Bus Ride to Bucharest (part V)

Chapter Five: Lightening Crashes

If Ginny thought that Liège was crowded on Sunday, Monday showed her different. Tourists and partygoers packed the streets, and in the Outre-meuse quarter, a person could only move by being swept along in the crowd. “Le Quinze Aout” festival was in full swing, complete with marching bands and marionettes, folk dancing, contests and prizes. Vendors opened their doors with pèkèt and a hearty smile and Ginny was charmed.

She met Eric for coffee and a croissant at a little café near her hotel, and together they explored the city. For the first time since she had embarked upon this trip, Ginny began to forget about her situation with Michael. She began to forget her lackluster life. She even began to forget her self-pity. It wasn’t yet noon and already she and Eric hit up the second pub in their pub crawl. They tasted lambics and white ales, dark browns and summer reds.

“Are you having a good time?” Eric asked her as they clinked glasses.

“Excellent,” she nodded, though she noticed it was getting a little harder to form words in her mouth.

They decided to take a break and wander the city a bit more.

“Look!” said Eric. “It’s the Montagne de Bueren!”

“What’s that?” Ginny squinted in the bright sunlight.

“It’s a long set of stairs leading up to the Citadel. Come on, let’s do it.”

Ginny surveyed the mountain of steps before her and planted her fists on her hips. “That’s a lot of steps,” she said.

“Yeah. It’s 373.”

“Three hundred and seventy-three? Are you kidding me? No way.”

“Aw, it’s nothing.” He tapped her encouragingly on her shoulder. “You can do it. Plus I hear the view is great from the top.”

“Oh well, if it’s for a view…,” Ginny grumbled, but she gamely started walking with him.

As they climbed the steps, Ginny’s head began to clear. As Eric had predicted, it wasn’t as cumbersome as she had thought and the lush greenery along the way cheered her. The view at the top was even more stunning. She could see the whole city below her, with the river running through it. Even from the distance, she could dimly hear the crowd and marching bands parade through the streets.

“There it is!” said Eric, pointing to the mini fortress at the top of their path. It stood tall and proud even though parts of it had fallen to ruin.

“It is indeed a citadel,” said Ginny, though she couldn’t help being drawn to it. The walled fortress had a tower and it surrounded what looked like to be a modern-day hospital. So typical of Europe: the new filtered in and around the old. It was a patchwork quilt of modernity atop history.

“There was a Duke here,” said Eric. “Charles the Bold. He pissed everyone off when he made his cousin the prince-bishop and he was hiding out with his troops in a tent here. The people staged a revolt. Six hundred of them. And they made it all the way to his tent, intending to kill him. But then he turned it around and massacred every one of them, down to the last man.”

Ginny shuddered, imagining all the men and passions flying around in the very spot on which she stood. She could practically feel their energy coming up through her feet. “Wow,” she breathed. “People back then were amazing, weren’t they? I’m not sure I could imagine myself doing that today, just for a principle.”

Eric looked at her. “You wouldn’t? You wouldn’t try to combat wrong, even if it really mattered to you?”

“I’d like to think I would. But if I’m being honest, I just don’t know. I don’t know if I’d really lay down my life for politics.” Eric dropped it after that and they moved easily onto other topics, but Ginny felt nettled. They had touched on a truth about her she didn’t feel comfortable with, but she didn’t know what to do about it either. So she did the only thing she knew how: she put it away to examine later.

They resumed their drinking and when it got to be dinner time, they asked their bar-mates where they should eat.

“Have you tried the mussels?” asked the matronly woman behind the bar.

When Ginny and Eric shook their heads, everyone around them became excited. “Oh you must try the mussels!” With lots of slamming of glasses and flurried gesticulation, their bar-mates pointed them to Au Parc de Moules, a restaurant tucked away in a tiny alleyway and renowned for serving over fifty different varieties of cooked mussels. Ginny wasn’t sure how much of a mussels fan she was, but she was ready to try just about anything. She ordered the moules mexicane, mussels cooked with tequila, figuring that would just about top off her day of drinking. She prayed her stomach wouldn’t revolt.

As they waited for their meal to arrive, Ginny heard a vaguely familiar tune coming from the radio overhead. The words were in French but she was certain she had heard it before.

Then it hit her. “It’s Live!

“What’s live?” asked Eric. He was busy downing water like a desert escapee.

“The song!” Ginny beamed widely, gesticulating at the air above her. “It’s Lightening Crashes! Oh my God, I haven’t heard that song in years. Not since high school.”

Eric laughed. “Dude, what year did you graduate from high school?”

“Ninety-five,” said Ginny, absent-mindedly. She was caught up in humming the song. But then she caught herself when she saw the mirth in Eric’s eyes. “Wait a minute. How old are you?”

“How old are you?” He grinned back at her.

“No, tell me. How old are you?”

“Twenty-four.”

Ginny planted her face in her hand. She peeked through her fingers. “Twenty-four. Really?”

He nodded. “So come out with it. I showed you mine, now you show me yours.”

Ginny blushed. “Thirty-three,” she grumbled. “Oh God, I’m with a man nine years my junior.” Dee would have a field day with this, she thought with chagrin. And then a totally indecent thought occurred to her. I’m with a man nine years my junior! Her glee was totally inappropriate. Sincerely wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. But then she couldn’t wipe the grin off her face.

Eric looked at her cheekily. “Well I won’t tell anyone if you won’t.”

And that’s when a dose of reality hit Ginny and the grin slid off her face. What was she doing? Yeah her marriage to Michael was over, but it wasn’t totally over. The documents still had to go through. She had to wait until everything was finished, right?

Seeing her reaction, Eric asked her what was wrong. She explained to him her divorce situation and about Michael cheating on her, and he was quiet for a while after that. His silence made her feel even worse.

But then he took her hands into his large, warm ones. “Look, so you say this thing with your husband is over right? There’s absolutely no chance of reconciliation?”

“Not a lick.”

“I’m not in the business of breaking up marriages, but if you’re a hundred percent straight about this being over, I’ll trust you on that.” Seeing her sad eyes, he continued, “Look, I like you a lot. I normally don’t chase women like I have with you. I travel a lot and I keep things light. But you, I want to get to know.”

“I want to get to know you too,” she admitted.

“I think we’ve come into each other’s lives for a reason. I’m not saying we’re in for anything serious. But I think we could be good for each other right now, just for this moment.”

Ginny thought about his words for a while. He seemed so genuine. Different from what she had assumed of him, and that intrigued her. And his words “for this moment” had oddly reassured her. She hadn’t realized she had been carrying around this pressure of having something serious, something long-term. To suddenly release it felt freeing. So she nodded. “All right, then,” she said.

“All right.”

“But no sex. I don’t think I’m there yet.”

He raised his hands in a shrug. “No sex.”

They ate their meal in easy companionship, and when he walked her back to her hotel, he was true to his word. He kissed her good night, and as hot and heady as the kiss was between them, he stepped back and promised to meet her in the morning where they would get back on the bus.

Her lips tingled and her skin burned where his hands had held her waist, but she smiled as she said goodnight.

*                                                *                                                *

She went up to her room and downloaded a copy of Lightening Crashes, feeling happy as she listened to the old familiar lyrics. She jumped up in front of the mirror, and belted out the tunes, knocking her hips from side to side to the beat, head banging and circling her arms like a rock star until she collapsed, out of breath, onto the bed. She laughed at herself, but continued singing with her eyes squeezed shut, just because she liked the feel of her mouth and lips as she enunciated and pursed out the lyrics; it was cathartic, like a scream across a chasm.

Her intentions fall to the floor

The angel closes her eyes, the confusion that was hers

Belongs now, to the baby down the hall

Live was not ever one of her favorite bands, but it felt familiar like the posters on her old high school bedroom and it reminded her of driving PCH with Dee after school let out. She had grown up on a steady diet of Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Sublime, but she realized she hadn’t listened to these songs in more years than she could count – and she missed them. She missed their sincerity. God, she loved that music. It might have had some idealistic notes, but at least it was earnest. Where has all the earnestness gone?

Past generations were angry; this generation was just ironic. But Ginny was absolutely tired of the irony because, she realized with a jolt, what it masked is anger and a deep sadness at the falseness of life. She desperately wanted something real. We’re a country too sad and tired to be angry anymore, she thought, and so we opt for comatose. Except even the comatose state is ironic. In a true coma, your body wouldn’t function. It would just lie there, consuming to live. But her generation was constantly running, constantly moving, constantly buying, even though the head and heart had long ceased to function.

Maybe that’s why Eric felt so important to her. Here was someone who was real, and here, with him, her feelings, however messed up and jumbled they were, were real.

She might not be the type to live and die for her ideals, but at least she might begin to have some. And where better to confront one’s ideals than such a historied place as Europe? And you know what? Next stop: Germany. There was a place with a crisis of conscience if there ever was one.

(to be continued…)

Bus Ride to Bucharest, Part I here.

Bus Ride to Bucharest, Part II here.

Bus Ride to Bucharest, Part III here.

Bus Ride to Bucharest, Part IV here.

Bus Ride to Bucharest, Part VI here.

Bus Ride to Bucharest (Part IV)

Note: Sorry this installment is a few days late. But it’s a longer one, to make up for it! The next installment should be up on time on Tuesday.

Chapter Four: Song for a Blue Guitar

Ginny’s first impression of Liège was one of soot. After the lush country-scape, crossing the river into the city was like walking from the Garden of Eden into 1880’s London. Decrepit factories with ashen smokestacks lined the waterfront. Years of dirt and labor filtered into the crevices, into the cobbles and stones, into the windowsills and into the gaps. Like a fine layer of soot, a feeling of dismay infiltrated Ginny’s very bones.

The city teemed with people, and it wasn’t long before Ginny lost sight of her fellow bus travelers. She wandered up and down the streets, taking left and right turns based on a whim as her only sense of direction. She was lost, anyway, what did it matter the direction in which she walked? She wound her way through wide boulevards and narrow alleyways. She walked past industrial buildings, churches with imposing facades, she found the river again and followed it until she collided into a wall of people.

Vendor stalls lined the river and between the stalls, a crush of shoppers pushed and bumped each other as they vied for wares. The ripe stench of aged cheeses and fresh sausages hung heavy over the Sunday market. Live birds of every color squawked from cages, flowers and ferns popped from florist stalls, and several stalls displayed wonderfully preserved antique books and furniture. Ginny vaguely sensed that if she were in any better mood this market would be a treasure trove to plunder. But today it was a bloody nuisance. She was exhausted from walking and carrying all her things for hours. All she wanted was a bed and space from all these crazy people, jabbering on in European tongues that to her now sounded like gibberish.

Finally, off to the side of the market, Ginny found a hotel. With a rush of relief, she nearly ran in to the concierge’s desk. But she soon discovered that there was no vacancy thanks to the crowd of tourists visiting the famous La Batte – the Sunday market from which she had just wandered. Oh yes, and also this week’s festival, the hotel receptionist mentioned pleasantly. The festival of course makes for a full hotel. Perhaps madame would like to try elsewhere?

Madame has no choice, does she, thought Ginny. She snatched her bags and bit off an ungrateful thank you to the receptionist and proceeded her search for a hotel. By the time Ginny got to her seventh hotel, she nearly collapsed in hysterical laughter at her situation. Like everything in this godforsaken city, the hotel looked dismal from the outside, but Ginny no longer cared. She just needed to find a bed.

When she walked into the hotel, she was a little overcome by the pastel interior, but so tired was she that she just pushed onward determined to get off her protesting feet. Pushing her sweaty, grimy hair off her face, Ginny asked the receptionist if there were any vacancies left. She would have prayed, except she was just plumb out of prayers by then. The receptionist moved slowly, but kept up a friendly stream of chatter. Ginny heard not a word of it. Until “Ah of course!” She looked up at that proclamation and found the lady behind the counter talking cheerfully about a vacancy they had. Something about a last-minute cancellation and they’d only just found out and Ginny didn’t care. “I’ll take it!” She cut off the lady mid-speech.

She was shown to her room, but still Ginny didn’t hear a word of any of it. Every cell of her being was metaphysically called towards the bed. She practically nodded and pushed the little matronly woman out the door, pulled shut the drapes and fell onto the bed. Without undressing or even taking off her shoes, Ginny tumbled into blessed, blessed sleep.

*                                    *                                    *

Waking was painful. Her head felt like one of the industrial buildings sat atop her shoulders. It spun a little as she sat up and it took a moment to register where she was. Slowly, Ginny rose and pulled open the drapes. It was the first moment she really saw Liège. White and grey clouds had rolled in to cover part of the horizon, and the heat and humidity in the evening sky created such a celestial palette of colors, it took her breath away. Ginny gasped and soaked in all the beautiful blues and golds, oranges and purples melting and swirling across the sky. The light danced off the Romanesque rooftops and bounced back into the clouds. I must be in a Van Gogh, she thought.

She turned around, and for the first time, really appreciated her room. It was simply appointed, but was lovely and feminine in sweet pastels. She went to the bathroom and found a bright, clean white-tiled washroom with a claw-footed tub. Glee bubbled up inside her. She ran the water and stripped down. A bath in such a romantic little tub was precisely what she needed. She pulled out her favorite scented oils and used almost the whole bottle of bubbles provided by the hotel. She soaked and luxuriated, feeling all the grime and frustration of the day slowly melt away.

After her bath, Ginny wrapped herself in a soft white towel and padded towards the sink. The mirror had fogged a little from the steam of the bath, but as the steam cleared, Ginny peered into her reflection. God, my eyes look so tired, she thought, looking at the dark circles forming like bruises under her thin skin. But a light flush from the heat blossomed over the rest of her and rosy little freckles came out to play on her shoulders. Ginny pinched her cheeks, but it was her hair that was her real best feature. Russet and gold, it was rich even when damp, and it already started to curl. She started to pull it tight into her usual twist, then cursed at herself and left it loose. She was too tired to care anymore. She would leave it as is.

A feeling of melancholy threatened as she thought briefly about what Michael would say about her leaving her hair down, but then she pushed the thought away. This trip is a chance to get away she reminded herself. Those problems would wait for her for when she got back. For now she just needed to focus on doing something for herself for once. She was here to have fun and let loose. Michael be damned.

First stop: food.

Ginny was starved, but found her mood was significantly lighter after having rested. She thanked the matronly lady behind the counter, who turned out to be the hotel’s owner. It was a family business and she was very proud of it. Ginny smiled at her and after some chatting, felt like she’d almost made a new friend in this city. But then her hunger called to her and so she asked where might be a good place to eat. The matron’s eyes opened wide and she clapped her hands. A long list of recommendations ensued until Ginny’s head spun. But the last suggestion caught her attention.

“And Amon Nanesse is fabulous!” said the matron. “You simply must try it. And have the pèkèt! You must try pèkèt. You cannot come to Liège and not try pèkèt.”

Ginny laughed and assured her she would try pèkèt, whatever it was. After getting directions, Ginny took off in the direction of Coeur Historique – the city’s center. Bicyclists passed her by and people waved and smiled to each other as they passed. She padded lightly over the cobblestone streets feeling the shift in energy as the city said good-bye to the day and prepared for the evening’s festivities. The closer she looked at the city, the more she realized that, beneath the city’s dismal industrial facade, a multitude of hidden treasures awaited.

She found Amon Nanesse without too much difficulty. As she walked into the pub-restaurant, she saw the hippie backpacker from the bus. He waved her over. She hesitated, but then was in too good of a mood to pass up the company. It had to be better than sitting alone, right?

He surprised her when he stood up politely as she sat down, but she kept her surprise to herself.

“Hey there, Red.” He looked at her appraisingly. “You look great. Your hair’s beautiful when it’s down like that.”

“Thanks.” Ginny couldn’t help smiling at the compliment. It sounded so genuine and still so easily given. She found those were the compliments she trusted the most.

“Did you have trouble finding a hotel?” she asked politely.

“No, surprisingly, I got one right off the bat.”

Of course you did, she thought. Everything seems to come easy to this man.

“Funny, huh? You’d think with all these tourists in town it’d be hard to find something.”

Ginny snorted. But she found herself laughing as she told him her tale of woe trying to find a hotel. “But I’ve been told I should try the pèkèt,” she said.

The backpacker raised an eyebrow and promptly ordered two. Pèkèt, it turned out, is Liège’s local-made liquor. “I’m Eric, by the way,” he said as he handed her a glass.

“Virginia. Ginny. Nice to meet you.” She clinked glasses with him and discovered that she actually felt it was nice to meet him. They began to chat and as she drank more of the liquor, she found their conversation began to flow more easily. Soon they were laughing and joking with the other patrons at the bar, who welcomed them and told them proudly of their Walloonian heritage. The people were hard workers, most of them had industrial jobs, and a sour economy had tightened the belts of all of them. But when Ginny asked about how they were faring under the strain, they laughed and waved their hands dismissively. “Po brêre on èst chal, po bêure!”  said one and the others laughed and nodded in agreement.

“What does that mean?” asked Eric.

Po brêre on èst chal, po bêure! We are not here to complain. We are here to eat!” growled a red-faced, portly ship merchant. The others laughed and cheered and clinked glasses. Ginny and Eric joined in the laughter. It was a worthy sentiment after all.

After several drinks and the prodding of their fellow bar-mates, Ginny and Eric wandered over to a different restaurant for dinner. By this time, Ginny’s head was spinning and she was so hungry she couldn’t see straight. But she was having the time of her life.

They arrived at the restaurant and gawked at the violet walls covered in black and white photos. They smirked and giggled drunkenly at each other as they were seated and placed their orders.

“Everything is soaked in beer!” exclaimed Ginny after perusing the menu.

“Well, if you can’t drink your alcohol, you must eat it I suppose,” said Eric primly, and they burst again into laughter.

“Seriously,” said Ginny, still giggling. “I’m not much of a drinker. I never have more than a glass of wine at a time.”

“Well to that, I always say: drink a glass at a time if you must, but do finish the bottle.”

The food came, and Ginny’s mouth watered over the savory rabbit braised in beer. The French fries were such a perfect state of salty and crisp, she didn’t hesitate to eat the whole mound. They shared a Chimay over dinner, and Ginny finally began to feel settled and soothed.

After dinner, they walked together along the river Meuse, and Eric took her hand into his. Her belly did a small flip in response; she enjoyed the feel of his warm, broad hand in hers.

She looked up at him, drinking in the sight of his dark beard. It was a contrast against his sunny, long blond hair, which he had tied back in a ponytail. He was so…granola. But he was tall and walked with such a masculine stride, she could not help but be attracted.

“So what do you do in the States?” she asked.

His response was cagey. “Oh a little of this and a little of that. Mostly, I just want to travel.”

“But what do you do for money? Even on a shoestring budget, travel is not inexpensive.”

“I just work for a little bit and then travel when I get bored of that.”

“All right, but then what do you do for work?”

“I’m thinking I want to bartend. I might do that next. You get to meet so many people and the hours could be fun.”

Ginny just shook her head. “Your life just sounds so free. I wish I could be like that. Unencumbered by money concerns.”

He raised an eyebrow at her. “You don’t look like you have money concerns,” he said.

Maybe compared to you, she thought, but bit back the meanness in her. “Well, I’ve worked hard for what I’ve got.”

“No doubt. Don’t get defensive; I just meant to say you dress well.”

“In that case, thank you,” she said. She was in too good of a mood to really get upset.

As they neared her hotel, they made plans to meet up the next morning. “Tomorrow’s festival sounds like it will be a lot of fun,” said Eric.

“Yeah, all right,” agreed Ginny. They walked up to the hotel door and Eric tugged on her hand to pull her around to face him. Heat flashed up between them and Ginny tingled with anticipation.

His blue eyes were kind as he looked down at her, but the feelings tumbling inside her were anything but kind. She wanted to run, but her body refused to do anything but stay. Do not get in bed with this man! screamed her brain, and then, all thought disappeared completely. He studied her for a moment. The friendliness in his eyes melted away to something darker, more serious. The smile disappeared from Ginny’s face and she could not tear her eyes from his.

Slowly, he lowered his lips to hers. He pressed his lip against hers, softly at first. Testing, teasing, tasting. Then he went deeper. He sunk into her and she took him in, gladly, until they were both out of breath.

He smiled and pressed his lips tenderly on her forehead. “Goodnight,” he whispered, then let go of her, turned and walked away.

Oh God, she thought, as she stood weak-kneed in the street. You’re in so much trouble.

(to be continued…)

Bus Ride to Bucharest, Part I here.

Bus Ride to Bucharest, Part II here.

Bus Ride to Bucharest, Part III here.

Bus Ride to Bucharest, Part V here.

Bus Ride to Bucharest (Part III)

Chapter 3: Fake Plastic Trees

Ginny gripped the seats around her in a desperate attempt to regain a hold on her senses. She locked eyes with an older woman a few rows in front of her. The woman wore a mop of steely grey tightly curled hair and the same stunned expression Ginny could feel on her own face. The passengers looked around at each other and their belongings. Miraculously, none of the luggage had fallen off the racks. It appeared the people were more discombobulated than their things.

Slowly, they all began to talk, wondering what had happened. Should they go down? Had they blown a tire? Had they hit something? Ginny looked out the window. She could see the driver walking around the bus and a few passengers from the lower level beginning to get off.

“I think they’re getting off the bus,” she announced. The hippie backpacker leaned forward past her to see for himself. She grimaced at him, but he ignored her.

“Let’s go down and take a look,” he said. He grabbed his pack, and headed down the aisle, and down the steps. The other passengers watched him and immediately gathered their belongings to follow his lead. How did he do that? Ginny wondered. He didn’t even have to say anything, people just automatically and cheerfully followed him. She thought about staying on the bus just to be contrary, and then when she was the only one left, realized she was being stupid. So she gathered her olive green bag and her purse, and went down the stairs to exit the bus.

When she disembarked, the bus driver was talking to the group of people assembled around him. Ginny tried to get closer, but she could barely hear him. The few words she did catch seemed to be in Dutch anyhow. She watched in utter confusion as the passengers looked in surprise at each other, talked amongst themselves, then turned to walk down the road in the direction they had been headed.

“What happened? Ce qui c’est passé?” Ginny tapped a young mother on the shoulder. The woman shifted her child from one hip to the other and looked at Ginny. “Ce qui c’est passé?” Ginny repeated. The woman shrugged at her and then began to walk along the road after the others.

The hippie backpacker came up behind her. “What happened is we’re walking.”  He grinned at her, thoroughly at ease with the situation.

How could he be so cheerful at this moment? “You speak Dutch too?” she asked, annoyed.

He shrugged, ”Dutch? Nah. But he was speaking German. Anyhow, it’s kind of obvious isn’t it?”

“What’s obvious? I don’t even know what happened!”

“Come here, then,” he said, and gestured towards the other side of the bus. Perplexed, Ginny followed him to the front of the bus. She wasn’t keen to walk along the middle of the road, but there appeared to be no traffic, so after looking both ways three times, she followed him. He pointed to the flat tire. There was a mangled child-sized tricycle underneath the bus, handlebars lying three feet away in the road, and a large dent on the side of the bus.

“The driver said he had been fiddling with the radio, and he didn’t see the tricycle laying about in the road. He ran it over, popped the tire, and it looks like the handle bars split off and hit the side of the bus. Trouble is, it’s Sunday, so nobody’s working. And Monday’s a holiday, so the soonest we can get back on the road is at some point on Tuesday.”

“So what are we supposed to do now?” Ginny wondered.

“Well, everyone’s hoofing it to Liege.” He squinted into the distance. “Shouldn’t take more than a few hours. Just gotta’ hope there’s enough hotel space there.”

“Are you kidding me?”

He grinned at her. “Do you have any better ideas there, Red?”

“Stop calling me Red. I’m not even a red-head really,” she grumbled.

He gave a short laugh. “So then what do you call this?” He tugged on a strand of her hair that had come loose from her tightly bound twist.

“It’s auburn,” she sniffed.

He laughed and shook his head, ”Whatever, Red.”

“Well, if we have to catch a hotel, then we’d better get going,” she said, resigning herself to her fate. And so, picking up her bag, she started to walk. They walked together in silence. She was grateful that, for once, he had stopped his yammering and mostly left her alone to her thoughts.

As they walked, the morning had begun to fully bloom and the summer heat crawled over her skin and into her hair, until she began to sweat. Her tight fashionable skinny jeans quickly became impractical, as did her long, heavy pearl necklace. It wasn’t long before she took off the necklace and dropped it in her purse, wishing she could do the same with her jeans. She pulled down her hair and tied it back again in a looser ponytail.

“Getting hot there, Red, are you?” teased the backpacker.

“Mmph.”

Ginny walked along the road, trying to keep up pace with the other bus passengers ahead of them, but her flats were beginning to give her blisters. She hated her sensitive feet; they always blistered so easily.

She looked at the trees lining the road and the fields and tried not to laugh bitterly at her situation. What on earth was she doing, tramping about the European countryside like this? How had she let Dee talk her into this? Dee, her exotic pixie-like Asian friend was always the adventurous one. She would melt so easily into this situation just like the backpacker beside her. But Ginny wasn’t like that. She just felt lost and out of control. And in these fields, surrounded by an old world feel that was not her own, Ginny was truly out of her element. The little country houses might as well have been Disneyland for all she knew. Except at Disneyland, you knew you were surrounded by fake plastic trees. When she looked around here, she felt the centuries in the soil. Hadn’t this been what she had come for, she reminded herself. To feel something real again?

A yellow monarch butterfly flitted alongside her, bringing Ginny out of her thoughts for a moment as she watched. It hovered around her and then flitted lightly away. Ginny was suddenly hit with a vivid memory. In her college days, she used to go to the nearby butterfly conservatory to practice the cello. She could remember the smell of freshly-watered flowers and vines. She had loved the large wrought-iron gate she walked through every day, like the grand entrance to her own private wonderland, full of dangling vines and orchids, and butterflies bobbing and tripping along over the puddles and petals. She would set up a little stool in the corner, and within a few minutes be lost to Wagner and Chopin, Schubert and Bach.

Nostalgia hit her like a wave, and she felt the pit of her stomach drop when she thought of her cello sitting in the corner of her office collecting dust. When was the last time she had played? She couldn’t even remember. Certainly before she and Michael had gotten married. Six years? Had it really been that long? Somehow married life had kept her so busy that she stopped practicing. At first, she would just put it off until the next free moment. Except there never seemed to be a next free moment, so that slowly she began to forget about playing the cello other than in a few odd moments. But then in those moments, taking her cello out and tuning it seemed like too much of a chore, and so she never pulled it out. And eventually she had stopped thinking about it altogether. And for what? she thought, now looking back on her failure of a marriage. The trade did not seem fair at all.

The hippie backpacker nudged her out of her thoughts. He pointed at a sign, “Look, Liege is coming up. We’ll be there soon.”

Ginny breathed a sigh of relief. She was sure her feet were about to fall off. But then she began to worry. How on earth would she find a hotel? She hadn’t gotten a guidebook for Brussels, as the plan had been to just ride straight through to Romania. She had four different guidebooks on Romania. None of them told her a lick about Liege. In her head, she had imagined it would be a tiny, quaint little town. As the town came into view, she saw it was not tiny or quaint at all. It was a large, bustling city.

Oh God, she thought. I’m going to be totally lost.

(to be continued…)

If you’re just joining the story…

Bus Ride to Bucharest, Part I here.

Bus Ride to Bucharest, Part II here.

Bus Ride to Bucharest, Part IV here.

Bus Ride to Bucharest (Part II)

Chapter Two: The Sound of Silence

Ginny tugged open the teal green curtain to see the sun glistening over neatly farmed fields of deep forest green and dusty gold. They drove towards the sun as they left the city center and wound their way through the countryside. She leaned back in her chair and stared at the blue and green paisley seat in front her. Relax, she told herself. You made it. It’s going to be a lovely trip. Nothing more is going to go wrong.

She fidgeted, trying to get comfortable. Then she decided she needed music. She rifled through her handbag and pulled out her slim iPod and waited for it to turn on. Nothing.  She slid the little power button back and forth a couple of times trying to force it on, hoping it just needed a little nudge. Still nothing. She frowned at the little machine. She was certain she had charged it on her Macbook at the hotel the last night. What happened to it? Ginny fought the urge to pull out her Macbook and try it there. She didn’t want to disturb the gentleman next to her while she pulled down her bag and futzed with electronics. It was only an hour until they were due to arrive in Liege. Surely, she could sit without music for an hour.

The bus ambled down the highway and Ginny settled into her seat, listening to the murmured conversations, some in German, some in French, some Dutch. But it was not long before she noticed a familiar voice. She looked up and saw the dirty, hippie backpacker speaking in German to the couple across the way from her. They laughed at something he had said, and nodding and smiling vigorously, allowed him their seat and moved to the back of the bus. What was going on?

“Hey there,” he said to her, across the lap of the French gentleman.

“What are you doing?” she hissed back at him. “Did you just make them give up their seats?”

He laughed and stretched out his legs. “I know. Really kind of them, wasn’t it?”

“What did you say to them?”

“Oh,” he scratched at his beard. “I just told them my girlfriend and I had gotten into a little lovers’ spat, and that she didn’t want to sit with me. But, I said, what is a diligent boyfriend to do? I had to try to talk to her, right? So, of course they agreed.”

“What are you talking about?” Ginny demanded. “Did you say that I was your girlfriend? Did you just lie to them?” She didn’t know what to be more offended over.

The elderly French gentleman between them looked mildly bewildered at the exchange, though he tried to pretend he was ignoring it.

“You need to go right on back there and apologize and give them back their seats,” Ginny huffed.

“What? No way. They’d be so disappointed I gave up so easily on the love of my life.”

“I am not the love of your life.”

“How would you know?” The tall blond man chuckled. “For all you know this is destiny.” He looked at her edgewise and saw the color in her face begin to match her russet-colored hair. “Besides,” he said, “then they’d just have to move all over again, and making them move like that, well that’s just rude, isn’t it?”

Ginny was flabbergasted and rendered speechless. What does one say to such a preposterous man? She resolved the best thing to do was just ignore him and go back to staring at the blue-green seat in front of her. She checked her watch. Twenty-two minutes left until they’d get to Liege.

“So what’s your name, Red?”

Ginny couldn’t help snapping back, “Don’t call me that.”

“All right then, what’s your name?”

She pressed her lips together.

“Well if you don’t want me to call you Red, then give me something else to call you, Red.”

“How about you don’t call me anything?”

The elderly gentleman made a gesture to her that looked like he was offering to switch seats so they didn’t have to talk over him, but she shook her head vigorously. “Non, merci. We’re done here.” She had no idea why she was so riled up over this impertinent man. She was normally so good at keeping her cool, and he… well, he was just ridiculous. She took a couple of calming breaths.

But the dirty hippie backpacker didn’t take her no for an answer. “Actually, oui, s’il vous plait,” he said to the older man. And they began to exchange seats.

“What are you doing?” Ginny demanded, practically getting up from her own seat. “No, stop it. What are you doing?” She was painfully aware the other passengers on the bus were beginning to look around at her. She was mortified. The bus rumbled along, bumping them around as the two men swapped places. The men were conversing jovially in French, ignoring her protests, and she got ever more frustrated. Why was everyone making friends with this man and joyfully doing as he asked, while ignoring her entirely? It wasn’t fair.

“Stop,” she demanded furiously. “What are you doing?” Her voice trembled with the bumping of the bus over the road. “Why do you keep pestering me?” she yelled over the din.

The men stopped their chatting to look in surprise at her blatant over-reaction. She barely had a moment to feel embarrassed when there was suddenly a loud, ear-splitting bang. Their bodies lifted into the air for one long, surreal second, landed with a loud thump, the bus screeched to a halt, with air squealing through the brakes, and then – silence.

(to be continued…)

Bus Ride to Bucharest, Part I here.

Bus Ride to Bucharest, Part III here.

Bus Ride to Bucharest (Part I)

Chapter One: One the Road Again

Divorce. The word stuck and burned in her craw like a bad shot of whiskey. Ginny sat on the hard bench of the bus stop, and with a snap of the rubber band, she brushed up her russet red hair into a severe knot. Two weeks ago to the day, Michael had come to her asking for a divorce. Blaming her for their inability to conceive children, he explained ever so matter-of-factly that he had found his true soulmate in Trixie. Trixie, the blond tart, who was barely old enough to buy her own alcohol. My husband left me for a younger woman. Oh, it was so cliché. It was so cliché she could make a t-shirt out of it.

The worst part was she wasn’t even heart-broken. She was mad, oh hell yes, she was infuriated. Mostly, she was infuriated with herself for failing at her marriage. All her life, she had done everything right. She got the right grades, she got the right degree, she got the right job and the right husband, and they shared a perfect little home on the upper West Side. But the more she examined her life, the more she saw nothing was right. Their perfect little home looked exactly like a Crate & Barrel catalogue: modern, chic, well-matched – and completely devoid of people. It ached to know she could never bear children; that she would never hear the little pitter-pat of tiny feet padding down their wood hallway. She was a rising star at Madden & Sloan Investments, but rather than feeling inspired to go to work in the mornings, she felt beleaguered by suicidal tendencies that lasted until her second cup of coffee. The perfect marriage, between two well-moneyed families, was dissolving before her very eyes, and what burned her more than anything was that when she looked on her life all she felt was boredom. She was dull. That’s right, Virginia McCleary, who aced every little thing, had failed at the biggest thing of all: her life.

So, with that realization, Ginny had set off for a month’s vacation through Europe. She left everything to be dealt with later, as she took the time and space she needed to get some fresh perspective. Her initial plan had been to just visit London, Paris, and Rome and see the usual sights. But at the urging of her best friend, Dee, she opted at the last minute for a bus tour from London to Bucharest. She traveled light, and moved with efficiency, so she imagined a bus ride would be a charming way to see the countryside and not much less convenient than a train.

She had taken a weekend side-trip from Brussels to Paris, because, after all, one cannot miss Paris. But then getting back to Brussels had been a nightmare. Her schoolgirl’s French had failed her and she had accidentally gotten on the wrong bus. Instead of the bus towards Lille, she found herself on the one to Toulouse, and with much flurry and rapid, indignant French, she had to backtrack and renegotiate a ticket as best she could. She had barely made it to Brussels in time for her 6 a.m. ride onward to Bucharest. Her bus would arrive in twenty minutes, and absolutely nothing would stop her from getting on the correct bus this time.

She checked her bags for the umpteenth time and reread her tickets, practicing French words like votre billet and s’il vous plaît in her head, when she saw two large men’s boots in the corner of her vision.

She looked up and gaped at the tall man standing before her. He was a vision, with blond, wavy, shoulder-length hair, a full brown beard, and an easy smile. With clothes wrinkled and dirty, he looked like he’d been traveling for years. So not her type – and yet somehow so masculine and delicious. His blue eyes twinkled at her expression, as he gestured towards the empty spot on the bench. In a deep baritone, he said, “Excuse-moi, est-ce que cette place est libre?”

She blinked at him and nodded. “Of course. Yes. Oui, bien sûr.”

He smiled broadly. “Ah. You’re American,” he said with some relief, in an accent that marked him as a Californian.

Ginny felt offended, though she realized how obvious it was. She watched surreptitiously as he heaved off his heavy backpack, plunked down on the bench, and spread himself out wide across the bench. She sat primly on her edge as he rested his long, golden bronze arm across the back of the bench and sighed loudly and contentedly. He looked bemused as he studied her. She avoided his gaze.

“So where are you headed?”

In a tone that indicated very clearly she did not want a conversation, she said, “I’m taking the bus to Liege, and heading on towards Romania.” She briefly considered pulling out a book, but then thought maybe that would be a shade too rude. She hoped he would get the message without her having to resort to such measures.

Apparently not. “Hey, that’s great!” he exclaimed. “I’m taking that bus too.  Although, I’m not going all the way to Bucharest; I’m gonna’ switch lines in Germany and head up to St. Petersburg from there.”

Well, that’s a relief, she thought. She said, “That should be a good trip.”

“Yeah, I think it should be,” he said, settling down more comfortably on the steel bench. “Though frankly, I think I might prefer to spend a little more time in Europe before heading over to Russia so soon.”

“Mm-hmm,” she said primly, keeping her eyes focused on the buses pulling in and out of the station.

He jabbed her lightly on the shoulder, “You never know. Maybe I could go to Bucharest with you.” When she gaped at him, he burst into a loud, deep laugh. “Oh, we’re gonna’ be great friends, I can tell. You’re so easy to mess with.”

Several responses flew through her head, but as none of them were very polite, she settled on, “Hmm.”

Thankfully, her bus rolled into the station. With a small sigh of relief, she wished him a good trip, gathered up her suitcase and purse, and trotted over to the two-story bus. She ensured the driver double-checked her ticket for her. Then she climbed up to the top level and ambled over to a window seat in the middle of the bus. She organized her things and settled into her seat. Other passengers began to file in around her, and the air filled with a pastiche of Dutch, French, and German phrases.

Looking up, she realized the bus was nearly full, and two remaining passengers searched for seats: an elderly gentleman, who looked like he belonged on a rustic vineyard, and behind him, the rude blonde man from the station. She gestured quickly towards the gentleman, attracting his attention to the empty seat beside her. “Vous pouvez s’asseoir ici, si vous voulez,” she said, smiling sweetly. The gentleman smiled, and looking relieved, sat down beside her. Ginny could feel the backpacker’s eyes boring into her as he walked past, but she kept her focus on helping the elderly man beside her get comfortable.

With a loud rush of air, and the jerk of shifting gears, the bus roared to life, shut its doors, and rolled out of the station.

(to be continued…)

Bus Ride to Bucharest, Part II here.

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