I did a travel writing unit last year and since reading someone else’s submission I have been inspired to share my own. It’s true, all true … and it is also one of the most memorable trips of my life. Thanks for reading. x
Sitting on the brown wool rug among the chaos of toys and cushions strewn from the lounge, our two boys shove each other fighting loudly over the photo album from our trip to Europe in 2006. Anthony reminds them to be careful of their “baby sister in mummy’s tummy” as he winks and gently rests his hand on mine. With a few weeks to go until her arrival, the possibility of overseas travel is about as realistic as me sporting a bikini body this side of Christmas. It’s okay though; we’ve had enough adventure over the years, particularly on that first trip overseas.
“Remember how impressed with yourself you were after booking those flights on the cheap shortly after the London bombing?” my husband muses. I admit I was a control freak, but tight budget aside, I wanted every last detail to be just perfect. I even went as far as organising a tour of the necropolis beneath St Peter’s Basilica several months in advance. I’d emailed the Fabbrica Di San Pietro with all the relevant details, paid a small fee, and we were then granted permission to attend a tour of the excavations under the basilica. The tour is limited to those over fifteen years of age, and groups of twelve or less. It can often take months to organise. We were so excited to see what is believed to be the tomb of St Peter, along with those of various popes and cardinals, located two storeys below the papal altar of the Vatican Basilica. Our agenda and plans were scheduled with meticulous detail. There is a French proverb, Un malheur ne vient jamais seul which means “misfortune never arrives alone”. This is like the old saying “When it rains, it pours”. The rains were certainly on their way.
I breathed a premature sigh of relief upon arrival at the modest Beauvais-Tille Airport, following a harrowing forty-five minute bus ride from Paris as the sun was rising on another dismal January morning. A test run to the bus stop the day before meant we were confident we would not get lost and miss our transfer. Our RyanAir flight was scheduled to depart at 7.00am and we were on schedule despite the bus driver stopping to smoke a cigarette in the middle of nowhere about an hour into the trip. The departure terminal was little more than a makeshift white tent, set on cold, damp grass. Plastic picnic chairs were scattered haphazardly, and flimsy metal poles anchoring white material protected us from the winter’s icy gusts.
Perched on our seats towards the middle of the terminal, carryall resting on the wet grass at our feet, we huddled together against the bleak air. Businessmen tapped on their laptops while young backpackers with their over-stuffed packs chattered away in a foreign language. A muffled announcement from a distant speaker trickled into my consciousness. I caught the words annulé and s’excuser – “cancelled” and “apologise” – among the flurry of other travellers as they swarmed to vacate the chilly space. We sat puzzled until the belated English translation advised us that our flight had been cancelled due to fog which was a common occurrence in the French countryside. We were among the last passengers left in the departure lounge, along with others who clearly hadn’t understood the first version of the announcement in French.
Once at the check-in desk, we were greeted by a tense looking clerk with pursed red lips, thick false eyelashes glued on with excessive eye makeup, and hair pulled back into a tight bun. “You can wait to see what the weather’s like tomorrow, or request a refund”. These were the only options presented to us, then the clerk added “Fog is very common in the country”. She barely looked up from her computer, appearing to have already built up the wall which protected her from the onslaught of many disgruntled travellers. One look around at what resembled an old warehouse was enough to convince us to take the latter option. Cracked grey concrete walls met dirty concrete floors with the occasional splash of fluorescent yellow construction tape. There was a distant hum of jackhammers and the hint of construction dust in the air. Beauvais-Tille airport was about to be renovated to transform it from its war-time airfield glory to a new hub for Europe’s budget airlines. It had a long way to go.
After completing the paperwork for our refund, we headed back into Paris in search of another passage to Rome. A brief stop at an internet cafe confirmed there were no flights out of Charles De Gaulle airport, and following directions we made our way to Gare du Nord train station with the intention of purchasing rail tickets to Rome. A few minutes later, we had two first class tickets for the Thello night train departing from Gare de Lyon at 7.30 that evening, arriving in Rome at 10.30 the following morning. We only had nine hours to make our way a few stops on le metro then wait for our train to depart.
Those nine hours dragged as slowly as doomed escargot headed for a fatal pot of garlic butter. We filled some of the time with games of eye spy, took turns playing Sudoku, and attempted a short excursion out of the departure lounge with our overly substantial luggage only to discover there wasn’t much else in the way of entertainment. Back in the departure lounge, a broken down coffee machine set against a grey concrete wall served only to entice people out of the limited seating, allowing for other waiting passengers to quickly swoop in and occupy them, settling in for the long wait. With every new passenger entering the big glass doors, another gust of cool air swarmed into the room. Eyes lazily looked up from their books and magazines to size up the newcomers, then rested back down again indifferently. We had spent most of the day lingering around various waiting areas like cattle ready to be sent out to pasture. The hint of a headache and a slight scratch in the back of my throat threatened to make a bad day even worse.
Finally the train came to a halt and we were eager to climb aboard. Perhaps too eager, since we hadn’t met the train guard yet. As we climbed the deep metal steps towards the middle of the long train, the guard sized us up with a grunt. He checked our tickets then stepped aside as we squeezed past his protruding belly, and through the haze of body odour mixed with the alcoholic tang of cheap aftershave. The lower buttons on his shirt threatened to pop under the strain from his girth and the stale smell of cigarettes emanated from his mouth as he directed us towards our cabin.
The cabin was just large enough to allow for standing room next to our luggage. The only colour amidst an expanse of wood panelling was the royal blue cushioned bench seat along the left hand wall. Straight ahead of us was a window adorned with a beige blind and a ladder fixed up the middle. On the right was a single shelf fixed below a wood-framed mirror. Anthony excitedly grabbed at the top bunk just as I noticed a small sign which read in bold lettering “BEFORE TO OPEN SUPERIOR BED, BE SURE TO OPEN INFERIOR BED”. I tried to decipher the secret code, but it was too late. We were left with a lower bench seat under an opened bunk. Neither would budge, so there we were, sitting with our heads hunched forward underneath the top bunk. It was that moment that the train guard appeared in the doorway and boomed with a loud heavily accented voice “YOU BROKE-A ZEE BED! Now I have to MAKE REPORT! PASSPORT!” His outstretched hand was met with bewilderment. Why was he demanding our passports? What was he going to do with them? Was this our punishment for breaking zee bed? We quickly handed him our passports, expecting him to check them over, then he turned on his heels and left, passports in hand. We sat there, heads slouched forward under the bunk for another hour. We each tried to convince the other to ask the guard for our passports back, but neither of us wanted to risk another confrontation with the train guard.
He then returned an hour later and loudly demanded we “GET OUT!” in an angered and frustrated tone. He had gained two large sweat patches spreading from his arm pits, which smelled like a mixture of the local rubbish tip and a tin of rotten cat food. With a flick of his hands, he had both bunks down and made up ready for our night’s sleep. After unpacking and changing into comfortable clothes, we ate in the dining carriage and returned to the cabin for an early night. I walked down the carriage to use the bathroom and neither cubicle had toilet paper. Stepping across the hall towards the office, I was met with a pyramid of soft white rolls being held hostage. They were piled high on the train guard’s desk. When he saw me approaching, I gestured towards the leaning tower of Kleenex, and he handed me a roll and insisted I bring it back. Seriously? Was he scared I was going sell it on the black market? Or share it around with all my friends? My bursting bladder didn’t argue, and I’d never consider getting on the wrong side of the train guard. Not ever.
As we settled into our cabin for the night, body aches and a sore throat set in. We huddled underneath the blankets on the top bunk watching the rolling hills go by. We drifted off to a restless sleep, gently rocked by the lull of the train. It was like you’d imagine sleeping in a washing machine to be like. Just without the water. Feverish chills woke me just before sunrise. The train slowed right down as it passed through Milan train station. A white blanket of snow covered the train platform, and the smoke from many chimneys rose in the otherwise still air. Our breath fogged up the window and the cool moisture dripped down the glass in small beads. The rising sun reflected off the snow outside, throwing bright rays upwards from the sleeping city. We lay there mesmerised by the stunningly crisp countryside, rugged up under our blankets, sheltered away from the cold outside. It was one of those moments that will stay with us forever. We missed the tour of the excavations, but we gained so much more. What we gained was borne from ill-fated circumstances rather than detailed planning. We would never have chosen to spend six hundred Australian dollars on rail tickets when we have the option of eighty dollars in flights, but I’m grateful for the nudge.
As the book closes on one chapter, I’m more conscious of the new one ahead of us. As with many things, holidays cannot be planned to perfection. Carefully laid plans can easily be railroaded, but it’s how we choose to remember those experiences that makes a difference. Although we missed the tour of the Vatican Necropolis, spent a day uncomfortably waiting around various departure lounges, and encountered who we subsequently nicknamed “The Train Tyrant”, those memories are the ones which we’ve enjoyed the most. Those which have earned the biggest laughs. If we ever manage to travel so extensively again, I’ll be sure to plan not to plan.