Follow the adventure from the beginning

Monday, June 15, 2009

Clickety Clack

Somewhere between here and there


1.     1. The creamy middle of any Oreo cookie will always taste better than the chocolate wafer around it (though I won’t deny the absolute goodness of combining cookie and cream with milk, have you ever met anyone who eats just the chocolate cookie and leaves the filling to waste?).

2.     2.  Last year, 220 million Americans spent an average of 1.5 hours commuting to work, everyday. Some of these people crashed. Others experienced road rage. And still others will confess that the time they spend in a car or on a bus is the best part of their day.

3.      3. Halftime shows, though mostly inane as spectacle, serve an important purpose. They provide a chance for players to regroup, fans to make a fast break for the restroom, and beer-drinkers to refill.

Truths gleaned from the facts:

1.     1. The best stuff always happens in the middle. No matter how great your start might be, or how significant your destination, everything that happens in between is where you’ll find life’s sweet spots.

2.     2. And if you think about it, this is where we spend a huge chunk of our time. Our lives are, generally speaking, one big commute. One big “are we there yet?” It’s the most ordinary thing, really. But ironically, by investing so much time to get from A to B, we open ourselves up for moments of grandeur – unexpected encounters with heroes and villains, accidents and blessings. And knowing this – that each of our lives may gravitate toward greatness even amidst the commonplace – elicits a response.

      3. So let’s celebrate. Because halftime shows are just a mid-commute celebration of something so silly as reaching the exact center point between start and finish anyway, right?  It’s so stupid that it’s genius! Forget a trophy for the winner. Let’s throw a party for people who somehow savor the fact that life’s all about never quite getting there. And the ones that realize – it’s a great place to be.

Train rides and long lines full of truth:

1.     1. It’s bedtime on the SJ, about 10:30pm, somewhere in Sweden. Tonight the train rides like a high-speed bobsled, pushing it’s way against the snowy, desolate north. But I feel cozy, thanks to the fact that only four of us – myself, Camilla, her infant daughter and four-year-old son, Viktor, occupy this six-man sleeper cabin.

As As with most journeys toward the middle of anything, my night with the Hed family begins with a question. “Would you mind taking her for a second?” Camilla says as she places her crying daughter into my arms. “I need to feed her, but I’ve got to get out of these clothes.”

Spending over 12 hours in a second-class sleeper cabin (on average no larger than 2 meters deep and 1.5 meters across with three couchettes stacked on each side) with total strangers is a disturbingly intimate experience. It’s the best way to travel long distances because if you include a couple swigs of anything in the equation, you can sleep for around half of a 24-hour journey. But it’s definitely a game of roulette. No requests allowed. And it’s just as likely you’ll end up with the climbing crew next door (this year’s northern festival champions haven’t showered in 14 days and I swear I just saw something crawl out of that man’s beard), as it is that you’ll sleep (or not) next to a crying baby or a group of drunk college kids.

“You have this face,” Camilla says to me as she takes her daughter back into her arms after changing into sweats.  “It’s all in the face,” she says. “I sleep on a train with my kids at least once a week. My husband and I breed horses here in Sweden and so we both travel a lot. And I can always tell when someone needs to talk, or when someone wants company.”

“And what does mine say tonight?”

“That you won’t mind helping me get the kids to sleep as long as I get us some coffee for the morning.” Camilla smiles as she lays back and continues to nourish her daughter.

Meanwhile, I’m sitting with Viktor – the most perfect little towhead – on another couchette. He loves dinosaurs and tells me to “Watch out! There’s a tyrannosaurus under the bed. Don’t touch the floor! It’s made of lava.” And I have to play along because he’s irresistible and his imagination so real that he transforms the whole train into a prehistoric jungle. My interaction with Viktor is broken at best. He yells in Swedish or in the Icelandic language that his parents are assuring he learns while his mother repeats the sentence in English and asks him to try. Viktor points to the floor and slowly mouths it out, “Laavvaa.”

“Shhh…” I say. “Here comes a Stegosaurus.”

And then Viktor wants to watch ‘Land of the Dinosaurs’ on his portable DVD player, so he cuddles up, close to my chest and stomach in his nighties (just a short little pair of boxer briefs) to watch his movie while Camilla and I share stories.

She tells me about the farms that she and her husband manage (husband is a relative term in Sweden. It means the man you live with and the father of your children, though it only sometimes refers to wedding rings and court documents) and about the horses they’ve imported from Iceland in order to breed more profitably in Sweden. It’s their shared passion for the animals that brought them together, and they plan to make their relationship more official soon. Camilla seems excited and so I congratulate her.

Between our conversations – my parents and her children, my sister and her horses, my Mexico and her Iceland – we fall asleep. And by the time I wake up, the cabin is empty. Their stop came earlier than mine and I find a note from Camilla.

Christine: Great to meet you. Thanks for your help with the kids. Viktor enjoyed his playtime with you. If you’d like to visit Iceland, please call or e-mail. I have family there and they would be happy to receive you as a guest on their farm. Good luck with your travels and keep your face open.

Keep my face open? Doesn’t she mean something more year-bookish like, “stay cool” or “keep it real?” Keep your face open – like a story with no beginning and no end, ready for new pages, notes, and earmarks. And then I see the 50 krona note.

P.S. Buy yourself something sweet for breakfast…

If only they sold Oreos to accompany this coffee. And the train. Keeps chugging along. 


2.     2. Somewhere farther south, and on another night, I’m more and less lucky. Sleeper cabin number two (which also turns out to be the last time I choose to play roulette) is small, old, dirty, and full. Me and five men. A young Danish guy, two Serbians, and two self-proclaimed gypsies.

The two Serbians don’t speak English – only German and Serbo-Croatian. One of them – an older, big-bellied man – has a daughter. I see her at the train station when she hands her father a bag of food from the platform through an open window in our compartment. Next, she looks at me, points to her father and says “No English, good man.” And for some reason, I believe her.

Thirty minutes into the trip, the big-bellied Serbian opens a tin foil ball from his dinner sack and releases an overwhelming, almost rotten, waft of garlic and spice into the entire cabin. He uses his hands to eat the chicken wings and a piece of bread to clean his fingers and sop up the juice.

The smell and the male to female ratio make me feel small and foreign. My confidence drops even further when one of the gypsies starts asking questions (the other gypsy is mute – he only responds to the first one’s orders to go and buy more beer). “So, girl, you from America, right? Your aura says it all.” He’s the only one that speaks English in my cabin. “How long are you here? Where are you staying? How can you be on this train to Holland and not be taking the drugs or drinking the beer? You’re boring,” he tells me.

“And you’re creepy,” I want to tell him. And then he puts his hand on top of mine, like a foul ball hit to left field, and I just about lose it. I really don’t want this and have no idea where it came from. It feels like taking a shower with soap made out of dirt.

“What are you reading?” he says, his hand shrink-wrapping mine. It’s a soduku moment. Act quickly, but remember that the number of possible responses are limited and that I’ve got to find the perfect combination (i.e. how to get the hell away from him without putting my own safety at risk – the train is full and security is very limited).

And so I pull away with the harshest wrist snap I can manage without actually slapping him – trying to say, “I don’t want trouble, but could you please leave me alone?” For those of you wanting to know why I couldn’t just say so, the answer is a gesture – a shoulder shrug frozen in time. The only thing I do know is that sometimes being alone and frightened causes more confusion than experiencing that same fear with company.

In any case, I’ve got a bad vibe about these guys. And about the night, and the train, and my money. And so I resort to instincts and apply the old “When in doubt, stuff everything of value into your pants” rule. Same concept as a money belt, only tonight I manage to slip my laptop, iPod, cash, credit cards, and camera into my loose cargo pants. I snug my earplugs into place and manage a grand total of 30 seconds sleep, until about 5:30am when I’m woken from a state of half consciousness by pounding fists against the Plexiglas near my head.

Train security is yelling at me in German, asking me questions, and I can’t understand anything. And the big-bellied Serbian is nearly spitting over himself, trying to answer.

“Where are they?” the guards shout, so harsh, and so aggressive.

“They left, we don’t know,” says the Serbian.

“You don’t know anything? Does she know something?” and they point to me. And my face is completely blank (imagine that I have no idea what’s going on. It wasn’t until hours later that I found someone to translate through the ensuing questions and minor panic among passengers on the train).

“No, she doesn’t know anything. The gypsies wanted to go through her bag too – I saw them – but they knew I was awake, watching them, so they didn’t touch it.”

And the questions continue from cabin to cabin, just like this. Until the full extent of the damage surfaces. The two gypsies from my cabin jumped the train somewhere near Dusseldorf, Germany, in the middle of the night. And they made off with six passports (Danish guy’s passport from my cabin included), cash, two purses, and one suitcase.

No one said the commute was danger free. Someone’s bound to flip us the bird somewhere along the way, but sometimes when the trip seems even more impossible than the destination, just pay attention. That’s all you have to do. You might find your guardian eating chicken wings (or grooming angel wings), helping you to keep your eyes on the road and both hands on the wheel, even when it’s dark and difficult to drive.

3.     3. One of the longest lines in all of Europe stretches well beyond the gates of Versailles. Never mind exactly where this is, or its relative significance (working off the premise that life is occasionally more about getting there than being there), just think heavy-duty, ant mound crowds.

Normally, situations like this heighten my sense of solitude. The sprawling pairs and packs of people only serve to remind me that I’m all alone. But today I’m on top of the world. And I’m glad to join the throngs with a clan of my own. Mom and Dad, my grandparents, Cousin Max and his wife Veryl have come to Europe to live their own travel story and help me add a beautiful chapter to mine (stay tuned for a later post on the who, what, where, when, and why of my week in Paris with family).

But for now, let’s just assume standing in this line is the only thing that matters. Because it’s an entirely eternal experience. We’re here forever. Twenty minutes to find the right line. Two hours to stand in it. Fifteen minutes to find the next line and two more hours to stand in it. This is nuts. And I’m starting to feel like all the time we’re investing to just stand around outside might actually cause us to miss out on standing around some more on the inside.

The security entrance is at least two football fields away. We decide that the best (and most obvious, duh) course of action is to send Dad and Grandpa to the front of the line so they can investigate and make sure the queue we’re in will take us somewhere. The rest of us are content to stay behind and hold our place anyway.

Moments later, halfway between one chit and another chat, Mother and I hear quick, shuffling loafers behind us – almost a full jog – against the cobblestone court. I turn around and see my father. He’s alone, and his breakneck gate worries me (maybe someone’s hurt?). But when I see Grandpa standing a-okay in the distance, I realize that Dad’s urgency must be related to something else.

The closer he gets, the more alarming his behavior appears. He’s waving his arms to get our attention (only now he has everyone’s attention), and his modern, black fedora is pulled tightly over his forehead to shadow his eyes (think Sherlock Holmes with a fanny pack).

“Listen here,” he says from ten feet away, trying to whisper, only it’s pushed so hard that it escapes a bit more explosively (think ship captain addressing his crew). “I want you to follow me. Don’t say a single word. Just get out of the line and come this way. And try to act normal.” Uh-huh.

He’s got my Mom’s arm, gently leading her forward, skipping past all the other people in line. His own body is sort of bent into hers, like everyone is out to get him (except they weren’t, but now he’s making them think they should be).

“I found this guy who says he’ll get us through security extra quick,” Dad says.

And I say, “Oh no, Dad. Are you serious? But we were making progress in the line and now we’ve lost our spot.” I’m at least 107% sure that someone’s either stolen his wallet while telling him how to get through security “extra quick,” or that we’re going to start a line-cutters riot.

But they didn’t, and we don’t. And for the millionth time in my life, Dad saves the day. He, more than anyone I’m proud to know, is the best at turning mundanity into a half-time show. He can build a circus out of toothpicks, and might be the last man alive to still get a laugh by saying, “Pull my finger.” Truthfully, his jokes rarely merit much praise themselves (and if they do, they’re normally grossly inappropriate – meet Dirty Ernie), but one of Dad’s most effective and endearing half-time stunts is the howling laughter he releases upon saying or doing anything that you’re supposed to think is funny. Sit in a room with him, ride in a car, or stand in line for any amount of slow-passing time and I promise my Dad will turn middleness into a celebration you’ll never forget.

When we get to the entrance; Dad shows his ticket to the security guard and says, “Remember me? You were just going to let me in, but I told you I needed to get my family.”

“Yes, yes. How many? Okay. Yes, hurry. Come through. Come through,” the guard says. And we have no idea why. We spend hours talking about this afterward and never understand the reason behind security’s eagerness to get us through the gate while hundreds of people stood waiting behind us.

But we’re in. And I’m thankful. And now I need to use the restroom. And it looks like that line begins just over there.


  1. *sigh* Versailles... Did you get a chance to tour the gardens? Last summer the flowers were fabulous! How was the construction? We couldn't go into some parts of the palace because they were renovating. Love reading your blog!!! Please tell me when you're going to publish a book, I'd be happy, no ecstatic to read what you write!
    PS: Pitt girls and I were remincing recently. We all agree you've got a bigger set than any guy we know, and we love you for it! You rock!!!

  2. I love readding, and thanks for your artical. ........................................