Friday, 5 July 2013

Three Countries In One Day

I Thought I Was On A Train

(Saturday, June 22nd, 2013)

With the three white balloons still flying from our lone suitcase, we caught the train that took us into Munchen. I started clicking the camera, taking shots of the different-looking buildings – so straight-backed, such pastel colours – and of German signs. Such long names.

It seemed so long, so far away since early morning in Dunedin travelling to the airport in Ro's car, the heater not working, the windshield fogging up and Ro wearing a bright red scarf warmly wrapped three times around her neck.

Once on board the big jet leaving Auckland for Hong Kong, I watched a couple of movies, but listening to music held more appeal. Our seat-companion was a chatty (too chatty for my liking) academic with teeth that matched his mustard jacket. Rather than movies, the 'Easy Listening' stream was my choice. Predictable, but at least it distracted me from thinking about the plane's rivets coming apart. I kept it loud in my headphones to block out the screaming toddler up front; at the same time I did feel more than a pinch of deep sympathy for the poor parents.

Going by the overhead announcements at Hong Kong airport, they are paranoid about people smuggling milk powder. At this stage we were blissfully unaware that Robert's suitcase had been left in Auckland. At one point we walked a long way the wrong way (the fact that we were the only non-staff should've been a clue) until we were pointed in the right direction by a clutch of airline hostesses. I felt proud because I'd suggested to Robert (the one who always knows where we are and where we should be heading) that maybe we should have headed upstairs and it turned out I was right.

From HK to Munchen is where I tried to sleep. At one stage, just for a split second, I thought I was on a train. (Jet lag setting in). While sitting high in the plane at the airport waiting for the plane to take off, we could see it raining heavily outside. We found out later that my suitcase (but not Robert's, because as I mentioned before, unbeknownst to us it wasn't there ...) was at that point being rained on as it was transferred from the terminal to the plane's luggage-hold. When I opened the case in Munich, I was dismayed to discover damp clothes and papers. (And so another traveller's tip learned – use waterproof suitcase-liners for things you don't want to get wet).

(Sunday, June 23rd, 2013)

As always in a large plane, it didn't feel as if we were travelling. Squashed into the very back seat, I was on the verge of claustrophobia, especially when the woman in front pushed her seat back into recline-mode. I fought the panic by concentrating on trying to sleep and I succeeded. I didn't sleep much, but it was enough to feel the softening effects sleep brings to skin cells and muscles. 

The Lufthansa crew were relaxed and casual which, quite frankly, I didn't expect on a German aircraft. (How prejudiced of me). Weirdly, the notion of the sheer distance we had put in in the last twelve hours, started to make me feel traces of homesickness. Part of me deep down pined for Ro in her red scarf; for wintry Dunedin; the grandkids' voices on the phone. Sometimes it would be good to have the capacity to be in multiple places at one time.

At Munich airport Chris and Jenny were there to greet us with smiles and three white balloons with the words, Welcome. To. Germany. Because of the lost luggage fiasco, we'd taken ages to emerge and they were beginning to wonder if we'd missed our flight. Even the balloons appeared a little bit deflated. However, warm hugs, a coffee and some traditional German sausage cheered us up. 

We spent some more time at the airport (unlike in town, the shops there were all open) buying Robert necessary garments and toothpaste. Lufthansen promised to fully compensate all toiletries and half of any clothing we bought, as long as we provided the receipts. Even so, we refused to pay fifty dollars for a pair of undies.  (We did find some that were cheaper).

As it had been such an early flight, before the trams had started to run for the day, CnJ had biked to the nearest train stop instead of taking the tram. After the train-ride from the airport, that's where they picked up their bikes again, putting us on the tram with our suitcase and biking fast alongside for as long as they could, hoping we'd easily follow Jenny's written instructions and get off at the right stop.

We did (of course) and from there it was a short walk pulling the wheeled suitcase behind us, to their apartment. After the bikes had been stacked away on a clever bike rack that acted like a toast rack, we took the lift to their cute little apartment on the second floor. (Chris only needed to take two steps to show us around).

After showers and while Jenny cooked us a beautiful, tasty meal, Chris showed us around his new neighbourhood. It appeared to us to be quiet, sedate and established. Maybe this is partly because it was Sunday with everything closed. People slowly meandered. Leafy trees whispered (reminding us that we were no longer experiencing winter, but summer again). Birds chirped. There was very little traffic and a lot of bikes. No-one wears helmets. Some bikes have baskets in the front. They all have bells.

Empty wooden tables and chairs that make up a beer garden, emerged from the shadows under large green trees. An old woman visiting a grave in the well-tended cemetery, lit an incense stick and the smell filled the air.

And It Was Still Sunday

(Sunday, June 23rd, 2013)

Once it became evident that the internet was bad, my spirits sank. How were we going to communicate with both MnK as well as our UK friends already in Paris somewhere, waiting for us to send confirmation of times and meeting places? With no way of communicating, all of a sudden a large city seemed to me an impregnable morass of closed lines and doors and miles of walls between those I wanted to be near. Thus began my uneasy renewed acquaintance with this city of Paris.

Mid-afternoon, with CnJ, we caught the train that would take us from Munich – Paris. A six hour trip lay ahead. We passed through German farmland full of wheat fields and villages clustered around a single church; always sufficiently different so as to be distinct from the church we had just passed up the line, yet similar enough for it to be identified as a German church.

As the train crossed an invisible border and entered France unannounced, it was green fields under low, thunderous-looking clouds, all the way to Paris. We found entering Paris this way had no 'Ta-Da!' effect but was more of an incremental approach of ecru concrete and uniform high-rise, upstanding rectangles. Surprisingly non-dramatic. I scanned the horizon for a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, but it wasn't to be seen in the murky grey of the city's skyline.

Disembarking from the train we felt the excitement of arriving in Paris at long last after all the dreaming, planning and saving. But immediately there was a hurdle – a misunderstanding about being picked up at the station entrance by our AirBnB host, resulted in us standing lost and forlorn at the entrance with the realisation dawning that we weren't going to be picked up at all. (Reading the email later I saw how I'd simply mis-read the instructions). In the end (after a confusing phone call to our host) we hired a taxi, arriving at our Paris accommodation an hour or more late.

The next hiccup was then to locate our son Michael and his wife Kate who were going to meet us there (an hour ago). Upon arriving, we saw that there was no front door for them to knock on. This was a French apartment block with a heavy street-door locked and impassable. Our planned rendezvous time had come and gone. Because of all the horror stories I had read about the impossibility of getting SIM cards in Paris, we had no phones between us. We had planned to use internet messages on Facebook and emails, but after our AirBnB host had shown us around the apartment, we'd instantly ascertained that the internet there was hopeless. Jenny was a little worried too because she was relying on the internet to send off a work deadline.

The apartment was not as glam as I thought it looked in the photos. But I soon warmed to its basic French charm and squeaky wooden floors. It had space, light and best of all a kitchen for us to cook our own meals. Here we could be independent and there was plenty of room for all of us.

Jenny said, "We can make it look nice with flowers". Chris pointed to a large blackboard in the passage and with a sweep of his hand said, "We could get some chalk and write, 'Happy 60th' in big letters".

We decided to make for the nearest MacDonalds to see if there was internet there – instead (surprise!) we found Michael and Kate – a very happy reunion and relief all around. By now it was 10.00 pm and despite it being summer, cold. Rain was spattering the very busy and loud Paris streets. Being young and undeterred, MnK and Chris (Jenny was still back at the apartment finishing off her work assignment) were keen to head into the centre and find somewhere to eat. This was my first introduction to the Metro, Paris' underground train system – a system I still remain none the wiser about. The whole time in Paris, I followed behind members of my family whose brains are more smartly wired than mine: my husband and sons have an enviable sense of direction and a finely-tuned capacity to work out systems. An ability I rely heavily upon when in large foreign cities.

And that is when we found our Paris 'local' – Au Trappiste – specialising in mussels and beer. And it was still Sunday - was it only yesterday we left New Zealand? Robert and I realised we had been in three countries in one day. It was good to be there. Good to all be together there. Good to be in Paris. (Pinch me now!)

(To be Cont'd) ...

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