I guess it all began when the beleaguered King Louis XVI was fleeing the angry mobs of France, trying desperately to reach the safety of the Austrian border. His wife, Marie Antoinette, called out (according to reports that are unconfirmed but suitable for this story): "When you get to Austria, look up my brother, Joseph. He's the king there, you know."
She didn't realize it at the time, but Marie Antoinette started a trend. Today, hopeful friends and relatives suddenly come out of the woodwork, tearing out pages from address books and stuffing them into the hands of unsuspecting travelers with the request, "Please, when you arrive, contact my uncle (aunt, cousin, lover)." It is the ultimate move to "reach out and touch someone."
Unlike other travelers who have felt harried by such pleas, whose time abroad is precious and who have no desire to go traipsing around unfamiliar countries looking for an errant aunt or a long-since-deceased acquaintance, I relish the opportunities thrust at me.
These adventures have a treasure-hunt allure. The first thrill is actually finding the house after pessimistic direction-givers have given up hope. The second is the wonderful times -- sharing a meal, a drink, a conversation -- that evolve from a visit. And, finally, by passing on news from your friend and returning with news from abroad, a traveler reflects with quiet satisfaction that he's done a good deed.
Over the years I've found more people than I've lost. I've unearthed distant cousins in Madrid, located a dissident Chinese in Shanghai and tracked down a Boston Red Sox fan in Stockholm. I've had ice cream with my former social studies teacher in Barcelona and spent two delightful evenings eating moussaka with Greek acquaintances, Mr. and Mrs. Papadimitropoulous (they addressed me as "Saul," but I didn't call them anything because it took me an hour to say the name).
Families haven't been the only lucky recipients of my visits. In Sweden, I made it a point to visit the Saab factory, the birthplace of my sometimes-operating car. It wasn't exactly reminiscent of the scenes from "Roots," but seeing the factory where my car was produced made me shed a tear or two.
These journeys have followed no particular pattern. Each year I set off with address book in tow, intent upon tracking down as many individuals as I can. In some cases, my New York friends will write ahead to let the other parties know they may be receiving a guest. When I left New York for a European trip a few years ago, a family friend, Beth Hammock, gave me the names of three families to look up. One was in Oslo, and another in Athens. "When you're in Copenhagen, you must call the Andersons," said Beth. "They're terrific people."
I did. I called Mrs. Anderson and said, "Hello, this is Saul Schachter, I'm a friend of Beth Hammock. Would it be okay if I came over this afternoon for a bit?"
"Well . . . " Mrs. Anderson replied with some hesitation. "All right. Come over at 3 p.m."
It was an eventful afternoon. I met Mr. and Mrs. Anderson and their 17-year-old son. Mrs. Anderson served soft drinks and cakes and treated me like a king. I talked about what the Hammocks were doing: Phil and Beth were planning on going to China, Ellen had a good job, Gail was going to Georgetown University, and Paul -- would you believe? -- was going to graduate from high school.
It would have been a perfect afternoon except for one thing: The Andersons had no idea who the Hammocks were. Never heard of them. Didn't know Phil or Beth and didn't give a hoot what Ellen, Gail or Paul were doing (I found out later that the Hammocks rented one of the Andersons' guest rooms a few years ago, stayed three days and have talked ever since about the Andersons as if they were bosom buddies). Well, we had a good laugh over this (at least I did), and I soon left. I couldn't wait to meet the rest of Beth Hammock's friends.
Undaunted by this episode, I called Peter Tretzch, another Dane and friend of another friend. Yes, Peter replied, he knew my friend, and, yes, I could come over to visit him. Peter suggested we take a walk in the lovely parks that beautify Copenhagen, and I agreed. We spent a leisurely but unexciting afternoon until I detected something amiss: All the women in the park were topless. Tall ones, short ones, blonds and brunettes. Suddenly, I felt sensational. I walked through 27 parks that day.
With this feeling of euphoria, I later looked up Caroline, 23, a lovely Swedish woman. Stockholm's Kunstradgarden Park offers free dancing lessons at noon twice a week, and I needed a partner. Caroline had heard I was coming and agreed to join me. We made our way out to the dance floor where a colorfully garbed instructor demonstrated the Swedish "hambo" with his partner. He asked for volunteers and Caroline and I quickly jumped in.
It was fun, but I couldn't follow the directions (they were being called out in Swedish). My partner and I were quite terrible. A large crowd gathered and we soon realized that everyone was watching guess who. The dance required that I occasionally lift my partner and swing her around. Well, when I tried to lift her, she wouldn't budge, and then suddenly she would leap into the air at the same time I was landing back on earth. Our timing was off. The audience howled. At the end of the hour, the instructor waded into the group distributing buttons to the best dancers. Finally, he came over to me and proclaimed "This one is for you -- for courage!" The crowd roared and I waved triumphantly.
I was more successful with friends of friends in English-speaking countries. When I was in Dublin, I looked up Tricia Caviston, a 22-year-old friend of an old school chum of mine. When I called Tricia, she said in a delightful Irish brogue, "Oh, Saul, I've been studying in France for the past two years and I've just returned a half-hour ago. I haven't seen my parents, friends and family for such a long time . . ."
Her voice trailed off, but then she offered, "Why don't you come over? After some time with my family, I'm going out to meet my friends and perhaps you'd like to join us."
I accepted, hopped a bus and was at her house in minutes. Tricia and her family were delightful -- I've never seen so much red hair in all my life. Tricia introduced me to her family and each member seemed a foot taller than the previous one. After tea and conversation, Tricia and I drove over to the local pub, where I met a dozen of her friends. The evening flew by. During this time, I was never actually introduced to Tricia's friends and my relationship to her was never made quite clear.
"How long have you known Trish?" a fellow on my right would ask.
"Oh, about an hour," I'd reply, and the fellow would look at me, smile, and go back to his beer.
The party finally came to an end at 11:30 when the pub closed, but as I was to discover, the evening was just beginning. All the participants relocated at the home of one friend, and the party resumed. This time, someone hauled in a record player, and soon American and European pop tunes filled the air. It turned out that I was the only male who could dance and I soon found myself in great demand (fortunately, no one wanted to do the Swedish hambo). Whenever I was pleading exhaustion, another hand grabbed me and it was back to boogying. The party ended about 5 a.m., primarily because most people had fallen asleep -- although I was still on my feet, amazed at my stamina and at being the center of attention.
Tricia and I finally made our exit. As we walked through the light rain, her arm locked in mine, I thought how nice it was that travel affords one the opportunity to meet others from around the world. I couldn't wait to add more names and addresses to my book.