Wide Awake in Wonderland

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

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…

 

Three impossible things before bedtime August 30, 2008

On the beach in Sitges, Spain with 800 of my closest friends

On the beach in Sitges, Spain with 800 of my closest friends

Okay, so I owe a better update than this, but it’s super late, and I’ve decided to take the early train route to Lourdes, and I’ll have about a kajillion hours tomorrow to compose some lengthy thoughts for you.

That stated, let me share three key points:

1. Looking at the Sagrada Familia today, I cannot believe no one has built a casino based on this – yet – in Vegas. Better yet, Barcelona, The Casino. It would SO TOTALLY work. Gaudi’s works alone would springboard the Strip to the next level. Screw all these homages to Italy, where’s the phantasmagoria???

2. In researching Lourdes, I happened to discover that the Catholic Church is in the process of declaring the same Gaudi a saint. From this very interesting (and timely) article that popped up in the sidebar of a priest’s or nun’s or pilgrim’s Lourdes journal, “

A statue of Antonio Gaudi y Cornet in front of his Sagrada Familia Cathedral.When in 1926 God’s architect was run over by a No. 30 tram on his way to evening prayer, he was mistaken for a beggar and taken to Barcelona’s pauper hospital. His friends found him there the next day. But Antoni Gaudí refused to leave. “Here is where I belong”, he told them. He had always wanted to leave this world poor and did, two days later, aged 74, honoured by a city which universally acknowledged him to be both an artistic genius and a saint.

If it went through, he’d be the first professional anything to be made a saint. Also, note to self: Be very careful around the Barcelona trams.

3. I had this totally crazy dream last night that I was hanging out with Barack Obama and George Bush. I was egging them on to arm wrestle, and I guess Bush liked the abuse, because he came up to me afterward and was hitting on me something fierce. It was so out of line and in your face, but it was also so ridiculous and so ludicrous that I was trying to memorize every word, as I could not WAIT to tell my friends.

 

Now I know how it feels to be the village idiot August 29, 2008

Beautiful Barcelona

Beautiful Barcelona

Spain has it in for me. There is some weird trend starting up here wherein every time I check out at a grocery store, something explodes. Today is was a bottle of sparkling water (oh, how I love my agua con gaseo). I don’t know how or why, but as the woman reached for it to run it over the scanner, it busted a leak like Old Faithful and shot a powerful stream all over me. I do prefer the wet t-shirt contests where I’m the only contestant. Ups the odds that I might win (which are usually pretty slim).

Yesterday, it was my little four-pack of ‘Danone’ yogurt in “Macedonia” flavor (no idea what that means). As the woman (different city, different cashier at least) sat it down for me to bag, a giant glob of it launched all over my shirt and shorts.

These things are really no big deal and even kind of funny (especially because I cannot recall a single instance in my whole life where this has happened, and now it’s happened twice in a row). The issue is that it causes a major stream of dialog that I can’t comprehend a word of. So basically I try to fake like I understand what they’re saying with lots of nodding and smiling and “Dios Mio!” (kidding on the “Dios mio.’ I’m not sure anyone says that. Kind of like ‘my stars!” or “good golly, Miss Molly!”). Anyway, usually I figure if I were in their shoes, I’d be saying something like, “Holy crap! I’m so sorry! Go grab a new one.” So I leave to get a new one. The problem usually kicks in when I come back with the new one and they ask me something.

It’s at that point that I have to formulate and speak a grammatically tragic sentence in Spanish that likely translates to, “Here is new one. Me go now.” It’s like Arnold Schwarzanegger (sp?) before he was the Terminator or governor. Those monotone adverb and article-less sentences aren’t so cute when you’re just a ‘roided-out, orgy-loving Austrian weight lifter. Does that sentence mean I can never live in California again?

Anyway, back to my story of one-woman food fights, it’s at this point that everyone invariably gives me the sad, sorry look that you would to a parent with an obviously very, very slow (eight sandwiches and a red checkered blanket short of a picnic) child. A look that says, “Oh. You’re deficient. I didn’t realize. I pity you.”

In the same vein, I realized this morning that there is no way to look sophisticated while running down the street with a giant backpack bouncing behind you. I don’t care if you’re Jackie O. It cannot be done. Even Jackie O. would look like a lumbering jackass in the situation. Even with the big round sunglasses and the head scarf. Even with John John in tow. She would. Trust me.

I had this realization, naturally, while running down Calle Atocha in Madrid. I hate it when stupid events (like the lazy woman never waking up to allow me to check out at 9am) conspire against me, and I realize I’ve got to run – and about 40 pounds heavier than usual – if I’m going to make my plane/train/bus/starship. At this point I’m pretty well acclimated to the physical element of lugging the bag, it’s the fact that it renders me bulky and gigantic that I can’t seem to get through my head. I’m like a cat with clipped whiskers. I head into a space and get in so far…and realize I’m stuck. This is a clever and allegorical way of saying that this morning I was late, so I had to run down a busy metropolitan street during rush hour with a giant backpack strapped onto me, and I more or less bonked, bumped, jostled and plain old knocked over a dozen or so people en route. Sorry about that, slow moving people of Madrid.

In other news, it could just be a coincidence, but i saw no less than 5 shops selling kittens yesterday. It did occur to me that traveling with a trained cat (maybe i could get it to sit on my shoulder like a parrot?) would liven things up. I could name it Wanderlust and together we could cross the continent, sharing cans of tuna and performing stupid cat tricks. A lesser version of that seemed to be the thing to do in Portugal: Get a huge dog (Mastiffs were usually employed for the purpose) and then go from table to table at the outdoor dining spots in all the alleys, begging for money to feed the giant dog. Invariably these were healthy-looking men in their 20s and 30s, and all I could think was, “Why did you have to drag some poor dog into your mess?” The dogs were always laying on their sides looking exhausted from all the heat and panhandling. Or maybe they were just embarrassed to be associated with that guy? The guy ruining everyone’s lunch. I’m sure dogs know if their owner is a loser just as much as kids know when their parents aren’t cool.

Meanwhile, I’m out of that awful little room in Barcelona. Barcelona rocks and makes me realize how much I didn’t really like Madrid. It kind of reminded me of Boston. Not to pick on Boston (too much), and not in terms of specific looks, but in vibe. Both are large cities with a lot of history, and both have some cool old stuff and crazy roads that lead to seriously confusing floor plans. But in both I find the people kind of standoffish and the town inaccessible. I walked a solid seven or eight miles of Madrid, and could never find it’s ‘pulse.” I guess it’s safe to say that I just didn’t really vibe with Madrid.

Barcelona, however, is fantastico. It’s lively, it’s got history, it’s funky, it’s tropical, it’s gorgeous, and it has a nice rack. There are beaches and palm trees and little shops where you can get the biggest falafel pita on earth (and possibly the best) for 4.20 Euro. The metro system is delightful, and I am no longer sleeping in a prison cell. Who could ask for anything more???

Viva Barcelona!!!

 

 
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