Monday, April 20, 2015

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 1 … where it all began.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 1 … where it all began.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

“The Greek word for "return" is nostos. Algos means "suffering." So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.”
― Milan Kundera, Ignorance

One May morning in 1985, a middle-class American youth from bucolic Floyd County, Indiana, stumbled greasy and sleepless into the arrivals hall of a foreign airport. Following the requisite passport, customs formalities and currency exchange, he endured a thoroughly confusing and memorable first day in Europe.

Thirty years have passed since that bewildering and exhilarating Luxembourg inaugural, and the nostalgia is palpable. My inaugural European sojourn was conceived and executed with a single-minded determination unknown to me at the time. It taught me to believe in myself, and it led to many, many more pilgrimages. There have been no regrets whatever.

During my first European summer, I commenced an overdue transition from populist local yokel to genuine “citizen of the world,” as the athlete Edwin Moses so eloquently phrased it during the otherwise jingoistic and embarrassing David Wolper Memorial Olympiad in Los Angeles in 1984.


Europe in 1985 was a life-altering epiphany, but in truth, even the most minor of ephemeral insights would have seemed huge given my indecisiveness and youthful lack of focus.

A university degree in philosophy made for witty repartee, but little else, and it seemed to me that career choices were for fools who never saw the sun rise after an evening spent closing every bar in town. Ten placid green acres with a split-level dream home, a riding lawnmower, little leaguers and a fridge filled with Old Milwaukee Light? That was philistinism, right?

At the age of 24, two part-time jobs were sufficient to pay my bills. They also provided a semblance of scheduling flexibility in the event of hangovers – as there always was enough beer money. Why else would a person work at a package store in the first place? But in truth, I wasn’t going anywhere.

Even worse, I knew it.

In 1983, I was asked by an area high school teacher to accompany him as a second chaperone on a student trip to Europe the following year. The price seemed reasonable at $1,600 for nine days, with airfare, hotels, bus and most meals included. I responded affirmatively.

A few months later, I was strolling past the travel section in the library when a title caught my eye: “Europe on $25 a Day,” by Arthur Frommer. As ever mathematically challenged, I shook my head with disbelief. Was it a misprint? Could it really be true? Skeptical, I checked out the book, took it home, poured a beer, and started reading. Eventually a pocket calculator was produced.

The earth fairly shook.


My fellow twenty-something males would have required the woman (or women) of their dreams running bikini-clad across a Florida beach during a sultry rainstorm to elicit anywhere near my response to Frommer’s book, in which clear and reasonable tips plainly illustrated how to do Europe right, and for far longer duration than a mere week.

My new writing hero insisted that travel could be educational, and offer a rare glimpse into different worlds. His advice on the nuts and bolts of budget travel technique was relentlessly informative, effortlessly evocative and consistently pragmatic.

Always think like a European traveler, not an American, and like a local, not a visitor.

Don’t expect things in a foreign country to be the same as home, and expect to pay more when they are.

Think, plan, and accept the available bargains.

Don’t eat every meal in a restaurant. Pack a salami, buy a loaf of cheap crusty bread, and picnic.

Walk, ride the bus, rent a bike.

My brain was hard-wired for the humanities and history, and yet the comparative sums quickly became persuasive. At $25 per day, my $1,600 properly budgeted the Frommer way came out to 36 days, not nine. If I were to postpone the epic voyage for another year, leaving even more time to save money, the trip might last three months, not nine days.

For the next year and a half, my European travel obsession escalated, fed by a steady diet of travel books, magazine articles and PBS documentaries. Thomas Cook rail schedules were studied, and European history devoured with renewed zeal. Plans were jotted, expanded, revised, discarded, and brought back from the waste paper basket. I acquired a Pentax K-1000 camera and learned to use it, just barely.

By the spring of 1985, with departure nearing, a rough outline had settled into place.


There would be a round-trip flight on the then-cheapest Icelandair from Chicago to Luxembourg, returning 88 days after departure. Ground transport would be a three-month Eurailpass. Convinced that it would be my sole and only trip to Europe, a kamikaze itinerary was planned, incorporating nights on trains sleeping in seats, and crashed on the decks of boats. I studied every available trick to skim cash and expand the duration of my experience.

Then suddenly, the curtain finally rose.

There was a sleepless night on an eastbound flight, and before I knew it, a strange Luxembourg airport. Subsequently, theory yielded to practice. My well-ordered plan did not take into account greenness, timidity and stubbornness. The real work was just beginning.

The profusion of languages, local customs and currencies overwhelmed the senses. ATM barely existed, and the failure to note esoteric regional holidays and erratic hours kept by mom and pop shops led to foodless nights. There were missed connections, panicked fumbling and myriad disappointments.

There were times of panic, but I managed to keep moving. Despite the red-faced embarrassments, cheap hostels already booked, standing-room-only overnight train trips, pain in my arms from lugging a silly gym bag, fear of squat-only “toilets” in Turkey, forgetting a towel and using my only long-sleeved shirt to dry off, all of it managed to work out in the end. 88 days later, back again in Luxembourg for the westbound flight home, I could think of only one thing.

When’s next?

In the coming weeks during this 30th anniversary year, I’ll be describing the summer of 1985. At selected intervals, beer will factor into the narrative, although in retrospect, it must be conceded that I knew next to nothing about beer and brewing.

In all probability, that’s what made learning so much fun.

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