Adventures, Odysseys & OrdealsApril 17th, 2009 at 14:45
In 1973, at age 18, I journeyed to Europe with a female friend who got cold feet after our first few days in England, and after struggling with the decision to continue on my own (including a tearful international call to my mom from a pay phone), I pushed forward for nine weeks by myself. These events turned the trip from a fun adventure with a good friend into a much more intense existential odyssey, a stranger in a strange land of languages I could not speak or understand and other heavily developmental experiences.
Actually the trip had originally been conceived by my two female friends to go together, and I had later asked if I could join them. They had agreed, though I’m not sure how a male friend joining their trip changed the dynamic, I don’t think I was sensitive to that at that point. We had targeted flying to London in September 1973 and travelling through Western Europe for two or three months. The two of them had just graduated from high school and I had completed my first year of college and figured I would take a year off from that educational enterprise for this trip. I worked all summer at a local Hilton motel making minimum wage as a “house boy” helping guests with their luggage, doing janitorial work and cleaning guests’ rooms to save the money for the trip. My mom may have tossed in a couple hundred dollars to help me pay for the plane ticket.
Anyway, due to other circumstances one dropped out but the other decided to continue with the plan and go with me. We were friends but not a couple. At that time many of my closest friends were female peers in school or my theater group, but I had never had an actual romantic relationship of any significance.
I’m not sure I really knew what I was getting myself in for, but I did have that previous experience spending the summer in England with my mom and brother, three years earlier, plus a two-week Russian Club trip to the Soviet Union a year after that. Add to that the adventures of long family car trips back east or the ad hoc day-trips with my brother and dad. So I felt comfortable with being a traveler and the logistics involved, and I was not intimidated by being in other countries where I did not speak the language very well.
So we got our passports and bought our plane tickets and alerted people I knew in Oxford and Munich by mail that we would be coming and trying to look them up. Other than that there was very little additional planning, other than deciding what clothes, toiletries and other personal items to fill our backpacks with. I recall having basically three changes of clothes besides what I was wearing.
We flew from Detroit to Gatwick Airport outside London, and spent our first night in London inauspiciously at a crummy youth hostel type place with cockroaches and bed bugs. The next day we were off on a bus to Oxford and spent a couple nights staying with the family in Oxford that had been our neighbors when my mom, brother and I had lived their for a summer three years earlier. Then from there we went by bus again to Salisbury to see Stonehenge. It was that evening that my trip companion shared with me that she was uncomfortable continuing and that she would be returning to London to meet up with her parents who were planning to fly over and meet her there for some sort of a family vacation. I was so caught up in my own feelings of being left on my own, alone in another country, that I don’t think I really solicited exactly what her issues were with truncating our trip. We agreed that we would return together to London, find a hotel there, and she would wait for her parents to join her.
My first thought was that I should throw in the towel, return to London and figure out how to catch the first flight possible back home. My second thought was that I did not want to admit defeat so easily. I had a lot of my own time cleaning hotel rooms all summer at $2.10 an hour invested in my plane ticket, plus a great deal of pride as a budding world traveler. And how could I be comfortable telling people that I had bailed on my European odyssey so quickly and completely and have any self-respect?
I could not answer that last question satisfactorily in my own mind and realized that like it or not I somehow had to continue with this now very different sort of journey. Looking back now at my dilemma, it seems like a very negative motivation that was pushing me to continue, but in hindsight, based on all the experiences I had and the personal development the trip catalyzed, I made the right decision. But I was certainly no longer viewing the next couple months as a fun adventure.
So I found a private phone booth down the street from my youth hostel, one of those iconic red ones that you see in TV or films set in England. With a pocket full of British coins and a helpful operator I managed to make the connection back to the states and was grateful when my mom answered the phone. My voice was shaky and the tears flooded out of me as I explained to her what had happened and that I had decided that like it or not I had to continue. I recall her being very understanding and striking just the right tone of being very concerned for my welfare but supportive of my decision. She insisted that I send her a postcard every day from wherever I was and to call her again collect whenever I needed to talk.
So I thanked her, still in tears, composed myself and returned to my youth hostel and did my best to try to get some sleep (despite my mind buzzing with all the implications of my decision) before the new day came in this brave new world that felt not of my making, but in retrospect certainly was.
My friend and I took the bus back to London the next day and found an inexpensive actual little hotel, rather than another youth hostel, to stay. After a couple nights there, I parted company with my travel companion, wished her well, took a bus to the train station and boarded a train that would take me to a ferry across the Channel and then on to Basel, Switzerland, from where I would change trains and head to my next destination, Munich in southern Germany, with the hope of hooking up with a German couple I had met with my mom during our trip to England three years earlier.
I remember clearly arriving in Basel at maybe three in the morning after that long train ride, exiting the train in the midst of a huge busy station, full of people speaking languages I did not understand and the train schedules in German on the various displays on the walls. I had to fight back fear and homesickness to keep focusing on the task of buying a ticket on and finding the next train to Munich. Luckily here and most places I went I could find somebody who spoke at least a bit of English, and I even learned a few phrases in German along the way to help me navigate mass transit and grocery stores.
By morning I was on a train to Munich, feeling a bit better that I had successfully negotiated my first foreign-language train station, and that I would hopefully end the day hooking up with my friends in Munich who knew me and spoke pretty good English as well. Things did not work out that way. I arrived in Munich in the midst of the popular yearly “Oktoberfest” beer festival, with every hotel and youth hostel in the city packed to capacity, and my friends not answering my phone calls. (Weeks later, when I finally hooked up with them, I would learn they had been out of town.)
Where I figured out to sleep that night was the first in a series of adventures that I will document elsewhere, but already I had thrown myself into a hugely developmental “deep end” that I was in no way looking forward to but determined to traverse somehow and return home a triumphant world traveler.
Our daughter Emma, now 19, let her mom and I know last night that she is seriously considering moving to Chicago with the same best friend that shared earlier journeys with her to Quebec, Montreal and Portland. As she explained her motivation to go, I saw in her the same developmental urge that put me on that plane to Europe, now almost 36 years ago. It is scary how much I see my own self at that age in her eyes, her posture, her curly hair and her determination to throw herself in the deep end.