Thursday, May 12, 2005

It was twenty years ago today …

(These accounts will continue through the summer of 2005)

A 45-minute stopover at Keflavik for comprehensive Icelandic souvenir shopping may indeed have afforded my first official steps on European soil, but in truth, the inaugural stroll across the continent’s sacred ground must be said to have taken place at the Luxembourg City international arrivals terminal.

After passport control and customs, I spotted an “exchange” window. Exhausted from a night of little sleep, I turned and asked a fellow passenger whether I should get French or Luxembourg francs.

“Well, that would depend on where you are, wouldn’t it,” he replied, with a surliness borne either by his own sleepless transatlantic night, or perhaps an upbringing of pain and betrayal suggested by an unmistakable New York City accent.

Nonplussed, I waited silently in line and when my turn came, swiftly shoved the immaculately clean traveler’s check through a tiny aperture, waiting to see what sort of money would come spitting back, and hoping I wouldn’t have to answer questions in an unknown local dialect.

The teller motioned toward my passport and yawned. Luxembourg francs appeared … and a new ritual had been experienced.

Further ahead, the baggage conveyor disgorged my inexpensive Service Merchandise “athletic club” gym bag, which lacked backpack convertibility, but had a handy shoulder strap – and one of the strap’s connecting loops had been ripped away from the fabric by the baggage sorting claws, leaving it useless, and subsequently fating the bag to be carried like a suitcase for the remainder of the journey.

Finally I emerged into a covered plaza, followed the signs for an airport bus bound for the central train station, and paid the driver with a crisp Luxembourg franc C-note. A short suburban ride later, the bus glided into its lane at the stylish old Gare, and I bounded out, finally, into a stereotypically busy, sunlit European street with sidewalks, bicycles and cafes.

All well and good. Now what?

Somewhere in Luxembourg City there was an officially sanctioned international youth hostel with a reservation waiting just for me. How to get there? Should I buy a city map, or risk humiliation by asking directions of a possibly non-English speaking passer-by?

An Internet kiosk was out of the question, as the information superhighway had yet to be invented by Al Gore.

Looming before me was a large sign that turned out to be a map of the city, providentially erected as a public service for ignorant foreigners exiting the train station for the very first time. Walking toward it, I abruptly stumbled and looked down to see the arm of a street person in a decently clean suit passed out drunk in the shade of a fountain.

Fragrant and snoring, he was no help at all, but the map showed exactly where I was, and precisely where I needed to go, which looked to be about two kilometers in a straight line.

Easy enough on the face of it, except the street names in French defied easy memorization, and most importantly, the map failed to show the irregular topography of Luxembourg City, which lies on ridges and hills and is contoured not unlike West Virginia.

My 2-km scenic hike took almost two hours, mercifully ending when it did only because I finally chanced by a pole sporting various directional signs, one of which was the familiar hut-and-tree logo pointing the way to the youth hostel.

It had taken so long to perform my simple arrival tasks that the hostel already was open for afternoon hours. I checked in without difficulty, located my assigned bunk in what would become a completely filled 12-person dorm room, declined both a shower and an institutional dinner of noodles and mystery meat, never once considered drinking a beer, and proceeded to sleep 15 hours straight through ‘til morning, a continental breakfast, and the trek back to station to board my first train.

It was the 13th of May, 1985.
Two decades have passed since that confusing and exhilarating day in Luxembourg, and it has become clearer with each passing year that my decision to take a “handpacking” trip to Europe (backpack straps came later) – a summer-long escape that was conceived and executed with a single-minded determination unknown to me at the time – was the most important one I’ve ever made.

With it, I finally began the overdue transition from comfortably numb middle-class American to “citizen of the world,” as Edwin Moses so eloquently put it during the 1984 Olympics.

Although much academic groundwork had been laid prior to landfall in Luxembourg, it required practical application on the ground to gain the confidence necessary for learning while in Europe – and retaining the experience upon returning to New Albany.

The 1985 trip constituted a life-altering epiphany, but in truth, even the most minor of ephemeral insights would have seemed comparatively huge given my indecisiveness and lack of focus during that period of my life.

To be sure, having a college degree in philosophy made for witty cocktail party repartee. It accomplished precious little else, sufficing neither to impress women nor to make a mint. Career choices? Those were for fools who never saw the sunrise after a night closing every bar in town, and already were surveying their ten placid green acres with split-level dream home, riding lawnmower, and a fridge filled with Old Milwaukee Light.


Instead, or so I rationalized, my two part-time jobs were just fine, dependable for paying the bills, and also providing a semblance of scheduling flexibility in the event of hangovers – as there always was enough left over to buy beer. Why else would you work at a package store?

I got by, but I wasn’t going anywhere, and I knew it.

In 1983, a teaching friend asked if I would accompany him as a second chaperone on a whirlwind student trip to Europe the following summer. I’d have to pay, but the price seemed reasonable at $1,600 for nine days, with airfare, hotels, motorcoach travel and most meals included.

I was enthused, responded affirmatively, and began a savings account with money from a newly matured whole life policy.

A few months later, I visited the public library for a completely unrelated reason, and walking down the aisle, happened to pass the travel section. The first title that caught my eye was “Europe on $25 a Day,” by Arthur Frommer.

This prompted a double take. Was it a misprint? A scam? Could it really be true? Skeptical but suddenly curious, I checked out the book and took it home, poured a beer, and started reading.

Cue the orchestral swell and unleash the starburst.

For most twenty-something males, it would have required the woman of their dreams running bikini-clad across a beach during a rainstorm to elicit such a response as Frommer’s book did from me, for in it, there were clear and solidly reasoned tips for how to do Europe right … and for longer than a week.

Frommer’s play-by-play was relentlessly informative and effortlessly evocative. He offered rudimentary descriptions of the sights, but it was the technique tips that grabbed my attention: Always think like a European traveler, not an American, and like a local, not a visitor.

Don’t expect things in a foreign country to be the same as at home, and expect to pay more when they are. Think a bit, plan a bit, and accept the available bargains. Don’t eat every meal in a restaurant. Walk, ride the bus, rent a bike.

My new hero stated that any trip should be more than a postcard or a Kodak moment before the Eiffel Tower; rather, it should be educational, a rare and cherished glimpse into a different world from that of the traveler’s home. .

With a brain hard-wired for the humanities and history, not mathematics, doing the numbers never is easy, and yet even without a pocket calculator, the implications quickly began to add up. Using the student trip price as a base, the anticipated $700 for a plane ticket would leave the solo traveler with $900 – for 36 days, not nine!

And what if I were to postpone the epic voyage for a whole extra year, leaving even more time to save money … why, the trip might last three months, not nine days, and cost no more than double the shorter duration.

My most passionate affair had commenced, and has not lessened in its intensity to the present day.

For the next year and a half, my escalating European travel obsession was fed a steady diet of travel books, articles and PBS documentaries. Fresh copies of Frommer’s essential tome and the slightly more irreverent “Let’s Go: Europe” volume were purchased. Rail schedules were studied, and European history studied with zeal unlike that sufficing to pass a college course.

Plans were jotted, expanded, revised, discarded, and brought back from the depths of the waste paper basket. I acquired a Pentax K-1000 and learned to use it, just barely. The camera began to make much more sense after I relented to the rejoinders of friends and visited an eye doctor, who expressed wonderment that I’d been able to drive for so long without mishap, and prescribed glasses.

I stepped from his office, donned my new specs, and observed that trees were composed of individual leaves. All the rest was a downhill race, and as the spring of 1985 approached and the departure date neared, a rough outline settled into place.

The round-trip flight to Europe would be on the then-cheapest Icelandair, from Chicago to Luxembourg, departing May 12, and returning August 8.

Not yet 25 years of age, I qualified for the 2nd Class Eurail Youthpass, but the 1st Class standard adult card for three months was only $40 more than a 1- and 2-month Youthpass combined, so I opted for adulthood.

However, youth was served when my hostel membership card arrived in the mail, followed soon after by an international student I.D. (thanks again to my friend in the university registrar’s office for the rubber stamp needed to convince the authorities of my educational status).

I was utterly convinced that it would be my only trip to Europe, ever, and planned a purely kamikaze itinerary accordingly, incorporating nights on trains sleeping in seats (easier planned than done), on boats sleeping on the floor (ditto, but at least I’m not prone to seasickness), and taking advantage of every trick I could remember from the guide books to skim a dollar for later use.

Unfortunately, as evidenced by the opening day jitters in Luxembourg, my well-read plan did not take into account the greenness, timidity and stubbornness displayed by a first-time traveler who quickly became convinced that he was in far over his head.

Resource materials were clear and detailed, but practice wasn’t always the same as theory. The profusion of languages, customs and currencies sometimes overwhelmed the senses. Because ATM’s were not located on every corner as they are now, the failure to note holidays or erratic business hours led on more than one occasion to foodless nights. There were missed connections, confused fumbling and disappointments aplenty.

Somehow, despite the red-faced embarrassments, the cheapest hostel in town already booked solid, the standing-room only overnight train trip, the pain in my arms from lugging that silly gym bag, a fear of squat-only “toilets” in Turkey, forgetting to bring a towel and using my shirt to dry off after a shower, ringing the night buzzer when the door was wide open … somehow, a shocking thirty pounds lighter at the end than at the beginning, it all managed to work out.

Twenty years on, two relatively odd twists stand out in my memory.

First, with so much time spent waiting on trains and riding them, and resting in hostel common areas after a long day, and sitting in restaurants or park benches watching life’s rich pageant – with spare time to burn – very little of the trip was committed to writing. Only snippets and random observations survive, along with a fairly accurate day-to-day record of my progress.

Why? It may have been laziness and the accumulated weight of bad habits that resulted in my not devoting the necessary effort to document the trip in greater detail, or perhaps the sensory overload was too much to handle.

It certainly wasn’t because of the alcohol consumed.

To this day, people don’t believe me when I say that very little alcohol was consumed during the first European jaunt. In the beginning, there were stray beers here and there, but nothing approaching intoxication until I let loose for a night in Rome with a group of fellow travelers, having discovered cold, 2,000-lira (one dollar) 2/3 liter bottles of Carlsberg (and cold!) at a bar down the street from our pension.

Later in Turin, I drank with my cousin and his pal Scott, and after that at local place in Vienna and the Augustiner beer hall in Salzburg … of course, there was the Hofbrauhaus in Munich, and numerous pints of Guinness in Sligo, Ireland while watching Live Aid on the telly … and we can’t forget the vodka with the Australia during the Leningrad stay near the end … can we?

But seriously, fifteen drunken nights out of 90 is a fairly poor record for the allegedly professional drinker I fancied myself to be at the time, and it owed entirely to caution, to the fear of letting go in an unfamiliar environment, especially at night, walking long blocks back to bed following revelry. Also, there wasn’t much money, and I intended to keep it.

Stepping off the plan in Chicago on August 8, 1985, I had exactly $100 in my pocket. The rest was gone, and for as good a cause as could be imagined. Arthur Frommer, who helped start it all, ultimately was wrong in quoting a $25-a-day figure. Unlike today, the dollar was strong, and the final calculation came out to about $19.50 a day.

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