Texas Troubadour Abroad: En Route to Verona
My name is Keegan McInroe, and I am a singer-songwriter from Lubbock who’s been living in Fort Worth off and on since 2001, when I began my four years of study at Texas Christian University. Over the course of my 10 years writing, performing, and recording original music, I’ve played hundreds of shows and traveled thousands of miles throughout the United States and Europe. My latest tour is taking me to New York City, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Budapest, Prague, Barcelona, and dozens of stops in between. Whether you’re an independent musician like me, a fellow budget traveler, or simply a reader who loves a good tale from the road, Texas Troubadour Abroad –– my (mostly) weekly travelogue published here on the Weekly’s website –– will have something for you.
“The only way I’m going to France is in a tank.” –– a German Mittelalterlich reveler
Mittelalterlich Phantasie Spectaculum is “the largest traveling medieval culture festival in the world,” according to their website. Known better to Americans as a Renaissance Fair, the Spectaculum offers grown adults, as well as children, the opportunity to dress up like knights, friars, jesters, and other such familiar characters from the Middle Ages, as well as the chance to experience some of the varied joys of living back in ye olde darken days of yore, without all the inconveniences of plagues and fleas and lice and real-life, sword-to-sword, battle maimings.
The grave allusion to German hostilities against France during World War II came slurring forth from the haggard mouth of a fellow red-haired brother whom I met and had the pleasure of sharing a few swills of his mead with during the festival. We were taking in a wild German band called Salatio Mortis, meaning “Death Dance,” when he made the utterance. I can’t recall what prompted it. His face was smeared with the remains of either red paint or human blood, his hair was pulled back in one long, messy braid, and he wore a large knife on his belt. His eyelids drooped heavily, exhausted from a day full of hard drinking and whatever other activities a self-proclaimed man of Viking heritage finds himself engaged in at such an event. The corners of his mouth were slightly upturned. I think he was joking about the tank –– and people say ze Germans have no sense of humor.
I got a hard laugh out of it, and I am feeling somewhat sympathetic to the idea at the moment, but I’ll get to that.
I was invited and driven to the Spectaculum by a couple of very nice, very young German girls in black corsets. The event was held in Hohenwestedt, a small German town about 40 kilometers southwest of Kiel, in a sprawling area that alternates between lush, open grassland and thick forest, with numerous stages for bands, jugglers, comics, fire-dancers, and other assorted entertainers, and an array of vendor booths with food, crafts, medieval weaponry and clothing, and plenty of alcohol.
The invitation to the Spectaculum came the previous night after my third and final performance at the Lindenmarkt, an annual market that hosts a variety of local and regional artists and craftspeople and that takes its name from the near-1,000-year-old Linden tree that stands bolstered by several beams at one end of the street the market is hosted on.
I performed acoustic right on the old, cobbled road for my first two sets of music and again that evening following an amazing and sprawling feast that is prepared annually by the same sole woman for the various vendors who make up the market. This saintly woman must start cooking weeks in advance, as there are many mouths to feed and bellies to fill, and neither need is left disappointed. Quite the contrary. The next day’s breakfast included many leftover goodness from the night before.
Back in November, after a house concert in Bordesholm, where the Lindenmarkt is held, I was asked to come back in May and be the opening day’s performer for this year’s market. It was essentially this invitation that prompted my planning of the current tour in Europe.
Since the Lindenmarkt and the Spectaculum, I’ve had a whirlwind four days and nights: A rather large house concert in Duisburg where I sold out of my remaining copies of my most recent album, A Thousand Dreams; a return to Holland for my first show in Tilburg at a killer music bar called Cul de Sac; an enthusiastically received and well attended performance in the Brussels blues bar Café Bizon, which I had played back in October of 2012; and a day off, which I chose to spend in Lyon visiting some old friends and making up some ground toward Italy, where I am playing this evening.
Currently, I am sitting on the tracks in Lyon waiting to embark on what is already to be a long day of travel. This train was scheduled to depart 10 minutes ago, and it will be another 10 before we are actually in motion. France’s railway service, the SNCF, has already given me several reasons for abandoning future travel on their cars, and this delay is not encouraging my continued business with them.
The plan for today is to eventually arrive in fair Verona, famed city of Shakespeare’s Juliet Capulet, where I will be performing a house concert away up in the hills, I am told. However, it is neither a short nor an exactly straight shot to this north Italian city of star-crossed lovers. My route is meant to be: Lyon to Chambery, Chambery to Modane, Modane to Turin, and finally Turin to Verona, with a likely change in Milan. I am going to have to sort these details out when I get to Turin, which I will explain.
This delay I am enjoying will ensure that I miss my first connection in Chambery –– and Lord knows what awaits me in the ticket office there as I try to get back on schedule.
As I mentioned in my last report from Amsterdam, I am traveling primarily by train with Eurail’s Global Pass. France is one of the 24 countries covered by the pass. It is supposed to be, anyhow. Most of the countries that I’ve traveled in recently (Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands) make it quite convenient for pass holders. Get on the train you wish to be carried by, and off you go to your destination. No need for an additional ticket or an extra fee, unless it is a night train or a special high-speed line. France is not so cut and dried.
During my last tour in Europe, after a night’s gig in Bordeaux, I needed to get to Cherbourg, where I was to catch a ferry to Rosslare, Ireland. I arrived early to the train station, already having learned that in France one cannot simply get on a train and go. A separate ticket and reservation are required, and there is seemingly always an accompanying fee for this convenience, sometimes quite exorbitant. The scowling woman behind the counter, who I was watching as I moved through the line and was hoping I would not have the pleasure of dealing with, called me forward. I informed her of my plans. She told me it would be more than 100 euros to fulfill my travel goals, because there was no more space on the train for pass holders. I asked if she could route me another way. She said no and made it clear that our conversation was over.
I spent an hour talking to bus companies and rental car agencies trying to figure out if there was a cheaper way to get to Cherbourg. Eventually, I decided to return to the ticket office and see if I couldn’t speak with someone more sympathetic. Sure enough, a beautiful young woman with kind eyes and a warm smile had me routed to Cherbourg for nine euros within a few clicks at her computer. I gave her sour-faced colleague a parting glare and boarded my train.
Yesterday, when I arrived in Lyon from Brussels, now knowing better than to wait until the morning of my departure to get my ticket situation sorted, I went to the ticket office and waited nearly an hour to speak with someone. The woman who received me was clearly exasperated by my approaching her counter. I then handed her my pass. A hard exhale. I asked in French if she spoke English. Another hard exhale and a roll of the eyes. I told her my plans. She told me there was no ticket available for pass holders. She suggested I leave Lyon four days later. The back and forth began, and I eventually walked out 40 euros poorer, securing myself a ride about halfway toward my destination: Turin. Not ideal, but at least it would mean the end of dealing with the French railway and their staff.
But now, with this delay, there really is no telling. I am afraid my lunch plans with an old friend in Turin are likely an impossibility. Making my gig tonight in Verona shouldn’t be a problem; however, as I look out of the window of our now moving train, I believe, without exaggeration, that at our current speed, I could jog to Chambery faster than this French locomotive will make it there.
Of course, delays and re-routings are a given part of train travel. These things are to be expected, and I typically don’t mind them much. I usually can give myself enough time to be able to take it all leisurely in stride and enjoy the various hiccups as enriching textures and colors in a fascinating, ever-evolving and beautiful painting –– I even add hiccups of my own doing from time to time, like getting off at the wrong station or not getting off when I am meant to and ending up in Nuremberg when my intended destination is Prague, which I accomplished during my first adventure in European train travel in the fall of 2004.
I am just feeling a bit salty. My inner Viking is bulling his way forward.
In actuality –– after some deep breaths in and out and a little time staring silently out the window –– riding the European rails is a great pleasure for me. It is an efficient, effective, and typically enjoyable way for me to take in some downtime between gigs and cities. Some hours for self during a tour of constantly changing faces and spaces.
I must also say that my experience with the vast majority of French people has been most pleasant. My friends in Lyon tell me the customer service in France is somewhat notoriously poor, but much of my dealings, even with these agents of ill repute, has been positive.
And this brought-about changing perspective lifts my spirits, as I am shuttled along the beautiful French landscape toward Verona, a heavy fog resting low on the deep green and heavily forested foothills of the French Alps, which are now moving by at speed.
May 24, 2013
En route to Verona