I was watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain today when I started thinking about my own trips to Europe. My mother's brother moved to France in his early twenties to attend law school at the Sorbonne in Paris. He ended up marrying a French woman and had three children. So, I have three French cousins. Therefore I was lucky enough to experience France in a very intimate way at a young age. I was nine the first time we went - I then went on a longer trip when I was 16. After undergrad I went on a seven week Eurail trip. And then in grad school I spent 5 1/2 months in Germany - traveling all over.
There was even a time when I thought that I wanted to be a travel writer. After returning to the U.S. I found out about someone who was looking for travel stories from Europe to publish in a book. I sent one in about a train trip from Munich to Venice. To my surprise it actually was published. I even did a little publicity for it at a book festival in Ann Arbor. Here it is reprinted. It's a little over the top - but oh well - I guess I'm kind of an over the top type of guy. You can find the entire book at http://books.google.com/books?id=X4etXqhSQ_cC&pg=PA9&lpg=PA9&dq=anticipation+ben+ingram&source=bl&ots=uhojoNEO8G&sig=8ZrdWD2YnDiogdQThShTETokJiw&hl=en&sa=X&ei=0JIfU56tCcq8yAHZhoCADg&ved=0CF8Q6AEwBw#v=onepage&q=anticipation%20ben%20ingram&f=false
Somewhere between Munich and Venice
Looking out the train window, I saw the first faint glow of morning light. It was a light long in coming to one who hadn’t slept all night; a dawning that made me feel as though something had been both accomplished and lost.
I was sitting on a padded seat that folded down from the corridor wall of the train. I hadn’t slept since Verona. There were six of us traveling together, and, as we planned the trip at the last minute, two had to find seats elsewhere.
After crossing the Austrian border into Italy, the porter had taken a look at our passports and tickets, and told the four of us who were together that we needed to get on a different train to Verona. We tried to text the other two while simultaneously finding out which train we needed to get on. When that didn’t work, we tried the old-fashioned way: opening up compartments, rousing people from their sleep, and being scolded in several tongues. At this point we could see why Shakespeare set his greatest tragedy in this fair city. What could we do? The only possibility was that we had missed them while searching the train.
With only minutes before our train left for Venice, we gave up on our friends. It may seem harsh, but it was four in the morning, and we had tried our best. They had a train pass and modern communication. We would eventually meet up with them.
As we boarded our new train, downtrodden and beaten, a familiar face popped out of a compartment.
“Did you just try to text me?” our friend asked, yawning and rubbing her eyes. We all looked at each other. How did she end up on the right train without waking up? Soon one of us remembered that, like discontented lovers, trains in Europe often split during the night.
There were only two empty seats in the compartment, so I volunteered myself and my girlfriend to sit in the hallway. I have to confess it wasn’t pure altruism on my part. We were still new to each other, and I had convinced her to come with us less than 48 hours before our departure.
Most of us were exchange students in Germany, taking advantage of a break between a language class and the start of the semester. We had stumbled onto the night train after spending the day in a certain southern German city, at that most famous of beer fests. We decided to take the night train from Munich to Venice after being told there was no way we would find a room during Oktoberfest. The trick was to drink enough Oktoberfest brew so that a seat on the train was “sleepable” (all the sleeping cars were taken), while not drinking too much to forget about the train.
After the singing and dancing and uncontrolled festivities, I wanted to be alone with my new girlfriend, even if it cost me a little comfort and sleep. She lay with her head in my lap, and I stroked her hair as I looked out into the darkness.
I have found that travel is at times most enjoyable during the periods of anticipation and memory. At that moment my head was filled with both. I thought back to my first visit to Venice, during a seven-week Eurail trip three years earlier. I traveled mostly with a friend from high school and his girlfriend. For the Italy portion they had wanted to be alone to appreciate the full romance of the place. Therefore, I had spent my time in Venice with a friendly guy from Ohio.
As the Italian countryside whisked by our train, I decided that we should find the hostel where I had stayed then. It wasn’t that impressive, but it was memorable. We stayed in a large room full of bunk beds. As we rested in the warm afternoon, a cool breeze and singing of gondoliers floated through the window.
Although Italy had impressed me enough to want to come back, I thought it would be much more powerful when romance was involved, no offense to the guy from Ohio.
To be in Venice is to be lost. In my book, staying near the train station or taking the water taxi to the San Marco Piazza should be considered poor style. Every traveler in Venice should have the experience of making a turn that they are certain leads to their destination, only to find the Grand Canal in front of them with no recognizable landmarks in sight.
As I was daydreaming I realized that we were now surrounded by water, which meant we were very close to Venice. As the sun rose, a golden, shimmering band of light streaked across the lagoon toward the train. I felt I should go wake the others, but I wanted to appreciate the moment, quiet and peaceful as it was.
Soon they would be up. Soon we would get to the station. Soon we would put our packs on our backs, making sure we didn’t leave anything important. Soon we would climb down the stairs onto the platform, feeling slightly uncomfortable in our public display of grubbiness. We would try to orient ourselves. Our lives would soon be about direction and priorities. “Does anybody need a bathroom? Something to drink? Eat?” someone would say. “Let’s just find our hostel first,” another would plead.
But for that moment I wanted to sit and fully appreciate the smell of the sea, the feeling of the chill wind coming through the window, and the anticipation of arriving at a city that has captured the imagination of people for centuries.