In my junior year of college, I had the opportunity to tour Western Europe in a student group. We traveled through Rome, Florence, Venice, Vienna, Salzburg, Munich, Normandy, Paris, and London for three weeks, and I chose to extend my stay for two more weeks in Paris, London, and Edinburgh. At one point, we hit four cities in 24 hours, and I experienced culture shock in each new destination.
The energy was frenetic in Rome. Vespa’s buzzed between lanes of traffic and came inches away from our feet in alleys. Buildings loomed majestically and echoed with centuries of history. Sexy people were everywhere in tight pants and bright colors. My fellow classmates made embarrassing comments like, “The women here dress like whores.”
They taunted me for checking out the men and I started a running joke, “I’m admiring the architecture.”
When the men approached us, “American girls! Where are you from?” One of the girl’s snapped, “Don’t talk to them! They’re probably in the mafia!”
I desperately wanted to talk to them, but every time I made an attempt, the girls pulled me away. The boys at our school looked nothing like Italian men, didn’t know how to dress, and never acknowledged us as sexual beings. It was thrilling to be noticed, even if they noticed everyone. I didn’t care.
I felt as I usually did, that my classmates were from the backwoods, and had no compass for reading other cultures. I began to completely disassociate myself from the group entirely. I did not want to be identified with them, and started doing whatever I could to blend in wherever we went (something I have mastered so well over the years that in foreign countries, people ask me for directions).
Though the others were amazed at religious sites, I felt sick over the obsessive power of the Catholic Church, and the awe instilled for the church through art. We were told that the foot on the statue of Saint Peter had been replaced because it had been worn away from too many kisses of the devout. I watched as people broke down in tears, so moved to kiss a stone foot.
I never quite got over how much I loved Italy. I’d been so excited to see the other cities, that I failed to grasp completely, the place I was in. Austria was beautiful, while Germany was the exact opposite of Italy. We went from anarchy, passion and wine to precision, sterility, and beer.
In Bavaria, amidst the opulent rooms of Kind Ludwig’s Hunters Palace, I actually passed out on the floor. Once again, the history of squandered wealth, over-consumption, and insanity overtook my psycho-sensitivity.
On the outside, I managed to put on a happy front, and had a song to sing for every place and time. But I felt increasingly alone, and recorded my thoughts privately in a journal. I figured out how easy it was to get lost on purpose and lose the group. In Paris I lost them in the Metro, and realized I hadn’t been keeping track of how to get back to the hotel. I stared cluelessly at a metro map when a little man approached me, “Come with me! I can take you where you want to go!”
“No thank you. I’m fine.” I learned quickly to make it look like I knew what I was doing and spent the afternoon wandering the Champs Elysees.
When the tour ended, the other students went home or broke off into small groups that I met up with now and then. In hostels I was suddenly exposed to the sort of people I’d been kept away from all of my life. Aimless wanderers hoping to hook up with someone, bragging about how many bottles of wine they’d finished off in a night, solving the mysteries of humanity through astrology. Before this, under the scrutiny of our group leaders we’d been lucky if we could sneak off and drink a glass of wine.
In Paris I stayed in a crappy hostel and caught something, possibly from brushing my teeth in the tap water. I was later diagnosed with a strange combination of virus’s that resembled a cross between Mono and Hepatitis. My neck swelled up to the size of Rocky Balboa’s, and I needed to sleep all afternoon.
By Scotland I was very weak. I walked through the ruins with a girl from Quebec. On her first day in Scotland a guy on the street yelled cuss words at her for no reason at all. She hated it there, but I kind of enjoyed the grittiness of the culture.
The day before I met her I had a fit of extreme anxiety and depression (a common occurrence back then). I realized that if I took a walk without my ID, and got hit by a car and died, no one would have known my identity. Insignificance and immortality hung over my head, and I fingered my laundry cord, trying to think of a place to hang from. Preposterous, since I didn’t even know how to tie the knot.
I had met someone in a nightclub in Portland before the trip, a trombonist whose band was #2 on the pop charts in Paris. It was strange to hear their music on the radio. He had a golden look about him, and was everything I’d ever dreamed of – intensely creative, passionate, and most unbelievable of all, attracted to me. In every city I kept seeing his face over and over – in the server in Austria who winked at me, in the Englishman who gave up his seat on the tube for an older lady, in the sexy dancer who stole the show in Fosse. I was so obsessed that I bought tickets to see the show again, but an understudy filled in for my dancing man. I was afraid that being gone for so long, the trombonist would disappear, just like the dancer.
For the last few days of my trip, I left my hotel where I’d had breakfast with stamp collectors and workingmen, and took the tube into a wealthy neighborhood to stay with an American couple that could put me up for the weekend. When I arrived there was banana bread and tea waiting for me on the table. They gave me a large room with a queen size bed, sink and vanity in my room. It felt like a luxurious paradise after all the dank empty rooms and nasty beds with springs poking up into my back.
I was painfully shy at the time, but as my trip progressed, I began to talk to people more and more. The desperation of traveling alone with little contact stretched me out of my comfort zone. I was about to come into a new place in life of empathy. And my journey through Europe would change me, most noticeably after I returned home.
That following summer I would fall in love with the trombonist, or think I did, and begin to write obsessively about everything that I felt. I learned that in order to truly experience people, you have to take risks. I didn’t want to be like the other girls on my trip, constantly shying away from life out of fear.
This week I read one of Henry Miller’s lesser-known works, The Colossus of Maroussi. As World War II broke out, Miller left Paris and went to Greece where he found a spiritual place, uplifted by the history of gods who share our humanity. He was stunned by the white lightness of the landscape, the generosity, the poverty, and the women who resembled queens, even in such a harsh way of life.
“To live creatively, I have discovered, means to live more and more unselfishly, to live more and more into the world, identifying oneself with it and thus influencing it at the core, so to speak (Miller, 206).”
Europe was really the beginning of my life as a writer – learning to breathe into the world, awakening to my senses.