We All Have Baggage Don’t We?

September 1, 2010 No Comments

                                               

There are two ways to travel by train in Europe, the right way and our family’s way. It doesn’t seem to matter how much we plan, we never seem to avoid repeating our mistakes.   You would think that by now we would have learned the value of packing light after endless embarrassing moments not to mention the hassle and fatigue of lugging a dozen or more bags from city to city, on and off trains, up tiny elevators or worse narrow stairways. Apparently, we are slow learners.  We start every trip with good intentions by agreeing to bring only what we need.  The following is an account of our one month trip to Europe during which we were touring several countries by train, ship, bus and private car.  At the end of this glorious vacation we were dropping our son off in Italy to take his final year of high school (I was dreading the end of the trip).

We started in London with 8 bags – 4 large suitcases and 4 backpacks.  Not bad for the four of us.  We decided to try the Big Bus tours for the first time in the European cities so on we hopped the first day and it was great except for the fact that everyone but me slept throughout most of the route.  No hopping off that day.  The buses were great, we were able to select our language and get a complete historical guided tour.  My husband Jack insisted it was Jeremy Irons doing the narrating in London.  I guess he was having an off year (Jeremy, not my husband).

The second day we repeated what the sleepers had missed and we were finally able to use the hop off feature.  First stop, Jubilee Gardens where my family convinced me to go on the London Eye, the world’s largest Ferris Wheel.  I don’t even like the world’s smallest Ferris Wheel.  I was undecided on whether to join them but since I hate to disappoint my children I got into line at the last minute and was rewarded by two big smiles from my kids.  Let me explain, we are in a cage that could take 20 of us to our deaths that revolves slowly, very slowly to give you an opportunity to see the breathtaking view of London!  After several minutes of clinging to the center bench, I relaxed enough to venture to the side to admire the spectacular views.  Feeling a little more confidant I asked the burley tattooed, biker type to take a picture of us.  He had been sitting next to me on the bench (also clinging).  He declined as he was at that moment paralyzed with fear.  In fact he never moved the entire 30 minute trip.

We thoroughly enjoyed London but after 3 days we boarded the train to go through the Chunnel to Paris.  This is a great train with first class service and very civilized baggage service. 

After arriving in Paris and ransacking our now 10 bags (I forgot to mention the two bags we picked up in London after our shopping spree), we discovered that we had left all of our electronic cords for the cell phones and computers in London.   We arranged for them to be sent on to us in Geneva as we were only staying a few nights in Paris. Again we saw Paris on the buses complete with Jeremy Irons narrating (at this point we started to humor Jack).

 Our package arrived at our hotel in Geneva at the same time we did.   Unfortunately, when we got to Geneva we realized we had left our son Russ’s diabetic supply kit in the hotel room in Paris.  Having FedEx on speed dial made it easier for us to arrange for this to arrive before we left.  We also discovered we had left Russ’s Glucose Monitor on the train.  It never was recovered so we had to have another Fed Ex’ed from Toronto to his school in Italy which hopefully would arrive before we did along with the other huge box we had couriered prior to leaving Vancouver. 

It rained for the two days we were in Geneva so our impression of the city was not a good one.  I did the laundry and I don’t think the kids left the room one day using the excuse that they didn’t want to miss the FedEx delivery. Finally we left for Venice.  The beauty of riding through the Alps almost made up for these wasted days in Geneva. 

Breathtaking, is the only way to describe our first glimpse of Venice as we left the train station.  The excitement of being there was somewhat diminished by our practical problem of moving an impractical amount of luggage through the waterways, narrow streets, stairs and bridges of Venice.    We were a freak show trying to get on a water taxi that only got us part way to our hotel.  The rest of the way we had to drag our now 12 cases up and down bridges and stairs. However, we were rewarded with one of the most beautiful and quaint hotels I have ever stayed at in Europe.   

Unfortunately we were only there one night before we had to reverse the process to board the cruise ship where we would be free from baggage handling for 12 glorious days.  Just before we were about to set sail for Croatia we discovered Russ did not have his computer.  It turned out it was stolen by the cruise ship baggage handlers (not that unusual we found out).  FedEx could not solve this problem.  Fortunately we had a smaller laptop with us as well so that we were able to leave that with him for school (this is our idea of packing light).

Next stop was Athens.  It was a nasty 40C there and at peak tourist season for viewing the Acropolis.  Our tour guide was not easy to listen to so we ditched her and tried it on our own.  I do not recommend this.  For awhile we just stood looking at a bunch of rocks in the heat.  We found a much more civilized way to enjoy the view by sitting in the café enjoying lovely Greek coffee.  Then it was on to shoe shopping in the Plaka.  Shopping is a bonding experience for mothers and daughters. Not so much for mothers and sons.   My son does not share the shopping gene and in fact has an extreme reaction to anything involving consumerism.  Given that he is somewhat of a minimalist, he was started to get annoyed at the increase in luggage since he and my husband had to do most of the carting of it.   Even under the pressure of him screaming at us that there was more to this trip than shopping, my daughter Kali and I were able to grab several pairs of shoes.  One shopkeeper thanked me profusely and told me that she could now shut the shop down for the day, I’m not kidding about this. A family argument broke out when Russ threatened to go back to the ship.  We agreed to no more shopping.  That day.  Not one of our finer moments on the trip.

On to Santorini, which will be forever known to our family as “Donkey Man Town”.  There are three ways to get up to the city in Santorini, walk up (It is 40C, the hill is extremely steep and the smell and sights of donkey droppings makes this a last resort), take a tram or take a donkey. Jack and Kali opted for the tram.   Russ and I decided to take the donkeys.  I took this same trip with my parents exactly 30 years ago and found the whole donkey experience much more civilized and safer back then. However, I was not to know this until I was already in motion.  There was no one leading us like they told us there would be.  It was just Russ on his big ass and me on my small one going up alone.  I was not happy about this but I didn’t want my donkey to know that.  To him I whispered loving remarks – to anyone else within earshot I screamed in panic for help. Sadly, I’m not kidding about this either. 

On one of the switchbacks, I finally found a man who was leading the group six donkeys back (a young blonde on the donkey).  I tried to get his attention by yelling Donkey Man (either he didn’t hear me, didn’t understand English, or was offended), at any rate he ignored me..  To add to my stress, the three Europeans behind us decided it would be fun to kick their donkeys to make them go faster.  This did not please me.  I had already been kicked by Russ’s donkey when it was taking a rest and my little ass tried to overtake it, I was not going through that again!  I yelled at them to get back and quit kicking their donkeys as it wasn’t a race!  Apparently they did not understand English either.

In the meantime Russ was getting upset with me because I was spoiling his experience.  He had a point. If I could control the fear of being kicked by a donkey or thrown over the edge and ignore the horrible smell, this is one of the most fantastic views you will ever see. I did not care at that moment. 

It took forever to crisscross up that hill.  Every two or three turns I would yell for the Donkey Man, who continued to ignore me.  I would continue to yell at the Europeans behind me who hadn’t given up on beating me to the top. Russ continued to scowl at me.  Just when I thought it would never end I discovered what was in store for us at the top and wished it would never end. At the top there were at least 30 donkeys facing one wall leaving about 12 inches for us to get through, on our own, WITH NO HELP FROM ANY DONKEY MAN.  Our donkeys sensibly stopped as there was no room to move.  I continued to yell for the Donkey Man. No response.   I saw three old donkey tenders sitting watching us making no attempt to help us.  Finally the Donkey Man with the blonde yelled something in Greek and the donkeys made a rush for the top.  Unfortunately mine must have had a hearing problem because he didn’t move and was passed by the 3 Europeans and their donkeys (they were going to beat me to the top no matter what!). Remember there were no more than 12 inches for a single donkey to get through let alone two abreast!   The sound of my stirrup scrapping against the rock wall and the sight of donkey asses everywhere finally put me into hysteria.  Thankfully a tourist who had been watching the whole show (yes, there were spectators!) lifted me off the donkey.  I don’t know if I thanked him but I told anyone who would listen how irresponsible this whole set up was and warned them not to go on the donkeys. I shook for a half hour.  Not one of my finer moments on the trip. 

We had a well deserved Sea Day after that.

Then it was on to Naples, Rome, Florence, Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Much sightseeing, shopping, eating and bus rides. Oh yes, Jeremy Irons was narrating on those as well!     

This is the point where we actually realized we had made an error in our trip planning.  When we booked the cruise that ended in Barcelona our plans were to stay in the south of France for a week and then on to Paris and home.  In June this all changed with the decision to send Russ to school in Lanciano, Italy.  This caused us to have to double back to Rome after the cruise.  In retrospect, we should have got off the cruise in Villefranche and taken a 20 minute car ride to Nice. But that would have been too easy and by now you are probably realizing we don’t do things the easy way.  So on to the next adventure….

We are first off the ship at 7am to catch a train from Barcelona to Montpelier. There was a quick change in Montpelier to Nice.  Not a bad trip, if everything went as planned.  However, it did not go as planned.  When we got to Montpelier there was a 30 minute delay, turning into an hour delay, then a 2 hour delay and then finally an indefinite delay.  Four hours later we were told to catch the train to Avignon, change to the train to Marseille and then change again to the one to Nice.  This doesn’t sound too complicated except we were traveling with now 14 suitcases (we bought more cases in Barcelona because of the shoes/leather jackets/briefcases/purses etc purchased along the way).  To be fair some of them were backpacks and smaller cases.   Remember because of the delays, the trains were especially crowded s and of course there was very limited space for luggage. 

Things took a turn for the worst when Kali started to get sick on the train from Montpelier (her fever spiked suddenly to around 102).  She and I had managed to get seats on the Avignon to Marseille train in a compartment for 6.  The guys couldn’t sit as there was no place to put the luggage and besides they had to keep moving the bags from one side of the car to the other depending upon the change of platforms at each stop (and there were many). 

About half way through the trip Kali sat up and vomited repeatedly all over herself, her shoes, the table and of course the floor.  Everyone in the compartment froze.  I of course had nothing to clean it up with and couldn’t leave her so one of my French travelling companions went to get some paper in the toilet.  I asked him to alert Jack or Russ (he could figure out who they were by the bags that surrounding them – we were a comedy act really!).  I will leave it to your imagination how things went from there.  I will only tell you that her shoes were left behind.

By the time we got to Marseille Kali was stable and there were a few less people in our compartment (I think by this time people were avoiding us).  When I looked outside at the station I noticed it was pouring with rain.  This is when I started to laugh (later Russ told me he also started laughing).  He said there was no point in being upset as this is one of the best family travel stories yet (he still couldn’t see the humor in the Donkey Man episode). 

We got on our final train and had an uneventful 2 hour trip to Nice.  After 17 hours of travel that day, we arrived in Nice at 1am, crammed our luggage into one taxi with a net holding our bags (the taxi driver said he had never seen so much luggage for one small family).  We arrive at our hotel only to be told they have no rooms for us – it is now close to 2am.  At this point I was ready to take hostages and after much fuss (threatening to sleep in their lobby with a sick child) we were taken to a better hotel at their expense.  In the end we were upgraded to a beautiful room with a balcony overlooking the French Riviera. Unfortunately, Kali spent two days in bed and recovered just in time for our overnight train to Rome.

We arrived in Rome at 6:30am. I did not sleep at all that night due to sharing a bunk with Kali so our luggage could be stored on the top bunk in the girl’s cabin. I spent the whole night being kicked by her and worried that the luggage would fall out the window!! (It was too hot to close the window) In Rome we waited an hour for a taxi, and then 3 hours at the dirtiest bus station I have ever seen before finally boarding our bus for our 3 hour picturesque drive to Lanciano.    There was a pit stop about halfway but as Kali and I could not work out what to do with the hole in the floor (a small one) even with the two feet markings, we decided we would wait.  Towards the end of the trip there is an announcement in Italian.  I asked Jack what he thought it was.  With conviction he says “We will be in Lanciano in 10 minutes” (he likes to think he has an ear for languages).  “Great!”  At that point the bus pulled over – “Another pit stop” says Jack. “No thanks!”  But then I noticed that some people were taking their suitcases and leaving the bus.  I asked Jack to check it out.  Sure enough we had to change buses!!   Another sideshow as we hurriedly wake the kids and transfer our now 16 bags on to the next bus for the 15 minute ride to our destination.

Surrounded by piles of luggage at the Lanciano Bus Station, an island in the street really, I asked the driver where the taxi stand was.  “”Oh no Senora, there are no taxis in Lanciano.”  There are however a lot of hills and stairs in Lanciano.   We also had no idea where the Allegria Inn was. Thankfully after calling the school for assistance someone arrived to get us.  As you can imagine there was not enough room for us and the luggage so a kindly Canadian/Italian who had befriended us during our wait offered us a ride as well (actually I think he was just curious about this spectacle that had just arrived in this sleepy little Italian town).  Our 500 year old Inn had no elevator but it no longer fazed us to carry the luggage up two flights of stairs.  We then went out to explore the little Italian town Russ would spend a year in.  It is worth mentioning again the number of stairs and hills in this scenic little town.  Jack said he would be dead in a week if he lived there.  After a month of togetherness I was tempted to call a real estate agent.

Leaving Russ behind was a very emotional experience for Mom.  This was offset somewhat by the giddiness I felt about unloading some of luggage in Lanciano.  Unwilling to chance the bus system again, we hired a car to go back to Rome. 

We ended our trip with a fantastic dinner at a lovely restaurant in the Piazza Navona that we had visited many times.  We were met with enthusiasm by our waiter who wanted to help us by offering his recommendations.  Of course we had to try the rare mushroom appetizer (only available in August and September in Roma), the pasta with lobster and the sea bass.  At some point we realized that we had let this gifted waiter talk us into a meal that was way out of control. Foolishly we didn’t ask the price of anything.  In the end they presented us with a bill for almost 500 Euros (only one bottle of wine).  My wise 11 year old Kali suggested next time we try ordering from the menu.

Even our return flight from Heathrow was made chaotic because they had just uncovered a terrorist plot while we were cruising in the Mediterranean.  It was rumored that we were not allowed carry-on luggage, not even a book (yikes)!   I wasn’t looking forward to negotiating with the baggage checkers in London.  Fortunately they relaxed the rules the day before we traveled and we were allowed to carry on a bag however you can imagine the increased security we had to contend with.

In light of the restrictions and extra security we have decided we have to make some serious changes in our traveling style.  We are still working on defining the term “packing light” but I am confident we have learned our lesson.  I dream of carefree romps through Europe with only a knapsack. 

Who am I kidding? As I said before, we are slow learners.

Article Written By:  Roneen C. Shaffer

Feature Articles, Humorous

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