Wide Awake in Wonderland

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

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!

Advertisements
 

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!!!

 

Things NOT to say to an English customs agent August 11, 2008

Reykjavik, Iceland street scene

Reykjavik, Iceland street scene

Black sand beach near Vik, Iceland

Black sand beach near Vik, Iceland

“I think maybe I’ll be here four days…No, a week…Wait Is Ireland part of what you’re counting? Two weeks. Yeah, probably two weeks.”

(To which he stared at me a full minute before finally asking, “What do you mean PROBABLY?”)

“No. No, I do not have any friends in Great Britain. None. Nada. Nobody…”

And where are you going after you leave here?

Ireland.

And then from there?

Portugal.

From there?
Spain,

From there?

France.

From there?
Switzerland

He got sick of me after Poland, stamped my passport and waived me on.

All I could think is, “What the hell am I going to do when I don’t speak the language!? That was in English, and i all but f-ed it up.” Maybe I can get by on my winning smile?

Meanwhile, I had a lovely final 24 hours in Iceland. I went to the Blue Lagoon and with the exception of a world-class toe stubbing (it’s still throbbing), it was a very mellowing few hours. Contrary to my ‘typical’ personality, i just hung out and let my mind wander about my book…and nothing much at all.

When I first got there and started wading around, I noticed a handful of people who had REALLY slathered on the zinc-based sunblock: Everything from haphazard application to super chunky layers. I was half-tempted to alert some of these folks that they needed to rub their SPF 99 in a little better, but I didn’t want to be rude. Finally, I reasoned this must be some kind of cultural thing? Maybe Icelanders are really afraid of skin cancer? Or their particular brand of sunblock is really hard to work in? Anyway, it was a solid ten minutes before I caught onto what was actually going on – white silica mud. To commemorate the moment, I will add some pictures from the Blue Lagoon – as well as a a self-portrait – to yesterday’s blog. For the moment, I’m having some issues getting my computer to read my photo data card, so that’ll have to wait until I can get to a PC somewhere.

Anyway, later that same day, Jon (my extraordinary Icelandic tour guide who should be remembered in my will for generously spending so much time showing me around) and I went down to the south point of the island for some good old fashioned arctic weather. While I was taking some pictures of the black sand beaches and volcanic rock formations, the wind started blowing so hard it actually knocked me down. I have the bruise on my bum to prove it! I guess it was one of those days where I couldn’t seem to avoid a little physical abuse.

Speaking of abuse, don’t even get me started on the nightmare of getting from Heathrow to my nearby (Heathrow in the name) hotel. Let’s just say, if time is money, Heathrow owes me $200. On second thought, make that 200 GBP. Hey America, could you straighten out this crashing dollar value situation pronto? It’s starting to bum me out. Thanks!

 

Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery August 1, 2008

and I can’t fit into my friggin’ backpack.

I didn’t want to be lugging 100 pounds on my back…but maybe the pendulum has swung too far in other direction? I have spent entirely too long battling the bag – to no avail – and I still have yet to work it out. Literally 29 hours until I’m at the airport…

 

Drama galore redux July 21, 2008

I feel rather like I’ve been I’ve hit by a truck, rolled up like a pancake, smoked about halfway down, stubbed out on a gas station toilet seat, flushed down said toilet, backed up onto a city street, and rolled over by a truck one more time. In other words, it’s been a really long and pretty awful 36 hours. However, in the net, things could always be worse. In light of my emotional and physical exhaustion, I’ll do my best to succinctly catch you up:

I need to call the vet and get a report, but to the best of my knowledge, Pixie is still alive. I’m a total coward, and when it turned out she had cancer, I just couldn’t pull the trigger. She was so happy to see me and looked so lively and so NORMAL it seemed unfathomable to have them kill her. Moreover, my own vet told me she’d had dogs who lived through this same ordeal (small tumor on the spleen – in this case 1″ x 2″ – rupture and then be removed) go on to live another year or two.

The big problem here is that (to quote the emergency room vet at midnight last night) when the spleen tumor burst it “showered her abdominal cavity in cancer cells.” This is pretty much hands down the worst image ever conjured. I friggin hate EVERYTHING about the idea of that. In reaction, I am conjuring up every new age defense in my arsenal: showering her in white light, filling her with golden light, laying on of hands (not that I have any special talent or anything, beyond maybe sheer will), pseudo-Reiki (see again, no real talent or training. I just focused and tried to make my hands get hot. No idea if that’s even a technique). I’m also researching every alternative, far out, and plain old wackadoo theory on cancer. If there’s a supplement or vitamin or diet that can spare her more suffering, I’m bound and determined to find it.

As a side note, here’s an interesting little assertion I found. I have no idea if this is true or anything, just thought it was kind of wild, ”

Some doctors implicate fungi as a cause of leukemia. In 1999 Meinolf Karthaus, MD, watched three different children with leukemia suddenly go into remission upon receiving a triple antifungal drug cocktail for their “secondary” fungal infections.

In 1997 Mark Bielski stated that leukemia, whether acute or chronic, is intimately associated with the yeast, Candida albicans, which mutates into a fungal form when it overgrows.

Milton White, MD. believed that cancer is a chronic, infectious, fungus disease. He was able to find fungal spores in every sample of cancer tissue he studied. Some other doctors agree with him. Such as the Italian doctor who has his patients take a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda, baking soda, in a glass of water half an hour before breakfast. This alkalinized the digestive tract so that it would help eliminate candida.”

Anyway, I had the vet remove her tumor, and she told me that if she got in there and found any signs that the cancer had spread, she’d put her down. She didn’t. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the removal of her spleen and the general stress of it all has caused a myocardial something or other. Her heartbeat is 240 beats per minute. I felt it with my own hand as I transported her back to the emergency vet for observation tonight. On that note, it’s just wait and see and continue praying that she not only makes it through this, but that I’ve done the right thing and she truly does live another two years or even more.

In other news, I *think* I’ve managed to keep my job for the trip. On Wednesday after resigning and hearing nothing, I called my boss and left an angry (for me) voicemail. I told him I deserved better than this, I’d never felt so disrespected, I was ‘deeply, deeply disappointed’ and closed with ‘is this really what you want?”  He called back shortly thereafter and said, “Do you really want to quit!?” I told him no, of course not, but then relayed the conversation I’d had (presumably at his bidding) with E. His reaction? “That’s ridiculous. That’s a ridiculous conversation.” Yeah. No sh!t. Thanks for having her call me.

Lastly, I’ve spent entirely too long booking rooms for the first few weeks of my trip. I figure I need to nail things down through the end of tourist season (August), and I’ll wing it from there.  Thus far, for anyone interested, the booked itinerary is:

  • Iceland
  • London
  • Bath
  • London
  • Edinburgh (flying there)
  • Glasgow
  • Belfast
  • Dublin
  • Cliffs of Moher
  • Blarney/Schull
  • Cape Clear Island
  • Dublin
  • Lisbon (by plane, obviously)
  • Madrid
  • Valencia
  • Barcelona
  • Lourdes

WHEW!!!!

Until tomorrow…