2009 European Adventure – Part Two- Once more Into the Breech

To those who were on this trip with me and are reading this narcissistic clap-trap, any details you can add, or errors you can correct, would be very much appreciated. Just email me (or phone me if you’ve got the number) and I can edit any of the blogs necessary.

This was to be our 5th student tour trip to Europe. Perhaps the hardest part of tours such as this is the pre-trip planning. What to take, what to leave behind? What medicine is essential? (Imodium AD) What isn’t? (Calamine lotion) How many shoes, socks, pairs of pants, protein bars? How many Euros will you need? It’s all pretty hard to gauge, and yet in the end it really doesn’t matter that much. Most of what you might forget is available in Europe, albeit sometimes difficult to find and almost guaranteed to be more expensive. Our fabulous and unparalledly (for those new to my blog, I frequently make up words) wonderful trip leader, Sandi, had meetings for months in advance to make sure all bases were as covered as possible.

Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that Europe is expensive in the extreme? One cup of American coffee is, on average, about 2 Euros, roughly $3, and that does NOT include refills. For caffeine addicts life can be tough. And all Europeans are caffeine addicts. They spend roughly 35% of their income on coffee.

June 8th was D-Day , when all the months of planning, meeting and fretting would come to fruition. We were flying KLM who, according to my estimates, have the smallest seats of any major airliner worldwide. But what they lack in width they make up for in lack of leg room. Your back might be killing you but you’ll never know it because your knees hurt even worse.

Okay, okay, I’ll stop whining. If you’re 5’8″ this probably isn’t an issue, but I’m 6’2″. Robert, one of my traveling companions, looks to be about 6’4″, which is why they needed to oil him up just to squeeze him into his seat. They keep gallons of the stuff on board for that very purpose. Sometimes it leaks onto the floor and makes things slippery. I’m sure the airlines have plenty of reasons for cramming so many people into so many seats, bottom line and all that, but it can be downright uncomfortable for some of us. Of course, I knew all of this going in, so this continued whining is just that, whining. If if were all that bad I wouldn’t have gone.

June 8 saw a high in Memphis in the low 90’s, partly cloudy with a high sun. Morning was spent doing final packing, making sure the camcorder worked (more about that later) and all batteries were charged, heading to the post office to mail books, buying last minute things. We had to be at the airport at 4 pm for a 7:10 flight, piece of cake, right? Well, no. We were a few minutes late but that didn’t matter. One of the typical experiences on such tours is standing around waiting, usually at transport facilities, in this case the airport. There were 42 of us and you can’t just snap your fingers and get boarding passes and luggage tagged for that many people. In Sandi’s veteran hands, however, things went smoothly and we were all checked in. Security was the usual minor inconvenience, mostly for those who had to remove shoes and belts. If you haven’t tried gathering all of your stuff after it’s been through the scanner while simultaneously moving away and trying to put on your shoes and belt, you should give it a whirl. There is talk of making it an Olympic sport.

By the time we made it to the gate, which for KLM in Memphis means a nice hike as far away from the terminal as possible while still remaining in the building, it wasn’t too far from boarding time. Maybe a 45 minute wait. Some of us ate the delicious airport food, others read or talked. At this point we weren’t really a group, just a gaggle of people who didn’t know each other. I filled my water bottle from the bathroom, since water fountains appear to be a no-no at that end of Memphis International Airport.

Oh, this is a good place to mention that I was carrying a small backpack filled with books, medicines, snack foods and such, another larger backpack with wheels with a change of clothes, more meds, more food, anything I needed to live in case my checked baggage was lost, my camcorder and water bottle in a sling. If you’ve seen ‘Band of Brothers’ think of a paratrooper right before a drop into enemy territory, sans the rifle and helmet.

What to wear on a long flight is always a hard call. We were leaving hot, humid weather heading into wet, cool weather. How to dress? I wore shorts and t-shirt but packed jeans and a jacket to change into before landing, which I did. Probably should have done it sooner as there appears to be a new regulation requiring airline cabin temps not to exceed 55 degrees.

I got lucky with an exit row seat, which meant that I at least had some leg room. The guy next to me kept bouncing his knee the whole flight, what was up with that? And even with all that leg room he reclined his seat all the way back into poor Robert’s lap. Had he needed to get up they probably would have need more oil he was so wedged in. Even then I don’t think the guy next to me slept a wink, but he did tell me he had a 7 hour layover in Amsterdam, followed by another 10 hour flight somewhere into the nether-regions of the former USSR, so I can empathize with him a little. But only a little. Reclining seats is something I just can’t stand.

I don’t know if all airlines have this nifty new movie feature, but KLM does and it’s great. Each passenger has their own little LCD TV with on-demand movies, music, some TV shows, games…going over I mostly read (Chasing Darkness by Robert Crais, the latest Elvis and Joe novel and as good as you would expect) but did manage to watch ‘Quantum of Solace’, which might not have been quite as good as ‘Casino Royale’ but sure was fun to watch while flying over the Atlantic.

Mrs. Billthebookguy and Daughter Billthebookguy had adjoining seats in the rear, across the aisle from each other. It was strange not sitting with them. But my strategy for getting through such long flights is just to try and distract myself as much as possible. I can’t sleep on airplanes to save my life, I don’t know why, I just can’t.

How long was the flight? About 9.5 hours. We had a tailwind. You get fed twice on such flights, a meal and a snack, and the food isn’t bad and is sometimes good. The biggest problem is dehydration, the air is very dry, so you need to drink water whenever possible. I did, being a travel veteran. The downside, of course, is that what goes in must come out. But enough about that. An hour out of Amsterdam I changed into jeans, getting ready for the cooler temperatures in western Europe. Try changing your pants in an airline bathroom. Or, better yet, don’t.

This is a good spot to mention that we had not one, but two people pass out on the flight. Not sure why, one guy was stretched out in the aisle for at least an hour, the pilot made the call for assistance from any medical personnel on board, a man and woman responded and worked on him. What I heard was vasovagal syncope, not sure how accurate that is. The other one was stretched out in that little pass-through between the forward and middle cabins, near the bathrooms. Again, not sure what happened there but he appeared to be alright.

We touched down in Amsterdam mid-morning, with only an hour or so layover before our connecting flight to Paris. That seemed like enough time but Sandi knew better. Hurry, she said, let’s move it. Maybe it’s because we all still had our own passports and that always makes her nervous. Probably, though it’s because she had been to Amsterdam before. First, there was passport control. This is where you get your passport stamped for entering Europe and can be quick or slow, depending on who you are. Daughter Billthebookguy seemed to draw more questions (and more smiles) from the passport people while BBG himself was given a gruff ‘okay’ and passed through. The lines weren’t too bad but it all takes time. Next came security again, shoes off again, belt off, jacket off, etc. Again, it all went fairly quickly but took more time. We wound up nearly sprinting for our gate and went straight on through to board.

Smaller plane, shorter flight, about an hour. No exit row this time but it didn’t really matter. The coffee was good, all the coffee in Europe is good, the sandwiches were weird (of course I ate them without asking exactly what I was eating. Some strong flavored cheese with dark rye bread, and a variant on ham and cheese) and before I knew it we were cruising over Flanders. Seeing the fields slipping away beneath the wing, I couldn’t help but think that it was likely that same ground had seen wars and battles for at least the last two thousand years. Was I looking at the site of a tank clash, or maybe a skirmish between German barbarians and Roman Legionaries?

Having been to Charles De Gaulle airport before I expected chaos and disaster and got neither. We landed on time, were efficiently lead to baggage claim and didn’t have to wait long for our bags to arrive. Once gathered up we went into the exit space and met up with our guide Judith. She was hugging Sandi when I walked up, and could see her scanning the group, probably how she begins to learn faces and names. Then she saw Daughter BBG and recognition dawned, her eyes widened and she said ‘I know you.’ (Jude had been our guide through England, Scotland and Ireland in 2004). Then she saw the Mrs. and almost laughed, waved, went and gave her a hug. Then she saw me and bolted for the door.

Okay, not really. It was gratifying to see her smile and come over and give me a hug. You make your mark on people in life and aren’t always sure that’s a good thing. I guess in this case it was.

So our start in Paris was a good one all round. I hadn’t expected that. I expected Paris to be dirty and crowded, filled with people who are rude and don’t like Americans. Boy, was I in for a surprise.

2016 Update – Obviously, I never finished this series. My video camera died upon arrival in Lucerne so I only recorded Paris. Looking back, at least I got that, since we have not been back since.

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