Europe, Part 3.

Friday, August 14th, 2009

I’ll be writing about our recent tour of Europe in several parts. This is part 3.

Up In The Air, And Back Down Again

It appeared in the sky every half hour, and it was so regular you could set your watch by it. The giant, perfectly spherical zeppelin, with its round basket of sightseers, was an easy landmark to spot from just about anywhere in the city. If we were feeling lost, all we had to do was wait for, at most, 29 minutes and like clockwork it would appear. I supposed that it would have been an interesting way to view the city, but the three of us had chosen a more pedestrian method of observation during our time in Hamburg. I decided that if I ever made it back to this interesting city, I’d give it a shot.

The cab pulled away from our hotel and drove past the massive balloon, which was making its first ascent of the day. When we arrived at the airport, we were four hours early for our flight to Milan. Unloading our baggage at the check in desk, we made our way to a vacant corner table a few hundred feet away from gate 31 and settled in to wait. Killing time is something most working musicians can do with the best of them. While we may be professionals in the field, it’s not a proficiency any of us have mastered by choice. The cycle of travel, two hours downtime, sound check, four hours downtime, show, downtime, sleep, repeat, is one that we’re all very well versed in. There are a million things one can do to pass the time. On this particular day, Rodney chose to pass his time by donning his headphones and dancing to Michael Jackson. He’s actually quite good, and his first and only performance was met with spontaneous applause from the several dozen travelers who were within eyeshot of him.

An hour later we were taxiing down the runway and hurtling up and over the Alps.

We arrived in Milan as the sun was setting. Out of my window I marveled at the tiny farms that dotted the area around the airport. I imagined that they were growing fine grapes, which would mature and produce even finer wine… but I’m reasonably sure they were just wheat farms. Nonetheless, I was ready for a new country and a new culture. We collected our bags and jumped on a bus for the Milan central train station as the city was closing itself down for the day. Upon arrival, Rodney went off to buy tickets for our train ride to Modena, and Holly and I guarded the baggage, watching people shuffle from train to terminal and back again.

The introduction to Italy we were about to receive was, as I later discovered, an unfair one.

Our train was leaving the station at 11:35 PM and as we walked to the platform beside train 785 I began to panic. Each car we entered was full—the inhabitants of the six-person compartments were overflowing into the aisles. We checked car after car for empty seats, but none could be found. The first whistle signaling the “all aboard” call sounded, and we knew we were out of time. Today, we were later told, was the first day of the traditional summer holiday, and the people of Milan were heading south for their vacation. This particular train was the last one of the day heading in that direction, and we reluctantly stepped through the door of car number 23.

Car 23 could not have been less than four decades old, and we quickly discovered that it wasn’t equipped with air conditioning. The tops of the windows along the aisle were bolted shut and it was easily 90 degrees inside. The air was stale and heavy. The aisle itself was no wider than two feet across, and we were forced to line our bags along the outer wall, leaving only enough space between them for a place to stand. As the train jolted into motion, people pushed their way by us, forcing our chests and backs against the window to allow them the room needed to pass. 30 minutes into the trip, we arrived at the first stop. I hoped that the crowd would thin out, but more people boarded the train, adding to the suffocating mix. Two more stops came and went, unfortunately offering no relief. An hour and a half into the trip, the ticket collector arrived to punch our cards, and thankfully open a few windows with her key. A slight, but valuable breeze made its way into the car giving us a precious bit of circulation. It cooled the car by perhaps a few degrees, and at this point, we would take what we could get. The rest of the trip found the three of us hanging our noses out of the four inches of open window, praying that each stop would bear the sign “Modena” above it’s benches and timetables. Eventually our prayers were answered, and we left the rest of our weary car mates to their uncomfortable and unknown destinations.

One of our two Italian hosts, Max, was waiting for us at the train station. We piled into his car and set off into the night, happy to be saved from the curse that was train 785 (a number that, from that point going forward, will forever serve as my unlucky number). 30 minutes later, we found ourselves driving up a mountainside, turning left and right, doubling back against the steepness of the one lane road. We arrived at a quaint house perched on the very top of the mountain. It was owned by our second host, Christian, and after introductions, he led us to an outdoor area overlooking the valley below. Food and wine were spread out across a long wooden table, and as I dropped my bags in the green grass, Holly and I walked past the offering to look at the flickering lights of a distant town. The view was breathtaking. As we settled in to eat and drink away the unpleasant memories of an ancient train car, I made a note in my book:

For future reference: next time skip the train and

travel to Italy via hot air balloon.

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