Posts Tagged ‘Travel


ANOTHER little engine that couldn’t

Thalys.. deceiving, isn't it?

Ah, Europe! The land of convenient and affordable train travel! Where you can hop on any locomotive and ride that rail from country to country and see everything you’ve ever dreamed of with total ease, freedom and, of course, speed.

This, at least, is what they tell you.

Those of you who have read my previous post about train travel know that even the European rail can let us down sometimes, but everyone says it almost never happens. And since lightning doesn’t strike twice, as they say, I was more than a little surprised – not to mention bitter – when the trains let me down again. And when I say let me down, this is what I mean:

Saturday 13 June 2009, times are approximate

9:00 am: I ride my bike to Amsterdam Centraal.

9:26 am: I am seated comfortably on a Thalys train as it pulls away from Amsterdam right on time, due to arrive in Paris Nord at 1:35 pm that afternoon. I am going to Paris to spend the weekend with my brother, sister, and brother-in-law before they come to Amsterdam. I haven’t seen them in almost 6 months.

11:30 am: The train makes a routine stop at a little station in a town on the Netherlands/Belgium border.

12:30 pm: The train is still sitting at the station. No one has given us any information.

1:30 pm: They finally make an announcement. The train cannot continue on this track and is turning back to Amsterdam. We are instructed to go outside the station, where buses will pick us up and take us to the central station in Antwerp, where we can catch another Thalys train to Paris. We herd outside, where we join a crowd of about 300 people from other trains that faced similar fates. There are no employees or officials, no buses, it’s not clear where or when they’ll be stopping at the station, and it’s very, very hot. I debate getting on a train back to Amsterdam and calling the whole thing off. If it’s anything like the last time this happened to me, it could take all day.

2:00 pm: An unmarked bus pulls up to the curb, and the crowd surges toward it. I wrestle my way through the mob and manage to get one of the last seats. There are people packed into the aisles and fighting each other as the bus pulls off toward Antwerp.

3:00 pm: The bus arrives in Antwerp. No one has told us where to go or when the train would be leaving for Paris, so I wait in a long line at the international travel desk. Once at the front, an employee tells me that the Thayls train from Antwerp will probably also be delayed for an indeterminate length of time, so we have to go to Brussels and take a Thalys from there. She gives me a new ticket.

4:00 pm: Train leaves from Antwerp to Brussels.

4:45 pm: Train arrives in Brussels, but I realize the woman at the info desk didn’t tell me which station the Thalys would be leaving from. I assume it’s Brussels Centraal, so I get off there. I can’t find the train on the departure screens, so I wait in line again at the international travel desk. I ask to confirm the Thalys train going to Paris at said time. “Yes, that train is on time,” the employee said, “but it’s not leaving from this station.” Momentary panic. Fortunately I have enough time to get to Brussels Midi before the Thalys leaves.

5:15 pm: I wait with a crowd on the platform designated for the train that will finally take us to Paris. There is already a train sitting there but no one is let on. People are confused. They make an announcement in French that our train is actually leaving from another platform, so a mad luggage-toting race down the escalator and through some corridors ensues. They let us on the correct train – people who had actually reserved this train and many who, like me, were on the final leg of a relentless chain of delays. I sit down but am soon approached by a spry French gentleman in his 60s; he insists that I stay in his seat, that he’ll stand and let me know when his legs get tired so we can switch. Things are starting to look up.

5:30 pm: The train departs. The people sitting on the aisle floor next to me – a man from Colorado with a few missing teeth, a gold chain necklace and a Loony Toons tattoo (a walking definition of white trash) and his overweight 9-year-old daughter – won’t stop talking to me.

6:15 pm: I give the seat back to the French gentleman. He lets me sit on his suitcase in the aisle. I make myself comfortable and immediately notice that the people I am sitting behind (trash from Belgium this time) are watching a movie on their laptop. I then notice that it is amateur porn. Hardcore amateur porn. In such a crowded train, with people looming over them in the aisles, they must realize they’re not the only ones who can see this woman’s elastic orifices. I mean, who does that? After the glorious grand finale, they turn off the movie and start playing solitaire.

6:45 pm: With my in-car entertainment over, I resort to my iPod and with Yann Tiersen soothing my nerves I look out and realize the beauty of the countryside between Belgium and Paris. The sun is warm and low over the hills and everything is glowing.

7:30 pm: The train arrives in Paris Nord. I take a deep breath and head for the metro.

8:00 pm: I walk up to the hostel where I am meeting my siblings and see them through the window. I jump up and down, waving wildly, and I know immediately that 11 hours of delayed train travel was worth it just to see them 2 days before I would have anyway.

But seriously, what the hell?


What I learned on my summer vacation. Part 2.

little girl in chefchaouen, morrocoFrom Tangier we took an old, un-airconditioned bus to Chefchaouen, a small town in the Rif mountains. We slept on colorful beds on the roof of our hostel in the medina. The loud, melodic 5 am prayer woke us with a start and lulled us back to sleep. We wandered through the maze of blue-painted buildings, our path crossed every now and then by a scrawny feral cat or a group of shy, scrappy Moroccan kids with a soccer ball.

We haggled for 45 minutes with a young merchant and ultimately ended up with a big, beautiful traditionally woven blanket. After walking away and being called back at least 3 times, Jordi talked him down from 600 dirham to 175 (about 17 euros). Moroccans always say about the Dutch (in Dutch), “Kijken kijken, niet kopen,” essentially, “always looking never buying.” Their reputation for being cheap is world-renowned. But Jordi stuck to his price, and we got that blanket.

That evening, we took a bumpy 5-hour bus ride through the mountains to get to Fes and, although we arrived late, easily found a cheap room in a hotel right inside the medina. The center of Fes is a labyrinthine tangle of little, unmarked alleys and crowded market streets. A map does no good, so you have to pay a little kid to show you the way, or ask a new person for directions on every corner. After a dizzying few hours of exploring, dodging the relentless advances of vendors, we sat down for a lunch of olives, couscous and sweet mint tea. The rest of the day was spent finding ways to survive the heat and buying small treasures before indulging in big pink and green ice cream sundaes at a delightfully garishsweet shop.

In the last little stall we went in, full of painted ceramic bowls, the shop owner sold us a small carved wooden box. It’s a special Moroccan design that only the owner (and the guy who sold it) knows how to open. There’s a little key hidden inside, but you have to know where to look. We’d had about enough of the typically aggressive sale tactics, but this man was kind and tactful, so we gave him our business. Like many Moroccans we spoke to, he said over and over again, “You are welcome,” and it somehow meant more than just the stock reply to a thank-you.

We thanked him and walked off after he said “You are welcome” a few more times, and holding the secret box, locked up tight at my side, I wondered what I’d ever been so worried about.

Next time, I’ll be sure not to ask “What if?” quite so much, because the best thing I can do to calm my inner worrier is pack my bags, leave the neurotic planner in me at home, and give the world a chance to prove that it can actually be very accommodating, if you just know where to look.


What I learned on my summer vacation. Part 1.

harbor at sunset in faro, portugal

Hi, I’m Shannon, and I’m a chronic worrier. Sometimes I think it must be in my blood, that old doubts constantly circulate in my veins until they are recycled and become new, fresh fears. Travel, not surprisingly, can exacerbate this tendency. Going new places and doing new things, while exhilarating, also comes with countless new worries built right in.

Earlier this summer, my boyfriend—an optimistic Dutch fellow who purposely avoids making concrete travel plans—and I were discussing our summer holiday. We had 10 free days in July at our disposal, but we’d gotten ahead of ourselves and started talking about August, September, and anything but the matter at hand.

“Hold on,” I said. “We have to worry about July before we do anything else.”

He stopped and stared at me. “Worry? What do we have to worry about, exactly?”

Without even realizing it, I’d used ‘worry’ as a synonym for ‘think’—and it wasn’t the first time. Somewhere along the way, amidst all the life changes, decision-making and risk-taking, I’d allowed worrying to become more than just a bad habit. It had become a state of mind.

As for July, we ultimately decided–due to the cheapest flights offered by Ryanair–on flying into Faro, Portugal, traveling over land through southern Spain and taking a boat to Morocco where we would take a flight home from Fes. We didn’t book any hostels ahead of time, didn’t research transportation between stops, and didn’t bring a guidebook. For me, this was pretty new; for my seasoned travel companion, this was nothing.

To my incessant questioning—‘What if we can’t find affordable places to stay on such short notice? What if there aren’t any buses going to that town when we need them? What if I get sick from the food and have to make the bus driver pull over in the mountains? What if someone breaks our knees and robs us and leaves us for dead in a ditch?’ (That last one was an exaggeration, I swear)—he always replied, “It’s gonna be OK, really.”

And as it turns out–surprising to all of you, I’m sure–it was.

Better yet, it was wonderful.

In sleepy Faro we explored the quiet streets, white buildings dotted with big red flowers. We took refuge from the heat on a shady cafe terrace, where a tiny, white-haired Portuguese woman brought us cold beers on a plastic tray. We sat and watched the sunset at the end of a narrow, empty pier on the peaceful harbor, little boats settling into sleep as fish leapt out of the water all around us, catching bugs and flopping back down on the surface with a lazy, muted splash. We ate a 5 euro dinner, invited by locals to join some group function under the stars, and were brought a pitcher of beer and platters of rice, salad, grilled pork, sweets and coffee. We spent a day on the beach, dozing in the sand after playing like little kids in the cool Atlantic. The next morning, we took a 4-hour bus ride to Seville, wishing we’d gotten better souvenirs than the needle-sharp sunburns on our backs.

In Seville, the capital of Andalusia, a Spanish friend of Jordi’s showed us around the city, teaching us about the Islamic and Christian architecture, and how the two existed peacefully in the area for years. We stood with little Spanish children, their backs a toasted brown from the July sun, in the cool spray of the giant fountain at Plaza Espana. We ate a late dinner of heavenly tapas–randomly ordered from a menu we couldn’t read–sitting outside at a little table in a narrow alley, ancient bricks adorned with glowing sconces lighting our meal. We drank peach juice on a dimly lit rooftop terrace, the adjacent cathedral luminous in the black sky, bats circling its tower.

In Cadiz, said to be the oldest city in Western Europe, we climbed the Torre Tavira for a 360 view of the city’s white rooftops surrounded by the bay. At dusk we swam in the cliffside pool of our hotel and dried off in the evening sun, watching the waves wash against the wall below. We walked along the stone path leading through the water toward the lighthouse and saw restless boys jumping off an old bridge into the ocean.

In Tarifa, a relaxed, eccentric surf town, we ate el secreto standing up in the corner of a small, crowded tapas bar that smelled like meat and old, wine-soaked wood. We drank a 5 euro bottle of red wine on the beach, laying in the cold sand and looking at the stars near the spot where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean. We swam in the calm waves the next morning, enjoying one last dip before boarding the boat across the Mediterranean to Tangier.


How can I put this…

One of many sculptures in Retiro Park. It has a secret.

Sitting in Retiro Park on my last afternoon in Madrid, all I could think about was how I wouldn’t be able to write about the city in any way that does it justice, how I wouldn’t be able to avoid a string of cliché adjectives so overused they’ve lost meaning, so I simply wouldn’t bother.

But as the street music in the park grew louder and the new April sun tightened its grip on me, I sat there soaking in the feeling you get only from the blinding energy and violent color that pump through a living city, the feeling of numbing bliss you get when traveling that convinces you for the moment that you’ll never feel it again, never be able to describe it, never truly understand what it was.

I figured this had to be worth an attempt of at least a few sentences.

So, for me, Madrid is Retiro Park – laying in the sweet, sticky grass on a Friday afternoon as a warm breeze sends a blizzard of white petals spinning and dancing through the trees. It’s a pink ice cream cone on Saturday, it’s spending a few hours letting the sun—finally free from its winter cell—heat me, cover me, wrap me up for the first time this year.

It’s standing in El Tigre, a packed, grimy tapas bar—the floor covered in wadded napkins and cigarette butts—eating hot croquetas and drinking beer amid the loud voices of hungry Spaniards just released from a week of work. My shoes stick to the floor and my shirt sticks to my back and I feel warmly welcomed to Spain.

It’s moving up the stairs of the metro station with a hot, crushing crowd of other Sunday morning shoppers on their way to El Rastro market and hearing the street music before I’ve even emerged from below ground, when all I can see is a cloudless sky and all I can hear is energy, voices, and rhythm. Seven Spanish men are there—two guitars, two accordions, a giant bass cello, a saxophone, and one just dancing, who moves and shakes as though he’d never even learned to walk before he was using his legs to dance. They play and sing and shout and sway and effortlessly fill the bodies and hearts of the crowd with a tick, an itch, a beating euphoria.

It’s laying on the little bed of our cheap 8th floor Gran Via hotel room for an evening nap, the sky turning from blue to orange to purple to black out the window as I listen to the hushed breathing of the lovely person next to me and the distant, excited clamor of the traffic below.

It’s sitting in a peaceful square in La Chueca on Sunday evening, drinking cheap cans of San Miguel on a bench as the sun sinks behind the buildings and everyone around raises their drink and bids a quiet farewell to another weekend.

It’s sitting in Retiro Park, yet again, on Sunday, that last afternoon, thinking this is too much life, too much energy and color and humanity and love to know what to do with. We lay among the giant pillars of the monument behind the lake, the sun pressing insistently on our faces, our necks, our bare feet. Blue and white boats slide across the water with each lazy stretch of an oar. People watch a big group of drummers with djembes as together they push a solid moving sound high above us all.  They pound their drums faster and louder and the beat shakes with such a force that the air itself seems to be moving, and you hear it and you feel it and everything becomes part of you and you’re blind and you’re dizzy and you’re happy and you have seen Madrid.


View from the Top

the view from our chalet

They say dreams are more vivid at high altitudes.

To me that sounds like a load of crap, but my subconscious confirmed it recently when I spent a week in the Swiss Alps. After seven months living in the center of a major European city and traveling once a month to other major European cities, I was looking forward to a week in the mountains away from concrete, traffic and metros, in a place where I could raise myself  above cluttered streets and a cluttered mind.

What I found there in those mountains – aside from the most grandiose landscape I’ve ever seen – was indeed a higher level of consciousness and a more extreme range of emotions than I’ve reached in a long time; and it left me tired, despondent and agitated. All week, instead of floating around in my usual and comfortable mass of vague ideas, questions and worries, I found myself either digging for any kind of thought at all in my hollow icy cave of a brain, or desperately trying to flee an avalanche of inexplicable anxieties.

To be clear, it was definitely a relaxing week with little cause for stress – which is perhaps why I was so unnerved by the snowball fight going on inside my head. I was in Verbier on a ski holiday with my adoptive family, and I passed the time playing in the snow, looking after the kids in our chalet, eating good food, sitting by the fire, and reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being. All in all, a very nice way to spend seven days.

Though, being a California girl who’s always followed heat like a house cat moving across the carpet with the afternoon sun, I did feel out of my element in the snow. I tried snowboarding a few times on the baby slopes, and the cold, harsh reminder that I am and will forever be a big sissy hit me as hard as my ass hit the piste. Somehow I thought I’d be able to do it, but I’m just too scared to relinquish any amount of control and really go for it. I finally gave up (hating myself all the more) when the unhygienic Swiss lift operator who didn’t speak English grabbed hold of me for the third or fourth time to offer a boost on the drag lift, and I lost my balance and control and the thing ripped that plastic flying saucer from my crotch yet again. I lay there as that infuriating Swiss mountain boy stood over me shaking his shaggy head with pity that humiliates you in the way that only pity from such a lowly creature can.

We did spend one of the mornings at the village’s indoor swimming pool instead of the baby slopes, and I was able to enjoy water in the state of matter in which I feel much more comfortable, much more natural, much more – if you will – fluid. I closed my eyes, submerged myself, and there, swimming in that dingy community lap pool far past its prime, with the mountains gazing down on me like wise elders, my mind reached a quiet equilibrium. I let my body sail effortlessly through the water as my thoughts balanced calmly between the two opposing forces of all or nothing that challenged me the whole week.

That night I had a dream that looked and felt more real than the conscious world had seemed all week. I was flying. I steadily propelled myself forward using the same strength and ease with which I swim. I’d never been so convinced of coasting naturally through the clouds. When I woke up I thought how odd it is – how poetic – that somehow being higher in the physical, geographical sense means we are lifted up and pushed not only toward the sky, but toward our own elevated subconscious – that misty, clouded place that is always so far out of reach.

I appreciate the mountains for all their inspiring grandeur and humbling might, and bow to their power of challenging me physically, mentally and emotionally while on what was supposed to be a relaxing holiday; but ultimately, I think I’m better off down here, at sea level, where I can swim happily in the steady ebb and flow of my mind.


Wiener Wonderland, Part Zwei

5 euro scarves in the Naschmarkt.

Our second day in Vienna started early with quiet snow falling on the window of our hostel room. It had been a while since I stayed in a hostel and I was surprised by the distinct contentment I felt when I rolled over in my sterile sheets that morning, waking to the soft light and the kindly muted sounds of strangers moving about the room. There’s a certain youthful innocence to the hostel experience, kind of like camp; except instead of rolling out of your bunk bed and going downstairs to your archery lesson or nature talk, you roll out of your bunk bed and go downstairs to a grungy bar, pool table, and a dozen 20-somethings using their 50-cent block of internet time to update their Facebook statuses: So-and-so “is in VIENNA! Hell yes!! Europe 2009!!!” or some other equally obnoxious, overly-exclamated way of making sure all their friends know they’re doing something cool. (Admittedly, I do not exclude myself from this group.)

So we pulled on a few thick layers and went for a stroll through the colorful sunlit Naschmarkt, Vienna’s largest outdoor market, before exploring the enormous Belvedere gallery where we were lucky enough to brave the crowd and stare – numb with awe and adoration – at Gustav Klimt’s great shimmering masterpiece, “The Kiss.” From the museum we rushed back to our hostel to get dressed for our evening out. This time we wouldn’t be going out to sit in a cloud of smoke and laser lights only to be overcharged for drinks and dodge the eyes of sleezy drunks with greased up hair. No, instead we went to the opera. Guiseppe Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” at the Vienna State Opera, to be specific. It felt rather incongruous to be pulling on evening dresses and heels in our hostel, the dirty water on the floor of the bathroom soaking through the feet of my tights as I did my best to apply mascara in the dim light.

But while we may not have fit in there, we certainly looked the part at the opera house, even if we didn’t act it. Arriving late, we crept through the heavy door of the stately building some 20 minutes after the start of the first act, and flew up the empty stone staircases – our heels clicking on each cold step – to our seats. We then really embarrassed ourselves when the usher reprimanded us for arriving late for the second act as well, having spent too much time taking pictures against the resplendent backdrop.

Our 10 euro tickets did not include a view of the stage, as we were seated so high up and to the side that we could only see the giant donut-shaped chandelier. But we read our translator boxes, let the music move through us, and stood up for a good look when anything exciting happened. The man next to me – Austrian, simply dressed and alone – was strong evidence that one doesn’t need a good view to enjoy the opera. The way he moved – the subtle but frenzied flicks of his wrists and the thrilled twitch of his smile – showed his thorough knowledge of the music, of every rise and fall, every sparkling moment. When it ended, he invited us down a few rows with him to lean over the banister and have a better look at the triumphant performers, then he walked slowly out of the room, his hands raised high above his head as he clapped them together with the reverberating boom of a man truly moved.

We finished off the night with dinner in a fancy Italian restaurant and drinks in a 6th floor lounge/bar sitting against huge windows with a view dominated by the adjacent St. Stephen’s Cathedral, lit dramatically against the black sky. All in all it was a high class evening, but I didn’t get through it without losing at least some of my dignity with a minor incident that truly demonstrates Austrian politeness. As our waiter removed my coat before seating us at the restaurant, my heavy wool shroud (and the static cling that it had been devilishly propagating against my satin dress) came off only to lift my skirt above my rear end and attach it to my back, revealing my ass – thinly veiled by sheer gray tights, but clearly there nonetheless – to the entire restaurant. And although I am regrettably certain that people saw, including our wait staff, I noticed not a single reaction then or throughout the meal.

I thanked the heavens for this the following morning at the Hofburg Imperial Chapel where we sat through mass with nuns and tourists alike to hear the angelic voices of the famous Vienna Boys Choir. It was one of the strangest, most unbelievable things I have ever seen. Truly unworldly, seraphic sounds coming from the diaphragms and vocal chords of 25 bony, scraggly 10-14-year-old boys with shaggy hair and wrinkly sweaters.

We too, it seemed, proved unable to fit ourselves into our surroundings there quite like we’d hoped. Though so much of the city calls for solemnity and dignity, we couldn’t help but laugh at inappropriate times throughout the weekend as we pulled our inadequate clothing around our shivering shoulders. I mean, although it is simply the German word for “Viennese” – a word that evokes only rich history, art and grandeur – it’s difficult not to giggle when “WIENER” is posted with such exuberance and pride everywhere you look.


Wiener Wonderland, Part Eins

Winter festival!My weekend in Vienna was one of contrast–high and low culture, extravagance and simplicity, chance encounters with people both delightful and dreadful.

We started off the trip with a fancy lunch at the beautiful Palmenhaus. On our way there we found an old woman who had fallen on the icy curb, seemingly landing on her face, and had been laying there unable to get up for who knows how long.  Her nose was purple and lumpy and seemed to be swelling by the minute, and her lovely coat was splashed with blood from a small cut on her face. Fortunately my travel companion, Tiffany, had a stash of Kleenex to offer, so we and the woman who’d found her first helped her up to a bench and just stood there dumbly offering sympathy and something to catch the blood. In spite of the trauma, though, both ladies were extremely friendly as they waited for the ambulance, the old bird smiling and nodding and thanking us profusely in German as she soaked tissue after tissue with her own blood, tried to catch her breath, and fussed with her furs and felts in an attempt to look composed. I’d heard that Austrians are polite, by my goodness.

After getting over the shock of finding a bloody old lady on the street, we ate and enjoyed an afternoon of modern art at the Kunsthalle where they were showing an Edward Hopper exhibit, including a photo set for visitors constructed and lit as an exact replica of “Western Motel” so you could be your own lonely and brooding Hopper character. After refueling with some perfect lattes in their swanky cafe, we wandered upon the Wiener Winter Festival with colored lights everywhere, an enormous ice skating track, and stand after stand of traditional treats (we went for the enormous donuts).

That evening we reminisced about our college days (oh, how distant they seem) over more coffee and Austrian cakes in a velvety cafe with a horribly rude waiter, conspicuously scoffing and shaking his head at everything we said and did. Their kitchen was closed, so we satisfied our appetites at a street cart outside serving shoarma and enormous portions of slimy, yet delicious, pizza. A large Turk served us up the cheap food with plenty of pet names to go. So we sat and ate on a bench at a tram stop on a yellow-lit street, freezing as we wiped the grease off our hands and did our best to deter a pair of fat, drunk, middle-aged, blue-collar Austrian brothers who accosted us with every other bite. We shooed them off and didn’t get too nervous because we knew our burly Turkish prince would come to our rescue if things got too real. Then it was on to a recommended nightclub that turned out to be over-priced, under-ventilated, and brimming with some serious Euro-trash.

Oh well. Tomorrow night we’d try again.

"Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" -Henry James, The Art of Fiction
February 2019
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