By God, we’re finally in Europe! It’s taken me months – or maybe years – to write down two days of travel, but we’re finally on the ground and ready to blunder our way through the crazy four-dimensional jigsaw of Europe. You’re reading Travels With Greg, the story of my six-week documentary shoot through Europe in the fall of 2004. If you’re new to the story, check out the Table Of Contents here.
We carted our 3-d Mondriaan mobile of luggage out to the car park, where the Saab waited for us, a slate-blue station wagon with wide seats and a German engine peacefully asleep beneath the hood. Barring the occasional Porsche Cayenne, it was the biggest vehicle we would see for the next six weeks – but fitting in our pounds of lighting and camera gear was not going to be simple. Greg opened up the back and meditated on the available space
Let’s pull down the seats, he said.
We poked around, pressed numerous buttons, pulled several levers, but none of them succeeded in releasing the back seats. Greg’s face was turning pink, the shine on his temples part frustration, part flop-sweat. Mildly curious and concerned passed by, slowing their walk in case Greg succumbed to a fit of screaming or a heart attack.
I think I can do this with the seats up, he decided, and we began to arrange the pieces of luggage into the most compact form possible.
We’re going to do this every day for six weeks, Greg said, and we’re not going to get it right until the day we pack up for the airport.
But maybe we’ll figure out the back seat by the time we hit Austria (spoiler: we didn’t).
So where to? Asked Greg.
Our hotel is located in beautiful downtown Hoofddorp, I said, spreading out the map and studying the spaghetti loops of highway splattering out from Schiphol.
Hofe-dorp? Greg repeated.
I looked at the call sheet. Hofed-dorp. It looks like an airport service town.
As long as we’re only there for one night.
Hoofddorp was a stone’s throw away, which simultaneously pleased and disappointed me. It was nice to have a hotel close at hand, but the undergrad in me wanted to drive straight in to the middle of Amsterdam and find a walk-up sandwiched between a hash bar and a tranny brothel.
A NOTE ON HOTELS
Our company has one priority for hotel bookings, and it can be summarized thusly: what is cheap? I mean, really really cheap? We always have the option of seeking better accommodations on the road, but it’s usually not worth the extra effort, especially after a day of air travel. In a way this makes it remarkably easy to spot our designated hotel: drive to the general area, scan the skyline for something that’s clearly a hotel, then look for the crumbling shack next to it. That is usually where our reservations lie.
Fortunately there is a countervailing principle that usually rescues us from the dregs, which is: what is the most convenient thing to book? Picture the poor production coordinator at her desk, tasked with finding hotels sprinkled across a country or a continent. In these cases she will almost always find a reputable but affordable chain and attempt to stick with it wherever possible. For this reason I often ended up feeling, as I jumped from one hotel to the next, as if I were stalking the trace of some family on a doomed road trip.
Our hotel turned out to be a Best Western, which meant that we could expect a restaurant of passable meat, overpriced croquettes (Netherlands only) and recessed lighting.
What are croquettes? I asked.
The waiter, who had been entirely fluent in English up until that moment, furrowed his brow. They are little… fried… things.
What are they made of?
A smirk suddenly creased his professional face. You don’t want to know, he said.
I ordered the Nasi Goreng, which is apparently piped into every restaurant in the Netherlands from a central utility somewhere.
After the meal we busied ourselves with arranging the film equipment in the blond-wood shoebox of a room we had been booked into. My nerves were thrumming with the seven-hour shift in time, and my mouth had a bitter lactic tang. I skipped through the TV channels and discovered that Dutch television shows subtitled English programs. A season four episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was playing, and I started to watch the Dutch subtitles, trying to map the vowelly, trowelled-out words to the dialogue. At one point a character enters a vaulted library and exclaims “You could hold the Nuremburg rally in here!” I wasn’t sure exactly what the subitles were saying, but it definitely had nothing to do with Nuremburg. It looked like casual TV references to the Nazis were verboden.
Tomorrow: Day 3 – the first interview.
*A prize to anyone who can tell me what episode of BtVS I was watching and which character made the strange Nazi crack.
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Welcome to Travels With Greg, my memoir of a six-week documentary trip through Europe in Autumn 2004. In the last installment, I bought some books. Now I’m waiting for my connecting flight. The action, it does not stop. If you’re new to my site, please visit the Table of Contents.
I settled in across from Greg in the plastic seats of Terminal 4, packing my new books as carefully as possible into my shoulder bag, just in case the BMI flight to Amsterdam placed size restrictions on carry-on baggage. Each airline, though adhering to a set of standards that most companies can agree on, has its share of idiosyncrasies. One airline may charge extra for overweight baggage or ignore the difference altogether, but Qantas, for example, will refuse your luggage if it masses more than 32 kg. Air Singapore will let you use genuine cutlery or supply you with a glass of complimentary wine, while Continental, for example, sucks.
BMI will give you a free sandwich for sixty minute hop to Amsterdam. I remember a long-ago time when airlines in Canada offered free food of any kind, but that was so far in the past that airplanes had not, strictly speaking, been invented. I tried not to betray my shock to the attendant when she handed me the plastic-encased sandwich and serviette, lest I be identified as a rube. I wasn’t all that hungry, and I was even less hungry when I looked closely at the sandwich, but there was no way I was giving up on free airplane food.
The morning plane was crowded with business travelers and sleepy tourists. The touristswere responsible for the vaguely yeasty scent gently circulating around the cabin. With Greg’s blessing I took a window seat and unwrapped the sandwich as Britain dropped away and scooted eastward beneath us. Beef, and some kind of paste that seemed part butter, part salt. It tasted nostalgic.
There was almost no cloud cover for the entire flight, which I suspected was rare. People in the seats ahead blinked and squeezed out protective tears against the sun. I kept my eyes out the window and watched the Netherlands slide into view.
After the improvisational quality of Heathrow, Schiphol was a paragon of order. Greg and I slid out of the plane and found ourselves once again in the endless queues and overpriced coffee shops of Inner Airport World. The customs agent who went over our ragged carnet was stuffed inside a little glass box. As he flipped through the document and scratched his salt-and-pepper beard, I pictured him slowly growing puffier and more monstrous, until portions of him were squeezing out of the grating, contained only by his polyester shirt.
Once past customs and immigration we found ourselves entering Outer Airport World, that thin rim of vehicle rental kiosks and drugstores designed to insulate passengers from the punishments of reality. I needed to make a couple of phone calls, but the public phones were – and how can I put this? – in-fucking-comprehensible. They were distributed plentifully, so I had many opportunities to walk up to them and not understand what the hell I was supposed to do. Should I approach a stranger and ask them what to do? My understanding of Dutch was limited, but I was pretty sure that if I spoke plain English and threw in the occasional hooting vowel, the result would be enough like Dutch that I could get some assistance with the hulking red and silver sculptures that were, apparently, phones.
I stepped into a pharmacy.
Excuse me, I said, but I don’t know how to use these phones.
The cashier gave me the patient, stoic, slightly curious look that is part of the Dutch birthright. They will only work with one of these phone cards, she explained, pointing to a rack of cards by the till. I tried to pick one out, but sleeplessness was beginning to nibble at the edges of my brain again.
I walked back over to Greg, who had taken up his customary sitting position.
Any luck with the phones?
Screw it. Let’s get our vehicle and find our hotel.
I was a bit nervous about renting a car. My company generally made a point of using the worst vehicle rental service possible, especially when I was travelling overseas. Often they would rent from a North American company that had a ‘relationship’ with a non-North American company, said relationship guaranteeing that they would take your money and not bother letting the other company know. Whether there would be a car waiting for you on the other end of your flight was a matter of chance.
We were pleasantly surprised when the freshly painted and scrubbed women behind at the kiosk had our name in their computer. They never stopped smiling, even when it turned out that the particular car we had requested – a minivan – was not available. In fact, it seemed that they had no minivans at all, and the notion of renting a minivan only broadened their smiles. I got the feeling that only North Americans wanted minivans.
We have a lot of luggage, I explained. We need a large vehicle.
The woman picked at her keyboard for a moment.
We can rent you a Saab 95 Turbo, she said. It is our largest car. And we won’t charge you anything more.
I decided that this was a good omen.
Thank you, I said.
You should learn to say it in Dutch, she said. And then she made a noise that started off reasonably but ended up sounding like getting kicked in the throat.
I tried it out: Dank … huh-row?
Dank Hrwaarghhh, she clarified.
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Welcome to Travels With Greg, the slow dribble that passes for a memoir of my six-week documentary shoot through Europe in Autumn 2004. In our last installment, sleep deprivation prompted a senseless overseas call. Join me as I buy some books. Yessss. If you’re new to the site, please visit the Table of Contents.
The embarrassing and pointless overseas phone call to my boss seemed to clear the fatigue toxins from my brain. As soon as I put the phone back in its cradle, clarity began to seep in once more, until I had a few lucid pools to splash through. My sense of the space lost its nightmarish blur as details began to solidify: the wasted faces of other travelers, a tangy American accent complaining to no particular person about the service ethic in British airports, the soft lozenges of light thrown down from windows admitting an English sunrise.
Instead of dwelling on the fact that I’d woken up the producer to tell her that the customs agent had a big nose, I decided to kill a bit of time by taking in the sights and sounds of Heathrow International Airport, Terminal 4.
Like most departure areas in Airport World, Terminal 4 is not designed with comfort in mind for the average traveler. Rows of hard plastic chairs face off against each other in the centre of traffic areas, where people pass back and forth in an agitated current. The overall effect is to make you feel as if you’re marooned on a fortuitous outcrop poking up from a deep and dangerous river. No one wants to sit in these seats.
Fortunately for the traveler, the walls have been liberally lined with stores. An airport franchise must be among the wettest dreams of retailers – hordes of sleep-deprived or otherwise disoriented people caught in that in-between zone, where dimly understood laws hem in movement, but nothing proscribes the exercise of one’s wallet, every hour of the day. Rents must be exorbitant.
Greg was easy to spot. He is one of the few people I know who can rest at ease in airport departure lounges, his hands folded in his lap and his eyes scanning the upper walls. His body, which is too big to meet those chairs comfortably, seems to mould itself without complaint to the chair’s shape. It as if he turns some inner dial to the end of the range and settles on that frequency, all silence, until the boarding call comes. It also helps that Greg is incredibly cheap and will not spend a cent of his own money – unless a pint of beer is involved, which I sense is quietly frowned upon in his household.
I waved as I passed him on the way to a WH Smith, which was part of my plan. Apart from a copy of William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, I hadn’t packed any books. We were pushing the weight limit with our checked and carry-on baggage, so I’d decided beforehand to buy my reading material along the way. As I finished a novel, I would leave it in my hotel room for the next guests, whether they were fluent in English or not. This is my genius mind at work.
The store had a special on fiction – 3 paperbacks for 18 pounds – so I scanned and scanned. Mostly I just pulled out novel after novel to look at the different cover art. More than anything else, the unexpected illustrations on book covers told me that I had traveled overseas, that I was really here for six weeks, and that, short of a nervous breakdown, my entire path for those weeks was laid out in a neat black binder. I picked Perdido Street Station for its reassuring bulk, Middlesex for its alternate cover, and Yellow Dog, out of a (deeply misplaced) loyalty to Martin Amis.
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Welcome to Travels With Greg, my slowly unfolding story of a six-week documentary shoot through Europe in 2004. In my last entry, Greg and I had landed at Heathrow. Now, sleep-deprived and unwilling, I need to find Customs in Terminal 4. God help me. If this site is new territory for you, visit the Table of Contents to get caught up.
Whenever you hear people talk about fatigue, they often say that it sneaks, steals or creeps up on you. In my case, fatigue stepped out of the crowd of morning travellers and whammied me with a cartoon mallet. One moment I was strolling down the corridor, keeping an eye on the signs; the next moment, everything started to slide upward. My inner ear screamed its warnings at my brain that I was tipping, tilting and slipping over, but my brain ignored them, focusing instead on keeping my feet galumphing forward. Help, I thought, there’s a war on between my internal parts, but nothing would come out of my mouth. Brain, don’t let the carnet slip out of my hand. You do this and we’ll sleep for forty-eight hours straight.
By the time I found Customs I was nearly delirious and barely able to force out a sentence, which did not endear me to the freckle-spattered young woman with a blond pageboy and a prominent nose who stood behind the partition. I kept focusing on the nose, which seemed just a hair too big for her face. It was one of those details that, once noticed, command all your attention.
— I have a carnet, I told the officer’s nose. But my luggage is still in transit to Amsterdam.
The officer’s nose flared in sympathy. There are few hard and fast rules in the world of carnets, chiefly because most customs agents aren’t clear on the rules. But here’s the numero uno rule: You must at the very least have the goods listed on the carnet in your possession. Most often Customs won’t bother to look at them, but if you show up with a form that says I have $30,000 of film and video gear but you have only a passport and a lint-covered wine gum in your pocket, you will not be taken at your word.
— Maybe you should wait until you land in Amsterdam and have Customs deal with it there, the officer suggested.
When your brain is plagued by swarms of sleep toxins, decision-making becomes torturous and fearful. Small matters turn into huge priorities, obvious actions become weighted down with trivia, and you might as well tie your brain in a bag and swing it into the Thames. It was not important, really, that I had to wait to get the carnet stamped in Amsterdam; without the equipment handy, it was the only available course of action. No big deal. I decided to call my producer back home, where it was at least two in the morning, and tell her all about it.
She picked up after five rings.
— Heather? It’s Aidan.
Over the thousands of miles of undersea cable, I could almost hear her brain creaking into action.
— Hello there. Is everything going well?
— I couldn’t get it to work, Heather.
— We’re in Heathrow. No luggage. Need to get. Carnet stamped. In Amsterdam.
— I guess I didn’t need to phone you up and tell you this right now.
— No, it’s fine. You can call whenever you think you need to.
— The customs officer had this big nose.
— You call when it’s important, Aidan.
She hung up, leaving me with the distinct impression that I had used up my one free nincompoop call exactly one day into a 41 day trip. As the post-punk kids on the corner say: Go me.
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Ahoy. You are reading Travels With Greg, the story of my six-week documentary shoot through Europe in the fall of 2004. Join us as we enter Inner Airport World at Heathrow. If you’re new to the TWG experience, you can visit the Table of Contents and get all nice and caught up.
After taking us on a nice slow tour of the airport’s exterior, Flight 868, the seven-hour Pearson to Heathrow haul, ambled up to the gate at 6:25 a.m. This was the most interminable part of the entire flight, the wait to unsnap our seatbelts and reach for our luggage. A few tentative metallic sounds could be heard here and there in the cabin, the signal of the brave and independent few who risked unbuckling before the little seatbelt went out with a flat slideshow ‘ding’. And then the sudden crush of everybody standing up all at once, affecting an air of nonchalance, as if they’re waiting for a light at a corner and not dying to get off a stuffy jet.
When the mild English September air from the sleeve began to filter in, we all realized how badly we smelled. Sweat, breath, packets of peanuts and bottles of wine were exhaled with us as we walked up the sleeve that fed us into the body of the terminal. One thing about Heathrow: the signage can be terrible, sometimes nothing more than a piece of paper with a “THIS WAY” helpfully Sharpied on by a construction worker, so the best thing to do is follow the mass of people. One or two people can lose their way, but two hundred people have an unerring sense of direction and a steady momentum that detests resistance. The mass of motor impulses and unconscious decisions, when distributed amongst a crowd, somehow knows which doors to ignore and what waits at the end of the line.
At the end of the line was the longest airport line-up I’d ever seen, with the exception of an early morning flight I once took from Vegas to Chicago. Like all airport security and immigration lines, this one was folded into a wide deep space, so that progress actually involved shuffling back and forth parallel to the row of security gates, where the dull-eyed and dangerous airport employees, with their wands and scanners and lists of questions, waited to process us all for entry into Inner Airport World.
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Holy crap, people? Could it be that I’m out of the country, at long finally last? Yes it could! It’s a shorty but a goody as I tell you all about the experience of sitting on a plane and eating a vegan breakfast on an international Air Canada flight. If you’re just catching up now, go to the index page and read Travels With Greg, my epic tale of a six-week documentary shoot through Europe in the fall of 2004.
I sleep badly on planes. Most passengers will tell you that they sleep badly on planes, but I’ve seen them at 3am in the taupe-shadowed darkness of the cabin, propped against each other like old paperbacks and snoring away to the rhythm of the engines. I prefer to sit in my cone of blue light, going over the same few passages in my book or trying to follow the thread of the movie playing on the little LED screen set into the back of my seat. Every so often an attendant will pass by, sometimes giving me a quick smile to commiserate lightly in our shared wakefulness.
Greg gave me the window seat for the Toronto-Heathrow flight. For Greg, who lives for the moments when the ground can be seen receding or approaching through an oval window on an airplane cabin, this was a generous act. I had never seen London before, and he wanted me to see London at night. There was a possibility that we would spend a few days in England at the end of the trip, but that was six weeks in the future, and besides, there were no pages in the binder under tabs 37-41.
London at 5 a.m. was endless and illuminated. The plane flew at an impossibly correct altitude, just low enough to let me see the detail of the buildings but just high enough to feel as if we were crawling slowly over the city, as a magnifying planchette traces out a line of text on a page. Clumps of skyscrapers, burning with light, passed underneath, only to be replaced with another clump. Greg leaned over to get a look. Do you see it? he said. What do you see?
He wanted me to tell him that I could see Big Ben and Westminster Abbey and that ridiculous fucking ferris wheel. I couldn’t even find a comparison to sum up what I was seeing, except to say that it seemed like huge outlined geometric shapes all pressing into each other and shaken by the river – shaken too slowly to see, but yawing back and forth nonetheless, as if one end of the Thames were being cracked like a whip. Other cities are easier to take in at a glance: Los Angeles looks like a giant microchip, for instance; it looks frighteningly like the Machine City in The Matrix. Manila from the air looks like a ball of dark yarn covered in red and white crumbs. London looks like tectonic forces, which is hard to explain at five in the morning.
A few people had already woken up and were staring out the window at the city beneath. The lights came on and we could hear the metal clanking of meal carts, then the maddening experience of waiting for the meal cart, with its steamed prepackaged breakfast food. On a whim I’d requested the vegan option, which turned out to be either flavourless stir frys with tofu or, in the case of breakfast, the regular meal with everything interesting removed. I picked at breakfast as the sky lightened and London began to speed faster beneath us, on its way to Heathrow.
Whoah? Will we make it to Heathrow? Or do we, um, die, or get rerouted to Leicestershire or something? Will there even be an airport in Leicestershire if we fly there? I can’t take the suspense, people: come back soon.
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This is the fifth part of Travels With Greg, the story of my six-week documentary shoot through six countries in Western Europe. Join us as I write yet another entry that does not take us out of the country.
Once firmly in the air, after the turbulence of penetrating layers of atmosphere had died down and the pale seatbelt logos had winked out, I reached under the seat (I always keep one piece of carry-on in the overhead rack, one beneath the seat) and pulled out my travel binder. I never examined the binder in depth until I was on my way to the first destination. This was not laziness (although there may have been a touch of arrogance or plain hubris in there somewhere); any trip longer than seven to ten days often contained so many complications that the binders were assembled and reassembled by researchers and coordinators up to the last possible moment. It was completely against company policy, and it was utterly typical. Interviewees and locations would call up and change their minds, demand money, suddenly remember that the shoot day, cleared a month before, happened to be some great-aunt’s birthday, and could we come by an hour later? Or the next day?
This binder wasn’t even complete. Days 20-41 existed only as tabs. Somewhere along the line the rest of the material, the call sheets, questions, crib sheets and maps would be faxed or couriered out to us, wherever we might be in the wilds of Western Europe. In the meantime, I had nineteen days to map out in my head, although experience had long ago shown me how useless this was. The shoot never matched the sheets properly, especially in foreign countries. At best they served as horns that you could grip as the shoot bucked wildly underneath you.
Hey Greg, I said. We’re going to interview a wooden shoemaker in Amsterdam.
Greg nodded. That sounds like fun, he said.
Greg had a way of deadpanning the word “fun” to make it sound more like “hell”.
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