Monday, January 31, 2011

Riding the Rails: Part Three

(Wreck of the Old '97, Thomas Hart Benton, 1943, Hunter Museum of Art, Chattanooga, TN)

I tiptoe delicately into the cell.

Everyone is sleeping soundly.

This does not make me happy.

I want to sleep soundly too.

But do I get to?


I don't!

Instead, I get to read.

Until 4:30 a.m. when I realize that my back is killing me.

I try desperately to find a comfortable position on the tray.

But nothing works.

I decide that I better get vertical for awhile.

Maybe standing will relieve some of the pain.

For the next several seconds, I become a frustrated contortionist.

Finally, I am on my feet.

I am facing the cell door.

My back is facing the sink.

I am not armed.

I am not particularly dangerous.

But I am in position.

If the warden decides to pop in unexpectedly with new plans for our train riding "comfort," I'll be ready to take him down in a nanosecond.

The train is shaking so violently that I lose my balance.

I attempt to recover my equilibrium by grabbing the edges of Bob's and Matt's trays.

But that's not gonna do it.

So I stand with my feet apart and brace my legs against the bottom beds to achieve more stability.

I am hanging on to those top trays with everything I've got.

Bob and Matt sleep and sleep and sleep.

I hate them.

Tara rustles her sheet for a few seconds.

Is she going to wake up and talk to me?

My hopes evaporate as she turns over and relaxes into a deep slumber.

Please someone - anyone - tell me when I am going to get some SLEEP???


I am now within minutes of loosing what is left of my crumbling mind.

I decide that I hate everyone who has ever lived.

I hate everyone who is currently living.

And I hate everyone who is yet to live.

I hate people because they are stinky, dirty, and just plain nasty.

I hate them because they reproduce too fast.

I decide that I hate every form of transportation known to humankind - including feet.

I hate life because it's not fair.

I especially hate EUROPE!

This is all Europe's fault.

If Europe did not exist, I would not be standing on this creepy train suffering like a caged animal.


Hate Europe?


I may have mildly disliked it for a few seconds here or there.

But I have never, ever hated Europe.

I can't even imagine under what circumstances I WOULD hate Europe.

I think silently, "I am seriously scaring myself."

Then a new thought flies into my head:

I could......

I could just suck it up and deal.

But before I can dismiss that ridiculous idea, I hear these frightening sounds:


'What in the world?" I ask myself, "that terrible screeching noise sounds like 10 million fingernails clawing across 10 million chalkboards all at once."



The train comes to a complete halt.

I look at my watch.

The time is 4:50 a.m.

Silence settles over the train.

A deadly, quiet silence.

"Did we just run over a cow?" I ask myself.

"Or worse yet, an actual......... HUMAN BEING???"

"And even if we did run over something soft and crushable like a body, would we even realize it at the speed this train is going?"

My mind races back and forth as I desperately search for answers.

I glance at my companions.

Bob is snoring as usual.

Matt is sprawled out on his tray, sleeping like a bear in hibernation.

Tara is curled up into a comfy ball, oblivious to the world around her.


I am within two seconds of letting out the biggest scream of my life.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Riding the Rails: Part Two

(The Sisters Bed, Wilhelm Marstrand, 1840, Hirschsprungske Samling Museum, Copenhagen)

The warden smiles as he winds up his conversation with Matt.

He declares authoritatively, "It is 9 p.m. I am here to turn down your beds for the night."

Or he would be if he could get into the room.

He holds up the gigantic key.

We instantly realize that he means business.

Each of us steps out of the cell into the corridor.

I watch through the open door as he inserts his key into a lock in the wall.

The lock is positioned directly over the two seats that Bob and I had been sitting in just moments before.

Suddenly, a metal platform drops down into place.

I see a pillow, two sheets and a blanket lying on the platform.

The mattress is - maybe - 3 inches thick.

Then the warden inserts his key into a second lock.

The same scenario unfolds again only this time the platform is higher up the wall.

Quickly, the warden spins and faces in the opposite direction.







All four platforms are now in place.

A sick feeling flows through me as I realize that these "beds" look eerily like those roll out trays that hold dead bodies in the morgue.

Only the morgue residents have more room to spread out and relax than we're going to have.

It is at this point that I begin to think that Bob has lived long enough.

"HOW COULD HE DO THIS TO US???," I shriek to myself.

I want to get even with him for signing us up for this absurd sort of misery.

My mind begins to filter through the possibilities.

Smothering might work.

I could fold him up into the wall after he falls asleep and send him off to a permanent dreamland.

Enough with the fantasizing.

The fact is, I'm going to have to get a grip on myself.

And the sooner the better.

The warden exits our cell and says brightly, "Have a good evening!"

I want to take his big key and shove it in his ear.

But I don't.

The four of us traipse slowly back into our compartment.

There is only one place to stand.

That's right down the middle of the cell.

And that's only if we stand single file.

The warden graciously created a new aisle for us when he lowered our "beds" into the center of the room.

Bob surveys the scene and says, "It's not like we have a choice. We have got to get on our beds for the rest of the evening and stay there."

I snarl to myself, "Do you think so, Sherlock?"

Bob and Matt decide to be "chivalrous" and take the top beds.

I am no physicist but even I can see that the top platforms have a ton more breathing and turning space than the lower beds have.

I'd love to pick a fight with Bob over which one of us is going to get the upper 'bunk" but I have no more fight left in me.

I look pitifully at Tara, shrug my shoulders and slink down on my lower level platform in complete defeat.

Several minutes later, all three of my traveling comrades are sound asleep.

Please allow me to explain.

Matt and Tara are the parents of two gorgeous, highly intelligent and very rambunctious children.

This automatically means that Matt and Tara can fall asleep at anytime and at anyplace.

Surrounding circumstances - whether they be conducive to sleep or not - don't really matter to them.

Sleep - if and when they can get it - is their top priority.

Morgue trays for beds?

A jerky, noisy train to send them off to the sandman?

Matt and Tara joyfully exclaim,


Bob is either sound asleep or he is faking it so he won't have to deal with me.

I am wide awake.

And I am doing some more mental measuring.

I finally conclude that there might be a grand total of 10 inches between the top of my body and the bottom of Bob's tray.

I stare at those 10 inches for several seconds.

I know that's not a good thing.

But I can't seem to help myself.

My heart starts pounding.

My breathing gets jumpy.

I'm feeling really wired.


That's it.

If I don't get off this platform - RIGHT NOW - I absolutely know that I am going to explode and die right here in this cell!

My mind wanders for a few seconds and thinks, "At least I'll be lying on the appropriate surface when the warden comes to collect my cold, dead body."

I plead with myself, "Girl, you have got to get it together!!!"

So I talk myself down from panic mode, pick up my book and begin to read.

But the words aren't sticking in my brain.

That's because I am so mad I can hardly see straight.


Then I answer my own question:

"Who knows? You should have signed on at some other planet, honey, if what you really wanted was a fair shake."

I pick up my novel and force myself to pay attention.

Eventually, I look at my watch.

It is now midnight and they are all sleeping like milk-filled newborns.


Nature is calling me - loud and clear.

I avoid voiding for as long as I possibly can.

Who knows what demons are lurking at the end of the corridor in the lavatory?

I decide to delay uncovering that bit of knowledge as long as possible.



I roll off my tray, slip on my shoes and slowly pull myself up into standing position.

The train is jerking wildly and running at what feels like lightening speed.

I wonder if I am going to make it down the corridor without falling all over myself.

Seconds later, I arrive at the lavatory and open the Lilliputian door.

Basically, it comes down to this:

In order to use the facilities, I am going to need major surgery.

Someone - undoubtedly the warden because he seems to do everything on this train - - is going to have to lop some serious fat off each side of my body before I will be able to seat myself and "water the lilies."

Somehow, I manage to squeeze into the lavatory, close the door and take care of business.

Then I wobble up the aisle, banging my hips on the walls of the corridor as I go.

Cautiously, I open the door to cell 3.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Riding the Rails: Part One

(Still Life, Josef Seboth, 19th Century, Birmingham Museum of Art)

Someone - and I'm not naming names - thought it might be a good idea to book tickets on the overnight train hotel out of Madrid.



I hesitantly agreed.

"Sleeping serenely on a gently rolling train would certainly while away the hours," I thought to myself.

And so it was that we set off on our second European adventure across the big "pond."

When I say "we" I am referring to our beloved son Matt, our adorable daughter-in-law Tara, Bob and myself.


The four of us board the train hotel at 7 p.m.

I am already tired out of my mind from a full day of "touristing" in sunny Madrid.

I squeeze my ample self down the tiny aisle of the train car.

I begin taking measurements in my head.

The aisle can't be wider than 18 inches - tops.

I want to vacate this corridor as soon as I possibly can.

It would be nice to be able to inflate my lungs just one more time before I die in this place.

The "warden" on duty quickly assigns us to "cell 3."


I mean "compartment 3."

"You will be comfortable in here," the warden/steward assures us in perfect English.

I seriously doubt that but I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

I push the door open while the warden breathes down the back of my neck.

A Tunisian couple is already seated in cell 3 with their gorgeous baby.

The warden speaks to the couple in fluent French.

They reply in fluent French.

The warden decides to act.

He asks the young family to leave the compartment.

They have mistakenly squatted on our real estate.

The real estate that we will personally own for the next 14 hours.

As a result of this mishap, the Great Shift begins.

We scatter up and down the aisle while the Tunisian family cops some real estate of their own in the ridiculously narrow corridor.

Suddenly, I am thrown against neighboring cell 2.

The unlatched door swings open and I fall gracelessly into the compartment - head first.

I find myself staring down at a man who is staring up at me.

Both of us are horrified.

I stammer, "I'm sorry, sir," as I quickly close his door.

I soon realize that things are loosening up out in the corridor.

The warden has departed with the Tunisian family in tow.

Bob, Matt, Tara and I step into our cell.

We study the scene like a team of FBI special agents.

There are four seats in the compartment.

Two on each side of the cell.

The seat backs are as vertical as you can get without being exactly 100% vertical.

(And they are going to stay that way because the folks who design them hate train travelers.)

The cushions on these seats are approximately the height of an extra fluffy Belgian waffle.

We shuffle into our assigned places.

Matt's knees are gettin' cozy with Bob's.

Tara and I bend our legs ever so delicately in the opposite directions so our knees won't touch.

The four of us stare at each other for a few guarded seconds.

Then we shriek with laughter like a pack of drug-crazed hyenas.

Eventually, sobriety takes over and we realize we are hungry.

We pool our edible goods and concoct a hasty repast.

Taking polite turns, we break chunks of cheese off a brick-sized bar.

I exclaim delightedly, "I can't even believe how delicious this cheddar is!"

Tara adds, "I'm really glad we bought it at the cheese shop in Madrid. That was a smart move."

We all nod in agreement.

We continue to throw the cheese down our throats until - sadly - it is gone.

Then Bob retrieves a plastic bag filled with big, fat purple grapes from his travel gear.

He stands up at the tiny sink and tries to steady himself while the train jerks back and forth on its tracks.

He turns the faucet on and a tiny stream of water trickles down the less-than-white basin.

I scream, "You aren't going to wash those grapes with that nasty faucet water, are you? Who knows where that stuff came from!"

Bob thinks to himself, "I know this drill like I know the back of my hand and it's not going to be worth the fight."

He quickly turns the trickle off and reaches for a bottle of water from my carry-on bag.

We all watch as he pours the bottled water over the mounds of purple fruit.

I begin to breathe easily again.

We dig into the sanitized grapes like a flock of ravenous vultures.

Minutes later, Tara unwraps a mouth watering package of fluffy pastries that are simply begging to be eaten.

Their sweet, buttery goodness lingers on our palates for mere seconds.

We devour them in a flash.

It was definitely time for me to bring out the big guns.

I'm talking about Spain's Delaviuda chocolate truffles.

And I am packin' both milk and dark.

We decide to conduct our very own taste test right then and there.

First, we ooh and aah over the silky creaminess of the milk chocolate spheres.


I did not expect to be wowed by these wimpy milk chocolates.

But the cocoa bean lovelies are a huge hit with each of us - including me.

I pull out the box of dark truffles.

The delectable balls are covered with a light dusting of powdered cocoa and milk chocolate nibs.

(Note to the tragically uniformed: Think of a chocolate nib as an extra long candy sprinkle.)

"Hey," Matt says, "these dark truffles aren't too bad."

That's high praise coming from a guy who's been a devoted milk chocolate fan all of his days.

Bob takes one bite of his dark truffle, silently drops it into the trash bag and plops another milk chocolate ball into his mouth.

His vote is in.

Tara dives into the mix and adds, "This is great tasting chocolate! I'm going to miss it when we get home."

I'm too busy stuffing truffles over the terrain of my tongue to talk.

Milk chocolate?

Dark chocolate?

I'm way past caring.

I've already ascended into Merry's Wonderful World of Chocolate - my happy place.

On Merry's World, the sun is always shining, the inhabitants are always happy and there's always an abundant supply of my favorite chocolate just waiting to slide past my delicate tonsils.


I forgot to mention that just one tiny taste of chocolate on MWWOC guarantees every taster a forever slim body - no exceptions.

Suddenly, I'm drawn back towards earth by a knock on our cell door.

Matt jumps up, opens the door and says, "Ola!"

He continues to talk to the warden in fluent Spanish.

Obviously impressed with Matt's abilities, the warden greets him with a hearty, "Ola!"

He converses with Matt in Spanish for a few seconds.

I think to myself, "Just how many languages is this person required to speak?"

Then I glance at his right hand.

He is holding the biggest key I have ever seen.

Note to my readers: Catch us next week when this story continues!