Wide Awake in Wonderland

We’re only dancing on this earth for a short while

Long may you run, ‘Let’s Go: Eastern Europe’ September 14, 2008

Okay, so this is weird. I was logging into my Yahoo mail, when I noticed a tab for “horoscopes.” I paused and thought, “Why not?” So I clicked on it and picked my sign (Libra), and got this: You’re doing a great job of not letting fear guide your life! Keep that focus.

Here’s what happened that makes that weird and more or less accurate: First, scroll down two blogs and take a gander at the book in my hands. That book was stolen – I shit you not, STOLEN – from me less than 48 hours later on the plane ride from Poland to Lithuania. The facts of the whodunit are pretty straightforward: I sat on the plane reading up on Vilnius and trying to figure out how to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ (which, BTW, please and thank you are pronounced “ach choo”! Like you’re sneezing! Easy breezy, baby.)

Anyway, I got up to use the restroom, grabbed my messenger bag/purse (thank god), and put my guidebook in my seat, spine splayed open to the page I was reading. I came back a few minutes later…and no guide book. At first I had the, “I’m losing my mind” moment, and went through my backpack, thinking I must’ve put it in there and forgotten about it.

Then I thought maybe it slid forward or backward on the plane – I once had the entire contents of a purse do this – and started wandering the aisles, peering under the seats. Then they indicated it was time to land, so I figured it slid somewhere REALLY crazy, but it’s a big book, so of course we’ll find  share a big laugh later about how the pilots used it like a booster seat or pulled a few pages out of the Estonia section to use as kindling at a later date.

Then the plane landed and everyone cleared off onto the bus. I lingered, checking the floors, and growing increasingly anxious…and realizing this may not be a story with a happy ending.  It got to the point that I had to get on the bus to the terminal – forcibly – so I suspiciously eyeballed the other passengers as we rode. Everyone seemed guilty, and yet no one had a giant guide book peeking out from the waist band of their slacks.

Long story short, I eventually found an English speaker and he had someone radio the plane and the bus…and no guide book.Around this time, I started to accept the concept of guidebook death. I’ll be honest. at first, I went into a state of shock (the damn thing is a bit of a Bible in this situation) and denial. I was like a jilted lover with no sense of reality. I just stood there waiting to be reunited with my beloved. Thus,my once it really was clear that no one would be coming up to me with book, shaking their head like, ‘You silly girl,” I  got a little scared.

For the first five or ten minutes, I hung around dumbfounded. Who the hell would steal my budget travel guide with two countries missing??? (I tear the pages out when I leave.). I wouldn’t dial into reality, and kind of wouldn’t leave the airport. I even looked in some of the trash cans. Even in ‘steal your low budget guidebook right out from under you while you’re innocently relieving your bladder’ countries, the natives are tough on dumpster divers. People looked at me like, “What the hell is wrong with you?”

Then I got the idea to grab a couple pamphlets from one of the rental car agencies, tear them into pieces, and throw one out while thoroughly examining the other contents of the bin. Let me say, not much happens in a Lithuanian airport trash can. And thank god for it. i wasn’t really in the mood to discover a fetus or some other devastating item.

Regardless, my guidebook – replete with maps and key info for nine outstanding countries – is no more. Perhaps I’m rationalizing, but I do still believe that nothing is an accident and things happen for a reason – and ostensibly the person who stole it from me needed it even more than I do.

Thus, onward and upward. I will figure out where the hell I am and where I’m going some other way. My great-great grandparents (Lithuanians) didn’t have guidebooks. It was good enough for them and it’s good enough for me.

Until then, godspeed, Let’s Go Eastern Europe with my neurotic Post-It note flags on the pages and comments in the margins. Godspeed.

 

Sleepless in Berlin September 10, 2008

Brandenburger Tor - the gates marking the opening to the east side of the Berlin Tiergarten where it's quite easy to get very, very lost.

Brandenburger Tor - the gates marking the opening to the east side of the Berlin Tiergarten where it is possible to get very, very lost very easily!

As foreshadowed last night, the snoring was bad. Baaaaaad. Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad.

We all woke up (the other six people in the room) around 2am, realized we were all awake, and tried to figure out what to do about the guy. I suggested someone go downstairs and get one of the cue sticks, and the guy in the bunk above me (FINALLY IN A LOW BUNK!!!!!) could poke him. Although the method was popular, the trip downstairs was not.

Thus, they resorted to verbal abuse. Threats were made, ‘Shut the f–k up!’, was screamed, and general slightly unintelligible yelling could be heard. This did NOTHING. He didn’t even stir. Despite that, I realized that I was happy to have other people to share the pain. See, I’ve dealt with a snoring man before…but it’s just me. I poke, an prod, and whine and sigh, but it doesn’t stop. I’m left to suffer the injustice alone.

This time, however, there were six other guys equally impacted. One of them was ready to kill, saying things like, “I’ve never hated an Aussie so much in my life.” (He’s Australian too, so I suppose this made it an extra extreme insult.) Then they threw water on the guy and woke him up and (get this), he tried to BLAME SOMEONE ELSE IN THE ROOM!?!?

And then he fell right back asleep and started right back up with the hog-like snoring within seconds. The other guys went nuts with rage, and at this point, the situation was so stupid that I started to get the giggles something awful. Somehow everyone else being so mad struck me as the funniest thing ever, so in addition to having this awful racket from the snoring Australian, they had to deal with my laughing fit.

The Berlin Tiergarten. Very 'Hansel and Gretel'.

The Berlin Tiergarten. Very Hansel and Gretel.

Needless to say, it was a long night and an early morning, and I’m a bit tired. On the up side, because I was up so early, I pulled out my running stuff and went for a run in the Tiergarten (Berlin’s Central Park). It was a beautiful morning, and I headed from my hostel in the Mitte district down to through Bradenburger Tor (the famous Berlin archway from the 1800s that was trapped in the “death zone” when the wall was up from the 60s to the late 80s). It marks the entrance to the park. I ran to the other end, and then decided to get cute and wind back through the paths. Bad move.

About 20 minutes later, I came up to the exact place I was headed back from! (The Siegessaule – a giant column celebrating Prussia’s victory over France in 1870). This is a typical move for me (getting wildly turned around on runs in strange places), so I have a four-point strategy for coping:

1. Create a mental picture of the map of the city I’m in. Note location of park versus place of origin (i.e. where personal belongings and drink of water are located).

2. Provided it’s not high noon, find the sun and determine east and west.

3. Figure out which direction to start running

4. Run until things look familiar and then breathe sigh of relief

Thus, I ended up going a lot further than I planned (maybe 7 miles?), but I’d rather do too much than none. My legs, however, may not agree. On the full days in cities I tend to walk between five and ten miles just getting lost on purpose and seeing what I run into, and today was no exception. Let’s just say, I’m whipped and the five-hour train ride to Poland tomorrow afternoon sounds good!

One of the few remnants of the Berlin Wall still left

One of the few remnants of the Berlin Wall still left A large portion of the original wall and death strip up on Bernauerstrasse

 

The coldest bath you’ll ever take September 3, 2008

You can load up on Catholic paraphenalia in Lourdes

You can load up on Catholic paraphernalia in Lourdes

As I mentioned, it was my plan to tell you about my experience at the baths (piscines) in Lourdes, but first I must take a second to lament about this man who won’t stop annoying me on the train. I took my (assigned) seat (I did get a reservation to Paris – not at the exact time that I wanted, but on the next one) and settled in. As we started moving, a man came up and said a bunch of stuff in rapid French and pointed at the seat next to me (by the window). Mind you, this train is EMPTY. There are maybe four people in this whole car of 40 seats.

So he sat there for a while, and of course he reeks of alcohol and his pits haven’t seen deodorant in years and tries to talk to me, and I can’t understand it. He sits there for a while, and then after maybe twenty minutes, he makes me get up again and moves across the aisle. Then he comes back. Then he leaves. Then back, then leaves. Now he’s back.

If I knew how, I’d ask to see his ticket and send him where he belongs (because somehow I doubt it’s next to me). Anyway, although this is my assigned seat, between the annoying disruption and the stench, I’m moving back a row. If someone shows up at some point, I’ll just move again.

Anyway, about Lourdes: They do the baths twice a day, at 9:30 in the morning and 2:00 in the afternoon. The baths are segregated into men, women, and those that cannot walk for whatever reason. Those individuals, obviously, do not have to wait, which makes sense. I had read to get there about 45 minutes early, but when I walked by at 1:00, the line was already so incredibly long, I decided to get in it. Good thing, because only another 35 or 40 women later, and they locked the gate.

At this point you’re either sitting on rows of wooden benches, or sitting on a stone wall just before the covered area with the benches (as I was) in rows of metal gates. It was strangely reminiscent of waiting to get on the Indiana Jones Adventure ride at Disneyland when it first came out (and before they invented that FastPass thing).

By my estimate there were 200 of us in line, and there were women who showed up around 1:30 p.m., and were so distressed that the queue was filled for the afternoon, that they started trying to scale the gates! I saw one woman say something angrily to her friends, and then throw her cane over the top with a look on her face like she didn’t care what happened, she was climbing the thing. It was kind of amusing to see that even in a place of devotion and worship, people’s true character still comes through!

Meanwhile, at this point the women are led in singing Ave Maria while we wait. Again, it’s a different version of what I normally think of as that song. This was a pretty simple hymn, and there seemed to be no end to the middle verses – like a Catholic ‘Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall’ – and sung by varying volunteers with a microphone. That part was like open mic night or karaoke. Sometimes the versus were sung by groups of women who were clearly part of a tour group, other times by these two women with French Polynesian accents who were rather painfully tone deaf. One I think must have been nervous, because her voice kept cracking the entire time. Lastly, there was a little elderly French nun who had a beautiful voice and she sang for quite a while.

Meanwhile, each and every time the women (and maybe the men on the other side of the piscines. I couldn’t hear them, but there weren’t nearly so many as there were females) were called upon to sing the refrain. What’s funny is that there was a man in a suit (a volunteer) conducting us like he was leading a philharmonic orchestra and instructing us to smile. He was also calling out those who weren’t singing or who were making a sour face. It was quite cute – he took his role very seriously, and was tireless in his duties!

The cathedral at Lourdes

The cathedral at Lourdes

At that point, you wait. And wait. And wait. And then the baths begin and you slowly shuffle forward, scaling half along bench every four or five minutes. Eventually you are moved inside, and then called into an individual room. In there, they try to determine what language you understand (everyone kept thinking I was German for some reason?). There are about four other women either waiting or just having finished the bath, and a volunteer assigned to each of us.

From there, they hold up a blue piece of material – kind of like a top you’d get at the doctor, but without any arm holes – and you are to strip down naked (with your bra in your right hand, an element of the process that really threw me). Then you hold the blue shirt (which is already pretty wet and very cold) around yourself until it’s your turn.

When it is, three other women bring you into a room which has a deep white marble bath. They take the blue top away and wrap you in a FREEZING COLD AND WET white sheet. At this point, apparently, you are to say a prayer and cross yourself when you are done. However, a trifecta of events – I had stupidly worn my glasses and they were now back in the other room, so I was a little bit worried I’d slip and crack my head open, the strangeness of having my bra in my hand (was my bra somehow holy or ???), and the fact that I was given these instructions in really broken English – made it such that I didn’t really understand that. So we all stood there for a while and they asked, “Fini?” and I realized then what she meant and quickly made the sign of the cross.

Someone took my bra from me, and they led me down two steps into the pool. At the end is a statue of Mary to whom I said, “hi”. Then you sit down and the three of them lay you back into the icy water. As they lift you and lead you out, there is a quick prayer uttered to Mary and Saint Bernadette, and they take the sheet off you and two of them put your bra on (at last the whole thing with the bra makes some sense! And I’m glad I didn’t have on a sports bra or a bra that clasped in front or some other complication).

You’re led back to the other room – I made an immediate grab for my glasses – and then, and this was very unusual, but sweet, the women dress you. I had worn leggings, so I did that part myself (they were a little tricky to get on, as you’re not toweled off and still a bit wet), but otherwise, they put on all my clothes. I had on a shirt with a lot of little buttons, and a woman very tenderly buttoned them all closed, and then did the same with the buttons of my vest. Then they put on your shoes and give you a hug and send you away.

I had read a priests’ recollection that the process is an act of trust and faith like a child. You’re naked and vulnerable and you have to trust other people to lower you into the water and lift you back out. He didn’t mention the dressing part (maybe they don’t do that on the guys’ side?), but he did think the sheet was a form of penance. I think the sheet is probably to protect some modicum of modesty, and maybe get you a little bit ready for the cold bath.

As for me, what I experienced was less like vulnerability and more like being cared for and treasured like a child. It was incredibly sweet and kind of amazing that they do this for hundreds of people each day. Even if the water isn’t miraculous, something about that act of human generosity is.

I walked around the grounds a little bit, and realized that I felt dry. I had read that the water dries off miraculously, and although there was still a little wet spot on my leggings, otherwise I did seem to be completely dry.

I’m still not 100% sure to make of it all, but in the end, I’m glad for the experience. Lourdes is not an easy place to get to (perhaps a bit easier from Paris, however?), but if you ever found yourself in the neighborhood, I would highly recommend it…if for nothing but the spectacle. On my way back to town I came across a man in a suit looking at the dozens and dozens of shops selling Mary statues and rosaries and other paraphernalia, and he made a face at me like, “This is the most insane thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
And I have to agree: inane, and excessive, and vibrant, and pious, and ultimately quite touching.

 

The conclusion to this week’s episode of the Amazing Race… September 2, 2008

The view of the Sacre Coeur from my room in Paris

The view of the Sacre Coeur from my room in Paris

I made it. By the skin of my teeth, but I made it. Not to beleaguer the tale, but I waited on the platform for the next train to Narbonne. When it arrived, intense adrenaline kicked in as I tried to find the controller. There was no one who seemed to be an employee, except the driver hanging out of the front of the train. I ran to him and tried to see if he could help me. He didn’t speak a word of English, so I just kept repeating the word ‘controller” until he replied about a ‘chapeau’ (a word I actually understood), so i ran the other way, looking for someone wearing a hat. I ran to the complete other end of the train, but there was no one, and suddenly I heard the creepy warning noise (the French train stations employee this spooky tune before announcements that trains are arriving or departing), and – knowing the train would pull away within seconds – I jumped on anyway. I figured at this point, I’d pay the fine for not having a reservation if it came down to it.

I wandered through the cars and eventually found a woman with an SNCF pin on. She, too, didn’t speak English, so I just thrust my Eurail pass at her and tried to communicate that I couldn’t make a seat reservation. She seemed relatively non-plussed, pulled out a hand held device of some kind, told me ten euro, and printed a receipt. I don’t know if that was a fine or the cost of a reservation, but either way, it got me to Narbonne. From there, it now being fairly late at night (20:30), I got on the nearly empty train to Bayonne (which stops in Lourdes) and to the hotel as they were locking the doors.

So now that I’m here, let me tell you that Lourdes is a fascinating mix of contrasts. In many ways, it’s a complete and total commercialization of faith. Amid neon the likes of Vegas, you can buy statues of the Virgin Mary in every fathomable shape, size, and race. At the same time, there are at least fifty different styles of container for your Lourdes water (I went with a rinsed out Coke bottle) from tiny glass vials to three-gallon jugs. I’m guessing the people who buy the jugs drove here. Anyway, it’s like Catholic Disney World with all the glitz and flash and retail.

But at the same time, once you enter the actual grounds, it is a relatively solemn experience. There’s an incredible church, strangely reminiscent of Cinderella’s castle, and then the taps for the water (which is potable), the Grotto where Bernadette saw her vision, and the baths. I did do the baths as planned, and I will tell you about that tomorrow on the train to Paris.

However, for now, let me jut say that one of the things I found truly amazing was the processional. At 21:00 every night, anywhere from three to six thousand people gather in the square below the church with candles, and from there a slow procession winds through the grounds. The sight of the that many people gathered with candles as far as the eye can see is strangely like a rock concert, although the only singing is that of Ave Maria, sung by the whole crowd. I shot a video of a minute of it, although I don’t know that anything can accurately capture the awe inspiring event that it is.

It’s also a nice relief to smell candles burning rather than cigarettes. In America, where smoking is super uncool, I’m really not subjected to it very much. In Europe, it’s everywhere. Everyone smokes, except maybe the occasional toddler – the nuns, the priests, the young, the old, you name it. Like I said, I think this could be why I honestly do look younger (less wrinkled, anyway) than some of the early twenty-somethings I’ve met.

Anyway, cigarette smokes gives me a killer headache and pretty much nukes my appetite if I can smell it while I’m eating. So sorry to all of you that have to stand fifteen or twenty or twenty-five feet away from any public building to enjoy your Camels, but one thing I cannot wait for when I get home, is the intolerance of smoking!!!!

Otherwise, Lourdes has made me think about my paternal grandmother and her sisters (all deceased) quite a bit. My grandmother, Mary, died on New Year’s Eve 1991, during my first year of college. She was an extremely devout Catholic and very important to me, and I think about her – and occasionally buy and light a candle for her – when I am in the churches of Ireland, Portugal, and Spain. Although born in 1911, my grandmother never flew in a plane. She had stories about sneaking onto the back of the horse-drawn milk truck as a girl in Pennsylvania, and truly seemed to come from another time and place.

Thus, it goes without saying that she never made it here. With respect to Lourdes, I think she would have scoffed at all the neon and people imbibing on the streets at 10pm, but I also think she would have delighted in it as well. She did love BINGO and any opportunity to socialize, and this would have probably been a good crowd. If there’s any justice in the world, there was a wild game of BINGO going on somewhere in Lourdes last night…

Meanwhile, I’m going to wrap this up and try to find somewhere to post it before heading to the train station, but I just wanted to add: To all you that have made comments to which I haven’t yet had time to reply, I WILL! I greatly appreciate the feedback (knowing people are out there reading this makes the daily effort to write these and then the even more challenging task of finding a way to post it worthwhile), and it’s simply a matter of having to use computers in fifteen minute junctures and with foreign keyboards that slows me way down. I can usually accomplish very, very little in thirty minutes!!! Anyway, until then, thank you for finding this by accident and enjoying it, and Cheryl, I agree on “I Will Always Love You.” You can’t go wrong with Dolly Parton.

Cheers!

 

Pilgrim’s (exceptionally slow) progress September 1, 2008

Street scene in Lourdes - just another Tuesday night

Street scene in Lourdes - just another Tuesday night

I am in the midst of a really bad day.

Turns out my trusty and wildly expensive Eurail pass is not all it’s made out to be. Not by a mile. Even though your fare is covered, as it happens, there are a number of long distance trains where a seat reservation is mandatory. That I knew. There are also three countries whose need for payola is so strong, that they require a reservation on ALL trains – usually from anywhere from 10 euro to 25 euro ($16-$40) a pop. That I recently learned. The jerk countries by the way, are Spain, France, and Italy.

Here comes the kick in the crotch: You cannot make said reservation until you get to the country in question. This involves in waiting in hour-long to multi-hour lines. Then it may happen that you get to the front of the line and you learn the following: You want to go from Barcelona to Lourdes – a six-hour journey under perfect circumstances. You can buy your reservation from Barcelona, Spain to Narbonne, France, but you cannot make your continuing reservations to Toulouse and then Lourdes until you get to France. in other words, you don’t know what you’ll find until you’re in the middle of the trek.

Okay, no problem you think. Upon getting to France, you go and get in a (long and pretty much non-moving line). You write down the reservation you need today, and the other two you will need in the upcoming days in this same country (to get to Paris and then to get to Bern, Switzerland). You get to the front of the line and learn that there are open seats on the train, BUT ONLY A SET NUMBER OF RESERVATIONS ALLOWED FOR EURAIL PASSES. Worse, ALL THREE trains that you need (over the next five days) ARE ‘SOLD OUT’ with respect to Eurail reservations. (You can buy tickets, for about $450 Euro all together, but you already spent a small fortune on the Eurail pass…)

This is when you realize: You have been screwed. You have paid almost $2000 for an open-ended train ticket that is the equivalent of a really, really bad frequent flyer program. The remedy? None.

Either buy a ticket or “ask the conductor for permission to get on without a reservation.” I’ll be frank, and say I’m not even sure what that means. Ask for permission? See if he’s in a good mood? Bring her a bag of candies? Sneak them some cash? Beg? Cry? It’s not like I’m trying to ride for free or anything…

Add to the injustice the treatment by the railway clerk: When I asked if he would please process my other reservations, he looked at me, sneered, and said, “There are people in line trying to BUY tickets.” Oh, if only I were fluent in French and could take his head off – verbally. I would have liked to say something to the effect of, “Dude, this is a Eurail pass. It is expensive. It’s probably not even a good deal. I’m fairly confident you’re making more money on me than you are on them. It’s not like I’m trying to pay for tickets with box tops or soup labels here. Your employer has invented this insane, greedy process…PLEASE HELP ME WITH IT.”

Actually, what I did say was (in the world’s worst French. Although I’m actually amazed at how much I’ve pulled from the cobwebbed recesses of my mind), “I understand. Please help me.” (I would have liked to add ‘anyway’ to the end of that sentence. And maybe something about how i, too, had waited in the really, really long line for my turn…buI don’t know those words, so whatever). In the end, and as I mentioned above, he declared that there were no reservation to be had. He seemed pretty put out, and maybe he didn’t really look. Who knows?

Those are problems that will be faced tomorrow.

Today, I just need to get to Lourdes. I am stressed, but I am trying to control my thoughts and maintain a positive attitude. I honestly feel as though my faith is being tested – a big toe in the waters of the laws of attraction – and I’m trying to rise to the challenge.

On the other side of the train station, I can hear a gaggle of Australian girls who were also trying to get to Toulouse (and have Eurail passes) discuss the situation. There are about seven of them. On the down side, that may make this ‘ask for permission’ thing harder? I figure the one thing I have going for me is that I’m traveling alone. They’re not ‘making an exception’ or however this is crapola is viewed – for a small village, just one small woman and her big bag. One small, bawling, inconsolable woman if that’s what it takes. Thanks to not remotely enough sleep last night and a lack of reserves for this unexpected mess, I am teetering on the edge of tears as it is.

Anyway, I can hear the girls discussing all the other cities they might go to from here while trying to figure out where they are on a map (Avignon, Nice, Bayonne). It sounds like they’ve abandoned all hope on Toulouse, and I’m not sure how to incorporate that into my thought process. Actually, I can’t incorporate that in. I am not a group of six girls who can rent a hotel room and share it or camp together or wing it in relative safety. I am a solo female traveler with with a reservation (the first night of which I will pay for regardless) in Lourdes. I have to persist and think positive and figure out how to see myself to a happy ending.

Plus, as odd as it may sound, I really want to go. Everything I’ve read – mostly the diaries and recounting of nuns and priests and occasional pilgrim (as are called the roughly six million individuals who make their way there annually)– are inspiring. I’m really not a religious person. Not at all. I was raised Catholic until the fourth grade, when my mother married a Southern Baptist and i was suddenly exposed (despite four years of Catholic school) as knowing absolutely nothing about the Bible and a veritable heathen. Let’s just that at the tender age of nine I learned that not all Christians place emphasis in the same stuff. In short, the conversion didn’t go well for me, and I never really came back around to any organized religion.

Anyway, my point here is that although I regard myself as a spiritual person, it’s kind of a weird fusion of stuff, and I’m not a practicing anything. So I admit that it’s odd I feel so compelled to go to Lourdes. But I do. Maybe it’s the idea of miracles. Maybe it’s the child in me that really, realy believed (and still wants to believe?) everything the nuns told me: That they were wearing a piece of the cross around their neck, and god hears you prayers AND cares, and perhaps there are a few places sacred and magical enough in the world, that if you struggle mightily to get to them and you really truly want to believe, that something transcendent might happen for you? And you’d be changed, irrevocably, for the better? I like that idea. It makes me feel a little teary-eyed.

So it is for that reason that I am pushing forward against the seemingly impossible. It will take me four trains and thirteen hours – if I pull this off at all – but I’m not going down without a fight. With any luck – or perhaps with a little grace from Saint Bernadette or the Virgin Mary herself – the update on my predicament will come to you from my little hotel room on Rue de la Grotte in Lourdes.

I hear it’s got neon galore. What a wonderful world…

 

I’m beginning to see the light August 27, 2008

In front of some graffiti in Lisbon, Portugal

In front of some graffiti in Lisbon, Portugal

I’ve been feeling a little bit shagged, having spent last night on the night train from Lisbon to Madrid. After a brief snooze on the early morning flight from Dublin, I realized that saving a few euro was NOT worth the lost sleep and neck pain, so I went ahead and booked a couchette (one small step above a regular seat, but at least you get to lay down). Sadly, I was in the top bunk. (Seriously, how do I put an end to that!?!?)

Even more sadly, I did not get to pick my roommates. It was me and three girls who texted and made phone calls at full ‘middle of the day’ volume (I would have paid good money to learn the Portuguese word for whisper) – and received them in turn – all night long. What a tragedy that Portugal can’t produce a phone with a ‘vibrate’ or ‘silent’ mode. Or that its youth is too rude to use them or know how to SHUT THE F**K UP AT 3AM.

Either way, combine that with the rocking and rolling circa 1960 train (with the fluorescent light that would flicker half on with the worst of the turns and bumps like some kind of deranged northern light), and I had one of those sleeps where you would look at your watch and it would be 1am, and 2:30a.m. and 4:00 a.m., and you’re amazed that it’s that late and perhaps you’ve slept at all.

So it followed that around 2am, something (so many options to choose from) woke me, and I realized I had to pee like a race horse. I lay there and shifted in my tiny horrible bed and tried to find a position where I could forget about it or fall back asleep…but it just wasn’t happening. So I had to give up and leave the room and use the horrific train toilet. Is that just dumping out onto the track or ???

Anyway, the whole thing – and so much of my travel – is completely size discriminatory. Normally, I am something of a small person. However, on this trip – because of the backpack – I am not. And it makes me super aware of how the world is not very friendly in that regard. Today I could barely fit into the lift with my backpack on, let alone through the Madrid subway turnstiles. In the same vein, as I was wandering back to the couchette in a completely bleary-eyed stupor, a very large man was heading down the hallway toward me. I already know that

  1. The odds that he speaks English are next to nothing

  2. There is no freaking way we are both fitting down this hall

  3. I don’t even know that he can fit down this hall

At the sight of his approach, I started backing up. He kept coming toward me and sending me way out of the way, and eventually I had to try to pantomime that my room was just up the hall. He seemed to understand and backed up so that I could get to it (this is a lot like the dance in the aisle on the airplane if you ever get in the way of the beverage cart). So I get there, gone just a minute or two, and with the intent to quietly climb back up into my top bunk like the Spider Monkey I have become and no one the wiser, when…what do you know but…MY ROOMMATES HAVE LOCKED ME OUT.

I keep twisting and turning the knob and looking up at the number two on the door. “Are you f-ing KIDDING me!?” I think to myself, as I size up the situation. Just then, not wanting to miss an opportunity, my rotund hallmate charges down the hall, plasters himself up against me (now banging on the door), and starts trying to grope me. I heard the bolt click just as he was moving into areas that would get him knocked out cold. Douchebag.

Needless to say, I’m feeling a little tired and pissed off today.

On a totally unrelated topic, I‘ve been running into a lot of quotes lately that strike me, and I usually stop where I am – even if that involves an awkward moment to relocate the oversized bag on my back and dig out some paper and a pen – and write them down. The other day I was reading something in an old collection of articles that referenced Episcopal Priest Barbara Brown Taylor. She wrote: “To paraphrase a parable of Brother Kierkegaard’s, if you put a bunch of people in a lobby and give them two doors to choose between – one that says ‘transformation’ and another that says ‘lecture on transformation’, most of them are going to line up for the lecture.”

A year ago, I might have done the same. However, here I am, most definitely through the door of transformation. At least I hope so.

You see, when this idea occurred to me – to recreate the trip I took when I was 19 years old – it felt urgent, even involuntary. It seemed like something I had to do, that there were lessons I needed to learn and things I needed to give up and struggles I needed to have in order to push myself past my boundaries and grow into who I am meant to be. But in the back of my mind I remembered how hard this was the first time and knew it wouldn’t be easy.

So not to bitch and moan – because I know this is something I elected to do, and although it’s a trip conducted very much on the cheap and at times it feels a little torturous, it’s still a luxury.- but some days this sh!t is just plain old hard, and it about makes you want to cry.

It is incredibly humbling to haul your every possession on your back and be alone and adrift – an alien unable to communicate with anyone around you. Portions of the Madrid metro are closed right now, which rendered my trip to the opposite side of town (where my squalid concrete block room is located) grueling. It was as hard as I’ve been pushed thus far.

I am starting to think some of what I need to learn is about humility and patience. And being real. And being kind to myself in the moment, even when the moment totally sucks. These are hard lessons in their own stupid way. It’s much, much easier to check out or blame other people or attend the lecture instead of the full-immersion course.

However, despite it all, I can see the little blessings. Like how people are kind and they try to help. As I was wandering aimlessly trying to find the Madrid Metro station earlier today, I stopped a man for help. Once we confirmed that he didn’t speak a word of English (no one here seems to, oddly), and I didn’t know much Spanish, he began an intricate pantomime to explain to me how to get to the Metro. It involved Putting his thumb to his lips and waving the remaining fingers in front of his face while dancing around and making a strange sound. I don’t know how, but eventually I realized this was to symbolize the train station. Then, he went into a violent shoving motion to his left, and it became clear that I must go through the train station and to the left. Voila, a half a kilometer later and there it was. I had to laugh.

A friend asked me what the best part has been, and the best parts are – for me, anyway – the simple little moments where the world seems so small and so beautiful: Running along a lonely road in England or watching birds dive into the ocean in Iceland. Yesterday, for example, I was walking to the train station in Portugal, and the last street vendors were packing up for the night. It was dark out and everyone was long gone from the avenues. The street lights provided the only life. A s a man was packing up his paintings he noticed me trudging past. “Come or go?” he asked, as I had my bag on my back. “Go,” I said to him, “Boa noite.”

“Bye bye, Girl!” he called after me with a wave, “Have a nice day!”

Across the plaza another man was playing a radio, and an old American song from the 1940s – “I’m beginning to see the light” – was drifting across the uneven cobblestone, and everything seemed strangely warm and embracing and perfect for a split second. And that’s what’s keeps me going.

 

Slipping into the Twilight Zone August 26, 2008

Cascais, Portugal

Cascais, Portugal

It’s been a long couple days, but in a good way. I went to the beach (Cascais), and got back later than anticipated. Then I took a shower and got roped into a lengthy conversation while drying my hair (it is such a weird experience to be doing things like that – blow drying your hair – in public). As it was my last night in Lisbon, I was begged, pleaded with, and cajoled until I gave in and went out with some of the fellow hostelers. Going out seems to entail not even leaving until about 11pm.

The cutest guy on the beach in Cascais

The cutest guy on the beach in Cascais

Regardless, two particularly friendly North African guys (just finishing up architecture master’s degrees in France) were staying in the same room, and after hearing ‘last night in Lisbon’ forty-five times, I finally gave in. In my opinion, every other night is my last night somewhere, but there’s something to be said for going with the flow.

That stated, I can accurately report to you that bars in Lisbon Portugal are every bit as boring as the ones in the United States – particularly if you have a headache from all the cigarette smoke and no desire to get drunk in a complicated city full of unfriendly and steep cobblestone streets. Despite being a wildly international group (1 Australian, 1 Algerian, 1 Moroccan, 2 Swedes, 1 Korean, 1 Tunisian, 1 Romanian, and me, the American), conversations seem to center around tales of previous episodes of extreme drinking, including a harrowing story from a Swedish guy about some kind of 99% alcohol intended for medical use. He seemed to find it a funny memory, but it struck me as more of a brush with death warning that should be used in a ‘Scared Straight’ film. Not that I’m any abolitionist, but It is a little alarming to me how much alcohol seems to be a focus of everyone’s life, and this seems to extend across all borders. Almost every person I’ve met in a hostel has mentioned that their travel budget is roughly 50% for alcohol. Good thing I didn’t have to factor that in, or I’d be headed home in the next couple weeks.

Me with all of Lisbon at my feet

Me with all of Lisbon at my feet

Meanwhile, to any of you out there with young children, in addition to keeping an eye out for any growing fascination with booze, please consider raising them bi-lingual, even if it’s a Neanderthal language of grunts and groans that you make up yourself. In fact, all the better. If you and your family are fluent in Cavemanch, then you, too, can go out in public and talk about people who are standing right there because they won’t understand you. That’s right all you fluent Chinese, Arabic, Polish, Russian, etc. etc. speakers. The Aussies and I are onto you. When you look at us and talk at a feverish low tone and then erupt into laughter, we know something is going on and we may be the punchline.

Moreover, it truly is kind of embarrassing to only speak English fluently. Last night someone said something to the effect of English being ‘the international language’ and so ‘everyone has to learn it.’ All I could think was, “THANK GOD,” because it’s hard enough having to start every single solitary conversation with “English?” or “Do you speak English?” Particularly being in a country where the only word you know is ‘thank you’. By the way, it’s obrogado/a, and I say it with flourish every chance I get!

In the same vein, last night I got roped into conjuring up my high school French. Needless to say, I provided quite a few guffaws at my own expense. Especially because all I could remember were weird textbook sentences like “the pencil is on the table” and “they are friends.” Also, because high school was a really long time ago. Really long. But no one believes me on that one.

I suspect it’s due to the hard partying life most of the youth of the world seem to be living and that I somehow never partook in along the way. If all you do from the time you’re 15 or 16 is smoke, drink and stay up all night, I’m thinking the key to my eternal youth lies in my general abstinence (minus the alcohol under different circumstances. Here – partially because of budget, but mostly because I’m on my own – I’m crazy conservative) from all three.

Other people may have their multilingual flag to wave. They may be able to carry on conversations in four or five languages on as many continents…but I look damn young. I can infiltrate your youthful scene and you are none the wiser. In fact, you start looking out for me in my apparent youth. This is my super power. Forget out running locomotives and leaping tall buildings in a single bound? Who needs all that, when you could re-enroll in high school?

Seriously though, it’s absolutely bizarre to me. Last night someone suggested that I was 25 and another man said, “No! I would have thought…”

I readied myself, “Here it comes…busted!”

Until he followed it up with, “I would have thought younger than that. More like 21.” Wha…????

On the other hand, the few times I have stated my true age, no one believes me. I honestly think I’d have an easier time telling people I’m a vampire, I never age, and I’m 412 years old. It would not surprise me if that were accepted as fact more readily than the truth of my advancing years. Don’t get me wrong, I’m flattered for sure – just a little baffled.

The red tile roofs of Lisbon

The red tile roofs of Lisbon

Meanwhile, Lisbon is a really interesting city of contrasts. It’s got a lot of old architecture and charm, and then two blocks away looks like a bomb just went off. The weather has been superb, and it’s a mere 25 minute train ride from the beach…and the world’s coldest ocean. Seriously, it was FREEZING. It wasn’t the coldest ever, I think the ocean off Washington state in the spring is about the same, but considering how warm it is, and it’s August, I was totally shocked. Anyway, minus having very little (no) grasp on the language, I like it here just fine. In fact, in a mere two days I’ve become an expert at getting around on the subways and throughout the Alfama (as long as you’re not in a rush, it’s easy to get out of there, just head downhill). The Alfama is the old “Moorish district” which has these insane and super-steep switchback streets. Apparently they were built that way in case anyone attacked the city: The soldiers would get lost in the street and were easy to fight back from the castle at the top.

In the Alfama district

In the Alfama district

At the moment, I’m sitting here in the hostel kitchen, and someone just handed me a shrimp with the head and arms and legs and wings and horns and beak still attached. Ick. I love shrimp, but if I had to look at them like this all the time, I’m pretty sure I’d eat them a lot less frequently! I ended up munching down a pretty good portion of shell, but I’m pretty sure it added to the flavor (it really was damn flavorful) and I probably got some extra calcium out of it or something.

Lastly, I’m going to make a real effort to get a bunch of pictures up on Flickr in the next few days. Space is allotted by month, so i intend to use everything I’ve got before August ends. Meanwhile, I can’t seem to figure out how to get the link to work from WordPress. They say to paste in the RSS feed from Flickr…but (obviously, if you look to the lower left) it isn’t working. My Flickr account shares the same name as this blog, and if anyone can figure out the exact url I should plug in to get the link going please send me an e-mail or post a comment. Otherwise, boa noite, and tomorrow it will be be buenos dias from Madrid!

 

Forget Coke. I’d like to buy the world some Right Guard. August 24, 2008

Dear World,

Pee-U. You look like a monkey, and you smell like one too. Actually, you smell like a whole cage full of them. In a cage that hasn’t been cleaned in a week. Or a month. Or ever. And has doubled as your bathroom.

Meanwhile fair readers, I have made it to Lisbon! Yay Lisbon! It’s warm, it’s sunny, it’s old world-ish, and if such things are of interest to you, the wine flows cheaply. So cheaply, in fact, you wonder if maybe it’s got some antifreeze in it or something. On par, a bottle of the local vintage averages .75 to 1.99 euro ($1.25 to $.3.00 USD since our dollar is doing so badly. Which, by the way, all the jerk Canadians keep feeling the need to point out. All the time. As if I don’t know. But seriously, if this isn’t enough to turn your blood cold, the two dollars are trading almost equally. They must be pissed about the fact that all their books and magazines are marked up a good 35% over ours.)

Adding to the universal stink with a giant thing of Irish onion rings

Adding to the universal stink with a giant thing of Irish onion rings

Also, it’s not that I’m saying all Canadians are jerks. Just those that feel the need to remind me that our economy is in the dumpster and taking my hard earned dollars down with it. Speaking of Canadians, I have a young French Canadian somewhat stalking me. I think he means well. Or he’s just lonely. Or both. But he’s wearing me out. There is nowhere I can hide where the young fellow doesn’t appear.

So I’m off to duck into my upper bunk (QUICK SEGUE: Doesn’t the law of averages indicate that, on average, I would be in the upper bunk half the time and the lower bunk the other half? How the hell is it that I have had the upper bunk EVERY SINGLE GODDAMNED time??? Like seven or eight or even more times now. I’ve lost count. Seriously, what are the odds on this? Could I somehow lock in the same mojo for some kind of gambling venture? At least make this unbroken streak work in my favor financially? Anyone out there care to take odds?)

All that aside, it’s good to be back in some summer weather. And get away from that Irish temper (I’m kidding a little – although there were some fists flying on the Luas [Dublin's light rail] yesterday. I was wearing my full backpack ensemble and pointed it toward the fracas like a tortoise might his shell).

In closing, tomorrow I am off to the beaches about a half-hour from Lisbon by train. I’m going by myself, even if it means I have to go out a window. If I can stay off the practically free wine long enough to write up a semi-sober update, I will do so. And maybe even post some pictures. (Just kidding on the solo binge drinking. Users are losers, kids. And drinking by yourself is not only a troubling sign of a problem, it’s not that fun.)

 

Teenage rebellion is not what it used to be August 23, 2008

Ok, so what the hell is this all about? I’m on the 8:05 a.m. bus from Schull to Cork. We’ve been on it about five minutes, and across the aisle from me is an Irish couple in their late teens who are BLARING the music player on their cell phone as loud as they can while making out. It’s obnoxious and I can hear people around me complaining. When they came up for air, I asked if they could turn it down a little, and he acted like he might pull a knife on me. He want on some incomprehensible rant that I’m pretty sure contained some bad words.

But here’s the kicker: The music is complete and total CRAP. How can you call yourself an Irish bad ass when you’re willing to kill someone to defend your right to annoy the whole bus with Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” I might not mind if they were playing some Snoop Dogg or Wu Tang Clan or something more conducive to disturbing the peace., but the Farm Aid song!? (I haven’t heard it in so long, I’m not sure that’s the song. The thing about ‘make the world a better place, for you and for me and the entire human race”and you can clearly hear Michael Jackson in the mix???) WTF!?

Later on this bus ride (it took a little over two hours total), several other people tried to silence those two. I thought one guy might come to blows over it. The male of the couple was an absolute punk and would literally threaten people with their lives when they asked him to turn it down. What was so bizarre, and yet strangely funny, was how AWFUL the music was. I put on my headphones and tried to drown it out (I think every one of us so equipped did), but I still managed to hear (and I am not making this up):

  1. Whitney Houston – I will always love you (but of course)
  2. Air Supply – Making Love out of nothing at all (or whatever it’s called. Pretty much the shittiest song EVER)
  3. That song about “Turn around bright eyes”

It was like somebody’s prom, circa 1987, only these two were probably late teens, 20 years old at most!?!?

On the other hand, considering the news a few weeks back about someone beheading another person on a Greyhound bus in Canada, I guess we should be glad that only our eardrums were terrorized. No one was killed, only tortured.

Meanwhile, I’m back in Dublin in a cell block of a room at Dublin City University. Actually, cell block isn’t fair. Prison cells are nicer. The DSL internet connection doesn’t work (and it’s clear there were once instructions that the girls at the front desk either lost or gave away), and I think prisoners get a TV. But it has the same cinder block walls and horrible bed, so that’s comforting.

On the upside, it’s back to pouring down rain and 55 degrees…and I am outta here and Lisbon-bound at 5:15 a.m. (7:15 a.m. flight). So one short night in the jail house is no big deal.

Adeus!

 

 
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