The Vans

Excerpts from my travels in Europe in 1998

After catching up to the art group at the Avignon train station, I got to experience the first of many journeys in (cue dramatic music) THE VANS! (OK, I admit it… I was calling them “The Vans From Hell”). We had two large vans for 16 artists and 2 drivers.

Prior to the trip, we were told to pack light because luggage space in the van was at a premium. It seemed that some of us missed THAT memo. Lucky for me, I was one of the last to arrive and was able to drop my backpack on top of the heap of painting boxes, oversized suitcases and what? Is that a kitchen sink I see?

Not so easy, getting the people into the vans. I jumped in first, ending up in the waaay back. I was fine with that, just wanting a nice undisturbed nap. But the van was NOT air-conditioned and the only windows that opened were in the front. It was really hot and humid! So, there I was, suffocating (SUFFOCATING! I tell you!) in the fetal position (possibly sucking my thumb) as I waited for the others to get on-board. Imagine the fun of watching seven artists piling into a van:

You go first.”

“Oh no, my dear, you go first.”

“Are you comfortable there,dear?”

“Here, let me change seats with you, dear.”

” Oh, I get car sick, I can’t sit back here, every one will have to get out, so I can move to the front seat.”

And so on.

Finally, we got going. It was an hour and a half drive to our home base. But we had to stop at least once to see the lavender fields. Yes! they were gorgeous. We had hit the time of year just before the harvest. And yes! It was a nice respite, to get out of the stuffy back seat and stretch my legs a bit. And yes! The scenery was impressive.

But (and this is yer BIG but), at some point, we all had to get BACK INTO THE VAN!

“You go first.”

“Oh no, my dear, you go first.”

“Are you comfortable there, dear?”

“Here, let me change seats with you, dear.”

” Oh, I get car sick, I can’t sit back here, every one will have to get out, so I can move to the front seat.”

And me, all the way in the back, whimpering in fetal position, thinking “Are we there yet?”

(Oh snap out of it. This is your dream trip, remember?)

Next: Settling In

Restrooms, Train Stations and Meet-ups

Excerpts from my travels in Europe in 1998. Up to this point, I’d been poking around various countries for 9 days, riding trains and sightseeing. I finally arrived in Avignon, where I would hook up with artists for a workshop.

At least the Avignon train station was open for the night. I’d just settled down on the floor when a janitor decided to sweep where I was sitting. Ok. I can take a hint! I have to pee, anyway.

pointandshootBut NOOOO! The restrooms were closed until 5 or 6 AM. Someone directed me to a point-and-shoot (that’s my terminology): basically an outdoor hole in the ground with a place to put your feet. Not even a door. (And not as nice as the one in the photo). Um… I can wait.

Turning my attention to the activity around the station, I noticed two women with a LOT of luggage. As they got their last bag loaded, the train pulled away, leaving them at the station (one more reason to travel light). I hope they eventually caught up with their stuff.

After a long and refreshing stretched-across-two-chairs nap, the “real” restroom opened. Unfortunately, the attendee could not change a 50F bill. “Desolee,” she said (which is French for, “Sorry“).  “You ain’t the only one!” Did I really say that or just think it? Don’t know. Then I remembered the French coins I’d put aside for souvenirs to take home. Priorities, baby!  I could get souvenirs anywhere.

The train station was getting hot and miserably crowded. (In case you missed my last post, there was an Art Festival in Avignon; people were everywhere.) I couldn’t take it! Outside I found a vacant spot in the grass. A young couple next to me were stranded — as were many others. The first available seat for their destination (Spain) was not until 2 AM (and it was barely noon). They had been wandering Europe for 2 months and this was the first time they had any problems getting around. I was so relieved I would not need a train for the next couple of weeks.

Eventually, I excused myself to go find my ride.  I was supposed to meet up with other artists and an instructor — none of whom I’d ever met. I wasn’t sure how to find them. After 45 minutes of looking around, I was getting just a bit uneasy that I prepaid for room, board and classes and what if there is no class? (aw geez… the monkey mind is on the loose again!)

Considering how crowded Avignon was, I decided it was too soon to panic and continued wandering until I noticed a man with a van in the parking lot and a group of people with easels. (clue!)

 “Please, tell me that this is the art workshop.”  It was. Whew!

Some observations about train stations:
Train stations have a wonderful rhythm. When a train arrives, clanking, hissing and squealing, people pour out the doors dragging luggage, kids, chattering and rushing about. Other people pile in and the train chuffs off to it’s next destination. The sounds calm down to the occasional conversation and rustle of clothing. Repeat, when the next train arrives.

Traveler conveniences at most stations: a place to change money or an automatic teller;  a tourist office; food vendors; luggage lockers and, of course, toilets. Some are pay toilets;  some are free. (I want to say, “It’s a crap shoot“, but I won’t).

Train stations are generally not air conditioned.

There is less body odor among people in train stations than I had been led to expect. I was the exception after spending a night there.

It seems that everyone in the station smokes, except me.

There is always an old woman asleep on the floor of a train station late at night and she isn’t always me.

Train stations are a great place to meet and visit with people you would probably never meet anywhere else. Even if your language skills are weak, you’d be amazed at how much you can figure out by listening and observing.

Next: The Vans!

A Long Night

Excerpt from my travels in Europe in 1998.

When I arrived in Avignon it was already dark, the tourist office was closed and, for the first time, I started to get a little nervous. But, hey, there’s a hotel right over there! I’ll just go get a room. Surely, if they were booked up, they would have a vacancy sign out. Surely. HA!  I forgot that there was a very popular Art Festival happening in Avignon that week. Without reservations, chances for a room in any direction were zero. The hotel clerk told me my best bet was to go to Marseilles.

Marseilles, by the way, has the highest crime rate in all of France (or so I heard). Somehow, my desire to go there — a lone female with no arrangements at 10 PM — well, it just did NOT resonate. I could spend the night in the train station or, with my rail pass, ride for at least 2 more hours without using an extra day. Hmmm. I could go to Valence, about an hour north.  As the train left the station I realized that to get to Valence and back would use up another day of my rail pass. Suck it up! Too late now. C’est la vie, as they say.

At Valence I considered looking for a hotel but I didn’t have the energy and chances seemed slim. I sat down to plot my next move — no clue, really.

A man with a dog and 4 black teeth (in his mouth, not in his hand) sat down and started chatting. In French. I tried to tell him my French was weak. Not really sure I made my point because he had already told me quite a bit of his life story, including showing me a picture of his wife and making a big show of kissing her picture. With the use of a map, my sketchbook and many gestures, I “explained” my journey so far.

As we gesture-chatted, he put his hands up by his head (to look like ears) and starts to hop and say “meow. Something about a “rabbit-cat-thing gone wrong” maybe? When he asked for my address (so he could visit me in America), I admit it; I pretended not to understand. Not very friendly of me, but I am leery of strangers with Dr. Moreau-style pets.

We parted ways when the train station closed. What? Wait.. I need to catch a train at 2 AM to get back to Avignon. Looks like I will be sitting outside on the platform. A (kind of creepy) midnight walk through a (well-lit) underground tunnel led to the platform. First, I looked for other options, but there were none. A suspicious-looking man was pan-handling (I think) in the tunnel. My brain was sooo tired, I didn’t even try to understand – instead walking by and saying “No merci,”  (which I think is like saying “no thank you”) (but I could be wrong, because) he responded, “Koont.” All righty then. Insults will get you … nothing. Some words ARE universal!

I really wanted to sleep, but there’s a very vulnerable feeling to being outside at night, in a strange country, language-impaired and among strangers. I pulled out my sketch book which attracted several observers. More opportunities to attempt conversations about … well, who knows, really? I was pretty good at “I’d like some cheese“, “hello, good-bye” and “where is the toilet“, but for every day conversation I was a Neanderthal trying to talk to a quantum physicist. OOO-GAH!  On the bright side, nobody beat me up!

Finally the train, hopefully the last for awhile, arrived and I was on my way back to Avignon.

Next: Restrooms, Train Stations and Meet Ups

 

 

Tales of an Itinerant Artist: On the Way to Avignon

Excerpt from my travels in Europe in 1998

Thursday: Switzerland.
From Interlocken I headed in the general direction of Geneva. My favorite thing about the Europass was that I could be spontaneous about my destination as long as I stuck to my selected countries and still had days left on the pass.

I didn’t know my next stop until the train passed through Lausanne. It was enticing with vineyards and stone walls on one side of the tracks and Lake Geneva and a beautiful city on the other. Why not check it out? The tourist information office helped me find a hotel near the train station (less than a mile but uphill all the way). (Which ain’t so bad unless you are carrying 28 pounds of crap on your shoulders and it is 95 degrees with 100% humidity). Not sure it was REALLY that bad, but I was well-drenched by the time I got to the hotel.

lausanne-cathedral_4701After a refreshing shower,  I got dressed (for which all of Lausanne is thankful to this day) and went out to enjoy the sights. I headed to the cathedral (Notre Dame).  There were many old stone buildings in the area, dating back to the Middle Ages. At an observation point, I could see most of the city and Lake Geneva. The breeze was cool and refreshing. After the cathedral, I wandered for awhile, enjoying the freedom to go where I wanted, do what I wanted and not have to ask anyone, “What do YOU want to do?”

Finally, I picked up some pastries and went back to my room for coffee (LOTS of coffee) and pastries for dinner. Not exactly fine dining but easy to prepare.

My room looked over a courtyard. I didn’t realize how remarkable that was, until I woke in the morning to the sounds of piano music, echoing off the stone walls. A delightful alarm clock.

train-chamonixFriday morning I plotted my course to Avignon via Chamonix. That would involve a bit of back-tracking; treating me to the Alps again. A nice ride until Martigny. Then– dramatic — all the way to Chamonix. It was very steep and beautiful. If I’d had one more day, this is where I would have stopped. But, no time to do more than look around, snap some photos and continue.

At Lyon, I could not find a tourist information bureau in the train station. OK. Fine. I will just continue to Avignon. hmmm… I couldn’t find train schedules either. Oh dang it. Now I would have to interact with a human being!

At the ticket office, communicating with the cranky ticket seller was challenging.  I just needed info, not a ticket. He seemed put out about that and I was a little too tired to give a shit.  I had to pull the “girl-card” — working up a few tears and a lip quiver. Not that difficult after 9 days of navigating foreign languages, toting a heavy pack and not eating or sleeping nearly enough. And it worked! He told me where to go (in a good way). So, off to the correct platform and on to the train to Avignon.

The traumatic part about riding trains in Europe is that they don’t always announce the name of the current stop. Yes, there are signs at every station, but you can’t always see the sign from your seat. So, when the train stops, I start to wonder, “Is this where I am supposed to get off? Do I change trains here? Did I miss my connection, etc?

I don’t know which is worse: a very short stop and the train is on the way again before you are sure that was not your stop; or the train stays in the same place for 20 minutes, while you are thinking, “Is this the end of the line?” “Am I supposed to be on another train?” “Are we waiting for something?” Or worst of all, the train pulls into the station, stops for 20 minutes, and then pulls out going the same way it came. It’s not until the train leaves that you start to think, “Oh damn! I WAS supposed to change trains back there.”   At times like that, it’s good to have a compass. After an hour or so, you can at least tell if you are going in the right direction

Other interesting rail tidbits:

Every train car has a smoking section and a non-smoking section which are separated by a door. When people pass through the doors, the smoke pours in and as a former smoker, I thought it was kind of revolting and kind of enticing at the same time.

Europe-luggage1Travel light and keep your luggage with you. Toss it onto the rack above your seat or on the seat next to you. You may not have much time between trains and don’t want to waste it trying to track down your bags. I did 24 days in Europe, with a single backpack, which included quick dry, lightweight clothes, toiletries, a camera and oil painting paraphernalia.

If you use the toilet on the train don’t flush the toilet paper, put it in the waste basket. Do not use the toilet while the train is in a town (unless you did not like that town) because every flush drops the waste on the ground under the train.

Those little oddities aside, riding the rails in Europe was an absolute delight!

Next: Avignon, not quite what I expected!

 

 

Tales of an Itinerant Artist: Cable Cars and Mountain Tops

The continuing saga of my wanderings in Europe in 1998…..

Switzerland: Wednesday morning arrived in a downpour. Oh NO! I was planning to go into the mountains today. Do I have a plan B?  Yeah, go back to sleep.

Breakfast at the hotel was substantial. Two cups of coffee (count them! TWO!), a choice of fresh-baked bread, cheeses, baloney, and cereal. Baloney and cheese for breakfast? Can do.

I was out the door and into the rain. Why did I NOT bring any mountain wear? Did I think the Swiss mountains would be tropical? (Did I think at all?) Luckily, I found a rain coat at a gift shop. No shortage of gift shops in Interlaken.

Next destination — the summit of the Schilthorn where I hoped for views of Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau. I had to catch the train to Lauterbrunnen, the first of many stops on the way to the summit.

lauterbrunnen-valley

Lauterbrunnen rests in a high valley surrounded by steep mountain cliffs. Water seems to pour out of every crevice, creating huge, vigorous waterfalls. I can imagine spending the night in this town someday, falling asleep to the roar of water.

It is very impressive!

Just a short walk through town to the next ride. The exciting cabletrain to Murren gains 2,264 feet of elevation in less than a mile. I recall thinking, “If the mechanism pulling us up this mountain breaks, there is no choice but to die. But, at least it will be quick, once we hit the bottom!” Then a woman sitting behind me said, “If this lets go, I am jumping out. At least then I might have a chance to survive.” I looked out the window and thought, “Not so much!” Let’s just say it was steep!

A narrow gauge railroad completes the last 2.6 miles of the trip to Murren.  Now it gets interesting. The cable car ride to Birg is breath-taking. Or maybe it is hair-raising. We gained some serious altitude. And enjoyed a white-knuckle ride! Woo!

schilthorn

At Birg, one final cable car goes to the top of the Schilthorn. Here an observation deck provides a walk around the entire summit. A revolving restaurant offers some great vistas, too — or so I heard. Thanks to incessant clouds and light rain, the views were not much to write home about.

For the athletically inclined there are hiking trails from the Schilthorn to the villages below (and elsewhere, for all I know). I would have hiked down,  but wasn’t dressed for the cool weather.  And you know how much I HATE being cold!

noheelsThis sign at the trail head left me amused and puzzled. Who would dream of hiking a snowy, high mountain trail, wearing high heels? In answer to my question, a group of tourists came up the trail and every single woman in the group was wearing — you guessed it — high heels. “Oh, that’s who…”

At last, I gave up on my “clear-sky-mountain-view” fantasy and headed back to lower altitudes.  Still too early to go home, I walked some of the paths to little nearby alpine villages. Back in Murren my appetite started to build. How about the Eiger Hotel for lunch? Sounds interesting. The waitress spoke German (me? Not so much) but I managed to point and grunt and ended up with a yummy vegetable lasagna (gemuselasagne — a lucky guess).

With still more daylight remaining, I rode trains up the Jungfrau side of the valley and wandered through other alpine villages.

Can’t say that I was tired of alpine villages, but it was getting late and I needed to get ready for the next leg of my journey. I was slightly disappointed that I didn’t get to see the high Alpen peaks, beyond the one I stood on, but -hey- it’s a good excuse to return to Switzerland some day.

eiger1

As I got off the train in Interlaken, the sun finally broke through and gave a brief view of Jungfrau (at least, I think it was Jungfrau) before the clouds closed in once more.

I was chilled by the time I got to the hotel and asked the clerk if they even had hot water. She told me to let the water run until it got hot. Coming from Colorado, it didn’t feel right, letting the water run for the 25 minutes it took to get hot. But I really needed to get warm and clean. With a huge lake on either side of the town, water shortage is not likely to be a problem.

And so ends my barely successful quest to see the Swiss Alps.  With two days to get to Avignon for the art workshop meet-up and three days left on my rail pass, it was time to plot my journey back to France.

Next: Switzerland to Avignon

 

 

Tales of an Itinerant Artist: Interlaken and Thun

Continuing the excerpt from my travels in Europe in 1998.

One thing I really liked about Europe — every train station had a money exchange and a tourist information bureau. On the way to Bern, I decided to skip Bern and launch my Swiss mountain exploration from Interlaken — named for its location between two lakes, the Thunersee and the Brienzersee. It was convenient to train lines, boat lines and the mountains: Jungfrau, Eiger, Monch, Kleine Scheidigg, Schilthorn and others if I had the time and energy.

swissmap

The Interlaken train station had a board listing nearby hotels and room availability. I found something affordable and within walking distance, so threw my pack on my back and headed out. My sparsely furnished room had what I needed: a bed, a closet and shared bathroom down the hall. Plus breakfast was included in the cost of the room.

Once I got situated, I wandered the town until I found the Jungfrau train station.  The Swiss train system is separate from the Eurorail — which meant I had to buy a ticket — but I wanted to get to the big mountains and this was no time to be cheap.

Now that my wallet was loosened, I remembered seeing an intriguing place called Thun on the way into town. It looked like something out of a fairy tale with a castle overlooking a lake. At the station, I learned that my Eurail Pass would get me on a boat to Thun for free. (FREE! I could put my wallet away.) The boat also stopped at every little town between Interlaken and Thun. And each little town was very lovely and fairy tale-like.

4291_-_Thun_-_Schloss_Thun,_Stadtkirche,_Obere_Schleuse_over_the_AarebassinArriving at Thun around dusk didn’t leave much time to explore, but I managed a quick walk up the main street towards the castle. After wandering the cobblestone streets and admiring the stone architecture, I headed back to catch the last boat back to Interlaken.

At the train station a man with a German sounding accent approached me with what looked like a comic book and started to talk. I had no idea if he was proselytizing, selling comics or what. I just said “No, merci,” forgetting that I was in the German speaking part of Switzerland. But he got the message and moved along.

Back at the hotel, I found some comfort in a nice hot shower, or would have, had the water been hot. Actually a tepid shower, at best. But it left me clean and sometimes clean is good enough. And finally I had a chance to use my foreign language phrase book. It worked great to prop the window open and let in some fresh air.

Coming up: Cable cars and mountain tops!

More 2016 Wanderings

Early this year I finally (after thinking about it for 35 years!) (no REALLY! it took me THAT long) got around to going to the San Luis Valley for the crane migration. I spent 3 days in Monte Vista and at the National Wildlife Refuge looking at and photographing birds and a little time hanging with my writer/artist friend Martha .

But: the cranes! Oh honey, The Cranes!!!

cranes2

Every year around 20,000 Sandhill Cranes stop in the San Luis Valley to rest and refuel for a couple of weeks on their northern migration.

My first day there Martha hauled me to the feeding grounds- first the birds’ and then the humans’ feeding grounds (good pizza – thank you!).

The next morning, I was up at Oh-Dark-Thirty and out the door. The refuge was quiet. I could hear the cranes “croaking” off in the distance. Occasionally, a few would fly in from their night haunts. An owl in a nearby tree asked, “Who?” but I didn’t reveal my identity. (I am private like that.)

It was a brisk 8 degrees and without my notice, my fingers went numb from the cold.  The feeding field began to fill up. Suddenly, on some undetectable cue, all the cranes took to the sky at once in huge, graceful, swooping circles.

flight

Impressive and the highlight of the trip.

The wildlife refuge provides habitat for songbirds, water birds, raptors, deer, beavers, coyotes, and more. Mostly, I just saw cranes and a few geese on the wing.

geese

It was a rewarding and inspiring trip. Something I would definitely do again.

I am so grateful for all I have experienced since leaving my day job and becoming a wandering artist. Sometimes I think the true “art” of it is in the wandering….