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!

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