It was Mr E Man’s birthday yesterday – he is now officially old (37). As part of the festivities (which also included me making the requested banana-chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast, with bacon and plum syrup; Canadians are weird), we had a lovely Thai dinner with friends on Sunday night. At one point, someone asked Mr E Man why we hadn’t done anything for his birthday last year. The answer, of course, is that we were on our honeymoon, and had planned a fantastic romantic day for his birthday in lieu of the usual festivities. However, things did not go entirely to plan…
I should have known that luck was not on our side when I got shat on by a pigeon in Paris. I washed my jeans as best I could (the public conveniences by Notre Dame are not very convenient – no hot water or soap!) and laughed it off. However, this was only the start of our trail of chaos and destruction around Europe.
Things really kicked off on the overnight train from Paris to Madrid. Having suffered a freezing cold night on a train between Paris and Marseilles 11 years earlier, I wore jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. Someone, however, failed to take his brand new wife’s advice, and wore shorts and a t-shirt.
It turned out not to be all that cold after all, although trying to sleep in a train seat was as bad as I’d remembered. Nonetheless I quickly became glad of my wardrobe choice when, not long after arriving in Madrid, we noticed some insect bites on Mr E Man’s arms and legs. Then we noticed some more. And some more. All over his arms, his legs, and his feet (he’d taken his sandals off during the night).
We were a bit grossed out, but since Mr E Man felt fine, we got on with enjoying Madrid. What a great place! I absolutely loved it, from the architecture to the siesta to the cervezas to the tapas to more cervezas to the midnight paella that ushered in Mr E Man’s 36th birthday.
Back at the hotel, I woke up at about 5 am to hear running water. I went into the bathroom, and found Mr E Man sitting in an icy cold bath. His bites had all suddenly “activated” and turned into angry blisters, and he was in an agony of itching and pain. The next day (his birthday), he could barely walk as his sandal straps were rubbing on the blisters. We decided to seek medical assistance, using various approaches:
1) Find the nearby clinic recommended by the otherwise-awesome hotel receptionist. The clinic turned out to be impossible to find. Either it had closed down or it was very well disguised. We gave up after about an hour.
2) Find the medical clinic listed in our guidebook. It took us another hour to match the crappy map to Madrid’s actual streets and actually find the place. No-one spoke English. Mr E Man’s Spanish was good enough to establish that they wanted to see my passport, but not good enough to establish why. After much sign language and an attempt at filling in a form in Spanish, during which everyone kept gesticulating at him and pointing at me, he gave up and just rolled up his trouser leg to show them his bites. It turned out to be a women’s clinic. The three very young couples behind us in the line-up smiled nervously as all the staff fell about laughing.
3) Go into a pharmacist and show the bites to the counter staff. Who freaked out and told us to go to the non-existent medical clinic we’d already tried. (Same map location and directions as in the initial attempt)
4) Get into a taxi and show the bites to the driver. He took us straight to a wonderful clinic, where Mr E Man got a shot and some industrial strength antihistamine tablets. All of this was free (after he showed them his UK passport). We should have tried this approach first.
The rest of the day was pretty much a write-off, what with the blisters and all, so we just read our books and played chess under a tree. At about 8 pm we picked up our bags from the hotel and headed back to the station. As it was a special day, we’d booked a first class sleeping compartment on the overnight train to Lisbon and were really quite excited about it.
We were the last ones off our underground train as it arrived at the main station. Three well-dressed, clean cut young men politely let us in front of them on the escalators. Which suddenly stopped. I am pretty sure this was not a coincidence. In a classic distraction ploy, one of the men smilingly and charmingly helped me to carry my heavy suitcase up the escalator. His friend, meanwhile, got into my other bag and pilfered my wallet.
I realised what had happened as soon as we got into the main station, and I was soooooo furious; at them, and at myself for being taken in so easily. Mr E Man was carrying all our cash, so for the sake of precisely 3 Euros the pickpockets got a credit and debit card (both cancelled before they were used), and all my ID except my British passport, which luckily was in a separate part of the bag. We alerted the station security people, who said that we should go to the police. But there were no police around, the nearest police station was a 10 minute cab ride away, and our train was leaving in 30 minutes. There was no way, and nothing to do except to hop on the train.
As we pulled out of the station, I realised that Mr E Man’s antihistamine tablets were also in the wallet.
The train was fantastic. I can’t recommend it highly enough. But I spent the first hour (including the start of an excellent three-course meal, with open bar) with a distinctly wobbly lower lip. I managed not to cry (I saved that for the next day), but it was a close call. (I should point out that once I start crying, I usually don’t stop until I go to sleep that night. It takes a lot to make me cry, but much, much more to make me stop).
I felt much better in the morning. The comfy bunk beds – magically folded out of the wall and expertly made up with a chocolate on the pillow while we were eating – our private bathroom and shower, the wonderful cooked breakfast, and the awesome train crew, cheered me right up. Mr E Man’s bites were even feeling better, although it took them over a week to heal completely. We arrived in Lisbon and got straight onto another train, headed for Albufeira in the Algarve.
This was to be the main part of our honeymoon. My parents had been given one of those “free” timeshare weeks, in which you attend a half-day sales pitch in exchange for your accommodation. They had transferred the deal into my name. I had been in touch with the company’s representatives about this, and had conscientiously printed out all of our email correspondence and put it in my travel document folder.
This was a good thing, because there was, of course, no record of our reservation at the nice fancy hotel. I produced the printed emails, to no initial avail. (This is when I started crying). Eventually a British rep from a different company took pity on us and intervened, starting with an argument in Spanish with the snooty reception staff, and ending with a call to the people listed on my emails. The snooty staff eventually found us an available apartment; in the vastly inferior sister hotel, next door. This all took about three hours to sort out, during which time I did not stop gently crying into my beer in the hotel bar.
The rest of the trip was, you’ll be glad to hear, a great success. The apartment was basic but sufficient, the beaches were great, the food was always OK and occasionally excellent, the beer was cheap, and the rugby world cup was on TV. We moved on to Lagos at the end of the week and had a fantastic three days there, including a stay in the best hotel room EVER (the patio doors opened right into the pool, which no-one else used the entire time we were there). After a brief stay in Lisbon we flew on to the UK, where we had a second wedding reception for those people who hadn’t been able to make it to the Vancouver ceremony (thanks, Mum and Dad!). We had a week or so of free time afterwards to catch up with friends and family and show my brand new mother-in-law around my home town and surroundings.
I spent an awful few hours in the Canadian High Commission in London, getting a temporary visa to allow me to re-enter the country without my stolen permanent resident card, but that was the only negative experience in the whole of the rest of the trip. However we will never forget Mr E Man’s 36th birthday and the whole pigeon shit / insect bites / non-existent or unsuitable medical clinics / pickpockets / missing hotel reservation experience…
Photos of the good bits are on Facebook.