The most important safety and security rule to know when starting out on your vacation abroad is KNOW WHERE YOUR PASSPORT IS AT ALL TIMES. Once I have landed at my destination, found my luggage and gone through customs, I head for the bathroom, my adjustment area. I wear a silk passport protector around my neck so my passport can be worn on my chest. My protector also holds my cash and my credit cards. In my wallet in my purse I carry only what I think I will need for the day. So I put my passport, money and credit cards in my safety passport protector and away I go somewhat secure in the knowledge that my stuff is safe around my neck, on my chest, and under my bra. Here is my scoop on bathrooms. I have never forgotten this. I once read about Debra Dean, author of the Madonnas of Leningrad, going to a restroom in the Copenhagen Airport. The walls of the stalls went all the way to the ground, even the door to the stall. When she tried to leave she pulled on the door of the stall and it would not budge. The lock, like one on a school locker, would just spin without catching. Eventually, a woman came into the bathroom and Debra frantically tried to explain her predicament in English, and realized the women on the other side did not speak English. The woman left. Debra, now in panic mode, tried the trick that works in all the movies. Run a credit card up and down the space between the door and the jamb. It didn’t work. The woman returned with another women who spoke a little English and Debra tried to describe her husband so they could find him. Her husband was eventually found followed by the airport security. There was an exchange of words about breaking the door down, then the sound of metal on metal and the door of the stall swung open. So….the moral of the story is Always Look Before You Lock. If the walls go all the way to the floor I gently prop my foot up and hold the door closed, not locking it while using the toilet. No easy task, but hey I am not locked in the stall! I try to wipe down the door with a Handywipe before I leave it too. This episode reminds me why I like the Babushka Ladies, the word I use to describe the helpful grandmotherly type women. Sometimes you can find them seated out in front of the bathrooms in big traffic areas of markets, museums, etc. in European cities. They look like someone you would not mess with, a meaty sort of woman with big arms, no smile. She sits behind a table with small toiletry items on it. You pay her to get into the bathroom. Men and women must pass her and pay her. She knows who goes in and out. I love this woman! I know if I don’t come out she is going to come looking for me. I know no one will be fooling around in her bathroom. I know I can adjust my passport protector. I know she can break down that door if she needs to!!!!! I look for the Babushka Lady bathroom! I’m sharing my private trade secrets here!
I have found that same security in other areas. Babushka ladies can be found at train terminals. For some reason I have problems with tickets and how to use them properly in the machines. Safety and Security Help #2: Watch the person in front of you to see how to operate any kind of machine, any machine that requires a stamp or placing a ticket into a slot. In Paris I once put my ticket in the train turn style in the wrong slot. How could there be two slots and I pick the wrong one? Well, anyway it ate my ticket. So my hubby trudged back to the line to buy another one. The line was long so I pushed the luggage to the side of the turn style to wait. While I waited more people approached the turn style and had the same problem that I had experienced. Except, one little detail, they just picked up their luggage, and pitched it over the turn style with their body following suit. What? Not long after, teens came along, no ticket at all and just jumped the turn style altogether. I just stood there. That’s when the Babushka Lady Police showed up. They asked me questions in french. I did a lot of arm waving and pointing and mime trying to explain about my ticket. They shrugged their shoulders and looked the machines over until my husband came with a new ticket. But, I thought all along someone was watching me on a camera and sent the Babushka ladies to see what was going on.
Safety and Security Help #3. Be on the lookout for Babushkas
Last year I stood perplexed at the train station turn style at Victoria Station in London. I fiddled for the right ticket, why are there always so many? Before I could say Jack Robinson there was a Babushka lady there who opened the turn style and told me to just go on through. There must be lots of cameras and ladies for me. I take comfort in that.
While at the Prague train station I encountered the Babushka Man. I placed my luggage at my side on the floor while looking up at the screen to see what platform I should be going to. The next thing I knew a man had picked up my luggage and was walking off with it. I was so surprised. I rushed after him, tried to speak to him, tried to take my luggage back. He kept walking and talking, with me huffing and puffing behind him, going through a tunnel, up the stairs and to a platform. As he put the suitcase down, I took a good look at him for the first time and noticed he DID have some sort of uniform on. Well it was a blue shirt and slacks that matched. I got the message to stay put. He left, but I didn’t think that I was on the right platform and how did he know? The train did pull in that I was to take, but not my carriage. There are numbers on the carriage that match your ticket and seat number. The Babushka Man came back to the platform to make sure I was still there. I watched him out the corner of my eye as he helped other people with their luggage. He watched me while the carriage I needed was brought round and hooked to the train. He motioned for me to get on. I obeyed and was so surprised when I boarded. There were little red velvety booths with sliding wooden doors instead of individual seats. Inside the booth a wooden table separated the cushioned seats. I felt like I was in Agatha Christie’s book, the Orient Express! I’ve never been on such a beautiful train. The Babushka man waved goodbye and I was off. I was the only person on that carriage. I felt bad that I was so stupid! While on the train a concierge came by and took my order for food and brought it to me. He brought me maps of Budapest where I was headed to. When I arrived in Budapest the door of the train opened and there stood a new Babushka Man to take my luggage. I let him. He talked and talked all the way to the cab area while I just nodded and smiled. I had no clue what he said. I tipped him big and wished he could share it with the Prague Babushka Man, who I knew thought I was a jerk.
I have encountered the Babushka Lady in Italy too. The Italian ladies tend to be skinny, older, wearing a black or flowered dress with hose to their knees and black comfortable looking shoe string shoes. It was raining, pouring actually. I was in the Piazza of the Vatican when it started to rain buckets. I noticed an unorganized queue forming in the street and thought it might be the line for a taxi. A taxi stopped. Five Brits jumped from the curb and stumbled over each other to get in that cab. An Italian Babushka lady materialized out of nowhere. She pulled the back door of the cab open and in no uncertain terms told the Brits what she thought of them. Evidently she had been standing there a long time. She was soaked through and through. When they didn’t get out she opened the taxi driver’s door and let him have it too. By now the Brits understood that she was having that cab now! No ifs, ands or buts! The Brits got out and she got in. I went to look for the metro.
In times of need, the Italian Babushka Lady is there for you. I have stopped them to ask questions. I have been lost. I like to greet them on the street. I talk to them on the bus. I know they are thinking my Italian sucks, but they always try to help me. In Milan, again at the train station, I waited by the yellow machine that needs to stamp your ticket before boarding the train. It didn’t stamp properly. Sure enough here came the Babuskas‘ to look at it. At least I had already made it through the turn style right? The ladies moved on and as I stood there a young woman rushed up and asked me in Italian if this was the right train to some city that I thought I had recognized on the boarding screen. I answered her, in my best Italian, trying to reassure her that it was indeed the correct train and she had enough time to make it. She looked shocked that I was not Italian. She scurried on, but I was so happy to realize I was now the new Babushka lady!
PS I have not had the nerve to try to get a picture of the Babushka, maybe this trip!