A scowling Turk is guarding the entrance to what looks like an old pillbox and he’s collecting money from my ex-wife. She emerges from the sweltering bunker after a few minutes with a look of dismay and horror on her face. She describes to me a scene out of one of Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell, and tells me she will never do it again. I find this hard to believe, since she’s talking about using the bathroom, but I think what she means is, if the standard for pay toilets in Istanbul is a hole that you squat over while swatting the flies off your rump, what kind of nightmare are the free facilities? It’s not something either of us ever want to find out.
Nor do we have to, because the rest of Europe isn’t so bad. But it is a fact that you have to pony up something if you want to go nearly anywhere on the continent, so I found that the most useful thing you could be carrying around in your pocket after your credit cards are a few Euro for the rest room. And BTW, the further east you go, the worse it gets, until, in Ukraine, you’ll find a bizarre porcelain rectangle fit nearly flush to the floor that honestly I never figured out.
In any event, in Europe, coins-don’t leave home without them.
“How much will it cost?” I ask in my broken Spanish.
“About 5 Euro” the driver says.
I get in the cab, and notice there’s a meter, which gives me some comfort. When we get to the destination, it reads only 3.60. Great, I think, I saved some money. That’s when the driver begins pressing buttons on the meter like he’s working the controls in a missile silo. I have no idea how, but if you play with it enough, Presto! It adds anywhere from 1 to 3 Euro to your cab fare. Such a deal!
I sigh in resignation and pay him, reasoning that would have been his tip, more or less, if he’d been an honest man, rather than an invading barbarian. I say this because most of these taxi drivers are from the Middle East, just as they are in many Stateside cities. I suppose that driving a car, like jockeying a camel, must be at the extreme limit of their skill sets.
Sometimes, I argue with them and refuse to pay the higher price. In Barcelona, this results in a colorful cultural exchange in which the driver peels out down the street screaming invectives at me in Arabic. I am happy to respond, in like fashion, using perfectly profane English, and, via the magic of sign language, we are both able to accurately articulate our divergent world views and attitudes about fair business practices.
The worst are in Belgrade, Serbia. There, a cab arranged at the hotel will run you 5 bucks. The trip back is $15. The difference is I don’t speak Serbian and have to arrange my own taxi back. The only small satisfaction I can take from my Serbian encounter is that I think the last taxi driver I hailed can still hear the ringing in his ears from when I angrily slammed the door shut in his face.
To be fair, I have noticed that the older drivers who are actually from Europe are far more likely to charge you just the advertised rate, and there are more of them in the Germanic countries and away from the big cities. But this is another way of saying the Old Country is sliding, one taxi driver at a time, into the same chaos that envelopes most of the rest of the world.
Anyway, the best defense is still to establish a price ahead of time. Yes, they’ll still try to cheat you, but at least you know in advance by how much.
Automatic vehicle shut-off
I am in a rent-a-car, and I’m stopped on a steep uphill incline when the cement mixer in front of me decides to back up. He is trying to maneuver into an impossibly small alleyway on a side street next to my car. Normally, I’d just put ‘er in reverse and get out of the way, but, for no extra charge, the Jeep I’m driving has been equipped with a feature that shuts the engine off if the vehicle is at idle for more than a few seconds. As I contemplate the back bumper of the truck coming through my windshield, I remember instantly the dire warnings of the rent-a-car people if I scratch their SUV (which they value, approximately, at the GDP of Slovakia), and thus, even though the nifty engine shut-off feature probably saves a teaspoon of fuel, I lose an equivalent amount of panic urine because of it, so it’s all a wash really, no pun intended.
Oh, and did I mention that the emergency brake also engages automatically when the engine gratuitously shuts down? That’s right…I am without power while the engine automatically restarts so I can move, and, until then, I can’t even let gravity work its magic and roll out of harm’s way! Wow, what a great idea! Some genius bureaucrat in Brussels, I guess, has decided that the few barrels of oil that might be saved over the course of a year due to this ridiculous feature is worth a few accidents and/or lives. Nor do I suppose that pinhead ever bothered to balance those meager fuel savings against the energy and resources required to needlessly manufacture thousands of new starters.
Postscript-Luckily, the truck driver glanced in his rearview just as my engine started, and disaster was averted. But there was still a puddle in the seat.
Jekyll and Hyde Air conditioning
The candle in my room is melting, but it isn’t lit. I lift up my fevered, glistening brow to the tiny vent in the ceiling 11 feet above, hoping for the faintest puff of cool air from the asthmatic, yet, somehow…minuscule air conditioner. When I finally detect the slightest whisper of a breeze from the fan, it is immediately absorbed by 700 years worth of plaster and paint. Meanwhile, below, in the Sweat Zone base camp, I manically adjust the thermostat to the Absolute Zero, and the unit completely shuts down, as if mocking me, so, summoning all of my grit and will power, I surrender, and adjourn to the desultory downstairs bar, which has all the charm of a bowling alley, but at least it is cool. The thought occurs to me that perhaps this was the plan all along, since the lounge is full of other dejected denizens mopping their brows with cocktail napkins as they hunker down for a long night drinking cold beer.
When I return to the room, I can see my breath, and at first I take this as a good sign, yet when the unit continues merrily humming away despite my best efforts to adjust it, I decide I’d better not test my luck by antagonizing it any more, reasoning it’s easier to sleep under the covers in arctic conditions than on top of the sheets if you’re too hot (a concept that seems to be beyond the grasp of most women, but I digress). So it is that I spend the next few days in a freezer, and I find that much of Europe has this kind of climate control, which is, to be fair, more a function of the age of the buildings than any technological deficiency, but life isn’t fair, and neither am I.
European A/C sucks.
“Please, don’t buy anything from the street vendors” my tour guide says in hushed tones while we’re waiting to enter the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. “We don’t want to encourage them.” She points to a group of Africans who have spread out their wares on the sidewalk. They are selling everything from knock-off designer purses to T Shirts to selfie sticks, and they seem to be doing a brisk business. They are also in everyone’s way, so much so that it’s hard to get around the bottlenecks they create.
“Why don’t the police stop them?” asks Lora, in her typically frank Russian way. She says this loud enough to be heard by the nearest entrepreneur, and it embarrasses our guide.
“It wouldn’t help. They’ll just come back tomorrow,” she says, her face reddening. She is glancing nervously around, presumably because she doesn’t want the conversation to be heard.
“Not if they tore up all of their merchandise” Lora counters, completely unperturbed and oblivious to the consternation of the guide, which she clearly can’t understand. “If they did that, they’d get tired of it and quit.”
“They can’t do that”, our guide says in resignation…maybe desperation.
“But they’re breaking the law! Why can’t…”
“Lora,” I interrupt her. “It’s their country, and their law. Leave it alone.”
All over Europe, you’ll see these people blocking sidewalks to the most iconic places, and I have never seen a single one stopped by the police or anyone else. I DID witness an African chasing a German woman down the street in Venice. She was almost in tears, because he’d reach over her shoulder with the handbag as she was running away, and she didn’t know how to escape.
Now, you might think this is no big deal, especially when terrorist atrocities are front page news nearly every day-but you’d be wrong. Of such small transgressions is civilization slowly and surely destroyed, because the message that is sent is that we are no longer a country of laws, that refugees and illegal aliens have special privileges, and among those are the freedom to operate a business without a license, harass citizens and tourists, and seize control of some of the most valuable real estate on earth, at least during operating hours, and they will pay no price for it, while native-born citizens are expected to follow the rules and not even complain about the transgressors lest they be labeled racist or intolerant.
No, the natives are expected to go to work and pay their taxes to support a vast army of invading men, most of whom are unemployed because they have no useful skills and all of whom grew up in primitive cultures that do not respect human life let alone the rights of women.
That is not a tenable situation, and it will eventually lead to a tragedy far larger than any mere terrorist attack, because where there is no relief from the pressures of the everyday insanity of multiculturalism that has been forced upon the people of Europe, there will be an explosion, and soon.
I hope the cheap trinkets and looking the other way will seem worth it then.