Moments. Unexpected encounters. Odd conversations. The mini-delights of travel are most intense when you’re travelling alone.
What seems an age ago now, I had a Eurail pass that allowed me to swan around Europe on marvellous trains in first-class seats, mostly without booking ahead. These are some of the memorable moments.
Pessoa in Lisbon. Unlike my fellow blogger Robin Sen, I did not find Lisbon tedious. My room overlooked very noisy renovations, but the managers moved me to a quieter room. I loved the scale of the place – the hills, the harbour, the crumbling alabaster masterpieces. The food was fine. The side trip to Sintra was lovely. But I wanted to see Pessoa, the weird many-named poet whose statue was somewhere nearby. On an uphill road, I was about to take a seat in a cafe when young man came up to me. “We’re environmentalists,” he said, “approaching tourists to ask for support ….”.
I handed him a couple of euros. “I wonder if you could help me,” I said. “There’s supposed to be a statue of Pessoa somewhere here but it’s very hard to find.” He grinned and waved his hand. There was Pessoa, just beside us, waiting for his caffeine hit.
The Indian architects. There were only two other passengers in the carriage. The young Indian men responded in English to my stammered German enquiry about a free seat. We each said something about our travels. They told me about their conference in Frankfurt on architectural cues for crowd movement. They offered me snacks that their wives back home had prepared. It was the first time I’d eated Bombay mix. I remember the nice tang of curry on my tongue, the charm of those guys and their enthusiasm for their work. And I remember their shared shame-faced laugh when I asked I whether they’d tried German beer. “Here, yes,” one confessed. “But never at home,” his friend added.
The German businessmen. Late in the day the train to Bonn was crowded. I was lucky to get the last seat in a first-class carriage. My companions were smartly-dressed businessmen, all silently working on laptops or reading. After half an hour, the silence was broken by a trolley-wielding waitress of spectacular beauty. “None of you gentlemen,” she announced with a smile, “will refuse a nice aperitif or a coffee!” Papers rustled. Laptop lids went down. “Meine Dame!” She smiled at me too. I accepted the coffee. Then one man asked for cheese and a whisky. The next man chose wine. So we went round the carriage until everyone except the young man in the window seat was buying food and drink and even sharing a few words. The waitress clicked the last credit card, thanked us all, and backed out of the carriage. I took a closer look at the one hold-out, the young man in the corner, whose “Danke, Nein, nichts!” had been quite emphatic. He was deep in a book. I could just make out the English title – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Hotel de France. Arriving in Paris on the swish train from Brussels, I was met by a taxi driver with my name on a card. We drove and we drove and we drove. He was not familiar with the hotel that I’d booked online. He double-checked the address. When we finally drew up at the door he could not suppress a look that said arrives in style but stays in a dump. There was nothing glamorous about the Hotel de France. After lugging my bag up several floors I was in a drab room with shabby furnishings. One consolation was a window that looked down on a three-cornered space where people seemed to be setting up stalls. If I went to sleep now, I’d be able to get an early breakfast at the market. I was still awake, however, when two young Germans came into the neighbouring room, every remark audible through the paper-thin walls. “Well,” said one to his friend, “if this is the Hotel de France, I’d hate to see the Hotel d’Europe!”