Europe Through the Gutter
Rick's 1973 High School Graduation Fling Through Europe
By Rick Steves
My childhood horizon had been steadily broadening, pried wider by first a bike, then a car, and then by two European trips with my parents. Now, nearing graduation, with a passport, plane ticket, and a few traveler's checks, I was ready for the Europe beyond piano factories and Norwegian relatives... beyond parents.
|Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw, 1973.|
My best friend Gene and I graduated from high school. On the next day, we flew.
In 1973, flying was a ritual. People dressed up. Travelers gathered with next-of-kin around flight insurance boxes. With a solemn ceremony, they'd fill out the form and, like gamblers at a wake, drop in their purchase. On board, passengers yawned and chomped on gum trying but failing to avoid the pain of popping ears. And people applauded captains for a safe landing.
Back then, charter flights were cheapest. We were flying from Seattle with a German club. Jean-clad and uninsured, we walked under "Auf Wiedersehen" banners and past oompah bands as if they were for us. Our nervous parents slipped us some extra postage cash. Gene was short with a pixie haircut. I was tall with longer red hair. We were both scrawny — looking like Simon and Garfunkel before their first hit — and a bit afraid. But we did our Nixon wave, boarded the plane, and began our 70-day adventure.
Within hours of landing in Frankfurt, the reality of surviving on $3 a day sank in. With that budget, gutters had gravity.
Shell-shocked by the prices, we spent our first evening sharing bread with German-speaking riffraff in the streets of Heidelberg.
We couldn't afford a double room. Instead, Gene rented a single from a surly woman. Through clenched German teeth, she made it clear that "Ein Einzel ist nur für ein" — a single is only for one.
I fell asleep on the floor next to Gene's sliver single bed with a map over me. If discovered, I was ready to claim that I dozed off while planning our next day and had no intention of spending the night. Night one and we were off to a clumsy start. But within days we were on track, tackling each day like a big new candy bar.
There were glorious times. I remember hitchhiking across Western Ireland. We'd stick our thumbs out in whichever direction the sparse traffic was rolling. When asked where we were going we'd say "Ireland" and hop in. Immersing ourselves in wide-ranging conversations we were wide eyed students of the road. On one ride, a truck-driving poet would discuss the notion that in Europe, 100 miles is a long way and in the USA 100 years is a long time. On the next, a beer-bellied philosopher explained why the Irish have as many words for "drunk" as the Eskimos have for "ice." And tonight he planned to get pissed, wellied, sloshed, bevvied, paralytic, and ratted all at the same time.
There were scary times. Arriving in Naples we were greeted by doctors in white robes who said they needed blood for a dying baby. Without hesitation, we jumped back onto the train and headed for Greece.
And there were simpler delights. With the wonder of newborns, we caught fireflies in Bulgaria, discovered gummibear jellybeans and got creative with the choco-nut spread Nutella. And with Europe as our classroom, we relived the second rise of Napoleon while following a city walking tour from Turn Right at the Fountain — a guidebook which inspired us to later write Mona Winks, our museum tours book.
We spent nights resting our chins on train windows as thunderbolts lit up La Mancha and a murky midnight twilight glowed over endless Swedish birch forests.
One night, as we picnicked on a bench in front of a floodlit Chartres cathedral, a bum noticed we had no wine to go with our baguette. He offered us his plastic bottle of red wine. Looking past a week's worth of bristles, I saw the happy and caring face of a man who had almost nothing in common with me. Sharing that same tiny bit of floodlit Europe — if not the wine — made the world more real... less mine, more ours.
Stumbling upon magnificent pipe organ concerts made me miss my Dad. Setting up the perfect Dutch dike campsite made me miss my Mom. Nothing made me miss my sisters.
With our budget, we couldn't expect clean rooms. Our goal was simply sleepable rooms. When checking out a dive, we learned to rush into a room before the hotelier, flip on the light and check for bugs before they could scurry for cover.
Flies were a problem. We learned that if you waited until they rubbed their front legs together they were easy to swat. The institutional yellow walls of Europe's worst hotels were speckled with smudged bugs.
Hotels in our price range came with bare bulbs dangling from water-damaged ceilings and sagging "ship-shape" beds. Mattresses were made of a sweaty beige foam and sheets that didn't fit. A hot muggy Barcelona night pressed against a clammy travel partner in the bilge of a one star hotel bed was just another part of "Europe on the cheap."
Plumbing was also primitive. For us, a trickle of tepid water drooling from a broken shower nozzle down the wall of a rusty shower stall was a triumph. As wispy Roquefort-fringed shower curtains clung to our bodies, we'd press up against the wall to rinse. With bare feet straddling spooky drains, we never picked up the fungus my mom predicted.
While air conditioning was out of the question and fans cost extra, we took our sheets into the shower for temporary relief from hot Mediterranean nights.
We made mistakes. We spent one evening wandering through Salerno in search of our youth hostel... until realizing it was actually in nearby Sorrento. Our backpacks — complete with tube tents, boy scout mess kits, "patrol boots" and, for the last half of the trip, a huge bronze chess set — were a lesson in bad packing. And, unable to order in units less than a kilo, we'd eat our produce in bulk quantities. One day would feature carrots, the next tomatoes and the next we'd walk around with a kilo bag of plums.
But 70 days in Europe gave us a year of living. For this first summer of our adult lives we were like pipe cleaners happily blackening ourselves in Europe's offbeat nooks and remote crannies.
Other than freedom, the only thing we had in abundance was rail travel. Our $150 Eurailpass gave us two months of unlimited second-class travel. From Lappland to Gibraltar to Sicily, it was recess and Europe was our playground.
To travelers of our means, a railpass provided accommodations as well as transportation. And on more than one early morning we were jolted out of sleep by a train station loudspeaker blaring the name of our destination. We'd leap off the train, trailing sleeping bags like groggy butterflies unable to rid themselves of busted cocoons. As the train sped away, we'd do a nervous inventory of our belongings, make certain we were in the right city, and begin a new day.
To maximize nights on trains, we structured our trip by artfully connecting the dots with 8-hour train rides. On occasion, to enjoy more time in a town and the budgetary boost of another free night of sleep, we'd ride a train for four hours out, cross the track and catch another train for four hours back.
Trains had rentable berths, but the extra cost was beyond our budget. Besides, the cheap seats pulled out to make a bed for free. All we needed to do was to make our compartment undesirable enough to prompt others to sit elsewhere.
Some travelers did this by putting a hand down their pants and a smile on their face. We developed the Hare Krishna approach: sitting cross-legged on the seats, staring deep into each others' spacy face, and chanting. People would slide open the door, shake their heads, and shut the door quickly, preferring a seat in the aisle rather than sharing a night with us.
One Belgrade night was particularly fitful. We arrived late. Rather than pay for a hotel, Gene and I spread out our tube tent as a ground cloth in a park near the station. As the night wore on, the park got busier and busier. Lying there, two frightened virgins under a tree, we realized this was a rendezvous spot for gays.
A medley of Yugoslavian faces poked into our dim little corner, smiling approvingly at the four wide teenage eyes shining out of two cute little sleeping bags.
Realizing this was no way to get any sleep, we returned to the station ready to spend the night on a bench. Then I saw the perfect answer: a lonely single train car sitting on a grassy train track as if it would be there, uncoupled, forever. We'd have the entire car to ourselves until daybreak. Within minutes we pulled out all six seats in a compartment. We sprawled across a wall-to-wall bed, cozy in our bags... smug dreams and deep asleep.
Then, with a humping jolt, we lurched into motion. Barreling through the darkness, heads out the window, only one thing was clear: we were leaving Belgrade. Not knowing when or where the train might stop next, we bundled our belongings and made the dumbest move of our trip. As the train slowed down at a suburban station, we tossed our rucksacks off the train, and — like stunt actors — leapt after them, sprawling across the concrete platform.
Shaken by the thought that we could have easily jumped into a pillar, we counted our limbs and gathered our bags. The station guard, a lonely figure swinging a lantern, walked toward us as if we were a still hot meteorite. He wondered why we dropped into his off-the-beaten-path domain at three in the morning. Without knowing a word of Serbo-Croatian, we managed to communicate and spent the rest of the night on the floor of his locked waiting room, happy to be warm, safe, and uncomfortable.
Vagabonds are cleared out of stations before the decent workday crowds arrive — often with brooms, sometimes with hoses. Our guard woke us with bread, tiny apples, and coffee.
This was the summer I learned to like coffee. Throughout the trip, friendly locals bought us coffees and Cokes. Since Gene was Mormon and anti-caffeine, I routinely ended up with double servings.
Hunger was our incentive to budget carefully. Each week we'd do a frightening financial check. Stacking our kroner, francs, marks, dollars, and travelers' checks neatly on the bed, we'd see how we were doing and determine what we could spend next week. I kept a journal obsessively detailing each of our expenses. Many times we went 48 hours without spending a pfennig.
Our budget guard was always up. We knew which bottles were returnable for deposits in which countries and which small coins from one country worked as big coins in vending machines across the border.
Like exhaust-stained orphans with an appetite for art, we slipped into museums and historic buildings through back doors and freeloaded on guided tours. For all but the most essential cultural and historic treasures, an admission fee meant the same as a locked door. To afford a Vienna boys choir concert, we shared one ticket, taking turns sitting in the balcony and snoozing in the courtyard.
While we had a healthy appetite for high culture, we fed our bodies before our souls. My most vivid memories of that trip were edible.
There's a camaraderie on the road and vagabonds share tricks. We weren't as desperate as the travelers who hung out in Greece harvesting their hair and blood to support their souvlaki, retsina, and suntan oil existence. But we were inspired by the girls on the cruise ship to Helsinki who feasted on unfinished salads and picked "untouched" doughnuts out of "clean" garbage cans.
To eat well and free on long train rides we'd bring on left-over picnic scraps and sit next to a group of Europeans with bulging picnic baskets. Our offer to share a hunk of our bread would kickoff festive potlucks.
Midway through an all-day bus ride across the mountains just north of Albania, the driver stopped for lunch at a rustic mountain lodge. Having just arrived from Greece and unable to change money, Gene and I were penniless. We walked, hungry, past long tables, surrounded by boisterous Yugoslavians feasting. My glasses steamed up with the happiness of other stomachs being filled. Yugoslavians were poor and we were rich. But at this moment, the meat and potatoes were on their plates. The only thing separating us from food in our belly was pride. With the help of hunger, we overcame that, and begged. Asking for just a piece of bread and a hunk of meat, we got full plates and a rustic table of friends.
Now, a generation later, when I collect the remains of tour group picnics into 3 or 4 paper plate meals and find some hungry teenage backpackers to feed, I remember how that Yugoslavian charity lunch fueled another day of good travels.
In a similar situation in Morocco, we were in a terribly poor oasis village in Saharan Morocco. Children walked around with lifeless babies hanging from their necks — tiny faces crusted with dirt and buzzing with flies. The village's one eatery was busy with locals munching a gruel-like soup which, hungry as we were, we couldn't imagine eating. Everything was dry and filthy, like an ugly growth on a pristine desert. Balancing the last of our bread on a lens cap and taking turns shooing away the flies, we pondered this ironic scene. A dozen thin but satisfied Moroccans were sucking down this nutritious gruel while two grossed-out Americans — who had more money in their moneybelts than the entire village combined — went hungry.
A dusty little girl, escorted by a scrap-seeking dog, brought us a big, hot bottle of Fanta. Parched and eager, I attacked the cap with my Swiss army knife. The glass top crunched off with the cap. After a short pause to consider the consequences of drinking broken glass, we sucked the pop through clenched teeth.
While good boy scouts back home, our lack of funds turned us into petty thieves in Europe. We knew which of Scandinavia's famous smorgasbords came with protein that traveled well. Hard-boiled eggs and wrapped cheeses were ideal. We'd pay for a breakfast and walk out with bulging day bags. I remember nearly free meals — eating fresh Italian bread in Milan with eggs and cheese from Copenhagen. But this trick had its risks. One time I swiped six hard-boiled eggs that weren't, and the bottom of my day bag became an over-easy punishment.
When picnic shopping, I had rationalized a moral compromise: I'd pay for all the food but shoplift the dessert. At the end of a picnic, I'd pull the cookies from my coat pocket with a congratulatory grin. Gene would look at me with disgust and refuse to eat the stolen sweets. But after watching me savoring my treats for a few minutes, he'd grudgingly say, "Okay, I'll have one."
Gene packed a plastic baggie of Tang. I left home with a hiker's squeeze tube filled with peanut butter and grape jam. Regrettably, my clever mix curdled. With the sadness of a pet burial, we dropped the squeeze tube into a garbage can. Before long, our Tang ran out too.
One day in Garmisch, our spirits went from a record high to an almost fly-home-early low. Romping down the aisles of the US military commissary store we sorted through our edible hometown favorites like a pirate alone with his treasure chest. It was wonderfully American — with a vast selection and impossibly cheap prices. We filled our shopping basket with peanut butter, Tang, graham crackers, beef jerky, even Triskets. Then, at the check-out line, the cashier — who had no idea how important this was to us — said flatly, "Without a military ID card, you cannot buy this."
The military personnel we asked to help us out reacted as if the sentence for buying a tourist Tang was a court martial. Reshelving each delight one by one, we battled back a strong wave of homesickness.
Halfway through our trip Gene and I planned a week with my relatives in Norway. This was a chance to wash our stinking rucksacks, take a break from our economic fight for survival, and be part of a family. By the time we reached Oslo, we had shrunk our stomachs. Two sandwiches a day kept hunger at bay... until Norway.
It seemed Norwegians measure hospitality in calories. Meals came in two assaults: first a lavish table of smoked salmon, creamy fishballs, vegetables and delicate open-faced sandwiches. Then, after waddling to the over-stuffed furniture of the living room, a parade of cakes and cookies with pop or coffee followed. Between meals we would visit other relatives who'd show their love by feeding us again.
Caca is one thing in Spain. But in Norway, kaka is cake: Kransekaka, Napoleonkaka, julekaka, and — my favorite — krumkaka. Every time I moaned, "I'm full," distant uncles would laugh, explain that "full" is the Norwegian word for "drunk" and put another fancyfrostedkaka on my plate. I remember fjordside jogs with Gene actually stressed out about our inability to put down the next festive table piled with food.
We left Norway with bulging bags of goat cheese sandwiches and fancy pastries. But when the last lefse was eaten, we were on our own again — stomachs stretched out and more demanding than ever.
We spent the last half of our trip on a crude diet of Fanta and crusty bread with a thin icing of strawberry jam. We suffered from painful cases of baguette mouth. About once a week we'd need bread-free days to give the perpetually roughed up roofs of our mouths a chance to heal.
As departure day neared, we made up words to the tune of Paul Simon's "Kodachrome": "When I think back on all the crap I ate in Europe, it's a wonder I am here at all. Although my lack of good nutrition never hurt me none, I got maggots on my stomach wall. Mama don't take my jam and bread, mama don't take my jam and bread, mama don't take my jam and bread away-ay-hey-ah-hey...."
With impressive teamwork, Gene and I never let up. If one of us was down — jaded, homesick, or vomiting — the other was up enough for two. We were vagabonds with a mission — to experience Europe.
Managing on our budget required more than skimping on food. Gene and I learned from other vagabonds that you could buy a ticket from Brindisi in Italy to the island of Corfu, "miss" your stop in Corfu, and sail free all the way to Patras, Greece. As the boat pulled away from the shrinking Corfu harbor, we screamed as if we left our loved ones on the dock and raked in undeserving sympathy from the crew.
We put a similar trick to use in Eastern Europe, which our Eurailpasses didn't cover. We bought a train ticket to Sofia in order to go somewhere farther...like Plovdiv. When the conductor checked our tickets after Sofia, we said simply, "We go to Sofia." He motioned that Sofia was already past. We acted as if we didn't understand, convinced that Sofia lay ahead. When we finally got it, we were mad that we missed our stop. The conductor, thinking we were stupid rather than dishonest, "kicked" us off the train...in Plovdiv.
Our tight budget didn't prevent us from buying quirky souvenirs. In a small Spanish town, we hung out behind the bull ring and watched the post-fight skinning of the bulls. As if the matador was the underdog, the butcher and his crew celebrated the death of these animals with bravado. They hoisted the bulls tail first, leaving them swinging like traitors from a bloody gallows. Between long swigs of red wine, they peeled and processed the losers. For a couple of dollars, the butcher sawed off the horns and we each had a trophy.
The butcher explained that we should carefully hollow out the horns. Thinking "rubbish," we said, "Si, si, si" and took the horns back to our hotel. Shampooing the cute tufts of hair still upholstering the fringes and marveling at how bangles from the matador's coat were lodged under tiny horn splinters, we dreamed of having this evocative bit of Spain on our bookshelves at home.
Rather than clean the horns, we left them on the rooftop outside our hotel window to air out for a few days before heading north. The horns began to smell. In fact they smelled so much, we no longer needed the Hare Krishna trick to keep our train compartments empty.
But — far from Spain — when a persistent and thriving colony of bugs infested our pointed prizes, we gave up and abandoned the horns.
Our best souvenirs were memories of the people who carbonated our experience. Like a bubble-wand makes more bubbles when you wave it, a traveler meets more people while on the move. I meet more fascinating people in a week of European travel than I do in a year at home.
Coconut, the Israeli flower child who left her country rather than take up arms, took the chill out of Paris. In Morocco, we palled around with a professional photographer who taught us to relax your local subjects by acting so crazy they write you off as a fool. Visiting Linz, Austria, Hitler's hometown, we were adopted by a grandmotherly friend of a friend. Referring to me and Gene as "meine kinder" (my children), she told us stories of the Führer's youth.
Vagabonding drives you into the youth hostels where shoestring travelers from around the world rely on conversation for entertainment. Youth hostel doors are locked by 10 pm and the lights are out by 11, but bunkbed conversation rages long after curfew. We found ourselves propped on our elbows staring intensely into each other's darkness, passing around travel tales like a bucket of popcorn.
Finishing off our 1973 trip with one last cheap stunt, Gene and I rode the train from Frankfurt to its airport on an expired Eurailpass. Nothing gets by German conductors. Our only hope was that we'd reach the airport before they finished their sweep through the train. Starting at opposite ends of the train, they methodically worked their way to the middle. Watching them approach like collapsing walls of knives, we nervously clicked off suburban stations as the airport neared. With a conductor within six rows on either side of us, the train lumbered to a halt at the airport. Gene and I squirted out...ready (and needing) to fly home.
We flew home with $2.50 between us, clutching overstuffed journals, ready to resume our decent and properly-funded lives. On this first "Europe Through the Gutter" trip, I learned that spending money had little to do with the richness of our travel experience. We had rooms with a Jungfrau view — even if on hay in a barn. We danced into the wee hours — at a neighborhood inauguration of a new public toilet in Geneva. We hobnobbed with the jet-set at the roulette tables of Monte Carlo — until kicked out. And we shopped for unique — and fragrant — souvenirs.
Gene and I did our final expense tally on the plane. In 70 nights we spent $52 each. The 20 nights we splurged in hotels or pensions cost $3.80 per double. The 18 nights in youth hostels ran us 83 cents per bed. About half our nights were free. We each spent $111 for 70 days of food, $243 for our round-trip airfare, $150 for the two-month train pass and $202 for sightseeing admissions and everything else. Total cost: $758 each. Today a two-month youth railpass alone costs more than that.
Flying home, I finished my journal with, "My future is precarious but I feel a strange, almost cocky, optimism... a feeling that I'm climbing a ladder with plenty of rungs to go."
On the nine-hour flight, Gene and I double-teamed a trip fresco, each of us drawing alternate frames. By the time we were over the Rockies we had two identical souvenirs of our trip. I didn't know it then, but this was the first of 35 summers in a row that I would spend in Europe. And 35 years later, it's clear this trip was the best.