“I Backpacked Through Europe Before the Internet” Club

letsgoeurope

Before TripAdvisor and Yelp, before cell phones and before 9/11, I had Let’s Go Europe, an oversized bright yellow softcover book which served as our travel bible.

In the summer of 1998, my boyfriend at the time and I backpacked through Europe. Completely contradictory to my naturally controlling and over-planning ways, we made a rough plan on which countries we planned on visiting, but no hotel reservations or actual dates. We bought a two-month Eurail pass and booked our first hotel so we’d have a place to stay. Ironically they didn’t have our reservation but kindly made another reservation for us at a sister hotel, to which we hiked with our backpacks, very jet lagged after we just arrived.

Twenty years is a lot of Etch-a-Sketch shaking off the memory so I can’t graphically recall all the details from my adventure, but random stories emerge anecdotally when discussing travel. My kids gasp at how I could have gone on a vacation without researching every possible hotel ad nauseam. To think I walked into restaurants without knowing if it would have received my minimum 4-star review on Yelp. 

Mostly I reflect nostalgically on my brave, adventurous spirit of my youth and how I lived my life unafraid, with abandon with no loud ticking of the perpetual clock in my head

Here was my itinerary:

  • Paris, France
  • Brussels, Belgium
  • Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • Berlin, Germany
  • Munich, German
  • Vienna, Austria
  • Salzburg, Austria
  • Venice, Italy
  • Verona, Italy
  • Florence, Italy
  • Rome, Italy
  • Vatican City, (it’s own country!)
  • Cinque Terre, Italy (more a region than a city)
  • Monaco, France
  • Cannes, France
  • Nice & Villefranche, France
  • Barcelona, Spain
  • Madrid, Spain
  • Lisbon, Portugal,
  • San Sebastian, Spain
  • Paris, France

Here are some of the anecdotal highlights:

  • After we’d disembark from the train in any of the popular western European cities, we needed to secure a place to stay. Most of the “great but cheap” finds were taken by the first five people who bolted fast enough to the pay phones, so the Amazing Race caliber mad dash was crucial in securing plum accommodations. Clutching our Let’s Go Europe bibles, well worn and earmarked for the city de jour, my boyfriend and I took two phones and began the calls, asking in the appropriate foreign language of the city, if there was any availability. In Portugal, I called and asked in fluent Spanish if they had a vacancy, to which the hotel clerk replied in perfect English, “We speak Portuguese in Portugal, not Spanish.”
  • Amongst the craziest things we did, which is almost like a version of hitchhiking, was staying in people’s homes, who rented out rooms. This was considered totally normal and in several cities we would stay in an apartment where three other rooms would be rented out and we would all eat cold cuts and pastries for breakfast, wrapping up the extras neatly in paper towels, at the homeowner’s suggestion, for lunch later. In Cinque Terre, on the Italian riviera, we stayed with a couple in their 70s. There was no payphone at the train station so instead, groups of people come to recruit you to stay at their house. We spoke no Italian and the old man only spoke Italian (no French, Spanish,  or Russian; we tried) so we negotiated our nightly rate by writing a price on a napkin and passing it back and forth to one another. That evening, my boyfriend had a terrible cough and the old man’s wife knocked softly on our door and came in bearing Vick’s VapoRub, using international sign language to show us to smear it on his chest. Motherhood is universal.
  • We visited Vienna and Madrid during a heat wave and the blanket in the Viennese apartment we rented was wool. The sheets also felt like wool so my two nights there were spent tossing and turning in sweat and my days were spent grumpily looking for air conditioning. In Madrid, we took a rowboat in a park in the middle of the city and I took my sneakers off in the boat and that stench trumps all other memories in that city – except for the man we saw missing half his nose at the McDonald’s.
  • Occasionally we had to sleep on an overnight train but the stories I heard about nighttime train backpack scared the shit out of me. I was told to sleep with my arms around my backpack and I tried to do that, but instead I stared at the dark sky turn into a morning sky through the plastic window blinds.  Whether I had a regular seat, a deluxe seat or an actual sleeping bed, my ability to rest on a train was impossible. Also, before cell phones and electronic entertainment, all we had were books and stupidly because we were carrying everything on our backs, my boyfriend and I only bought one book between us and we took turns reading Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth.  
  • In Barcelona, we were confused by which stop was our correct one and by the time we discovered it, the train had started slowly moving and my boyfriend declared, “This is it, just jump,” and I did. I jumped off a [slowly] moving train without considering the repercussions, which was me landing like a turtle, flipped on my back, and my boyfriend parallel, another turtle on his back, ten feet away. The train screeched to a halt, with the conductor jumping out asking if we were OK and then cursing in Spanish when he saw us on our backs cracking up.
  • Portugal was an add-on to our trip because we learned the World Expo was happening and while I don’t have many regrets, I still think back to the two hours I’ll never get back when we waited in line for a [disappointing] virtual reality ride. This was also the first time I saw an Asian person speaking fluent Russian and it bugged me out.
  • Barcelona’s indescribable Gaudi architecture blew my mind, but overall, the small cities captured my heart. Those small towns on the Italian Riviera and French Riviera and San Sebastian in Northern Spain were outstanding nuggets of gold.
  • We also hadn’t planned on visiting Germany; I was still holding a grudge from World War II, but my boyfriend convinced me to visit Berlin and Munich. At the time Berlin had the most cranes in the world, so much so that most of the postcards of the skyline were more cranes than buildings. While there, we took a train ride two hours out of the city to visit Sachsenhausen concentration camp, because I felt this was the closest I would get to Auschwitz or to a cemetery to pay respects. The city was gray and my opinion of it matched. Munich was the direct opposite; full of bright colors, beer, and glockenspiels. We stayed with a lovely German couple who picked us up from the train in a VW bug and had the most comfortable down bedding of the trip.
  • We ended up in Verona, Italy because it was one of two cities we could go to during an Italian train strike. We went to the town square where there was a statue of Shakespeare’s Juliet and we promptly followed the other tourists in rubbing her well-worn away bronze boob for good luck. I’ve learned they have removed her due to too much feeling up of the boob
  • I spent the summer after my sophomore year in high school in a French language enrichment program in the south of France. I lived on a campus in Villefranche, right outside Nice, overlooking quintessential Mediterranian vistas. The World Cup was also going on at the time (in Paris) and crowds spilled outside of cafes and restaurants along the Cote d’Azur as the pulse of the whole country chanted, “it’s great to be alive and in France.” Going back to Nice was the most nostalgic I’ve felt for any place up until that point in my life; as if I was revisiting a sleepaway camp.
  • The only potential danger I encountered was at the Spanish steps in Rome. I was warned there would be gypsies sending their children as distractions to try and pickpocket us and I wore my anorak with a pocket in the front, which is where I stored my passport. At one point a group of women gypsies with their children surrounding them encircled my boyfriend and I and put a map out in front of us, shaking it and begging for money and in the seconds it took me to shoo them away, I noticed my zippered pocket was completely opened, but luckily nothing was taken.
  • Biggest regret: Not smoking weed in Amsterdam.

The Internet is a luxury and a crutch and its impact on how we travel has been profound. Today we’re armed with a device which translates languages, converts currencies, and books hotel and restaurant reservations from our fingertips. It’s ironic, though, how with the abundance of choices, booking travel has actually become harder and more time-consuming. While an entire vacation can be planned in a few clicks, I end up making seven billion clicks before I commit. We’ve become dependent on the opinions of strangers on the Web to help navigate our journeys whereas we used to rely on the recommendations of biased travel agents or subjective friends. Traveling can be dangerous and expensive and we seek the reassurance of others’ to help validate our choices. As I revisit this mental travel journal, I’m in awe of my spontaneity and my confidence to trust my intuition, which has always been my greatest guide.

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