Wednesday, October 23, 2013

the unreality of it all

Two-thirds of the way through our European trip, I was sitting in the back seat of our friend's mom's station wagon writing: "When we return home I may just sit down and ask myself 'What just happened?'" We were about to cross the border from Italy into France, driving along the coast through tunnel after tunnel that had been carved from the coastal mountains. Between tunnels we could view town after town perched between the road and the Mediterranean. I began this post fewer than 48 hours after arriving home and at the time, it seemed to have been a dream. But it was not a dream and I have the receipts and my folded and refolded itinerary to prove it. Also a few souvenirs and a temporary passport. It all happened: London, Riga, Prague, Salzburg, Genoa, Arles. Lespignan, Paris. I have proof. I just need to piece it all together.

Jon and I had been wanting to make a trip to Europe for a few years. Our friend was living in London and about to move back to his home country of Latvia. (Latvia? Check the map. It's that small Baltic country between Estonia and Lithuania, butting up against Russia and Belarus.) We decided to fly to London to meet him, then fly together to Riga for a few days before traveling around, visiting a few cities. At first we were going to do a short trip, maybe cover some ground in the Baltic region before flying out from Copenhagen. But some other friends had recently moved from Alaska back to southern France. We thought it would be nice to visit them. Jon glanced at the map and suggested we fly out of Paris. I'll admit, I was concerned. It may all look close together on the map, but Europe is a huge place with so many things to see. I booked the trip and crossed my fingers in hopes that we would see what we wanted on our lists.

bike, bus, ben
Upon arriving in London, our friend, Janis (pronounced Yannis) met us at the airport and we traveled by train to central London for lunch and a stroll around the busy city. After a few dropped calls and messages, we finally arrived at the place we'd booked for our stay (which is its own story) and were able to get some sleep. The next day, we continued our explorations with a visit to the British Museum with its wealth of items collected within: Greek urns, early Roman artifacts, the much-visited mummies and Rosetta Stone. Our minds full, we strolled around the city, looking into shop windows as the light began to fade: Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, where we decided we were all very hungry. We found a pub near Big Ben and drank our not-quite-cold beers while waiting for our food. Meat pies, curry. Enough to fill the void. Then off into the night to the nearest tube station and the noisy trip to the sad room we'd rented for our stay.
Earlier in the evening I had picked up the book District and Circle.
The next day we took the now-familiar tube (mind the gap!) to Janis's work place where we picked up three folding Brompton bicycles for our explorations. We wanted to go to Greenwich to see the museum. Janis mapped the route, then we cycled together along streets and paths to get to the museum and observatory located on a hill high above the city, which is the most logical place for an observatory, after all. The museum and observatory were surrounded by a large, almost rural-feeling green space. We studied the exhibits while rain began falling. We learned, among other things, about the quest to solve the "longitude problem" a problem that had puzzled scientists and sailors for centuries.
Not quite portable.

Returning to London, our ride included busy streets and a few sidewalks as we pedaled in the rain to the Tate Modern. On that particular day, most of their galleries were closed due to an unnamed technical glitch. We hadn't much time anyway because we were to join Janis at an end-of-season work party that would double as his going-away party. We zipped along the wet streets, navigating roundabouts and cobbles until finally making it back to his work place which occupied one of the many enclosed arches underneath the city's rail line. We changed into nicer clothes, then boarded a bus to take us to the party. Yes, upper level on one of the ubiquitous double-decker buses which gave us a unique, white-knuckle view of London's rush-hour bus, car, scooter and bike traffic. Yikes!
View from the upper deck doesn't look all that scary. Lots of bikes
jockeying for the same space as the buses, cars and motor scooters.
At the party, a man who works for the London ambulance service (a client) asked me if we'd biked through the grassy park-like area on our way to the Greenwich museum. Yes, we had. That, he told me, was where during the plague the bodies had been sent for burial. I paused for a moment at the gruesome thought of all those bodies buried unceremoniously on the outskirts of the city. Then I couldn't help but think of this.

We stayed out late that night, joining the coworkers as they migrated to a corner pub where they proceeded to get drunk as college students at a frat party. Finally we walked to the tube stop to see the truly deranged on the late night train, shouting admonitions, scaring the other passengers, including a young woman we offered to walk with if the man exited at our stop. After a late night take-out order of schwarma, we walked the now-quiet streets back to our room and to bed.

The next day we packed our bags and took the tube one last time to the city where we stashed the luggage so we could take another walk around before our late-afternoon flight. It was a warm, sunny day. We walked by St Paul's Cathedral, then crossed the Millennium Bridge, past the groundlings waiting to get tickets for the Globe. Janis had left to finish his packing and wrap up some business. Jon and I were on our own for the afternoon. We returned to the Tate to see if everything was open. But first, some lunch. We went to the restaurant (not to be confused with the cafe) in the museum. I remember looking at the menu and when Jon seemed hesitant, I remember telling him: I want to sit and enjoy a meal and not feel like I'm rushing. Because everything we had done for the past few days had felt like a race to do what we were doing so we could go to the next place, do the next thing. Pile that atop the jetlag and who wouldn't be a little stressed out? So, we got a table. Shared parsnip and pear soup, barley risotto, Suffolk chicken with potatoes, I don't remember everything, but I slowed down and was aware of each flavor as we relaxed for the hour. We then wandered the galleries where we saw works by Picasso, Dali and others, plus an entire room filled with Soviet Propaganda posters. I was glad we'd returned to see more of the museum.
Detail of gate at the Globe.

How could I walk past this?
When it was time to meet Janis, he was running late. Jon and I sat down in a coffee shop to wait for him while I sent a message to our host in our next city: Riga. Then came the next rush: when Janis finally showed up, we gathered our bags from his workplace and hustled to the tube station, then the train that would take us to the airport. What I remember most of the rush to the airport was running down a spiral stairway in a tube station, lugging my suitcase because an escalator was out of order, then sitting in a hot train, sweating, relieved that we would make the airport in time to catch our flight. I didn't know at the time that at the next airport I would want everyone to hurry up. Because once we were in RIX, everything came to a stop.

The man checking passports looked at mine. Looked at Jon's.
Took them to a woman in a room near Passport Control.
She asked a few questions.
We couldn't enter the country. I didn't understand. Schengen. You must have 90 days before your passport expires to enter the region known as Schengen, the region that includes 26 European nations that have open borders with each other. We both had 76 days left on our passports, having applied for them at the same time almost 10 years ago. What could we do? It was midnight. They let me call the U.S. Embassy. Was that the first time someone said we needed to go back to London and get temporary passports from the embassy there? Maybe. I would have all night to worry over what to do.


Katey Schultz said...

Loved getting the sneak peek! Sounds incredible!

corinne said...

great to see these posts about your trip! so many fun details and photos! I'm so jealous about the brompton bikes!