Europe! The First Time

This is the story about a failed cruise to the Bahamas that turned in to my first trip to Europe. Although I was very sad that the cruise didn’t happen, I would never have had wanted to miss the European excursion.

When I was just 16 years old, I was scheduled to go on a high school cruise to the Bahamas. It was being led by one of the two Spanish teachers, Mrs. Atkins, a white-haired woman in her late 40’s. She was a really cool person, someone you could open up to and just shoot the bullshit with. Set to go on the cruise was myself,  a junior and a senior. The three of us got on pretty well, but then one day bad news came down hard. Mrs. Atkins’ husband had to file for bankruptcy and that meant the cruise had to be cancelled. The senior who was going to go, still went, just with her mom. That left the junior and I feeling abandoned and without exciting summer plans that we once had.

Being the amazing woman that she was, Mrs. Atkins went to have a talk with Mr. Lampe. He was an English teacher for juniors and seniors, mid to late 40’s and was well known for smoking a lot of pot and being in a theater group outside of school. Mr. Lampe took trips to Europe every few years with a small group of seniors from school. This year however, he only had one interested student, Amber. Amber was in my circle of friends, although we weren’t that close as she has a diva attitude about her that just came off as annoying to me. Also she moved to Hutto from Pflugerville and although it is a larger town with bigger schools and closer to Austin, she made sure to mention this daily, and it just got old.

Mr. Lampe took Brittany(the junior) and myself aside and told us that we are welcome to join the trip to Europe this year, but only because of the circumstances. He wanted assurances that we would behave ourselves, not get in to trouble and most importantly, not tell anyone else at school, as he trusted the two of us, but didn’t want people to think this was an open trip. We both agreed, and we started planning our vacations.

Brittany was a very sweet girl, somewhat quiet and shy, but not afraid to speak her mind if needed. Although she and I knew each other in passing, we were both very excited that we were able to go on this trip.

My father was happy for me, but he kept asking if I was sure I wanted to go on this trip instead of getting a car of my own. I was sure. Cars come and go, but a first trip to Europe doesn’t happen every day. He did make sure that I took a fanny pack with me, and kept a tube of cake frosting in it incase my blood sugar got low. I did have to use it once or twice, but I felt like a huge nerd wearing a fanny pack while travelling across some of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Getting my passport was very daunting to me. I had to fill out so much paperwork as a minor, and get plenty of copies and “sign above this line”, “do not write in this box”, etc etc etc. I went to Walgreens to get my photo taken and then, with a binder full of paperwork, my birth certificate, social security card and my checkbook we  went to the post office. I waited in line with my sister for about 10 minutes, and finally it was my turn. I explained I was applying for a passport and the woman working the counter was very nice and helpful. As I was the first person in my family to get a passport, the entire ordeal was queer to us. I was on tenterhooks the next month and a half until the day arrived where my Passport(and all of my personal documents) finally came.

This was not just going to be my first flight overseas, it was going to be my very first flight ever. I was so nervous and anxious, excited and awestruck. We flew American Airlines, and back then, or at least to a first time flier, it was a great flight. The plane wasn’t crowded, the meals were delicious, my ears didn’t need to pop at all and I didn’t get sick…I was extremely happy that I could fly without all of the problems people tell me about. I didn’t get too much sleep however, mostly because of the excitement of looking out the window every 5 minutes to see the dark nothing below us. I slowly drifted to sleep, and awoke about 4 hours later to the flight attendant offering me a breakfast plate. First a delicious dinner and then a satisfying breakfast, I wanted to live on the plane!

We landed in Amsterdam, and the Schiphol Airport was magnificent. It was an airport cleverly disguised as the most upscale, high-end, luxurious shopping mall that one has ever seen. I felt embarrassed because I knew I didn’t bring near enough money to buy anything here. Luckily Mr. Lampe quickly ushered us through the customs agents and we grabbed our luggage and went outside. There was a large van waiting outside for us, that had about 10 other people on it. We were told that we had to wait for a flight coming from Arizona and then we could head to the hotel.

In the time we were waiting, I absorbed everything. First looking at all of the street signs and billboards. I didn’t know the language, but just the fact that I knew it wasn’t English or Spanish, made me excited to know I was in a new country. The people walking around outside of the bus, some running to make flights, others waiting to get a taxi, or for a family member to pick them up, they all seemed magical to me. It was such an amazing experience, and I was still sitting on a bus at the airport.

In Amsterdam, we actually stayed in a small village outside of the city loosely translated to Short Pants. The village had a small lake in it, and in the middle of the lake was a statue of two sets of legs upside down, as in to represent a couple diving in the water together.  Our “hotel” was in actuality a nursing home that was converted to a hotel. The signs notifying that the morgue was in the basement made it clear to us, that it hadn’t been a hotel for too long. Breakfast consisted of toast with butter or jam and a few pieces of fruit… Being born and raised in Texas my entire life, I am used to having bacon, ham, steak some sort of meat for breakfast. It was quite a culture shock for me, but soon I adapted.

Our tour guide’s name was Richard. The only reason I can remember that is because he was a dick. He was British, tall, skinny with thinning black hair and an attitude nobody wanted to deal with. He wasn’t too clear on meeting locations and times, he appeared late more than one and stumbled around, with liquor on his breath. He got in to arguments with a few people in the group, and stormed off more than once. The British do love eccentrics.

Our group was a pretty cool group though. The group from Arizona was a high school teacher with 5 kids, 3 guys and 2 girls. One of the guys was my roommate for most of the places. There was also a woman (Denise) and her elderly mother (Loretta) from the Houston area who always wanted to travel to Europe. I liked these two women a lot, especially Loretta, she became something of a surrogate grandmother to me while on the trip. Most of the places we stayed did not have elevators, so I would carry her luggage up for her at the hotels. There was another group of 4 kids on the trip from California, but the tended to stay with each other and not mingle with the rest of us.

In Amsterdam we got to see the Anne Frank house, the Van Gough Museum, the Rembrandt House Museum, the Royal Palace of Amsterdam and the Red Light District. While we were touring the red light district, we were in a mass of tourist from all over the world. One moron in a group a few feet ahead of us, started taking photos of the prostitutes in their windows. One of the prostitutes was not having this and she came out of shouting at him and threw a shoe of hers at him. He stopped taking photos and apologized and handed her a wad of cash. He then picked up the shoe and handed it to her. She grabbed the shoe from his hand and walked back to her window. Anyone who was watching this scene knew from that point on not to photograph them.

The public urinals were a relief to me one afternoon, I had finished a drink at a coffee shop and as we were walking for hours on end, I needed to go. Mr. Lampe pointed me at a tubular cement structure standing in the middle of the sidewalk, and he told me that was a public restroom. I smelt an adventure, so I went in. It wasn’t as glamorous as I had imagined. You walk in a concentric circle to the inside and in there, you pee on the cement wall that leads down to a drain at your feet. That was it.

Two of the guys from the AZ group had made it their mission to buy some weed and to get high. The problem for them is that it is regulated in the city and they were not of age to go in to the coffee shop and purchase there.  So these guys ended up paying about thirty dollars to a street vender for a small baggy. The problem was, the guys didn’t have any zigzags or a pipe, so they actually made a bong out of a soda can. Amber and I were asked to join them in their room to smoke a little with them. We did and they asked me to pass them the week from the counter. I grabbed the bag and opened it up, the smell from inside the bag though was not marijuana. I chuckled in my head a little bit, as the smell reminded me of tea leafs. I passed the bag to Amber and told her to smell it. She smiled at me, smelled the bag and then  broke out laughing. The guys didn’t understand what was going on, and Amber then told them that they didn’t get weed, it was tea leafs. The guys refused to believe her and they then took the bag, smelled it and realized something was wrong. the tried to deny what had happened and proclaimed that it was a special type of weed from the Netherlands. Amber and I continued to laugh for a while, even as the guys got their “bong” ready, we walked out to the patio at the end of the hall. The lit it up, and they got nothing from it. Amber and I did feel sorry for them, because they were so looking forward to getting high in Amsterdam, but ended up getting screwed by some vendor on the street. So a heads up for any of my readers, if you buy weed on the street in Amsterdam, make sure its weed before you give them the money.

After Amsterdam we headed to Heidelberg and then to Munich. We went to a beer garden in both cities. Here was where I discovered Weiss Beer (Wheat Beer) for the first time, and I didn’t hate it. That summer there was a mad cow scare in the UK, so the tour company made sure that all of our meals were non beef and mostly prepared with pork. I do love pork, but after a while, one craves a good hamburger.  Even while sitting in the huge German banquet hall, we ate sausages all of pork and some chicken. They were delicious, but I could have done with a little beef.

We stopped in Innsbruck Austria for a small day trip on our way to Venice. Innsbruck was gorgeous, nestled in the mountains, beautiful old buildings, I felt as though I had stepped in to the Sound of Music. I do wish we could have stayed there longer, at least for a night, but we had so many more places to go and see. I did make sure to buy my dad a Tyrolean hat, you know, just because.

Venice was our next stop. We stayed at a very small hotel on the outskirts of the city. The waitresses had very hairy armpits, which did not help our appetites as the food was quite bland. Penne pasta with watery tomato sauce. If that was authentic Italian, I’d much rather eat at Olive Garden. Luckily during the day, after our gondola ride, we found a small restaurant and ate a most delicious meal. As we toured the waterfront, there were many gypsies walking along trying to sell cheap toys and souvenirs to any unsuspecting tourist unfortunate enough to walk their direction.

Verona was next, and here we discussed Romeo & Juliet to no end. The city was fun for us to walk around and get lost in. I found a music store that had a huge cardboard cut out of Geri Halliwell promoting her new single. I bought a few copies and tried to justify the purchase of the cut out, but sadly could not figure a way to put it in my luggage.

Next stop: Lucerne. It was an incredible drive, going through the mountains, and we all felt a relief as the temperature started to slowly drop. Italy was much too warm for my taste and I was looking forward to wearing a sweater again. As we were playing card on the bus, we finally came out of the huge tunnel and we all stopped and stared as we looked around. We were completely surrounded my mountains, snow topped mountains. It was so beautiful to behold, we all got very excited and stopped playing cards to gaze out the windows. Our hotel, was gorgeous, we walked in our rooms and we all had balconies looking over the city and in to the mountains. I did not want to leave this place. The frigid air embraced me like an old friend, and I knew that I wanted to move to a gorgeous place like this. Unfortunately Switzerland does not allow people to move to their country, unless you marry a citizen there. Drat.

After we all unpacked our bags, I suggested we go for a walk as we had a couple of hours before dinner. We started hiking up on of the mountains and finally we found snow. We played in the snow for about 30 minutes and then, being in our youth and enjoying every minute of life, decided to slide down the hill to get back quicker. We all slid down and even though our clothes got muddy, it was the best way to get back.  Lucky for us, the hotel did our laundry that night and we didn’t have to worry for too long. The history of Lucerne, and the beautiful ancient buildings were fascinating and picturesque.

From Lucerne we headed to Paris. Here is where Mr. Lampe told us was a good place to party, if we wanted to go out. We did. During the days we went to every museum we could, the Louvre, the Musee d’Orsay, the Musee Rodin, the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Musee Picasso. We walked around the Eiffel tower, but all voted not to go up, as the lines were ridiculously long. When the darkness came, and we had departed from our dinner collective, a small group of us headed out to enjoy the night. We went to a few different bars, and nowhere did that ask for ID. We drank, we smoked, we made out with strangers…I can understand how easy it was for syphilis to spread around during war-time. This was such an amazing city, and as with everywhere else we had been I did not want to leave, but London was our next stop. I was much more of an Anglophone then, so I wasn’t too heart-broken about heading to London.

We left Paris on the train and I was excited about us travelling through the Chunnel to England. The train was quite spacious and comfortable. The snack car was a very nice touch, and our group played a few card games on the train as we traveled under the English Channel. We made it to England and then switched to another train that took us to London

London At Last! We had made it, the land of the Spice Girls, and British Comedies…I couldn’t be stopped, I wanted to see and do and experience everything. I would go in to the small shops and if there was anything with the Spice Girls on it, I would buy it. I knew not to purchase any videos or DVDs as they would not work in the states, but I did buy a whole lot of crap.

Our hotel was in Leicester Square, across from a culinary academy. At the end of the block was a burger king. I was craving a hamburger so badly, that the first thing I did was walk in to that store and purchase a Whopper. If I had died from Mad Cow disease, it would have been worth it. That burger tasted so good, if that gives you any indication of how long I had been without a burger.  Our group witnessed the changing of the guards, where we also saw a dumb kid on another tour who tried to walk behind a guard standing at the gate and he screamed and pointed his gun at the kid. I know he was speaking English but I didn’t understand a word he said. The guard the drew back his rifle, and went for a small 5 foot walk and then returned to his post. So, just like not photographing the prostitutes in Amsterdam, don’t get to close or try to walk behind the guards in London. It was the Queens Mum’s birthday so I was excited about that, as I saw the Queen Mum as a sweet old lady. We went to Harrods for a bit of shopping, did a studio tour of the BBC, ate at a few great places where I discovered my love of bangers and mash and shepherds pie. We did most of the tourist stuff: Tower Bridge, Big Ben, Hyde Park, Westminster Abbey…all unique and amazing, I just wish we had more time to really engage in it all.

At night we met a few guys from the culinary academy across the street from our hotel, and they invited us up to their dorm room, where we drank in excess. One of the guys looked like the lead singer in Coldplay, and I wished I would have asked his name before we got drunk and made out. So I can’t be sure if I did make out with Coldplay or not, but I think I did.

After London, my group and the group from Arizona had all opted for the excursion to Scotland to finish off the trip. It was very peaceful and serene. Scotland, such a quiet gem. We went and viewed the history of Braveheart (The legitimate history that is.) We went to a local  pub our last night, ordered a round of brews and sat and discussed all of our happy memories of the trip. We knew we had to leave in the morning, but the experience we had would never be forgotten. We did not want to get drunk this night, we just wanted to have a happy last night out together. And we did. The following morning came, and we got an early flight back to the states. It was an incredibly adventure, and made me truly love everything about Europe. I swore to myself that one day I will move their permanently.

 

 

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