To visit Europe for the first time was to relive the bittersweet jobs and agonies of first love. In Paris, the erector set-like beauty of the Eiffel Tower was exhilarating. In Rome, the majesty of the Coliseum and Circus Maximus stirred a wellspring of gut-churning emotions. The sunny sassiness of Spain shone through the eyes of its people.
But, as with any romance, there were heartaches.
On the whole, the Parisians we met were arrogant. We were burglarized on the train enroute from Genoa to Spain. And by the time we left Madrid, our frazzled nerves were chafed raw from 13 days of fast and frantic sightseeing in three countries.
Still, we loved every moment. Until we went to Europe, wistful remembrances of European holidays were always someone else's.I wanted them to be mine. Jane Singleton, a good friend and journalist colleague, concurred. Together we planned our first trip abroad.
Advice from friends and a bushel of budget travel books helped shape our itinerary. TWA provided the best off-season (we left in March) round-trip excursion airfare, $612. We flew into Paris, left from Madrid. A 15-day Eurailpass purchased through a Washington travel agent for $230, saved us about $450 in airfare between cities.
At best, we both spoke a little Spanish and no French or Italian. Hotel reservations? We didn't have anything except a list of budget hotels. Though skeptics called our free-form arrangements crazy, we only saw adventure. And that's what we got.
The dictionary wasn't working. It's hard to argue with someone who won't speak your language or help you communicate in theirs. We'd been in Paris four days and it was time to leave.
On arrival we'd taken a LeMans-type cab ride from the airport with a smelly red-eyed dog, paid $1.50 for a Coke at a restaurant and were intimidated into paying three days' rent for a room that depression and dirt drove us from in 30 minutes. The hotel was suggested by the tourist information officer at the airport. Later we tried to get a refund with the help of a bilingual British couple who offered to argue our case with the hotel manager.
"Tell him this is outrageous. That we want our money back or at least half the money," Jane said, trying to sound tough.
The man complied and repeated the manager's response.
"No. I don't care if you stay or leave," he told us the manager said. "No refund. This is the way things are done in France."
We would hear that phrase often.
Overall, though, Paris was charming. The Left Bank, where we lived at the Hotel St. Michel, was bohemian chic. Guitar-strumming minstrels wandered the underground subway stations. The Seine was beautiful, the lofty view from Notre Dame breathtaking, the Louvre awesome. And at a restaurant across the street from the museum, a long-suffering waiter patiently brought Jame half a dozen dishes until she got what she wanted, a grilled cheese sandwich.
A highlight was our tour of RTL -- Radio-Tele-Luxembourg. Part of the purpose of this trip was to also meet journalists abroad. The warm reception by the radio reporters and community relations director Diane de Beauce melded with the familiar rhythms of the media at work to unite us in a common understanding. Later we would find the same camaraderie when meeting with Newsweek correspondent Tom Burns in Madrid.
But our most poignant impressions of Paris came through Cynthia Morris. What can you say about a woman who admits she believed her husband when he told her a bidet was a face bowl for small children? Cynthia was Jane's friend, a college classmate who had left New York for Paris five months earlier with her banker husband Walter. Through her eyes we saw the beauty of the city and lost our fear of the people. She was our guide, interpreter, cultural humorist and friend who generously shared her newfound friends.
Last year, 1.19 million Americans visited France. Thirty million tourists made it the most visited country in Europe, according to the French Government Tourist Office. Only Britain had more American tourists (1.7 million) -- but it had just 12 million tourists overall.
The French tourist office attributes the figures to widespread promotion of France's economy airfares, budget hotels and inexpensive train service. And though other tourists say they, too, have found Paris a cold city, the urban metropolis and the French Riviera are the two most visited areas in the country. We left Paris, however, unable to find any bargains. And as we slept on a train traveling along the French Riveria, we got more than we bargained for. We were buglarized.
It happened sometime after midnight as we slept soundly in our couchette.Jane awoke first. "Joann, the door is open!" she exclaimed. We knew we had locked it. We checked our luggage. My wallet was missing from my purse. Jane's money had been taken from hers. We were shaken. Angry. How did they get in, we wondered. Later, as we reported the theft of my credit card at the American Express office, we were told that it happens all the time.
Rome. We'd been there three hours, found a lovely hotel near the train station, unpacked, and freshened up. Now we were headed for the Casa del Passagerio, the laundry.
"Can you tell us how much it [the laundry] costs and where we can get change?" we asked our suave, silver-haired hotel manager.
"You need money?" he asked in a concerned voice, pulling a wad of lira from his pocket. "How much do you need? I'll lend you money until you can get change from a bank tomorrow."
Our mouths dropped open. We hastily explained we had money, we just wondered if we needed coins. The generosity and trust of Pino Tarantino, manager of the lovely Hotel Esquilino, was as soothing as a tonic. Throughout our two-day stay in Rome we were often overwhelmed by the kindness of the Italian people we met.
In Rome we went on a tour, found some of the best shopping bargains of our trip at stores along the Via Nazionale, and thankfully didn't get robbed or pickpocketed by any of the strangers who miraculously appeared every time we pulled out a street map.
That's how we met Franco, a Detroit-born Italian artist studying in Rome, and found the Trattoria de Pizzeria Grotto e Abruzzo Restaurant. He led us to this elegant, pine and amber-hued hideaway at 45 Palermo, where we enjoyed a congenial atmosphere and a top-flight meal of wine, bread, pasta and clams, fried squid and shrimp for about $16, tax and tip included.
When you think trains and Europe, forget Amtrak. Most European trains are more comfortable and better suited to the needs of travelers. We traveled via Eurailpass, a discount farecard which must be purchased before you leave the United States. With it we were entitled to private, first-class compartments with plush, lounge-type chairs that could seat six people. Often, however, we had the compartment to ourselves. At night the chairs became couchettes (bunk beds to accommodate four people). Sheets, blankets and pillows were provided at an extra cost of about $10.
On the Spanish trains, the luxurious, double (cama) compartments provided maximum privacy and convenience: each room had a table, sink, sitting area separate from the overhead bunk beds and doors with double locks. For a fee, you could have breakfast in bed.
We often dined in our compartments, eating picnic lunches of cheese, sandwiches, pastry and bottled water (the water on the trains is undrinkable) that we'd purchased before boarding.
Riding the rails by day, we delighted in the scenic seacoasts, picturesque countrysides and colorful people. We found the Spanish people always ready to encourage our poor attempts to speak their language. The Italians we met were eager to practice their English, share their culture and talk about America.
"One day I will visit the United States when my English is better," said Fernando, a 23-year-old Navy seaman, as our train rumbled towards Spain. We were puzzled. His slightly accented English was as smooth as silk. We told him this. But he insisted a major element was missing. Slang.
"Some of my friends in the American Navy were teaching me," he said. "They said in America, a pretty girl is a fox. No?"
On the train Jane also had a fleeting brush with European romance in the person of Santo, a handsome young businessman who shared our compartment enroute to Genoa.
"I'm so embarrassed. I don't know how to ask this," she said he spluttered in broken English after intercepting her in the aisle. "But can I have a kiss?"
"I can't do that!" Jane responded. "You're married!"
He looked puzzled. She pointed to his wedding band. "You're married," she repeated. His face suddenly lit up as he understood.
"No problem," he said. "I'll take it off!"
Spain was sunny and sassy from the moment we hit the northern seaport city of Barcelona. We'd gone there to change trains and report the earlier theft of my wallet and American Express credit card.
True to the commercial, I had more travelers checks within a few hours. A new card awaited me in Madrid. The AE agents even watched our luggage while we went sightseeing in Barcelona. The only thing missing was Karl Malden.
In Spain we quickly found a excellent hotel off the Puerta del Sol, the Hotel Ingles. We began our life in the streets with the people. Saturday night we bar-hopped and ate tascas (light snacks). We danced to the pulsating salsa beat in a Spanish nightclub where the young and old came to relax together.
Sunday we ate churros (a fried doughnut) dipped in rich, hot chocolate and ambled along the Rastra, a huge open-air flea market, to haggle over prices. Again, our visit was made special by an American friend, Vickie Hamel, a university student, who was our guide and interpreter.
Later we went to two former Hemingway haunts, the Alemana and El Botin Restaurant, to people-watch and daydream. Our stay in Spain concluded with a trip to the Prado Museum and the lofty, walled city of Toledo, where the sky was azure blue and balmy breezes blessed the budding countryside. As we walked across a stone bridge to enter the spiraling, cobblestone streets of this stone fortress, 1981 faded behind us. We began our final adventure.
Would we do it again? we asked ourselves as we tiredly traveled home. God, yes! But differently. A madcap dash across the continent satisfied the first time. Our next journey would be more leisurely, better planned. We'd visit fewer countries or spend more time abroad. A good hotel room would await us upon arrival. And, Parisians beware. Next time we'll speak French.