An Innocent Abroad – Chapter I

No, to those of you who might have wondered if I had “taken a left at Albuquerque,” I have not fallen off the edge; I have been quite busy, and your patience will not go unpunished.

 

May I offer the following:

 

The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad. I speak now, of course, in the supposition that the gentle reader has not been abroad, and therefore is not already a consummate ass. If the case be otherwise, I beg his pardon and extend to him the cordial hand of fellowship and call him brother.

                                                            The Innocents Abroad

Mark Twain

 

Some of you know, very well, I might add, that, when it comes to world travel, I am hardly an innocent (could I possibly squeeze another comma in there?).  And, for those of you who think of me in rather less flattering terms (with apologies to Balaam’s mount, of course), I beg your indulgence.  That said, if you wish to be relieved of my future literary burdens, just reply to this post appropriately (or not).

So much for the preamble.

 

Yes, I am now firmly, if not safely, ensconced in Bucharest, Romania; housed extremely comfortably in the Athenée Palace hotel; and driving with careless – and, so far, wreckless – abandon on this fine country’s highways and byways.  But how did all this tomfoolery begin?

 

The Phone Call

 

As you may recall (or not), I joined Field Service in September of last year (can we say “9/11”?), keeping well in character for my almost flawless lack of timing.  Having pretty well exhausted my supply of nails to bite, fearful of being thrust onto the street of greater opportunities, I said the only sensible thing when offered this three month “backfill” assignment in support of Romania’s state-run airline: “When do I leave?”

 

 Packing

 

Yeah, pack for three months; what EXACTLY might that look like?  How about two large valises crammed to the gills with every stitch of clothing I had at my disposal?  Well, not quite, but certainly every sock and hanky I could lay my hands on.  And then, of course, the obligatory laptop, that device of flexibility that bears an increasingly strong resemblance to a boat anchor (or millstone for the nautically challenged).  Yes, I put a change of socks in my carry-on luggage.

 

Airport Security, immediately after September 11

 

You’ll be happy to know that I did not need quite all of the three hours that ShuttleExpress suggested to check into my flight; I believe I used about two minutes – and that included picking up the tickets at Ken’s Baggage.  When going thru the metal detector/x-ray machine just before boarding the little underground Sea-Tac train for the South Terminal, I had to remove my laptop from my carry-on so that it could be x-rayed separately.  Other than that, and the two National Guard personnel who couldn’t have cared less if I was there, I saw nothing that could have discouraged a passenger from taking tweezers or nailclippers on his person.  At Heathrow, one gent condescended to actually look at my passport – in passing, as it were.  In Bucharest, well, who wants to come here to make trouble?

 

Reclinging Seats, ala British Airways

 

For those of you who have mastered the art of sleeping on seats with 21-inch pitch, and seatbacks that recline four or five degrees (altho the seatback in front always reclines 50, or 60 degrees, right into your peach melba), you would, no doubt find the 9 and a half hour flight from Sea-Tac to Heathrow in a seat that reclines a full 180 degrees (that would be FLAT) an absolute torture.  I, however, never could sleep on an airplane, and it apparently has nothing to do with the seats.  I did choose to sit in a rear-facing seat, something I haven’t done since coming aboard an aircraft carrier in a Greyhound.  Food? Ok (altho the claret – the British do pronounce the “t,” I found – was rather above what I am accustomed to).  Movies?  Oh, excuse me: Inflight Entertainment (IFE to the cognoscenti)?  I am seldom without a good book, and that trip was an excellent time to have one; I should have asked for a refund, or suggested BA request one from their entertainment director.  Abysmal.

 

London-town

 

No, no one calls it that nowadays (is that really just one word?); but, it sounds so, what, seasoned?  Or simply aged?  In any event, I found the airport Hilton after asking several workers with badges, including one at the “Information Desk”; obviously the Hilton people need to work on their publicity – surely it wasn’t my pronunciation: how many ways can a “Hilton” be said?  Maybe they thot I was saying “stilton”?  Yes, I was wondering around the airport asking, “Where is the stilton?”  That must be the problem.  A marvelous cheese (with a good clareT), but not quite what I needed at that moment.  Anyway, check-in was what I have come to expect of the British: cold restraint.  After checking in, and then returning to The Front to ask for a second key, then tromping back to the Front to be told that a member of the hotel staff would assist me (no doubt my funny accent led them to believe I was challenged) and having had to wait for a hotel staff person to show me how to use it (must be the wrist), I was in my room, and checking my email.  Marvelous invention, that.  Finishing the joy of figuring out which digit to dial to get an outside line, and what number to dial, and punching in my secret code to access the company net, the phone rang!  Zounds! (apologies to Mercutio)

I have corresponded for ages with a gentleman I had never met, and now was my chance!  Yabbut: how to get from Heathrow to Victoria Station?  Elementary!  Go find the Picadilly Line in the basement of Heathrow, Terminal 4, get off at Hammersmith (don’t you just love these names?), transfer to the District Line, and jump off at Victoria.  There are only three stairways off the platform at Victoria, and yours truly of course shunned the correct one; at the top, WHSmith was nowhere to be found.  Yes, quite the fine pickle.  Wander, wander, wander.  Eventually, I did find the bookstore, and my dear wife will be happy to know I did not venture in; then I set off for Buckingham Palace.

 

Is there anything more pointless than two soldiers in long-gray coats with empty rifles and bearskin hats marching back and forth and back and forth and back and forth (well, you get the idea)?  I suppose you might point out that we in America have the same situation in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  Hardly the same at all, dear chap: the Tomb is much smaller and could spirited away in the dead of night; but Buckingham Palace would require a much larger endeavor.  It would have been nice if the soldiers had bothered to synchronize their marches, then they would have had symmetry in their favor.

Had a wonderful first meeting, a good dinner, great conversation, tour of the West End (think: “the-a-tah”) then back aboard The Tube.

But, how am I to get to Gatwick airport in the morning?  Hmmm…

 

Well, at the BA desk at Victoria Station, I could take the train from Heathrow into Victoria Station, and then the train out to Gatwick.  Or, I could take the bus and save about an hour, and mucho denero.  And how would I get to the bus?  Ask at Heathrow.  Thank you ever so much.

Back at Heathrow, I found there is a DEDICATED bus from that airport to the one I wanted to leave from in the morning, they left every fifteen minutes, and cost but 12 and a half pounds (company accounting refers to other currencies as “local dollars” – world travelers that they are).  And, if I caught the 0630, or 0645 bus, I should make Gatwick in plenty of time.  Marvelous.  Could I show my tickets?  Well, no: they were in my room.  I’m flying BA?  Yes.  Then the ticket is paid for by BA.  Stupendous!  A potentially slight hiccup that could have been avoided by the travel department who booked the trip; but, this is so much more fun to discover “on the fly,” as it were.

 

Back to the room, lights out, eyes open.  Were the two alarm clocks I set necessary?  Would it have given me an extra hour of sleep to have spent the night at Gatwick, instead of saving the bus ride till morning?  Hah!  Wide awake in the plane coming over; wide awake in the hotel.  I just love travel.

 

Being predisposed to spending my entire life not wanting to be late at any cost (having entered the world somewhat later than planned), I found myself at the bus-stop shortly after 6 a.m., and there was already a line (sorry, “que”).  Yes, I did get the promised travel voucher, and so did not have to part with any of my newly acquired British pounds (nope, not part of the Euro-thing) – surely I would find a pocket full of that currency of inestimable value at my new home?  On the bus, and off we go.  Well, some of us, anyway; we left quite a bunch on the curb, having maxed out the bus’ cargo hold.  Being early has paid off, once again!

 

Checking into BA at Gatwick was predictably uncomplicated by silly little security issues; into the lounge with just oodles of time to kill – so much nicer than being the last one on the airplane, at any rate.  The 737-800 took off late (something about traffic over Europe on a Monday morning – can there be a “rush hour” with airplanes?).  I avoided the food, and settled down to read in a leather business class seat that must have had some sort of teflon spray added.  Great exercise to spend 3 hours scooching back into a seat.

 

Bucharest

 

Passport Control.  Obviously the officers that occupy Otopeni Airport’s first line of defense graduated first in their class, having mastered the fine art of appearing to be totally bored, and disinterested.  No doubt, they excelled in classes such as how to yawn and look disgusted at the same time.  Not to take anything away from the Saudis, who look like they’d like to spit on you but don’t think you’re worthy of their spittle (small comfort).  Thru the “Nothing to Declare” line (not sure if that should be said sotto voce, or not), and out into the hustle and bustle of terminal lobby to meet…well…I knew the airplane was early…but….

 

Eventually, the parties that were to meet me showed; but not before I heard my name paged over the PA system.  Visions of Clint Eastwood in the movie Firefox (“Your paapehs arrre not in ohda”) were about to be made manifest.  They shoot horses don’t they?  Not to worry, Timm and Bob were merely on time, and my wait was short one.

 

Do you want to buy a phone?  Question, or command?  Well, my new boss – the one who will approve all my efforts at addition and subtraction and currency conversion on expense reports – was right there, so, why not?  Why not, indeed?  Now, you must take note of the rather awkward fact that I have never even had a conversation on a mobile – not cell – phone previous to this.  Bob had scouted it out, told me which one was the one I wanted, told me where to perform the transaction, and what could be simpler?  Fine, I’ve had the delightful little status symbol for a week now, and I have learned how to program two numbers: the hotel and the little man behind the green curtain (Glenda’s number is unlisted).  I know it works because Timm has called me twice to see if I know how to push the big button right in the center and say something into the palm of my hand.  It also has internet capability (according to the Romanian owner’s manual), but I am sure I won’t live long enough to figure that out).

 

Athenée Palace Hotel.  That would be “Ah,” “the” (short “e”), “knee” – emphasis on the second syllable.  It wouldn’t surprise me to learn the etymology hails from the land of Homer; but, in fact, this country was well known to the Romans.  These people had to put up with Caesar and the Ottomans, and the Hungarians never had enough food on the table, I guess.  With time, all will be revealed.

 

We agonized over the rental car; me voting for the local, quaint, and picturesque; the others pulling rank and voting for the Ford Mondeo.  Yeah, a Ford (sorry, Sis).  Okay, it’s Avis, cause Hertz doesn’t have anything that big.  Fine.  Another decision taken out of my hands.  What am I, chopped chicken-liver?  Hardly: I get to negotiate rates….

 

Being the consummate haggler, I was able to drive the woman at the Avis desk to call her boss (good sign).  Her boss said she would get back to me (another good sign).  We agreed on the price (well within guidelines), and the car would be available tomorrow.  My last peaceful night.

 

Be afraid, be very afraid

 Now, driving in Bucharest is not all that different from driving in any big city.  For starters, their cars are built with the steering wheel on the same side as any other car you are likely to find in Mark Twain Country.  However, just because the steering wheel is on the left doesn’t mean they drive on the right.  Neither do those cute little numbers conveniently posted on the light poles have any bearing on the number your speedometer needle is pointing at.  And should you have any questions, there is a traffic cop standing on practically every corner to help you relax.  To say nothing of the “piatas” (think of piazza – or place), which may, or may not, resemble the wonderfully British “round-about.”  So, without any more clue about the strange buttons and switches inside the car, or the driving rules outside, I am turned loose on the populace.

 Tepes’ Travel Tips

When is it a “Laundry Emergency,” and when is it not?  This question has plagued world travelers since time immemorial, or since breakfast for others.  Avoid the entire subject completely by bothering to read the attractive booklet found in your nightstand; or baring that, by asking one of those cute young things at The Front.  However, if you are among those too callused to pay attention to the security briefing at the beginning of every flight, or never look for fire exits in hotels (or airplanes, for that matter), then be prepared for the dreaded “Laundry Emergency.”

 It IS a “Laundry Emergency” when you count all your socks and hankies after staying in a hotel for nearly a week, tally them up on the score sheet (don’t look at the prices: at these rates you are in the wrong business), and then stuff the whole kit and kabudle (I understand the “kit” part, but what in the world is a “kabudle”? – yes, extra points for originality) into a plastic bag that is fiendishly much too small – AND THEN discover that laundry is not processed on the weekends.

So, solving for x (one equation, the only known is the ass filling out the score sheet), we discover that we do, indeed, have enough socks to tide us over until TUESDAY (the laundry not being returned until Monday evening…he said hopefully).  We will find out exactly how close to the unspeakable “Laundry Emergency” we came upon entering our room this evening.

 Ah, and who is this “Tepes” fellow, you might ask?  Well, dad called me Vlad, and my friends called me the “Impaler.”

 La revedere,

Post #1

I have no illusions that this blog will result in anything that could be mistaken for the Pietá, but even Michelangelo’s first hammer strike on the journey to that masterpiece was probably equally non-descript.  But, you gotta start somewhere, right?

And so, in this wishy-washy age of “be responsible for nothing, but take offense at everything,” I offer the following for the thin-skinned:

All right, all right, I apologize. I’m really, really sorry. I apologize unreservedly. I offer a complete and utter retraction. The imputation was totally without basis in fact and was in no way fair comment and was motivated purely by malice, and I deeply regret any distress that my comments may have caused you or your family, and I hereby undertake not to repeat any such slander at any time in the future.  Spoken by Archie Leach (John Cleese) to Otto (Kevin Kline) in “A Fish Called Wanda.”

In other words, Dear Reader: read this blog at your peril (for some of you, that means, “I’d turn back if were you”).

For the less faint of heart, why start now?  ‘Cause it seems like everyone is blogging?  That by itself would seem reason enough not to.  No, it is out of frustration: there is so much crap impacting the air waves (ok: internet) that goes unanswered – or worse, triggers a response so ludicrous as to be pathetic – I just couldn’t sit on my keyboard and not join the fray.

There are a few of you (important to me, but statistically insignificant to the rest of the world – sorry) that I have tormented with my writings for years, and you will see some of the old stuff; I beg your forbearance – there is much more new to come.  The “old stuff” for the blithely uninitiated is mostly travelogues, the new stuff is mostly fiction, and scattered throughout will be my comments on current events (or, events that would have been non-events if not for “electronic media” – which begs the question of whether or not “media” can be virtual).

The blame for writing about my travels can be firmly placed on the shoulders of Mark Twain and his “Innocents Abroad.”  The travels themselves were all paid for by somebody else (which is the only way to go); but it means somebody else was throwing the darts at the map of the world, not me.  Keeping a diary was often the only way I had to cope with the “adventure”; inflicting my views on others came later.  For the more mathematically inclined, I have spent a significant amount of time in 24 countries (I don’t count airport layovers as actually being in-country; the shortest stay something around a week; the longest, 44 months).  I do not count the land of my birth as a foreign country, although in a few years, I might be able to.