Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Otherworldy Iceland

The sky was fading.

The Atlantic Ocean was churning.

And Iceland was the moon.

I looked out the window. I had never seen anything like it. I doubted many people had. Large craters sprinkled Iceland's face like old scars. Snow blanketed the terrain.

Every once and a while, light would shine from down below; proof people actually lived on the moon. The villages were tiny, and not just because I was 15,000 feet in the air. As we glided through the sky, there was too much to look at. Hot springs steamed. Mountain peaks sliced the air. Cars wound through towns.

Reykjavik came into view. We landed softly. We had hours and hours until our connecting flight to Seattle. We wandered through the airport. The sky was a purple haze.

We stood on the outskirts of the airport, breathing in the crisp air. It smelled like the sea and snow. We knew we didn't have long to be outside so we made the most of it. We were pulled in different directions. I wanted to look at the soft rolling hills. Sean wanted to look at the city lights.

I barely blinked, and it was time to go in. Dragging our feet, we walked back inside the airport. As I stood in line, I smiled. Our one month in Europe was up and we were going home. Despite the misadventures, and there were plenty, I was sad to leave.

If I didn't have 50 middle schoolers waiting for me, I might have just grabbed our bags, hopped in a taxi, and stayed on the moon.

What a work of beauty.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Antique Paris

“Happy New Years sweetie,” I whispered, my body rocking back and forth as the train chugged up the Swiss Alps.

Sean sat up, alarmed.

“It’s not me who’s farting!”

“What?” I laughed.

“It must be him,” explained Sean, pointing below him to the Australian boy asleep in the bunk.

“Or him,” I said, pointing at the naked Frenchman dead asleep on the bottom bunk.

It all started six hours earlier.

We boarded an overnight train from Rome to Paris. We were in a six person bunk and both Sean and I quickly took the top bunks. We thought it would give us more room but instead it gave us hot, stinky air to breathe.

It was 12:01a.m. on January 1, 2010. We rang in the New Year not with a kiss but instead with one very naked Frenchman, his sleeping girlfriend, and a mother and son from Australia both of whom snored loudly.

It wasn’t exactly romantic.

“But anyway,” I said, pointing to my watch. “I didn’t ask if you were farting weirdo. I said Happy New Years. It’s officially 2010.”

“Oh. That makes more sense. So… 2010, can you think of a better way to start the year? I mean, we’re sleeping in a room full of strangers, one who felt the need to get naked and then fart and snore all night.”

“It’s my dream come true,” I said, smiling. “I do wish I could give you a kiss though. It’s been our tradition for the past five years.”

Sean blew me a kiss and then laid his head down so he was facing me.

“How much longer?” he asked.

“The train is supposed to pull into Gare du Nord at seven, but we’ll see.”

Sean nodded, and then stuck in his ear plugs. I laid my head down and tried to get comfortable but it was nearly impossible. The train lurched from one side to the other so my head bashed the door or my feet bashed the window. It was not the most comfortable sleeping arrangement.

I looked out the window. There wasn’t much to see. We crossed into Switzerland thirty minutes prior and were now crossing the Alps. Occasionally a light post would illuminate the back drop but only for a quick second. How strange it was to whiz through a country I’ve always wanted to visit. It was cruel.

At 2a.m., the train stopped in Switzerland for an hour waiting for a connection. Wanting to stretch my legs, I slinked out of the bunk trying not to wake my five sleeping roommates. The air was sharp as I walked down the stairs to stand on the platform with a dozen or so others who also couldn’t sleep.

Snow fell lightly and silently. There was no moon or stars and I could only see as far the city lights would allow. We were nestled in a small village with steep roofs and pine trees. Most homes looked like gingerbread houses. The streets were quiet, the city’s occupants fast asleep in their beds.

The jagged mountains loomed to the east and even in the dark I could admire their beauty. How I longed to wake Sean and spend a day wandering this town.

“Yeah, I think the couple below me is getting it on,” I overheard another passenger say.

“I have a baby in my compartment and he’s either crying, pooping, or barfing every five minutes,” said the other man.


Grateful that all I had to contend with was nakedness and flatulence, I stepped back aboard the train. I got out my guide book to Paris and read until I felt the train lug forward. Away we went.

I dozed in and out of fitful sleep until six when I got up to go to the bathroom. We had long been in France. As I watched the countryside fly by, I felt like a jealous lover whose affair was cut short. I wanted to roam from town to town getting to know France’s every nuance.

When we finally stepped off the train, we walked straight to the information center. Luckily, despite the fact it was New Years, someone was working there. The young woman looked as though she hadn’t slept and still had a blood alcohol level of 1.

“Take zee green line and geet off at Champ de Mars,” she slurred. I guess a hangover is a hangover in every country.

The Metro was free because it was Sunday, before noon, and a national holiday. Lucky us. We only had to ride five stops westward. When the train lurched to a stop, we gathered our suitcases and walked to the door. I waited for the doors to open but nothing happened.

My heart stopped. In French, beside the latch, were complicated pictures and instructions for how to open the door. I looked helplessly at Sean who just looked down at the ground. Behind us, a French couple started speaking quickly, and we knew why. When riding the Metro, you have to get off right away unless you want to be carted one stop further than you wanted.

Finally, realizing we were inept, the French woman shoved us aside and expertly opened the door. We were saved. We stepped outside and walked up the dark tunnel. We emerged on a large street with a dozen restaurants, flower shops, and clothing stores. The morning was gray and bitterly cold.

As we walked down the road it became apparent that every Parisian was in bed nursing a hangover. The sidewalks and streets were absolutely deserted and every few feet a pile of wine bottles lay neatly beneath a tree waiting for someone to pick them up. New Years Eve must be a very important holiday in Paris.

We found our hotel and left our baggage there. It was too early to check in and while both of us wanted nothing more than eight hours of sleep in a real bed, we were determined to find croissants, café, and the Eiffel Tower.

Too frazzled from the train, I let Sean wage the language war with the women in the first bakery we found. He came out smiling and bearing goodies: café with lait and chocolate croissants. We munched happily as we walked down the street. We could see the tip of the Eiffel Tower.

As we rounded the corner, snow softly fell from the sky. As if that weren’t enough, thousands of lights lit up the Eiffel Tower. They twinkled and sparkled and dazzled. It was captivating. I stood completely transfixed by the sight. It didn’t seem real. We had the Eiffel Tower all to ourselves, it was snowing, and we had coffee and chocolate filled pastries. Could life get any better?

We walked beneath the Eiffel Tower and looked up. It was a feat of engineering genius. As we walked over the Seine, we found more remnants of New Years Eve.

“What’re you doing?” I gasped when I turned around and saw Sean walking toward me with a discarded rose in his mouth.

“I’m giving you our traditional romantic New Years kiss,” he said, spitting the rose out and cutting his lip.

“Argh! That hurt!”

“Yeah, that was really romantic.”

“You know I live to please you.”

Finally it was time to check in so we bustled back to the hotel, our extremities numb from the cold. Without a second thought, we fell into the soft covers. When we woke it was evening, and we were hungry. We dressed in all of our layers and headed out.

“Jackie, come here.”

Sean was standing next to an Italian restaurant. In the window, there was the cover of Rick Steve’s 2010 Europe Through the Backdoor book. On the cover, written in black sharpie, was: Rick Steves Recommendation.

“We have to eat here,” I said opening the door. “That is just hilarious and I’m convinced”

We stepped inside and a lively old man seated us. Once we glanced at the menu, we were glad we saw the sign. Not only was the food reasonably priced but the restaurant also offered some of our favorite dishes.

“Ready order?” the owner asked, a large smile on his face.

“I would like the port,” Sean said, not looking up from the menu.

“No, no, no,” interrupted the owner, waving his hands in the air. “That later.”

Sean looked at me, clearly confused. I shrugged.

“Beer?” Sean offered tentatively, relieved when the owner scribbled it on his notepad.

Every time the owner delivered drinks or plates, he would mumble incoherently. It sounded something akin to “Boobali boobli boo.” It must have been important because he said it five times. As we were leaving, Sean handed the check to the owner and said “Boobali boobali boo.”

“I guess it’s not really French because he’s looking at you like you’re crazy,” I said as we closed the door behind us. Indeed, the owner watched us leave and walk down the street.

“I really wanted that port,” complained Sean, as we headed back to the Eiffel Tower. I just couldn’t get enough of it.

“It is an after dinner drink,” I explained, but Sean didn’t want to hear it.

There was now a line a quarter mile long to get to the top of the Eiffel Tower. We had talked about doing it but the look on Sean’s face said everything.

“Don’t worry honey. Nothing will beat this morning. You’re off the hook.”

We spent the next three days walking. We walked through the Louvre, to Notre-Dame, and alongside the river. The sky was blue dotted with cotton balls. The sun shone down and we talked about living in Paris someday.

“You have to admit there is something alluring about this city,” I said, legs crossed on the river band.

“I can’t argue with that,” said Sean.

“It’s too bad we have to leave tomorrow,” I said, sad.

“We’ll be back, “he said. “I’m sure of it.”

Those words rung through my head as I looked for my husband. I read the announcement board again, panic flooding my body:

Boarding Flight: Last Call

“Where are you?” I asked myself, scanning the rows of people. Then I spotted him. He was standing in a 50 person line waiting to go through security to get into the waiting room. Of course he was the fiftieth person in the line. What perplexed me was the fact we had both gone through security an hour ago. How did he get out?

I waved to Sean, who looked like a deer in the headlights. I motioned with my hands for him to cut but he stood rooted in the ground.

I sighed and walked over to the security guard who let us threw an hour before.

“Excuse me,” I said. “My husband is waiting in line and our flight is about to leave.”

“Didn’t I already let you guys through?” he asked, perplexed.

“Yes,” I grimaced.

“Okay,” he said, leaving his post and walking through the door to escort Sean to the other side.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” I said, pulling Sean to the boarding gate.

“How did you end up on the other side of security?” I asked while we ran down the narrow boarding hallway.

“I had to pee,” he said, still red faced.

“Geez Sean,” I laughed. “You peed your parents on the way to Europe and you almost peed your pants on the way home. You may want to get that checked out when you get home.”

“I’ll be sure to look into that,” he said as he handed his boarding pass to the stewardess.

“Welcome aboard. We hope you enjoy your flight to Iceland.”