My First European Summer

passportsIt was the early 70’s and my sister and I went to Europe for the summer just like everyone in colleges across America. The only thing different for me was I was in my first year of high school and no one could quite believe that my parents encouraged us to don hiking boots, a sleeping bag and backpacks - not even me. “Take your sister or you can’t go.” With 500 dollars each in American Express travelers’ cheques we could afford to eat very well as long as we stayed in youth hostels and camped some of the time.

Our parents dropped us at Logan airport in Boston giving us the following lecture: always stay together, be careful with your passports and call home every week. “See you in August!” and we were off on our first solo adventure. Young and ignorantly fearless.

We landed in London, took a train to the ferry to cross the English Channel and reveled at how easy this traveling solo was. That was until an older couple tapped my sister on her shoulder and asked to speak with us. “Are you traveling alone, just the two of you?” they asked. Yes, we answered in unison, like we always do. Then we got a lecture about keeping ones travel documents safe. The man reached in his pocket and showed us our passports. How could that have happened? My sister had both passports freshly stamped in her back pocket. She had missed her pocket and they had picked them up. They had a difficult time catching up to us because they both needed a cane to walk. Lesson #1, learned.

We were on our way to visit a friend of a friend of my sister’s college friend in Fiesole, Italy. Now doesn’t that sentence sound fresh out of the 60’s; but it’s all true. My sister’s friend’s, friend’s friend had rented a large villa on a high hill in Fiesole and she had lots of room. It took 3 days to get to Florence by train. We saved money by not getting a seat never mind a berth. Who knew that you could buy a ticket to stand for 3 days. We took turns sleeping or rather napping. It started to cross my mind that I preferred trips with my mother. Lesson #2 - be more thankful.

fiesole view2When we arrived in Florence my sister took out the directions from her backpack to the villa. “Where are the passports, did you buckle up your pack?” Okay, I am still a bit nervous. My sister snapped back, “What. Do think that I would be stupid enough to lose the passports again?” AHHHHH, yes.

We were instructed to take the number 7 bus all the way to the end of the line and we would be in the center of Fiesole. Then we were to walk and walk, up one jumbo hill after another. Our feet were blistered in our unbroken in hiking boots, the metal stays in our packs were digging deep into our spine. Yes, tired and miserable best describe this ‘adventure’ even though the wall next to the bus stop was covered with blooming jasmine it only cheered us up briefly. I picked a branch and sniffed away. It helped me to climb the last hill.

We were greeted by a houseful of friend’s of friends all excited to see us and the last 3 days on the road melted away. We ate dinner at a local restaurant with an Etruscan wood-fired oven and ate like gluttons and relaxed, finally. After dinner we went back up the long hills propelled by dreams of sleeping in a real bed. When it was time for bed our host showed us to our roll away cots. It didn’t matter anymore, I would have slept in the bushes at the bottom of the last hill. Lesson #3: appreciate what you have. I slept like a log on a lumpy cot.

When we woke mid morning the villa was a buzz with new faces. In the large corner chair was a skinny man with the longest beard that I had ever seen and he was talking about going home-state-side. He needed to sell his VW micro bus to raise the capital to buy a ticket. Everyone asked what his asking price was-“475.00, cash”.

As I look around the table 8 people nodded at each other, including my sister and before I knew it, it was a done deal. We all suddenly owned a vintage blue VW micro bus and we agreed to go to Morocco. In search of the essence of life, or something like that. Remember, I was only 14 - I went with the flow only as an observer of course. I’m sticking to my story - humor me, please?

oatmealIt was collectively agreed that the van should be provisioned with enough food to live on pennies a day. Everyone wanted oatmeal for breakfast, a not veto-able idea, I caste my vote in agreement. Oatmeal in Italy - trust me, not possible. We had to get a 100-pound bag from a lab - hence zoological oatmeal. Yes, full of small pebbles, chaff and unidentifiable debris. Really? My breakfast? For how long? I wanted my cot back. We fueled up the VW and headed south.

The first morning I cooked oatmeal over a single butane burner. I was repeatedly burned by the bubbling oats because I couldn’t anticipate the breaking bubble to get out of the way. We served the oatmeal with canned peaches, with not a dairy product within a mile. The view was nice but this is what breakfast was? Not for me. Within a half hour I had a headache so severe that I wondered if I was having a stroke. It passed several hours later with no residual paralysis. Guess it wasn’t a stroke but what could have cause such an intense headache? Time would tell.

My headache appeared after breakfast, and lunch and dinner. Butane was being captured in the boiling food. I started sneaking off to the morning market, and then having a lunch away from the crowd and dinner was things that I had bought at the morning market. I was happily eating away even though all eyes were on me. Hell, It wasn’t a new thing having everyone watch me eat because I was the only one in Maine eating pate sandwiches on a baguette in the 60’s.

Lesson# 4: Know who you are, what you want and be comfortable with it.

And yes, we got to Morocco...


Brenda Athanus runs a small gourmet food shop in Belgrade Lakes, Maine with her sister Tanya called the Green Spot.

The Green Spot
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.