Sunday, August 26, 2007

Reminiscing.....(Part 3)

“I’m not sure about choosing Europe – it is expensive and it seems only older people like to travel to Europe…” I mumbled to myself as I was flipping through some travel brochures and pamphlets.

“Nonsense, Alice. Young English people love to travel through Europe with their knapsacks. If you decide to take a long vacation, there’s no place better,” came my boss’s kindly rebuff. “I’m sure you’ll love it. Besides, it will take your mind off things for a while,” he gently coaxed me.

The sadness and loneliness that had taken me hostage for months before making this travel decision was just overwhelming. I felt that if I didn’t take a break then, I would just collapse under the weight of depression. My mother, after struggling hopelessly for six months to fight lung cancer, had passed away the previous fall. At the time, it was the beginning of summer and the idea of an escapade to Europe was just so tempting.

The next day I made all the necessary bookings and by mid-July, I was all set to go.

The first stop was London. Oh, London, the snobbish city with its snobbish taxi-drivers! My first impression of the city had already been tarnished at the Gatwick airport immigration checkpoint before I had the chance to experience the rudeness of London taxi-drivers. I was quite put off by the immigration officer's racist attitude when he "interrogated" me (I can’t remember the details) for 15 minutes! That bad experience may well be the reason why I haven’t been to the place again for more than 30 years!

The two days that I spent in this proud city were used on the Tower of London, museums, bookstores, parks, department stores and candy shops. The only thing that impressed me was the sumptuous breakfast tastefully served at the hotel (can’t remember the hotel name now). But even that was spoiled by stone-faced waiters who had eyebrows on their foreheads.

On Day 3, I boarded the cross-channel ferry bound for Calais, France, with a tour group of about twenty people, most of who came from England and Scotland. From Calais, we were to tour four countries by coach: Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and France.

As there were only three young people (including me) in the group, David, a Scot who ran his family business in Cumbria, M (I can’t remember his name), a Pakistani accountant, and I quickly became acquainted with each other. Throughout the rest of the journey, the three of us always stuck together in our ventures. We chatted, sang, joked and played together – none of us had a moment of dullness ever since we met.

One of the earlier stops was made at Rudesheim, Germany. One evening, the three of us left the group after dinner and sneaked out to a bar strip that was near the River Rhine. It was filled with young people hanging out and making merry and the place oozed with vivacity. The image of us sitting on the patio of a bar by the moonlit river, caressed by a gentle fragrant breeze while having ice cold white wine and lemon sherbet, has never left my memory.

The trip continued smoothly until we got to Interlaken, Switzerland, where I had my first dose of bad luck. One day, as we sat in front of the calm rippleless lake that mirrored an azure sky and told each other ghost stories, M suggested that we race each other to a big tree about 50 yards from where we were sitting. This we did and I ended up last, breathless, and the two young men started poking fun at me. After that, we took a long walk in the woods around the lake until dinner time.

By the time we headed back to the hotel that evening, I was dead tired. As I was packing up stuff for the excursion to the Jungfrau mountain planned for the next day, I discovered to my aghast that I had lost my purse containing all the cash that I was carrying! That cash was meant to pay for the excursion. Although I still had a traveller’s cheque with me, that was supposed to pay for my expenses during my intended one-week stay in Paris, which was the last stop of this trip. How could I be so careless - I must have dropped the purse while I was running in that race! But it didn’t help to feel guilty now – I had to face the music. There was no other choice but to withdraw from the excursion.

When I announced the bad news to my two friends the next morning, they tried to console me and offered to search the coach seats for my purse, which search, as expected, resulted in nothing. I was nevertheless grateful for their gesture. David even offered to pay the excursion for me, but I told him that I couldn’t accept his money. I decided to stay behind and explore the town on my own that day.

On the 12th day, we arrived at Paris, the city of my dreams. I had booked a bed-and-breakfast room in Saint Germain for a week, as I planned to leave the tour group at this last stop and continue my stay in Paris. After two days of venturing around famous landmarks and enjoying sidewalk café espresso, I said goodbye to David, M and the tour group.

Two days after the farewell, the second mishap descended on me. This time, I was conned by a tourist photographer at the plaza outside Louvre museum. Now in hindsight, I was probably a targeted prey as I was wandering about all alone and looking quite gullible. The con man came up to me and asked if I would like a photo taken. I was naïve enough to think that it would probably not cost too much to have a photo taken and so I agreed. After he had taken the photo of me, he produced a set of five prints and asked me to pay a total of 50 francs. It was a lot of money (my b&b room only cost me 25 francs a night)! I had never asked for five prints! What a jerk! Mad though I was, I dared not refuse to pay. And my French wasn’t fluent enough to argue with him!

My memory of Paris has been discolored by the years like a faded photograph. But my stay was not spoiled by that little episode. The lovely tree-lined Seine river and its tranquil ambience, the glass boats, the quiet winding cobblestone streets, the ornate churches, the chic boutiques, the quaint patisseries, the morning strollers carrying their baguettes, the lonesome youth in the park who engaged me in casual conversation in a lazy afternoon, the loquacious old man who talked incessantly about politics which I didn’t understand, the warm smile on the face of the kind lady who served me breakfast at the guest house, the self-absorbed painters on Montmartre……

My trip to Europe would have meant nothing to me in all these years without my vivid memories of the places, the people, the trivialities and the interaction between myself and the people I met. Those images, although long buried under the tide of my subsequent years of living, will always occupy a special niche in my heart.

That thought brings me back to the reality in Hong Kong. The authorities can do all they want to demolish buildings, piers, markets, neighborhoods and even livelihoods in Hong Kong. But thank god they can neither touch our memories nor the sentiments these memories invoke, be they memories of her historic places, graceful architectures, people or happenings. Memories are the inviolable private property of those who care to remember. Our present and our future are built on our past.

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