Fairy tale one: Escape from hospital
Yes, Geoff passed his stress test, following his heart attack, with flying colours. First stop, a Dutch beach to relish the freedom of open air and water—the stuff of dreams when confined to a hospital bed. (See previous letter for Geoff's review of the Kennemer Gasthuis, aka hospital.) The doctors gave Geoff the go-ahead to continue with his travels after a week or two of rest. So, after deciding to leave half our luggage with our good friends Rosmarie and Rinze Marten in lovely Haarlem, and making an appointment for a check up with the cardiologist on our return, we set off to “do Europe” on a Eurail pass.
Fairy tale two: Waving flags at the Tour de France
After years of drooling over the scenery in the SBS coverage of the Tour de France, there we are waving our home-made flags 250 m from the finish line. This required good planning and positioning. First, we booked a hotel in Angers well ahead of time. This is in striking distance of Nantes, the end of stage two. Only after we arrived did we realise how lovely Angers is, the home of the House of Plantagenet and Margaret of Anjou (Queen consort of Henry VI). Second, we claimed our spot at the side of the road four hours ahead and were well entertained and fed by companies flinging at us free samples of everything from sausages to washing detergent. Geoff is particularly fond of the Škoda Tour de France hat he obtained this way. Finally, a rush of speeding cyclists and it was all over. Long-distance mobile phone coverage commentary from Geoff's brother Robert glued to the television in Melbourne helped.
Waiting for the big moment
Fairy tale three: Opera in a Roman arena
OK, so Bizet’s Carmen is an opera rather than a fairy tale, but sitting in a two-century-old Roman arena in Verona felt like being in a fairy tale. Chris's birdwatching binoculars came in handy to see the action on the stage way down there. (We didn't have the most expensive seats so were up in the stars with the plebs.) There were literally hundreds of performers on the stage along with horses pulling carts and carriages. Spectacular! Our hosts, Caterina and Vito and their dog Zaza, plied us with pasta and pizza in Verona and generally made us very welcome, Italian style. Caterina is in our good books for being a rare international friend who actually likes, no, loves Vegemite.
Fairy tale four: Hansel and Gretel
We actually went to Vienna so Geoff could eat cakes, which we duly did in a cafe at the imperial palace—apple strudel, in Geoff's case, and strawberries contained in a cone of dark chocolate for Chris. That was the main course. Dessert was fulfilling Chris's dream of seeing the Spanish Riding School mares and foals frolic as we were educated about their history, lineage and lifestyle. Yes, the foals are dark but turn grey as they mature. But the real fairy tale was stumbling on the Lainzer Tiergarten in the Vienna Woods. It was a dull day and after hours of walking through dark, damp woods, spotting black woodpeckers and wild swine as we went, we knew how Hansel and Gretel felt when a Viennese restaurant appeared in the middle of the woods, which served us the best Wiener schnitzel and roast venison we have come across.
Mare and foal at the Spanish Riding School
Fairy tale five: More a miracle
Now that we are putting our heads down to do some work in Geneva, you would think the fairy tales would recede. But not quite yet. We are staying at Le Cénacle, a once Catholic convent, set in magnificent gardens in the heart of Geneva. It's quiet and gracious enough for a red squirrel to live in the old trees surrounding us here. Not your usual hotel, it hosts American students and newcomers to Geneva finding their feet while they find somewhere to live. A lovely place to set up our laptops and dust off our skills. Geoff is busy formatting the Bible studies and workbook (in three languages) for the WSCF general assembly and Chris is fine-tuning the arrangements for the senior friends gathering that will run alongside this assembly in Montréal. It's all systems go in a week's time. The WSCF staff have been dealing with ever more stringent visa problems in bringing students from all over the world to Canada. If everyone arrives and everything gets done in time it will be more a miracle than a fairy tale.
Our Geneva bedroom, top right
Fairy tale six: Home away from home
A bright-green doctor (fashion sense or hospital regulations, we are not quite sure) gave Geoff the all clear on our return to Haarlem on the coldest 21 July for forty years. The warm welcome of Wolletje, the cat, and his staff more than compensated. Quite a homecoming. We fitted in a concert of sixteenth-century vocal and organ music on the lovely Müller organ in Rinze Marten and Rosmarie's church.
Fairy tale seven: Thomas the tank engine
Swanning around Europe on a Eurail Pass was another wish come true, especially when it throws in first-class travel, endless food (on the Thalys), a space-age sleeping compartment with ensuite shower and dining table (from Vienna to Zurich) and landscape blurring by at 300 km/h (the French TGV). The bonus Swiss ferry ride from Murten to Neuchatel cruising past summer holidaymakers by the canals linking Les Trois Lacs topped it all off. But there were moments bordering on nightmare, mainly to do with transfers in Paris. Half-hour waits at ticket-vending machines, absent or broken lifts and poor signage can provoke divorce. We were very proud of ourselves though when we dashed from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon in twenty-five minutes flat, flinging ourselves onto the train to Geneva with five minutes to spare. And Geoff didn't have a heart attack.
Austrian hay-making, from the train
Fairy tale eight: Storks
This can't be complete without a mention of birds. Yes a fairy tale, bird, a white stork, was spotted from a bus between Leiden and Haarlem. That's the sort that delivers babies to the door. For the complete bird list, now with its companion animal list, see elsewhere in this website.
Now we fly to another continent. We'll keep you posted.