his Einstein hair and white beaker would endear me to one and all for its intelligent quirkiness (Instead, he may have just made me laughable. But I couldn’t understand what they were saying, so who cares, right?)

Later, as I dragged my over-stuffed bags down the sidewalk to the terminal in San Diego, I wondered if I would regret my packing practices.

But soon, those thoughts left my head as I checked said big bag, moved through security with smaller (yet oddly heavier) bag, and went in vain search of my preflight beer (Why wouldn’t they be serving booze at 7am? It’s an airport. I know the Silver Fox and Waterfront are serving beers then.). Happily, Detroit’s airport bar was up and running, and I was able (along with my duck) to get a Yay!-I’m-Going-To-Europe brew and a few cheesy pictures.

My plan for this initial part of my trip was to wisely use one of the five days of travel allotted for on my Eurorail pass by traveling the shit out of it. I was to land in Amsterdam around 730am, go through all the travel logistics, head into the town for a few hours, then hop a train bound for Quedlinburg (a tiny German town roughly midway (and I do mean roughly) between Amsterdam and Prague). All told, about 30 hours of travel.

I’m not sure what possessed me.

Getting to Detroit was a breeze. As was getting on the plane to Amsterdam. There was a couple a little in front of me in line who quite obviously had been using and abusing the airport bar. They reeled and guffawed, dressed in brightly colored, variously textured, oddly retro, intentionally mismatched clothing like parrots that had somehow gotten lost on their migratory trip from Mexico and couldn’t figure out how the hell they got to such a cold miserable place like Motown. The woman had Raggedy Ann red hair while the man’s was Pauly Shore circa Encino Man. Both flitted from conversation to conversation with other passengers in line with intense good cheer. I hoped against hope that they would be seated near me on the giant Boeing 747 to provide me with people watching fun.

Be careful what you wish for . . . they were seated in the row directly in front of mine. And while the woman passed out before the plane even took off. The man still desperately fished his surroundings for someone to talk to. I was included in the catch until I put on my headphones and immersed myself in not one but two books (HA! Macon Leary! HA!).

Once in Amsterdam, I secured my bags in a locker at Centraal Station and headed into the town for a few hours of travel respite.

This time in Amsterdam marked the only time I actually ventured into the main tourist sections. And let me tell you, at 830 in the morning, the red light district leaves a lot to be desired. Besides the street cleaners and the smell of stale urine, I was pretty much alone. The sex workers must have been trying to catch up on some much-needed sleep. I did see what must be the resident insomniac, or maybe she was just burning the morning oil. Squat, overweight, in ill-fitting bra and panties, she puffed on a cigarette in the crisp morning air as if it were the one thing in life that could still pleasure her.

I eventually made it to Dam Square for a rest, espresso, Leffe, and more reading. Followed by a short walk through canal-split streets and a trip to a market for train picnic essentials (something that was going to be a trend in my travels by rail): beer, water, tomatoes, bread, basil, and goat cheese.

Sadly, the rest of this section of my trip was a hazy blur of fatigue. I pretty much hit a wall and was done. I couldn’t really sleep, and in my train inexperience, I had planned a route that required multiple transfers. With each successive move to a new train, my luggage seemed to gain 10lbs.

Fortunately, the Deutsch Bahn employees are incredibly helpful. They totally worked with my English and helped me figure out transfers and such.

The countryside was gorgeous. It reminded me a lot of the North East. Lots of green, skeleton trees, and (once I got into Germany—the Netherlands are flat flat flat) small, blue hills. And huge green fields with cows and deer and sheep and horses.

I got into Quedlinburg station after dark. Luckily, in such a small town, the station was clean and safe, and the place to find a taxi was right next to the single platform. I didn’t see much of the town on the very short ride to my hotel because of the darkness, but I did get to see some of the old walls that surround the city (Quedlinburg used to be an ancient, Roman walled city). My hotel used to be a private residence that was designed to look like a castle, so it had spires and rooms with high ceilings and huge windows.

Honestly, it was absolutely gorgeous, but I had only one thought in mind: the shower. I am the kind of person who has to shower every morning or I don’t feel right. In fact, I will shower before I work out and then shower again (it doesn’t matter if I’ve showered the night before, the sleeping negates the effect). I don’t camp unless I have access either to the campsite shower or a solar shower. I have stood under an ice-cold stream and lathered up because I can’t bear to face the day without clean hair and body. What can I say? I am hygienic.

So, 30+ hours without bathing is a little rough for me. But that shower. Oh that shower. Hot, amazing water. Sparkly, bubbly soap. It might have been the best thing that has happened to me ever. Ever.

And it might be one of my top 5 highlights from my trip.

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