Thursday, November 18, 2010

Knockdown, drag out vacation

After the unstinting ponderousness of the last post, this one is autobiographical and more whimsical, being a travelogue of some of the places I’ve been to in Europe and some of my adventures there.

My first trip out of the country was in 1985. It was a good year. I had been an attorney for about ten months, liked my co-workers, had a little money for the first time in my life (emphasis on little), was having my best year of casual dating (apparently I immediately got a lot better looking when I became a lawyer), and I got to visit Europe for two weeks.
 
I started off in London. I was there for not even a day when I crossed the street at Trafalgar Square. With Lord Nelson looking down upon me, I was as happy as a young American abroad could be. Although the square is, naturally, square, the road is circular. About halfway across I heard a roar and looked to my right. A motorcycle was coming around the curve. We were quite a distance from each other, so I wasn’t worried – yet. I took a few steps forward towards the curb and noticed that the gentleman rider who I will refer to here as His Royal Moron (HRM for short), seemed to be on a collision course to run me down.

So, no problem. I just stopped where I was and faced HRM so he could move around me. I don’t know if he was really a moron, but as far as I’m concerned, he was dumb as a box of spanners. He still seemed zeroed in on me. I stepped to the right (or maybe it was the left) and he adjusted at the same time, still having me in his moron sights. Then I went sideways the other way, just as he made the same move. You’ve probably played this game with someone before as you approached each other in the hallway or sidewalk. You both keep trying to walk past each other but can't help almost bumping. Finally, one or both of you stops and you laugh, while one of you goes by. Yeah, well, this wasn’t as much fun.

At the time I was a fairly agile fellow, but I had my heavy backpack on, not yet having checked into my fleabag hotel. It was fairly heavy and I was exhausted from the flight and had not slept in about 24 hours. As the HRM got closer to me, maybe 6 or 7 feet away, I realized this was not going to end well. In fact, it dawned on me – I was going to die. I actually said to myself, “Oh, I’m going to die.” At least I had the presence of mind to try and relax my body, as I heard somewhere that it increases your chances of surviving. Isn't that what helps protects drunks in auto accidents?

Smack! His handle bars hit me in the chest or stomach and his front wheel ran over my left foot. At least that is the way it seemed to me. I went airborne (so I may have hit my leg on his bike while flying as I can’t see how I went airborne while he was on my foot). I landed on my back.

I didn’t take a kip, if you get my meaning, guvna, but, I did lay in the middle of the street with my eyes closed for a bit. I opened them up and standing above me was a crowd of young men and women. But something was wrong. They had blue and red and green hair and it was shaped in anything but the way a person’s hair is supposed to be. You see, this was the 80s and punk was the thing. Quite ‘orrible looking, actually. I told myself the old joke – “I hope this isn’t heaven.” I don't think I said it out loud, because even to punkers, that might be insulting. And, I was rather defenseless at the moment.

A few seconds later a young woman, I believe what we would call a traffic cop or a brownie, was at my side and helping me to stand up. I checked myself. Obviously, I was alive and I was really feeling good with adrenaline coursing through my body. In fact, I felt ecstatic. I AM ALIIIIIVE!

The brownie spoke to me. "Brhhghhgghugghuh." “What?” I said. She spoke again. "Rrrurderureerrurhah." “Oh,” I said, “I’m fine, but I can’t understand a word you are saying.” I did actually say that out loud. I think she was Scottish, but, for all I know, she was speaking with a Welsh or had a Manx accent.

She helped me to the sidewalk, directly under his lordship, where I was immediately surrounded by well wishers, a number of whom claimed to have pictures of the accident. After all, this was London in summer and there were American tourists everywhere. I picked one person to send me photos because she lived in Philadelphia, which was closest to me of the group. Of course, that was  pretty stupid as whoever might have sent me pictures would do so by mail, and it didn't matter where they lived, but keep in mind I was just run over. Anyway, she snapped a picture of me. For some reason, I covered my smashed camera, possibly thinking that the sight of it might offend someone who looked at it. Again, I was just run over, so . . . .
And HRM, you wonder? He was sitting on the curb. His motorcycle was lying in the street and would clearly need major repairs, if it could even be fixed. Don’t ask me how, but I came out of it better than he and his bike did. Perhaps it was because I relaxed at the last moment and definitely my backpack saved me from greater injury. Probably just lucky. It’s one of my 9 lives though (a post for another day). No one was crowding around him asking him how he felt. Given that he could have just stopped his cycle, public sentiment was on my side. I didn’t feel bad for him and eventually walked away without speaking.
About a half hour later my leg started to feel not so good. I rolled my jeans leg up and pulled off my shoe and sock. As far as I could tell, the only damage I received was a tiny dime sized dot – a little bruise – on the lower left portion of my instep and I had a little bang on my shin. I can't recall if there was any blood. Okay, I can handle this, I thought.

A little later, with all the adrenaline gone, I was in a spot of pain. I limped to my hostel, which I called Ye Old Fleabag Motel, where I shared a room with 7 or 8 drunks. This was not a posh place. I didn’t have a lot of money for this trip, and my airfare used up most of it. Ye Old Fleabag Motel cost me 35 dollars for a week. Get it? Even though I stayed only 5 days, it was a bargain.

Sharing a room with these young men, who seemed to be living there, was an experience. They would talk almost all night. I remember one very entertaining fellow, pissed out of his gourd on radiator hooch, saying to another roomate, “I’ve seen your eyes so red Michelangelo couldn’t paint it.” This was about 4 a.m. and despite the pain I was in I cracked up out loud. I doubt he made it up, but it was funny.

As I found out the next morning, he was quite the humorous fellow. We were all sitting in the breakfast room, and he was at his table repeating over and over “I wonder what we are having for breakfast. I wonder what we are having for breakfast.” Then breakfast came and he shouted. “Oh, boy, toast and beans, my favorite!” It may have been his favorite but all I could eat was the toast and there are few things I can't eat. I also noticed the tea was extraordinarily delicious. I know I asked the brand, but I forget now what it was. In case you don't find that so funny, the next day, when we sat for breakfast, he started in again. “I wonder what we are having for breakfast. I wonder . . . Oh, boy, toast and beans, my favorite!" He was pretty funny. Probably a millionaire industrial magnate now.

One night there I was lying in bed sleeping on my back. The head of my bed backed up to a window. I woke to the sight of a body climbing in the window over my head. He looked down and said “Shhh.” I know I should have been frightened. I know he might have been there for a nick. But, I didn’t think so. I thought he was one of the boys and got home too late for the front door. So, I went back to sleep. It’s astonishing the things you can do when you are young.

On my last day there I notice that I couldn’t find my plane tickets which had been sitting on a little table with my books and other stuff. I figured whoever cleaned the room had thought it was garbage and thrown it out. Going on a search through every garbage can I could find, I came upon it ripped up into dozens of pieces in the trash can in the loo. I scooped it up and put the remains in my pocket. Now, I know, dear reader, that doesn’t sound like much of an adventure. Just wait.

I couldn’t really walk very well after my accident. Fortunately, my boss’s daughter was in London and I was able to hang out for a couple of days with her and her friend whose uncle lived there and had a car. But, after that I was on my own. I even spent a day limping around Oxford, grimacing every step, yet having the best time of my life.

Before I was run over that first day I had met an old woman while walking to Kew Gardens, an amazing arboretum even more beautiful than Long Island’s Planting Field Arboretum, my prior favorite. She was in her 80’s if I recall. She insisted I come with her to her friend’s house on the way, another old woman she told me had been a film star in the early days of movies. Delia somebody or other. Can’t really remember and there was no imdb.com at the time, so I never found out what she was in. Anyway, my friend walked the rest of the way with me to the Gardens. She told me that her dream was to get on the supersonic Concorde and fly to America but her doctors said she wasn’t allowed. One day, she was going to do it anyway. I wonder.

After my boss’s daughter left I met a businessman perhaps 10 years older than me. I told him that I was not impressed with the food in London. Years earlier I had met some British folks in America and they told me they liked to come to the U.S. because the food was so much better. Now I understood. My new friend insisted I didn’t go to the right places and he took me to dinner that night at a fancy steak house. He was delighted with the meal and asked me what I thought. I’m proud to tell you I lied to his face. Diplomacy, you know.

I’m not doing a traditional travelogue here. If you want to know what to see in London, send me your email address. But, the churches, particularly St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. Martins-in-the-Fields, Kew Gardens, Speaker’s Corner and Oxford stand out in my head.

I left Britain and flew to Copenhagen, Denmark on British Airways. You remember my ripped up ticket? So, there I am going through Danish customs. The customs officer asks me for my return ticket out of the country. I was actually going to other countries first and flying out of Amsterdam, but I pulled out of my pocket the heap of papers that had once been my ticket home from Holland and smiled. Why would they care?

Apparently, they did. I was unaware that when you go to a foreign country they often want to know you have a way to leave their country. That makes sense, but I had never really traveled like this before and I had no idea. He looked quizzically at my scraps of paper and soon I found myself being escorted by their customs police. Okay, what could they do to me? I found myself in a little room. It wasn’t a cell, but it had no windows either. It was where they put people who they were going to evict from the country while they figured out what plane you were getting on (and paying for). I and a kid from Algeria were stuck there. I was not happy I was being sent back, but I try to roll with the punches and I decided to make this an adventure.  Unfortunately, I had not eaten breakfast and I had a headache.

Now, the Algerian fellow, he had the same problem I did, only worse. First, I was just flying back to England, which wasn't all that far. He was going to have to wait there until there was a flight to Algeria, which wouldn't be quite so quick and was a much longer flight. Also, he didn’t speak Danish or English. He only spoke French. That meant, the only one he could talk to was - me. I had only my very poorly learned high school French. Surprisingly, as bad of a student as I was, I have found several times in Europe I could converse with other French speakers so long as it wasn’t their first language. However, it was his first language, so I just did the best I could. He had worse problems.

After about an hour there, with my good mood rapidly fading, the door opened, and a pilot walked in. He was smiling and called me out of the room. I said good-bye to my poor Algerian friend, thinking he would fare only a little worse than me. The pilot turned out to be my pilot from British Airways. For some reason  he ended up with my shredded ticket. And, like a jigsaw puzzle, he had pieced it together. I was staying in Denmark. As I thanked him he said to me “The Danish can be a little heavy to dance with.”

I don’t recall if I had to take a train or a bus into Copenhagen but I remember getting off something. There were people all around. They were really good looking too for the most part. Many of them were holding hands, much more frequently than you see Americans do. Most of them were in big groups, but everyone was at least with one other person (I am telling you that the four days or so I was in Denmark, I saw not one other person like myself – alone). And, some of them were singing. I have to stop here and say – I’m not kidding - some of them were singing. I remembered instantly the marvelous movie, Hans Christian Anderson, starring Danny Kaye, my pick for the most all around talented performer ever (at least in my lifetime). It was, in fact, Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen.

My headache went away instantly and I was in love with the city. And that was before I got to Tivoli Gardens, the most beautiful, warm, fun amusement park I have ever seen. It was not at all high tech like Disney World, but it didn't matter. If you are young and it is not on your destination list, and it is probably not, you might just consider it someday. I have traveled many places by myself and do not get lonely easily (now, with cell phones and email, of course, it is virtually impossible unless you are a sociopath, but there was no such thing at the time). But, I admit for an hour or so in the ebullient fun-filled amusement park I felt a little lonely that I had no one to share it with. I met a young American woman, and I thought we might have hit it off, but her friends did not approve of me and it ended before it got started. How could anyone not like a bushy haired crooked jawed limping American male like me?

I stayed in someone’s house there, just a room with a bath.  I looked at my leg one day as I lay in that bath nursing it. The little dot on my instep had grown. The black and blue now went from my lower instep beginning where the little bruise had been and ran almost to my knee. And there really was no blue anymore. It was black and I was pretty sure I saw some green. “You’re going to lose your leg, you idiot,” I thought. But, I had come to Europe to walk and look at stuff and I wasn’t about to let some doctor put me in a cast. Bad judgment, I know, but I was 26 and having a spectacular time.

As I headed to Sweden by Ferry, I stopped off first at Kronborg Castle on the Danish coast – the scene of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is one of the few places I’ve ever taken a formal tour. The dungeons were fun, but the most remarkable thing was a mesmerizing cracked stone statue of the Danish national hero, Holger Danske, a Viking who was sleeping in a chair. The story goes that he fell asleep forever but would awake whenever Denmark needed him. Thus, in WWII, the underground was named after him. Lots of other stuff too as you see his name everywhere there. After the tour was over, I went up to the English speaking guide and said, “I love that statue. How old is it?”  I figured it had to be three or four hundred years old. He answered very matter of factly. “Last year. It was a gift from America.”

Sweden is a story I really can’t tell here as I didn't do much but chase girls. I know this will sound like bragging, but for the only time in my life, I felt sought after. Turns out, it had nothing to do with me. I had brown hair and was American, and, apparently, that worked well in Sweden, as I've learned from some other travelers. At least at the time. Who knows now. Suffice to say, after I left Sweden 4 days later, I had seen nothing except the town of Helsingborg that I had landed in (which was celebrating its 900 year birthday that year). A young woman escorted me back to Denmark and I vowed to myself no more girls while I was traveling. It wasn’t why I came to Europe. But, I want to repeat something to you young men out there that I was told in the late 70s by a college professor in a comparative religion class. “Young men," he said, "you must go to Sweden before you get married.” I doubt a professor would dare say that nowadays, but he was dead serious. So am I.

The one story I can leave you with is that I invented a saying in Sweden. Well, not exactly invented. I was with a group of people who had explained to me that they didn’t really work because in Sweden you are not allowed to be poor. And, without making a living, they resided in a much nicer place than I did in America, and I worked my arsel off. Anyway, we were talking the first day I was with them and for some reason I said, “Piece of cake.” They nearly fell down laughing. There is no such expression in Sweden, or there wasn’t until then. If there is now, I accidentally started it. In Swedish it sounded something like ein bate calkye, which cracked them up again as they tried to teach it to me. Oh, and a nurse I met there told me she could feel a bone chip in my shin. It turned out she was wrong (I got an x-ray when I went home). It was just a terrible bruise, but, this is why one goes to American doctors.

In Denmark for one more day, I spent most of it at Tivoli Gardens and then went by train and ferry to Amsterdam overnight. I had a traveling companion in the train by the name of Helge. Not Helga, he explained, which is a girl’s name. But, Helge (maybe the Danish is Holger). Helge spoke 6 languages besides English (If I remember it was Norwegian, German, Dutch, Danish and Swedish, but, let’s face it, they aren’t all that different from each other) and was going to be a tour guide or something like that. When we got to Amsterdam, with its beautiful canals, tall canal houses with impossibly steep staircases and its awe inspiring museums, he asked me if I would like to share a room for one night to save money. I’m not good at saying no, and he was a pleasant guy, so we did. Even though I had to share a bed with him, which isn't real comfortable, it was better than a room full of drunks.

Walking around the town, Helge asked me if I minded if we went to the red light district because in Norway, unlike Sweden, there was no pornography. I told him it wasn’t hard to find in America, but I didn’t mind as long as it wasn’t for too long. We looked at the incredibly ugly prostitutes in the windows. At his request (I swear) we went to a porno movie (I fell asleep) and then a live sex show (I fell asleep again). If you wanted to, you could have a private meeting with the star of the show afterwards, for a fee, of course. She was, at least, very attractive. Not for me, but there was a group there from Italy and I'm pretty sure someone got lucky. I've been in two red light districts in my life (the other one in Turkey). I left both being temporarily repulsed by sex.

There is one part of the story I cannot tell you. No, nothing sexual happened, you pigs. But along that line. You'll have to wonder and maybe some day I'll write about it, but I doubt it. But, I can tell you this. After I parted with Helge who left in the morning before I got up, I was standing around a tram station on my way to Haarlem. The trams ran on electricity. They don’t have tracks like we do, just little rails in the ground that you can’t even trip over. Everyone just stands around and waits for the virtually silent trams to arrive. I stood there a bit, then I walked to the other side of the tracks, and then I just leisurely wandered about.

All of a sudden, I felt a hand on the back of my collar and I was yanked a few feet into the crowd. I looked around to see who did it when I realized, whoever had, saved my life. I had wandered right onto the tracks and was about to get run over. I’ll never know who saved a second of my 9 lives on one trip.

I was intending, dear reader, to cover all my trips to Europe in this single post, but, I have exceeded the time and space I allot to this every week on my first trip, and it will have to wait until another time. Too bad. I think you might have enjoyed the time I was hanging off the rampart of a castle by my legs overlooking a boulder strewn beach on the edge of Portugal just to take a picture and couldn't get back up, or the time I started the war that broke up Yugoslavia, or the time I was interrogated by Boris Becker (I suppose it was a look alike) near the Monastery of Melk in Austria, or . . . .

4 comments:

  1. Anonymous7:59 AM

    Your best post to date.

    -Eric

    ReplyDelete
  2. What? All my cogent political analysis, my perspicacious cultural insights and deep philosophical thoughts, and you basically like best - what I did on my summer vacation?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Who is the guy in the picture with the mustache???????
    -Don

    ReplyDelete
  4. That l'il ole accident victim - me.

    ReplyDelete

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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .