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When Carolyn and I first dated in 1972, the good times lasted six weeks. I came to refer to that halcyon period as the Prague Spring, after the similar period enjoyed by Czechoslovakia back in 1968 before Soviet tanks rolled in on the streets of Prague. And it hasn’t occurred to me until this minute, that this train trip of mine has also lasted as long as both my and the Czech Republic’s previous Prague Springs. But that’s where the comparison ends.
Luxembourg is a country that is so small, when it came to naming its largest city, it wasn’t necessary to find a new name for it. They just named it Luxembourg, too. It’s like when they made that tiny little car and name it Le Car. Le Car simply wasn’t big enough to have a model name of its own, as if one would even fit on its rear panel. During my first day out and about in Luxembourg, I took a train to the farthest reaches of its border with Belgium. That took about an hour, during which it occurred to me that were I to become stranded in the middle of this country, I could still probably walk back to my hotel.
It was only because of a three-hour delay in Basel caused by the French rail strike that I broke my normal social rule of not engaging anyone in conversation over the age of three. The rail strike had hit as I was leaving Zurich and heading for Luxembourg. While the helpful Zurich agent bravely treated my journey from Zurich to Luxembourg as if it was a one-person version of Dunkirk, it would still result in the most connections in one day of rail travel since I began. After departing Zurich, I would travel to Basel, where I’d change to a French train to Strasbourg, changing again in Metz before reaching Luxembourg sometime around 9:30 that night. The original five hours journey would now take eleven, as a result of the French rail workers exercise of their political and economic rights. I just hope they get what they’re fighting for. I’m still a union man, even though the proles will be driving me to distraction today.
The first clue that I was arriving in the most expensive city in Europe, if not the universe, was the cab fare. For the equivalent of $60, I could take a train from one European country to another. In Zurich, that $60 got me across town to my hostel, which, in incidentally, cost the same per night.
One week after arriving, I was availing myself of Trieste’s public transportation one last time, heading for the centrale train station and on my way to Venice and ultimately Zurich. It had been the most ordinary of weeks, getting on and off public busses like any other Triestini on their way to work or school. In the evenings I cooked my dinner and relaxed on my couch with a book and a gelao cone. It was the most akin to simply living in Europe I was to experience during my six week sojourn, especially given Trieste had turned out to be as unadorned and unassuming a sleepy burg as any place I’d lived stateside.
In keeping with my obsessive compulsive system of triple checking and double repeating directions to make sure there’s no possibility of error or misinterpretation, I dutifully noted the bus number and platform for the outbound bus for my day trip the following day from Trieste to Lubiana, Slovenia. On the itinerary, I circled the relevant bus and platform numbers on the outbound ticket.
Arrival in Trieste, Italy, perhaps the easternmost city of Western Europe. was in a thick gray soup of gloom and rain. I couldn’t have been happier. The scenery, which would have consisted of the steep rock granite-faced hills known as the Karst was completely blocked by thick fog, as was the Adriatic, turned to dishwater from its sapphire blue of only two days ago. If this keeps up I won’t have anything at all to do or see for a whole week!
Writing in 1807, a French travel writer claimed Trieste reminded him most of Philadelphia, PA. Maybe it was the cholera epidemics every summer, or that the streets of both doubled as sewer systems. I’m not sure. I would imagine just about any sizable city in the world in 1807 would be comparable to each other in terms of pestilence, sanitation and starvation.
According to GPS, when my train pulled into Mestre, the mainland suburb north of Venice, my hotel was only about five hundred meters (or five football fields, as Americans are required to convert from metric) from the train station. In other words, taking a taxi wasn’t an option. It was too short a distance for a cabbie to make any money, and how would it look to even ask for a taxi for that distance. Wassamatta fuh you? You a too lazy to walk a five a football fields?
I first experienced it courtesy of the taxi driver in Ancona. In Jan Morrisâ€™s Trieste, she quotes someone offering oversimplified descriptions of the various nationalities living amongst each other in Trieste. To Italians, the observer ascribed â€œharmony.â€ When my driver arrived at my apartment on a hill overlooking the Adriatic and the town of Ancona below, he told me he would wait until the landlord arrived to make sure I wouldn’t be stranded. My only regret was that I didn’t have enough coins to make a more generous tip.