Monday, April 27, 2015

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 2 … Hitting the ground crawling in Luxembourg.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 2 … Hitting the ground crawling in Luxembourg.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

(Second in a series chronicling my travel year 1985)

Thirty years on, two relatively odd twists stand out in my memory of my first European excursion in 1985.

First, given my usual compulsion to write, and considering the ample time I spent waiting on trains and then riding them, resting in hostel common areas after a long day’s touring or sitting on park benches watching life’s rich pageant – in short, with so much spare time to harness -- very little of that first trip was committed to paper.

Only snippets and random observations survive, along with a fairly accurate day-to-day record of my progress.

Why? Maybe it was laziness, although more likely the sheer sensory overload was too much for me to handle. I know what you’re probably thinking, but it certainly wasn’t because of the alcohol consumed.

To this day, people don’t believe me when I say that very little in the way of alcohol beverages was consumed abroad in 1985. In the beginning, there were stray beers here and there, but nothing approaching intoxication until I let loose for a night in Rome with a group of fellow travelers, having discovered cold, 2,000-lira (one dollar) 2/3 liter bottles of Carlsberg (and cold, too!) at a bar down the street from our pension.

Later in Turin, I drank with my cousin and his pal Scott, and after that at local place in Vienna and the Augustiner beer hall in Salzburg … of course, there was the Hofbrauhaus in Munich, and numerous pints of Guinness in Sligo, Ireland while watching Live Aid on the telly … and we can’t forget the vodka with the Australia during the Leningrad stay near the end … can we?

But seriously, fifteen drunken nights out of 90 is a fairly poor record for the allegedly professional drinker I fancied myself to be at the time, and it owed entirely to caution, to the fear of letting go in an unfamiliar environment, especially at night, walking long blocks back to bed following revelry. Also, there wasn’t much money, and I intended to hoard it carefully.

Parsimony proved wise. Stepping off the return flight in Chicago on August 8, 1985, I had exactly $100 in my pocket. The rest was gone, and for as good of a cause as could be imagined. Arthur Frommer, who helped start it all, ultimately was wrong in quoting a $25-a-day figure. The Euro was as yet a dream, the dollar was strong against national currencies, and the final calculation came out to about $19.50 a day, not counting the rail pass and flights.


May, 1985.

A 45-minute stopover at Keflavik for comprehensive Icelandic souvenir shopping may indeed have afforded my first official steps on something resembling European soil, but in truth, the inaugural stroll across the continent’s sacred ground must be said to have taken place at the Luxembourg City international arrivals terminal.

After passport control and customs, I spotted an “exchange” window. Exhausted from a sleepless night, I turned and asked a fellow passenger whether I should get French francs or the Luxembourg variety.

“Well, that would depend on where you are, wouldn’t it,” he replied, with a surliness borne either by his own sleepless transatlantic night, or perhaps an upbringing of pain and betrayal suggested by an unmistakable New York City accent.

Nonplussed, I waited silently in line and when my turn came, swiftly shoved the immaculately clean traveler’s check through a tiny aperture, waiting to see what sort of money would come spitting back, and hoping I wouldn’t have to answer questions in an unknown local dialect.

The teller motioned toward my passport and yawned. Luxembourg francs appeared … and a new ritual had been experienced.

Further ahead, the baggage conveyor disgorged my inexpensive Service Merchandise “athletic club” gym bag, which lacked backpack convertibility, but had a handy shoulder strap – and one of the strap’s connecting loops had been ripped away from the fabric by the baggage sorting claws, leaving it useless, and subsequently fating the bag to be carried like a suitcase for the remainder of the journey.

Finally I emerged into a covered plaza, followed the signs for an airport bus bound for the central train station, and paid the driver with a crisp Luxembourg franc C-note. A short suburban ride later, the bus glided into its lane at the stylish old Gare, and I bounded out, finally, into a stereotypically busy, sunlit European street with sidewalks, bicycles and cafes.

All well and good. Now what?

Somewhere in Luxembourg City there was an officially sanctioned international youth hostel with a reservation (facilitated by “snail” mail, no less) waiting just for me. How to get there? Should I buy a city map, or risk humiliation by asking directions of a possibly non-English speaking passer-by?

An Internet kiosk was out of the question, as the information superhighway had yet to be invented by Al Gore.

Looming before me was a large sign that turned out to be a map of the city, providentially erected as a public service for ignorant foreigners exiting the train station for the very first time. Walking toward it, I abruptly stumbled and looked down to see the arm of a street person in a decently clean suit passed out drunk in the shade of a fountain.

Fragrant and snoring, he was no help at all, but the map showed exactly where I was, and precisely where I needed to go, which looked to be about two kilometers in a straight line.

Easy enough on the face of it, except the street names in French defied easy memorization, and most importantly, the map failed to show the irregular topography of Luxembourg City, which lies on ridges and hills and is contoured not unlike corners of West Virginia.

My 2-km scenic hike took almost two hours, mercifully ending when it finally did only because I finally chanced by a pole sporting various directional signs, one of which was the familiar hut-and-tree logo pointing the way to the youth hostel.

It had taken so long to perform these simple arrival tasks that the hostel already was open for afternoon hours. I checked in without difficulty, located my assigned bunk in what would become a completely filled 12-person dorm room, declined both a shower and an institutional dinner of noodles and mystery meat, never once considered drinking a beer, and proceeded to sleep 15 hours straight through ‘til morning, a continental breakfast, and the trek back to station to board my first train.

How do you get to Greece from Luxembourg on a rail pass? I was about to find out.



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

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