I Went: Europe

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Once upon a time, in January 1984, when I was 20, I got on a plane, went to London, spent a semester taking courses in English literature and English history, then hoisted a backpack with a sleeping bag strapped to it and set off to tour the British Isles and the Continent of Europe for two months or so BY MYSELF. I had one sweater, fewer pair of socks and underwear than I like to admit, a copy of Let's Go: Europe (at the time,Let's Go was the bible of the cheap traveler--I've been told its coolness has waned and the preferred travel guide is now The Lonely Planet series), my passport, and a Eurail pass. I was often profoundly lonely and on several occasions found myself in circumstances so desperate or extreme I was afraid for my life, but somehow I escaped not only death but serious injury--for that matter, I was never even robbed, though I was frequently menaced. Considering the class of hotel or hostel I stayed in, considering how often I slept in some isolated compartment of some night train, considering how willing I was to ask for and accept help from complete strangers, it's remarkable nothing truly bad happened to me.

For instance: in late April, a few weeks after the semester ended, I arrived in Edinburgh. It was cold and damp and I was not happy to be there. I had spent some time visiting friends in the North of England, partly because I liked them and partly because I wanted to kill some time before I started my journeys in earnest--I was afraid of the entire prospect of backpacking around Europe on my own, you see. But the time came when I had to go SOMEPLACE because I had two months to kill before my flight back to the states, and I figured I should see something of the British Isles before heading to the continent.

I wandered around Edinburgh and would have found it fascinating and delightful had I not been so very, very upset: was I really going to do this, I asked myself, was I really going to travel through all these foreign countries by myself, as cheaply as I possibly could? Was I even capable of it? But then it got late enough that I could check into the hostel, and the clouds broke and the sun appeared, and I shared a room with a very cool young woman from Ireland, and she suggested I take a ferry to Belfast and then tour Ireland--in particular, she suggested I head south to someplace picturesque like Kilarney, rent a bicycle, and see how very beautiful the island was--and it all seemed possible and potentially even fun.

So that's what I did, the very next day, which happened to be Easter Sunday. It was a singularly glorious day, the sky clear and bright enough to make you suspect the resurrection was a distinctly possible event. I traveled by train across Scotland, by ferry across the Irish Sea, and got into the Belfast train station late that night. Someone had told me that it was usually possible to get a night train in various cities, and that catching such a train and sleeping on it would save me the cost of a hotel. Unfortuntately, when I got to Belfast, the station was very nearly closed--the station master was waiting only for our train to arrive before shutting the place up and heading home--and there wouldn't be another train out until morning.

I didn't know what to do. I looked up the number of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the phone book, thinking some nice members of the church would help me out, but the number was for a chapel, not a bishop's home, and of course no one answered. But the station master offered to give me a ride to the home of a friend of his who ran a cheap bed and breakfast, and I accepted.

So I ended up in the house of some young guy named John, who fed me peanut butter and toast and chatted with me for a few hours, before offering me a couch where I spread out my sleeping bag and went to sleep. The next morning he made me tea, I gave him a few pounds, he told me which bus to take to the train station, and I caught a train and went to Dublin.

But that story could have ended so very, very differently. I ran into women who had similar tales to tell, except that they were raped and/or robbed by the station master and/or the guy renting out the spare bedroom.

As I mentioned, there were a few very dangerous situations, and there was one time in particular when I knew I was in very real danger. But I survived. And I did it all pretty much on my own, except for a few weeks in Greece and Italy where I met up with friends.

I would never undertake such a thing now. I don't know if I've become wiser, more cowardly, or more accustomed to a certain level of physical and psychological comfort, but I can't imagine wearing the same dirty sweater for three weeks (because it was too cold not to wear it and I was never in one place long enough to wash it, and I didn't have room in my backpack for a second sweater), sleeping every third night or so on a train, and, on those nights when I didn't sleep on the train, spending no more than $15.00 on a bed.

I am one of a supposedly rare breed, a woman who not only can but likes to read maps, so I could usually figure out a decent way to get where I wanted to go. I spoke reasonably comprehensible (if profoundly ugly, not yet having taken a class focusing on pronunciation) French, and I was clever enough that I could usually figure out enough German or Italian or whatever to make sense of instructions, and I was also not the least bit afraid to ask for help from anyone. So I got along. But I wouldn't want to do it again now. I am so happy to travel with Matthew, with his excellent French, and I stand back patiently as he conducts any necessary business with hotel clerks and taxi drivers. I am glad to stay in a three-star Paris hotel (not particularly glamourous, but comfortable enough) instead of some hostel where you have to provide your own sheets.

I suppose I COULD travel like a clueless cheap undergrad again, but what would be the point? I see little romance in roughing it any more, and having taken the approach to travel where you "visit as many of the great museums of Europe as you possibly can, and let yourself be profoundly moved by the art," I'm content to try a different mode.

In fact, I find that I don't feel the same way I once did about art, but discussing that will have to wait for another entry.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on November 25, 2005 4:37 AM.

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