Right now, I am in Spain.
The last time I visited Spain it was 1996. I was 22-years-old and a recent college graduate. I didn’t have a job lined up and I informed my parents that a job could wait but my trip to Europe could not. College proved a rough four years and study abroad was not the norm during the dark days of the 90s. I wanted to seize the day.
After a drunken debacle at Rick’s (or maybe Crunchy’s) on Michigan State University campus weeks before graduation, a friend hatched an idea to backpack through Europe. I thought it sounded fun and agreed to join the adventurers.
We decided our first stop would be Paris and armed ourselves with a two-week Eurorail pass and an international student discount card. We would depart in July with no itinerary. Dr. Seuss’ book, The Places You Will Go echoed in my head. Happy graduation to me!
Our group of bold travelers consisted of a few Spartan alums, all connected through one particular woman and her friends. I flew to Paris with Amy, a fellow MSU graduate who I did not know. After an eight-hour plane ride, we were fast friends. We landed in Paris, groggy and disoriented, but somehow found our way to the hostel. I had already determined the backpacking thing was going to cause problems, and I made a mental note of what to send home.
Once we unloaded our belongings, my new friend Amy and I headed out for lunch. We picked a pizza place near our hostel. It’s an American first-time traveler thing: Go to the familiar, the safe. New to the international scene, I did not know Parisians considered meals a leisurely experience. We were starving, wondering when and if our food might arrive. It eventually materialized, and the waiter placed a heart shaped pizza on the table. My eyes rolled. We ate it. I assumed the pizza contributed to my overnight diarrhea–or maybe it stemmed from the highly aromatic smell of urine on the streets–but either way Paris did not leave me with the best first impression. (And that would not change until 2006.)
If you guessed I over-packed for my inaugural backpacking trip, you would be correct. It’s a common mistake and one I regretted. I shipped home $100 worth of clothing and hours later wished I had shipped the entire bag.
I did not take to backpacking. It was 1996 and designers had yet to style affordable wheelies and light weight ergonomic bags. (I am old but did not walk through the snow like my parents).
After the obligatory visit to the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and Musée d’Orsay and several tastings of street vendor baguettes, Amy and I rendezvoused with the rest of the group for a wild night on the town. Traveling with a large mix of people can be challenging, and I learned quickly that I’m a person who does not adapt well to others. I want to do what I want when I want to do it.
That has not changed.
Amy and I were not pleased with the perceived rudeness and inconsideration of the French people, and when our travel companions opted for partying rather than sightseeing, we planned to take our American snootiness and dollars elsewhere.
I realized it was time to go when Amy shouted to a Parisian, “Do you speak the International language?” Hint: it involves a finger.
Consulting our Let’s Go Europe guide book, we decided to head to Spain. We boarded a train from Paris to Madrid with a change in Bordeaux. It was an overnight train. Back then, people smoked openly on trains and we didn’t have the luxury of a private sleeper car. I remember standing on the platform in Bordeaux around midnight, exhausted, trying to stay awake ,thinking we’d acted a bit irrationally.
If my memory serves me, the trip–with smoke-filled cabins and upright seats–to Madrid took about 12 or 13 hours. The journey left us battered but excited for our adventure and with a new stamp in our passport. We exchanged our money (this was when each country in Europe had its own currency and also prior to the universal ATM) and found our hostel. Amy and I both spoke high school Spanish and we delighted in trying to communicate with the locals. The Spanish people smiled and packed entire plazas, eating and drinking. I loved it. It would be an entire day, two meals, and an onion-filled Spanish omelet before we resorted to a meal at McDonald’s. We told ourselves we could eat at McDonald’s because the facilities provided free bathrooms.
I can still remember savoring that bite of my cheeseburger. We failed the European immersion course.
Amy and I tackled Madrid and Barcelona together before heading to southern France. I lost track of her in Germany when I met another friend and she moved on to Prague, where I heard a man robbed her.
I often think of our first European experience and laugh at our innocence. We got lost, overpaid for everything, misunderstood the language and learned a little about life in a foreign land. I have no idea where Amy is now and, while I possess a few Kodak moments to preserve the memories of the trip, it’s the pictures ingrained in my mind that I treasure.
What I remember from Spain 21 years ago holds true today:
- Catholic Churches – there are lots of them
- Picasso is a big deal
- Women sunbathe topless
- Spaniards eat lunch at 2:00PM and dinner late like really late. Think 10:00PM
- There is a real thing called siesta
- Stores shut down from 2:00PM – 7:00PM, with most businesses like banks and government offices only open from 9:00AM – 2:00PM
- McDonald’s is still prevalent although Burger King and Starbucks have joined the fray
Where did you go on your first trip to Europe? Was your adventure like mine? Or if you haven’t gone yet, where do you think you will go?