by Nancy Bestor
My first “real” experience abroad was in 1983 when I traveled through Europe with my older sister Teresa. Initially, we flew to Yugoslavia, to visit family for 10 days. But then we set out on our own across the Adriatic by ferry to Bari, Italy, where we began our European Backpacking Adventure. For the next six weeks it was just the two of us. Teresa was 21 and I was 16. Yes, 16 years old.
We traveled via train through six countries with our second class Eurail passes. I remember getting off at our first stop in Rome and my distress at being confronted by aggressive touts offering cheap hotel rooms (among other things), and thinking we had made a huge mistake; that we had no idea what we were doing. I feared we would get cheated, robbed, raped, lost, or all of the above. We spoke only English, and had no experience booking hotels in the U.S., let alone booking accommodations in Europe. We were novice travelers, but everybody’s got to start somewhere, and we learned quickly from our mistakes. First lesson learned – don’t rent a room from a train station tout. Instead consult a guidebook, fellow travelers or the local tourist office for recommendations.
I was quite surprised to discover the scores of teenagers and college students riding the rails and backpacking along with us. Almost every single one toted their very own copy of Let’s Go Europe (a.k.a. the backpacker’s bible), which amazingly, we knew nothing about before heading across the pond. It was great to consult with these veteran yet like-minded travelers on where to visit, sleep, shop, and eat, all on the cheap. We, like all our backpacking peers, were very frugal, many meals consisted of bread and cheese or other store bought items. Fancy restaurants? Never. Hotels? Nope.
We stayed in youth hostels, with our Hostelling International membership cards (www.hihostels.com), and rarely paid more than $10 a night for a bed in a dormitory room. Most of the hostels we stayed in had kitchen and laundry facilities, as well as strict rules about what time you had to be back at the hostel, and what time you had to leave in the morning. Many even provided social activities. I fondly remember watching An American Werewolf in London in Interlaken, Switzerland, with a crowd of low budget adventurers who looked so much cooler and better traveled than I.
To save money and cover more ground, we sometimes slept on trains. I remember it not being too important exactly where they were going, as long as it was in the general direction we were headed and we could get a minimum of six hours of sleep. As far as we were concerned, it was more about a free night of lodging than getting from point A to point B.
We met lots of interesting characters. There were the two girls who stole an older couple’s Roquefort cheese on a train in Switzerland, and who also attempted to sneak into a youth hostel for the night. They were caught, and I must admit, I was glad. (I know where my daughters get their “rule following” tendencies.) Then there was the friend we made in Venice, Mai, who when introducing herself said “my name is Mai, as in My God.” We shared a pension for several days in Italy together, and were sad to say goodbye. I met a guy at the first and oldest youth hostel in Switzerland, Balmer’s (www.balmers.com), who explained to me the whole “pay it forward” system by folding someone else’s laundry while waiting for his own to dry.
We also came up with “The Five Questions”. These are the questions that every single euro backpack traveler is guaranteed to ask every other euro backpack traveler that they spend longer than five minutes with:
–Where are you from?
–How long have you been traveling?
–Where have you been so far?
–Where are you going next? And,
–How much time do you have left to travel?
The great thing about those questions was that as repetitive and inevitable as they were, and still are, I suppose, everyone we ran into had a fascinating and informative answer to each of them.
One of my strongest memories of that first trip is how different everything was. I was shocked to discover Italian pizza was very thin, not like the thick Round Table Pizza I was used to. I even had to ask for ice for my drink. If I was lucky they’d have it, otherwise it was served room temperature. For the first time I stayed in a pension where the shower was in the main part of the bathroom, with no curtain, so one could conceivably sit on the toilet and shower simultaneously. At the time, with my 16-year-old brain, these cultural oddities were annoying, but in hindsight, they were just different. It’s safe to say this trip greatly impacted my life, as well as my future outlook on travel.
Fast-forward 29 years (yes, I’m 45 years old). These days, Rick Steves is more likely to be my travel bible, not Let’s Go. I don’t stay in youth hostels anymore. I even “splurge” and regularly eat in restaurants. And I’m actually willing to pay money to go up in the Leaning Tower of Pisa, rather than just look at it from the ground and save the 4,000 Lire (about $2.50 back then. Now it’s 15 euros which is about 20 bucks. Big mistake not climbing the Tower when it was cheap. Let that be a lesson.). I’m also no longer annoyed by cultural differences as I have a greater love for new experiences. I still like to do things on the cheap (which, it turns out, is usually the best way to “live like a local” when traveling) but not so cheap that I miss out on the little adventures that make a trip worthwhile.
This summer I’ll be putting my 17-year-old daughter on a plane by herself from Milan to Paris, where she will be met (we hope!) by a French family who will host her for two weeks. Emily is far more traveled than I was at her age, but I’m certain there will be some cultural differences that she finds annoying as well. I’m hopeful however, that she won’t need to sit on the toilet and shower at the same time.