After I spent the winter of 2013 in Belgium, (not too balmy, I might add) my parents came to visit me (and more importantly the waffle wonderland that I called home for 3 months) just as we were creeping into spring. (Now if you’re reading this from Florida or any tropical location for that matter, I’m sorry for confusing you with the strange concept of seasons. Spring is that time of year that is slightly less hot right before it becomes unbelievably sweltering. For the rest of humanity (with the exception of Canada, where spring is known for being slightly less cold. Before sunny “unzipped parka weather” comes for a couple months) spring is a welcomed season filled with flowers, rain, itchy eyes, and runny noses.) Anyways, after they saw a bit of Belgium, we were to head out on a European Blitz Trip (EBT). Everybody knows about the EBT (not to be confused with Evangelical Belching Tortoises). Before setting out to the European continent for the first time you likely poured over every map and travel book you could find and put together the most outrageous exciting albeit impossible itinerary.
“So, Day 1 we’ll fly into Paris, then we’ll take a “quick train” to Moscow, come back to Paris that night, and go to Athens the next morning, Day 2…” All of this, of course, stems from that one well-meaning friend that told you that Europe is so small, you can practically walk it. Sorry to say, that just isn’t true. Europeans even at times (though it is rare, since most are superior at geography) plan the ABT (Arthritic Boomerang…I forgot the rest). Someone told me their plan was to rent a car and drive to Los Angeles, New York, Miami, then Chicago all in one week! I wonder what kind of well-meaning friend they were talking to.When planning a European Adventure you must follow a balanced ratio of countries to travel days. Otherwise your entire trip will be consumed by rushing to airports and train stations, missing out on what you came all that way to see (crammed in coach on that 11 hour flight in the middle seat of the middle row next to that sweaty guy who keeps waking you up to boast that he travels for work and has flown a million miles. Who cares, it’s three in morning?!). Anyways, back to what this post is supposed to be about. We planned an EBT that included traveling through Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France, England, and Spain in only two weeks. Clearly we didn’t use the ratio thing. One of the final and most memorable segments of the trip was Spain. Here, we were at the latitude of Colorado (where we were living at the time) and there were palm trees, beaches, and warm sunny weather! I had been so cold for so long that I pulled one of those “kiss the ground” maneuvers. Note: Never do that in a train station, all I can say is that when I got back up I was chewing gum and I definitely wasn’t chewing gum before.
Another reason I may have kissed the ground was because of the train trip that it took to get there. All the trains I had been on in the past I’ve opted to upgrade to 1st class (when it’s cheap). For example, once I was taking a bullet train from Zürich to Paris, because I only had a backpack and I had to bring a suit, the only way to keep it nice was to wear it when I traveled. So here I am in a full suit taking a bullet train through Switzerland, how much more of a James Bond moment can you get? Well, it was only €6 to upgrade to first class. Needless to say, I was sitting (legs crossed, of course) in a plush recliner, sipping on an espresso “reading” a french newspaper going 300kph (I’d convert it to mph, but this makes it sound faster) into Eastern France. It was at that moment that I mastered my “one eye brow raised higher than the other” look of snooty sophistication. From then on, I used it promptly every chance I could get. (Though I can’t say it worked too well sitting in the middle seat of the middle row next to that sweaty guy…). Short story long, I wanted to replicate this amazing experience for my parents. Logically, I suggested that we take the train from Montpellier, France winding down the beautiful Mediterranean Coast to Valencia, Spain (pronounced Ba-LEN-thee-ah, Eth-pain). What could be better than first class, I thought. The last time I took first class, it was only a three-hour trip. Yet, I was fed generously. This trek to Spain was over seven hours, my eyes beamed at the thought of even more free food.Excitedly, I escorted my parents down the rows of platforms. As we approached the international part of the terminal, the trains kept growing. Some were double-decker, some had astonishing dining cars, all of them sleek and impeccable. Our anticipation was building as we approached our train…well…up until we reached our train. When we arrived, the platform was empty, but we knew our train was due any time. So, we waited and waited and waited. Finally down the tracks comes this disheveled filthy “chitty chitty bang bang” of a train. No double-decker, no fancy dining cars, not even a fresh coat of paint. As it pulled to a stop all the engines backfired and the mufflers fell off simultaneously. My look of eager excitement turned to horror in a matter of seconds. “Surely, it has to be nicer inside” I remarked optimistically as we tripped over an inebriated train conductor to get to our seats. (Come to think of it, that might not have been the conductor at all, no one even checked our tickets on the entire journey. It was probably just someones washed up uncle.) As we walked down the aisles looking for our seats, we were welcomed by dirty carpet, missing seats, and possibly missing windows. “Good thing, we’re in first class”, I said, trying to maintain that glimmer of hope, as small as it might be. Forcing the doors open that connected the cars, we arduously made our way to first class (I don’t think arduous and first class share too many sentences). Upon entering we realized that first class was identical to second except that these seats were a nice (and by nice, I mean old, torn, and stained) green versus the clearly inferior blue seats of second class. Cleaning them off as best we could, we reluctantly eased into our seats. Taking a deep breath, we filled our lungs with air that had a familiar smell, but hard to place. Somewhere between a freshly loaded litter-box and a spoiled tuna fish sandwich (you know the one with mushrooms, peas, and little bone fragments). Then with a quick shove from a few railroad workers and a few thoughtful school children, the train was in motion. We were off to Southern Spain with the elegance and grace of a one-legged ostrich. “At least there’s food service”, I thought. As discussed in the Australia post, I have a condition called Vehicular Narcolepsy, so as soon as the train was moving I was knocked unconscious. I’d briefly open my eyes to see my parents staring at the exit with their arms crossed, there feet tapping, and a scowl across their faces. No food yet. About every hour I’d regain consciousness only to find there was still not a peep from that wonderful little wheeled cart stocked with happiness. Until about three hours in, in comes a woman, a train attendant. We were all ecstatic, food finally! No, she was there to pass out rubbishy headphones to watch a movie on the one remaining glass bubble TV affixed to the ceiling. Seeing that this was the only free thing provided so far, my dad violently snatched the headphones from the attendant thrusting them into this ears only to realize that the movie was dubbed in Spanish with no English subtitles. Then the headphones were hurled to the ground and stepped on with an impressive amount of passion.
After flinging those dastardly headphones to their dirty carpeted grave he proceeded to march towards the front of the train. I, of course, fell asleep before he managed to get the handle to work on the exit door. I was abruptly awakened by a greasy paper bag that was briskly tossed into my lap. “There’s no food service on this death trap”, my dad grumbled. “I had to go all the way to…”. Losing consciousness fast, I peered into the bag, It appeared the dining car was having a special on week old grilled cheese sandwiches that day. After inhaling my meager rations I again drifted into a coma. As we pulled into the station in Valencia, I felt refreshed and ready to take on Spain. Unlike my parents who were trudging along behind, each dragging one leg, there eyes completely blood-shot, and lips quivering uncontrollably. “What was up with them?”, I remember wondering as I darted out of the station on my way to a Kebab cart.
Travel tip: I know I’ve really talked this train up and have gotten you all excited. You’re probably on the Spanish Rail booking site right now. Trust me, it’s really not that great. You’d be better off spending the afternoon in a gas station restroom. Don’t forget to bring your own grilled cheese, though!
I suppose at this point you’re wondering when on earth I’m going to talk about Spain. I mean come on, this post is called “Spain” for goodness sake.
Well, to start, coming from North America I’m used to people from Mexico or Guatemala speaking Spanish. I have to say it was rather disorienting to see two blue-eyed older pastey white guys conversing in full on Spanish. On top of that, the Spanish they speak is quite different from what I was used to. It’s deeper and certain letters are pronounced with a certain twist. Imagine a Hispanic James Earl Jones with a lisp. Needless to say, I was enthralled and found myself captivated (the kind when you stare blankly with your mouth wide-open) by what looked like Americans speaking amazing goose-bump inducing Spanish. It reminded me of the time I was in Scotland. I found it incredibly difficult to find a genuine Scottish accent since there were so many tourists. Giving up, I walked into a gift shop only to be surprised my this Indian gentleman (complete with a turban) speaking with the most astonishing textbook Scottish Brogue I’ve ever laid ears on. Anyways, after I closed my mouth and stopped staring we made our way to the hotel.
After dropping our bags off at our room we decided that we’d reward ourselves by visiting the beach. “Why don’t we buy tram tickets to get there? It’s only a euro.”, my parents asked. I said to myself: “What are we on a spending spree?! This is Europe, this continent is so small you can practically walk it!” Armed with a map and my camera we set off on one of the worst decisions of our trip. According to the map, all we had to do was follow this dried up riverbed till we get to the beach. Easy! 3 hours later we were still in the riverbed. So far, we had found Amelia Earhart’s remains and Waldo. On the verge of heat stroke (Is it possible to get heat stroke when it’s only 68ºF(20º C)?) we were greeted by an oasis of orange trees loaded with fruit. After all, what’s the first thing that pops into your head when you hear Valencia? What an awesome experience, eating fresh Valencian Oranges right from their hometown! We vigorously tore open those Spanish jewels and sunk our teeth into perfection. Or, at least, that’s what I wish happened. The moment we bit into the oranges every last drop of moisture evaporated from our mouths, it was like eating the Sahara desert. Those oranges were “for our eyes only”. No, there was nothing top secret about them. Instead we learned that the city of Valencia had planted ornamental oranges “for our eyes only” and to kill unsuspecting tourists with dehydration. (That’s probably what happened to poor Amelia, stupid oranges.) Once we regained our composure, we resumed our quest for the beach.Once we finally reached the beach we caught sight of a tram, one that could take us back to town. Suddenly endowed with extraordinary strength, we made a beeline for the doors. Since the beach didn’t turn out to be much of a reward we set our sights on the town. Bound and determined to taste a real Valencian Orange, we stumbled upon what the locals call Agua de Valencia (Valencian Water). What we didn’t realize was that besides orange juice, it contained five different kinds of alcohol. Then sometime strange happened, my parents were smiling. I have to say after that discovery, the rest of our trip went swimmingly. Southern Spain has perfect weather, beautiful architecture, and the cuisine is as unique as it is delicious. Possibly one of the best attributes of Spain is its people. I remember walking through town one day when a nice older Spanish woman came up to me and started to rattle something off in Spanish. As a seasoned linguist I chose my usual approach, I nodded and said “Si”. Apparently this wasn’t the response she was looking for, because she switched to English. She then proceeded to give me a guided tour of the city, filled with unprecedented zeal and enthusiasm. According to her one of Valencia’s fountains was over 900 years old! If you’re any sort of history buff then I’d highly recommend paying Spain a visit. You won’t be disappointed.
I mentioned earlier that Spain was one of my favorite places to visit, but you may get the impression that I didn’t enjoy my time in Spain because of all the mishaps that transpired. The fact is, it’s those mishaps that made the trip. I could have told you about the other countries that I visited, but those simply went too smoothly. Where’s the fun in that? The moral of the story is when you visit a foreign country there are going to be glitches, disappointments, and at times dehydrating oranges of death. Remember those seemingly negative experiences and cherish them. When someone asks how your trip went, saying you narrowly escaped death is way more exciting than saying you enjoyed the continental breakfast at your hotel.