The post explains how I began my first solo trip to Europe back in 1988. The positive things I learned and the bittersweet ending.
I’m going to blame it on the rain. I’m sorry for that highly unnecessary Milli Vanilli callback) But my whole travel journey began just because I wanted to get out of the shower. It was 1987. I was a second year senior at Fort Hays State University. The apartment I was living at was a couple miles from campus, and so I had to hoof my way to class. One day in April I was walking to class when the sky just opened up, and I was caught in a torrent. The rain was coming down so hard I knew I couldn’t make it to class without being steeped in rainwater. I dove into the nearest building which happened to be a bookstore. Sitting on a shelf almost like it was waiting on me, was the book “Let’s Go Europe” I couldn’t miss it. The book cover was bright orange in juxtaposition to the darker colored books around it. That book became a tangerine grail that exposed me to a wanderlust I still haven’t recovered from.
Both the bookstore and I were at a crossroad. Except mine was just figurative. I was getting ready to graduate from college with no real idea of what to do next. The way it described all the different counties, and the people, the food, the culture really spoke to me. It was like a revival and going to Europe became my mission. After graduation, I worked two jobs for over a year and saved money to go. I decided to go to eastern Europe which was still communist at the time. It wasn’t a political thing for me; I just wanted to go somewhere most Americans weren’t going. So instead of London, Paris, Rome, my journey would be Krakow, Prague, and Budapest. I set up a lot of volunteer work in advance to extend my stay. I had about 1500 cash. I ended up staying abroad for over 9 months. I learned more in those 9 months than I did in five years of university, I was a changed person when I came back. I left an excited child, I came back older, wiser and heartbroken.
Are you or someone you love ever been a funambulist? I know I could definitely never be one. Most people couldn’t either. Only those who were blessed or cursed with a certain brand of crazy could ever do it. Funambulist is just a five-dollar word for a tight wire walker. I think it’s ironic the word starts with f-u-n. it is exactly the opposite of fun for me. It takes a certain fearlessness to do that. To be able to fight both the fear of heights and the fear of being watched by a crowd that quite frankly is kind of hoping you might fail. So what does any of this have to do with travel? I’ll explain.
In my twenties, I was definitely a funambulist when it came to travel. I took off to Europe alone with just 1500 in cash and only a partial game plan. I didn’t fear one bit. I just knew in my heart all would be well. I arranged volunteer work before I left. I would be provided room and board in exchange for work. I tended horses in Poland, worked in a zoo in the Czech Republic and taught a little English in Hungary.
Without any specific guideline, I pretty much cut north to south swath. From Hungary, I went through Serbia and Bulgaria crossing the Bosporus to Istanbul Turkey. Much to my surprise, I found I liked the middle east even more than I liked Europe. I met an English guy named Ian on the train to Turkey who was going to Sudan through Egypt. We traveled down the coast (dare I say we had a ‘slice of turkey’?). From Turkey, we took a ship to Israel. We had stopovers in the Greek island of Rhodes and the Republic of Cyprus on the way.
By the time I got to Israel, I had depleted my original 1500 dollars. It was November and I knew a lot of volunteer opportunities went into hiatus. Down to my last couple hundred, I got a flight to the Netherlands and then on to a ferry to the UK. I had an idea I could find work in London, ride out the winter and save money for the next summer. I had no interest in returning back to the states if I could avoid it.
I had it all planned out. You know, there’s a saying “God laughs when we make plans” The tight wire walker me, couldn’t hear the laughter and life was about to cut my wire.
It is the yarn Millionaires always like to tell: How they started out with nothing and managed through pure gumption and hard work to build something marvelous. My tale didn’t turn out that way. When I arrived in London in November 1988 I really was down to my last pound. I still had a return ticket home but had no desire to return back to the US. Traveling had seeped its way deep into my spirit and I was determined to find a way to stay in Europe. As a US citizen, I had no work permit and I knew I’d have to find some ‘under the table’ work arrangement. For the record, let me say with 30yrs hindsight the idea was half-baked at best. There are smarter (and legal) ways to do this better. But try convincing my 24yr old self that probably wouldn’t have been possible.
I was fortuitous in finding work fairly easy. I found a youth hostel and offered to work for room and board. This led to an actual “job” handing out leaflets at Victoria Station for the hostel. Each person I got to book would net me one pound fifty. I actually got so good at it I got offered a job managing one of the hostels. I ran everything, I did the books, cooked meals and kept the place clean. I still, however, did have to go to Victoria Station and hawk leaflets when the place wasn’t full. I was in the UK from mid-November 1988 through early March 1989. I had the privilege of spending Christmas and New Year’s Day abroad. The Spector of my poor choice in working somewhere I wasn’t legally allowed did catch up with me. From pretty much day one, there was a policeman who worked at Victoria station who every time he saw me would run me off and warn me the next time he saw me he was going to have me deported. Well, one day he did. I was arrested, put in jail overnight and was told I would stand trial for working without proper authority. I told the police, I would leave on my own volition and they agreed. They held my passport until I could prove I had an onward ticket. (The ruling specifically stated I would not get my passport back unless the onward ticket was to the United States) So on March 4th, 1989, it all ended.
That transatlantic flight was the longest flight I had ever taken. I remember looking out the window listening to my headset and the song “Space Oddity” began playing. The lyrics “sitting in a tin can, far above the moon, planet earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do” pretty much said it all. It was one of the lowest points in my life. When the plane landed in NYC, a huge part of me wanted to not go back to Kansas City but just to stay there and try again. After all, I survived in London broke, maybe history could repeat itself.
I know my mother meant well, but the first thing she said when she picked me up at the KCI airport was ” At last, now you can finally get on with your life.” I felt just the opposite. I felt like I just left my life a half world away.
My spirit went to sleep that day and didn’t wake up for years. The 90’s were a terrible time for me. Not dating, drinking way too much, Fluttering from job to job, always dreaming of going somewhere. When I felt bored, useless or trapped at work, I would start making travel itineraries imagining my impending journey. I felt like I had been ripped away from what I really was supposed to be doing.
As the 2000s began I found my way out of my fog. I was able to find stable employment and began to develop some healthy relationships. I have been back to Europe a couple times as well as the Caribbean, Central America, and all fifty states.
I wanted to tell this story because I needed to make sure you knew my sense of urgency came from an honest place. I spent too much time following someone else’s map for my life. Even people who I know mean well. I have to take responsibility for the things I’ve lost, the poor choices I’ve made and the time I can never get back.
The mantra of my blog is “Tis not too late to seek a newer world” it’s from the poem Ulysses. I need to believe it to be true. I have no other alternative.