Editors' Choice

Getting Grandma

by Barbara Robertson

It's important to know when to raise a stink.

The nicely dressed young man who had shared our compartment since Düsseldorf said goodbye in Munich, pressed a brown nugget the size of a hazelnut into the palm of my hand, and quickly got off the train.

"I think that guy just gave me a chunk of hash," I said to Yvette.

"You're kidding," she answered, looking at my hand. "No, you're not. That's amazing."

"What do you think I should do? Should I keep it?"

"Sure, why not? Just hide it somewhere. No one's gonna suspect us."

I don't know if it was some puritan ethic that stopped me from tossing a gift away, Yvette's confidence, or my evil twin named "curiosity," but I quickly stashed the little lump in my suitcase. And then forgot about it until the incident on the train in Yugoslavia when I learned what can happen when you never throw anything away.

It was Yugoslavia then, a communist country, not Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. We were slicing through it on our way to Athens after enduring a cold late-October day in Salzburg. Snug in our sleeping car, Yvette on one bench, me on the other, we stretched our legs out, drank a morning cup of coffee, and lazily watched the foreign film unspooling outside the window. We were naïve Eurail travelers; it was our first trip to Europe. We didn't know we'd be sharing the compartment until the door opened at our last stop in Austria, and "Grandma" struggled in.

She wore a heavy dark blue sweater over a brown cotton dress spattered with small beige flowers. Her gray hair was pulled loosely into a bun. A jumble of bags hung from one arm; in the other, she held a baby.

Yvette quickly scooted to my side of the compartment. Grandma humphed down next to the window on the bench across from us. She snugged the baby into blankets and pillows on the seat beside her and smoothed her dress over her thick legs.

We smiled at her and said, "Hello." She answered with something we didn't understand. We pointed to the baby and smiled again. The baby made faces. Grandma gibbered more words we didn't understand and grinned. She was missing a front tooth.

Yvette decided that Grandma had been visiting her children in Austria and was now schlepping the grandchild to her village in Greece to give the parents a break. While Yvette was spinning her tale, Grandma began unwrapping bread, cheese, fruit, and jars filled with baby food. We were hungry and glad someone had brought food, especially home-made food. We nodded appreciatively, said, "Oh, that's nice, thank you," and offered her a soda. She took the soda and smiled her toothless grin. Then she fed the baby, ate her lunch, drank our soda, and tossed everything they didn't eat out the window.

In the field outside the train window, a woman in a long skirt and head scarf cutting hay with a scythe put down the curved blade and looked up from her work. A horse tethered to a wagon nearby swished its tail.

"That was really horrible," I said in a sweet voice to Grandma, knowing she didn't understand a word.

Yvette joined in, smiling at Grandma, "I hope you get a stomach ache and your other tooth falls out."

Grandma smiled back and began changing the baby's diaper. When she finished, she put the used diaper in a bag, and stuffed the bag under the bench.

"Did you see that?" Yvette hissed behind a hand held in front of her mouth, as if Grandma could understand. "She threw our lunch out the window and saved a disposable diaper."

"She must be going to toss it out later."

"No," said Yvette. "I saw another one inside. I don't think she knows they're disposable."

We shared a candy bar and read our books. When the baby started crying, we decided to look for a dining car. On the way, we had to elbow through a company of soldiers. Yvette used the "F" word to tell them to back the "F" off, and marched on, head high, her wild, curly black hair bouncing with every stomp. They may not have understood English, but they understood Yvette. I slipstreamed behind her.

The dining car was an oasis. Slightly shabby, but with a pedigree-the Orient Express's poor cousin. On the walls, small bouquets carved with inlaid wood brightened the dingy mahogany panels. The lamps were antique, the table settings plain. It was the last car on the train; I could see farmland out the back window.

We didn't have Yugoslav money. We didn't have much money of any kind. There were no menus. A waiter came and tried to discourage us from ordering, or so it seemed. He didn't speak English. Because the train had stopped, Yvette decided he was telling us to wait until we started rolling again. Or maybe, she surmised, it was too late for lunch and the kitchen was closed until dinner. But, we were too hungry to wait.

We gathered all the coins we'd collected across Europe, put a pile of shillings, guilders, pfennigs, and marks on the table, and pled with the waiter by making sad faces and rubbing our bellies. He shrugged, took the coins and left. We waited, watching a group of men in blue work clothes near the train depot warm their hands over a fire in a metal garbage can. The buildings behind them were gray, concrete, faceless. A train whistle cried for attention.

Our waiter returned with steaming bowls of goulash, some crusty bread and two glasses of wine. We beamed at him. We would have eaten mush. As hungry as we were, though, we ate slowly, laughing, sharing stories, soup spoons clinking in the bowls. We had the cozy dining car to ourselves. No soldiers, no baby, no Grandma.

"This reminds me of something," Yvette said, pointing to a lamp. "Oh, I know. Our funky hotel in Amsterdam. What I remember most, though, was the look on your face when they said our room was on the fifth floor. I didn't think you'd ever be able to drag your suitcase up the stairs."

"Do you remember when we got lost that night walking back to the hotel?" I countered. "You tried to convince me the men staring at us in the cars driving by were commuters who had worked late. And then you looked up and saw the ladies in red corsets in the windows."

I swiped the last of the peppery goulash out of the bowl with a piece of bread, sipped my wine, leaned back and sighed. The train ride wouldn't be a disaster after all.

We decided to go back to our compartment, get our books, and spend all our time in the dining car. I slid open the door and stopped dead. Our dining car had been unhooked from the train and the train had moved a half a block farther down the tracks.

"Omigod Yvette, the train's going to leave without us. We have to go. Now!"

We leapt from the door of the dining car, ran alongside the tracks past a clump of passengers who had gotten off the train, and jumped on just as the whistle blew.

Shaken, pumped with adrenalin, we walked as quickly as we could through the jostling cars, eager to reach our snug compartment, Grandma or not. As we passed the first sleeping cars, we began to notice people moving suitcases around and repacking. Yvette said they were preparing for bed.

We learned the real reason when we squeezed past a man we thought was a ticket-taker to get to our compartment: He was searching the luggage. And that's when I remembered my little hazelnut.

"Omigod Yvette," I whispered in her ear. "The hash."

Hands trembling, I opened our door and we collapsed onto the bench. Grandma was just finishing another diaper change. It looked like the baby had eaten too much fruit.

"What are you going to do?" Yvette asked me.

"I don't know," I whispered as the customs officer put one highly polished shoe inside the door. The brass buttons on his pristine uniform gleamed. He glowered.

"Passports," he said sternly. He slowly examined them, checking our ashen faces against those of the happy young women in the pictures. Then, he pulled Yvette's suitcase from under the bench and opened it. Yvette and I sat stiffly, side by side, hands clasped in our laps, afraid to even blink. He shoved Yvette's suitcase aside with a grunt and opened the bag next to it.

It was Grandma's bag of dirty disposable diapers.

He couldn't get it closed. The smell ricocheted off the walls. It swam into our nostrils and crawled down our throats. The customs officer gagged. He gave us a sympathetic look. We smiled back sweetly. He stamped our passports as fast as he could, and left.

Yvette slammed open the window, stuck her head outside and gasped.

Grandma smiled and closed the bag.

I croaked from behind my hand, "Would you like another soda?"

Grandma got off the train at the first stop in Greece. We traveled on-to Athens and then to the islands. One day, on a beach in Mykonos, I gave my little hazelnut to a guy from Australia we had met a few hours earlier. He was leaving for Munich. We didn't have a pipe, anyway.


Barbara Robertson's work as a journalist covering visual effects and animation has provided the ticket for journeys to many countries over the years. When she's not peeking behind movie-making curtains, she hangs out at home with her husband and three dogs. She's won national and international awards for her articles, and writes regularly for The Hollywood Reporter, The Bark, Animation Magazine, Film & Video, Computer Graphics World, and other publications. This story also appears in The Thong Also Rises.

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.




Read more from Barbara Robertson, Editors' Choice

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