Posted by: ktzefr | April 26, 2010

Europe in a Bag

At the bottom of my trunk in a large plastic drawstring bag from the PLM Hotel St. Jacques in Paris (circa 1972) I find remnants of a post-graduation trip to the Old World.  The contents of this bag occupies me for hours, yet there is not one thing in it that has a penny’s worth of value.  Ah, but, isn’t one man’s trash another man’s treasure?  I gather the stuff, the memories, and a bit of wisdom here and there…

— a paper coaster from The Plaza in Copenhagen, Denmark.  We arrived from JFK via a night flight and went straight to bed.  Shortly before dinner we were awakened by a strange alarm and looked out the window to see a local police car — a Volkswagon?! — careening through the streets.  From the highrise it looked like a runaway baby buggy with a siren.

— a map of London courtesy of the Kensington Close Hotel.  The hotel was close to Hyde Park, so we took long walks and pictures of the gardens.  Fresh out of college and from a colorful Appalachian spring, we were as interested in snapdragons as we were in the changing of the guard.

— dinner menus from the Hotel Royal Savoy in Lausanne, Switzerland.  We had “Florida soup” and “Veal Milanese” — good eats from America’s sunny South and the top of Italy’s boot.  Nothing Swiss.  I loved best the cool August days, buying sweets in the chocolate shops, and venturing across the Alps where mountain cottages perched on flower-bedecked hillsides reminded me of fifth grade in Kentucky, of living in anticipation of a whole string of Friday afternoons when our teacher read from Heidi, and took us all to Switzerland, one delicious chapter at a time.

— another menu from a place called the Caledonian Suite.  It begins with cock-a-leekie and ends with trifle and sherry.  In those days I read about it, ate it, enjoyed it, and didn’t ask questions.  I had stopped asking questions when, at dinner one night in Venice with a group of new friends, I insisted on finding out what that odd little “extra” commode was in our bathroom.  We didn’t have bidets in Appalachia!

— a note about walking in the rain in Wiesbaden and stopping to listen to a German band play American rock and roll — the same songs we had danced to on Saturday nights at Jack’s Blue Room in Kentucky.  It was an odd feeling, like being at home and far away at the same time.  These days I come across that feeling almost everywhere I go.

— a post card of Rapallo on the Italian Riviera shows the beach along the Mediterranean, but it brings to mind a different image: drinking cognac for the first time with a New York City cop and his buxom blonde wife on a balcony overlooking the sea while fireworks lit up the night sky.  I don’t recall what the locals were celebrating.  We were just happy to participate.

— a flyer from the leather school at the monastery of S. Croce in Florence, Italy, which claimed to have the most beautiful and complete assortment of leather goods in the city.  I couldn’t afford a coat or a handbag, but I bought a wide leather belt for my bell-bottomed jeans.  Still one of my favorites.

— a key holder from the Hotel Michelangelo in Rome.  It says we stayed in room 205 and that dinner was 2.500 lire for a full meal.  I remember being curious about how they got the lasagna to turn green and how on earth anyone could drink a cup of coffee (espresso) strong enough to fuel a jet!

— an invitation to coffee and pastries at Cafe Sacher in Vienna, Austria.  At the time, the famous torte didn’t meet my expectations.  My idea of dessert was Southern Appalachian specialties — banana pudding, blackberry dumplings, and strawberry cobbler.  Now I like it all.  That’s what I discovered about travel — the new stuff never replaces the old.  It just merely adds to it, expands my “repertoire,” so to speak.

— a slip of notebook paper listing the numbers and amounts of our travelers checks.  Today, the whole lot wouldn’t buy two dinners in a good French restaurant.

— a fold-out map of Paris with details of the famous sites (the river Seine, the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Elysees, etc.).  It does not show the candy stores or the sidewalk cafes or the bookstalls.  I loved these and many other things about Paris, but what I was absolutely obsessed with was watching the men pee in the vespasiennes.  On the street, visible from the knees down, in front of God and everybody!  In those days such open public urinals for men were common, but it was quite a shock to the image I’d held onto, since high-school French class, of the sophisticated City of Lights.

— a falling-apart chart showing the conversion from dollars to kroner, francs, lire, pounds, guilders, schillings, and Deutsch marks.  No common Euros in those days.  Every time we crossed a border we had to recalculate exchange rates.

— a ticket to a diamond exhibition in Amsterdam, a gem factory on Rembrandts Amstelstraat.  It was raining that day and I looked out of place with my long, wet, hippie hair, suede out-of-season shoes, and discount-store outfit.  I admired and tried on rings in velvet-lined cases, but didn’t buy anything.  It was a sign of things to come.  I would get hooked on travel and there would be many times over the years when I would be able to afford, but forego, the diamond in favor of an airline ticket.

— a curious cotton tab that says “Wednesday” from a set of days-of-the-week underwear that were popular at the time.  Who knows why I kept it, but a good story must have gotten lost in the shuffle.  Maybe someday I’ll remember it.

— a slip of paper from Salzburg, Austria that describes, room by room, Mozart’s birthplace.  In one of the showcases, “The Marriage of Figaro”; in another, Mozart’s family tree.  The note said that chamber music concerts were held on weekdays in the residence from 5 to 7:30 pm.  It struck me that not one of the many thousands of people who had played Mozart’s music in his home had been blessed with his genius.

— a small metal cylinder that still holds one stale pill.  Dequadin.  In a pharmacy in Vienna, Austria I pointed to my throat and made painful faces when speaking English didn’t work.  The pharmacist copied my gestures and made a few new ones of his own, offering up big orange pills to chew that made my mouth go numb.  Over the years, in similar circumstances, I’ve learned to trust — and usually understand — people who make a lot of gestures.

— a round seal from a package of Crema Bel Paese.  We made lunch in the hotel room in Rome — Bel Paese, a baguette, a cluster of white grapes, and Cokes (they didn’t have Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill in Italy!).  Surrounded by beautiful vineyards with some of the best grapes —  and wines — in the world, we drank warm Coke.

— A Clipper Magazine with a guide to the Theatre-in-the-air.  Music: classical, “mood” music, “music to sleep by,” or the good stuff — Joan Baez, the Doors, Country Joe MacDonald, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Phil Ochs, Harry Chapin, the New Seekers.  Movies: “The War Between Men and Women,” if you were heading east, and “Cabaret” for those heading west.

In an article titled, “Can We Save the World’s Treasures?” this quote appeared: “Venice is the largest Alka-Seltzer tablet on this planet…that place is literally fizzing away.”  (In Venice, a few days later, we rode on the canals one night with a drunk gondolier and thought we were going to capsize in the murky water, nothing like the clarity of bubbly Alka Seltzer.)  Three decades later, however, we are still asking this same question.


Last summer, when our son went on his own post-college-graduation jaunt to Europe, he took only a small carry-on bag, a backpack, and one towel.  He and his friends stayed in youth hostels and never spent long enough in one place to wash “the towel,” hopping planes and trains and subways from Ireland to Germany to the Czech Republic and back.  Needless to say, “the towel” should have been tossed somewhere in the European countryside.  After the long haul back across the Atlantic, the carry-on bag had to be aired out for days before it could be used again.

That blue bag flung open on the back porch to catch the breezes reminded me of our own trip years earlier and of all those hours spent in preparation and packing.  I drove up to the Kmart in Lexington, Kentucky (two hours from my home at the time and the closest big discount store) and bought a huge yellow suitcase that could hold a closet full of clothes.  It was cheap, cardboard thin, and had no wheels or special attachments, but it survived being lugged around and tossed about on trains and planes and buses and boats and hovercrafts through eight countries.  Years later, an expensive Samsonite with all the bells and whistles got chewed to bits on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic.

At some point long ago I discarded the idea of being a tourist and became, instead, a full-fledged traveler — learning at least something from the younger set.  I don’t worry about the things every visitor ought to see and do and buy; in fact, I like to avoid the crowds and mingle with the locals, immerse myself in the culture, food, music, and traditions of the place I’ve landed.  So I pack light and carry it with me.  It’s immensely liberating to leave behind all that extra baggage.  I do, however, occasionally stuff the bag I take with “free” souvenirs.


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