travels with greg, day 1.1
This is Part Two of Travels With Greg. You can read Part One here.
Week 1 – The Netherlands
horrible disaster discussed: the North Sea Flood
plus: Bruno the klompenböer; the longest bicycle in the world; the biggest field hockey stick ever
Week 2 – south of France
horrible disaster discussed: the Malpasset Dam Failure
plus: no santons
Week 3 – Germany
horrible disaster discussed: The Oppau Explosion
plus: the world’s longest car; largest marsupial; biggest turtle; most ginormous cuckoo clock
Week 4 – western Austria
horrible disaster discussed: Blons Avalanche
plus: Head Sport ski factory; the world’s tiniest model trains that turned out not to be particularly small
Week 5 – horrible horrible Belgium
horrible disaster discussed: Meuse Valley Killer Fog
plus: a parade of lead-poisoned Walloons dead set on making my life miserable; world’s smallest blooming plant; manneken pis
Week 6 – England
horrible disaster discussed: Queen Mary Collision
plus: world’s biggest goddamn restaurant bill ever
Week 1, day 1 – 6:00-8:00 am
It’s a common experience among travelers to wake up and not know where they are. To open your eyes and have nothing match, no thought connect to thought, no wall or window or hotel art print meet up with anything in your mind. It’s like the first split second of a helicopter ride, when you realize that you are abruptly no longer touching ground and the entire machine feels like a rocking cradle in a thunderstorm.
That never once happened to me on the road. I would close my eyes each night with the following day mapped out in my head. As soon as I opened my eyes again, I was on. I was working, and all my job consisted of was following the map that had been prepared for me. That’s the first talent of a field producer. The second talent is not blowing up when the map turns out be completely wrong, when the day suddenly flips over and you’re traversing an unknown geography full of strange roads, missed appointments and a flat tire on the edge of some city a whole hemisphere from home.
It was only at home that I would experience that vertiginous moment of not knowing. Once or twice I panicked when I saw Schmutzie’s head or the curve of her shoulder emerging from the blankets. The trips demanded so much of me that it took a few days, maybe a week of being home, before my body realized it. It was expecting difference, an empty bed and a colour TV staring at me from across the room. Instead it woke to my real life, the one where I could sit around all day in my bathrobe (which I did). Those were the good times. The potato chip times.
The first day of a trip signals the end of chips. The first day of the Europe assignment came with a tiny garnish of blessing: I didn’t have to get up at three in the morning to catch a flight. By a strange confluence of geography and airline regulations, all flights that go anywhere interesting from the local airport leave at 6:00 am. You want to go to Montreal? Vancouver? New York? San Fransisco? Your flight will be departing at 6:00 am. On the other hand, if you want to fly to Amsterdam with stops in Toronto and Heathrow, 11:20 am will do just fine.
That doesn’t mean that you can set your alarm for ten. First you need to get up, go to the office, load up all the equipment, take it through Customs – of which more later – and make sure that you’re at the ticket counter at least an hour and a half before departure. Which meant that I could safely wake up at seven.
My eyes slid open at six. Schmutzie was already awake, joined palms between the pillow and her head, watching. She was watching me sleep. We tipped our bodies toward each other, snaked arms around each other’s backs, held on. We’d gone out for a drink the night before and I could smell the alcohol on our skin. Six weeks is a long time – too long to properly imagine. I felt as if were going to jail, or off to war, or maybe to an offshore rig. Any one of those jobs that take men away for whole seasons at a time. She left the apartment before me. I watched from the window.
At the last moment I decided to take the cowboy hat. Without going into too much detail right now, I suggest you do not travel through Europe in a cowboy hat, no matter how cool you think you are.
Greg pulled up at quarter to eight with his family. Greg always arrives with his family – his wife June drives the long maroon station wagon, while Edna, his mother-in-law, sits in the back like a pile of old sticks and rags with a wig on top. I never understood why Greg’s mother-in-law always accompanied him to the airport. Whenever I asked, he would say that she didn’t like to be alone. And that she liked car rides.
I stuffed myself into the velour depths of the backseat and said hello to Edna. A person with less experience would have looked at her, felt for a pulse and alerted the authorities, but I had gotten used to Edna’s queerly inanimate appearance. Once animated, she turned out to be voluble and entertaining, with a voice that seemed to pull every word across sandpaper. Her stillness, I think, was a carefully employed tactic, refined over decades, meant to annoy Greg. Here I am, her body would say, unmoving. Here I am until one of us dies. And I decline to die first.
This has been a long entry. I expected to be at the end of the day at this point, but I haven’t even gotten to the airport yet. Be patient – only a few more bits of necessary context and then we’re plunged into the thick of it.
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