My husband and I just returned from an excellent Danube River cruise. (This is a picture of us when we saw our free minibar in Amsterdam, stocked with beer and wine, perhaps some other stuff, too.)
We started out with a few days in Budapest, then sailed to Vienna, Durnstein, Passau, Regensburg, and Nuremberg, where we disembarked and headed to Prague for a few days. At that point the cruise ended and my husband and I left for a few days on our own in Amsterdam.
It was a long, extravagant adventure for us with 5-star accommodations, haute cuisine, amazing wine and beer, and many, many people attending to our every need with extraordinary good cheer.
Despite that, we were happy to get home. Overseas travel is exhausting, even when you stick a crowbar in your wallet and upgrade to business class for those 10+ hour flights. And I’ll tell you what … always upgrade to business class. You board the plane through a separate door from the hoi polloi flying coach. You’re greeted with a very civilized glass of wine, a travel kit with all kinds of things you don’t need, and a menu. You snuggle into your plush, oversized seat, which, at the push of a button, transforms into a recliner, and later, after you’ve had more wine and a delicious dinner, into a comfy bed, complete with pillow and blanket. You arrive at your destination fed, watered, and relaxed, albeit with messy hair.
But I digress.
Travel gets you out of your routine and opens your eyes to other people and their habits, customs, and history. I hadn’t planned to do any real writing while I was gone, but did keep a journal of the trip.
The most fun for me in Eastern Europe, as everywhere, was watching people and tucking away their traits for my future characters.
Akos, our handsome cruise director from Hungary, who was absolutely unflappable, no matter what. Not when he had to adjust the schedule at the last minute. Not when one of the buses broke down halfway to Prague. Not when people asked him the same question he’d probably answered a thousand times before. Not even when I tried to speak Hungarian.
The women on the cruise with us who could never work the headset and transmitter. They’d forget to plug it in, or have it on the wrong channel, or turn the volume down too low. Or all of the above. It was never the same woman, mind you, so my husband and I studied the faces of who was touring with us that day and played the game, Who Can’t Work the Machine Today? It amused us and we almost always got it right.
The concierge in our Budapest hotel who, no matter what you asked, would answer with a very serious, “Is no problem,” even if it might be. I was tempted to ratchet up the questions until, defeated, he had to admit, “Is quite large problem.” But I didn’t.
The sausage-and-beer-stand guy in Bavaria who seemed baffled and a little bit angry that all the people sitting outside at his tables wanted sausages and beer.
The staff on the ship, all of whom clearly loved their jobs. Kitty and Hery were a couple of our favorites, dressed here for Bavarian Lunch Day. She was from Latvia and told me she was getting some time off soon. I asked her if she was going home. Horrified, she said, “No! I’ve been to Latvia.”
The waiter at our fancy farewell dinner on board who served me this in the middle of my dinner plate.
When I asked him what I was supposed to do with it, he mimed popping the spoon in his mouth, opened his eyes wide, rubbed his belly, then rolled his eyes back in his head. (He was right. It was a delicious pate.)
Helena, one of our tour guides in Prague who marveled at the sheer number of Asian tourists coming to Prague, each with so much camera equipment she wondered if they were opening stores. “We do not know what to do with this.”
Nicoletta, our housekeeper on the ship, who left this on our bed one night and giggled the next day when I asked her about it.
This guy who was a locally famous dissident, friends with Vaclav Havel and our tour guide Marguerite. He just happened to be sitting at this cafe near the Vaclav Havel chairs when we came by. (Vaclav Havel was known for sitting down with friend and foe to discuss issues. He believed problems could always be resolved this way.) Marguerite was speaking to us in English, but we were all glancing over at him so he knew she was talking about him. Finally he broke into a huge grin and waggled his fingers at us before turning back to his coffee, suddenly shy and embarrassed by the attention.
The clean-cut 20-something kid from Texas waiting in line with us for the Heineken Experience Museum who always called me Ma’am and told us he’d been freezing for two weeks because all he’d brought to Amsterdam were shorts and t-shirts.
This lovely waitress in a small cafe off the beaten path in Amsterdam who took good care of us when we were looking for authentic Dutch krokettes.
We sat in the window of that cafe on the last day of our trip, watching the world around us. A gorgeous lesbian couple nuzzling over espresso and strudel. The leather-clad bikers who carried in their helmets, drank quick cappuccinos, then left. The impossibly young Asian travelers with enormous backpacks having a grand adventure of their own. New parents going through all the gyrations to get their toddler into his sweater and then his bicycle seat before pedaling away over the bridge.
I wonder if any of them studied me as I nursed my dark beer by the window in the cafe in Amsterdam, making mental notes about characters for their books.