Wide Awake in Wonderland

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

Behold the inadvertent Pied Piper of Naxos October 16, 2008

Somewhere over Naxos tonight, there is a “bat light” summoning the island’s cats to Sunday Studios in Agia Anna.

I don’t know how they found me out, but they recognize a sympathetic cat loving soul when they smell one. I got home from a VERY long journey to and from town today (7km each way, as it turns out), and was changing out of my ridiculously warm pants when a cat opened the door and sauntered inside. Oh yes. These are no ordinary cats. The Naxos cats can open your door and/or bleed out your jugular before the word ‘go.’

As for my calico visitor, moments later, she was followed by five others, one only three or four months old. And they all proceeded to love upon my feet and calves in a manner that can only be described as obscene.

I didn’t have much by way of food, so I resisted feeding them. And that’s when they brought out the big guns, the deadly weapons – the kittens. Kittens so young their eyes are still blue. I’m not even sure how they made it up the stairs. Probably one of the other cats carried them? I had some milk, and cow milk isn’t actually good for cats…but they like it, so why not? You only live once. And apparently, in the case of the cats of Naxos, you not only live once, you probably don’t live long.

Wherever I go on the island cats come up by the handful meowing and rubbing on my legs, and it doesn’t take much to notice that they all have upper respiratory infections. Some of them have it quite badly, a terrible weeping from their eyes and nose. At one point in my life I had nine cats (simultaneously) and they all got sick like this. In their case, they were all given medicine (which makes it sound so simple. One of them, a calico named Wingnut BIT THROUGH MY THUMB NAIL when I gave here her medicine, but that’s another story for another time) and they all recovered. However, Alexandra, the owner of the place I’m staying, tells me that every winter for the last three years, the cats have died a terrible death.

As it gets colder, their eyes get worse and worse. And then, within a week’s time, they lose all their weight and cannot move. And they lay around on the driveways and sidewalks and streets of Naxos mewing and dying, so weak they cannot get up. “They suffer,” she said, “You can tell that they suffer.” She said that if they have 20 cats in the fall, by the next year there are only two or three.

We were watching this funny little baby kitten stalk one of the older cats when she informed me that the tiny ones are sure to die. After I calculated the odds of getting a cat out of Greece, into Turkey, and through customs in the United States – ZERO – plus the fact that even the babies claw the crap out of you if you pick them up, I decided to make a more rational contribution. This is I bought them the largest bag of cat food at the store today – probably brought in at the start of the season waiting for just the right sucker to arrive.

As for this pandemic, Alexandra tells me she’s talked to vets and they say nothing can be done – there’s no medicine. And in a twisted way, I suppose it’s nature’s horrible way of controlling the population. I guess the only upside is that I didn’t come so late in the year to witness the cat plague in full form. For now, they’re cheerful and friendly and I’ve done what I can to make their last month one big binge. Bon Appetit, kids!

Meanwhile, and totally unrelated, can anyone explain the curtain-less shower to me? How is this supposed to work? How is everyone else managing not to get soap and shampoo and water everywhere? Once I’m done, it looks like someone took a hose to the room. As a solution I’ve taken to sitting in the little tiny basin on the floor, crouched up against the corner, and only turning on the flow when absolutely necessary. And let me tell you, this sucks.

The first time I encountered the configuration was at my place in Croatia, and I thought it was a mistake – like they forgot to install the curtain or had the glass encasement on back order or maybe just figured they’d get around to it next season. This situation was particularly tense because they didn’t provide any towels or floor mats, and I’ve got one travel towel and no consistent means to do laundry, so I’m not about to mop up somebody’s filthy floor with the same thing I use on my hair. Thus, I had to leave all the water all over the place and remember to walk carefully when going in there at night.

Now I know there are worse things out there, but that’s why I don’t put myself in the $6.00 a night Portuguese hostel where the shower and the toilet are the same thing (meaning hole in the ground, and the shower spigot is directly above.) I believe they call this a ‘Turkish toilet’ and I hope to hell I never have to use one, at least for showering. Imagine if you SLIPPED!?!? (***cringe***) And I’m not saying the lack of shower curtain situation is uncivilized…just wet. And baffling. And probably unnecessary. I mean, give me $5 and access to a Dollar Store, and I’m confident I could rig up something pretty efficient.

Meanwhile, I am using Alexandra’s laptop to write this, and she and her father are having a very heated ‘discussion’ (screaming fight???) behind me. It brings to mind the two guys on the train from Ljubljana to Vienna, and I’m wondering if typical run-of-the-mill Greek conversation comes across like verbal warfare or if they just fight a lot or ??? Regardless, I’m feeling a little awkward here in their living room, so I will cut this off and catch up with you all tomorrow!

 

Diary of the blogger as a not-so-young woman October 13, 2008

I won’t beleaguer the whole ‘how the f–k did I get so old!?” thing. You don’t want to hear about it, and neither do I.

Instead, indulge me on a little trip through my psyche and the random thoughts that occupy it on this, the occasion of my birth:

  • Last night I dreamed that I got married, and the ceremony was traditional to the (never identified) groom’s culture. It was also complex.
  • I was wearing an ornate dress that took hours to put on, but the real focus of the ceremony was a little girl. She was made up to look like a doll (kind of like Raggedy Ann), and after the vows were complete, someone brought this wooden box (a little like a coffin) to the front. The box was presented to the onlookers and opened, and this little girl – about five or six years old – emerged in her doll costume. She was quite the ham, and the wedding guests were ENTHRALLED. I remember thinking that she had on way more makeup than I (the bride) did. I vaguely wondered if maybe I should have made myself up more.
  • I can still picture the expression of utter joy on this one guest’s (who I thought was maybe the doll-girl’s mother) face. However, to be fair, the guests were all about this doll-girl, who I thought perhaps was meant to symbolize the future children of the marriage.
  • Then the dream cut to the reception, and I didn’t really know anyone. It was strange because I was meant to be the focus of the celebration (at least in weddings as I know them), but I felt kind of auxiliary. I wasn’t upset about it. I somehow chalked it up to cultural differences. The last thing I remember was reading the box for the bustle and realizing I was wearing not just one, but two of them, necessary to make my huge dress as large as it needed to be.
  • I’m totally crappy at interpreting dreams, but I’ve come up with something about a culture that worships youth and giving up one’s expectations of attention to those younger than you. Otherwise, I’m baffled.

So otherwise, the dream was probably the most exciting thing that happened today. As birthdays go, mine was super mellow.

Ran. Checked pulse – still going. Sat on beach (windy/freezing). Ate lunch – spanikopita from bakery. Sat by pool (less windy/boring). Read some of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” – Did you know it takes one pound of petroleum to make one pound of food!?!?!? Worried about future of the earth and wished I’d paid more attention during “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Skyped with friends
E-mailed with friends
Ate some crappy greasy calamari for dinner. MUST AVENGE THIS BIRTHDAY DINNER INJUSTICE.
Felt grateful for those of you that realized that it wasn’t ‘just another day’ (at least to me). We all want to be be consequential and matter to someone else…and you’re that for me. The favor will be returned. And until then…THANK YOU.

 

The trouble with being born on Friday the 13th October 11, 2008

is that as much as you reject superstition, you possess a certain streak of vulnerability.

Throughout my childhood, the other kids would tell me I’d be dead by the time I was 13. I think we can probably thank the Friday the 13th movies (and maybe the Halloween movies a little bit, seeing as I was born in October) for that horrible nonsense. I don’t recall ever actually believing it, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it wasn’t a little disconcerting. I do remember the first time I was able to respond, “I AM thirteen!” Then it my expiration date was upped to 16. Then 21. After that, I got wise and stopped mentioning I was born on Friday the 13th.

Meanwhile, as I believe I’ve told you, I collect sand. Previously, this was innocuous habit. Maybe even a little bit charming. Now it’s just burdensome – literally (my backpack ain’t carrying itself) and figuratively.

Santorini, where the buildings are white, the dogs are friendly, and the wind is howling, has not just black…but RED sand. RED. I once drug someone on a four-hour sun-scorched third-degree burn-inducing hike for some green sand. It goes without saying that I am no dilettante in that regard. In addition, red sand is a one-of-a-kind attraction. The closest thing I have is some dark orange sand from Moab (which also bares the distinction of being my only non-oceanic sand).

On the other hand, there’s a small part of me that struggles to induce reason. “You can come back,” it says. “The red sand isn’t going anywhere. You can get it another time. Who cares about sand? You don’t need the extra weight.”

This part is a fool. I hear the red grains calling to me. I am like the creepy monster thing in the Lord of the Rings movies: I MUST POSSESS A BAGGIE OF THE RED SAND.

Naturally, getting the red sand is no small chore. First there’s a volcano in the way. Admittedly, it’s been inactive since the 1940s. But still.

Secondly, it’s the off-season, and the guy from my accommodations (Niko) could be exaggerating, but he tells me that by bus it takes two buses in each direction and the timing works out that you spend almost six hours there. It’s warmish (22/low 70s), but six hours on any beach in any weather is too much for me.

Third, it’s almost my birthday. And memories of doom and gloom and untimely passings have come back to me unexpectedly. Not that I plan on going anywhere anytime soon. I think I’m just being prudent. You see, getting the sand requires renting an ATV (four-wheeler). Niko

claims this is like “driving a small car.” However, in response to my wild-eyed barrage of stupid questions, he’s advised that perhaps I wait a day until the wind dies down. Maybe I should go Monday – on my very own birthday – as “You have to be very careful in the wind so that you don’t not blow off the mountain.”

You don’t say?

In that regard, waiting sounds like good advice.

Nonetheless, barring certain disaster, I will rent the ATV and go for it on Monday. I can only imagine that some day when there’s a museum for the tourists to come and see where I lived, they will marvel at my extensive collection of sand.

(And it’s these kind of delusions that keep me going…)

 

Oh for crying out loud October 8, 2008

I suppose I can just sleep when I’m dead. Good morning from Romania, where last night I got MAYBE two hours. Infernal snoring (more like choking with respect to the guy in the bunk above me), kept me awake and semi-livid through the night.

Thus, I was more or less fully conscious (as much as I can be on that little sleep) when my alarm went off super early this morning. I changed out of my pajamas and into my clothes under the blankets. Then I got up and drug my stuff out into the hall.

As I was cinching everything down, I glanced at my watch and wondered why I woke myself up so early, as I had done most of my packing the night before. However, it gave me some time to make some tea in the kitchen and play with the calico kitten that materialized out of nowhere (or that perhaps I hallucinated?)

I made some toast and looked at my watch again. It was now 5:55 am. The girl at the hostel said I needed a cab by 6:10 or 6:15 in order to make my 6:41 train to Bucharest. She had said to come wake her at 6:00 and she’d call one for me.

I decided to eat my toast and then go rouse her. As I crept into the room, she said something I didn’t quite understand. “Excuse me?” I asked. “It’s too late,” she repeated. “You missed it.”

I glanced at my watch. “It’s 6:02. The train is at 6:41.” I smiled at her.

She showed me her cell phone, “It’s 6:27. It’s too late. You missed it.”

So, that’s the long way of telling you that my watch managed to stop for the first time in 10 weeks, and for only 25 minutes. Nonetheless, long enough to cause me to miss the stupid train.

Who knows? Maybe that train is due to be overtaken by a band of gypsies (they sure do hate and fear them here) or hit by a meteor or just really, really late?

So, now instead of an hour and 15 minute ‘layover’ in Bucharest, I’ll have a three minute stopover. Sounds stressful. And considering all these trains are always late, kind of unlikely.

However, this little snafu did allow me to enjoy the company of a fellow hosteler I’ll call Stinky. If Stinky’s parents knew he’d grow up to be a 50-something man wearing only silk boxers and eating toast slathered in margarine on a Thursday morning in a hostel kitchen, all the while emitting an odor so foul that his table mate (me) couldn’t dream of eating, well, they might have just thrown in the towel and named him Stinky. Or maybe given him to the gypsies? We’ll never know.

Wish me luck, as I try to figure out how to get myself to Sofia…

http://www.europealacarte.co.uk/blog/2008/10/06/europe-travel-blog-carnival-6-october-2008/

 

Things that go awry when you fail to read the fine print

All right, kids. Tonight’s post is going to be a bit abbreviated.

‘Why?’ you ask. Well, first off, tomorrow I am getting on the ‘local’ (i.e. stops at any field with more than five sheep or a petulant rooster) train from Brasov to Bucharest at 6:40 a.m.

And then – owing to Bucharest’s glowing reputation as the @$$hole of Eastern Europe – I head to Sofia, Bulgaria a mere two hours later . All told? SIXTEEN MOFO HOURS OF TRAVEL. The upside for you, loyal readers, is that I will have scads of time to share my deep thoughts (or not) and catch you up on my activities of the last few days. So long as Susie’s battery holds out, I’ll be typing it up. Anything to distract myself from the numbness in my butt.

The second reason for tonight’s brevity is what I’ve taken to calling Comaneci’s Revenge. Nothing against Nadia, but apparently Romania is one of those “don’t drink the water” countries. Oops.

Not sure how other people figure this kind of thing out, but I need to join that mailing list. I tend to operate on the ‘experiential learning’ model, which is fine so long as your digestive system doesn’t get a vote.

 

No need to worry. The chaos is going exactly as planned. October 6, 2008

Greetings from 1759. Also known as Sighisoara (with a funny little symbol under the second “s” that causes it to be pronounced ‘sh’), Romania. This is a part of the world that time forgot: where people ride to town on homemade-looking wooden platforms drawn by horses and the locals marvel when they learn you’re from America. After getting over the initial shock, this is, if you ask me, what it’s all about. A man looked at me and said today, “You must have big courage to come to Romania alone,” but I think they’re selling themselves short. Things have gone wrong, and then some, but all in all it was just a series of mistakes and accidents, and I’m still happy to have made it.

As for the sordid details, if there is one lesson I can share from this journey, it is to expect the unexpected, and be ready to roll with it. And laugh at it. Water off a duck, baby.

Last night, after posting the blog and sending a quick note off to my hostel in Brasov (who hasn’t written back), I headed to the train station. It was a nice night, I had time to kill, and Budapest is lively and safe, so I had no worries about walking late at night. It was probably about 2 kilometers to the train station, and I got there half an hour early. I noted that my train was on Track 11. and I wandered over and waited with about 20 other people. I was sizing up the crowd for would-be robbers, and had my eye on a threesome of 50-something men with one empty-looking backpack between them. There was an empty train adjacent to the track, and an employee came by searching underneath it (for what, I don’t know) with a flashlight.

Around 23:15 the train pulled up, and I began my search for car #417. There was a 415, a 414, and a 413….and I could only assume if I kept wandering to the left, the car numbers would continue to get lower. I found an employee and showed him my ticket.

He studied it for a moment calmly, and then exclaimed what I quickly interpreted as “Sighosora is the train to Bucharest. This is the train to Beograd! You need to go over there!!” He pointed three tracks over.

I glanced at my watch – 23:20. My train would leave the station at 23:25. So I did what I have to do all too often – run like a wounded hippo with a giant weight encumbering my ungainly eforts. I ran all the way back to the main station, looked at the board and saw that they had either switched tracks (which they often do, although I can only understand the announcements if they’re in English) or I’d read it wrong originally. Either way, I needed to get to Track 8. NOW.

I ran down the the platform and jumped into the first car on Track 8. There was a young guy with dread locks standing there. After confirming he spoke English (he sounded British, actually), I asked him, “Is this train going to Bucharest?”

“I have no idea where this train is going,” he told me while I noticed that all of the compartments were seating, and not sleeping berths..

“Good luck with that!” I said to him, and jumped back off.

I found a conductor, and he motioned that I needed to go up several cars. On this particular train, they place the engineer between the passenger cars and the sleeping berths so that people who haven’t purchased berths cannot get to them (they would have to get off the train completely and re-board further up the train)

Anyway, I could see that I needed to cover about 500 meters “Is there time?”, I asked him. “Not much.” He said, so I ran as fast as I could. Literally, and no exaggeration, I opened the door and my hand grabbed the railing as the whistle blew. It was one of those trains with the super-high step up, so I tossed in my day pack, braced myself, and lifted off the ground as the train started moving. Talk about skin of my teeth.

But I made it! And if you ask me, that’s all that matters. However, I’m starting to learn that I’m in the minority in my point of view. Not to side track too much from this story, but since I’m alive and well and (obviously) through the part of my trip that was causing me some concern, I’ll share the following harrowing little tale.

A few nights ago at a hostel, a bunch of us were watching a movie starring Liam Neeson where his teen daughter is kidnapped from her swanky Paris apartment into a sex slavery ring and he has the cahones and the skill set to go and save her all by himself. Due to my well-vocalized concerns, there was some teasing that usually they grab their victims on Romanian night trains, but all in all it was kind of a dumb film. No harm done.

Regardless, one of the guys was reminded of the following story: He’d met an English woman who spent a week in Amsterdam on vacation with her friends. One night, she got together with a guy in a club, and he tried to get her to go home with him. She didn’t want to do that to her girlfriends, so she declined. She got his cell phone number and they hung out together the next day, and went to the club that night. Again, they hooked up, and he tried to get her to go home with him, but she declined. The next day she flew home to England.

She’d been home a few days when she started to develop this white rash above her lip. She went to the doctor, and as the doctor examined it, he became very serious: “Who have you slept with recently?”
“No one,” she told him, “I met a guy in Amsterdam, but I didn’t sleep with him.”

“Do you know who he is and how to find him?”

She had the name and cell phone number, and told the doctor as much.

“What you have is called black mites, and you only get it from contact with dead people.”

When the Amsterdam police got to the home of the young man from the club, they found the decomposed bodies of two young women he had killed. The guy who told us this story now said, “SHE WOULD HAVE BEEN NEXT. SHE WAS ALMOST KILLED. THAT GUY WOULD HAVE KILLED HER NEXT.”

And I thought about it for a split-second and said, “If that happened to me, all I would be able to think is, “I’m ALIVE! I DIDN’T get killed! I got through this unscathed, AND the guy was caught! I think I’d be elated.”

One of the other guys said, “That’s very ‘glass is half-full’ of you,” and the original storyteller said, “No. Don’t you get it?!? She would have been killed!” And I do see that point of view, and I certainly undesrtand that, but what I think is more significant is what actually happened – she lived. Somehow she was spared, and her interaction with him prevented anyone else from being murdered.

Now I have no idea if this story is actually true. although I can vouch that the Australian guy who told it to me believed that it was. My point is rather that the way we choose to interpret things becomes our world. That girl could spend her whole life stuck on the horror that she was almost murdered by a serial killer, or she could tell the story of how she was spared, and he was captured. They’re the same facts, but very different stories.

I’m really starting to think that this is one of those ‘key to life’ insights. There are people that might argue that it’s rationalizing to focus on what went right (instead of what went wrong), but if only you can live your life, then does it matter? I mean, if you choose the interpretation that leads you to feel blessed and grateful instead of vulnerable and afraid, it’s kind of the same difference, and nobody gets hurt. And I’d be willing to bet that a person would be far more capable of helping other people and doing something positive with their life – not to mention feeling a hell of a lot happier – if they just changed how they interpret the facts.

Okay, so thanks for bearing with me through that!

As I was saying, I made it into Sighisoara-bound car #417 in the nick of time. I found my cabin, but it was chained shut. At first I thought someone else was inside sleeping, but then I noticed a small post it note with #62 (my bed) and an arrow to the left. I walked down several rooms, until I found another post it note with #62. I opened the door, and met my roommate, Tom of Bavaria. He has been teaching German in Brasov, Romania, and had taken this train (which originated in Vienna where he was visiting friends) many times. Normally, the couchettes are same-sex (in fact, it said on my ticket it was), but obviously the staff didn’t want to deal with having to open a second room for me.

Speaking of which, when the engineer came by to check my ticket, he immediately said, “Lock the doors. Don’t let anyone in. We have police on the train. Everything will be fine.” I said to Tom, “They must know they have a bad reputation on this route!” He told me that he’s never had a problem, but the hype was typical: The Austrians warn everyone about the Hungarians, the Hungarians talk trash about the Romanians, the Romanians look down on the Moldovians. And so it goes.

The engineer clarified that I was getting off at Sighisoara and said he would come by to wake me in the morning. I changed the time on my cell phone to one hour ahead (I am GMT +2 through the end of the trip), and set my own alarm, but I wasn’t sure it would have enough battery power to make it through the night. However, Tom set his phone for me as well. T

Minus the fact that the stink of his shoes made our little room smell something like a pig farm and after I laid awake for several hours waiting to see if someone would try to get into our room or Tom would emerge from his sleep to root through my stuff, he was a nice enough guy. And he didn’t snore. Customs came by at 2:30 (Hungarian) and 3:30 (Romanian), but despite Tom’s predictions that they would search my luggage (I strongly visualized the OPPOSITE of that), they didn’t. After that was over, I fell asleep as best I could.

At some point in what still seemed like the night, my alarm went off. I set it for ten minutes later. This time, seeing as the conductor hadn’t been by and Tom’s phone hadn’t gone off, I asked him what time it was.

“8:10,” he told me.

My phone said 9:10. But I had changed it right after leaving Hungary. It had probably dialed into a local network and added an additional hour. This had happened before. I changed the time on my phone, re-set the alarm, and went back to sleep.

At 9:00, Tom’s phone went off and I got up, packed my bags, and waited for the Sighisoara stop. I was happy that I’d made it through the night with no problems whatsoever. Tom crawled down from his bunk, and we were chatting about this and that. And waited. And waited. And waited.

Around 9:45, the conductor from the night before (the one who never came to wake me), walked by. “Is this train running late?” I asked him.

“What do you mean?”

“Is the train on time?” I said

“To Brasov?”

“No. To Sighisoara.”

At this poitn, he started laughing. “it’s 10:50,” he said, “Sighisoara was well over an hour ago.” I could hear him retelling his encounter with me to someone else in Romanian, and laughing hysterically.

I looked at my watch. 9:452 Budapest time. I had not switched my watch forward. My original alarm had been right. and I missed my stop. Consulting my train schedule, I could take the 12:45 back to Sighisoara and get in at 3:15. Not exactly my favorite way to spend a day, but so be it. Without even trying to convince myself, a small voice said, “Everything happens for a reason,” and I was resigned to it.

Tom, for his part, went into fervent, unabashed denial. He had changed his phone. He knew he had. it was only 9:50. We would be in Sighisoara soon. And as the train rolled on and on and never came close to stopping, this started to seem ridiculous. I finally had to tell him, “It is what it is. It’s fine. And nothing can change it. STOP TALKING ABOUT THIS.” He agreed, and started railing against the conductor. He said he would wake me. He FAILED. The conductor did not live up to his responsibilities. It was all the conductors fault. If only for the conductor…

This was a really weird situation for me because

a) I was the only person suffering here

b) I had come to terms with it pretty much immediately

c) In the past, I was the one who would’ve obsessed on blame and responsibility and shortcomings, but today it was clear to me that none of that mattered. It wouldn’t change a darn thing. I’d missed my stop.

Nevertheless, Tom still brought up his rage with his phone and the railway employees – even once we got to Brasov. I told him for the tenth time to just let it go. Things go wrong, and such is life. And he stopped suddenly, looked at me, and commented that I was really laid back about this. I explained that you had to choose your battles, and in this case, there was nothing for me to fight about. What’s done is done. Figure out a new strategy and move on.

Again, I can’t stress enough that this is NOT the person i was six months ago. But it’s apparently the person I am now. And hallelujah.

Nonetheless, this attitude would be put to the test one more time. I got on the 12:45 train back toward Sighisoara. And not to pick on the Romanians, but it kind of looked like something you’d get sent to a Nazi work camp in. It was HARSH. And hot as hell. And filled with cigarette smoke.

It also stopped in the middle of nowhere. Seriously. The train would come to a screeching halt in the middle of a field with a rooster standing nearby or maybe a couple sheep in the distance. It was the strangest thing ever.

And I suppose this is why I developed a misguided faith that Sighisoara was the end of the line, and the train was just running late, and we’d get there when we get there. I’m realizing this story is running WAY TOO long, so let me just jump to the punchline: I missed Sighisoara in the other direction, too!

After much painful inquiry, I found a semi-English/semi-German speaker, who was very kind (everyone has been super nice here) and instructed me to get off at a ‘big station’ that was safe, and wait for a train in the other direction. The big station meant it was an actual outhouse-sized station with a human employee, rather than a mud puddle with a guardian rooster.

It was there I encountered a woman with about six original teeth waiting by the station. I said ‘hi’ to her and smiled. She had seen me get off the other train, and when she asked me something, I decided to go with the only thing I could think of, “Sighisoara,’ I said. And pointed to myself.

She nodded and held up four fingers. I took that to mean the train in the opposite direction would be here in four minutes or at 4:00 p.m. Good news either way. I’ll take it.

Then she asked if I was German (and I trust me when I say, when you’ve been traveling this long, you learn to pick up syllables that make sense and otherwise read between the lines. I couldn’t tell you what she asked me per se, but I know that was the question). I said, “No. American. America.”

At this point, she lit up like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. She pounded on the chair next to her, “Sit next to me, American!” and began flagging everyone else over. Once it was clear that I had come to Five Sheep Railway Outhouse, Romania from America and a suitable crowd was gathered, she began to pet me like a collie. It started with my hair.

She kept saying “America” and something that – I swear – sounded like “freak”. I figured this could be interpreted both ways:

  1. “Freak’ means something nice in Romanian, like “pretty” or “your hair is soft like a well-nourished dog”

  2. Americans do not show up at this train station very often, and for that I was a verified freak.

Then the petting moved to my cheek, and under her gaze I become uncomfortably aware of my straight teeth. What was extra uncanny is that several nights ago I had a dream that I was somewhere and I felt conspicuous for having full set of straight, white teeth. So it was a weird deja vu. Nonetheless, and despite treating me a little like a show dog, she couldn’t have been sweeter. She explained to me through pantomime that she had two children, a boy and a girl, and when my train showed up, she gave me a hard slap on the arm and indicated that I needed to run across the tracks (in FRONT OF IT) to board it.

Then the real fun kicked in. THE FREAKING TRAIN DOORS WOULD NOT OPEN. And as kind as she had been, the thought of sitting with my new friend for an additional hour was not appealing. I ran from one carriage to the next. And after a couple failed attempts, I started pounding furiously on the doors, like an inmate trying to escape from prison.

At this point, one more car up, a door opened and the conductor emerged. He motioned to me. “I’m sorry!” I yelled, as I ran toward him. When I got there, I was appalled to see that the step up (to the bottom step) was a solid two feet. It was RIDICULOUS. I threw my day pack in, and braced myself. My first attempt failed. Then I grabbed onto the bar with all my strength, screamed “Oh my God!” and hauled myself in. I could have sworn I heard the conductor giggle. And I joined in. Actually, I collapsed into a seat and had a good, long laugh at the insanity of it all.

But like I said, in the end I made it. And on my third pass, I actually managed to get off the train in Sighisoara, a mere seven hours behind schedule.

 

My Super Dolce 16 September 22, 2008

First off, I would like to suggest that we give me a small pat on the back and perhaps a moderately loud round of applause for not once utilizing the phrase “when in Rome” while in Rome. This is not to say it didn’t occur to me. A lot. But I am ever-conscious of you, the reader, and thus try to maintain some high standards. This, of course, does not allow sinking to or utilizing that which is cliche, trite, predictable nor mundane.

You didn’t know this about me? Well, bion giorno, and welcome to the brave new world. Now finding myself supersaturated in the super powers of the glorious works of the Renaissance masters, I too am now an artiste. Oh yes, gone are the stories about fears of peeing on myself in creepy bus station bathrooms. We will only be talking about reliefs and frescoes and Machiavelli and Medici and meringue and merengue and creme fraiche. That’s right. Bust out the good china, because it’s a whole new fancy ball of wax.

This new leaf turned, you might be surprised to learn I just spent the last half-hour watching “My Super Sweet 16″ on Italian TV. This is 100% because there is a TV in my room, and – from there – 99.9% because it was the only thing in English. And for the first five minutes, it was a treat to listen to someone talk without having to concentrate.

But then what they were actually SAYING started to get processed. “Ummm…did you just say someone was coming to give your dog LOWLIGHTS!?” “Can you repeat that? If Kanyae West doesn’t jump out a cake at your 16th birthday party, you’re going to take a semi-automatic weapon to your private spoiled monsters high school and kill everyone?” (Although, upon deeper analysis, this might not be such a bad thing…)

I can only hope this show is kind of a joke. Something like, “I know that you know that I know that you know that I know that you aren’t really a sociopathic self-centered waste of space like you’re portrayed on this show.” I hope… If not, then I guess this starts to solidify some of the reactions I get when I reveal I’m from the States. It also explains the “Shot at Love with Tequila Tequila” graffiti I saw in Poland. I’ll confess, I’m familiar with that travesty. I was – until it ended – a major “Rob and Big” fan. I have a deep appreciation for the absurd, and there ain’t nothing so absurd as keeping a mini horse in your house.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I saw “A Shot At Love with Tequila Tequila ” spray painted on a wall in either Prague or Warsaw. At the time, I wasn’t really sure what it meant, and kind of forgot about it. However, combined with “My Super Sweet Sixteen,” I recognize it as the Eastern European shorthand for, “REPENT. THE END OF THE WORLD IS AT HAND.” You mix this stuff in with Iraq and Jerry Springer, and it’s no wonder the world thinks we’re a bunch of war-mongering psychopaths…

So getting back to my small world, I almost bypassed Florence today in favor of Milan. Somehow I had the very inaccurate sense that it took three or four hours by train from Rome to Florence. I caught the 10:38, and I suppose I thought I’d get there around 14:00. So when the trained pulled into some station around noon and the lights turned out, I didn’t even look up from “Snowball fight”. I fought on, in vain.

You see, snowball fight is this extremely crappy game on my otherwise useless cell phone at which I am utterly hopeless. I slowed the speed down to 2 (out of ten), but I still get clobbered by the little jokers nailing my poor kid with snowballs. I can’t even figure out what I’m supposed to be doing to triumph in this situation. But I digress…

We’d sat there a couple minutes and my cellphone screen inevitably flickered, “YOU LOSE.” Out of curiosity, I glanced out the window. “Firenze.” Hmmmm…. Firenze. What’s that? Wait a minute… FLORENCE? FIRENZE? Florence = Firenze!?!?!?

I started frantically putting my stuff away, realizing that (I was pretty sure) this was my stop. As with my near miss in London, I leaped off the train right as it started to leave the station.

And thank god, because I’m damn tired, and it’s nice to have a room to myself, no matter how much it’s an amalgam of “Things IKEA didn’t actually think anyone would ever buy.” You see, the last three nights in Rome were rougher than I let on: The first I was fairly sick and could barely breathe, the second I was kept awake by the snoring of an inexplicably loud Australian woman (what is up with these log sawing ladies!?!?), and last night I was a plain old paranoid wreck. I got up no less than five times to violently shake out my sheets (top and bottom) and perform a bed bug exorcism.Actually, it may have worked. I’m damaged, but no worse feasted upon than I had been the day before.

Anyway, as is par for the course, Florence is lovely. The Duomo is like some kind of birthday cake I would have pined for as a little girl. My cold is fading. I have a vague cough, but nothing worse than anyone else in ‘smoke ‘em if you got ‘em’ Europe. And I’m dog tired, so off to saw some logs of my own, and talk to you tomorrow!

 

 
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