A House Guest in France, Part IV

We awoke to a sunnier day than the day before, cleaned up and since we had some time before our train, decided to head out to take a look around Lyon. We easily found a cafe where we absorbed some much needed caffeine and a croissant. The French are not generally big on breakfast, at least not in the “bacon, eggs and homefries” sense. Across the border in Germany, they are keenly aware of the need to fortify one’s self for the trials of the day ahead with meats, bread, more meat and ummm, other various meats. Aaaand Nutella. Here in Lyon however, breakfast was a light affair and though I truly love France, this lack of a proper breakfast is perhaps the one thing that I have trouble forgiving them.

After a bit of coffee and a bite to eat we set off down the back streets and tried to get the feel of this, the third largest city in France. Most folk on vacation in France do not come to Lyon and this I feel, is a great shame. We found the city to be full of interesting museums, shops, churches and wonderful, wonderful medieval and renaissance architecture. If I had to describe the bit of the city we were in, I would have to say it was like 1880 never quite left. It still maintains that wonderful old world feeling without feeling run down and worn out. In short, we loved it and vowed to one day return and spend at least a week walking its street and eating in its restaurants.

One thing we did decide was that we needed to find a gift to bring with us to give to our soon to be host. Remember, personally, I had never met him before. Action Girl knew him from chatting at work, but I was totally in the dark as to who he was or what he would like. Our upbringing dictated that a gift would be needed for our arrival, but what to get? At home in the States, I would have simply gotten a good bottle of wine, but here… In France… For someone who lives here… Well, I felt a good deal out of my league when it comes to wine selection. We looked around for a while but were running out of time. Then we saw it. PERFECT!

We left for the train station with our happy purchase stuffed in our pack, carefully wrapped up in paper and old socks. As we wandered into the train station I started to slow down. My head was starting to hurt and I blamed it on the stress of travel and the lack of any substantial breakfast. I popped some Bufferin and massaged my temples as we threaded our way through the French rail system. As we found our way to the train departure area and waited for our commuter line, my head got worse and worse. Then the first real warning sign appeared. I started to instinctively shrink away from bright light and tried to shade my eyes. “Oh crap”, I thought. “It’s a migraine

Let me digress here for a moment and leave our intrepid travelers to explain what a migraine is and what it decidedly ISN’T. I don’t want to be pedantic about this but any other migraine sufferer out there will know why I’m getting nitpicky. I have had various individuals say to me at one time or another, “Oh, I had the worst migraine at work the other day.” or “I have such a migraine right now.” and to these folks I say, “No. You didn’t/don’t. I can tell this because you aren’t balled up in the fetal position, retching you lungs out and begging for relief from what ever god you may have displeased.” Confusing a bad headache for a migraine is a bit like confusing a nasty splinter with a gun shot wound. People who get migraines never EVER confuse them with anything. I get them from time to time. They seem to have no particular trigger for me and can hit whenever. Because of this, I carry medication. This is good. The bad news is that though it works, it A: Takes time, and B” comes with the added bonus that it will pretty much knock me flat for a minimum of 6 hours. More like 12 if I’m not disturbed.

I managed to eat one of our granola bars before my stomach got too sour and took the pills I always travel with. I recall laying down on my pack and closing my eyes as Action Girl arranged a coat over my head. That must have looked odd. I can also very vaguely remember getting on the train that, thank God, we would be on for the next few hours, uninterrupted by changes . I shuffled into a seat and Action Girl again covered me up with my coat. It turned out that this was a commuter train and therefre, slow. This turned out to go a good thing since I was dead to the world for the next several hours.

When I finally revived, we were in Montelimar and I was being offered hot coffee by my wonderful wife. I have no recollection of getting off the train. I had caught the migraine pretty early on and I was starting to come out of it. After another little while sleeping off the medication at the Montelimar train station, I awoke feeling… well, not perky exactly, but human, anyway. It was great to be back. Action Girl related to me some of the more quizzical looks that we received on the train. It must have looked like she was accompanying a cadaver on a journey. We chuckled about it, I thanked her for her essential help and we wandered off to find the car rental shop. I’d never driven in France, but I grew up winging a 1974 Chevy Silverado through Boston from time to time, so I felt that I had a bit of an edge over the average American.

How hard could it be?
We’d just have to see.

Next, the land of a million-zillion roundabouts, the goat track of doom and a plate of fresh brains.

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A House Guest in France, Part III

It was obvious from the circulating cleaning teams and technicians that this train wasn’t due to leave any time soon. The complete lack of other passengers made us feel odd as we stood alone on the platform. We looked longingly at the comfy seats through the tinted windows and wondered when we could board.

Just as we were staring to feel resigned to sitting on a hard bench for a couple of hours, breathing diesel fumes and sweating in the unexpectedly warm May 1st afternoon, a conductor spotted us from the train. He popped his head out an open doorway and asked us, first in French and then in English, if we were waiting for this train. When we said that we were, he gave a quick, almost furtive look up and down the platform, thought about it for a second and then ushered us into the air conditioned heaven of the 1st class compartment. He checked our tickets, helped us with our packs and then in an act that earned him my undying gratitude, brought us some ice cold bottled water. We thanked him, happily sank into the plush seats, chatted for a few minutes as we drank our water and promptly took a snooze.

We drifted in and out of a light sleep, being vaguely aware of cleaning staff coming through doing their industrious work and then other voices. When the other passengers finally started to arrive in greater numbers, be perked up a bit and enjoyed the people watching. The rest of the trip to Lyon was fairly uneventful. The seats were comfy, the food delicious, and the scenery was blurry. Traveling by TGV is a bit like taking a trip on a jet at an altitude of 12 feet. The countryside goes by at such speed that it’s difficult to look at anything out the window unless it’s a good distance away. Trying to do so actually made me feel a bit motion sick, so we decided to focus on our long running game of Rummy in stead. After a few hours of this, we slid quietly into Lyon, collected our bags and stepped out into a rainy evening.

Thankfully, either the rain had washed away any protesters here or perhaps in Lyon, folks were just more laid back. Either way, we were happy to cross city blocks unimpeded. We checked in to a Ibis Hotel near the station for the night. It was cheap but clean and most importantly, within a short walk to the station. I barely remember the room. I’m willing to guess that 98.5% of the time we spent in it, we were asleep.

Tomorrow would bring a new sunny day, a new train to Montelimar, a huge honkin’ migraine and some confused commuters. But that was still to come. Tonight, we slept, oblivious to the rain out side.

A House Guest in France, Part II

The first thing that I saw that was out of the ordinary at the train station was all the kids selling little bunches of Lily of the valley. Action Girl absolutely adores Lilly of the valley and within seconds, had bought her self a little clutch to happily sniff at as we started our journey. We hopped onto our train and were off to Paris.

Here is where I’m going to ruin your image of a couple roughing it across Europe on nothing but frame packs and baguettes. As I have said before, that is the the way I have done my European travels on many occasions and I have fond memories of those times. The important words here are “have done”, as in, “Been there, _have_done_ that”. I’m older now and though I think I’m still capable of roughing it with the best of them if I must, when left the choice between a family run hotel with fluffy, clean beds and a nice restaurant in the lobby or the local sweat and beer filled youth hostel… well… it’s not a hard choice. This extends to train travel as well. One of the bummers of getting older is that after a certain age you can no longer purchase a student EuRail Pass. This is a double edged sword though. Since we were now forced to pony up some real big money for adult, non-student passes, they can come as first class tickets! As we looked at the faces pressed to the glass in the stuffed-to-the-gills second class cars, any feelings of nostalgia quickly melted away with our complimentary drinks and adjustable foot rests.

We zipped along the fairly short trip to Paris and checked out tickets for the next leg of the journey. It was going to be a long haul from Paris to Lyon and we had splurged. The next train for us was the TGV.

FIRST CLASS, TGV.

Ahhhh! It looked like we would make the train change with time to spare at the Paris station and all would be good. Wrong.

After we arrived in the City Of Light, we stated looking for our train. After some fruitless searching we decided with some trepidation to ask at a window. Our hesitancy stemmed from two things. First, neither of us spoke French, though Action Girl can understand a bit of it. Second, we were in Paris; home to “the rudest people on the planet”, as innumerable ill-informed people will tell you. We steeled our selves for incomprehension, shocking incredulity at not being French or a possible croissant attack from the man behind the glass. Did he speak English? Yes, he did! Can you tell us about our train? The man looked at out tickets and grimaced and then shot us a pained smile. “This train is not at this station, I’m afraid. You need to go to the South Paris train station. I recommend that you take the Metro just out side the door. If you hurry, you should make it, but it will be close.”

We thanked him for his kindness and bolted for the Metro. With bags bouncing along behind us we melted into the Parisian crowd on their various errands. We had a still felt hopeful and we were making good time. Then the train slowed… stopped, and started going BACKWARDS. The conductor came on the P.A. and spoke at some length and the message made a visibly bad impact on everyone in the car. Action Girl and I exchanged panicked looks as we tried to figure out what the heck was going on. After a few whispered guesses, the smartly dressed woman standing next to me tapped me on the shoulder with her manicured finger and said, “Ze conductor ‘as said zat due to street protests, ze next station ees closed. We are going beck to ze last station. Where are you trying to go?”

We thanked our Parisian savior and told her about the train station. As soon as the doors opened to the train car, she practically dragged us over to a Metro map and explained in minute detail the route we needed to take, adding that we should hurry. “Eet will take much longar Zan dis train would ‘ave” Again we thanked her and bolted down a tunnel, following her directions.

She was right. It did take much longer and our hearts were pounding from a combination of running with our oversized packs for long distances and the anticipation of missing our fully-paid for, 1st class TGV seats. We ran a maze of underground Metro corridors, half expecting to find a huge hunk of cheese at the end rather than a train station. By the time we emerged like moles into the filtered light of the South Paris train station we were exhausted, sweaty messes. I loped up to the nearest information booth and disturbed the middle aged woman inside, happily reading her magazine. I could tell by her reaction to me that I mist have looked like a zombie attack victim. All that was missing from her was an oh so French “Mon Deu!”

I gathered what little breath I could muster, asked about our train and showed her our tickets. As it turned out, the fact that she spoke no english didn’t hinder transmitting the message to us. We had missed our train and she felt badly for us. We were crest fallen, exhausted and trapped in Paris with street protest raging through the city center. Great. I reached out for my useless tickets and encountered a metronome like wagging finger. On an unseen computer she immediately began typing. After a minute, and the unmistakable grinding of a dot matrix printer, she handed us shiny new tickets and pointed to a TGV train sitting by its self some distance off. We thanked her in our pathetic French and headed toward it. Another smiling Parisian, just doing her job, but with a sympathetic smile and efficiency.

Mon Deu! It’s enough to make you sing The Marseillaise

Next installment tomorrow…

Blisters, running stitches and the nicest inn keeper in Austria, III

After what I judged to be an adequate amount of swearing and cursing, I reluctantly left the small glass enclosure and stepped back out into the misty rain. An older gentleman was waking by at that moment and I stopped him and politely asked if he could help me with the persnickety ATM. “Do you have a Volksbank account?” he asked with an incredulous eye. I said that I didn’t and he brightened visibly with the aura of someone who knows the answer to someone else’s vexing question. “Oh! Well, it won’t work for you then. You need an account at the bank first.” Great. An ATM that only works for this particular bank’s customers. What else could go wrong? With strained patience I asked if he knew of any other ATM’s in the area. He thought of for a moment and then replied that he believed there was one in Landeck. “Yes, I’m familiar with that one. It’s out of order though.” He thought again. “In the next town back down the main road. Just go the other way from Landeck. It’s not far. There will be one there, I’m sure.”

Not seeing a lot of choice, I thanked him and then jogged off into the drizzle, took a right on to the main road and kept on running. It was about three miles to the next village and then about another mile or so into the village until I found the ATM. The building that it was attached to was being renovated and was covered in scaffolding. This did not inspire me much. I pulled out my card and walked up to it. The screen… was dark. No power was being fed to it at all. Doom, having obviously been following me for the last few miles, finally walked up and made it’s self known. What the hell now? As I looked around the town, I watched happy couples scooting along under umbrellas and disappearing into eateries and pubs. There I stood, soaked, bone weary, and in the wrong town even. My reserves were getting really low, as was my morale. I schlepped off back toward Landeck, this time loping more than trotting. I could feel the blisters forming in my soaked sneakers as my cheap cotton socks betrayed me.

The rain stated to let up as I approached the inn. I wasn’t sure what the next plan of attack was but I didn’t have any money so staying here was out of the question. “Back on the train.”, I supposed. I hoped that there _was_ a next train. It was getting late, after all. I opened the door and my sweaty, rain soaked skin went cold and I could feel the blood drain from my face. Sitting at a table were Action Girl and Irene, just finishing up a big dinner with beer and dessert. They were obviously expecting me to return with money for the bill, not to mention rooms for the night. Ooooooh, Crap! The two of them looked at me, smiling and a bit fuzzily through the consumed beer. The Hostess came over to me and stopped short. She was obviously caught off guard by my appearance. I had been gone a good long while now and I was thoroughly soaked and wiped out.

“What happened?”, She asked, “Did you find the ATM?” I said that i did, but it was broken so I had to try the Volksbank one. She interrupted and said that it wouldn’t work for my card. I told her that I found that out, so I ran to the next village. “Wait,” she added. “You ran?”.
“Yes”
“Don’t you have a car?”
“No”

Her eyes boggled as she began to figure out just how far I had run my little foreign butt around her home town… in the rain. “So… Did you find the ATM there in the next town?” I was obviously uncomfortable and I explained that it wasn’t functioning either. She chewed her lip for a second and then told me to wait here. This was not going to be pretty. I was sure of it. The ladies looked rather aghast as well and the meaning of my failed run and their now eaten meal sank in. A short moment later, the man who was obviously both the owner and the cook emerged form the kitchen, still wearing his apron. He didn’t speak english so the hostess explained to him what had transpired. As she was telling him the story, I could see that he looked rather upset, then as she continued, gesturing up and down the road in the directions I had run, his face became more resigned. I was soaked, bone weary, starved and more embarrassed than I had ever been before. I must have looked every inch of that list because he wiped his hands on his apron, walked behind the bar and took out the largest beer glass I have ever seen outside of a novelty shop. After filling it to the rim, he slid it across the dark stained bar right in front of me. I was somewhere between thanking him and refusing it, but he held both his hands out, palms toward me and made a pushing motion. I thanked him with my best “Danke” and took a long, LONG drink.

After disappearing into the kitchen for a few minutes, he reappeared with a gigantic plate of food and a replacement victory-cup sized glass of beer, placed it in front of me and again made the universal sign of “Yah, yah. It’s for you.” I thanked him again and again and dove into the best wiener schnitzel I’d ever had. Shortly after, he came over to our table and sat down. Pulling out a scrap of paper and a pen, he wrote down an address. He called over the Hostess and she relayed his instructions. “You stay here tonight and when you leave and get to an ATM that works, you mail him the money for your bill.” I couldn’t believe it. This was faith in action. He didn’t know us from Adam, we weren’t even his countrymen but he was willing to not merely trust us with paying for the meal but also two rooms.

We obviously thanked him profusely and then staggered (some more shakily than others) up to our allotted apartments. All I can recall after getting to the room was having a quick shower and falling into a duvet that must have been two feet thick. To say I slept soundly is an epic understatement. I was the last one up in the morning and with head lightly pounding from the vat of beer the night before, I headed down stairs to thank our host again. Irene was there grinning happily. “Guess what?” she squeaked. “They accept Swiss Franks and I had enough left over from Zurich to pay the bill for us all!” After a brief inner battle, I decided to go with “Happily Relieved” rather than “AAAAAAAAAAAAAGH!”

A few minutes later were were whistling along on the train on out way to Germany. I will never forget that very large act of kindness and I hope I can get back to the inn at Landeck some day. If I can, I’d like to thank him for his kindness one more time and enjoy his cooking guilt free. Next time though, I’ll bring some Euros with me. The ATM’s there are not to be trusted.

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Blisters, running stitches and the nicest inn keeper in Austria, II

We walked in the front door and were immediately greeted by a smiling young woman standing behind the bar. The techno music playing quietly on the radio contrasted mightily with the dirndl she was wearing and the dark stained, chunky pine seats and tables. Action Girl and Irene wandered over to a table and I asked if she spoke English. I really didn’t know much German at this point in my life and the hostess spoke hesitant english. I asked if they took credit cards, and naturally, they didn’t.

(On a side note, this is something that I have found maddeningly common in both Germany and Austria. No one, short of big hotels and tourist trap restaurants, seems to be happy when you pull out the plastic. As soon as… THE SECOND!… you cross into France or Switzerland, everyone will take your Visa or MC card. Even the street vendors have these wonderful little contraptions that look like cell phones with a slot down the side to swipe a card. Why these aren’t commonplace in the Germanic countries, let alone the U.S., I have no idea.)

I wasn’t surprised in the least that my credit card wasn’t going to cut it so I asked about an ATM. Was there one near by? She told me that there was, just down the street in the village. I thanked her, dumped my pack and told the ladies that I’d be right back. I stepped out the door and started heading into the village. Walking was striking me as being painfully slow and since Action Girl and I had been running lately, I felt up to a short jog. I picked up the pace and trotted along the road. And trotted… And trotted. The village, it turned out, was a fair bit down the road. Now, I know that distances always feel longer when you don’t know the route, but this was really a bit of a haul. I finally reached the town center after what I would guess was about two to two and a half miles. The problem that next confronted me was that the bank was not obvious to the passer by. I looked for a few minutes and feeling that time was not on my side, switched my tactic to finding someone who could help me find the ATM.

Everything was closed. It was after five now and there was not an open shop or a pedestrian to be found. Then I saw it. Miraculously, the apothecary was still open! I stepped in and fulling expecting to have to resort to hand gestures and pantomiming to get the help I needed, asked the white clad pharmacist if he spoke English. He replied with a “Ja”, rather than a “Yes”, but I was hopeful. I slowed down my speech a bit and asked where the ATM was. The man immediately brightened and said “Oh, well den, whatcha wanna do is goo over to da square and maka left at da fountain. It’s in front of a blue buildin’. Ya can’t missit!” I stopped cold. That was not the accent that I was prepared for. The sensation was the auditory version of taking a drink of coffee when you expect it to be milk. “Umm. Where are you from originally?” I asked, interest peaked. “Oh, I’m from Grand Forks. Dat’s in North Dakota, ya know.”

I thanked him and headed out the door, brain reeling just a bit. After a minute or two I found the ATM. It was out of service. Naturally. I decided to pop back in to visit my friendly countryman at the apothecary and inquire about any other ATM’s. Yes, there was one just down the road. As it turned out, back toward the railway station. Did I know where that was? Actually, yes I did. “Well, it’s past the rail way station and den it’s just a little past it. Dare’s a road off to de right an dat’ll lead to a lil’ bunch of buildings and dare’s an ATM dare, I think.”

“Ok,” I thought, “I’m up to this. I can do that.” I started off back toward the rail station and the inn. As I was running back, it started to drizzle. Great. As the rain started collecting on my clothes, I wondered why the hostess didn’t tell me about the second ATM in the first place? After all, it sounded closer. As I jogged past the inn, I was tempted to pop in and explain where I was going and why but I decided not to waste the time it would take. I’m also the kind of person who, when he’s on a mission, doesn’t deviate until it’s done. So, past it, I ran and on down the road. I saw the turn, crossed the river and easily found the bank. It was big, yellow and had a big sign reading “Volksbank”. “People’s Bank”, I thought. “That sounds nice.” My card went into the slot, I punched in my pin and then… It spat it back out. We repeated this about eight times.

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“You can’t be serious”…

Blisters, running stitches and the nicest inn keeper in Austria.

So after twenty posts, I see what seems to get peoples attention the most is the Prague/Munich train of doom story. So, in the blatant self interest of driving eyeballs to my blog… I give unto you…

Blisters, running stitches and the nicest inn keeper in Austria.

This was a different trip than the one we did with The Doctor. This time it was a trip mainly to Austria and Germany (go figure) with Action Girl and her cousin Irene. This was a momentous trip for Irene. She had just entered college a little while ago and she had never done any traveling. What made this a really brave thing for her to do is that not only is Irene handicapped, but that she would be flying into Zurich all alone and spend one day there, solo. When I say that she’s handicapped, I don’t mean that she’s in a wheelchair. She can walk fine on her own, though with a bit of a stilted gait but baggage would be difficult. Her back has some problems and she’d need to pack light. Having said all of her limitations, youth, inexperience, and physical issues; I would also add that she is a singularly capable and fearless individual. Like I said, it was very brave of her to go, but it surprised no one who knew her.

So, we fly into Zurich the day after Irene does and met up with her. She already spied out a place for breakfast and enjoyed Zurich as much as you can when looking at it trough eight hours of jet lag. After an initial relaxation period of a few hours, we all hop on a train at the Hauptbahnhoff and are on our way. We leave Zurich behind and head to Austria. The place we are ultimately going is in Germany but this corner of Europe is crowded with country’s. Actually, it’s best to just refer to it by its geographical name, the Tyrol. Home of giant alpenhorns, edelweiss and men in leiderhosen shouting “Riiiiiicolaaaaa” at each other from high peaks.

Now, I have long ago stopped changing money or buying traveler’s checks when moving around in Europe. Money changing always seems to bite you in the shorts, although with the dollar in a death spiral, it’s probably a good idea to change all you can right now. As for traveler’s checks, forget them. No one wants to touch them and you spend you time getting frustrated trying to use them up. The way to go is the debit card. Or at least it was. Now, I believe banks are getting savvy about charging you extra (imagine!) for using your ATM card in a foreign ATM, but in the beginning, it wasn’t yet on the list of the 10,000 user fees that banks use to syphon your account dry. Action Girl and I were used to traveling this way and we explained this to Irene before she left for Switzerland.

We traveled through idillic looking countryside and watched rolling hills get steeper and craggier until they turned into towering Alps. It was spring time and the weather was warmish but no warm enough to melt the snow on the lower slopes of the mountains. We kicked around the idea of stopping since it was getting on toward the late afternoon. It was off season still and the weather was starting to deteriorate and with the thought that we might arrive at our destination in Germany too late to find a place to say, we considered taking it slow and spending a soon to be rainy night at some little town along the way and continue on to our Bavarian destination in the morning. The next station was the small Austrian village of Landeck.

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It was small, pretty, and best of all, we could see a guest house and restaurant just a short walk from the train platform. Taking the rumbling in all our stomachs into account, it seemed like a good idea. We left the train, and headed to the inn. Action Girl and I were back in our element; backpacking through Europe. Free wheeling it! No solid plans! We’d show Irene how it was done. Now all I needed to do was get my hands on some Euros, and I’d be all set to fill my jet lagged, empty belly with schnitzel and beer and then head off to our duvet clad bed. Ahhhh!

That’s all. Just some cash and everything would be all right. No problem.

Right?

Riiiiight…

More tomorrow.

Do not take the night train from Munich to Prague. Conclusion.

…So we had gotten seats and the train was just about packed. Not only were there no open seats to be seen anywhere, It became increasingly obvious that there weren’t any anywhere. Slightly and not so slightly panicked looking Koreans drifted by our doorway, each with a look like that of a child looking for their lost mom. The whistle blew, the train lurched and we were on our way. As I sat in my lucky seat, I very shortly became aware of a few things. First of all, this was a nine hour train ride on which I would be surrounded by nothing but the Korean language. I prayed that SOMEONE here spoke english and wouldn’t mind chatting a bit. Second, that with the heat and the humidity and now the crush of an overloaded train car, it was turning into sauna here. Fast.

I still wasn’t too keen on getting out of my seat even for the thirty seconds that it would take to open the window lest someone leap into it behind me. The seatless still prowled the hallway looking for the weak of bladder or the very, very foolish who went looking for the snack car. Eventually, I asked out loud if someone could open the window. The guy across from me quickly replied in flawless english, “Good idea” and nodded to the guy on my left, who looked a bit like an Asian Elvis. The hair product alone was impressive, but the clothing choice of unbuttoned while shirt, necklaces and tight black pants really set the image off nicely. Being closest to the window, Elvis managed to get it open and back to his seat before a squatter moved in on the vacancy. The stagnant hot air was replaced with blowing hot air and we listened to the train groan its way out of the marshaling yard. After tickets were checked but before we all got too comfortable, I decided to see if we could improve our seating arrangement. I turned to Elvis and explained that my wife was in the next car and would he be okay with switching? We’d all have seats but that way Action Girl and I could be together. He looked at me from under his moussed mantle and quickly responded, “Okay.” I was delighted. I smiled. He smiled.

He didn’t move.

Uh Oh.

The english speaker across from me started to laugh and then quickly explained to Elvis in Korean what he had just said “Okay” to. Elvis’ smile vanished. Apparently, Elvis didn’t speak english and had been bluffing with his best “Okay”.

He was a man of his “Okay” though. The switch was made and Action Girl joined me in the compartment that was the lap of communist comfort. About this time, the sky could hold the humidity no longer and suddenly, it was like we were traveling under a waterfall. The open window let in sheet of rain and someone sprang up to slam it shut, whereupon he compartment quickly reverted to a steam bath. Ugh!

After about five hours of this joy we finally pulled into a siding and awaited a new engine to take us the rest of the way to Prague. I dared to leave my seat and go out into the hall to stretch my legs and my translator came to join me. The hall way was disgusting. The floors were soaked from the rain and up an down them there were Korean students sleeping or trying very hard to sleep, mostly lying on bits of soaked cardboard. Oh and did I mention the bathrooms? You don’t want to know the state of the bathrooms. Honest.

As it turned out, the nice guy / translator spoke perfect english and had previously spent quite a good amount of time in the states. He explained that this was a package trip from his university and that they had been traveling together for about a week. He was really a nice person to chat with and as my wife did her best to convince her self that she was sleeping, the Nice Guy and I had some good chats. Most of them started with a, “Holy Sh1t! it’s hot in here!”. After an uncomfortable hour or so, the train wobbled with the coupling of the new engine and we were off. I had really gotten to like the Nice Guy. He was a chess player, a scholar and had a really good wit. In short, just the kind of person you’d want to be trapped with in a smelly, wet, steel tube for nine hours.

We were in the home stretch now. The Koreans however were in trouble. Czech ticket agents came through the cars with way too much bluster. They did not look happy and other than the fact that it was something like four in the morning, we quickly found out why. The Koreans had the wrong tickets. All of them. Everywhere you looked, panic was spreading. They all needed to buy new tickets for the Czech part of the trip but to do this you needed money, and money is what most of them didn’t have. They didn’t have it in droves. Our tickets, thankfully, were correct and the ticket collector let us off with only a severe glare. We were, after all, foreign. There was much horse trading and begging amongst the group for loans and the tour operator trying to get the ticket collectors to see reason. It must have all worked out because the collectors finally disappeared and only came back to bother us seven or eight more times. Essentially, just enough to keep anyone from sleeping.

As we rolled into the outskirts of Prague, Action Girl pointed out bonfires dotting the woods. Gypsy encampments, we decided. A little over an hour later we squealed our way into the train station and squirted off the Hell Train on to the main platform. We looked around in a haze made of sleeplessness and being in an utterly unfamiliar place. All the signs were written in cyrillic and we had no idea where to find The Doctor. Then his voice piped up behind us. “Right now,” he stated dryly, “You are saying to your self ‘What the hell did I do to deserve that?'”. We boggled. Did we look that bad? Well… yes, I suppose we did. He took us to breakfast and over what was possibly the most lovely food we had had in months (or at least the most appreciated), we told him our story. He smiled and took a drink of orange juice. “That’s interesting.” he finally said. “Because for me it was exactly the same except for the Koreans. On my train, they were all Japanese.”

I will never take the night train from Munich to Prague again. I don’t care if I have to walk. The really best part of all this is that a friend of ours went to Prague via Munich just a few years ago. She told us her itinerary before she left and we warned her in the strongest possible way. She naturally did it any way and though her experience didn’t include the asian tour group, she told us later that she regrets not following our advice. It’s refreshing to know that some things in the world never seem to change.
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I’ve run out of room to get to the bit with the Evil Eye, but I’m sure I’ll mention it later in another post. Suffice it to say that gypsy’s can be a real pain when they are trying to rip you off but if you shoo them away with too much vigor, get ready for a hex.

Any way… That was the worst night ever for us. A cranky two year old at three in the morning is the minor leagues in comparison. I just have to remind Action Girl about it from time to time when sleep seems to be illusive. “Well, at least we’re not going to Prague by train”. That usually adds some good perspective.

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