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Travels in Europe

A tale of a trip around Europe with a broken collarbone

 Including extracts from my 40th, 41st and 42nd diaries.

Every cloud has a silver lining

How true this was when in February 2001 I came careering down the piste at speed and skied slap-bang into some chap who stopped right in front of me. At the time I wasn't aware that I'd broken my left collarbone - all I could think of was getting back to the hotel. I knew that something was very wrong, but in order to ski home I just had to block it all from my consciousness. It was thirty minutes later that I completely lost it - sitting on the train on the way to the doctor I discovered the severed bone sticking out - only then did I almost pass out in shock and pain! The doctor soon fixed me up with a bandage and drugs; the strength of these was so great that I embarked upon an eighteen-hour trip off of this planet

Initially, having been granted 7 weeks off work I opted to remain in Kleine Scheidegg. The owners had kindly invited me to stay "as a part of the family" - I saw no point in returning to England in any case. However, following two weeks of immense boredom I was on the verge of insanity, and so when on a trip to my local village I found myself returning to my hotel not only with the bag of apples I'd set out to buy, but also with an Interail ticket, entitling me to free carriage on virtually any train in Europe for one month.

Two days later I'd packed my bag, fallen down the stairs, and made my mind up to head for Paris. The train journey north was relatively pleasant, with the exception of the greasy bald-patch sitting in front of me, and the smelly cat-in-a-box to my left. (Its adoring owner who insisted on speaking French for the duration of the trip - despite my insistence that "Je ne compron pa" accompanied this.)

That night I wrote in my diary; 'On my arrival in Paris Gare de Lyon I was completely lost. In a dazed state my first goal was to get some money. I was also worried about my collarbone - carrying such a heavy rucksack and all. Well, anyway, eventually I found a luggage trolley and a Bureau de Change. I left the trolley with my pack on three metres from me, as I got some money. Some drunk kid looking real scruffy was hanging around muttering, I thought nothing of it, but as I turned I found to my horror that my bag was gone. The little sod had been blocking my view as his friend nicked it! My bag with all my diaries since January 1999. All those treasured memories and photographs- my entire life for the past two years taken from me. My Camera, minidisc, clothes, two mobile phones, Harry Potter books and documents, all gone. I was distraught. Frantically I ran around the huge station, not knowing which way to turn. After five minutes I was about to give up when I thought, "if I was to steal a bag which way would I go? Of course, straight out of the door and into the streets of Paris, there no one would find me." Once out in the car park I spotted some lad on the other side of the main road lugging it away, tailed by the scruffy sod who'd distracted me. Furious, I ran after them, forgetting my broken bone and determined to recover my property. Approaching him I simply pointed at the bag and said, "Oi, you, hand it over!" Due to it's size he knew he didn't have a chance of outrunning me, and so dropped it on the road. Very satisfied, I took it and gave him a smile to say, Hah! You didn't get it you swine! No one gets one over on me!'

Notre Dame
Parisian street art
A very big thumb

Vouching to never let my bag out of my sight again, I headed for the youth hostel. My victorious mood was soon quenched when rushing down the steps of the Metro I tripped and banged my arm against the wall. This in itself did not look at all spectacular, however my reaction drew quite an audience as I staggered across the platform, swearing loudly and clutching my shoulder as if I'd been shot.

Once I'd paid for my bed, I headed back into town. Resigned to the fact that I was a tourist the Eiffel Tower seemed like an obvious candidate for my attentions. Having only ever seen it on TV before it was a somewhat surreal experience standing under the huge floodlit structure. The romantic atmosphere was only tarnished slightly by some bloke trying to sell me a wind-up plastic pigeon. Once at the top, the view was staggering, that is, when I wasn't too busy hanging on to the railings for dear life as a Force-10 gale attempted to take me on a tour of Paris by night-flight.

By this time I was beginning to fade; it had been a long day filled with enough excitement to last me at least a month. Heading home I came across a Parisian institution that in my view should be a part of every metro system - the roving busker. A guitarist, poet, singer or sometimes a complete Jazz quartet would step onto the train, play a few songs and then get off after a couple of stops. There were also a few times when someone would simply get up and give a speech; although no-one appeared to be listening to what sounded like passionate words from the heart, when the beret was passed around commuters were only too happy to donate a coin or three. What were these magic words that were spoken?

Following two days admiring the architecture of the French capital I headed on to England. In addition to seeing my friends and family I had a little business to sort out and time was limited. Once on board the ferry I began to feel quite sick, nothing to do with the roll of the ocean waves, but instead a fear of stepping foot in the UK once again. As we can see from my diary that afternoon, having got quite used to mainland-European transport systems, I wasn't overly impressed with what I found in my home country.

'Back in the UK alright-

Courtesy bus didn't show up for half-an-hour, no timetables posted either. The oldest train on earth is taking me to London. Well, supposedly. I mean we're stopped in the middle of a field at the moment having been speeding along at about 15mph since we left Dover. There was an announcement when we first got on, "those of you sitting by open windows please shut them as when we go through a tunnel you may get wet." Oh, I see what they mean, we've just gone through a kind of car wash, leaking water main apparently. My God, we're doing over 20mph! At least there's no smoking allowed, probably because the seats are highly flammable- hhhmm, back in the UK alright-I've found a candidate to be thrown off the train. Little miss chatterbox. Tell the world a million and one boring things- sounds like she's been educated by being given a copy of the Daily Mail to read every day for four years.'

Sun over the English Channel...
... en route to visiting the folks

My enthusiasm for train travel that day waned even further as due to 'cracks in the line' we had to be transferred to a fleet of buses. These dropped us off at another mainline station, where a fellow passenger attempted to smash the glass of the ticket counter in a wild fury as we argued with the staff to get free taxis provided. Despite having put so much effort into getting there, I didn't spend too long in England. The welcome given by family and friends was really nice, but I didn't feel at all at home and so within a week I was back at the ferry terminal. A parting gift from the UK was the news that ten minutes before I'd arrived at Dover, all Sea France workers had gone on strike and there would be no sailing. I couldn't believe my luck but fancied a brisk swim in any case.

Twenty-four hours later I arrived at Zoo Station, Berlin, following a comfortable overnight trip through northern France and Belgium. This was the first time I'd ever been to the city where East met West, and it took me a while to warm to the place. I was struck initially by the old monuments that acted as reminders of the war and post war years. I felt it was appropriate that these times were not forgotten, but rather included in the new city that is emerging with an energy and investment the kind of which I have never before seen. Entire districts are being reinvented amidst forests of cranes. These are very exciting times for Berlin, and I look forward to returning in five years to witness it in full bloom. I personally had a great time there, meeting up with a friend of a friend and dancing like crazy at a fantastic live Jazz club. The following evening I was invited out for a beer with a few English lads. Topics of conversation were never in short supply as we debated hip-replacement operations, snakes walking into hospitals complaining of dislocated jaws and 'how big does a piece of paper have to be in order that you can fold it in half more than seven times?' (Our theory was that it would have to reach from planet Earth to the moon).

The following morning I took a train south heading for Munich. I'd been led to believe that somewhere nearby there lived a close friend whom I hadn't seen for over 3 years, and I was very excited about meeting up with her again. However, when I finally managed to get her on the phone she told me that in fact she lived 150km north of where I stood - I'd virtually passed right through her hometown earlier that day! Not knowing quite what to do next I voted to remain in Munich for the night: accommodation wasn't a problem as once outside the railway station a very odd lady, Nita, virtually insisted upon renting out her spare room to me. She seemed so desperate I didn't have the heart to say no. Later that evening I hit the town, fully aware of the cities reputation as one big drinking hole. It wasn't long before I'd found the Hofbrauhaus, perhaps the most famous beer-cavern in Europe, but was soon scared off by the mass of drunken locals that packed the benches. Instead, I opted for the nearby Japanese restaurant where a bowl of delicious noodles and Sapporo beer did a great job of calming my nerves. It was then back to the Hofbrauhaus where I soon settled in and initiated a great friendship between a completely drunk beer-bellied local and a young Italian couple on holiday. It was nearing midnight when I staggered out of there, but, determined to dance the night away I used matchsticks to keep my eyelids open and dived into a local underground club.

The next morning I was so drunk that I missed four trains to Florence, my next destination. I did actually manage to board the third train, but jumped off as it pulled out of the station (to the guards horror) when someone told me that it was heading for Venice - I'd forgotten that I had to change in Milan. The lady behind the information counter knew me quite well by lunchtime, offering to escort me to my carriage when the final train arrived.

Heading through northern Italy I was spellbound by the beautiful countryside. I wrote, 'little hills are topped with perhaps a church tower, or an old red-roofed farmhouse. Tall Poplar-style trees stand erect everywhere. The snow that is gently covering much of the land is gently melting away as we head south in the sun. Many many trees, and seemingly derelict old farm buildings dot the rolling landscape.'

It was nearing midnight when, complete with horrific hangover, I met my Japanese friend Kae at Florence station. I slept surprisingly well that night on a cold kitchen floor belonging to a friend of hers, only too happy to sleep off the effects of the beer. The following day Pisa was our destination. Standing beside the famed 828-year-old leaning tower had a similar effect upon me as standing below the Eiffel Tower - it just didn't seem real. Somehow the enormous fame that it has had robbed it of it's 'realness'. There is currently an operation underway to take 30cm off the five-metre lean that it currently has. A huge mechanical corkscrew is being used to extract clay from underneath the north side - the resulting subsidence should be enough for this bell tower to be classed as 'safe'.

Yoshiko holds it up
A crazy carnival!
Florentine architecture

That evening Soh, Kae, Yoshiko and myself took a local train to Viareggio, a small coastal resort not far from Pisa. There, a carnival was taking place, and as I wrote in my diary, 'I've never been to a carnival before - and this one left me stunned. The floats were huge works of art, reaching to the fourth floor windows of the surrounding villas. All singing all dancing with huge sound systems, incredible moving creatures made from papier-mache or some similar material and loads of humans pulling the strings or dancing. So many people, so many crazy costumes. Silly string and shaving foam all over the place- mad.'

After another day in Florence I journeyed on alone to Rome. I'd heard many fellow travellers hark on about Rome until they ran out of breath, but I'd have to say that out of all the cities in Europe I've visited it's my least favourite. Way too much traffic and more tourists than Kleine Scheidegg! The Roman remains such as the coliseum were very impressive, but the pollution and noise got the better of me. I did almost meet the Pope when in the Citta Del Vaticano (Vatican City). Every week or two he holds a "private audience", and somehow I found myself the other side of security seated in a large hall. At this point I hadn't a clue what was going on - I had no idea whom we were waiting for or why the cameras were there. Because of this, when the stuffy atmosphere induced severe feelings of sickness I left the room. Five minutes later the Pope entered.

As the weekend beckoned, so did Venice. A few hours on the train took Kae (who I'd met halfway) and I from mainland Italy, over a short bridge and onto the collection of 117 islands that make up this watery city that is interconnected by 400 bridges. Until that point, all that I knew about Venezia I had picked up from watching a James Bond film where he's chased through the network of 177 canals by a gang of nasty baddies. Despite the sky-high prices and the pouring rain, I loved the place. It is such an unusual city to find in Europe, and definitely the most impossible to navigate! We spent hours strolling along the narrow alleyways - often to find ourselves right back where we'd started, despite thinking we'd never turned a corner. As I wrote that night, ' I have never been anywhere where one can so safely give up all sense of direction and wander for hours on end in no fear of getting hopelessly lost- it is staggering how the old architecture and layout has been preserved. I love the way the way the buildings front right onto the water- the gondolas that gently ply the canals- the pigeon that shat on my head in Piazza st. Marco!'

But then, disaster struck - I ran out of clean socks. There was only one thing to be done - return to my home in Switzerland to put a wash on. After a night in Milan (very impressive Duomo, being used as a backdrop for a huge rave) and a two-hour moonlit hike up the rack-railway tracks (I'd missed the last train) I was finally able to crash in my own bed. Washing done, and having had a singsong at a camp-fire-in-the-snow-party, I couldn't resist but to continue my adventure. This time it was destination: Istanbul.

I chose Istanbul as until that point all I knew of it was its location; strategically perched on the border of Europe and Asia. Also, the three-day train journey would take me through Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, all countries that for years have intrigued me as one hears so little of them in the news. Passing through Eastern Europe was a somewhat depressing experience. Despite Budapest being considered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, the capitol of Hungary failed to capture my imagination. Perhaps it was the grey sky and my exhaustion from the overnight trek across Austria that served to dampen my spirits, but perhaps, as I wrote in my diary, it was more the standard of living that got to me: 'I really detect a coldness and a tiredness in the eyes and faces of the Budapest people- A little lad, perhaps 10 years old has just sat down beside me and asked me for money for food. There is no shame in asking, it happens everywhere and anywhere. As soon as I stepped from the train I was pounced upon by a whole heard of folks. Taxi drivers, porters, black-market moneychangers etc, they all wanted a piece of the action. I'd say that life is very "raw" here. There is an air of desperation that I have never felt before, an underlying struggle beneath all aspects of life- Budapest - such a strange place. Like a starved ex-communist state struggling to adapt to a new role in Europe. Certainly an experience. Old and new all rolled into one.'

Romanian industry passes at dawn...
...as the train heads on east

I was glad to board my next train that was to take me through Romania. Crossing the border from Hungary we were to experience the first of what seemed like endless searches by border guards of our carriages. It was 2am when the train stopped in a dark station in the middle of nowhere. Looking out of the window all I could see were a few gun-toting soldiers and perhaps six dogs, almost all of which only had three legs. They owed their existence to the passengers on trains such as mine. Whilst waiting for the carriages to be searched people threw scraps of bread from the windows - the unfortunate risk in this game was that occasionally one of the dogs would be looking the wrong way as it scouted the ground around us, caught by a passing goods train it would be lucky to escape with its life, let alone three legs.

This particular pause in our journey lasted some three hours and I completely lost count of the number of times some official or other would pull back my door and mutter something to his colleague. Whenever I sensed a question being asked I simply repeated the word "British" until they tired of the game. In these circumstances I felt like a criminal attempting to escape a country in which I'd been imprisoned. At one point I figured I'd never see home again in any case - it had been well over two hours since I'd reluctantly handed over my passport and other personal documents to some man whom I really didn't want to argue with. After what seemed like forever the train was allowed to move on- for two kilometers before the whole border-crossing affair was repeated, this time with the Romanian officials whom I found to be incredibly polite and courteous.

After the Communist government was overthrown in 1989, the Romanian economy virtually collapsed. Images of hundreds of babies and children packed into disgustingly filthy orphanages were flashed across our television screens. The poverty that we saw was unimaginable - especially considering that this was a European country that we were observing. Twelve years since the fall of the communist government I was now curious as to whether conditions had improved. At first, things looked quite promising. Soon after crossing the border I received a text message on my cell phone informing me that whilst in Romania I simply had to dial 3 digits in order to access my answerphone in England - for free! It's not even that simple in Switzerland (where it also costs an arm and a leg!). However, as the sun rose and the sky changed from deep pink to a rich golden yellow, so the impoverished frozen landscape emerged. Seldom did I see a motor vehicle - the donkey and cart were amongst the most popular methods of getting from A to B. It was not long after 6am when I opened my diary once again and began to write.

'The track upon which we roll is winding its way through a half-cultivated landscape. Narrow strips of land, perhaps 3 meters wide and a couple of hundred long have been ploughed: these frozen patches are broken up by short grey grass that shares the coating of frost. Electricity pylons scar the landscape. Smoke drifts from chimneys of half-built houses. Half-built or half-fallen buildings litter the scene. A little boy with a carrier bag wanders across a vast empty stretch of land - on his way to school?- thank god this train goes so slowly, it feels like we're gonna derail when we change tracks- many old-style wells, buckets on ropes and all- man gets on the train when we stop at a small station, walks down the corridor shouting "Aqua minerale, formula aspirirn" and gets off the other end- just passing through a graveyard for 1001 burnt out trains- extraordinary how many factories are now dilapidated wrecks capable of producing no more than rust- but it's a strangely beautiful picture, this deserted Romanian landscape at dawn.'

Fear for my wallet was at the forefront of my mind as I arrived at Bucherest, the Romanian capital. Perhaps I sound harsh in my writing that day, but I felt as if everyone had his or her eyes on the wealthy foreigner.

'The number of bums, low-lifes and hustlers here is quite extraordainary. All the men wear black leather jackets as in 1980's American soaps- When I got off the train a man approached me offering a taxi, to which I said no. He then offered a hotel room (no), a bus to Istanbul (no) and then told me that I had to buy a compulsory reservation ticket for the train I was to catch (despite the fact that I already had one). His final attempt to rid me of what little money I had left was to offer me a fantastic tour of Bucharest - I passed on that. It's a strange station, very busy but not a train in sight. Members of a bizarre self-styled police force stand in twos at the entrance to each platform. Black nylon hats, black jackets and cheap pressed-foil badges proclaim their power. All they do is check that you are getting on the right train, despite their somewhat daunting appearance- Where will this nation be in fifty years? Will it be able to climb from the hole that its former dictators dug it into so well? It's extraordinary how human beings, all "created equal" can end up with such different opportunities being offered to them.'

Late that day, and following a total of 4 hours at the border checkpoints we rattled into Bulgaria. As the evening wore on so the cold crept further into my room; the carriage doors were not shut and hadn't been since we'd left Bucharest. I never really figured out why but guessed that it was because over the decades the locking mechanisms had become so rusty that they would no longer function. A coal burner situated at one end of each carriage provided what heating there was - I must admit I really had to look twice when I first noticed these as I've never known anything like them before on a train. The ticket inspector doubled as a coalman, pacing the corridor throughout the night to ensure that the fires continued to burn. My little cabin, complete with a big comfortable seat, a short soft bed, a sink with warm running water and a toothbrush holder made me think of an Eastern European style Orient Express. At one point this train must have been the ultimate form of luxury transport, now it was a fantastic relic of the communist era held together by will alone.

Istanbul: Minarets and Mosques
Another child begins his day's work

The changes in the landscape as we entered Turkey were quite dramatic. Bulgaria had passed unseen by night, and I now found myself in a relatively familiar environment. Green fields, modern housing developments and shining steel fences appeared in the morning sun. In a way I was sad to see this having enjoyed the challenge of a foreign environment. However, as soon as we reached Istanbul I put aside all ideas of familiarity - I was lost in this mad place! It took me a good thirty minutes to summon up the mental courage to set foot out of the station in my attempt to find the youth hostel listed in my guide book. It wasn't long before a young man offering me a room in his mother's apartment for US$4.00 per night approached me. Thinking this too good to be true (and having just come from Bucharest) I was reluctant to take up his offer, but upon arriving at the flat found that the Italian wallpaper and lovely wooden floor were as he had described.

There then followed a brief encounter with a 22-year-old man in a suit and tie. He insisted upon giving me a guided tour of the city, telling me he wanted no money just friendship. After two hours he was swearing copiously at me as I said goodbye having only donated US$10.00 for his expert services. It was shortly after this that I embarked upon the most expensive night out of my life so far (click here to learn more). The following morning was taken up with visits to four different police stations, but in the afternoon I decided to take a trip across to the Asian side of the city. Jumping on the first ferry I came across I was fortunate enough to see my first ever school of dolphins in the wild, as they accompanied us upon our twenty minute voyage. The joy that I felt in that moment was immense - what is it about dolphins that puts a smile upon your face?

It is staggering what you can buy on the streets of Istanbul for next to nothing. I spent many hours wandering the streets packed with market stalls savoring the rich atmosphere as men left right and centre cried out advertising the unbeatable bargains that they had to offer. All manner of clothes, food, stationary, hi-tec gadgets, pet animals and everything else under the sun was on offer. Between the sellers sat shoe-shines, and around them ran little children, sometimes busking/ begging with the aid of a small drum. It was at times almost too much to cope with, being the complete opposite to the mountain life that I am more used to. The Grand Bazaar is the hardest test of one's sense of direction to have ever been built. Hundreds of little undercover shops clustered together in a fantastic maze. Without the aid of the sun this beat Venice hands down when it came to getting lost. Although initially I found it difficult to cope with the many sellers that approached me with the usual opening line ("you speak English?"), I soon found that the best way to deal with this was to either ignore them completely or say a few words in Japanese - that really threw them! I actually struck up a friendship with one such hustler. 'The carpetman' who worked in the outlet near my apartment would entice me into his grotto several times a day as I went about my explorations. I humoured him by agreeing to listen to his stories, but always left telling him that despite the beauty of his products I'd only part with 10.00 - THAT night out had had its effect upon me! Another friend I made was a Kurdish chap who worked as a waiter in one of my favourite restaurants. Very human, he was always concerned about my welfare and I'd often stop to chat to listen to his stories of Back Home.

Although Istanbul is famed for its Mosques complete with their incredible minarets (from which the priests wail via loudspeaker every so often in order to call people to prayer), I personally wasn't too fond of them. I found these huge buildings to be lacking in welcome, and once inside somewhat empty and cold. Instead, I preferred to spend my time exploring the back streets where the children would be playing ball games and the housing had more character in its dilapidated state. Time seemed to pass swiftly, and I was more than content to just go with the flow and not join any tourist trail. My final night in Istanbul was just great: I found a really nice restaurant where an English waitress worked. She'd fallen in love with Turkish food and was planning to return to Brighton, England, with her boyfriend in order to set up a traditional Turkish eatery. I was invited to join them for free drinks in the basement bar after she'd finished work. There I spent hours talking to a lovely old chap from Cuba who'd spent much of his life on the open road, it was a great boost to my belief that I can tread the path that I have in my dreams.

Unfortunately, time was running out. My sick leave was almost over and my collarbone was giving me little grief. Not wanting to return to Switzerland the way that I had come, I decided to try to get a boat to Italy via Greece. Following a hellish 10-hour bus ride south, I was told at the major port that there would be no sailings until the following month. I just couldn't believe it - the prospect of another overnight bus ride back to Istanbul was not at all appealing! Completely broke, out came the credit card. Taxi to the local airport, 50-minute flight to Istanbul. Three-hour flight back to Rome, a couple of nights with my friend in Bologna and finally an express train to Kleine Scheidegg, ("start work Monday").

What a fantastic break it had been. I'd often dreamed of going on such a trip, but had never made the time to do so. My skiing accident had given me the perfect excuse to really put into practice my motto to 'Live for the day'. I had had a hell of a lot of fun and just as importantly learnt much more about other cultures and countries than if I had simply stayed in bed and felt sorry for myself. I knew there was a reason for that accident; after all, every cloud has a silver lining.

Upon my return I felt utterly exhausted but immensely happy. That night, having crashed onto my bed I could only write one thing in my diary; 'Boy, I am so lucky'.

Joseph Tame

Spring 2001

Back home with a new collarbone!
My only souvenir: sexy socks
Click here for my European photo albums

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