Army Brats

My European Backpacking Trip ID

My European Backpacking Trip ID

It is interesting that some of us, including yours truly, are bitten by the travel bug while others of us don’t seem to be into this sort of adventure at all, even when blessed with golden opportunities to do so. As I learned from my dad, life at its best should be an adventure, maybe not always fun or easy, but a compelling narrative to experience and share with others. It was that principle that motivated me to plan a three-month European backpacking odyssey with one of my close high school friends. It was also that principle that inspired me to keep going when my friend and travel companion decided to bail on our European adventure and head back to the United States.

So in early October of 1973, age 18 and setting out on my own to continue my travels, I boarded a train in London that would take me to an English Channel ferry and then by train again from Calais to Munich Germany, and plunge me into the deep end of my now solo odyssey. I set my course for Munich (by way of Basel Switzerland) because my mom and I had met a couple from that city three years earlier when we lived in Oxford England for the summer. My mom had continued to correspond and had alerted them about my planned trip, though no exact plans had been made for me to rendezvous with them. After the stress of losing my travel partner, and contemplating the remaining planned two months of my trip on my own, I was motivated to seek the shelter of any friends I could find on this foreign continent.

I really felt that deep end for the first time when I exited the train from Calais in the big busy Basel station, with its signs in German and French, neither language I could really speak more than a dozen words, and attempted to find the train to Munich and buy a ticket. Staring up at huge ever-updating displays of “Ankunft” and “Abfahrt” (arrival and departure) and people everywhere speaking words I did not understand. Given that, at least the clerks working behind the counters were accustomed to foreign travelers, even if most of those same clerks did not speak any English, and I managed somehow to ask for, purchase, and pay for that ticket, and successfully board the next train for Munich.

The Munich station was even more chaotic than Basel’s, with people everywhere including outside on the surrounding streets. I did not know at first that I had stumbled into the Bavarian capitol during its yearly Oktoberfest, the busiest week of the year. I called the number I had for the couple we had befriended in England three years earlier, but repeatedly there was no answer. Looking for a “Plan B”, I discovered that the nearby youth hostel was full, along with virtually all the hotels, cheap or otherwise, that I might have in desperation paid for a bed to sleep in.

On my own in this crowded chaotic environment, I quickly learned that these major European travel nexuses, like the Munich train station (and youth hostels I later stayed at) usually had a fair amount of other older youth and/or young adults like myself from the U.S., Great Britain, Australia and other English-speaking countries, also traveling about like I was. This impromptu network became a very important asset that I could usually tap into when needed.

In the Munich train station it was a Canadian guy named Bill, maybe a couple years older than me, who noticed me looking around perplexed and came up and said hello. I shared with him my dilemma, and he provided the possibility for a solution. He was also traveling on his own, like me, and had arrived just several hours earlier and had been presented with the same lodging dilemma. Bill had had the fortune to meet an American, Stu, again around our ages, whose dad was stationed at the U.S. military base in Munich. Stu was living in a college dorm on the military base and taking classes at an extension of some U.S. university (I don’t remember which one), and offered Bill a place to stay while he was in town. Maybe Bill’s impromptu host could find me a bed or couch to sleep on as well.

Sounded good to me… I was quickly learning to go with the flow, have low expectations when traveling, and focus on the basics, which in this case was that anything had to be better than sleeping in a busy train station. I tagged along with Bill as he guided us back to his host’s environ. When introduced by Bill, Stu was gracious and welcoming and offered me he and his dorm mate’s living room couch to sleep on.

Bill, Stu and I had a bond that I ended up sharing with many other people my age that I met in my European odyssey. We were immersed in that flower-child, hippy ethos of solidarity with others of our kind. I certainly looked the part with my long hair, bell-bottom pants and pack on my back. Stu had his long “freak flag” hair as well. Thinking about it now I recall Graham Nash’s opening lyric in his 1970 Crosby, Stills and Nash song “Teach Your Children Well”…

You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good bye

Part of that bond was very often celebrated by “recreational intoxication”, which was the state of things when Bill and I were invited into Stu’s dorm suite. Stu’s living room couch (my prospective sleeping place) currently sported two of Stu’s fellow army brat student buddies sharing a pipe with a big chunk of hashish in the bole. There was also a half-full bottle of Tanqueray gin on the coffee table with a scattering of shot glasses. I unburdened myself of my fifty-pound backpack and gratefully (dutifully?) took my place in that third spot on the couch, joining, at least for now, this “circle of equals”, passing our “peace pipe” of sorts. Between the THC and the alcohol chasers I got seriously stoned, pretty quickly, to the point where I was having “rushes”, in my case feeling like my body was accelerating backward into the cushions of the couch where I sat.

With continuing gratitude and great focus I endured this ritual without passing out or getting physically ill (on other occasions I was not quite so blessed), until my couch mates and my host decided to call it a night, and I had the sofa to myself and transitioned more gracefully into unconsciousness.

Over the next three days Bill and I explored Munich and frequented the Oktoberfest tents set up by the region’s brewers, with their oompah-pah bands, big glass mugs of beer and even bigger bouncers at the entrances and exits. I quickly learned to request, “Ein grosses bier, bitte”, and was rewarded with a grand foam-dripping mug of amber liquid way tastier than any of the standard American beers I recalled from before my European trip.

We also spent a fair amount of time those three days talking to our hosts and their circle of American army brat college student friends. I was a bit shocked to find that most of the group spent the bulk of their time in their little campus enclave, attending their classes during the day and limiting their evening hours to pretty much just hanging out with each other, generally getting high and drinking the cheap booze they could buy at the base PX. I thought it was ironic that I had spent all this money and done all this planning to get to Europe so I could explore this historic continent, while they were already here, but rarely ventured out into the surrounding environment of Munich and the beautiful environs of mountains, forests and the Rhine River in the larger Bavaria. Somehow sharing that certain ennui, while passing the bottle and hash pipe, was more compelling (or perhaps more comforting and even medicating) than venturing out into these wonderful foreign lands.

Their choice (and thoughts about its possible motivations) stuck with me as I parted company with this group and continued on with my travels, with Bill as a companion for a while, and then back on my own. I was pondering whether, at least at this point in our lives, I was perhaps more of a “seeker” and a “free agent” than they were. When my original travel companion had informed me in England of her decision to truncate her trip and return to the U.S., my first thought and perhaps the easiest course for me would have been to do the same. Maybe it was mainly pride and ego that drove me to continue on my own, not really knowing what I was in for and lacking the safety net of a close friend ever at my side to help with difficult decisions along the way or help get through the lonely patches.

I was pleased thirty years later as a parent, to see my own kids exhibit that more “seeker” behavior, and launch on ambitious travel plans of their own at a rather young age. My son Eric embarking on long road trips with his peers throughout the Southwest United States and even longer sojourns to the Northwest and back east. My daughter Emma collaborating with her best friend Riva to journey to work on a farm in Quebec one year and then spend a couple months in Montreal the next, and then planning and executing a solo trip to Australia to spend a month with friends she only had known previously through the Internet.

Recalling my mom’s own journey from her family’s home in upstate New York to Michigan to pursue a college education, a companionship with a man (who eventually became her spouse and my dad), and probably an escape from her difficult relationship with her own mother, I see a thread of adventure running through my lineage. More each day I celebrate that lineage.

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