Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Windy Obsession

Sorry folks, but once more, bad news is in the making. We appear to be on the verge of another in this current string of ridiculously long-winded posts. That reminds me, wind will be a common theme as well. See, last Saturday after enduring an arduous ten-hour drive from Trieste, Italy to Brodarica, Croatia we made the short ferry trip to the quaint island of Krapanj, where we would embark upon a week-long flotilla around the islands and inlets of the Dalmatian coast, mostly between Sibenik and Zadar, both of which were targeted by Serb forces during the 1991-1995 conflict with Croatia.
Half an hour after arriving in Brodarica, we finally made it to the tranquil pontoon to which our home for the week, Sea Monkey, was docked. As is the norm, establishing diplomatic relations with our neighbours didn’t happen instantaneously. That said, we established a lively conversation with the waiter at Hotel Spongolia. The food was similarly lively, metaphorically not physically.
The metaphor wore off the following day. Aside from our skipper, Matija and hostess, Zana, the lead crew seemed worrying lackadaisical, passing over the technical briefing with all the depth of a conversation with John McCain. Further inciting fear, our personal skipper for the day, Rinko seemed to share the careless attitude of our mechanic. Whilst clearly a competent sailor, he was too intent on proving this, loath betide if he let one of us touch the wheel. Admittedly these were 25 knot winds we were dealing with, but he reacted with shock and awe when offered sandwiches and biscuits and proclaimed, “We do not do that in Croatia” when a cup of tea was bestowed upon him. Indeed, he only succumbed to conversation upon discovering that we are relations of “favourite NBA player,” Steve Kerr, better known as fellow white token to the Croatian Sensation himself, Toni Kukoc.
As Rinko basked in the realization that he was kinda, sorta in the presence of greatness, we narrowly avoided an ugly collision with an overworked water bomber before working our way up the river Krka to Skradin, a few kilometres downstream of the aptly named Krka falls. Poor Rinko was obviously desperate to flee the Sea Monkey, so after some vague manoeuvres that apparently constituted mooring practice, he jumped ship before that gangplank was even in place, leaving us to explore Skradin with the rest of humanity. Over the next few hours, the rest of our flotilla would arrive, leaving us to bathe in the murky waters of the marina. A strange day it was, we were left with no clue what to expect the next day. I woke fitfully just before 7am the next morning, panic-stricken and eager to depart for the Krka Falls. Alas, the pillow in my mildewy berth seized the moment and it would be another 2 hours before I would wake up to a sumptuous breakfast of very plain drinking yoghurt and cries of, “get ready, Johan, we’re gonna be late!” A quick sprint to an Italian-dominated toilet block and I was ready to go. The ferry to the falls wasn’t, but we did eventually reach our destination at around 10.30. There was something oddly Chinese about the whole thing; mass tourism off the beaten track, essentially. Still, the scenery was amazing and I felt nothing but unadulterated agony when I looked down and saw cargo shorts, not a bathing suit, hugging my thighs. Unfortunately they would miss the opportunity to plunge into the refreshing waters of the falls.
Soon enough, another Chinese feeling, of shallow awesomeness began to cloud our minds so we decided to make for the ferry back to the all-too-bright lights of Skradin and escape to tranquillity at Zirje, a large island 10 miles southwest of Sibenik. Winds were gusting up to 17 knots well inland so a sense of apprehension filled the bowels of the Sea Monkey but fortunately the wind died down in the Sibenski Kanal, making for a tame passage towards our mooring point at Stupica, an area of Zirje known to be infested with mines. So tranquil were the winds that we had to motor almost 5 miles of the sea passage although we were thankful for the calm seas when we had to venture out once more from Stupica to empty a precariously full holding tank. Cries of horror rang out as I turned the release valve. Worried, I hurried up to the transom and saw a putrid yellow smudge in our wake. Surprisingly, naivety was in good flow half an hour later as we dove into the water barely a mile from that traumatic sight
Later that night was the hallowed punch party. A non-violent affair, I discovered that Croatian regard for drinking regulations is as nonchalant as that of its Western European counterparts, serving up hefty cups of punch to us 16 year olds. Fresh fish with an applesauce-like potato dish brimmed on the table but the meal culminated in a fish eye eating contest, not something that bares going into too much detail about. Through a mist of alcohol and darkness, we somehow managed to seek out the Sea Monkey. Miracles were all around as we even managed to board the boat in what traffic police would most definitely define as an intoxicated state.
Fearing the aforementioned winds would pick up towards midday, we scampered out of Stupica, still oblivious to the mines lying in the hills above us. The wind-induced terror was so intense that we even set out in convoy with another boat, Musling II, the pronunciation of which was in question all week long. This proved to be a loose relationship for intentionally or not, a half mile separation boundary was maintained although the VHF crackled along throughout the voyage.
The winds never did pick up but instead a pleasant 15 knot wind blowing up the Kornati-kanal helped us make good time past the fishing boats further up Zirje and into the aforementioned waterway. The Kornati islands were true to guidebook form, offering a paradoxical stark beauty. Several times, I found myself thinking that it seemed too weird to be natural, some waterside tourist attraction. Hopefully some photos will be in order to illustrate my belligerent attempt at description, but anyhow all was fantastic until we reached the tricky open sea passage to the north of Lavsa Island, through which we would have to venture to reach Piskera marina, wedged between two of the 400 Kornati islands.
15 knots on the open sea proved to be a much greater force than the same windspeed in sheltered waters. Tossed around like a rubber duck, I counted my blessings between swells. I must have been counting them too quickly for as we trundled towards the marina past Musling “Muesli” II, 5 German speedboats emerged from as if out of nowhere and swept past us into an already crowded mishmash of wood and metal. God had mercy on us and with our faithful lead skipper, Matija, delivered the news that Pontoon 5 had been reserved for the hardy seafolk of the Sunsail Kornati Flotilla. And a few French motorboat babes. The more the merrier, non?
Shock, awe, Zana and more welcome news greeted us on the pontoon. Despite our lethargic pace along the outside of Zirje, we had “beaten” our “competitors” into Piskera, although by this time, Muesli was close on our tails. I’ll leave it up to you to intuit exactly what this meant. Anyhow, the heady heights of kayaking and snorkelling cast our minds from such silly thoughts as competition. The aquatic life wasn’t as interesting as the previous night but the warm, diesel-laced waters made up for it. The news that more fresh fish awaited us at dinner went down just as well, but the 1015 Kuna price tag wasn’t quite as well received. It was a good meal, but £100 pounds for a fish dinner would seem extortionist even at Loch Fyne.
By this point, the entire flotilla had made it past the harrowing Lavsa channel, meaning that the marina was near capacity. Sitting just over the hill on the exposed side of Piskera Island, I would have no idea that several hundred yachts and motorboats, along with their inhabitants lay just a few meters behind me. Indeed, it all seemed a world away as I gazed towards the shimmering light of a distant Italian lighthouse, discussing just that notion.
That brief, na├»ve foray into philosophy came to an abrupt end, dazzled by the bright lights of the marina but soon enough the brainpicking was back in full flow, this time trying to grasp some deeper, firsthand knowledge of the Balkan conflict. Bear in mind, this was onboard our very Croat lead boat, Pinta. Essentially all we nuanced out of it is that nothing too major happened in Zagreb. However, as Coldplay professes, all was not lost. We discovered Roman Coke, a lethal mix of some sort of spirit and…cola. It was under this uninhibitance that we discovered that Matija hates pasta, but “bearded guy” preferates it. Yes, he also preferates rice. Want more juicy tidbits? We also gleaned the fact that he works for a company that installs highway railings. Still, the night was about Roman Coke. Well, pancakes too, but that’s another story. Moreover, 25 knot winds apparently beckoned once more, so a healthy dose of sleep was in order.
A strange thing happened that night. Once more, the forecast winds decided not to pop by, perhaps fearing the reaction of a few hundred crewmates the next day. Instead, a mere 10 knots blew northwest, making sailing back down the Kornati Kanal, making sailing nigh impossible. On the plus side, I skippered the boat for the 8.5 passage back towards Zirje. Hoping that higher winds would fill our sails to the south of the canal, we pulled up the sails. This proved relatively futile for our speed never made it past 3 knots and was rarely close to that. Combining the low winds with modest swells coming in off the Adriatic made for uncomfortable conditions. Even though the wind eventually died off to the extent that 5 knots was a gust, taking the sails down as we lumbered towards Krapije, our destination for the night, proved a difficult task.
Any sail-related hindrance was absolutely worth it once we made it into Krapije harbour, where once again Sea Monkey and Musling II made a one-two finish. No marina to speak of, just secluded anchorages overlooked by rocky hills and a gentler sunset. As you can guess, once we managed to anchor according to the wishes of a certain Austrian boat, the water beckoned just as it did back in Zirje. Just as our surroundings were perfect, the water was not so cold that it was bracing, not so warm as to be stifling. “Is Krapije Croat for Paradise?” was a thought that crossed my mind.
The pristine peace was disturbed as Coconut Moon, another flotilla member made a spectacular entrance, steaming in at 5 knots with mainsail up. Not surprisingly, the lone crew member aboard the 37ft boat could be heard yelling, “trop vite! trop vite!” The drama mellowed quickly, although the errant mainsail remained hoisted. We thought they may have succumbed to a similar predicament as ourselves: our hoisting sheet had snagged on a protrusion in the mast, a problem that was solved at the cost of a toenail.
The crowded lucky-dip box that is my brain didn’t have time for such frivolous worries. Dinner beckoned as did a landlubbing trip to the town of Krapije. Along with the hardy crew of Wind Magic, we searched (successfully it may be added) for ice cream. We really struck it lucky. Not only did gelato meet our lips, but the glorious sight of Michael Phelps swimming to the success captured our salt-encrusted gaze. Our period of golden happiness however was short-lived. On the short trip back to Sea Monkey, the outboard failed, leaving the troubled back of my dad to row us the remaining several hundred meters. Luckily, some more fuel remedied the engine problems. Ultimately, it simply wasn’t possible to harbour any negative sentiment towards Krapije.
Having left Pinta for our two days of free sailing, we didn’t have a forecast for the following day, leaving us feeling comfortably in the dark. How right we were. The big guy once more had mercy with us. The winds struggled to breach the 7 knot barrier. Admittedly this lack of proper wind was getting rather dull, so it was rather exciting to have a German jetskier roar up to the stern and ask for directions to Krapije, to which we pointed vaguely behind us. Still, the winds had deserting us for good, perhaps saving their strength for one final hurrah so the prop speed scurried towards 2500 rpm as we steamed towards our lunch spot at Tijat, a small island roughly between Vodice and Sibenik.
Although not exactly a secluded anchorage, Tijat provided pleasant, calm water, perfect for its intended purpose of a place to swim and lunch. However, just as the final crumbs were being washed overboard, a transmission came in on the VHF from Pinta, saying that a large yacht had taken up all the berths at our initial destination, package-resort bound Vodice, so they were diverting to Zlarin, a mere 3 miles from Tijat and reputed to be a calm, quiet village with the added luxury of water and power hook-ups.
The short crossing allowed me another chance to take the helm, but as we entered the harbour something odd struck me. Two of the Zagreb tagalongs had been swallowed by an annoyingly…large, young blonde. Still, the legendary bearded guy remained but more to point, our supplies were running low, meaning such shallow thoughts could wait.
Frustratingly both the Jadrolinija ferry office and mini-market were closed, so in a desperate attempt to waste time, we pounded concrete (walked) for the remaining hours, passing by a so eloquently named, German, gasthaus. (Nazi connotations, anyone?) A pleasing change, the town definitely was not under siege from plagues of rather…hefty, shirtless tourists. The sprawling bellies were replaced by sprawling summer homes, a quiet fishing harbour and remarkably narrow backstreets, on one of which the market sat.
By this point, we had somehow made it through the hour and a half until opening time, so we embarked on another flight of fancy to the market. Kindly, all of humanity decided to guide us through the process, so the shelves were dwindling along with the check-out attendant’s smile once we made it out the door but all the same, we got more or less what we needed. A sumptuous dinner of I-can’t-remember-what appeared from the bowels of Sea Monkey several hours later, swiftly followed by another perilous search for ice cream, this time with the dairy-starved folk of Musling II and Servanto joining the hunt. It took a circuit of the town but eventually we laid eyes on a gelato stall lurking next to a marina-side restaurant. The ice cream wasn’t up to scratch with that of Krapije but having an actual town to look around, complete with tucked-away church, made it worth it. What’s more, thoughts on delicate differences in ice cream tastes tend to evaporate faster than Usain Bolt can run the 100m when the news that 40kt winds await is delivered.
Prior to this haunting report, we had heard forecasts of 25kt winds which ultimately failed to materialize, and when we rose to sea the flags sitting collapsed, naturally the big guy had taken mercy on us. Nah. Hell no. Once we rounded the northeastern tip of Zlarin Island, breaking waves crashed into the side of the poor Sea Monkey, her storm jib filled with 30kt winds. The sheer angle with which some of the foolhardy, fully-sailed boats were heeling had my heart in my mouth.
To make matters that much more inconvenient, the wind was blowing directly in our faces, meaning that a lot of tacking was required to go anywhere. For the uninitiated, tacking involves bringing the sails around to the other side of the boat by turning through the wind; a manoeuvre that can cause capsizes in dinghy sailing. You get the point, tacking in winds that ended up topping 35kts wasn’t much fun. After around an hour of waves and fear jolting the boat as it made little progress towards Krapanj, the call came in from Musling II that they were abandoning plans for a day’s sailing and motoring into the harbour.
The steadily increasing windspeed caused the waves to grow, so as we were being buffeted around we turned around and headed for Krapanj whilst I hauled in the storm jib, somehow acquiring an elbow gash and a rope-whipped eyeball in the process. 10 minutes later we turned around once more. In all the chaos, Dad had misinterpreted the GPS display. We were wondering why all the other Sunsail boats were going the other way.
Taking care to avoid the precariously shallow waters off the island, we turned around the southern tip of Krapanj an hour later. The winds dropped off by 10kts and the waves subsided a little. All the same, 10 boats waited to be moored, with only two local skippers to lead the way, so it was another 40 minutes before we were furiously yanking at ropes to secure ourselves to a remarkably calm pontoon. As per the norm, we were treading delicately over pebbles on the way to the beach within seconds of being secured. Due to the stormy conditions, the water was a little cooler, which in all honesty was refreshing and helped down the staple lunch of chocolate sandwich cookies. By now, the winds had picked up to 30kts in our oh-so-sheltered harbour. Contemplating boarding the pontoon, let alone any of the yachts was a life-or-death decision. One foolhardy skipper had been thrown from the gangplank and into the furiously churning waters below. White knuckles gripping onto the stern, he was tugged to the relatively safety of his cockpit. It wasn’t all bad. The swells crashing into the boats also passed by a concrete dock which jutted out into the channel, which meant that if you timed it reasonably well, you could dive into the top of a wave and be swept into the beach a little downwind of there.
That is how we entertained ourselves for the hours preceding the farewell dinner, diving into the perilously shallow waters (tombstoning, I believe its called), exacting the art of scurrying between island, pontoon and boat at exactly the right lull in swells and laughing at those unfortunate souls who found themselves deposited in the sea. A merry time it was, even if our nextdoor neighbours’ gangplank was snapped like a twig.
Although it seemed an eternity, the winds died down to the low 20s by 6pm, leaving us time for a beer, some hors d’oeuvres and a game of Uno before sauntering into Hotel Spongolia for dinner, seated, because we’re a bit Dutch, with the two Flemish families. An awkward silence followed, but eventually we got to talking, in a mixture of incomprehensible Flemish and English. Still, we learned that one family lived in just any suburb of Brussels, but a very important one. Desperately, I tried not to crack a smile. Bluntly put, I failed.
Anyhow, the slightly tepid food arrived, giving us an excuse to break off negotiations. The minutes span by and were soon followed by our fellow flotilla-ers, leaving a raucous last chat with the Pinta Peeps, where we discovered that we were their favourites. We had such a mirth-filled 10 minutes that as we walked to the nearby ice-cream parlour, Emmanuel galloped up to us and kindly reminded us that our tab sat unpaid. Once the matter was resolved, we strode on through a trattoria, past some stray dogs, loaded up on gelato and wandered on, eventually stopping at another finger pontoon reaching out of the southern tip of Krapanj.
Everyone, the whole island it seemed, was feeling drowsy so we clambered through our waiting suitcases and let REM, dreams to you and me, descend. No doubt soon enough they would be filled with memories of this amazing sailing trip.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Sidetracked in Italy

Several days ago, we crossed the Franco-Italian border near Bardonecchia, a small, picturesque Alpine town. The transition from the somewhat dumpy, industrial villages south of Chambery to this more stereotypical “mountain resort” was marked. For somewhere to appear more suave, more elegant than France, admittedly a relatively impoverished corner of France was impressive.

Imagine the confusion that stared me down as our train sped out of the Alps and past Turin. As the mountains became flowing plains, the quaint hilly towns became messy, sporadic smatterings of settlement spread over farmland. The dust settled as the train came to rest on the tracks outside Milano Centrale, the pronunciation of which I wouldn’t discover until the following day. My fears were affirmed. That “rustic” element emboldened in the holiday brochures was equally pronounced on the ground. If truth be told, that aforementioned layer of dust never quite settled over the streets of Milan.

My early impressions of the Lombardian capital originated chiefly from the city’s two soccer teams, Internazionale and AC Milan, both of which have long been amongst the elite of the footballing brethren. A city that has the ability to support two of the world’s most cultural, respected clubs must itself me pretty suave, stylish, or so I thought. Some areas of the station looked downright dilapidated, a slap in the face to graceful phalanx that housed the station proper. Likewise, the long, endless avenues stretching from Milano Centrale down towards the Duomo were filled mostly with 6-floor high, rectangular buildings. The connotation of style was lurking around. I just couldn’t find it, or least not until squirming past some Senegalese touts and onto to the piazza outside Duomo. A site to behold it was. The Duomo, Castello and surrounding area brought some style, austere though it was, to the otherwise drab financial capital, Milan. The dust clung to the facades but the Castello was particularly impressive. Indeed, it seems to be a case of perspective. In the scorching midday sun, many cities will seem tired and boring but life seemed to come to the streets at dusk. Not a natural tourist destination, this made sense. The people were out of the office and the dust invisible. Milan’s potential shone through.

The train ride the following morning was equally impressive. In complete contrast to most modern intercity trains, the aging carriage bound for Trieste brought back the sense of adventure from a slightly bygone era. Dust clung inside and out but the sense of nostalgia was mostly evoked by the compartmentalised layout. The route itself passed through many key cities such as Verona and Brescia after speeding past Lake Garda. Several hours later, we rolled over a long causeway, passing by a long stretch of water. I wasn’t sure where we were bound, but when we pulled to a stop, the sign read “Venezia,” so whilst one dose of confusion abated, another arrived. Why had we strayed from the path to Trieste? I guess it really was a stopping train. Anyhow, that’s another landmark city I’ve “been” to.

We were only 150 miles or so from our destination but the remainder of the journey felt an eternity. The train began to empty but as we passed through Monfalcone, several miles east of Trieste Airport, I began to find my niche in Italy. The startling coastline, the redbrick roofs, this was the Italy I thought of. No more dull Milanese urbanity, the vibrant port city of Trieste awaited. After 15 hours of rail-riding, our journey was coming to an end, or so I thought. The train station lay some 3km from our hotel, so we searched in exhausted desperation for the appropriate bus. Unfortunately a teenager lay keeled over in the first, but soon we found the line towards Via Dell’Istria. The only problem was that we couldn’t find the street sign. In the end, we passed around the city several times before a kind old lady showed us the way, not before some alarming exposure to Italian Goths, more hardcore but paradoxically upbeat in comparison to the British counterparts. Still, a sense of relief mingled with the cool air-conditioning of the hotel.

Later that night, we stumbled through a rain-swept street and into a local restaurant. The pizza was amazing, completely contrasting to the previous dinner. The gelato next door was equally impressive. Italian cuisine, particularly as grassroots level, deserves every ounce of its reputation. The meal brought with it a need to exercise so we attempted to get down to the dock, although that proved impossible. Still, the vibrance of Trieste was obvious. Our short jaunt through Italy was drawing to a close, but still I was confused. There didn’t seem to any rhyme or reason as to the dynamic of the cities I had visited or passed through over those 48 hours.

Un Jour Parisien

I must start this series of blogs with an apology. What follows will at times be a diatribe of blather, thanks to most of the memories being week-old by the time I actually got round to putting together the posts. Nonetheless, I hope there's something enjoyable about them.


***


For all of nine days, I had been building up to August 6th, the day I would first experience the apparent wonder that is Paris. True, I had driven through a rough section of the urban fringe last summer on the way to Chartres but this time, the true Paris waited.

Another dream of mine has been to “do” Europe by train, so shortly after 9am, we pulled out of Meldreth train station bound for the line’s terminus at King’s Cross/ St. Pancras Intl. After arriving in North London, it was a short trek to the Eurostar Terminal within the newly-renovated St. Pancras. Check-in was a reassuring breeze, little more complicated than putting a ticket through a set of turnstiles. I was beginning to understand the allure of train travel versus the human abattoir that constitutes the low-cost sections of Luton and Stansted airports.

The “departures lounge” pleasingly didn’t offer the plethora of duty-free junk seen at most airports, merely offering a coffee shop, sandwich bar and news-agent. Likewise, the lounge itself refrained from becoming a human cattle-pen, instead providing well-spaced seating, the same of which would be true aboard the Eurostar itself. Indeed, as we whizzed to Paris, arriving Gare du Nord in barely two hours, I only had one complaint. The luggage racks couldn’t fit much of anything in them, a small price to pay for the convenience of international train travel.

Gare du Nord itself greeted us with a whole-hearted, hot and sweaty handshake and by the time we managed to weave through its sprawling mass to the D-Line, towards Gare de Lyon, our knees were beginning to quiver, not purely due to the prospects of the city beyond that awaited us. After a similarly exhausting discovery of the maze that is Gare De Lyon, we basked in sweat-stained relief. Our hotel beckoned.

An urgent “fresh-up” was required but soon we were on our way with no real aim or direction. Intending to sample the famous Velido scheme of Paris, we instead trundled through la Musee de Sculptures en Plein Air. Eventually we ended up, via an aqualemon rest stop at the Centre George Pompidou with no real idea of what lurked within. I had heard that the centre was an architectural masterpiece. Although a very unique structure, it would be difficult to describe the Pompidou as masterful; Zany, most definitely but definitely not stylish.

This perception is in contrast not only to the immediate area, which is brimming with buskers and bustling cafes but also to the galleries and exhibitions of the Pompidou. The two most striking galleries occupied the top two floors, which also commanded fantastic views over Paris. The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and other legendary, traditionalist sights were staring us back in the eye, an ironic experience to say the least.

The 6th floor exhibition contained the most contemporary of abstract, socialist-themed art. There seemed to be an emphasis on destiny for directions and guidance were nowhere to be seen. Highlights included a praying Hitler and a darkened room titled only as “Punishment.” My feet were shaking as a meandered back into the humid confines of the exterior escalator. Contemporary art can be awesome, immediately thought-provoking or dull, bland and cheap. The exhibition entirely fulfilled the former category but unfortunately parts of the gallery below our jelly-legs didn’t evoke that quivering wonder bestowed by its literal and metaphorical higher-ups. That isn’t quite fair – Miroslav Vichy’s exhibition was fascinating. To think that his photographs were produced entirely from homemade camera equipment shows the ingenuity and mastery Vichy possessed in regard to his discipline. Unfortunately those qualities were lacking from his gallery neighbors. Many canvases were merely splattered with paint. The awe of the more memorable exhibits could not, however, be damaged. My brain was raging right through until we arrived across the Seine in the Latin Quarter, in search of gelato. This was evident for we walked halfway to the Louvre, completely the wrong direction in other words.

Once we actually made it tour intended destination, the scents and sights of the Latin Quarter descended upon me. The smashing plates, the oozing crowds and the delicate food. I understood the hype. Still, tens of thousands of my fellow temporary Parisians also understood this concept for elbow room was hard to come by. After the gelato madness, we headed back to the Gare De Lyon, meandering along the vibrant banks of the Seine. I must admit to feeling bewildered upon arrival in Paris but by the conclusion of my 6 hours on the streets, I felt six months may have been a long enough period to begin to get a feel for the city.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Back on the Long and Winding Road

Just under a week ago, I was sitting, crammed into one of American Airlines' new-age economy seats at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. Rendered senseless by fatigue and frustration, I ridiculed the airline. Along with the entire airline industry, they can breathe a sigh of relief next week. Wednesday marks the day I leave for Croatia, but with a twist. Not once will I soar 38,000 feet up in the air. No, I'm taking the train to Hrvatska, via Paris, Milan and Trieste.
My only previous experience of long distance train travel came in China, where I endured "state-regulated heating," invasion of privacy and a snoring bunk-mate. Then again, I loved it, so if anything I'm wary of our Eurostar and TGV jaunt across France and Italy.
Then again, the luxury of no unexplained rolling halts in the middle of nowhere combined with guaranteed heating carry some merit in offsetting the lack of excitement. Whereas Chinese train travel is fun in a more earthy sense of the word. Due to the design of the carriages, people are forced to be more open and social, so the climate arises for interesting and for the most part enjoyable experiences. For the record, yes, I enjoyed that frozen night in Pingyao.
On the other hand, I can enjoy a smooth but somehow less fun journey in Europe. Everything runs at 200km/h+, so I will be able to sample that Germanic efficiency but at the same time, I hope that something interesting will happen.
Still, until I actually get on the Eurostar in North London, my suspicions will remain as such. Unfortunately as the clock winds down to departure, the notion that we're leaving after only arriving back 9 days ago sinks further in. That in itself is not bad, but the accompanying realization is that I have to PACK! (PANIC?)

Au Revoir/ Ciao/ Nabai