Thursday, September 6, 2007

Extended Travel Log

I meant for this to be about the week in Brignole, but my brain wouldn't work that way. It insisted I start at the beginning. You've already seen the short version, this is the long version. There is a longer version because this is how those notes get transformed into the book "I'm not an alcoholic, I'm just European."

I could wait until the week in Brignole is done, but then you would be waiting another week for something to read and that would be bad.

Let me know if this makes you chuckle.

Wendy and I spend the last frantic day of “vacation” packing for our flight and mailing things back to Madrid. “Things shipped back to Madrid” would be items that you can’t find easily here. My prefered brand of Axe deodorant (“mmm you smell nice” is very important to me and helps lead the way to something else that’s even more important to me) toothpaste, horseradish (no, they don’t have horseradish here) the instant oatmeal and pudding we like, etc) Packing can be rough when you have two homes in completely different cultures and another vacation coming up.

Here’s a travel tip for you.

Never buy a gigantic suitcase.

In Florida, knowing that we would be, at times, going home for six weeks at a time, we bought two Samsonite “Megalosaur Giganticus” suitcases. We can pack our entire wardrobe, gifts, computers, books, espresso maker, porn and toys all in one bag! Won’t that be the best?

Well, we were correct. We could pack everything and the espresso maker into them. Now imagine how much they weigh and think about the fact that we live on the fifth floor. Now imagine a 42 year old metro sexual with his shirt off, sweating like a fat man in a jumpsuit running a marathon, as he carries a Megalosaur Giganticus suitcase down four flights of narrow spiral steps in ninety eight degree Madrid summer heat.

“Don’t fall. Don’t fall. Don’t fall.”
I keep muttering to myself as the bag sways back in forth against my chest. (Yes, against my chest. You try and lift one of those things with one hand and carry it down 230 steps.)

As the coup de grace now imagine going back up those steps, picking up Wendy’s bag and finding it a good twenty pounds heavier.

“Don’t die. Don’t die. Don’t die.”

Images of me tripping and hurling Wendy’s suitcase away from me in panic as I try to stop my fall fill my brain. Images of seventy five pounds of clothes, make up, electronics, books and gifts spewed violently down four flights of steps haunt my imagination. By the last flight I’m muttering a completely different mantra.

“Don’t have a heart attack. Don’t have a heart attack. Don’t die. Almost there.”

Of course, getting these two huge bags to fit into a standard size cab trunk presents another challenge. Two large suitcases will fit in the trunk of a cab. Two enormormous ones will not. Next time they come to pick us up I bet they bring a van.

And as the final icing on the coup de grace, imagine us getting to the airport and having them tell us the bags are too heavy to go on the plane.

Are we having fun yet?

Back to the present. Well, we’re smarter this time. The six week Vermont summer visit is over and now we’re packing shit up again. And this time, we know the weight limit for the airplane. (For most airlines it is two bags per person not weighing more than fifty pounds. One bag can’t weigh more than forty pounds. Unless you want to pay extra then you can go up to 70 pounds in two bags.)

Can you see how having one huge bag isn’t that great?

Packing today takes longer than it did in Madrid because we have to weigh the bags and juggle stuff so that they make the limit without additional fees. And we’re bringing back duffle bags that will contain the majority of the clothes and books we’re bringing to Provence. This will save on packing time later.

We finish the packing and I carry the last box over to the mail and Wendy does all the paperwork to get it shipped. When we return home, her father is sitting on the steps waiting to drive us to the airport. The drive is fine and uneventful.

We get checked in with no hassles. We go get a drink in the airport bar and compare feelings about leaving Vermont to heading back to Madrid and how we hope the flights are smooth. The schedule we have planned for the next 24 hours could range in the neighborhood of “slightly hard” to “mental breakdown insane” depending on how much security, airplanes, baggage handlers and delays decide to fuck with us. Usually with air travel, that is a lot.

Small airport security is almost always easy. We get through with no hassles and in very little time. We read a bit in the waiting area and the flight is also on time. Wonder of wonders, we also depart on time. The flight is smooth and easy and arrives on time as well. In Newark we don’t have to go through security again, don’t have to pick up our luggage, and get no hassle from anyone. We have an hour and a half for dinner and find a couple seats at the bar of our favorite steak house “Gallagher’s.”

Two seats away from us a man is eating smoked salmon. Next to him a man has just received an appetizer that looks delicious. A thin, young, crisp professional kid named Eddie gives us some menus and I ask him what the dish is three seats over. This is something I heave learned from one of my new heroes “Anthony Bourdain.” In his travels, not able to speak the language, he will sit down next to someone that appears to be eating something appetizing. When the waiter comes over he’ll point and motion until he gets across the idea “I’ll have what she’s having.” While the language isn’t a problem, the idea remains the same.

We order a bottle of Rosemont Shiraz, the crab lump cocktail, a plate of fries and “what he’s having.”

“What he’s having” is not on the Gallagher’s menu that is posted online but could best be described as a Filet Mignon Tostada. Essentially, small pieces of toast with bleu cheese, rare filet mignon and caramelized onions on top.

“Seriously, you could add caramelized onions to cake and it would make it taste better.” – Collette Ballou

The steak is sublime. The crab is fresh and delicious. The wine, as Rosemont always is, is smooth and delectable.Wendy and I have a couple glasses of wine and glow at each other. Our waiter behind the bar, Eddie, is struggling to keep up with the mounting checks while simultaneously trying to flirt with an oddly attractive girl that has come in and is seated next to us. The girl looks a little bit hard. She has a cute face, a thin frame but nothing like a classic beauty.

When I can get his attention, I order us more Filet Mignon Tostada. I pour Wendy some more wine and then set my hand on her thigh and we gossip about Eddie and the oddly attractive girl. Flirting? Couple? Friends? We love to people watch and try not to get caught. Soon the girl leaves and Eddie turns back to us. “Where you folks heading?”

We make small talk for fifteen minutes and then head for our flight. Great kid. We leave him a nice tip.

The stars have aligned this day. We have had a wonderful meal with a nice waiter and the flight to Madrid is also on time. Boarding is simple and there is no long wait to take off. No queue like we’ve had before, waiting 45 minutes for our place in line to come up so the plane can be on it’s way. We read for an hour and Wendy finds out what the in-flight movies are going to be. Kid and dog movies. I like dogs. I like dogs a lot. Too bad dog movies suck. I’m 42 so I’m not that big a fan of kid’s movies either.

We eventually drift off for three hours and then wake up. I wake up to see a little fuzzy white dog genius saving kids from a fire while simultaneously catching the arsonist and getting a bottle for a hungry baby. God damn I hate dog movies.

I get another wine and try to get back to sleep. I fail. It’s four am our time why the hell are we both awake? Resigned to our fate we pull out our books and start to read some more all while trying to avoid looking at the screen as Rover solves the national debt and brings peace to the middle east.

We get to Madrid three sleepy hours later and land without crashing. Always a good sign. If we can get our luggage without bother, half this trip will have been hassle free. Well, except for that dog movie; that was painful.

We get into the terminal and find the screen that tells us what carousel our luggage is going to be coming out on. Around this carousel are a hundred people already from the flight that came in before us. There are a hundred bags on the carousel. No one is touching anything. I look around for familiar passengers and see plenty, so I know this is the right place. Another flight arrives and more people come streaming in and stand at our carousel, upping the number another hundred or more. It is now Times Square at Midnight around the baggage oval. People press and crowd seven deep peering over shoulders for a glimpse at the hundreds of bags jamming the long conveyor belt.

No one is picking up bags.

None of these bags belong to any of the people here.

Since ten minutes have gone by, I assume there’s been some kind of mix up and relinquish my spot to the hordes of people crowding me.

About fifty percent of the time in the past two months of our travels when there is a delay, it is due to the baggage jerk offs in the back not caring or not knowing what the fuck they are doing.

Wendy’s on the job. Wendy is always on the job. She starts questioning guys in jumpsuits and badges.

- “Everything is fine; your bags will be out soon.” Oblivious to the fact that two hundred plus people are watching a potpourri of bags rotate in an endless circle and no is picking up anything.
- “Don’t know. Screen says number two.”
- “Not my job.” Continues eating his sandwich and looks at her blankly until she goes away.
- Shrugs “Check with Continental.”

Wendy goes to the Continental desk and asks if they know anything. She is informed by a very nice woman that they didn’t know there was a problem and would look into it right away. She comes back five minutes later shaking her head. The guys handling the luggage had it all on carts and didn’t know which carousel to put it on so they just waited; not calling anyone; not guessing. Nothing. The nice Continental woman tells them to put it on three. Ten minutes later we have our luggage and are speeding towards Madrid with an English speaking taxi driver. He used to work in New York for a travel company but when 9/11 happened the travel company lost a lot of business and had to let him go. Now he’s back to Madrid with his wife and they do this and tours on the side. Nice guy.

We unload and once again face the daunting task of carrying a lot of weight up a lot of stairs. We have five hours to get everything up, unpack some of it, pack a bag for Provence, and get back to the airport thirty minutes away.

Thanks to our careful planning in Vermont, oh so many hours ago, the bags for Provence are mostly packed already. A bit of switching of toiletries and electronics and we’re ready to go. Sadly, the baggage jerk offs have fucked us again.

Three of our bags have been searched and a portable DVD player given to Wendy by her father has been stolen. The box and its packing materials are loose in the luggage and no sign of the player. We feel mildly violated and extremely pissed.

After unpacking far more than we had planned, looking to see what else they might have broken or stolen, we finally get to lie on the bed and catch some winks. An hour later the alarm goes off and we’re out the door again.

May you live in interesting times indeed.

Tonight we’re flying Ryanair. I can’t imagine a lower cost airline to fly. Our round trip flight is costing us less than a hundred and fifty dollars. But you have to know what you’re doing to get that fare. Bags are limited to 15 kg, so pack light and pack everything in duffle bags. There’s no free food. No in flight movie. No assigned seating. The seats don’t even recline.

Seeing as how we are Ryanair experts and not novices, we plan ahead. We pay the extra three Euros and get priority boarding for the flight there and back. As we watch people struggle to make weight or shell out extra cash for their hard, over weight suitcases, and stand in a line that will be ignored by 50% of the Europeans sitting down, Wendy and I are breezing through check in with bags under weight, board the plane first and with food.

Feeling mighty smart. Yup. Mighty smart indeed.

We point at laugh at the gigantic bags being loaded under our plane and wonder how much those people had to pay for their budget fair that was suddenly not so budget.

Once in the air Ryanair starts selling lottery tickets (not kidding), perfumes, stuffed dolls, knives (totally kidding), minor electronics and other sundry merchandise. It’s like a JC Penny catalog in the sky. Since the seats don’t recline, I can’t get to sleep. I buy a coffee and read some more “A Cooks Tour

It’s a short, uneventful flight. About 90 minutes into it I start to get jittery and keep looking at the stewardesses. They appear calm. That feeling like we’re falling out of the sky must just be our descent. Wendy sees my nervousness and gently takes ahold of my hand and assures me that’s all it is.

Landing and luggage is smooth as silk. I am so counting my blessings for this day. Some minor hiccups but so far – I am still not insane or breaking down in any way. All we have to do is pick up our rental car, drive an hour to Brignoles (pronounced BREEG-NO-LEES… okay I’m totally lying its pronounced BRIN-Yo) and find our way to the summer chateau (pronounced lying-by-the-pool-reading-and-drinking-fine-wine-in-the-french-countryside.)

The rental car is waiting for us and since we have great directions, this time we opt out of the Garmin “Neverlost.”

Within ten minutes we’re lost.

Luckily, Wendy gets Collette on the phone and she knows right where we are.

Not quite so luckily, when we go to turn around I discover the car has no reverse.

We get off the freeway to turn around. I head down a road I think will put us going in the opposite direction but quickly find out I’m wrong. I pull into what looks like a wagon trail and attempt to back out onto the road. Only… the car won’t go into reverse. I look at the diagram on top of the stick shift. Yup, all the way to the right and down. Again. Nothing. Again. A whir of gears signifying nothing. Again. Damn it! Damn it!

I’m going to have to push the car out of where we are and Wendy doesn’t drive a stick. I tell her to yank on the emergency brake when I push it far enough back onto the road. I get out and throw my back into it. Since the car weighs about two hundred pounds this works just fine and Wendy cranks on the emergency brake when I’ve pushed us 5 feet. I climb back in and maneuver us back onto the freeway.

Wendy and I debate about if we should return to the car rental and get a different car. I finally decide yes.

Collette calls us back wondering how we’re doing. We explain. She informs us that reverse is all the way to the right and down. At the same moment that she is whispering this in Wendy’s ear, a long dormant memory stirs to life.

I look closely at the stick shift. There is a ring on the stick shift.

I lift the ring up, move the stick all the way to the right and down and the car slides smoothly into reverse.

At fifty miles an hour.


I’m completely lying to you again. What is with me today?

From there, it is a relatively simple and painless matter of making our way to the summer house. They have some mutton in a variety of sauce, garnish, and some red wine. Joining me for dinner is our two hosts, a model, a CFO of a private aviation company, two spies and a former girlfriend who now owns her own PR firm in Paris. I try not to snort when I laugh, wipe food on my sleeve, spill wine or in any other way embarrass myself or Wendy among these amazing people. I even refrain from asking for some ketchup for my mutton.

It’s been a long long day.

Despite that, Wendy and I can’t sleep and read for another couple hours after dinner.

We awaken eleven hours later, dreadfully late for breakfast and slightly late for lunch.


  1. Dude, I carried a FRIDGE down those steps!

    Okay, it was a tiny, tiny fridge... but the lights in the stairwell were all blown, and I was in pitch darkness.

    That pool is a great idea!!!

    I couldn't agree more about that Bryson book. A few funny bits, but not really connected to each other. I must admit I didn't notice the absence of the kangaroo. That is quite weird..