(Yes! Still another in a series of rambling, but numbered pensees while I’m on the road)
11) Decades ago, every time my boyfriend/now husband and I passed a phone booth, we’d check to see if someone had left any nickels, dimes or quarters in the change slot. We struck pay dirt often enough to keep coming back. At some point, I recall wondering when we would ever get too old and proper to scrounge around so shamelessly; when would we ever pass a phone booth without giving in to that sense of longing that a little unearned silver might be ours?
Well, you know how it goes. Time passed and so did the phone booths, and besides, we got too lazy to be motivated by the prospect of pocket change.
Still, I’m convinced, you never completely change your old, grasping ways. Every time we stay in a hotel — no matter how big a dump it is — my husband cannot bear to miss a free breakfast. He will bolt out of bed in the morning, electrified by the prospect of something free, even if it is a wilted smorgasbord of dry cereal, moldy fruit and canned orange juice distinguished by a glowing, hallucinogenic yellow sheen. Oh, and weak coffee with powdered creamer. (If you wanted to wake yourself up with coffee like this, it would be best to splash it in your face and keep it away from your gullet.)
“Hurry up!” He’ll hiss to me, pointing to the clock. “My God! We’ve only got five more minutes!”
This is an offer I invariably refuse; if they were giving away Cartier watches in the brunch room, I might consider depriving myself of my last, valuable fragments of sleep. But breakfast? To my mind, breakfast is an odious way to start the day.
And, I should add, my husband usually comes back from these freebies and wakes me up again to grouse about how the food tasted like lukewarm swill, somebody’s kids were whining and why, oh, why was everybody in the breakfast room so damned fat?
But I’m not immune to this whole freebie worship myself. Every time my husband and I stay in a decent hotel, I am, for some reason, charmed by all the little bottles of skin lotion, conditioner, and shampoo, along with all the free soaps. I happily ferret them away in my luggage, thrilled.
That’s why — when I’m returning from a trip — half my overnight case is crammed with dirty clothes, the other half with little plastic bottles. They might only be worth pay-telephone change, but I’ve convinced myself I’ve scored big in the swag department.
12) The sun is going down in Prague. My husband and I are sitting on the balcony of a restaurant enjoying the cool breezes and chilled wine. In the distance, you can see a castle towering across the river — so perfect and picturesque it almost doesn’t look real.
I love Europe in the summer, even when it’s hot; everyone stays outside to enjoy the long, mild evenings. Their mood is almost always celebratory that time of year. Who knows how long summer will last?
Behind me, my husband reports, are a middleaged mother and daughter who must be in her twenties. They’re from California, they told the waiter earlier. The mother is wearing a scarf over her head, my husband whispers. Clearly, she’s been going through chemo. Maybe they have come to Prague to escape from all that.
All of which causes our own conversation to drift in another direction. In the years we’ve been together, my husband and I have traveled to some exotic places like Japan and Albania and New Zealand. We’ve also taken scores of more mundane road trips in the U.S. — our Pacific Northwest jaunt, our Midwest beer-tasting swing, our Texas-Mexico border sojourn, the trip to Maine where we stayed in a land-bound boat and ate lobster twice a day.
More mundane — but for some reason I can’t quite articulate — just a little more wonderful. Because it’s the most American of pastimes — the long, chaotic road trip, with its open spaces, fast speeds, grand horizons, and down-home food — and we’re both, like it or not, deeply American in our own stubborn way? Because we never feel quite as free and comfortable as when we’re in a car and the music is blasting?
“If we just had one more trip to take,” I tell my husband, “I’d want it to be another road trip in the U.S.”
“Me, too,” he says.
13) At the beginning of any trip, I’m conscious of pickpockets and thieves who are doubtlessly ogling my purse and small overnight case. I guard everything with the wariness of an attack dog.
As the time passes, and I go from hotel room to hotel room, place to place, train to train, a certain weariness sets in. I realize I’m schlepping clothes I’ve worn so often that I’m sick of them, mottled hotel receipts I’ll never look at again, pure detritus that clings to me like a week-old sunburn.
This is the point that the trip needs to be over: When I begin to glare at my shabby overnight case that’s bursting with clothes I never want to see again till they’re fumigated and the only thing I can think is, God, I wish somebody would steal this shit. The Euro and the European economy may be tanking but no one, it seems, is quite that desperate.
(Copyright 2012 by Ruth Pennebaker)