Tuesday, June 4, 2013

I’m not a superstitious person by nature. I don’t read tea leaves, play with tarot cards, or knock on wood. I don’t balk at the sight of a black cat, or avoid walking under ladders, and I only rarely cross my fingers for luck, and yet I’ve come to believe in the Odd Year Curse.

Perhaps an explanation is in order.

Whenever I travel to Europe in years divisible by two—say, in 2006, 2008, 2010, or 2012—I have a jolly good time wherever I go, be it London or Paris or Rome. And yet in those years in between, things have a way of going horribly awry. It rains in torrents, day after day, for instance. Or there’s a global outbreak of swine flu. Or my camera lens breaks. Or I catch a mysterious illness and have to come home.

I’m a social scientist by trade, so of course I know that the correlation is weak at best—it rained every bloody day last year in England, but I still enjoyed myself, and that ridiculous volcano in Iceland that scattered airplanes for weeks on end with its plumes of drifting ash happened in 2010, the year of a very safe integer. The curse is also based on a limited number of data points from which little of the future can be extrapolated, but this isn’t about knowing something, this is about believing. And I believe in the Odd Year Curse. Granted, in its folklore and longevity, it doesn’t rank up there with the Curse of the Bambino or the curse of King Tut’s tomb, but it’s real nevertheless, and in 2013 it has struck with a vengeance. I’m starting to take it personally.

Let’s weigh the evidence, shall we?

First—Six weeks before I’m set to leave for Italy, I develop what’s called a posterior vitreous detachment (PVD) in my right eye, followed by a more serious one in my left eye a few days later. I tell my optometrist about my plans to fly and he sends me immediately to a specialist because he’s worried that the change in air pressure on the flight might cause a tear in my retina, which would be very bad indeed. “This almost never happens in both eyes at once,” he says, but somehow I’m not surprised. I am cursed.

Second—Just four days before my scheduled departure, I pick up a bad sinus infection and I’m so congested the doctor thinks it’s prudent to warn me about the risk of a burst ear drum were I to fly in such a condition. This has me imagining life as Helen Keller, both blind and deaf after an ill-advised adventure. She gives me an antibiotic and—fingers crossed, just in case—we hope for the best.

Third—The day before my flight, I discover a number of fraudulent purchases on my credit card. Someone has been downloading computer software and pornography and it’s not me. I call Capital One in a morose state of mind and they immediately close my account, effectively stranding me in Pennsylvania until a new card can be delivered.

It’s at this point that a friend of mine from work suggests that I read the Book of Job. It gets me thinking about biblical pestilence and whether I might be smited with dreadful boils next.

I stop packing and start making phones calls and typing e-mails. The effort of dismantling a year’s worth of planning makes it feel like 2011 all over again, the year in which I got sick and was forced to leave half of my itinerary and the entire country of Austria behind. I was supposed to fly U.S. Airways to Italy on May 29. I had booked a hotel with a rooftop terrace facing the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore so that I could see the new Pope’s candlelight procession on Corpus Domini from high above the streets of Rome. Then, I was to head to Umbria for the annual infiorata festival in Spello and the start of the Giostra della Quintana in Foligno. None of that is going to happen now.

I need to delay things and to simplify. I decide to fly to Venice instead on June 4 and from there skip the trek over to Portofino and Santa Margherita Ligure in favor of five easy nights in Florence. I’ll keep my reservations in Lucca and Pisa for now, and end up, as planned, in Rome. If I can manage that much, it will still be a good trip, but the disappointment of what I can’t do stings.

By now the Odd Year Curse has burrowed so deeply inside my head that all the way down to the airport I’m convinced that the other shoe is about to drop, or rather the fourth shoe, or the fiftha virtual hurricane of shoes. I keep waiting for something bad to happen. Will a traffic jam on I-476 cause me to miss my flight? Will security pull me aside as a suspected terrorist? Will I trip on the escalator and break an ankle?

I’m holding my breath as the wheels on the airplane leave the tarmac and we ascend into a dusky sky dotted with the first stars of night. Only then do I believe that I’ve left my troubles behind.

It seems I am going back to Italy after all.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Sensing a shift in both luck and momentum, I have decided to give Mittenwald another try before moving on to Salzburg, Austria tomorrow morning.  Along the way, the Bavarian landscape outside the window is an evolving panorama of tiny villages and barns and onion-domed churches.  As we approach the Alps, I start to see the remanents of snow in the highest peaks of the mountains, which for a native of the eastern United States are fantastically tall and sharp.

When the train pulls into the station in Mittenwald, I jump to my feet, eager to explore the town, which is best known for the colorful frescoes that adorn its houses.  As I step across the tracks, however, a familiar wave of dizziness and nausea cascades through my body.  I look around, feeling lost, and then find a park bench outside the tourist information center, where I sit patiently for the next hour, waiting for it to pass.  It does not, and so I sit for a few minutes longer, digesting the situation.  There are two things I know:  One, that it is time to see a doctor, and two, that the trip I had planned for over so many months, is over.

I open the door to the TI, step inside, and approach a young woman at the counter to explain that I’ve fallen ill.  She brings me a cup of water and I ask if there is a doctor in town who speaks English.  She makes a phone call and returns to say that there is and that his office is just a mile or so away.  She starts to me offer me walking directions, but I interrupt and ask if she might call me a cab instead.  She furrows her brow in incomprehension and says: “But that will cost you five Euros.” I assure her that will be fine.

She makes another call, and minutes later I’ve arrived at the office of Dr. Kristian Dressler, who is expecting me.  In truth, there is not much he can do so far from home, but he checks my blood pressure, shows me the result, and pronounces it “not good.”  It’s 159/96.  He gives me half of a beta blocking pill to lower it, but when that doesn’t work, he adds the other half.  Still nothing.

He thinks I have a virus and that I haven’t given my body sufficient time to recover from it.  He’s probably right.

By now, I’m desperate to lie down and he offers me the use of one of his examining rooms.  When I’m still not better two hours later, he recommends that I return to Munich on the train in first class so that I might prop my feet up.  He starts to give me walking directions back through town to the station when, as I had done earlier, I interrupt to ask that he call me a cab instead.  “But that will cost you five Euros,” he says, sounding exasperated.  I think: “What is it with these people and five Euros?”

I have come to believe that the Germans are tight fisted with money and that they do not tolerate weakness.  I am tired of their beige food and I want to go home.

This is terribly unfair, I know, and yet it is easy to think such things when we are sick.

Three days later I do go home, but not before dismantling the remaining days of my trip one hotel at a time.  There will be no Sound of Music tour this time around, no boat ride across Lake Hallstatt, no Vienna Boys Choir or Spanish Riding School, and no opera.  The closest I will come to Austria is the terrace of Neuschwanstein Castle with its sweeping vista south towards the Alps.

Travel is an adventure, and by virtue of that definition, it is not always a pleasant and rewarding experience, despite (or even because of) our lofty goals and expectations.  I will need time to recover from this, and to mourn for opportunities lost, but after that, I will—as I always do—cast an eye towards next year, in the persistent and unrelenting hope of doing it all again.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Cursed.

Try as I might, that’s the word that’s repeating in my brain as I head off to Europe this year.  It’s my fourth solo trip.  I’m a seasoned traveler by now, so the apprehension I feel seems odd and misplaced.  First there was London in the summer of 2006, then a wider swing through the UK in 2007 ending with a week in Paris, and then last year Italy. Fourteen days spent living la dolce vita in sweet, lovely Italy. This time it’s a return trip to France to explore parts of Normandy and the Alsace, followed by a journey north and east into Belgium and the Netherlands.  It all sounds wonderful on paper—perfect, really—so it’s a shame that the entire enterprise is doomed from the start.

I’m not entirely serious when I say that, of course, but there is something to it. Unwittingly, the dates I locked in last fall in order to use my frequent flyer points conflict with my nephew’s high school graduation. That’s guilt-inducing enough, but to make matters worse I’ve developed a lingering foot problem that makes walking distances rather like stepping on a nail (over and over), which should make climbing into German bunkers near Omaha Beach and, quite frankly, all of Mont-St-Michel, interesting.

Weeks before I leave, an outbreak of swine flu has me worried about restrictions on international travel. In a mad and quite possibly vain attempt to stay well, I start carrying a bottle of Purell with me everywhere I go. Then, with just days to go, I find out that United Mobile, the company that operates the SIM card on my cell phone, is suddenly out of business and has taken with it all of the money I recently added to my pre-paid account in preparation for my trip. And finally, hours before takeoff, comes the surprising news that my “window” seat on Lufthansa, booked seven months ago, is actually—and ironically—in a row without a window. When I make a mental tally of these things, I know it could be far worse. In this economy, I’m fortunate to be able to travel at all, and yet it feels like a premonition of things to come. There are storm clouds on the horizon. Literally.

So let’s just cut to the chase.  Let’s get to the bottom line.  I’m writing this as a retrospective at home in Vermont in mid-winter, so I might as well say that this is going to be the story of a road trip that is filled with rain, transportation detours and delays, more rain, scaffolding and other forms of obstruction, a broken camera lens, and still more rain.  Really, a ridiculous amount of rain.  So, let’s just thank God here and now for Parisian tartes and café cremes, Belgian chocolate, and Dutch pancakes, before rewinding to the start of the story…

Amen.

It’s early on a Sunday night and I’m at the Philadelphia International Airport waiting to board a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt.  This is what happens when you try to use years of accumulated points in your Dividend Miles account.  You get a tight connecting flight on a partner airline, although I suppose the upside—if I follow the Sarah Palin school of thought on foreign travel—is that I now get to include Germany on the list of countries that I’ve visited!

There is a general moan among the passengers on flight 427 when a short delay is announced for “cleaning and catering.”  Within minutes the crowd grows antsy and it is clear that there will be little patience for boarding etiquette.  Despite the usual invitation for families with small children to board first, everyone begins to press towards the door in an undifferentiated mass.  The Lufthansa employees seem to know it’s a losing battle, so they resort to social admonishment instead.  In a stern German accent, a man says: “I dit not know vee had so many children onboard dis flight!”

Filing in, though, I’m feeling a bit smug. We are told that the cabin is filled to capacity, every seat taken, but before leaving home I checked in online and was able to change my undesirable, windowless seat from 32K to 35A, a maneuver at the time that felt worthy of a fist pump.  But as I make my way down the aisle, I’m suddenly perplexed. Row 32 has a window, a perfectly fine window, identical in every way to every other window.  So much for the color-coded warning on Seat Guru’s floor plan.

As I settle into my new assignment, I find myself squeezed in next to a very large and already very sweaty woman.  She’s quiet and not at all inconsiderate, but between shoulder and knee, there’s truly no way to avoid full bodily contact.  It’s going to be a long and uncomfortable night.  I crane my neck to the right and for a moment stare wistfully at the nice-looking man sitting in the aisle seat of row 32, and the woman resting peacefully by the window next to him. Ah, fate, what have you done to me?

On the upside, we were scheduled to depart at 6:05 PM, and despite the all the nonsense over “cleaning and catering” it’s only 6:15 when we pull away from the gate, which when you think about it, isn’t bad at all.  But the delay has forced us far back in the queue for take-off.  It’s 7:00 by the time we lift into the air.  My one and a half hours of leeway in Frankfurt—an overly optimistic layover from the start—is shrinking into nothing…