In between desert visits in September, I made a little trek through Europe.
I started off in London, where I flew in from Afghanistan on a Russian airline called Aeroflot, which is an old Soviet word meaning “Winged Field-Working Ox”. There were two things about Aeroflot that tickled me. First, the flight attendant. She had a smudge of red lipstick on her front two teeth. It was like she was just now getting around to using cosmetics, and figured the best way to apply Revlon was of course to devour it. She spoke very friendly to the other passengers, but when she got to my seat to take my meal order, I told her I didn’t speak Russian. At that point her smile evaporated like socialism in the real world. She asked, “Oh, you Amer-ee-ken? Okay…cheeekin or feesh?” I had the cheeekin, incredibly grateful that my options weren’t moose and squirrel.
Second, when we landed, the entire plane applauded. It caught me by complete surprise. I later learned that it’s tradition. It’s meant, of course, as a sign of gratitude to the pilots for a job well done, but I sensed a bit of pleasant surprise and relief as well. I couldn’t help but wonder what the actual success ratio of airplane landings was in Russia. Then I imagined what massive vodka-soaked celebrations must have ensued every time a cosmonaut returned to earth.
I planned on returning to London in a few days to hang out with my friend Liz and her husband Simon, so my initial stop there was only for a day. Just enough time to down a couple of beers, which they call either “ales” or “fightin’ juice”. I quickly learned that the exchange rate in Britain is horrible…it’s about 2 to 1. For those of you who know me, you know that when people ask me how I’m doing, I sometimes reply “I feel like a million bucks.” That’s not a lot over there. So I got drunk to make myself feel better than 500,000 pounds.
The next day I went to Paris. I finally got to see the Eiffel Tower, which was constructed in 1889 by Gustave Eiffel to compensate for having the name Gustave. The French weren’t happy to hear that bit of info from Keith’s Wikipedia factbook, so I had to make nice and tell them that Mt. Rushmore was designed by a man named Sparkles McGee. Then I reminded them that Prince wears raspberry berets, which only made them hate us more. Thanks for hurting our relationship with the French, Prince! Maybe next time sing about a “Little Red Renault”. That couldn’t hurt. Honestly, the Eiffel Tower was a true wonder to behold. How that magnificent piece of metal was erected without pissing off OSHA is beyond me. You have to see it to believe its splendor. If you visit there, mention my website to receive nothing off.
After two days in Paris, I was off to Madrid to hang out with my old college buddy Dave. We haven’t seen each other in about 8 years, so it was great to catch up. He teaches English to first graders there and loves it. After seeing his new city for a weekend, I can see why. It’s one of the most laid back places on the planet. However, a little too laid back in some regards. Like their tradition of eating tapas. Tapas are Spanish appetizers—pasta, chicken rolls, noodles, salads, all sorts of stuff. When we first ordered six of these dishes, Dave and I were with four of his friends. My forever hungry mouth watered. Then the waiter showed up with the plates of food, and that was it. No separate plates for us diners to eat from. Eating tapas is a practice that involves eating off the same plates as everyone else. As I watched five people (only one of whom I knew) dig into this food, wrap their lips around the fork, then use the same utensil to take another portion from the original plate, I was frozen in germaphobe catatonia. When they invited me to join in, I politely asked them if it would be easier if they just spit in my mouth. It was the same thing in my book. I know, I know…I have some neuroses. But the last thing I needed was a cold or flu six days before heading to Kuwait.
The night life in Madrid is unreal. Every bar is packed, and they don’t shut down until about 4 AM. No wonder they take siestas during the day. Every time we went out, we saw signs that warned us of the “professional thieves” that prey on unsuspecting tourists. I appreciated the warning, but couldn’t help but laugh at their title. Pro thieves? That’s their occupation? Maybe “expert thieves” would be a better way to phrase it. When I think “professional thieves”, I think of hooded slicksters in a Dungeons and Dragons dreamscape, or of the government.
After Madrid, I hit Normandy Beach in north France. Every American should see that place. I have always loved history, so it didn’t take long to envision the three days of invasion in 1944. But even without a decent imagination, it’s not difficult to recreate the battle scenes that arguably won WW II on Omaha Beach and the surrounding hills. Awesome. Thank a veteran. Seriously. This paragraph contains no jokes. You could make that argument about several other paragraphs, I suppose. But seriously, take a moment to think of what the world would be like had we lost that war, and thank a vet.
I returned to London to meet up with Liz and Simon, who couldn’t have been better hosts. I went to see Stonehenge, the monument mysteriously built over 5,000 years ago and idolized by druids and Spinal Tap. Why did the people back then go through the trouble of hauling these massive 5-ton stones from 250 miles away, down a river, just to erect them in a giant circle in the middle of a field? My guess is that it was for a chick who saw it in a magazine and wanted one herself. Whatever the reason was for building it, it’s spectacular.
We also went to the Tower of London, which honestly was a bit creepy. They are various old torture chambers and dungeons that would make Lyndie England drop her dangling cigarette in astonishment. In one of the towers, you can still see the engravings that captives etched while imprisoned 6-8 centuries ago. A sample: “Suffering for a few years in this world does not compare to the glorious eternity in Paradise with my Savior.” Pretty cool. I was in awe, and quite thankful we don’t have a tower like this in America. Not so much because of the bloody history, but because some jackhole teenager on a high school field trip would not resist the urge to spot an empty brick and write “Class of 2008 Rocks!”
We later visited Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace, which is engulfed in a very pompous history, to be quite frank. Royalty back then had waiting rooms for waiting rooms. People who wanted to see the king or queen had to go through a series of parlor rooms, wait some more, slip the bouncer a crisp Ben Franklin or two, and then maybe they could get past the velvet ropes. There was also a maze of shrubs on the premises. I have to come clean…it got the best of me. I got to the center of the maze just fine, but getting out was the hard part. As I zigged and zagged my way through, I kept thinking that an axe-wielding Jack Nicholson from The Shining was chasing me, which wasn’t nearly as frightening as the disease-ridden insects lurking in the greenery. Maybe my panic did me in, but I had to exit through the wussy “I give up” gate that nobody uses except old ladies and guys who hated dodgeball in grade school.
My maze experience was somewhat of a disappointment, but the European trip as a whole was fantastic. You should check out some of my pics when I get them uploaded, hopefully sometime soon. After the whole thing, I flew to Kuwait for another military tour. This time on the flight, I had the feeesh.