Friday, February 27, 2009

My Cut-Rate Grand Tour: Day Eighteen

Friday, 23 December, 1988
Dijon to Pontarlier to Bern to Löhenthal*

Got up at 4:45 like a good child. Good thing I didn’t rely on the wakeup call the desk lady said she’d give me. It never materialized.

Dreamed again of doing backflips all night. Must be something about the bed. Too soft.

Down to the hotel lobby by 5:20. Nobody was there, there was no sign of any number to call for a cab, and there was no switch for the hall where the phone was. Wasn’t even sure what to do with the key. Decided just to hang it on the hook under my room number, and get down to the street.

No sign of cabs there. So, again, I carried the bags. At least they were lighter now. One cab I saw, passed me, going pretty fast. Everyone in Dijon drives fast, it seems.

Anyway, made it to the 5:58 train in decent time, thank God. First change in Dôle, about thirty-five minutes later. Had a bit of anxiety when the train stopped at another small town two minutes before due time in Dôle and I couldn’t see the station sign. But I decided Dôle had to be bigger. And it was.

Train to Pontarlier from there. Hour and a half ride. The conductor or whoever he was joined me in the 1st Class coach (I was the only one there) and wanted to talk all the way in. At least he was friendly and soldiered on despite my bad French, even though he kept me from working on my journal. He says they're planning to build a tunnel under the English Channel (La Manche). First I've heard of it-- I hope it won't mean the ferries will stop running. He also told me there was snow on the ground at Pontarlier. Oh! I hadn’t considered that possibility.

And as the sun began to rise I could see out the window that lo, he was right. First real snow I’ve seen all season.

Over two and a half hours to while away in
Pontarlier, and that worked out all right. I left my bags in the ticket agent’s office (gratis) and headed for town. Found a patisserie open and went in and had fresh warm rolls and a pot of tea, sitting down like a civilized person.

While in the washroom there I noticed on a town map they had posted on the wall that this town sports a Rue Berlioz. This I had to see. So I hiked over across their bit of river, on sidewalks that had either been shovelled or else on which the snow was good and packed.

Rue Berlioz is residential one side and has the town swimming pool on the other. Not terribly relevant, but not so different from Rue G. Fauré or Rue Moliere a block or so over. I did admire the street sign, the very fact of it, though. If I were into kiping street signs that’s one that would disappear fast.

Yes, and I’d violate at least three of the Ten Commandments in the process, too.

Well, time for me to turn to more uplifting things. Back to the commercial part of town and searched for a place to sell me some ribbon for that bottle of champagne for Lukas’s* family. The fabric kind would look best, I decided. So I got a meter of red sateen and a meter of nice white cotton lace, which would do nicely.

Back towards the station then, but got rather turned around because the street where I’d gotten the ribbon diverged away from my goal. I was across the river again and over by the local Nestlé plant when I realized this was getting me nowhere. Backtracked, found the signs, and decided I had time to go to the last patisserie I’d passed and spend some of the last of my French coinage on a Jule log cake and one last meringue. Would’ve spent more but thought I might need some money for Customs.

Turned out I didn’t. The inspectors came by on the train. I told them about the champagne and they asked, only one? I said yes, they asked if I had any tobacco, I said no, and that was that. Bon voyage.

Takes no time at all to get into Switzerland from there. Very beautiful today with the snow on the mountains and fields and trees. And the black crows flying across added just the right touch to the monochromatic scene.

The people on the train were obviously Swiss and I could discern the difference from the French. More athletic-looking, less consciously fashionable.

As for marking my national origins, not one person in the last two weeks has nailed me for an American. English, Dutch, or German, but never American. Funny, especially after the Coverdale*

Snow disappeared by Neuchatel and Bern. Pity.

Bern train station is very big and very busy. Had a devil of a time finding the WC and then it was all pay toilets. Forget it.‡

But the currency exchange was easier and I got change for the phone from the Swiss money I’d brought. And I was able to exchange my French money, from the half-franc pieces on up. Didn’t think I’d be able to.

Swiss franc is about $1.47 these days. Bit different from France.

Called Lukas. I’d planned what I’d say in German if his mother had answered, but he did himself. I was speaking French and English and German all jumbled up together but he said from now on I was to drop the French (though he understands that language quite well, too).
He gave me directions on the best train to take and told me he’d meet me on the platform at Olten, especially since the exits lead two different directions.

All the places on the train that goes through there were reserved. But when I told the conductor I was getting off in Olten (told him in very bad German, I’m afraid) he let me stay where I was.

Did the bow for the champagne just before I got off. No time for it to get too squashed that way.

Lukas was not right there when I got down. I got the feeling he was probably down at the other end looking among the passengers from the second class cars. I looked a bit and thought I saw him, then he turned and saw me and came back down the platform.

And it hit me that I’d forgotten how damned good-looking he is. I admit that just now anyone familiar would seem good looking to me but I think a great deal of this perception was objective.

He hoisted my bag and carried it out to the car. But before he closed the trunk on it and my backpack I produced the bottle of champagne. He seemed well-pleased.

I did not give him a hug on the platform. I wanted to and felt somehow the decision was up to me. But I was too shy and the critical moment passed. What I did do is talk too much. I did not tell him that I’d gotten so depressed that being anywhere sometimes seems pointless or that occasionally I’ve taken out my surreptitious store of photographs of Nigel Richards* just to remind myself that there are such charming and intelligent people around to someday again enjoy. But since he asked I did tell him I was rather tired of travelling and wouldn’t mind going back to Oxford early.

As for him, he’s been seeing his friends since he’s gotten back. I told him to be sure and go anywhere he’d been invited in the next two-three days and never mind me.

I told him about various things that’ve happened to me in France and he pointed out salient features in the landscape. If I had to capture it with anything I’d say the country around Löhenthal is like central Missouri near the Ozarks, except that the hills are more rugged here. But the village itself is built on rolling hills.

The Renzberger* family house is a compact modern place with the main living spaces on the second level. The room I was given is off the entry hall, downstairs. Lukas’ mother keeps talking about how small it all is, though, but it doesn’t seem as crowded as my mother’s place in Houston.

Almost as soon as I arrived, Frau Renzberger said to me, "You must call your mother in America and tell her you are safe."

I was perplexed. Why should I call Mom? I’m over thirty; I don’t normally report in to her whenever I go from place to place. I said, "Uh, thank you, but my mom knows I’m travelling in Europe during the vacation."

"No, you must call. She might think you changed your mind and decided to come home for Christmas."

"No, I’d’ve told her if I was doing that."

"But you must call her. She might worry you were on that airplane that crashed on the 21st."

Now she had my attention. "What airplane?"

Hadn’t I heard? And she told me about a PanAm jet on its way to America that started out in Frankfurt and picked up passengers in London and then was blown out of the sky over Scotland. Terrorists, they think it was. Everyone killed, of course, and a lot of people on the ground. A terrible thing. I must call my mother.

"All right," I agreed. "I’ll call her collect."

"No, no, you just use our phone. Just call."

So I did. Mom had not been worrying that I might’ve changed my mind and planned to come to Houston for Christmas and she hadn’t even thought of me in connection with the airplane bombing. But she was very glad to talk to me and know I was well. I told her to expect the postcard and rang off. Didn’t want to run up charges on the Renzbergers’ dime.

Lukas’ mother fed me a nice lunch of eggs and ham and stollen. As she began to cook she said, "Don’t worry, these aren’t salmonella eggs!"

I was perplexed yet again. "What?"

"Salmonella," she explained patiently. "They have found salmonella in the eggs in Great Britain. It is a very big scandal. It is on all the news. Haven’t you heard about it?"

No, I had not. Something else I’d missed, wandering around the provinces of France!

After I ate Lukas and I talked a bit in the front room. He’s going back to Coverdale on the 6th.

We took a walk around the village as the sun was going down. We still managed to see quite a bit. His church (Reformed) and the Catholic church and the antique houses and the new modern-style apartment project that nobody likes. I was sorry to have to tell him it did have its good points architecturally and could be a lot worse.

Talked some more back at the house about Swiss environmental controls and so forth. Very strict, you have to turn off your engine at stoplights.

Then his father called and asked him to come fetch him, since it was nearly 7:00 and he’d missed the last train. So Lukas’ mother, Greti*, came and told me about her husband’s job at the surveying instruments plant. He’s a personnel manager and has a very stressful position.

Supper was boiled potatoes with all sorts of cheese. Quite good, and there were Christmas cookies after. Both of Lukas’s parents know English and they made an effort to speak in that language. I found myself conversing with them a great deal.

Nevertheless I feel a bit ambivalent about being here, especially as Frau Renzberger, Greti, is one of those people who insists she can and will do all the work, you run along and play, and you wonder if she really means it. And of course, I want to do everything right and be liked and don’t know if insisting or retiring gracefully is the better tack.

I tell you, I just can’t relax anywhere. Which maybe explains why I had to listen to Schubert on my headphones in order to relax enough to get to sleep tonight . . .

†The parody lyrics to "Three Little Maids" that my two fellow-students and I had sung in our panto bit were all about the characters' being boastful, obnoxious Americans.
‡As far back as high school I'd developed an antipathy towards paying to use the restroom. Seemed immoral somehow. Like making people pay to breathe.


whiskers said...

Oof. Pay restrooms are a direct annex of hell. I can just see a minor demon sitting at his desk thinking, "what can we do to these poor wretches next? I know, let's make them pay to get into the restroom!"

And I totally understand about not being able to relax anywhere. I blame my mother who instilled a dislike of "doing nothing" in me. It's so strong that I have to justify "time off" to myself in order to stop working...


St. Blogwen said...

Yeah, if you told me I had to spend a whole vacation doing nothing but lie on a beach frying I would go crazy. At least let's go for walks or chuck starfish back in the ocean or something!

But looking back on it, a lot of my inability to relax in that house was due to Greti's* fussiness. It brought out the fussiness in me, because I'm the same way!

On reflection, it's good to remember when I have a guest that the primary thing they desire is a sense of peace and acceptance. If I do something for them, it has to be about them, and not about me. It's the story of Mary and Martha all over again.