Friday, February 1, 2013

So Much Chocolate, So Little Time

I was reading a travel magazine in Starbucks yesterday afternoon when suddenly the memory of the late, lamented European Travel and Life popped into my head. I subscribed to it for the last few years of its publication, and it was a magical experience every time I found it in the mailbox. It had glossy pages, beautiful photographs, and great writing, and it even smelled good (due, I think, to perfume samples in the ads). I had gone to Europe with friends in 1989, and reading the magazine was a way of extending the experience.

On our trip, we did nine countries in three weeks, starting and ending in London. We stayed in small hotels and boarding houses listed in Frommer's Guide to Europe on $30 a Day and largely relied on the guidebook's recommendations for places to eat. Traveling light as we did, we were able to see and do a lot for a modest amount of money. We did not stay in the glamorous spots European Travel and Life depicted so lavishly, but we saw a lot of great art, relished street life and people watching, took in the sights, and sampled chocolates all the way from Germany to Geneva.

I kept a travel journal, stealing moments on ferry crossings, train trips, and the waiting rooms of bus stations to scribble down impressions, but even without looking at it I can call up images and remember tastes and smells. Sometimes it's the little things, small scenes glimpsed along the way, that stay with you, for whatever mysterious reason.

From a bus window, on the way to Dover, I saw a West Indian woman walking down a crowded East London street in the late afternoon. Her colorful clothing and dignified posture made her stand out in the gray light and drab surroundings like a rare flower. I remember the blue sweater my friend was wearing during a tedious ferry crossing to Oostende that night and how mysteriously several hundred passengers seemed to melt into thin air in the station at the other end.

I remember how cold the light was in Belgium that morning, how foreign (and daunting) Amsterdam and all its brick houses seemed when we arrived, and how very steep the stairs were in our hotel, not far from Anne Frank's house. A man walked by on the street that afternoon as we came out of a cafe whose face--intense, bearded, and thin--could have belonged to Van Gogh. A sandwich of simple bread and cheese on the train to Berlin was a revelation, as was the ease with which many Europeans spoke graceful English, even when they downplayed their ability.

A hammer and chisel for extracting your own piece of the Berlin Wall cost seven marks to rent, and the faces of the guards were extremely stern at the crossing between the former East Germany and the West. I recall my first sighting of someone wearing lederhosen and an alpine hat (in Munich) and the taste of hot chestnuts purchased from a street vendor (in Salzburg). I recall watching the sun go down behind snow-covered mountains as the mists rose over the lake and Salzburg lay at our feet like a fairy-tale village.

I remember how deep the snow lay around the town of Fussen as we walked up to Neuschwanstein with plastic bags on our shoes in lieu of boots; there were swans in the river as we walked through the town. We headed down into Italy, hoping for warmth, and stayed in a pension that had formerly been a monastery, with a shower in the middle of the room. We climbed Giotto's Tower to goggle at the Tuscan countryside, straight out of the background of a thousand Renaissance paintings. I tasted my first espresso in a small cafe and was impressed by the effortless style of the Florentines we encountered on the streets.

I remember peering out the window of our train compartment as we crossed the Alps, glimpsing some high and distant peaks in the dawn light. I remember how the grayness in Geneva made the mountains invisible, but the city itself was clean and prosperous. I recall little of the French countryside that sped by on the fast train to Paris (being distracted by an assortment of Swiss chocolates probably explains the lapse), but I can easily call up Paris's wide and elegant avenues. I loved Montmartre and the small, bustling place where we had dinner on a narrow street. Sacre Coeur was eerie by night, but the steps that led back down into the city were magical under the streetlamps.

I remember how unfamiliar Tavistock Square and Bloomsbury seemed to me once we were back in London, though I had spent half a summer there only six years previously. It was as if I had never been there. I recall the taste of naan in the Indian restaurant where we had dinner with a new friend, and her stories of traveling alone in Greece, shared over dinner, that made her seem so adventurous.

The next time I go to Europe, I hope I'll have as much fun as the last time. I've done a lot of traveling around the United States in the intervening years and had forgotten, until something glimpsed in Afar triggered the memories, just how exciting 1989 was, with all of the planning and dreaming that went into that European adventure. With a few versatile wardrobe items, light baggage, a Eurail pass, and an open mind, you can really get around. There's no place I have been that I wouldn't go back to, and there are so many unexplored destinations to anticipate. And at the end of it, you can always come home again.

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