Sunday, October 01, 2006

Travels Afar and Ago, and Maybe Again

There is one thing in my life that I am confident I did right. Right for me, anyway. Without hesitation. I had the forethought, at a young age, to know that I would want to do a lot of traveling in my youth, in the days with no obligations, before life got complicated. I didn't know at the time that my life wasn't complicated, I just knew I wanted... I needed to travel. And so I did.
The only unfortunate part of the traveling during this time in my life was the fact that I mainly traveled in Europe. I have many friends who have done the Australian-esque World Tour, taking 8-10 months and going every-major-where in the world. Instead, I covered Europe fairly exhaustively in 11 different trips. There are many, many places in the world I still wish to visit, and I think living more of my life and exploring different interests as they grow in me piques interest in visiting more places. Maybe by the time I visit otherwheres, I will have the maturity and informational reading behind me to truly appreciate them in a way I would not have at 18-31.
My interest started as a 14 year old girl, when a single woman and her son ended up placed with my family as a last minute fill-in for another family who had a sudden illness, in a program called "The Friendship Force". It wasn't really an exhange, as much as it was just American families hosting another family from a different country for a week. This woman and her son were German, from Berlin. I fell in love instantly - with them, with their culture, their language. I voraciously consumed tapes and books to try and teach myself German until I was able to take it in high school. I absorbed language like a sponge. And I convinced my parents to go visiting two years later. It was a really dull trip in retrospect - I was so green, so blissfully naive and not even terribly observant. But I knew Germany was a beautiful place, and understood how so many fairy tales could be set in such an idyllic place as the Black Forest. My sharpest memories of the trip were of constant parental bickering and fighting over driving in a foreign country, and the introduction to a spirit that I couldn't even remotely appreciate at the time, a drink known as the "Feige Sau" which translates to "Scared Pig". It's basically a martini glass holding a fresh fig, surrounded by ice cold vodka, topped with whipped cream. Delightful today, hideous at age 16.
Many of the other trips I have taken are fairly uneventful. I did spend the summer after graduation over in Europe "by myself" - hanging out with the family I stayed with the previous year when I won a scholarship trip because of my performance on the National German Exam. That trip was remarkable because my German friend Miki and I spent 3 weeks in Cambridge, England. She went to learn English as a second language, and I tagged along. I mostly spent my days drawing the breathtakingly beautiful bridges that span the River Cam; anything to get out of the shithole that was the Cambridge YMCA. We were so disgusted by the place, the filthy hygiene habits of the many Middle Easterners who occupied the building with us, the rudeness of the staff and other guests, that we clogged as many toilets as we could with toilet paper the morning we left. [Shudder].
Another remarkable memory from that trip was traveling with Miki's family into Italy for 10 days. We drove down from Germany through Austria and into northern Italy. Austria managed to amaze me even beyond the Black Forest of Germany in stunning beauty. We stopped in this tiny village named Rauris, in theory to stay at a small hotel Miki's father had reserved. When we couldn't locate it, a local told us it had closed down, and invited us to stay at their farmhouse for the night. This farmhouse was built in 950-something, solid wood beams the size of my waist. We were in the upper story, Miki's parents in one room, and Miki and I shared another. The windows opened out onto grassy hills with mountains in the backdrop. The bed was something out of another era - a feather bed with antique linens and beautiful embroidery. I had one of the best nights' sleep I have ever had in my life. I awoke around 2 am to the sound of something going on outside - I stuck my head out of the wooden shuttered window to see a young man loading full tin milk canisters onto his truck, leaving empty ones behind for the farmer's wife to fill with cow milk the next morning. He said hello and wished me a good night's sleep and safe travels (word must travel fast in a little town when foreigners are about) and went on his way. The next morning we came down to a full farm breakfast - slabs of fresh meat, cheese, the most amazing rolls, homemade jam and butter... everything was beyond incredible.
In Italy, we stayed in an old Italian villa outside of Florence in the Tuscan hills. We were surrounded by olive and citrus trees. The little apartment we occupied had beautiful high ceilings with embossed tin squares on it, and quirky, lumpy old beds. But the grounds were spectacular. There was a pool surrounded by evergreen trees, and a stone patio that held dinners for the entire villa three times per week. The evening meal extravaganza started around 9pm, went beyond midnight, and had no less than 5 courses. Appetizer, soup, salads, main entree, dessert. With wine and bread interspersed throughout. The best wine you can even imagine, and nothing you could ever purchase. Just locally made wines, chianti style, no label on the bottles. Usually the salad course included several dishes, like white beans or some variety of lettuce with a drizzled fresh olive oil and vinegar atop it. The pasta was beyond compare, so simple and fresh. We took walks and day trips to other unknown, entirely too quaint villages in the area, and steered mostly clear of the bigger cities. It gave me a much better understanding of how delightful a simple life can be. Utterly delightful.
Other trips I have taken have been much more exciting. I have been to Europe at some of the poorest times in my life and managed to squeak by on less than $50/day for all expenses. I wanted to travel so badly, I ate a lot of Top Ramen and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese in order to save as much money as I could to get there. And at the time I did the bulk of my backpacking across Europe, I was able to quit one job and stay as long as I could, and return to something else.
I went for all of October and November of 1992 with a girlfriend, Marni. We started in England, and this was where I learned about the joy of the backpack. We brought rolling duffel bags. That lasted just until we could drag them to our hostel from Victoria Station. The next day we traveled to Cambridge and purchased matching backpacks from a hiking store. Ditched the rolling bags and half our shit, and were good to go. It probably rained on us every single day we were there. We went by ferry to France in the dark of night, tried to find a highly regarded hostel in Lille, France, only to discover by speaking with the wrecking ball driver that it was being torn down. We were chased by gypsies and German shepherds out of the area and had to walk several miles back to town. At this point we were so exhausted that we plunked down a credit card and bought a night's stay in a hotel with its own shower. On this same trip, we got stuck in Ventimiglia, Italy (the closest village to the French border) going from the Italian Riviera back into the South of France due to a train strike. We also plunked down the credit card and bought a night in a hotel, a big bottle of chianti, and a box of Ritz crackers. We ate our crackers and wine dinner on the rocks of a jetty by moonlight and nearly froze to death. It was so cold and wet and miserable. Later on this trip we took a midnight train to Barcelona, Spain. We had picked up a guy who lived in Austin at the time. He was an arrogant asshole, but Marni and he had some mutual acquaintences, and she liked him. The entire trip to Spain almost turned me off that wonderful country entirely, because not only did it rain the entire time, we had a bad meal in Barcelona and I had to travel with this putz. He got his though - he went into a store to purchase some kid cereal and sugar (quirky tastes, he had). He was so condescending to the clerk who was trying to understand what he was asking for, that he came home with a bag of salt instead of sugar (which I am sure was entirely intentional). I think I totally foamed my soda through my nose when he took his first bite. Karma, it's a bitch.
The day that Bill Clinton was first elected to office, we "celebrated" by eating at this amazing barbeque restaurant in an arrondissement in the south part of Paris. A crusty old black man from Seattle and his darling family opened this restaurant and served traditional Alabama barbeque with Heineken beer. We sat and listened to some bluegrass and jazz tunes, ate ourselves homesick, and thoroughly enjoyed our time.
Another trip to Europe I managed to go for free - my friend Dennis got a trip from his parents as a graduation present. And they agreed he could take one friend along as well. He chose me, due to my familiarity and language proficiency. We were only there 3 weeks, but that seemed like HIGH STYLE since we mostly stayed in Hotels. $200/day goes a lot farther, even with two people! I was lovesick, having JUST started dating my husband back then in May of 1993. He sent love letters along with me, for Dennis to hand out at various junctions along the way. We had a wonderful trip, getting stoned in Amsterdam at the Grasshopper Coffee Shop. Purple Sensi was the flavor of the day, and we drank gallons of fresh squeezed orange juice. It tasted amazing in the slow time of a marijuana haze.
My husband and I have been several times to Europe. The most remarkable was the trip in 1995 in which he proposed. We first went to London and traveled to Scotland, to visit my friend Judith in Glasgow, and stay with her parents. That entire trip was a booze frenzy, punctuated by fried fish and chips. GREAT time, that was. For 5 days we went from shopping to bars to parties to curry joints to beautiful hills in the country, to wonderful village restaurants. After going nuts for those days, we took a flight to Ireland. Once there, we consumed our weight in Guinness to recover. We made our way by train and bus to the west coast, just outside of the little town of Doolin. Doolin sits just north of the Cliffs of Moher, the sharpest drop off between land and water in the world. We were in a tiny B&B about 3 miles from Doolin, in the middle of absolutely nothing. It was fantastic. Little-traveled country roads and beautiful grassy fields with grazing sheep. We walked to the Cliffs, one morning, in the rain. Of course. It's June, it's Ireland. Once there, we walked up to the highest point, and my husband (who I had been dating for 2 1/2 years) started to tell me how much I mean to him, how he wants to spend the rest of his days with me. My raincoat was not waterproof (idiot) and all I wanted was a cup of hot tea under some cover. I kissed him, told him mid-sentence that yes, I would happily marry him, if we could just get out of the rain and get some tea! We walked back to the B&B after our hot tea, stopping at this delightful little country cottage restaurant called Nelly's Kitchen. It had an old stone hearth and fireplace, and the proprietors stoked the fire and gave us more hot tea to warm us up - we were about an hour earlier than dinner service, but we stayed and they treated us to an amazing dinner as congratulations on our engagement.
We have taken other trips, notably including Eastern Europe (Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary), and a week-long winefest in the Burgundy region of France. I cannot tell you how or why I remember a damn thing from that visit. I was completely inebriated the entire time. I developed a long-standing crush on creme brulee, making it my quest in life to find the best ever made. So far, my own recipe has not been beat by anyone other than possibly Daniel's Broiler in Bellevue, Washington. We drank some amazing wines at the Olivier LeFlaive winery, getting trashed and eating stinky cheese (Epoisses) for hours in the tasting room, chatting up the wine maker. I browsed the Paris Flea Markets, something I would LOVE TO DO AGAIN WITH MONEY. I didn't have much at the time. And what we had was blown entirely on wine. That we drug home. On our persons. And no, we didn't go through the "I have something to declare" line. We went balls out through the "Nothing to Declare" line. I was truly more worried about the unpasteurized French cheese in my bag than I was about the mere 22 bottles of wine we were carrying. Tja.
I haven't been since 2001, my last trip being with my husband's entire family to Portugal and Spain. My lord, I love those two countries as well. Never have I eaten so well, enjoyed the local culture (flamenco dancing in Madrid and Seville, not to mention the classical guitar at the out of the way joints in Madrid). Ahhhhhhh.
I could go on. But this is getting to the point of ridiculous in length. I cannot wait until my child is old enough to have some appreciation of Europe in order for us to go again. Maybe next year. A 4 year old can appreciate things, right?


Kristin said...

YAY! That was a treat to read. Doesn't it just sit well in your heart knowing that you did the right thing?

Trasi said...

Yes, it sits well, Kristin. It sits next to all these random things where I didn't have the forethought to do the right thing. Gah.

Anonymous said...

Love traveling and do it as much as possible, though I haven't been to half the places you have. We take one international trip each year at Christmas (last year we opted for Hawaii since Ruby didn't have a passport yet) and this year is no different: on December 20th, we'll board a plane for Oaxaca with 18-month old in tow. Even though she won't remember it, we want to instill a love of travel and respect for other cultures. She's already been on 19 flights and to 8 states. So my suggestion is that, if you've got wanderlust, grab that little darling of yours and GO!