Two Weeks In Europe: Day 2 – Boarding The Vision of the Seas

Continued from Day 1.

Thus began the most dreaded part of any lengthy trip: Disembarking, standing in line at customs, claiming luggage, and finding ground transportation. For a better part of an hour, people of all ages, genders, sexes, faiths, and countries share the same weariness. It’d be heartwarming, if it weren’t so tedious. You don’t need to share a language to communicate mutual discomfort; everyone is waiting for the person ahead of them to just move already and get off the plane. Aside from the occasional mishap with an overhead bin, physical violence is almost non-existent; people are too tired to do anything beyond clutching their carry-ons and shuffling stiffly into the airport and customs line.

The real problem, however, was with the luggage. We know the pain of misplaced bags all too well; the last time we left Spain, the airline lost Mom’s luggage – including that Moroccan rug – and it took them at least a couple of days to get it delivered. Same thing happened when we came back from Hawaii’s Big Island last December. This time, I approached the luggage carousel with apprehension; if our luggage didn’t show up here, we wouldn’t be able to take them on the cruise. They’d have to be flown, floated, or whatever else it took to catch up with the ship, and we’d be left without clothes or supplies. Yeah, that would be bad. I scanned the conveyor belt several times, but to no avail. As the minutes and bags passed by, my desperation became almost palpable. The crowd was thinning out. Did someone take our stuff off the carousel and leave it off to the side? Or worse yet, did someone steal them?

After a few more tense moments, I finally spotted Mom’s gargantuan red roller. My rolling duffel bag was right behind it. After hauling them off the carousel and rearranging our carry-ons, we trudged wearily outside. Thankfully, the transportation to the ship we’d arranged beforehand was easy to find. After waiting for a few more travelers to arrive, we piled into a van and set off for Barcelona. Mom and I had the last stop – we were the only ones going to the ship – so our ride to the docks felt more like an impromptu city tour. I wasn’t sitting by a window, so the impressions I got were fleeting: overcast skies, narrow streets crowded with cars and motorcycles, tiny alleys, worn pavement, and bustling roundabouts. It wasn’t until we drove past the Columbus Monument that I had a sense of our position.

It took about an hour for us to reach the Vision of the Seas. We hauled our luggage out of the van and headed for the registration building. Since this was my first cruise, I was surprised by how we had to leave our luggage behind with the staff outside before we could register. I’ve been robbed while on vacation before (Summer of 1999 at a certain Puerto Vallarta resort will live forever in infamy) so I’ve become quite leery of letting my possessions out of sight. But apparently, I didn’t have a choice this time; the staff quickly checked our paperwork, tagged our luggage, and promised everything would be delivered by 8 PM. As I went through another security scanner and stood in line for the umpteenth time, I took a moment to breathe. We’d traveled nearly halfway across the world for almost 36 hours, but now we were only two of thousands of people boarding the the cruise. Not just Americans, either; there were at least half a dozen languages being spoken within earshot. In front of me, a young woman wearing a hijab was poring over the latest edition of Rick Steve’s Mediterranean Cruise Ports, the very same travel guide I brought for the trip. Seeing her made me smile. No matter what differences people think they have, curiosity and fascination transcend them.

Registration was surprisingly quick and easy. Royal Caribbean assigns each passenger a special ID card that also functions as a room key and on-board credit card. The cruise operates like a cashless economy; everything from souvenirs and excursions to special food and beverage orders gets charged to the card, and then tallied up on the final statement. It’s pretty nice and efficient, so long as you don’t lose your card. I practically became surgically attached to mine as the days went by. While there was a currency exchange service on the ship, it was to ensure people had enough spending money while on land. Before all that, we had to climb up the ramp, go through another security check point, get our picture taken by the cruise’s photography staff (much more on that later), and find our room. When we originally signed up, we opted for the basic interior stateroom; though we wouldn’t have a balcony, it looked nice and decently furnished on the website. The actual stateroom, however, was…underwhelming. A small bed and couch, vanity, flat screen TV, closet, and a bathroom with a toilet, sink, and shower. That’s it. Just enough walking space and privacy for two people with some patience and creativity. I’ve spent most of my vacations in timeshares, so I was taken aback by the lack of a functioning kitchen, table, and other amenities. Mom wasn’t thrilled with the cramped space, either. Needless to say, we’d be spending as little time in the stateroom as possible.

We didn’t have time to rest, though. After the hearing the ship depart Barcelona, the mandatory lifeboat drill, and getting our luggage back, it was already time for dinner. We were assigned Table 24 in The Aquarius dining room at 6 PM sharp. The staff greeted us at the entrance to the restaurant and gave us a palmful of antibacterial gel. I’m notorious at home for being a neat freak (Hey, you try working with money in a bank vault for 12 years. You’d hate germs, too.), so I was grateful to see the cruise’s disease prevention efforts. Stepping into the The Aquarius was like watching the first half of Titanic; a seemingly endless array of tables adorned with fresh cloth and silverware, wine glasses being filled, dozens of impeccably-dressed waiters, and the noise of hundreds of conversations, and the faint sounds of a live piano. We were the last to arrive at our table; our dinner mates for the cruise were a retired couple from New Jersey, newlyweds from Maine, and two sisters from Australia. While it was kind of awkward at first – I’m shy in social situations – seeing the same people every night was a great way to build friendships and share travel experiences. I can’t remember exactly what I had that first night, but I know it involved a chicken salad, some steak, and a chocolate mousse that looked like a miniature work of modern art.

After dinner, we were too tired to do any more. We’d been on the move since before dawn the previous day; this was finally our chance to relax. We took turns enjoying a well-deserved shower, and then called it a night. I usually stay up late (and sometimes early), but I fell asleep minutes after my head hit the pillow. After all the stress, connections, and thousands of miles, we’d finally made it…and things were just getting started.

To be continued on Day 3…

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Two Weeks In Europe: Day 1 – Leaving On A Train, Then Jet Plane

What would become the greatest trip of my life started as a complete coincidence. It was early in 2015, and I’d already thought my travel plans were set for the year; I’d have a week in Mexico, and that would be it. However, my mother called me unexpectedly one afternoon, saying that she’d come across a flyer for the Royal Caribbean cruise line. She’d been considering Greece – this was long before the refugee crisis became headlines here in the States – but decided on something far grander: a two week trip with stops in Spain, France, Italy, and Montenegro. We’d been to this part of Europe before (years before I owned a digital camera, sadly!), but never to Barcelona or Nice. I’ve always been a huge history and art geek, so I was immediately hooked on the prospect of seeing Rome and Venice. Mom had actually been trying for almost a decade to get a trip booked for Rome via her timeshare, but couldn’t get anything in the city itself. This cruise seemed like a feasible way for her to tackle her bucket list, and we wanted to travel together while she was still capable of doing so. So, we made arrangements and marked our calendars.

Skip forward about 6 months (the Mexico trip in June is a story for another time), to the morning of October 18th. I’d slept at Mom’s place overnight – amazing how the living room sofa felt better than my old bed – because we had to leave the house before dawn. Instead of driving to SFO, we stuck with what’s become our go-to option: taking BART train line all the way to the airport. It’s easy to navigate, cheaper than a shuttle, and you don’t have to worry about parking. Assuming there are no malfunctions, protests, or police activity (which all happened coming back from Hawaii last December), it’s a smooth, straightforward trip. It’s just a long ride from our starting point, almost from one end of the line to the other. It feels even longer when you’re still half asleep, shivering in the cold, and hauling 50 lbs of your mom’s luggage onto the platform. We took the first SFO-bound train of the day, and were surprised to find at least two dozen other travelers along for the ride. Any Bay Area commuter knows that getting a seat on BART during the busy hours is like a competitive sport; it’s all about positioning yourself in the crowd and seizing opportunities – and vacant chairs – with keen observation and timing. I usually stand during my daily commutes, but going to the airport is different. We tried getting the coveted senior priority seats (there’s more open space for our bags), but ended up sitting across the aisle from each other.

After about an hour of struggling to stay awake while keeping the bags standing and out of people’s way, we finally made it to the airport. Finding the terminal was easy, but the actual ticket counter was something else. We thought our flight was with United Airlines; it said so in nice, big letters on our printout. However, we failed to read the fine print: the plane belonged to United, but the flight itself was being operated by Air Canada. Cue us wasting about half an hour wandering through the terminal and getting incorrect directions from every information desk. Finally getting our luggage checked was a huge relief, both physically and mentally. Getting through security was surprisingly easy this time, too; I’m one of those unfortunate folks who seem to be a magnet for the TSA. It’s probably the suspiciously long, beautiful hair. Aside from her purse, Mom was toting a large bag full of food and her medications. She was diagnosed with diabetes last year – she carries around the doctor’s note to prove it to the authorities – but it always strikes me funny how she’s able to get several meals’ worth of snacks, cereal, and veggies past security. The most I bring are a couple packages of crackers and two refillable water bottles. With the hardest part out of the way, we had a little less than two hours to kick back and wait.

We weren’t flying straight to Spain, though. We had to fly to Montreal, then make a connection. It’s pretty standard fare…except that there was only 30 minutes between flights. When I wasn’t distracted by the movies (I got to watch Jurassic World, Inside Out, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Reviews coming soon!), I pondered over the logistics of our layover. 30 minutes to disembark the plane, get through customs/security, and find a gate in an airport that I’d never seen before. Yeah, it was going to be messy. Air Canada was well aware of our problem; when we landed in Montreal, they announced that the people with close connecting flights – less than a dozen of us in total – were allowed to disembark first. They were even good enough to find out what gate we needed. Mom and I bolted and got through security quickly – they have a small booth off to the side just for connections – and rushed to the next gate.

But there was no plane.

I checked my watch. No, we had at least another 15 minutes. There’s no way it could’ve left. I went to the flight listing display and searched for ours. Lo and behold, it was still at the airport, but at a different gate, in the opposite direction that we’d come. The Air Canada crew had outdated information. Because it couldn’t be that easy, right? Mom and I nearly sprinted to the correct gate, only to find that they’d been delayed and had just started boarding. We scrambled into the line and got on without any problems. As I sank wearily into my seat and buckled up, I closed my eyes and tried to rub my headache away. We’d been traveling for over 12 hours straight across multiple time zones, and we’d made a connection that, in normal circumstances, should’ve been nearly impossible. Once dinner and drinks had been served – apple juice is my beverage of choice when flying – I tried settling back and sleeping. Time passes strangely on overnight flights; with the windows shuttered and lighting inconsistent, it’s impossible to tell what time it is without looking at a phone or watch. And when you’ve been on your feet for so long, your energy and circadian rhythm are all out of sorts. I think I slept, but I’ve blacked out on flights before. I was more worried about Mom; her endurance isn’t as strong as it used to be. She spent most of the flight trying to find a good sleeping position – often using my shoulder as a pillow – but with little results.

Eventually, someone pulled up a shutter, revealing that the sun was already out. I’d lost track of the night at some point, but that didn’t matter. The captain announced that we were within an hour of Barcelona, the port where we’d board the cruise. I rubbed my eyes and shared some bread with Mom. At this point, we’d been traveling for over 24 hours straight. My head was pounding, but I had to focus on what was coming next. Disembarking. Finding our luggage. Hopefully none of it got lost in transit like the last time we were in Spain. Finding the airport-to-ship shuttle service we’d reserved in advance. We were almost an hour late, hopefully they were still waiting for us. Boarding the ship. What did that entail? So many questions, so little time.

Continued in Day 2…

Daily Prompt: Fight Or Flight, Or: A Day In The ER

Hey, folks. Yesterday’s Daily Prompt was all about flight or flight. You know, that reaction that everyone has to stressful situations? It reminds me of the time I helped fight a house fire, but something similarly stressful came up recently. You might’ve noticed that the updates this past week were kind of sparse. It wasn’t because I left the country again (though I wish it were), but I spent an entire day at the local ER. Not for myself, though. I got a call early in the morning from my aunt. My grandmother’s knee has been worsening over the past year, but she’s been too stubborn to see a doctor. Eventually, it got so bad that she couldn’t even stand up anymore from the pain. My aunt wanted to help, but she’s just gotten out of the hospital herself, so she wasn’t in any condition to do anything. I hadn’t left on my commute yet, and I was the closest one around. I got there as quickly as possible, consulted an advice nurse over the phone, and had her call an ambulance. They got her out of the house surprisingly fast – they had to haul her down two flights of stairs and part of a hill – and let me ride in the back of the ambulance.

Never had that on my bucket list…

Anyway, I oversaw her admittance from start to finish. I’ll spare you the personal and gory details – I’m pretty sure that a knee tap is the most agonizing medical procedure I’ve ever seen – but it basically boiled down to me stepping up and handling things personally. I’ve done it before countless times in the office (I was nicknamed The Boss Man, after all), but never in the thick of a medical emergency. There was this immediate realization and acceptance that okay, this is all up to me now. It must have been the adrenaline, but I never lost focus on what had to be done or what information needed to be communicated. I took notes, asked and answered questions, worked on logistics, and managed conference calls with family members over the phone in order to keep everything organized. Some of my relatives were surprised that I was the one in charge; I’m notoriously quiet and shy in most social and family situations, so seeing my all-business, no-nonsense persona was a shock. I had too many other problems to care.

In the end, we had to talk her into temporarily going to a nursing/rehabilitation facility. It’s the lesser of two evils; no one wants to lose their personal freedom, but they have trained staff and more physical therapy resources than she’d get at home. She’ll be there for another two weeks, but at least she’s getting regular visits from family. In the meantime, I’ve spearheaded Operation Get-Grandma’s-House-Prepped for her inevitable return. Handling someone else’s livelihood and personal business can be a hassle, but it’s necessary. I didn’t realize it until later that first night, but I’d spent the entire day without eating or resting; I had been running on adrenaline. Once I got back home, I collapsed into bed and slept better than I had in years. Amazing how much the fight can take out of you.

One last thing. If you have elderly family members, take the time to call them up and see how they’re doing. It’s easy to get caught up in the daily grind and overlook the important things. Don’t let loss be the only reminder of what you have.

A Moment In JFK

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about stories. Specifically, the story behind the first picture of yourself that you can find. Not surprisingly, I had to do some serious digging through my library. There aren’t many photos of me. I always dislike how I turn out; there’s something off with the lighting, my smile seems goofy, and it just doesn’t look good. I’d rather take pictures of something, anything more interesting and beautiful. In the photograph for this entry, it’s the setting that stood out.

I’m standing in front of a large sign that says “Welcome to New York”. I noticed it on my last layover through JFK International Airport in 2011. It’s hanging on the wall just after the security checkpoint. I’m smiling for the camera, but it’s a little strained from having to gather my belongings and put my shoes and belt back on. I regard airport security with ambivalence; I’ve traveled enough times to make it routine, but I get patted down at least once per trip. I guess I look suspicious…It doesn’t help that – at least for this particular trip – I’m decked out with a backpack, three clothing layers, and several pockets. Cargo pants are a staple of all my vacations, by virtue of practicality. However, I’m also draped in my black overcoat. It’s not something I’ll likely need in the coming week, though. I’m heading out to Madrid and then Málaga (along with Seville, Tangier, and Gibraltar eventually) but I don’t know what the weather is going to be like.

There’s a certain sense of urgency in the air. JFK is a bustling, frantically-paced airport. It’s almost suffocating. Even as I stand faking a grin, there’s a whole crowd of people off to my left. Weary travelers dragging their rolling suitcases and checking their phones, refusing to take even a moment to enjoy the setting. It’s fine, I can’t stand there all day. My hair is already untied and matted a little on one side, which means I’ve long stopped caring about feeling fresh and am focused on reaching the next gate in time. I’ll make it with minutes to spare, and I’ll gladly leave JFK in favor of Madrid’s far more relaxing atmosphere.

Two Term Papers And A Wedding

Hey, folks. Yesterday’s Daily Prompt was all about pressure. Specifically, how well you perform under it. Despite my preferences for planning and making sure stuff gets done, my best work comes when I’m faced with impending deadlines, crazy odds, and possible death. I’ve fought a neighborhood fire and paid for college out of my own pocket, so I know I’ve got a focused, determined streak a mile wide. I’m like that with most projects; once I start writing an article, reading a book, or solving a puzzle, I sometimes won’t stop until it’s finished. But if I know there’s a time limit, I’ll buckle down and bust out something completely on the fly. The results are usually better than my better-paced work; some of my finest reviews were written in a single perfect draft somewhere between 1 and 3 AM. On my second run through NaNoWriMo, I burned through 20,000 words in a single sitting, mainly because I was running out of time. When I worked in banking, my end of day closing and auditing procedures were legendary for their speed and accuracy. All because I wanted to catch my train home, and any mistakes would’ve cost me extra time.

The stakes have been raised to ridiculous heights a few times, though. In my senior year at university, my schedule included a combination of of Pre-1800 Literature and Shakespeare courses. They were back-to-back every other weekday, and taught by the same professor in the same lecture room. It was an academic marathon that spanned several hours, but it was very much worth it. Towards the end of the term, we were given instructions on the papers we’d need to write. One covering the Greek tragedies, and the other an in-depth compare/contrast amongst three Shakespearean works. They were pretty long, but nothing mind-blowing. I figured I could do both and have time left to spare…

Then I looked at the due date. Friday.

Oh, no. No. NO. They were both due on the upcoming Friday. The very same Friday in which my cousin was getting married, and that I was supposed to attend. The one where I’d have to stay in a hotel on Thursday overnight? How was I going to get these two term papers written, printed, and handed to the professor in person when I was scheduled to be at a wedding ceremony several cities away?! The professor wouldn’t take emails, and I didn’t want to be penalized for turning stuff in late. When I got back home, I started typing up a storm. There wasn’t time to panic. I managed to get both papers done by late Wednesday night, but it still left me with the problem of printing and turning it in. How could I get this done and make it to the campus in time?

I had a crazy idea.

Before leaving town on Thursday morning, I emailed all the documents to myself. I traveled to the hotel and helped get things set up. I didn’t go out partying with the other guys or anything like that; I needed to be awake and alert in the morning for this to work. Before dawn on Friday, I showered, dressed, and left the hotel. Luckily, I wasn’t that far away from the local BART train station. The ride to the university would take nearly two hours, though. I needed to get there early enough to catch the shuttle to the campus, which is about as serious business as it gets. I barely managed to make it on time, but I knew I had to make this quick. I leaped up the campus stairs, dashed into the library, printed out my documents, and sprinted to the lecture room. I wearily set both term papers down in front of the professor – she gave me an impressed nod – and left the classroom. I raced back down to the shuttle terminal and got aboard just as it was starting its final run back to the train station. I didn’t relax until I was safely riding back to the hotel. I returned to my room, scrubbed up, and got my suit on with just enough minutes to reach the wedding on time.

When I got there, I was faced with another task. One of the people scheduled to be in the procession was MIA, and the ceremony was supposed to start in less a minute. So I – the stressed-out traveling student that had been up since before dawn – was promptly made the replacement. Before I got a chance to protest, the music started. I awkwardly shuffled forward, trying to keep a calm look upon my face. I don’t think my heart stopped pounding in my ears until the reception. By that point, I just wanted to go home. But at least I managed to get everything done. I’d done such a good job as an impromptu processioner, I was volunteered at the last moment a second time at another cousin’s wedding a few years later.

Oh, and the term papers? Perfect scores. I thrive under pressure.

Fighting The Fire Within

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is about anxiety. Now that’s a subject I’m all too familiar with. It’s really weird with me, because I don’t panic in the face of direct danger. When one of my neighbor’s houses caught fire a few winters ago, I went into full-on confrontation mode, rallied as many people and extinguishers as we could find, and fought the fire. Granted, the firefighters showed up like three minutes later, but I kind of surprised myself looking back. I was so focused that it took me an hour to realize that I was outside wearing nothing but a t-shirt and shorts in subfreezing temperature.

Adrenaline is funny like that.

That situation just serves as a contrast to what I’m really anxious about: the future. Not dying, but living. This is my first winter in a dozen years (and in my adult life) that I’m unemployed, and it’s surreal in the worst way. I had to literally ask people what to do, because this is entirely uncharted water for me. There’s this underlying sense of guilt and shame. I don’t want to leave the house, I don’t want to spend anything, I don’t want to be a burden. I try to avoid turning on lights because I don’t want to cause a huge spike in the electric bill. Christmas – what little remnants of the tradition remain in my family – has been canceled. From an objective standpoint, I know I’m doing okay. I’ve been in worse situations. I’ve always been the type to save up and only rarely splurge, so it’s not like I’m going to starve.

And yet.

Late at night, there’s always that sense of dread, those vague little whispers that seep into the cracks of my foundation and try to topple me from the inside out. The fires of doubt and self-contempt burn within and try to consume me. Notions that I’m a failure, that I’ll never get anywhere, that my writing skills are useless, that I’ll be reduced to eating out of cans like I was in college, that my tastes and proclivities make me too unconventional for others, that I’ll never find a well-paying job that makes me happy, that I’ll end up alone and destitute, that the old concept of the American Dream – that family and house – might as well be from another planet. That I’m completely lost. That what little I do have is slipping away from me, just one day at a time…That maybe it’s not worth it after all.

But I will not give up.