Looking Back: The First Trip to Europe, 1971

The trip photos may have vanished, but I still have the ticket receipt!

I wanted to fly a 747 (a model just over a year old back then) on my first trip over, which meant departing from New York Kennedy — back then, Chicago was the closest European gateway.  I recall being really excited, and probably a bit too confident of my travel skills, having made my way the summer before through four countries in South America.  The 1971 trip was nearly three weeks, to Rome, Florence, Vienna, Prague, Amsterdam, and London – a quite conventional itinerary, save for a weekend zigzag behind the Iron Curtain.

It would be fun to illustrate this post with some scans of the hundred or so 35mm slides I took, but they disappeared in 1977 when Linda’s car was stolen in Chicago (not just the ’71 Europe trip, but slides from the ’72 visit to game parks in East Africa, plus a second visit to Europe).  For sure, I’d like to show you three scenes: a Swiss Guard at the Vatican, attired in the distinctively colorful uniform; a wizened old lady in a navy beret from a park in Prague; and two kids rowing a dinghy in an Amsterdam canal.  That I can visualize these in my mind’s eye provides a good reminder that when you travel, you need to record the scene in your brain at the same time you capture the (now digital) images in your camera.

Without photos, maybe the best way to recall that first trip is to compose a set of small vignettes in words.  About a white-hot summer afternoon in the Colosseum on arrival day; I could almost hear the roar of the lions.  About the next morning in St. Peter’s, a eureka moment: to savor Europe, you really needed to look up at ceilings; and into my mind came the idea – which I often remember – that it would be great to see Europe while lying on your back in a red coaster wagon (who would tow you remains a great question).

About how the Italians three decades on had forgotten Il Duce’s maxim about railway punctuality, causing my first encounter with cascading delay problems, but ending happily in Vienna and only about two hours behind schedule: in time for me to meet two Egyptian youths helpfully explaining (while holding his photo) that Mao Zedong was “president of all China.”  About sitting in the park in Prague, a rare and welcome hour away from the strictly regimented tour, but enough time to hear my benchmate curse “the Russian bastards” (his words, in my language) who invaded his country three years earlier.  About the tour bus driver who skillfully drove our broken coach home from Prague (clutch and brake systems were interwoven, and you couldn’t have both); we didn’t begrudge him the two shots of booze he downed after crossing into free Austria!

About, a day later, admiring the waves of Amsterdam commuters in front of the Concertgebouw at rush hour, waves of them coming away from the center, and all on bicycles.  About the pleasant bike ride across the Frisian island of Texel, north of Amsterdam, an empty place in one of the world’s most densely populated country.  About meeting my brother’s friend Paul Christiansen, who picked me up in Frankfurt (a one-day detour between Holland and England), driving his MGB at high speeds on the Autobahn, then along the Rhine for lunch high above the river.  About sleeping in a chicken coop on the outskirts of Oxford, because every room in the whole town was booked.  About eating the best pear ever in a street market in Calais (another side trip, by train and ferry from London.

It was not a perfect trip, and in hindsight I started to settle into some travel habits that took too long to undo, like too great a commitment to lowering costs, at the expense of some experiences that even back then were not costly.  But I did some things right, too, like mastery of public transport – buses in Rome, trams in Vienna, the London Underground; a commitment to learn at least a few tidbits of the local language; and an understanding that some really interesting experiences were to be had away from the big cities.

That I’ve been back dozens of times says something about the place.  Every visit there, even a quick business trip, has been a joy.

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