Looks like itchy-footed New York Times’ scribe Matt Gross, a.k.a. the Frugal Traveler, is kicking off his latest budget pilgrimage for the paper’s travel section, and it’s a biggie: a 12-week circuit of Europe, modeled on the age-old Grand Tour – the venerated solo trip around the contininent that young Englishmen and women of yore undertook as a kind of on-the-road finishing school. Basically it was a chance to get up to no good, sow their oats and poke fun at the locals, all in the name of rounding out the ol’ “education” on daddy’s credit. Some things never change.
Ah, the European summer. It puts me in mind of my own three-month Grand Tour long, long ago, when I was just out of college – fresh-faced, naïve, horny and idealistic, not necessarily in that order. This, of course, is in the distant prehistory of 1991. But some things never change.
It was my first trip outside of the U.S. I didn’t model it on any legendary historical precedent, but it was still pretty grand. Mine started at the beginning of June in Luxembourg. (What? Why Luxembourg? If you must know, IcelandAir offered rock-bottom European rates at the time, with a stopover in Reykjavík and a terminus in Europe’s least sexy city. Hey, it got me there. As I said, this was a while back.)
I put chilly, dreary Luxumbourg behind me as quick as I could and headed immediately for, well, Normandy, France. Not finding it any different from Luxumbourg in any material sense, I recalibrated my inner compass and made a beeline south, toward warmer climes and less prudish female beachgoers.
The next three three months were chock-a-block with your standard inventory of backpacker adventures: youth hostel lockouts, topless beaches in Portugal, stolen passports, overseas romances, topless beaches in France, a hike along the Cinque Terre, de rigeur museums in Florence and Rome (plus a stop in Spoleto, Italy), pastoral Swiss mountain scenes, a very blurry weekend in Amsterdam, Eurodisco fever, running out of money, having my altered Eurail Pass confiscated by eagle-eyed rail officials, and sleeping under the night sky atop a Paris Metro ticket station with a pair of pierced British lesbian hippies (maybe those last two are not in the standard inventory per se).
I saw London, I saw France, and I saw a cute FSU coed named Jenny Kissel’s underpants in Lagos, Portugal. (Actually, I didn’t see London.) All told, I traveled in a succession of third-class train compartments from France to Spain and Portugal, across to Austria and Switzerland, over the Alps to lurid, humid Italy and back up again through the bratwurst belt of Germany and Czekoslovakia (it was still just one country then), still further up into the Netherlands, on to Belgium, once again into Paris and, finally, to Luxumbourg again at the end of August. I was roughly two thousand 1991-era dollars poorer, but exponentially richer by pints of beer drunk, languages butchered, foreign women ogled, touristy sights seen, snapshots snapped (with actual film), borders crossed, hostels snuck into, kilometers logged, international horizons opened and exotic thoughts thunk.
I kept generally to the beaten path, but I also made a point of breaking from the well-trod tourist trail and striking out into the uncharted realms beyond the guidebooks’ smooth itineraries as often as possible. Here, I hoped each time, let there be monsters. Quite often, I found them, or anyway predators of a sort – an audatious, fearless pickpocket on a near empty bus in the middle of nowhere, Spain; another, even bolder larcenist who sliced the straps of six money belts and relieved their dozing owners of them following an evening at the Hofbräuhaus in Munich; and other, similar encounters.
But mostly I learned that the best way to see a place is to glance through the guidebook and then set it aside, letting your gut lead you where it will, following the invisible string that tugs at it. It doesn’t always yield the greatest number of famous sights notched, but it satisfies a more fundamental, limbic reason for why we travel. Even the most jaded, sunburned, souvenir-shlepping tourista feels this urge, though he may not recognize or acknowledge it.
When I returned from my 12 weeks in Europe, I was crushed to find that every single roll of film I’d taken was completely blank, every inch of it overexposed – ruined because an idiotic 22-year-old first-time traveler didn’t know how to properly load film into a 35mm camera. This mistake ate at me for years. Sure, I still had the journal I’d kept, and I glanced through it wistfully on occasion. But without the photos I’d taken, somehow it all seemed … irretrievable, lost forever to that fixed moment in time, that distant version of me.
Only long afterward did I realize what an excellent thing that is.
Incidentally, Jenny Kissel says hello.