I am in a frenzy right now, between planning this "book research tour" (my code for "How to turn a vacation into a potential tax write-off"), trying to stay motivated and keep client projects moving forward (and not doing such a hot job of this), and mentally wrapping my brain around the prospects of seeing French Guy this weekend (the when and where still TBD, as is the answer to "Will there be a spark?"). There is a lot on my assiette, to be sure.
My Eurail pass and information kit (including brochure, map and timetable) arrived yesterday morning, dutifully expressed from the U.S. in record time, courtesy DHL - the same people who allegedly LOST a letter I overnighted from Paris to New Jersey last month for 48 euros (which La Poste has since refunded). So apparently they do get it right some of the time.
Last night, I spent hours up until around 2am finalizing my entire train itinerary so that I could go in person today and make the required seat reservations for the four TGV segments I will be doing during the tour. I may need seat reservations in other countries as well (for which, by the way, I pay an additional supplement on top of what I already shelled out for the Eurail pass). You cannot make these reservations using the usual SNCF web site because they have not made accomodations for Eurail pass customers; nor, apparently, have any of the other train carriers in Switzerland, Italy, Austria or Germany.
Which has forced me, while planning each leg of the journey, to pay close attention to what TYPE of train I will be taking. The on-line timetables (much more complete than the printed Eurail version which does not include small-town local railway schedules) tell you what type of train you're taking, and the trick is to find the ones that you can just walk onto with your Eurail pass with no reservation required. It's not always possible, and the other trains are slower and take longer, but that's actually part of what this trip is about for me... the journey, not the destination. If it were about destinations only, I'd be seeing fewer places for longer stretches of time. But this is about walking in someone else's footsteps from 50 years ago and comparing how it was then to how it is now.
As I was standing in a very long line at Gare du Nord late this afternoon, to make my seat reservations, I thought about how different this trip is already, even while in the planning stages, from the way my grandparents probably planned theirs in 1956. For one thing, they didn't have the speed and convenience of the Internet. I was able to decide to take this trip on Monday, plan a rough itinerary and book the Eurail Pass on Tuesday, finalize train schedules on Wednesday, receive my Eurail Pass and check into the Swiss PostBus on Thursday, and research and book hotels in Geneva, Milan and Strasbourg on Friday (that leaves Venice, Salzburg and Munich to go), all due to 2007 technology.
Yes, I still had to go all the way across town to the train station in person and stand in line with people who were frantically trying to get tickets to travel today. But even that was made amazingly easy, once I got to my English-spoken-here guichet, because I had already looked up the precise train times and numbers for each segment on-line, speeding the process for the lovely girl behind the glass window.
Speaking of this girl, I couldn't believe that I got probably the one SNCF employee in all of Paris who was not only cordial to me, but who also went out of her way to offer me something extra: apparently they are equipped to book hotel reservations at a discount with several major French hotel chains, for any of the French destination cities. She got me what I thought was a fairly decent rate of 180 Euros for the two nights I'll be in Strasbourg, at a Mercure hotel right near to the train station, and in about 3 minutes she saved me at least an hour in researching accommodations in that city. Maybe she gets a commission for up-selling me but frankly, she earned it. It's possible I could have gotten something cheaper by doing the legwork myself but you know what? I'm doing this entire trip on the cheap and if 90 Euros/night is the most I have to spend, well it's the last two nights and I think I can splurge a bit.
Using the Internet, I found a women-only hostel in Geneva, where I can get a single room to myself in a great location in the old city, just blocks from the Lac and with WiFi access (!) for the equivalent of $35 USD/night (right now, Switzerland is apparently the ONLY place in Europe where the American dollar is doing OK, a total reversal from 20 years ago when I was there and spent a small fortune). The hostel has a web-site, and although I'm still waiting for a confirmation that I do have a reservation (I have a plan B), how great is it that you can just go online and zippety-zip, you can see photos of rooms, testimonials from past customers, and find out all about the amenities.
Same thing with Milano... I googled "hotels Milano" and found a site that lists gazillions of them, and you can sort by price, check out each location with testimonials and rankings of each hotel on factors such as cleanliness, quietness, congeniality of the staff, and more. I found a place for 55 Euros/night with a single room with AIR CONDITIONING and breakfast included, located near a large park halfway between the train station and the Duomo. What a deal, and Milano is the second most expensive city in Italy, just after Venice.
Although I don't know for certain, I would hazard a guess that in 1956, my grandparents probably took no less than three months to plan and organize their trip. They probably started by going to the local travel agent and requesting all kinds of brochures and tour guidebooks. Then they probably spent weeks pouring over the information, trying to decide where they wanted to go, how much things were likely to cost (including the cruise home from Southampton to New York), and where they had to cut corners or forego certain cities because there simply wouldn't be time. They worked -- my grandfather was a minister of a church in their town, and my grandmother probably may have been working outside the home by that time since her kids were grown and out of the house by then -- so it's not like planning that trip could be a full-time affair. I imagine them with brochures spread out on the dining room table, talking over whether they should stay two nights or three in London, and wouldn't it have been nice if they could have managed to fit in Amsterdam (since my grandfather was of Dutch decent and was minister of a Dutch Reformed Presbyterian Church).
I fully expect to have all the reservations made and the major details ironed out by next Tuesday if not sooner. After that, I'll be thinking more along the lines of what to see and do in each place -- the FUN part of travel planning! Some of that I've already worked out, such as a side trip to Dachau and King Ludwig's castle while in Munich, and deciding to skip Innsbruck after remembering my family basically just stayed there overnight but didn't bother seeing much, which saves me another travel day to use at a later date and gives me a third night in VENICE (which wasn't on my family's 1956 agenda but I had no intention of passing through northern Italy for the first time without seeing Venice. At the rate it's sinking, who knows if I'll ever get another chance!)
Sure, I'll be using printed guidebooks for some of my planning -- that's how I found the hostel in Geneva -- but I'll also be Googling things and making liberal use of Google Maps to figure out where things are in relation to where I'm staying.
The Internet is giving me the ability to do in just two weeks what it took my family MONTHS to accomplish, circa 1956. That, already, is the biggest difference I am seeing between then and now. And this book is about discovering differences and similarities between the experiences of two women in the same family, two generations and 50 years apart.
The second biggest difference is what things cost in 1956:
- Tickets to the top of the Eiffel Tower for three people cost $3.75 and tickets to Versailles were $3.30 - about 1,000 French francs in those days!
- They had dinner for three for $6.75 at their hotel ("Le Windsor") which wasn't far from the Champs Elysées.
- Hotel in Metz for 3, with breakfast included: $7.00
- Dinner, hotel and breakfast for 3 in Zurich: $14.00
- Getting a complete brake job on French rental car after brakes failed on the downhill side of the Swiss Alps heading into Italy: about $40-50
- London hotel for 3 with breakfast: $3.50 per night
- Full roast beef dinner with all the trimmings in a little English village: $1.75 for three.
Getting an entire 2 1/2 week tour of Europe at those rates? PRICELESS. Clearly, their post-war greenbacks went a lot farther then for three people, and I will be paying more now for just l'il ole me. Much, much more. Painfully much. But I don't care.
Now that some of the details are finally falling into place, it's becoming more real to me. Forgive the shouting, but I AM FINALLY GOING ON THIS TRIP! Just as it was some 11 months ago when I found out I had a very real opportunity to finally live in Paris and consequently decided to act on it, I feel like I am now accomplishing a rather significant milestone in my life by doing this trip, entirely solo (to be followed by writing this book) -- just me and whatever experiences are out there to be had and shared, with just my laptop for company en route.
This is the life I have always wanted to live. This is the woman I have always wanted to be.