11 hours of travel for 40 hours of bliss, part I

(The first in a series of tales relating to what I did on my European vacation after I stopped having reliable and/or cheap Internet access. Today’s adventures: Getting to Provence.)

We left our hideaway in Riomaggiore at 09:00 intent on catching a 09:50 train to La Spiezia. From there we would head to Genova, where we’d change trains and go to Nice, change trains again, and go to Avignon, where we’d get on a bus and go to Arles. Staring a very full day of travel in the face, it was with some consternation that Trenitalia chose that moment to announce our train would be delayed by 40 minutes. I looked at my watch, looked at the timetable posted next to the tracks, looked at our onward reservations. It was going to be close.

In true Italian style, 40 minutes became 50. 50 became 60. An hour became 1:15. I couldn’t fathom what the problem was, but by the time the train was announced as being 1:15 late I’d already formulated a plan. Our original trip from La Spiezia to Genova actually involved backtracking. Why not catch the train direct from Riomaggiore to Genova and get there ahead of the originally scheduled time? Works for me. Problem: Genova has two train stations. The train from Riomaggiore arrived at Genova Brignole. The train to Nice left from Genova Principe. The one Trenitalia guy I managed to pin down mumbled something about it being not-so-complex to get from Brignole to Principe and, in hindsight, he was right. But I’m getting ahead of myself here, and I resolved to deal with the problem once we got to Genova rather than worry about it en route.

It’s a good thing, too, because the milk run train between La Spiezia and Genova gave me a lot of time to worry. Stopping at more or less every town on the route, I saw a lot more of the Italian countryside than I would have had we roared through on an express. Crammed into second class seats, I got a better sense of what travel in Italy is like for Italians — I didn’t, for a moment, think my first-class Eurostar Italia seats from Venice were representative. We chugged along the coastline, saw a lot of vineyards, a lot of farmland, and a few interesting towns that might be worth coming back to if the gorgeous beaches we saw were any indication. (Deserted at 10:30 in the morning on what would become a scorchingly hot day — who’d’ve thought?)

Arriving in Genova we hoisted our packs and made our way through the warrens of Brignole. I queued at the information office to get directions to Principe and was told to hop on a train at another platform. You know me, though — I’m not one to do something easy if I can do something hard, and, after consulting the schedule posted in the lobby, wasn’t fully convinced the Trenitalia guy had told me the right track number or the right train. It might well be one stop up the line (it was), but I’ve got all kinds of plans here, and I’d rather not see them screwed up by a language barrier. Anywhere but Italy I wouldn’t have cared. But transport in Italy had proven to be a very hit-or-miss affair, and I wasn’t terribly interested in pressing my luck.

So K. and I took a taxi across town. Brignole is out on the edge; Principe is closer to the old part of the city. I won’t pretend I saw anything interesting or terribly informative but it was nice to turn what would have otherwise been a layover stop into a short sightseeing adventure. Once at Principe we tried to get some lunch or at least provisions for the train, an effort that would end in failure. I queued at one of the cafes for a sandwich and was bumped by an older Italian who seemed to think I was standing with cash in my hand for the sheer fun of standing in lines, and got irate when I had the temerity to suggest that maybe it was my turn. I shrugged — it was something I’d gotten used to in Italy and I knew it wasn’t worth arguing further about.

Eventually our train to Nice pulled up to the platform. Although we had a first class railpass (mandatory) K. and I didn’t seem to get really good use out of it: We’d been shoved into second class on the trip to Venice, managed first class seats to Rome, and got first class seats into the Cinque Terre (but were surprised by the austerity of the accomodations). On the way to Nice we were to be stuck in second class too, owing to a lack of first class space, and I’m starting to see the wisdom of reserving trains well in advance because it prevents you from coming into contact with the kinds of people who have second class railpasses.

Before I get into that, a word about taking European trains. Kids, listen up. Do not carry big, hard-sided suitcases. Especially do not carry big hard-sided suitcases that are wider than the aisle of the train. It doesn’t work. Bad things happen. People behind you get cranky. Small children get trapped. Also, if you’re on the train, move your luggage out of the corridor and for god’s sake don’t sit on the little fold-out seats in the corridor when people are trying to get on! I ended up having to lift several bags over an intransigent fellow (no, not the same one) who absolutely refused to budge from his fold-down seat until we accidentally smacked him in the head with a small, soft-sided bag. I squeezed my way through the crush of humanity and found our assigned seats, then threw our bags up onto the overhead luggage racks.

All right, I thought. Maybe we’ll have the compartment to ourselves. Hah. Dream on. Two girls whose suitcases I had lifted soon joined us, followed by two guys of around the same age. And herein is the thing about second class railpass holders:

They’re kids.

Specifically, they’re non-European kids. More specifically, they’re American kids, either college students or kids fresh out of college. And so I spent six hours on the way to Nice in a compartment on a train with two sorority girls and two frat boys who were intent on doing everything they could to confirm every stereotype you ever had about southern California frat kids.

This gave rise to several funny comments:

  • They complained about the inability to get a “good” breakfast in Italy. This struck me as odd; I’d had perfectly fine breakfasts for the entire time I’d been there. Then I realized they were talking about American breakfasts and the grease content they wanted. I didn’t understand why that was important until…
  • … they began recounting their myriad drinking adventures. I guess the modern thing to do if you’re a college student is to come to Europe and drink your way across the continent — a kind of EU version of Spirit of the West’s “Home For A Rest,” as narrated by people not nearly as charming as John Mann. I don’t understand this. I’m not much of a drinker anymore, and I certainly drank more on this trip than I have in recent months (or years, for that matter), but I’d think you’d come to Europe to, you know, see Europe — not Europe’s bars. But I’m weird that way.
  • One of the girls then began to complain about — yeah, get this — Italy’s (I can barely type the words) lousy food. “All I’ve had since I’ve been here is pizza and pasta!” she moaned. “It’s soooo boring!” I wanted to reach over and smack her. She was craving burgers and eggs and fries. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Later she mentioned she’d spent something like a month in Tuscany and I became even more disbelieving — how on earth can you spend a month in Tuscany and eat nothing but pizza and pasta? Are you trying to be an idiot? Are you working overtime at not finding other food? Other than the foccacia bread in Riomaggiore I don’t think I ate the same thing twice my entire time in Italy, and I’m including the time I made pasta twice in Rome. How can you complain about lousy food in Italy? The mind boggles.
  • K. then asked the kids about the Greek system. I played along under the guise that I was a stupid Canadian with no knowledge of fraternities and sororities. The kids started talking about the advantages of joining one, about how it had never occurred to them to not join one, blah blah blah, and then they got kind of defensive about it. “It’s not elitist,” one of them said. “It just lets you pick your friends. We have to let you in to the sorority, and if my friends don’t want to hang out with you, I probably don’t want to hang out with you, either.” (I paraphrase, but K. will back me up that this is a reasonably accurate transcription of the conversation.) There was a pregnant pause while the kid considered what she’d just said. “Well, I guess it could be kind of elitist.” K. shot me a smug look. I rolled my eyes, plugged my headphones in, and buried my face in A Brief History of Nearly Everything.

All in all, it was a sensorily taxing trip. The kids wouldn’t shut up about anything. I heard about “donor” stands (I swear, this is how they pronounced it) in Prague and stupid hostel stunts. I learned about the different kinds of clubs in various parts of Europe. Every few minutes one of them would point out the window and ask whether we were in France yet. (We weren’t.) This got really trying after about the third attempt:

Them: “We’re in France now, see? Pizze! That’s not Italian!”
Me: “We’re still in Italy.”
Them: “How do you know?”
Me: “Pizze is the plural of pizza.”

I had no idea whether this was true, and still don’t, but I’m betting they didn’t, either. What I was really going on was the fact there was a big sign on the rail right-of-way that said “Ferrovie dello Stato.” I didn’t tell them that.

Somewhere along the line we spent an inordinate amount of time in Ventimiglia. (“Are we in France now?” “NO.” “How do you know?” ““Ventimiglia” isn’t a French word.” “How do you know?” “Um.. I speak French?” “[blank stare]”) What we were doing there, I couldn’t tell you. But the air conditioning powered off (this was a common theme during the trip, actually) and we didn’t go anywhere, so we sat and baked in the train yard. I’m guessing we were waiting for an engine or something, but maybe it was the Trenitalia mandated delay so that everyone could miss any connections they had in Nice. The announcements didn’t explain much, though for a change they were in a language I could actually understand rather than just guess at. (The fact that they were in French did not do much to help me convince my travelmates that we were not, in fact, in France.)

Eventually we started moving again, and the kids turned to talk about their future travel plans. They discussed night trains. K. and I sighed, thinking about our Austrian adventure. “I heard,” one of the girls said, “that there are gassings in Eastern Europe so they can rob you.” Her friend nodded sagely. “We met someone who had it happen to them.” The guys nodded too. “Yup.” I couldn’t bring myself to argue, but maybe I should have.

This is one of those urban legends that seems kind of scary and a little too precise but falls apart when you think about it rationally. And maybe the reason it falls apart for me is because of what I do — I don’t know. But let’s break this down for a minute. The legend says that in some parts of Europe, sleeper trains are gassed with some kind of knock-out agent so that occupants can be robbed with greater ease. Inevitably there’s advice offered, like making sure your window stays open, to prevent this kind of thing from happening.

There’s one problem with this legend: There ain’t no such thing as knockout gas. Oh, sure, there are inhaled anesthetics — simple things like diethyl ether, and complex things like sevoflurane or desflurane — and the Russians seem to have used some kind of aerosolized fentanyl derivative during the Moscow theatre hostage crisis to knock the terrorists out. But here’s the thing about those gases: They’re all heavier than air. It’s impossible to get a constant concentration across an entire compartment, vertically, without pressurizing the thing. And here’s the other thing about anesthetic agents or high-dose narcotics — they all cause respiratory depression. (Ether also has the benefit of igniting, as I’m sure you all know.) Roughly 120 people died of respiratory depression during the hostage rescue in Moscow, and that was with people who presumably knew what they were doing.

So in order for the legend to hold up, we have to have criminals with an agent that’s great at knocking people out at low doses, does not cause respiratory depression or airway compromise, mixes equally with air, isn’t flammable, and is easily transportable. (Most inhalational anesthetics need to be vaporized by heating before you can inhale them.) With me so far? I would submit that, if such an agent did exist, the robbery teams would get richer selling it to Sandoz, Merck, or Hoffman-La Roche than they would robbing people, because it would be the world’s greatest anesthetic agent and anesthetists everywhere would be lining up to use it.

The legend is bunk from its very premise but it took me an embarassingly long time to realize that. Once I did I started thinking about how it was that people might believe it was true, and it dawned on me that it’s just not that hard to rob a person who’s asleep.

Anyway, after disgorging the girls in Monaco, we made it to Nice. Late. Duh. It was oppressively hot. (Shocking, I know.) K. and I had toyed with the idea of staying in Nice if we would get to Arles too late, but she decided on the ride in that perhaps we weren’t physically attractive enough to spend the night on the French Riviera. We made our way to the (air conditioned!) SNCF office where I made arrangements for us to take another regional train to Arles; we’d get in around 21:45, and that seemed OK.

The first class accomodations on the SNCF train to Arles were — how to put this — heavenly. We had a six-person compartment to ourselves. The air conditioning, while not nuclear powered, was excellent. We could stretch out, relax, put our feet up, read.. well, maybe not read, because the lighting in the car was sporadic and we seemed to go through a lot of tunnels. I never understood how it came to pass that the A/C would stay on, but the compartment lights wouldn’t. Eventually, after a nearly four hour trip through the Bouches-du-Rhone (including a trip past the headquarters of the French Foreign Legion), we arrived in Arles as the sun was going down.

Now, bear in mind that I had made our reservations in Arles over the net. Normally this isn’t a problem, but I’d used a consolidation Web site and booked at a hotel I couldn’t actually find in Google. I had directions, but they were vague. I had planned on taking a taxi from the station to the hotel, but couldn’t find one around the station. A phone number was displayed, but I had no phone card, and payphones in France apparently don’t take coins anymore. The bar down the street tried their best to help, but couldn’t find any taxis anywhere. “It’s match night,” the guy said to me, and I realized that in fact it was match night — France was playing Brazil, and everybody was watching. So, having found no taxis, and no buses, and having convinced myself the best way to get to the hotel was to follow the Rhone until I came to the Trinquetaille bridge, cross it, and then find the Rue Noguier, K. and I set out amongst the bugs along the stinky banks of the Rhone.

Along the way we passed through Arles’ deserted streets — everyone was inside. I stopped, briefly, at what I was pretty sure was the place where Van Gogh painted “Starry Night,” but wouldn’t commit to saying so. Eventually, after what turned out to be an easy fifteen minute walk (even with the packs), we walked up to the front door of the Hotel Porte de Camargue, where we met Patricia who was startled at our appearance.

“Who are you?” she wanted to know. I told her. She got a panicked look on her face. “But I thought you already came!” It turned out that there was another Asian guy staying at the hotel that night, and he’d come late as well, and she’d never bothered to ask him for identification.. oh, hilarity ensued. We had a good laugh over the whole thing. K., meanwhile, was standing in the corner agog — although she’d known for some time that I spoke fluent French, she’d never actually seen me do it, seen me make jokes, and so the disconnect was highly, uh, disconnecting.

The hotel, by the way, is fabulous. It’s this tiny place on the other side of the river from all the tourist stuff, and that means it’s incredibly quiet. Yes, it’s a ten minute walk to the major sights, but who cares? It’s well-appointed, and the rooms are air conditioned, and it’s reasonably cheap. We cranked on the A/C and fell almost instantly asleep.

My last conscious thought was, “I’m glad to be in France.” And I was.

The time between meeting and finally leaving is sometimes called falling in love

Leaving Venice was a lot harder than I had anticipated. I’d fallen for the place, hard, and with the expectation of Rome ahead, I can’t really say I was looking forward to taking off. Rome was a bit of a challenge, if only because my paranoia had been turned up to 11 by every third word in my guidebook being “thief” or “pickpocket” or “involuntary vehicular manslaughter.” Not exactly an auspicious way to begin things, is it? Yeah, I didn’t think so, either.

As predicted, Rome was gruling. It was hot — hotter than I’ve ever been, anywhere, and I’ve been to the desert in the summer. It was like stepping off an airplane in Texas in the middle of August and trying to breathe mayo. Hot and humid, I saw thermometers reading above 34, and if I get home to discover that Europe was in the grip of a senior-citizen-killing heat wave, I totally won’t be shocked.

Rome was also awful. Every damn thing required effort. The people were unhelpful in a way that made me think malice had to be involved (but probably, on second reflection, wasn’t). Going anywhere required a lineup, and frequently a long lineup. K. and I spent 2:15 in line to see the Vatican Museum, all of it in the sun, and all of it surrounded by a couple thousand of our close, personal friends. Thank god for the shortcut at the end of the Sistine Chapel that leads directly into the Basillica; we might never have made it out of there alive otherwise. It was so hot that by the beginning of our third day, we’d had enough of our cheap apartment without air conditioning and splurged on a hotel room (which, in true Rome style, was way the hell out in the middle of nowhere).

To be sure, the ancient stuff is… ancient. Not being of Judeo-Christian extraction I can’t really comment on the movingness of the Sistine Chapel or of St. Peter’s Basillica, but I can appreciate (a) age and (b) aesthetic beauty. The Chapel, in particular, is fascinating because of the work that went into it, and, knowing a bit about how much of a pain in the ass it was for Michelangelo makes it a bit more special. The Vatican has a nice collection of art but much of it is junk; I was much happier in the Belvedere in Vienna with the Klimts and Schieles, though I will give Raphael props for his exquisitly decorated rooms.

Unfortunately the Sistine Chapel is a no-photo zone. Which is fine, because the ceiling is too far away to get a meaningfully good picture. And they enforce it with guards, too, which is apparently necessary because a lot of people out there seem to think the no-photo rule applies to everyone except them. While watching the flashes pop (I mean, really), I wondered how damn stupid you have to be in order to do something like that. It’s a little like trying to think about how stupid you’d have to be to try smoking in an airplane bathroom but I apparently flew home with that guy from Tokyo a couple years ago, so I dunno. Afterwards I amused myself while walking back to our apartment by mentally composing a Cory Doctorow-style rant about the Vatican’s no-photo policy and, weirdly, came out on the Vatican’s side. (Not that this means much, mind you; I find I’m almost always on the other side of an issue from Cory.) The best part is that the no-photo policy came out of an agreement the Vatican made with the company that restored the frescos, so it’s not like its their policy, either! (You can see why this made for such a lovely Cory-rant.)

And to make matters worse, the Vatican apparently believes you can appreciate the splendor and beauty of the place with a thousand or so other people. WRONG. The Chapel desperately needs some kind of queuing system, though I guess after 2:15 in a lineup outside to get in another line might drive people to riot. Too many people talking too much (provoking the ire of the guards, again) makes for a decidely weird experience.

The frescos themselves are great. Bright, vivid, everything I’d been lead to believe they were not. It’s amazing what a few centuries of candle soot will do to something; I’m told people who saw them, pre-restoration, gasped when they saw the restored images. I can believe it.

I don’t have a whole lot else to say about Rome. I didn’t enjoy it, though people whose opinions I trust and respect seem to have exactly the opposite to say about the place, so I’m prepared to give it a second chance. But in the middle of the summer, on this trip, I wasn’t sorry to leave and arrive in the Cinque Terre, Italy’s Riviera.

This place… words aren’t enough. Five cute towns in the hills overlooking the Ligurian Sea, with beautiful beaches, warm waters, amazingly awesome food… what else do you want to know? Damn Rick Steves’ oily hide for making this place more popular! Our first choice town, Vernazza, was full and we weren’t able to get a reservation, so we ended up in Riomaggiore, which is to the south; a bigger town, but a lot quieter, and with blessedly fewer tourists. Vernazza, the Rickster’s “crown jewel,” is indeed nice (we had dinner there last night and are going back tonight) but damn is it ever noisy around the station (thanks, Trenitalia!) and it was so jammed full of tourists today that K. was grateful we didn’t end up staying there. (All of them, incidentally, packing a copy of Europe Through The Back Door.) We’ve taken the train the last two days to Monterosso, the most resorty of the towns, to lie on the beach and play in the surf, and holy frijoles, have we ever needed it. This is a vacation. Yeah, bitchez. I’m coming back here, you hear me?

Tomorrow we begin a nine-hour train trip out of Italy into Provence, which will be interesting: After two and a half weeks of being disoriented and having to guess at signs in Turkish, German, and Italian (usually with pretty good success),we’ll be in a comprehensible land once more. Two nights in Arles are followed by four in Paris, and for the first time since I was last in Montreal, over a decade ago, I’m going to have to make use of my French skills. Yahoo! Let’s find out how bilingual I still am!

And, on a personal note, I’d like to cite something here that drives me bananas: 41-39, .513, 2 games back of first place. I go and leave the Mariners in a state of total uselessness, and suddenly they discover how to play baseball again? Geez. At this rate, I’m gonna have to move to Uganda before they win the World Series.

Two if by canal

We arrived in Venice after a night of hell. As you might have guessed from the last entry, Vienna (and much of that part of the world) was under some kind of stagnant heat wave, the sort of thing that, back on the prairies, would be bringing thunderstorms around the corner. But in Europe.. enh. Who knows. So it was at 20:30 that we found ourselves onboard EuroNight 283 to Venice, in a T6 couchette with.. four other people, making a fully-loaded compartment. Our partners were an Australian pharmacist, and a family of Eucadorians — husband, wife, mother. It was, roughly, 35 degrees in that compartment before I managed to brute-force the window open, and with six of us cramped inside the humidity soared to over 80%.

OBB — the punk-ass organization that runs the trains in Austria — is a bunch of incompetent, passive-aggressive assholes. I mean this in the most derrogatory and insulting way possible. We were the only compartment that was full to the brim, and the three compartments next to us were empty. They had told us that we couldn’t move into the other compartments because the train would stop to pick up passengers along the way, including a middle-of-the-night stop in Salzburg, so no, we had to stay put. They even locked the other compartments, as if for emphasis. (K. pointed out to the woman that the whole reservation system was computerized so in theory it should be possible to know who was getting on and when; this didn’t seem to sway the OBB rep at all.) So fitfully, we went to sleep. The Eucadorians snored enough for everyone. The Australian stayed awake and read. K. fell asleep, eventually. I.. drifted in and out, waking up when the train roared through a tunnel or when we pulled into a station and the lights shone into the compartment.

Why, yes, the compartment did have a window shade. I’m glad you asked about that. The window shade had to stay open because we had to leave the window open because we believed the air conditioning was inoperative. I say “believed” because they unplugged us from the network at about 1:30 in the morning while waiting for an engine in the Salzburg rail yard, and the temperature immediately soared again. I didn’t think that little breeze was doing us much good; boy howdy was I ever wrong.

We got to Venice an hour late. To say that I am disappointed with my first encounter with European trains is an understatement; railway officials in Japan would have committed suicide over that kind of delay. I let it go and immediately sank into this gorgeous, sumptuous city that is easily my favorite spot on this trip, and I can honestly say I’m not sure how it might be topped.

“… The only way to care for Venice as she deserves it, is to give her a chance to touch you often–to linger and remain and return.” –Henry James

James was right about Venice: this is a city that will grow on you the more you let it. I’ve been here a whole whopping day and a half and I can honestly say that if I spent a month here I still don’t think I would have seen it all, or come to understand and/or know it. Things might be even better if I understood the history of this place more, but unfortunately the harried departure preparations precluded my spending any quality time with a European history book. Still, the parts of Venice that are impressive are impressively accessible even without knowing anything about the history. For instance, consider the Doge’s palace. Giant rooms. Huge, almost incomprehensible art. Big, scary-looking armory. Can you figure out that this was the seat of a powerful empire? Sure you can. You didn’t even need to look at the signs. If you understand, of course, that Venice used to be the seat of a seriously big republic that stood against the Byzantinium (and that later conquered Constantinople), and was a maritime empire for almost 500 years, then it starts to be a bit more comprehensible. Consider how rich you get when you keep invading countries and kicking ass — you end up with a lot of booty, the best of which got stuck in the Treasury in St. Mark’s Basillica.

The funny thing is, though, that the parts of Venice I like best have nothing to do with the history and everything to do with just being here. You know how you go to cities sometimes, and you know almost instantly that you’re going to like it? That’s Venice for me. Being here is incredibly easy in a way that other travel is not; in spite of the language barriers and the strange customs, it’s simple to find your way around, simple to get around, and simple to deal with the problems that come up. The historical awareness floats around you, kind of like the dead grandfather in Family Circus cartoons; you can think about it, actively, whenever you want, but if you ignore it and just be, it fades into the background of this deeply beautiful, deeply wonderful, deeply romantic city.

And, for my money, the most fun you can have in Venice is in St. Mark’s square. Buy an €1 bag of pidgeon food, and become, instantly, the most popular person in the square. I normally think pidgeons are filthy disease vectors; Venetian pidgeons are exactly the opposite. They’re like, I dunno, dogs that fly, or something.

One nit, though: I must be having Turkish decompression sickness, because I feel that there are entirely too many English-speaking tourists here, and in particular English-speaking tourists with a very specific accent. Guys, look. You’re in Venice. Take off that goddamn Miami Heat baseball cap, ok? You don’t have any idea how much of a dork you look like.

I love this place. I never want to leave. We are, though — to Rome tomorrow morning, with the hoards of tourists, touts, thieves, and 14% of the world’s historical sites.