Day One and Day Two a.m: Monday and Tuesday, 5/16 and 5/17 2011.
It's Tuesday, Day Two of my Eight-Week Europe Adventure, and I'm sitting in Java Detour on 3rd Ave sipping a mocha. No wifi! But at least they have a bathroom. That was the priority. The Starbucks down the way had wifi, but no bathroom. I forgot that the Starbucks in Manhattan are so tiny they barely have room for a table and a bar, let alone a customer bathroom.
The apartment at the Envoy Club where I spent Monday night was unusual but nice. Way too much room for one person. It was a cheap price for a room with kitchenette and dining nook, sitting area, and a bed with a good mattress. It also had plenty of closet space and a desk. The desk would have been a great work area, but I didn't have the energy to do any writing last night. When I closed the blinds and turned off the lights to get into bed, I could still see the glow from the buildings around me. Ah! NYC! The city that never sleeps! Seven years is apparently long enough to forget about the eternal night and the space restrictions of Manhattan Starbucks. But that night it didn't bother me. I fell asleep instantly and slept for an hour before my usual pattern of wakefulness started.
Yesterday, Monday and Day One of my adventure, was stressful. I left my house at 5:00am to catch the Super Shuttle to Denver International Airport. I had planned to schedule myself on the train from Denver to NYC instead, but it would add another day to my already long journey. One more day was one more day too much. I was going to be gone for 8 weeks, traveling by myself, and it would be hard enough to leave home and my husband that long. I would have to expand my carbon footprint a bit more than I had planned to make the trip happen. And the trip had to happen.
When I arrived at DIA that first day, I had two hours to wait before my flight. I got through my first full-body scan without too much trouble, although I thought the TSA employees were laughing at me because I lingered in the scanner, spreadeagled, not knowing when to leave, when the scan was done. The embarrassment was worth getting to travel to Europe to see the early renaissance sites I had planned. After all the hurry-up, rush-rush, my plane was delayed another hour and a half. I dozed at the gate and read Sharon Kay Penham's, When Christ and His Saints Slept, a book thatI had loaded on my kindle to keep me company while traveling. It is a fictional account of the generations after the Norman Conquest, when William the Conqueror's descendants fought to keep both Normandy and England. It was excellent background and a good warm-up for the research I would be doing on the woman who married one of those descendants and become Queen of England.
After I finally boarded the Frontier Airlines jet, the flight to NYC's La Guardia airport was uneventful. I contacted the limousine service as soon as I reached baggage claim, and a car was waiting for me at the curb outside. After a little confusion, the driver dropped me off at the address of the Envoy Club, which looked like a regular mid-century apartment building sitting mid-block on the west side of Manhattan. It was 6:30pm by the time I got settled. I fetched a quick dinner at a deli counter next door, and, after reading a bit, went to bed.
I woke up early this morning, but I knew I could not board the Queen Mary 2 until about 3:00pm. I didn't have a definite plan as to how I would spend the intervening hours, so I lounged in bed until 8:00am. By the time I had done a bit of yoga, showered, dressed, and repacked, it was almost 10:00am. Heck. I was practically a New Yorker!
After a breakfast of an egg-n-cheese bagel at ths same cafe I had dinner at the night before, I strolled up 3rd Avenue toward 46th St, which would take me in the general direction of the New York Cruise Terminal, Pier 92. I figured I'd find a place where I could spread out and write and perhaps get an Internet connection and start uploading pictures and blogs, and connect to my email. I finally settled on the Java Detour, a little coffee shop half way across Manhattan towards the pier, and I began to write.
I felt like a fish out of water when I first arrived last night, but as I spend more time here on the street, talking to New Yorkers, I'm getting back into the groove. I've spent a bunch of time here in the past, often in the pursuit of information and inspiration for my writing. This trip isn't much different. I am not pursuing research on the Broadway scene of days gone by as I have done before (to research the life of a playwright whose biography I would love to finish one day), but I am here to begin a longer journey, a more in-depth journey, into twelfth-century France and Zaragoza, Spain. I feel the same sense of independence, excitement and wonder at my ability to be here, on my own, as I did on those journeys. But this time, it is no holds barred: I am going in a direction I would not have expected even a year ago. Not only am I traveling on my own, which I am loathe to do under normal circumstances, I am cruising on the Queen Mary 2, the luxury liners of all luxury liners, for 7 days across the Atlantic. There will be formal balls and fine dining. There will be spas and hot tubs. Such hedonism for a middle-class country girl from Upstate New York! I have trouble seeing why I deserve such a vacation when my husband is at home building furniture, working full-time, and tending the garden. I have to remind myself that I am also working.
But it is hard not to focus on the non-working bits: I am flying across the United States and the Atlantic, and booking passage on trains and buses and in cars. I will be driving a car in Burgundy, France. Such travel has become anathema to me since I adopted a philosophy of minimizing my impact on the earth. Fortunately, most of my journey will be by train. (I am really looking forward to using my EuroRail Pass in France, Germany, and Spain!) I packed for easy travel on train, bus, and foot by outfitting myself with an Eagle Creek ensemble purchased at Changes in Latitudes in Boulder. It consists of an internal frame backpack with a smaller knapsack that connects to it, either onto the back of the pack or onto it's shoulder straps in front. The latter configuration allows me to balance the packs back-to-front and walk easily for a couple miles if necessary. But I also sent a suitcase full of more summery outfits to my friends in Dresden because there was no way I could carry all that luggage from train stations to hotels throughout France and Spain where I will be traveling.
But how did I get started on this journey? I don't know exactly how it happened. At least, not the details. One day, my husband and I were sitting having dinner with friends on the patio of Sugarbeet, one of our favorite restaurants in Longmont, and I knew. I had had a couple glasses of wine and was high on the delectable sauces and savories prepared by the restaurant's chef, but it suddenly became clear to me: My struggles with my current sf/time travel novel, Saving Eleanor, were growing. Most of the story takes place in medieval France, which was presenting more challenges than previous novels I'd drafted. I didn't have confidence that I could place myself in the scene: in the cold stone castles or rustic villages along the Clain and Boivre Rivers or the battlefields of Zaragoza. I was also unsure of character motivations. I thought, these are intertwined: not only do I need to get into my characters heads, I must do so while getting into the character of the medieval French countryside and the city scape of old Zaragoza. I must go there. And I must do it with minimal impact to the environment.
I know! I would get passage on a transatlantic vessel, maybe a cargo ship! A very romantic idea, but not very practical. Passages on cargo ships are open-ended. Your schedule is completely at the mercy of the captain's schedule. He might decide to linger in a port just to get a good deal on a load of new merchandise. There goes your itinerary! And there was no ship that could drop me on the French coast.
It made much more sense to take the quickest journey across the Atlantic, on the QM2, in seven nights, landing in Southampton, England, and taking the Chunnel to Calais, then onto Paris. It also made more sense for me to fly to NYC to meet the ship rather than train there as I mentioned before. Finally, I allowed myself to do one transverse of the Atlantic by jet: on the way home when I knew I would be very weary after eight weeks abroad. Mother Earth, forgive me! But this was it: this was the one time I would travel to Europe. I was going to get it all done in one go, including visiting friends in Germany, and touring a bit of Italy where my maternal grandmother's family came from by cruise ship. Yeah. I had a plan. Work. Play. Travel. And I was going to be as efficient as hell. We'll see.
Eight weeks abroad! I cannot believe I am doing this. My brother Chris, after hearing my plans, put it in a nutshell: "You are traveling like the lady writers of yore" -- aboard an ocean liner and then by train. Taking the slow way through the world, taking the time to absorb it unlike most people in the twenty-first century. And the fact isn't lost on me, either, that I am, as one of my writing buddies said, "time traveling to twelfth-century France, just like the characters in your book!"
Yep. I am time traveler. A space traveler. A traveler through human experience. Traversing my own mind, its perceptions and conclusions. Creating new experiences. It is the duty of any writer, any seeker. I hope, ultimately, it is worth it to trample a bit on mother earth.
A version of this essay was originally published on electricrider.net as "NYC Moment" on 5/17/2011, while I was enroute on my journey.