First off, welcome back. I know at least one of you has been on the edge of your seat, wondering how the rest of this summer’s romantic comedy will end. (You know who you are). Secondly, my apologies to director Stanley Kramer for blatantly appropriating his title. “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” a 1963 madcap comedy starring Spencer Tracy with an all-star supporting cast including Edie Adams, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, Terry-Thomas, Jonathan Winters and Dick Shawn is one of my personal all-time favorite films. If you don’t know it, shame on you. Beg, borrow, or steal (did I say that?) a copy, microwave some popcorn and sit back and luxuriate in the silliness. They don’t make them like that anymore. In fact, they didn’t make them like that anymore in 1963, which was the whole point of making the film in the first place. But, I digress. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I digress a lot. I will make an attempt to come back to the point of the story – if I can remember what it is.
When we last convened, Marion and I were on a plane, bound from Newark to Munich with our two parakeets, Charlie and Sissi. The flight was exactly what you would like every flight to be – uneventful. The birds behaved beautifully. The few people – passengers, flight attendants and anyone else who came into contact with the birds were, luckily, entirely captivated. Such is the charm of animals. People who would never give each other the time of day will not think twice about engaging each other over an interesting pet. The cuter or more exotic the pet, the better. And so, with our little goodwill ambassadors safely tucked under the seat in front of us, we made our way to Germany.
The best thing about a flight, especially a long flight, is that it necessitates a break. Whatever you were doing before you got on the plane - the stress of business, the rushing, the packing, the traffic, the airport security, the – did I mention airport security? – is temporarily over. There is something truly exquisite about that moment when your butt finally hits the seat and you close your eyes and exhale deeply. You’ve made it. Nirvana! Bring on the cocktails. You’ve earned them.
There’s a lot to be said about who you travel with. I’ve experienced them all - the hyper kid who wouldn’t stop kicking the back of my seat, the colicky baby who screamed like a stuck pig for six hours straight, the sweaty and extremely odiferous fellow who’s enormous girth filled his seat and half of mine for the duration of a flight to Switzerland - these were all, thankfully, absent. This time, happily, I was sat next to my beautiful wife Marion, a fact that I did not take for granted. The actor Bill Murray says if you want to find out if a relationship with a person will work, travel with them. He’s absolutely right. I picked a peach. In addition to her being smarter and better looking than me (not hard to do, I know) my wife is the perfect traveling companion. They say some people make coffee nervous. For me, when everything goes wrong and I feel like I’ve reached the end of my rope, being with Marion is like easing into a warm bath. This was to come in very handy over the next few weeks.
Our landing in Germany went as smoothly as expected. Once off the plane, bird bag in hand, we headed for the luggage carousel and the “office” of the airport vet. I say “office” because we were ushered into a customs security room. This is the place where suspicious packages are brought and arriving passengers interviewed. On this particular morning, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of activity. Young male and female uniformed customs officers were just hanging out, bantering in German. It’s these times that really make me wish I spoke the language. Ok, I admit it. I’m guilty of being a habitual eavesdropper. It’s an old acting habit. I’m always interested in character studies; how people behave and what they say to each other when they think no one is listening. Occasionally, I can pick up a few words in German. This morning, nothing. Then, an English speaking passenger was ushered in. A female customs official began questioning him as to why he had brought such a huge amount of cash into the country.
“I always bring this much cash,” he insisted, “you can check my records.”
I had a hard time stifling a smile. My “too many movies” brain was already in warp-drive. Arms smuggling? Drugs? Human trafficking? You are so busted, I thought. Then it got better.
“Do you have any financial records showing where this cash comes from?” she asked.
Got him, I thought.
The tap dance began again, but before the passenger could finish his answer, the security doors burst open and in breezed the handsome vet and his female assistant, looking like two characters out of a German soap opera. A conversation in German ensued, where Marion and the doctor discussed the birds and I nodded affirmatively, as though I knew what the hell they were talking about. A side note: these are times when I hope the conversation will end before the other person inevitably realizes I don’t speak German. When that happens, they will politely start translating or switch to speaking English entirely, usually with better grammar than I. At that point, I feel like slinking away, putting on a dunce cap and sitting in the corner. Whatever was being said, it was clearly the avian version of the old “may I see your papers, please” scene. Once again, Marion had done her homework and had the right answers. The birdies passed with flying colors and we were free to enter the European Union.
“We’re IN Meredith, we’re IN!” I could hear my mother say. This was a favorite expression of my mother’s for such an occasion. ( I had always taken the expression for granted until I decided to Google it a few years ago. It turned out to be a bit of dialogue from a 1907 English music hall sketch, “The Bailiff,” produced by the notorious Fred Karno, who discovered both Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. This particular sketch ran on stage fourteen years before my mother was even born, so just where she heard the line will forever remain a mystery). Right you are, Mum. We were indeed “IN.”
We spent the best part of the next two weeks with family in Germany. After all the stress of the move, it was the first time in weeks we’d been able to relax and enjoy a really good night’s sleep. We still had no idea exactly how the saga of importing our things to the U.K. would unfold. What we did know was that when we arrived in England it would be to an empty house. There was no point in rushing there, and nothing we could do for now, other than to enjoy the break.
Bavaria in general, and Munich specifically are what most Americans imagine Germany to be. If you are interested in things like Oktoberfest, seeing Herren in Lederhosen, Damen in Dirndls, fairy-tale castles, deep crystallin lakes and breathtakingly beautiful Alpine scenery, Bavaria is the place to go.
Marion’s hometown of Kronach is off the beaten track, and not a tourist destination, simply for the fact that no one has thought to market it as such. At it’s center is a walled medieval town with cobblestone streets, where Napoleon once stayed amid his campaigns, ordering structural changes to one the town’s towers for strategic purposes. Overlooking the old town, the Festung Rosenberg, a fortress dating back to about 1100 A.D., is still in use today as a museum, cultural center and biergarten. During the First World War, a French soldier named Charles de Gaulle was briefly imprisoned there; and for ten years after the Second World War, the Festung housed local families, including Marion’s dad Gerhard, then aged five, with his parents and older brother, while the town was being occupied by the U.S. Army. In a perfect example of “making lemonade from lemons” young Gerhard grew up playing “knights of the round table” inside a real castle, and learned to ride his first two-wheeler, turning circles in one of the turrets. The story makes think how much the world has changed in a relatively short period of time. If I had a choice between experiencing that kind of childhood and one with TV, iPhones, and X-Box, I know which I’d pick.
I had still not received a definitive answer from the British CITES office regarding my musical instruments. Rather than focusing on the seven instruments the U.S. had provided me with exports permits for, the British office was now going over my entire inventory list anew, with a fine-tooth comb. It wasn’t encouraging. The USDA, seemingly overworked and understaffed, had been difficult to reach all along, either by phone or email. I suggested to a British CITES agent that he might have better luck getting a response, and he agreed to try. Hopefully, with a bit of trans-Atlantic communication, the situation would get resolved quickly.
After all too short a visit, it was time to leave Germany. We had a lot of miles to cover. We rented a car at Munich airport and set off for Strasbourg, France. I can’t say enough good things about Strasbourg, a beautiful French town with a German-sounding name, situated on the Rhine River. What a wonderful, romantic, walkable, history-filled city. Great architecture, beautiful bridges, restaurants, cafes, and of course, the Rhine itself, winding it’s way through the city, creating a feeling of timelessness. As the streets there are very narrow, parking is limited. We dropped off our luggage, and parked in a multi-story public garage. Although the area seemed perfectly safe, I always try to be cautious, and decided to bring an additional carry-on bag to the hotel. After all, this was the bag they tell you to keep with you at all times when you move internationally. You know, the one with all the import personal documents and stuff you couldn’t live without - birth and marriage certificates, IDs, financial records, social security card, computer hard drives, and so on. I stuck the suitcase behind the bathroom door in our room for safe keeping and Marion and I went out for a romantic walk and a lovely supper at a little cafe on the bank of the Rhine.
The next morning, after enjoying some incredibly delicious pastries and cappuccino at a sidewalk cafe, we were off again. Next stop, Reims. Reims is famous for Champagne, and for it’s amazing Cathedral, Notre-Dame de Reims. My favorite part of the Reims Cathedral is one of it’s newest additions, a stained-glass window designed by one of my favorite artists, Marc Chagall. Rarely do the old and the new compliment each other so well. Marion and I strolled through the city, stopping for dinner at a cafe specializing in Champagnes and local cheeses. Magnifique!
Over the years, I’ve heard Americans make disparaging comments about the French. I have not personally experienced anything to support this, although I have seen some pretty rude American tourists. My take is, when you travel, you pretty much get back what you give. This basically sums my approach to life. There are wonderful people everywhere, and a few idiots. There’s always something new to learn, something to be experienced and incorporated into our own lives. At the same time, traveling tends to make us appreciate home.
The next day was “the big day.” We left Reims early, and headed for the famous Euro Tunnel, in Calais. Despite a heavy volume of traffic, the tunnel runs very smoothly. Many lanes of traffic converge first into the tunnel parking lot, where electronic signs are constantly updated with train departure times. To pass the time, there is a modern, comfortable facility with restaurants and shops. Once your car is guided onto one of the trains, it’s about a half-hour trip under the channel, until you finally emerge in Folkestone, England. The train is lit, and there are restrooms, in case you were wondering. By the way, the fact that we had our birds in the back seat of the car was a non-issue here. Although the U.K do not allow birds to fly into the country as in-cabin baggage, there was no problem arriving in the country via the Euro Tunnel train.
Our stop for the night was the village of Rye, in Sussex. For me, the main things that stand out about Rye, lovely town that it is, are: 1. It’s near Hastings, the site of the Norman invasion of 1066, and 2. Paul McCartney lives near there. (Sorry to geek-out on this, but what the hell). Marion and I once visited the pub in Paul’s home village. The barman wouldn’t tell us exactly where he lived (good lad) but he did have a great story about Paul showing up in his bathrobe at someone’s house to drop off one of his kids for a party. According to the story, after being offered a scotch, Paul sat down, picked up a guitar and, plied with scotch, entertained the parents for hours, in his bathrobe. I don’t if the story is true, but I’d like to think it is.
Marion and I had an excellent pub meal and pints of real ale in Rye, where the locals had gathered to watch World Cup Football. That night, England beat Columbia, 4-3 in a penalty shoot-out. The place went absolutely berserk. It was great to be part of that crowd. I felt really at home, really proud, and glad to be British. Exhausted but happy, Marion and I walked back to the village inn to turn in for the night. The barman at the inn had brought our luggage up earlier. I counted the bags. They were all there, except… the carry on. THAT carry-on. My heart leapt into my throat. We threw on our clothes and dashed out into the night, down the road to the parking lot where we had left the car that afternoon. No carry-on. I had left it in Strasbourg.
To be continued...
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