My Y-chromosome friends seem to have been heavy into sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll in the early 1970s, but I only discovered that stuff later. In the summer of 1974, I had just graduated from college and was working as a waitress at a seafood restaurant in Ocean City, Maryland. We only made 80 cents an hour, but tips were good, and we could keep all we made. I was saving up for a trip to Europe in the fall.
Years earlier, when I had entered 9th grade, my mother had bribed me to take Latin. She said that if I would take two years of Latin, she would send me to Europe. I ended up taking four years of Latin and six of French, working as a waitress every summer in college and as a dorm desk receptionist during the school year.
I saved as much as possible, so at the end of summer in 1974, I was ready. I had airplane ticket, three-month Eurail pass, a copy of Europe on $5 a Day, and backpack, as well as my subsidized savings. My travelling partner and I had decided to start our travels in Munich, Germany, at Oktoberfest.
I wasn’t much of a drinker, but not averse to beer. I remember giant halls of loud celebrants and many mugs of frothy beer sloshing around, maybe with singing. I also remember being too sick the next day to do much of anything. I wasn’t hung over—didn’t drink enough for that—but blamed jet lag and the heavy German food. In any case, my roommates in the youth hostel took care of me. We exchanged addresses and one of them later facilitated my move to New York City.
The Eurail pass was a great concept, allowing us to take trains everywhere in Western Europe for no additional charge. We slept on a lot of trains, carried food staples, and stayed at a lot of youth hostels. Standard fare was bread, cheese, butter, chocolate and wine, because the water was unsafe to drink. Al and I quickly learned that we had different priorities for our travels. He liked going to American movies, and I wanted to explore castles and museums. When his friends joined us, along with my sister and college roommate, the guys and girls parted ways, all on friendly terms.
But I was going through a dark period, a “What am I going to do with my life?” funk, and I just wanted to be alone. I had never been on my own, had always been told who I was, what I was like, how to think, dress, and behave, and I was tired of it. I wanted freedom, no ties, no responsibilities. A social butterfly then, now wanting to shift into solitude.
It was not to be. My new companions wanted to go to discos in Barcelona, and my former roommate was a chatterbox who had majored in French and was quickly picking up Spanish at the discos.
It’s funny what you remember. In Spain I remember seeing skinned rabbits and other animals hanging whole in the butcher’s window. A seafood soup in Madrid that came with shells still on, clam shells, shrimp shells, at the table next to me. In Barcelona men didn’t whistle at attractive women. They hissed. I thought that strange.
I remember coin-operated showers in the youth hostels, which made use of tankless water heaters, a great invention and I guess standard in Europe. I’ve always wondered why they haven’t caught on in the US. I remember small cars that could park vertically in horizontal parking spaces. Then there was the terrible (and only) case of bedbugs from a youth hostel in Venice, Italy. I remember lots of good food at small, local restaurants, where strangers were seated together at long tables. The food in Italy and France was the best. Florence, Italy may have been my favorite city, with all the color.
By the time we got to Florence, I decided to lose my companions in the train station, and so I did. I spend the rest of the time travelling alone. I toured so many castles and museums that they began to blur in my mind. I spent a lot of time drinking hot lemonade and eating pastries and peach melba in bakeries. I gained weight.
I was harassed by men, everywhere I went. Later I figured young American women, especially those travelling alone, had a reputation for promiscuity in Europe, but I was too dumb then to figure it out. I had to learn to be rude, a social skill that no one taught me at home. I ended up hating men, an assessment that was only partially softened by the perfect gentleman English friend at the end of the trip.
My Eurail pass expired in December, just before Christmas, and I was low on money. In Paris, the Sorbonne’s message board had an ad for an “au pair” posted by a Parisian woman. She wanted someone to be companion for her 13-year-old daughter, and by the way, she wanted to spend the next two weeks at her second home in Aix-en-Provence. There would be light cleaning involved. She hired me but said there was no room in her car for my backpack, so I would have to leave it in her Paris apartment.
I fell for it and signed on for what would become an adventure unto itself. Suffice to say I was enslaved to a harpy clean-freak perfectionist who had marble floors that she wanted mopped every day. We finally returned to Paris, and I was booted out at 11:30 p.m. with only a check and no cash. Things looked grim, but I survived, only to be robbed a few days later in broad daylight while sitting on a park bench.
Now I’ve been robbed too many times to count, but the method varies. This time a group of guys surrounded me, acting flirtatious and friendly. One distracted me while another lifted my wallet from my purse. I didn’t discover it until later. Fortunately for me, a roommate in my youth hostel had recently been robbed, too. She said I was a “shit collector,” but she walked me through the process of getting a temporary passport and replacement travelers’ checks, of which I had lost about $60.
That’s when I decided I’d had enough of Europe and decided to go home. My plans to live abroad would have to wait. The rest of the story is another story.