Monday, April 25, 2011

Becoming a Europhile

Today is the 38th anniversary of my leaving on my first trip abroad. With the exception of the flight home from my grandfather’s funeral, when I was not quite two years old, it’s also the 38th anniversary of my first plane ride. And, no, I did not know how to unbuckle the seat belt until someone showed me how.

For those of a certain age, the $206 flight to Europe was something of a rite of passage.

Planes, boats, trains (ah, the EuRail pass!) were thronged with back-packed American kids with well-thumbed, bright blue copies of the Harvard Student Agencies’ Let’s Go Europe, the less stuffy, student alternative to Arthur Frommer’s Europe of $5 a Day.  Everyone carried American Express Travelers Checks, and the American Express offices in big cities were the places where you could pick up the occasional letter from home. (I still remember that the Am Ex in Paris was on Rue Scribe.)

The delicious freedom of being nearly incommunicado with your family for months on end will, alas, be a pleasure unknown to today’s student travelers. They will be armed with smartphones with universal coverage or, at worst, be able to Skype mom and dad from any old Internet café.

Not the intrepid travelers of my day!

My college roommate, Joyce, and I, out of college and waitressing to support our travel jones, had spent the previous summer-into-fall camping our way back and forth across the US in her Karmann Ghia. But that jaunt “only” lasted about six weeks. Mere prelude for our European Adventure.

We boarded our flight with $1,000 in Travelers Checks each, and the following (each, except for the tent), including what we were wearing:

  • Kelty back pack (with rain cover)
  • Sleeping bag
  • LL Bean backpackers tent
  • Mess kit (aluminum pan, plate, collapsible cup, fork, knife, spoon)
  • Water proof jacket with hood
  • Sturdy shoes
  • Bandana
  • Sweater
  • Two pairs of jeans
  • One long sleeve shirt
  • Two short sleeve shirts
  • One bra
  • Four pairs of under pants
  • Four pairs of socks
  • Pair of gloves
  • Pair of flip-flops
  • Nylon roll-up mini-dress
  • Nylon roll-up nightgown
  • Notebook
  • Pen
  • Wallet
  • Map of Europe

We landed at Heathrow, with nothing whatsoever planned, other than the address of a dump in Earl’s Court, which we no doubt found in Let’s Go, where we planned on spending a couple of nights.

We figured that we’d figure things out. Which we did.

Figuring things out included acquiring: A Gaz, one burner “stove” so we didn’t have to eat cold food when we were camping. Youth Hostel cards (we joined in Ireland, becoming members of An Oige), so we didn’t always have to camp. Sac couchettes, muslin sleep sacks used in Youth Hostels.

We also figured out that hitchhiking was going to be cheaper than a Eurail Pass, so we figured we tried it. Which we did, sticking our thumbs out on the outskirts of London and snagging a ride to Bath.

Other than a train in Spain, and a couple of trains in Italy, our land transportation was exclusively the Rule of Thumb.

Even at the time – let alone in retrospect, oy! – we recognized that we were putting ourselves in some harrowing situations: The doctor in the Mercedes swilling vermouth as he careened through the Tyrolean mountainside. The two French guys in Yugoslavia who, in the roadside café we’d stopped at leaned over and whispered “Nous avons hashish.” Which might have been an okay thing to say if we weren’t sitting next to a table full of Yugoslav police. The middle-aged guy in Belgium – the one with a kiddie car seat in the back of his car – who grabbed my breast while we were tootling down the highway. To list but a few of the times we were at risk…

Mostly, however, hitching was great fun. People bought us meals. They put us up. They drove out of their way to drop us off where we wanted to go.

And where we wanted to go was: England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Greece, and Turkey.

This was no “if it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium” bus tour.

If we liked a place, we stayed, including a couple of weeks spent camping on the beach in one of the lesser Greek islands.

This you could do back in the day, when you got out of college with little or no debt, and when it was generally accepted (although by no means the norm) if you wanted to fart around for a few years before embarking on a career.

Which both Joyce and I eventually did, mine in technology marketing, hers (quite successful) in the fashion biz.

Now changed utterly, of course.

People don’t hitchhike, here or there. Taking off four months to do nothing except see the sights, eat like the locals, and experience a peculiar form of transient, responsibility-less life has completely gone out of style. Even a twenty-something unencumbered by college debt would be reluctant to hit the pause button on their career path to kickback for any appreciable while. If they were going to head out, it would be with a posse of Facebook and Twitter followers lined up to read their every utterance. (OMG! Creep just grabbed my boob. What’s Belgian for douche! LOL.) And with plans to turn it into a book (self-published, probably), or make sure that the trip had some grand purpose, beyond Grand Tour, that would benefit their résumé. (I traveled through Europe to raise awareness for the Hangnail Foundation. Make that Mongolia: Europe is just so darned yesterday.) And whose parents would “allow” them to be out of reach – other than those letters to the American Express office – for four long months.

Thanks to advice we got from fellow Americans at those American Express offices, Joyce and I ended up playing one currency off against the other. A guy would tell us, “Change to Swiss francs.” And we would. Another guy would say, “You should buy Deutsch marks.” And we would. And damned if we didn’t make a profit on our “currency swaps” at every turn. (Thank God for those econ majors we met.)

Thus, after nearly four months buzzing around Europe, we each came home with $600 in our pocket. Which turned out to be Europe on even less than Frommer’s $5 a day.

I can’t say that every moment was pure joy. Some of it was spent in the pouring rain waiting for someone to stop and pick us up. (Leading me to develop Rogers’ Rule: No matter how terrible the spot is, no matter how rancid the weather, someone will eventually stop for two young female hitchhikers. Even if it is the Belgian lech who’s going to fondle your breast.) There were bedbugs on that train in Spain. I got an eye infection in Ireland.

But I pretty much loved every place I went: look, feel, tourist traps, non-tourist “stuff,” cities, countryside, food, language, “the people.”That first trip abroad was pretty much when I became a Europhile.

Now, I might not want to trade my U.S. citizenship in to live there – not yet, at any rate – but when it comes to figuring out where I want to go on vacation, there’s still no place I’d rather turn than due East.

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