Category Archives: Travel

Toilet Tales: Part 9 of 9: A Key to Nowhere

Coming to the end of our journey through the “water closets” of the world that I have, so far, been privileged to explore, we found ourselves in a roadside stopover somewhere in Israel.

This was one of our longest shore excursions, somewhere between 9 ½ and 12 hours – mine and Bill’s memories differ on just where we were on that given day, and my notes aren’t crystal clear on that point either – the downside of seeing so much in such a short span of time on each of our first two days docked in Haifa and our third docked in Ashdod. We covered a tremendous amount of territory those few days – from the Sea of Galilee at our most northern point to Masada on the Dead Sea at our most southern point, and everything between.

Arriving at our roadside stop, my friends and I cued up in two long lines for the women’s restroom while the men’s restroom was virtually empty. The men were able to get in and out in no time at all, but it’s not as easy or as fast for women. Most of the women I know agree that women everywhere should have two full-size restrooms at their disposal for every one the men have, not only lessening the time we must wait but that which men must spend waiting for us, as well. This should be the case in all public spaces where there are lots of people: airport concourses in particular, along with concert venues.

On this day, we were lined up discussing the odds on our tour leaving without us when one of our guides, a male, told the back half of the women’s line, which we were in, that we could use the men’s room and he would stand guard for us. Two at a time in, two out. As long as no men needed to go.

This place was the equivalent of a Stuckey’s-like operation one finds on that interminably long stretch of highway I-70 that runs across Kansas where there is absolutely nothing else to look at for the entire 8 hours it takes to cross the state by car. Unless there’s a tornado. A view of Stuckey’s (though they may have changed hands since last I traveled through Kansas) is preferable to a tornado on the horizon, though it can be pretty boring when that’s all there is to look at. I think anyone who’s had to drive across Kansas would agree.

Anyway, our guide kept watch and sent in a couple of women a little ahead of me as there were no men waiting at that moment. Our line, at last, was beginning to move a bit. I was getting close when another man came up and offered us the use of the separate, and singular, handicapped restroom.

As most of us were leery about going in the men’s room, there were a few also a bit leery of doing this, as well. Doing something we’re not accustomed to doing. Could it be more egregious than using the men’s restroom? So I offered to go first, opening the wide door to the extra space allotted for wheelchairs, crutches, and the like. It was a one-person at a time venue, an entity unto itself, and I was immediately overcome with an impending sense of doom. I considered the possibility this might have been a mistake but managed to push that aside as I’d come this far already, so I locked the door with the key that was already in the lock for just that purpose – to keep others out. I reasoned that, with my usual luck, someone would likely walk in on me if I didn’t, though with Suzanne’s experience on our last trip on my mind, I tried to convince myself everything would be okay.

Her experience would not repeat itself by casting me in the starring role on this occasion. It would be fine. I knew this.

But when I turned the lock back to open the door, it wouldn’t go. My gut reaction was panic. Claustrophobic panic. The door, as many are there, including those on our ship, was floor to ceiling. I wouldn’t even be able to crawl under it. Nope, not even in the realm of the possible. There was no way out, and this room, now quite unexpectedly, did not seem nearly as big as it had when I first walked into it. I pounded on the door and, managing to maintain control of my voice as if nothing at all were troubling me, asked for help. I didn’t even know if anyone was still in line out there.

I couldn’t hear any voices, and my panic began to rise. I pounded again and someone said to do this, or try that – all of which I did. Until, that is, the key broke in my hand. Yes, the metal key, probably as ancient as the country I was in, broke in my hand, my half falling on the floor.

Now I was reaching the point where I couldn’t breathe and wanted desperately to scream, to break down and cry, to get out of this box I was in. They would all be finished by now, grabbing drinks or souvenirs and getting back on the bus. It felt like an hour, maybe even two, had already gone by. I closed my eyes and tried to maintain some modicum of self-control. I could not let this get to me.

Had I been caught on a Candid Camera clip? What a ridiculous scenario to be starring in. I should have been laughing, bowing to the audience. I might have been laughing had I been able to breathe.

Fortunately, someone got an employee to come to the door, and he told me to slide the key under it so he could get it. What? He had to be kidding. I couldn’t even see light under there. Another question crossed my mind – Was this the only key there was?

I was never so glad to hear the sound of someone’s voice, though he was a bit difficult to understand, his heavy accent muffled as it was by the thick door between us. I wasn’t at all sure the key would go under there, there was so little space I couldn’t even see light, but I managed to force it through. Which only meant, of course, that if he failed me, I was without a single sheet of a toilet paper’s shred of hope and on my own, stuck inside.

I wondered how much air was left in here.

Honestly, I am seriously claustrophobic and had to force myself to control the panic that threatened to take over. To inhale deeply, and slowly, to regulate my breathing so as not to hyperventilate. What good would I be to my own rescue if I fell apart now?

The man attempting to help me tried working with what was left of the key I’d slipped under the door. Several long minutes later, the male voice on the other side, assuring me he’d be right back, left to get more help. I never felt so alone in my life. Did they have a crowbar? Would they have to break down the door? Remove its hinges? How long would he be? How long would the others wait for me?

At last my temporary knight in shining armor returned with another key – a whole one that didn’t break when he used it from the outside – freeing me from my restroom prison. I felt a little like Sleeping Beauty whose curse ended with a kiss by a prince. Or Snow White who awakened from her poisoned state when kissed by her prince. But it was my prince who held the key to my kingdom!

I tried to walk out calmly, like a normal person, rather than screaming like a banshee or running toward the light (not that light, though). All I could think was: Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.


Toilet Tales, Pt. 7 & 8 of 9: Never Count on Something Not Happening

Toilet Tales, Pts. 7: Avignon When Nothing Works

We were in Avignon when my friend, Sue, got locked in the handicapped stall in the Pope’s Palace. I’d been waiting for her in an alcove where everyone was taking photos before ascending the stairs to the upper level where Van Gogh had roomed for a time and where he immortalized his stay in his paintings. The room and everything in it had been recaptured down to the smallest detail, and adjacent rooms held a collection of his paintings.

The tour director wanted to move on and told me where to find them when Sue returned. I continued to wait, eagerly listening to the Quiet-Vox with an earpiece that connected me to the group and the guide’s running commentary, hoping they didn’t get too far away to maintain the connection. But Sue failed to reappear – and no one else came out either which seemed odd. The sound on the Quiet-Vox began cutting in and out, and I began losing contact with the group so I went to see if she was okay.

But there was no one there. I called out to her and heard her voice as if emanating from an echo chamber: “I can’t get out. I’m locked In here.” I tried the door from the outside. Nothing. She tried yet again. Still wouldn’t budge. The door is floor to ceiling making it impossible to crawl out from underneath – not that one would want to anyway. But, hey, you do what you have to if there’s no other choice. In this case, there was none, so I said I’d go for help (hoping I’d be able to find someone) when a man walked in.

“Is there a problem?”

“Well, yes.” I said, my friend is locked in there – she can’t get the door to open.”

“Turn it to the right,” he told her. She did again several times but still, nothing. He turned his back to the stall door and faced me, motioning with his right arm and hand, saying “turn it to the right” and looked at me and asked, “this is the right, yes?” His English was passable – better than my French.

“Yes,” I said, though Sue couldn’t have possibly witnessed his demonstration, “that’s her right.” – She’d been turning in both directions unsuccessfully long before he arrived on the scene. She knew full well her left from her right. It seemed so ridiculous and I would have laughed myself sick had there been time for it just then. Finally, he pulled a heavy metal ring with numerous keys from his belt. Next to the keys hung several tools, one of which worked by loosening the lock somehow as one would use a screwdriver. I thought he must have to do this all the time, simultaneously wondering why he didn’t just open it the first time instead of making Sue keep trying when she’d already said, and I confirmed, that she tried those things already.

But Sue was “free at last!” And that’s all that mattered. We rushed up the stairs and found our group In one of the galleries, but could hardly explain what happened, we were laughing so hard. It’s easy to see the humor in something, after the fact, though at the time, our husbands funny bones weren’t working.

I’ve considered getting her one of those mini-tool kits she could carry everywhere she might conceivably go in the world in case another extraction should she find herself in this position again. As long as I’m travelling with her, she can rely on me to be right there with her – just in case.

Toilet Tales, Pt. 8: Vienne Conditions Aren’t Always One’s First Priority

The Mistral is a cold, northerly wind that blows across the Mediterranean coast of France some 200 or so days each year. It is, quite literally, “the dominant wind.” Because it generally blows from North to South, many houses are built with the Mistral in mind, and plants are placed in protective areas for the same reason.

It was blowing cold and wicked when we left the ship and took a brief walk to the bus. Two older women were nearly blown off the pier into the river. That Mistral was brutal. It was only marginally better in the town of Vienne, protected to some degree by the city walls, so when we had to stand in one place for a few minutes, we did our best to position ourselves in pockets providing buffers to the wind. The wind, coupled with the cold, served to excite our bladders as we walked from one point of interest to the next. We had all pretty much reached our thresholds for endurance against the wind and our growing discomfort, when we were given ½ hour of free time before a small train, like one you’d might find at a carnival, arrived to take us to the chapel at the top of a steep hill. So we all headed to the town wall wherein, we were told, there were restrooms we could use with a small café nearby that served hot chocolate.

A nasty stench assailed my nose when I opened the door. The stone floor was littered with debris and toilet paper, both used and unused (disgusting, I know), and a toilet with its seat in the up position even though this was a women’s restroom. The seat, too, was considerably less than spotless. A tiny sink stuffed into a darkened corner offered no soap of any kind. And, you guessed it, no paper towels either. With time at a premium, I had no choice but to disregard the urge to look for someplace else to go.

I could hear Bill and Joe just the other side of the paper-thin wall, complaining about the urinals being stopped up and full of all kinds of garbage – nope, didn’t ask and didn’t want to know. They’d also found that infamous and all too familiar ceramic square in the floor that they would now have to use. By this time I was frantically trying to manage, with fingers essentially beet red and frozen stiff, my jeans, my coat, my sweater, belt, zipper, and the Quiet-Vox audio equipment each of us had dangling around our necks – making sure none of my clothes touched anything in that trash bin of a restroom.

The situation took on the surreal quality of a Saturday Night Live skit, and I started laughing out loud. Sue was standing outside waiting and when she heard me, she started laughing, too. We laughed our way down the block and across he street to the square where we ordered some hot chocolate, sitting close to the radiator to warm up, waiting for our Disneyland-like train to arrive to take us to the chapel at the top of the hill.

If we had to use the restroom before we left the Chapel, it couldn’t be any worse than what we’d just been through. It couldn’t, could it?

Toilet Tales, 4-6 of 9: Expect the Unexpected

Toilet Tales, Pt. 4: Slovenia, Border Checkpoint   Do My Eyes Deceive Me?

Climbing the mountain via steep, tight switchbacks in a Passat we’d rented in Munich, we crossed the border from Austria to Slovenia and stopped for border control at the top where passports and visas would be checked. While we were there, we took advantage of their on-site restrooms as we didn’t know how long it would take us to get to Lake Bled where we had reservations at the Hotel Toplice.

I was told to go to the end of the room and turn left down a hallway where I’d find the ladies room at the end. As I reached the turn I was facing an open door where I noticed a man standing in profile emptying his bladder into a urinal. He looked at me in the same instant I saw him, but nonchalantly continued his business as if this kind of thing happened every day. The door had been left open and I wondered why. Was that conventional here?

Bill assured me that was likely the case. It’s an accepted practice in many places. Compared to many peoples in other parts of the world, Americans are prudish and uptight about everything, but here, and in most parts of Europe, this is a “so what’s all the fuss about” kind of thing. Why not leave the door open in plain view of the office area where what few people, who seemed to cross the border at this junction, came? Everyone does this, and to most, it’s as natural as breathing – and we don’t hyperventilate over breathing in other people’s presence, do we?

Granted, this was quasi-public, sort of, but in Amsterdam they have “pissoirs” on sidewalks in the cities and they come in different forms, the most common is made of metal. If a towel is wrapped around a man’s waist when he goes in there – a towel made of metal, sometimes with cutout designs, sometimes not – anyone walking down the street will see everything but the toweled area. And some pissoirs are wide open and circular. Four individuals, all standing in a circle can take advantage of it at the same time – a public urinal that’s public in every sense of the word. I never saw one of those for women, but I’d have to be absolutely dying before I’d do that on a public street. And the likelihood of my being able to be successful, even if I tried, would be zero, just like at the castle at Heidelberg.

“Checkpoint Charlie” was totally unfazed. I was, well, just beginning to see that things were going to be different from here on out.

Toilet Tales, Pt. 5: Slovenia, Erasmus’ Castle   Balance is Everything

First encounter with a Turkish Toilet…

A couple of days later, we hiked up to the site of Erasmus’ castle, aka Predjama Castle (Predjamski Grad), carved partly out of a high cliff on a mountain of stone in the 12th century. Most of what can be seen today was built outwardly from the stone in the 16th century. On the way up, one finds concessions. They are common here, like they are in the states, but unlike in the states, seem so out of place in this setting.

People selling things to make money off tourists – people are the same everywhere you go. The first person to confront me was a man holding a plate upon which sat a pig’s head. A small one. A piglet. Eyes and all. It was staring at me with its mouth open, its teeth stuck in an apple. A kind of taxidermy at its best. I declined, heading for a restroom I was told I’d find in a little shack – “over there.”

It reminded me of the outhouse of my childhood, but opening the door, I found a ceramic square on the floor and a chain hanging from the ceiling. I presumed, for flushing. No toilet, no seat. It took a bit of figuring out how to approach this task but I managed, albeit with some degree of difficulty. I’ll spare you the details here, but suffice it to say, I don’t know how people manage this without getting into some amount of trouble. You know, with clothes and all. And water gushes out from holes in the porcelain square on the floor when the chain is pulled. The first time you’re caught off guard because you’re not expecting a geyser to erupt, but it does and your gut reaction is to jump up and out of the way. Your second reaction is to catch yourself, somehow, so you don’t slip and, uh, fall onto the square itself.

I never thought I’d be thanking the powers that be for the “normal” toilets we have at home.

Toilet Tales, Pt. 6 Albertville:  All One Can Do is Laugh

Second Encounter with a Turkish Toilet…

Travels, especially those in another country, are replete with strange things you don’t find here. Travel also, I believe, carries with it the responsibility to learn, and with two ceramic squares now to my credit, I have learned some interesting things. The Turkish toilet goes by several names, one of which is the “squat toilet.” I’ll spare you the other names used. You can find them on the internet if you really want to know what they are. And there are several different kinds; the ones I’ve encountered are the “older models,” meaning they are flush (no pun intended) with the floor – they don’t have a raised seat like the toilets we have in the states, and this one didn’t have a “hood” as you will see in pictures. You do not sit; you squat – hence, the name squat toilet.

Laura and I have traveled together in Europe a number of times. One of those being to Albertville in the French Alps, south of Geneva. We took a bus from Lake Annecy, near the small village of Faverges where she lived for a time, and stopped at different towns before arriving there. Albertville is picturesque, quaint, and was the setting for the Winter Olympic games in 1992. We walked through the streets taking everything in, but finding a bathroom became urgent, and Laura suggested we use one in a bar. People do that all the time, she said, and they’re not required to buy anything, either. I was hesitant, but when ya gotta go…so in we went.

We found it, and she went in first. I waited by the sink. Behind the curtain that separated the sink from the room’s reason for being, I found – yes – that infamous ceramic square, aka “The Turkish Toilet” inside what looked like a small, and confining, shower stall with a chain hanging from the ceiling. This little dandy was new to her but not to me. Both were the “older models,” maybe circa 17th century (a wild guess), and this one looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since then either. She’d have to place her feet on the ceramic “pads” on either side and squat, then pull the cord to “flush.” Only the flushing part was like a tidal wave of rushing water when it came. Worse than my geyser had been. That’s when she yelled. It sounded like she’d fallen – and that would have been disastrous indeed.

“What Happened?”

“I slipped,” she said, “and all I could think was, I’m goin’ down!” In an automatic response to impending disaster, she slammed her hands against the walls on either side to keep herself on her feet – testimony to how small an area we’re talking about here. It wasn’t easy, and I grabbed her hand to pull her back up because the entire floor was wet and slippery.

It only took a minute for one of us to break down, and we were soon laughing so hard I could hardly make out what she was saying. “I slipped and almost went down completely,” she said, whereupon we broke out in another round of uncontrollable laughing. She had managed to stay on her feet, thank goodness, but tears of hilarity were streaming down our cheeks.

We knew those walls were paper thin and that those old men sitting on the other side of it could surely hear us and were wondering what we were doing in there – and that seemed even funnier. What if she had fallen? We didn’t have extra clothing she could have changed into. And if she’d fallen at the wrong moment, the water she’d have been soaked with would, well, not have been clean. Would they have even let us back on the bus? This incident, so incongruous, so ridiculous, so incredibly funny when you could stand back and separate it from all its possible consequences, was an absolutely hysterical event.

But only one of so many we have had over the years. Life with Laura – one hysterical event after the other.

We were still trying to get ourselves under control as we walked out of the restroom and, as fast as we could, made our way outside – with every single of those men watching, their eyes trained on us as we walked past them and out the door.

What else can one do in a situation like this, but laugh? Without a sense of humor, we’d all be doomed.

Toilet Tales: Never Count on Something Not Happening

Toilet Tales, Training – Pt. 1 – 3 of 9: Accustomed Usage

I’ve encountered some strange things in my time, but few have made impressions as indelible as those I shall recount here. “Toilet Tales” will be meted out in four parts over the next few weeks, beginning here with “Accustomed Usage.”

The varied world of restroom experiences I’ve encountered begins in the mid-seventies. My comfort zone was rattled, bound as it was by a myopic view of facility-sharing as something only families did, and of public facilities that always entailed being separated by gender.

Call me naïve if you want, but I grew up poor and had never gotten out much before, and on those one or two occasions when my parents took us to visit family in Kentucky or Miami, we slept in the car and “went in the woods” or in tall grass on the side of the road.

In 1975 Dick and I and our children were in one of California’s national parks where, for the comfort of its visitors, the park service provided “port-a-potties,” as they were then known, for use as “comfort facilities.” Glorified outhouses is all they really were, but far better than the kind I’d been accustomed to as a child. But instead of being labeled separately for “Men” and “Women,” they sported the label of “Unisex,” indicating one size now fitting all.

What took some getting used to was standing in a line with men and women waiting to use the same one. It felt like a forbidden zone. Like a misunderstanding of the protocol involved here. And I’ve simply never become fully acclimated to that – my traveling on planes, notwithstanding.

And with regard to plane “facilities,” I am reminded of an interview with Matt Lauer I saw a few years ago where he recounted an incident he’d recently experienced on a plane. The person who’d used the toilet before he did (and Lauer said he did not know who that had been or he would have confronted that person directly) had left urine splashed all over but failed to clean up after him/herself. He didn’t know which, but we all know it could have been either. That’s an experience I’m sure every one of us has had, and probably more than once in all kinds of public restrooms. The interviewer asked Lauer, “What did you do?” “Well,” Lauer admitted, “What could I do?” He cleaned up the mess not just so he could use it, but so whoever came in after him “wouldn’t think I was the one who’d left it that way.”

Been there. Done that.

Toilet Tales, Pt. 2: Tijuana: Hiding In Plain Sight

Bill and I passed through customs and approached the cement walkway, a pedestrian bridge, leading to the town of Tijuana. This bridge was peopled with women sitting cross-legged on the cement. Some had small children; others were leaning against the cement wall in some world of their own. A few had placed colorful blankets in front of them where bits of change had been tossed by tourists. A few men coming from, and others headed toward, the town were urinating along the edges of the walkway in plain view of any and all passersby. It was so commonplace, no one paid them any mind or even seemed to care.

It was much the same when we reached the town itself but more concentrated in the alleys and behind some of the small stores and cafes. The odor that prevailed, however, was unmistakable. If Tijuana (at least at that time) could be described by its smell, it was not the smell of food people were eating at outdoor cafes. It was urine, making it impossible to enjoy eating a nice lunch.

Some years ago, Laura and I spent a week in Playa del Carmen – some 40 miles from Cancun. Playa del Carmen was just getting started in the tourist industry and had only one Hacienda-style hotel – actually, one hotel, period, but it was magnificent. It’s bathroom had a walk-in, sit down, and take a load off your feet kind of shower that was beautiful. And clean. Normal. But the area surrounding the hotel was depressed and reminiscent of Tijuana. We were cautioned not to venture more than two blocks in either direction from the hotel as safety was an issue at this time. The other issue was suspect, involving the quaint souvenir-oriented establishments and “cafes” that elicited the memory, and almost the scent, of urine. The only restroom we used that trip was the one  in our hotel room.

Hence, our initiation to the larger world of restrooms and the habits of those who use them. That initiation reached greater heights – or lows, given your point of view – once we began traveling in Europe.

Toilet Tales, Pt. 3: Heidelberg    There Must Be Some Mistake

It was a bit of a trek getting to the castle on top of the steep hill that overlooked the Neckar River Valley in Germany. Ancient castle, fabulous view. The tour would be a long one, so before we began, we made a pit stop at the restrooms.

The restroom was quite large and modernized enough to make it more acceptable to visitors. It was one of the few places that took the enormity of the visiting crowds into consideration. Walking in through an ancient set of immense wooden doors, I entered this bare-bones room with numerous individual stalls lined up along the walls on either side and was heading for one when I heard a voice yell “Kommt Sie hier!” (Come here!) The voice was quite gruff, almost scary in a way, and turning in its direction, I saw a small booth with a glass window, like that you’d find at the movie theater. Behind the glass was a man, sitting there, pointing at me. With his arm extended, he motioned toward the booth.

I was stunned. Hadn’t the sign said “Damen”? Now I wasn’t sure. What was a man doing sitting in the middle of the restroom? I must have walked into the one marked “Herren” by mistake! I uttered an embarrassed “Entschuldigen Sie, Bitte!” (I’m sorry) and turned to get out the door as fast as I could, but he yelled after me, “Nein! Kommt Sie zuruck!” (No, Come back here) so bruskly, I wondered what German handcuffs were going to feel like on my wrists. He was sitting where, were I in the right place, I’d expect a woman to hand me a hot towel. But this man wanted money – in return for which he would unlock a stall door of his choosing for me to use.

I wondered if the men’s room had a woman performing that same function, but Bill said no,  which made the whole thing even worse in some perverted kind of way.

The Problem? In this instance the doors did not go from ceiling to floor. He could see my feet; he could watch me. I was so unmoored by then, I couldn’t even go.

Cinderfella and the Leather Slippers

Bill is very particular about the slippers he wears, and he wears them religiously, especially when we are traveling – dirty floors and carpets full of germs and all that. And never, ever, would he allow someone else to wear them. That would be tantamount to asking rain not to fall. Bill can be so Howard Hughes-ian at times, I could swear he’s at least a distant relative. Even I had better think twice about putting his slippers on and flopping around the house in them, as I’m wont to do at times.

Soooo, when he stepped into the shower after a week filled with sight-seeing and morning to evening side-trips in southern France, he was so exhausted he didn’t realize for the first couple of minutes that he’d done so without removing his leather slippers – the ones with the shearing wool lining. The only kind worthy of adorning his feet. By then, it was too late. They were soaked inside and out. Needless to say, when reality set in a split second later, I couldn’t keep from laughing. I mean, really, how could you not see the humor in it.

Mr. Bill, nit-picky in the extreme about certain aspects of daily life, stepping into the shower with expensive slippers like that – talk about a Priceless Moment! And it wasn’t as if we could go shopping for another pair just like them right then, either. Pretty exhausted by this time myself, I was unable to maintain my composure, and the staid, reserved manner I would normally turn on for a situation like this just wasn’t working for me. It was just too much. The slippers were soaked clear through and squished with the least hint of pressure. Sopping wet – what can I say? I couldn’t help myself.

I left Bill stuffing his slippers with dry washcloths and met Mary Jane and Joe for breakfast that morning, relaying the details of this calamity, engendering another raucous round of laughter as Bill arrived at the table. I’m sure the other diners were wondering what on earth we found that hilarious at such an early hour.

Before we left for the day, Bill was uncharacteristically calm. So calm I couldn’t be sure he wasn’t channeling some stranger. A monk in a secluded mountain-top retreat or Buddhist guru bent on serious meditation perhaps – peaceful men who use words sparingly (or in the monk’s case, not at all). Asking me if I thought a hair dryer might help – I said it couldn’t hurt – Bill un-stuffed the moccasin look-alikes, removing the soaked washcloths, and pointed the hair dryer down their throats.

I hadn’t told him I didn’t think the hair dryer idea would actually work, but it became a moot point anyway as, after a few minutes on high heat, the hair dryer died. Its wire had burned through. Obviously, one non-industrial strength hair drier was not able to manage a big job like this. There was nothing else we could do right then as we were momentarily leaving for the villages of Beaune and Cluny. So Bill re-stuffed the slippers with dry washcloths and placed them in front of the sliding glass door to catch the heat from the sun in the hope that would facilitate the drying process.

Shortly afterward, we boarded a bus to visit some wineries – we could have used a big glass of wine at that moment  – and to soak up the local history on an all-day tour. On the way Joe, reading a copy of the ship’s newspaper, turned to me pointing to a story about Jerry Brown (then governor of California) and his proposal to impose new restrictions on Californians, which Brown deemed necessary due to the drought. He rattled off what they were and said there was one in particular that he thought would interest Bill. It was the one banning individuals from stepping into showers wearing their slippers because they soak up too much water. Too much water, a valuable resource currently in short supply, was being wasted on slippers in need of a washing.

You know how it is when something is set in motion (Newton’s law and all that) – once I started laughing, I couldn’t stop. Tears were streaming down my cheeks and Mary Jane and Joe were also making the most of this moment of levity. When I turned to see how Bill was handling being the brunt of the joke, I found him laughing, too. People were looking at us liked we’d lost our minds, but we didn’t care. We were enjoying the moment we were in to the fullest. Too many people don’t, and look at all the fun they miss.

The real test would come this evening, though, when Bill’s slippers, hopefully, would be dry. Would Cinderfella’s soaked slippers still fit?

Just Another Bitch on the Bus

When students came to my classes on the first day of the semester, they were not assigned seats, and over the years, I had ample opportunity to observe them as they filtered into the room looking for familiar faces and sat with other students they knew. Some sat apart from the others until they latched on to someone with whom they shared something in common. For the first week they tended to sit in those same seats they sat in on the first day, tacitly claiming them as “theirs.” Pretty much all the students followed suit in that same implicit way.

By week two, it was less likely that anyone was going to move into ”someone else’s” seat, even when that person didn’t show up for class.

By week three, you couldn’t pry students from their unassigned seats with a crowbar.

I was reminded of my former students three years ago when Bill and I went overseas with our good friends, Joe and Mary Jane. We traveled part of the time on a bus going from place to place, and it occurred to me that bus riders behaved the same way. Even when they were stuck in seats they didn’t particularly like, they were loathe to encroach on what they perceived as another person’s territory.

Most of the time, but not always.

To ensure you’d get your proper seat back upon returning to the bus, individuals used water bottles, sweaters, town maps, anything they had handy to mark their territory – unlike other creatures of the natural world that use urine for that same purpose.

If you’ve ever watched sheep in the fields, you know they take their cue from the sheep in the lead. The first one to turn in any direction is followed by one, then another, until the whole flock is moving in the same direction. Cartoons depict actions like this as groups of animated characters blindly following their leader across a cliff, but this happens in real life, too. Remember Jim Jones, Charles Manson, Hitler, any number of leaders of religious cults?

Students coming to class the first week or two.

Our last stop of the day before returning to the riverboat was an ancient village some distance from the river where we were docked. After our tour, we had free time to roam around on our own, then wend our way back to the bus on the edge of town for our return. Bill and I arrived before Joe and Mary Jane and attempted to save the seats they’d sat in all day and which were across the aisle from ours. As there were no assigned seats, seats were technically up for grabs any time we disembarked and returned, though our guide said we could leave our things on the seats because the bus would be locked. Like the students in my class, everyone tended to return to the same seats each time they got back on the bus. If there was a mistake made regarding possession, the person who’d had the seat previously got it back.

It was going to be a long return trip to the riverboat, and we tried to save our friends’ seats, putting our jackets on them. When a couple of interlopers tried to sit in the seats we laid claim to, Bill said in a friendly way that they were taken, as the woman had never even asked. Responding to Bill’s attempt to save the seats with a venomous tone Bill generally does not take well from anyone, the wife became demanding, insistent, and rude. Her docile husband never opened his mouth. We’d seen these people off and on all week long; they were always on their own and seemed not to have made friends with anyone. Frankly, it was not difficult to imagine why.

I was amazed Bill didn’t tell her off – or rather, shove her off the bus. Bill’s request to save those seats for our friends, who would have to move several seats away, was met with pure disdain. However, Bill proved to be a model of self-restraint, the likes of which are rarely seen. When we told our traveling companions what happened, Mary Jane’s only comment was “Just another bitch on the bus.”

Classic Mary Jane: honest and direct. Funny, too – she’s knows how to lighten up a moment and deaden a fuse.

Like Nathaniel Benchley once said, most people are sheep. They do what everyone else does and they are not amenable to, or perhaps leery of, change of any kind. But occasionally you’ll run across that “bitch on the bus” and best to tread with care when you do.

Everything and Nothing

While en route home from a three-week vacation trip, it seems I left one of my notebooks on the plane stuffed into the seat pocket of the person in front of me. Tight quarters being what they are these days, I’m surprised I didn’t notice, given the 8 ½ x 11 notepad stuck out at the top. My reading glasses, pen, and book were also there, so I’m at a total loss as to explain how I could have left that notebook behind. I would rather have left an arm behind than that notebook.

I had written two blogs and had a solid start on an essay on those pages. I’m sick to my stomach just thinking about it, in tears even. Every single writer reading these words knows exactly how I feel.

In the larger scheme of things, this is nothing, really. Yet in this particular moment it is everything. Everything and nothing at the same time.

And I have to say that it’s all right to over-react, an accusation some might like to make. Not everything has to be compared to the worst thing that might have happened. Not everything, regardless how small, has to be minimized either. Not every smaller event or setback can compare in importance to the larger things in life, but that doesn’t mean littler things don’t count in one moment in time or another. They weigh in differently, but that doesn’t mean they don’t count. Especially if they have a space of some significance in one’s life, however momentary that might be or how irrelevant to someone else.

Life isn’t all or nothing. It’s made up of loads of both big and little things. If a truly big thing had happened, I would be devastated. And no, I’m not devastated, but it is a blow to have lost those words, those thoughts, and the direction they were pointing me in at that specific moment. Moments like that don’t always arrive on time and sometimes not at all,  and the thing is, I don’t recall where they were taking me. Where they had brought me. So much information was processed between my having written them and my searching for them now. I wrote them down and put them away for later digestion. I thought they were safe.

But my brain was on overload the entire time we were gone. We were in Greece, in Israel, in Naples, Pompeii, and Rome. Cities of Antiquity, the Holy Land. There was so much to see and do. So much information to absorb. So many cobblestones to negotiate and cross.

So that which I wrote along the way was set aside as new things were being processed. I wasn’t worried about it. I’d get back to it, polish it off, and send it out when I got home.

Only it wasn’t there when I got home, was it.

I have turned the house and the car inside out three or four times, but I’m going to have to stop now so I can move forward again. Whether it’s writing about something or doing something, there comes a point when we have to move on. Do something else. Let go.

Obviously, I’ve had a bit of trouble letting go. I was hopeful I could write this and get it out of my system by doing so. If you could see how red my fingers are from holding on so tightly, how precious little tension has been assuaged by searching the same places over and over again, how stress lines have formed on my forehead as I sit here going over the possibilities and looking for new places to search, places where I still might find the notebook that’s surely waiting to be rescued.

Letting go? You can see how well that’s worked out.