Thursday, August 4, 2011

Off...Off the Beaten Path

Europe provides an array of distinguished languages, cuisines, landscapes, and people. I've come to realize that this is a much cherished treasure of the inhabitants of this continent. I, myself, have been looking forward to this commodity of travel. Most things are a car ride or few hours flight away.

My first summer as a European resident brought me a short distance ( mere three hours drive from Paris) to Brugge, Belgium. My initial dose of a holiday. There was nothing I didn't enjoy of this medieval city and it surroundings, maybe except the weather. It rained nearly everyday except two, one of which we went to the coast and enjoyed the beach. I discovered they really do make outstanding waffles! The people are friendly and mostly speak some English. Heck, I even got to watch Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows Part 2 in English, with double subtitles in Dutch and French. It was a short vacation but well packed week excursion. And it pretty much spoiled me.

A week later, we were to embark on another holiday of sorts. My husband's job brings him to Moldova about once a month for one week throughout the year, but this summer it was going to host us for three weeks. Having been to another Eastern European city (Bucharest) for a brief weekend, I had some idea of what to expect. And honestly, it wasn't my first choice, or a second for that matter. I was going because keeping the family unit together as much as possible is the most important. It's hard enough for my daughter to deal with his business travel of 5 days per month. It's not easy for me either. With all the changes this year has brought, I knew accompanying him would be the right thing to do, emotionally for my little one. As long as daddy is around, all is good.

Traveling is something I enjoy much, up until this point it really has been rather sumptuously ordinary. Moldova is not, rather Off... Off the Beaten Path. I was definitely unprepared. Mind you, I was also pretty darn sick. On two antibiotics for Strep throat, or Angine as the French call it. I could barely swallow liquids, and my energy level was left of zero. Regardless, I put on a brave face until we boarded the sleeper train from Bucharest to Chisinau (Moldova's capitol city). Up until then the travel was fair and normal.

First of all, we believed we had purchased first class tickets. The seller at the station spoke English, so it wasn't a matter of misunderstanding. She just neglected to tell us they were sold out, and gave us second class instead. The realization hit with a strong foul smell of body odor in a scorching hot train car, the hottest of the entire antiquated line. We were in a four person sleeper cabin with an old Moldovan lady and a younger scantly dressed woman, both of whom were friendly. It didn't matter... misery set in. I was physically spent, and emotionally ill-equipped for the 12 hour journey. I didn't attempt to hide my gloom from my husband, who happened to be disappointed but quickly saw it as part of the adventure. I wasn't in an adventurous mood, period.

The snack bar car brought some relief, and being at the end of the train gave us a view of some empty cabins. A few conductors came in for their evening meal. My husband asked the one in charge of our car, if we could switch in the best mix of sign language with the few Romanian words he knew. The somewhat handsome authority frowned, then glanced at me as I sat by an open window. Giving him my best puppy eyes, I pushed out my belly as much as possible, rubbing it as if I was pregnant. I know, I know shameless. Means to an end, and I had no qualms about it! He looked over at his boss who was in deep conversation with another, then he turned back to my husband, tapped his shoulder and said “Da” (which means yes in Romanian & Russian). We nodded our heads in gratitude. Hell, I could've laid a wet one on him, hardly appropriate after all I was with child...

Our hopes were quickly dashed, when both cabins were occupied on the way back to our little hell hole. The first by our former roommate in the skimpy mini-dress, and the second by a gypsy, whom I saw at the station in Bucharest begging for money. She probably was a stow-away, because I doubt she even had a ticket. So I resigned myself to our hidey hole inferno for the ten hour ordeal left ahead. A good night's sleep could have happened if pill induced. Unfortunately, I didn't have any such meds on hand. Of course my husband and daughter slept. Typical. So I plucked out my HTC from my backpack, went to my Kindle app and began re-reading Pride & Prejudice.

Around 2am, we were stopped at the Romanian border for exit control. No one, absolutely no one is allowed to the toilet, not even pregnant me. The conductor yelled at me, sort of. So I waddled back to my quarters in the best pregnant run I could muster, and silently giggled all the way. Ten minutes later, The border police appeared, brawny & scary in their military green uniforms. They took our passports which freaked me out, but I realized they took everyone's including little old lady roomie's. Once we got it back, the train was allowed to cross into Moldova. At this point, our conductor came to fetch me,, sneaking me into the toilet. He sternly told me I had one minute. Pregnant ladies always get preferential treatment.(wink, wink). Afterward, I rushed back to my cabin and waited. The Moldovan Border police round went smoother, faster, and much less scary.

Following our entry, I foolishly thought I could squeeze in a few hours of sleep (insert sinister laugh). About an hour or so after, we hit the part of the tracks that change. Yes, change. So this roughly two hour operation of actually elevating each individual car and replacing the corresponding boogies (the part that contains the axles & wheel sets, was quite tedious & loud. At this point my husband and daughter were up, curiously gazing out the window, both completely fascinated. He urged me to look out as well. Otherwise, I was being a “pooper”. Really?! No energy left to retaliate on that one. So I gave it a go, but since they were on the top bunk, their view was much better than mine, and frankly I had no interest. I picked up my phone again and continued reading Jane Austen's novel. Miraculously, I feel asleep for maybe two hours at most. Exhaustion knocked me out. I woke up shortly before we hit Chisinau. I have never been happier to see a city I've never been to nor had any desire to see before. Little did I know , the surprises didn't stop there.