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Friday, February 24, 2012

Far Away Places #2

Munich, Germany

After slicing across England, the big DC-8 bearing the name Snorri Jørgenson descended slowly, crossing into continental Europe somewhere over Belgium. Looking down on the forests below gave me a feeling I imagined must be like that which astronauts Anders, Borman and Lovell experienced when they became the first men to fly over the surface of the moon. It wasn't that the trees looked any different than if we had been flying over, say, northern Wisconsin. But I KNEW… we were flying over, and would soon be touching down in, Europe!

It was the early 70's; we were armed with little more than Icelandic Airlines tickets, Eurail Passes, copies of Cook's Continental Timetable and Europe on $10 A Day and what might have been a bit more optimism than was warranted. But, we were young and about to set off on the great adventure that would be recorded in the annals of travel history as the First Grand Tour of Europe. Or maybe it's just the second entry in the Far Away Places series. Whatever…

What a trip it was. Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland and France. So many things we saw in those little more than two weeks. For example, late in the trip, at the train station in Brig, Switzerland, I encountered my first squat toilet. After dropping some coins into the slot on a stall door, I looked in and saw only a ceramic fixture in the floor. Thinking it must be a shower, I moved on and used my remaining coins to open another door. I saw the same fixture. Paying more attention this time, I realized I was looking at a toilet! Travel is, to be sure, an educational experience.

So many sights and stories accumulated during that trip. You might think it would be hard to pick a single, defining experience. Yet there is one that stands out, even today. We had found a room in a family-run hotel near the Munich Hauptbahnhof. It was small; the lone toilet was in a little room down the hall. Next to that was a larger room with a bathtub. It was (and still is) the biggest bathtub I have ever seen. Getting in could have been an obstacle on a Marine Corps basic training course. And there was this gas fired hot water heater, mounted on the wall next to the tub, hanging there at about eye level. It would come on suddenly with a loud "whoosh," giving you reason to want to get out of the tub in a hurry. Except you couldn't.

It was a good place for a couple of days, being near the train station and, like all of our rooms during the trip, inexpensive. We ate breakfast in a room off the kitchen, sharing the small space with a few other guests. Family members manned the desk, prepared the breakfast and cleaned up around the hotel. It was all so, well, European.

We and the staff/family had rudimentary command of each other's languages and were generally able to manage essential communication. On the evening before we left, I talked with the lady at the desk, telling her we would be leaving early to catch a 6:30 AM train to Salzburg. I knew that the daughter would go out in the morning to shop for provisions and wanted them to know that we would not be around at 7:00, the start of the breakfast hour.

We left our room the next morning at about 5:30 and moved quietly across the lobby. But, before we got to the door, the daughter came out from the kitchen and greeted us. She had paper bags and gave each of us one. Inside: bread, cheese and salami. Our breakfasts.

Of all the memories of the trip, this remains one of the most vivid. It was quite unexpected. And very much appreciated. It wasn't anything she had to do and we certainly hadn't asked. She just did it. Because, I guess, she cared enough to get up early, prepare the breakfasts and get them to us even though there wasn't much chance of us becoming repeat customers. I do not know her name nor remember what she looked like. But she provided a lesson in simple kindness. Yes, travel is an educational experience.

Coming next - behind the iron curtain.

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