My blogging group, Generation Fabulous, hosts a monthly Blog Hop. July's theme is “Transformative Travel.” I knew exactly what to write about...
On this date thirty-seven years ago I stood beneath the glorious ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I also toured St. Peter's Basilica that day, thinking - paraphrasing my travel diary - "It's really pretty, but I'm too tired to appreciate it."
Reading those words now, I wish I could reach through the barrier of years and shake me by my tanned teenage shoulders.
How I would love a second chance to tour Rome, the Vatican, and everything else I saw on that trip, especially now that I'm Catholic, instead of somewhere between Baptist and agnostic!
But I guess I'll cut myself some slack. I mean, I was just seventeen, on the 20th day of a whirlwind month-long very-shoestring tour of Europe sponsored by the Foreign Study League, a Reader's Digest subsidiary.
I found out about it through my high school sociology teacher, Ms. Cook, who had been on a FSL tour before and was going to go again as a chaperone that summer of '76, between my junior and senior years of high school.
A history nerd and anglophile, just the idea of traveling to Europe and seeing all of those castles, walking those cobbled streets...oh, it made my knees weak.
My parents were already stretched thin financially, but they both longed to travel, too, and the next best thing to traveling yourself is sending your kid off to experience the world, right?
They got a loan. I was in.
We had meetings for months before our departure date, learning what to pack and how to pack it, what to expect, what they expected of us, etc. In each country we had at least one college-credit-worthy class teaching about its culture and history before being turned loose for three or four days.
Not totally turned loose - there were some group tours - but we were given tons of free time to wander the cities on our own before meeting up again for dinner.
So here I was, a girl raised in the suburbs...who had never been in a city bigger than Houston (where you get everywhere by car, anyway)...who had only been on an airplane once before in her life...
...yes, here I was zipping around on London's Tube like I'd grown up there, climbing the Eiffel Tower to gaze out over Paris, sleeping on night trains, exploring castles, getting lost in Venice, hailing cabs, and swimming in the Adriatic Sea.
Amazing. Exhausting, but amazing.
We flew from Houston on a plane not much wider than a bus, landing in London's Gatwick airport on June 28.
"A heat wave has been in London. It was about 92 degrees today and no where has air-conditioning. I love London; winding streets & old houses. It's kind of dirty, but it looks right."
I can sense my excitement in the first pages of my travel diary, full of anticipation of adventures to come, dotted with details about the temperature, names of people we met, and even the types of beer I bought in the pub across from our dorms.
"I got a "Blacklable" beer and a"Breaker" malt liquor...Everyone is so friendly. We all stood outside & we met some local guys. Paul, Paul, and Vince. They were real sweet & we talked a long time. Found out a lot about London."
Purely educational conversation, I'm sure. <snicker>
Farther down that same page in my journal I mention a law student from the West Indies named Kameel who helped us with the phones, explained money to us, and loaned me two books to help us with London.
I can still picture us standing in that dorm hallway, talking to him. Kindness is long-remembered.
(I hope I gave the books back.)
Before I made this trip, I had barely stepped foot out of Texas. There had been a day in Matamoros, Mexico on a church choir trip, several trips to Colorado, one to St. Louis where I was immediately put on a plane and flown home because of my asthma, and a jag through New Mexico.
But I had read voraciously, and now I walked in the worlds described in so many of my favorite books.
I carried a little 110 camera and a dozen rolls of film. Back home, I doled them out two at a time to the photo lab.
It felt like Christmas morning each time I opened a new envelope of developed photos.
We were tired of smiling for the camera by the third day, but we persevered for posterity. Even so, I have very few images from Madrid and Toledo, which, of course, I regret now, because my memory of this once-in-a-lifetime adventure depends on the snapshots tucked away in my photo album and travel diary, captured with camera and pen.
When my daughter traveled to Madrid with her Spanish teacher a few years ago, I barely recognized the city in her photos.
(I'm happy to report that this man hasn't aged a bit since 1976, based on the photographs my daughter-in-law took of him in April. I'd recognize him anywhere!)
I was often homesick and heartsick, missing my family and my boyfriend, living for the next town where I hoped a batch of letters would await me.
I even made a few calls back home from telephone kiosks that we searched out as soon as we hit a new city, but with the time difference, no one was very excited to hear from me in the middle of the night.
We were limited to one suitcase, a purse, and our FSL backpacks...so I found the largest softsided suitcase I could find and carried a huge purse. We had to pack for the heat wave, for special occasions, and for the Austrian Alps, which even in the summertime can get pretty cool at night, and somehow leave room for souvenirs. I was on a tight budget, but loved picking out gifts for everyone.
I still have no idea how I fit all of those steins, flasks, jewelry boxes, scarves, and one Lladro duck figurine into my suitcase. These days I use three suitcases for an overnight trip!
Reading through my travel diary, I realize there are things I didn't write about that I somehow still remember, despite my flaky, fading memory...like how in Italy a can of (hot) coke cost the equivalent of a dollar, but a large bottle of wine was only fifty cents, and how three or four girls (not me!) went off on a big no-no joy ride through London with some local boys.
Probably those ones we met at the pub.
There's also an incident I didn't write about, but remember vividly. We were at Tiffany's Disco in Piccadilly Circus, drinking screwdrivers with our chaperone-sociology teacher, Ms. Cook.
A whole group of Japanese men came in, probably from a convention or something, and one of them asked me to dance. Of course I said yes - I've always loved to dance!
In my mind, I'm back on that dancefloor. I see the man in front of me, see him smile, then see him reach out and place his hand on my right breast.
My presence of mind still impresses me. "No," I told him. I calmly removed his hand, turned and left the dance floor, a million questions running through my mind. Did I look like a prostitute? Did Japanese men think all American girls are sluts? Is that normal dancing protocol in Japan?
I know now that he was probably just a jerk, something I'm sure you can find in all countries and cultures.
Unfortunately, I didn't go dancing again on that trip. In every city a large group went out to a disco, but I stayed in with my friends, usually playing spades.
I hate that. I hate that I let that creep keep me from dancing across Europe when I was seventeen.
I could have been the Dancing Queen.
I drew stars all over the entry for July 24, 1976. That's the day we flew from Madrid to Houston.
Mama, Daddy, Mam-ma, and my boyfriend were waiting for me. I write that I ran off that plane back into Texas and my regular life - I had ached to see all of them - but the truth is, I was changed, and I'm glad of it.
Thanks to Mama and Daddy, I knew there was more. I knew the world was big...and I knew I could handle it.
I met a lot of people in Europe. I even encountered myself.