A little knowledge can be dangerous, and when it comes to travel, I’m downright lethal. So I guess the opposite argument can also be made: ignorance is bliss. Why my travel companions don’t take away my navigation tasks is beyond me. Perhaps they don’t realize that I’m also blundering along looking for some recognizable landmark. I think they’re content that I lead.
I didn’t mind running with the locals when trains suddenly changed tracks. But there was one incident that I wasn’t prepared for.
A recent post I read here about how the low points of your travels are where your best stories come from reminded me of a summer I spent in Europe. I wasn’t new to travel, and didn’t mind staring at posted train times or running with the locals when trains suddenly changed tracks. I could figure out which trains would stop at which cities, and which were direct. But there was one incident that I wasn’t prepared for.
Once upon a time, when I was only 56, I followed a dream. I had wanted to visit Norway ever since I first met my mother’s Norwegian uncle, Peter Ringstveit, who emigrated to the U.S. in the late 1800s. Since I never met Peter’s brothers, including my grandfather Lars, Peter was my only link to the family’s Norwegian roots.
Oddly enough, Uncle Peter’s stories were rarely of Norway.
Uncle Peter told great stories, but oddly enough, his stories were rarely of Norway and his family. He focused on his life in Montana as a sheepherder on the 3,000-plus acres he had accumulated, his treks to move sheep into Yellowstone National Park for grazing and back to the plains when the seasons changed, and the harsh northern frontier of the early 1900s. When my adventurous mother was in high school in the mid-thirties, she and a friend took the train from northern Illinois to visit Uncle Pete. While he slept at a neighboring ranch, those two girls camped in the sheepherder’s wagon. The way the confirmed bachelor told it, two giggling girls had invaded his camp and he needed to go pretty far away to get any sleep.
On arrival at the tiny airport in Balice, Poland, I was greeted immediately by a pleasant but rather bold taxi driver who began carting off my luggage, smiling widely and muttering something about 25 zloty. My suitcases were locked in his trunk before I could protest, and his price sounded dirt cheap. So I hopped in, and he took off, riding the center white line through winding, dark, empty back streets, all the while talking in a rapid, hard-to-follow Polish/German/English clip. Every so often he’d turn around and gesture to emphasize a point, and I’d envision us running off the road into a ditch. But, fifteen minutes later, I was still in one piece when he parked the taxi in the middle of the street, about a block from the Hotel Saski.
I was walking through a ghost town with no ghosts. Maybe that’s why it never whispered any clear answers. Ancient Akrotiri was a city of 30-thousand souls, until they vanished, every last one of them.
When people lack emotion, sometimes we say they’re “made of stone.” Yet on a group of northern islands, I’ve discovered the power of stone to translate human emotion, connecting me to the people of the past.