Moi Abroad, circa 1978

E’s trip has naturally brought to mind a lot of wonderful memories of my European odyssey with Mom the summer I graduated from high school. We had scheduled some kind of trip for the two of us – this was back when we travelled a lot as a family – but then my French teacher really pushed the school trip heavily, and invited Mom along. It wouldn’t have been any fun without her; we were basically a rogue unit, breaking away from the main group constantly and laughing for most of it. A few highlights:

Paris: With the group, we managed to stroll into Notre Dame exactly as the sun blazed through the Rose Window and the organ started playing for Vespers. It was enough to make me consider converting to Catholicism for years after. (Then I married my first Catholic, who quickly talked me out of it.) Mom whispered under her breath, “Dear God, this is almost worthy of you.” Absolutely marvelous. 

Soon after this, we discovered that my French teacher couldn’t speak a damn bit of French.

Androuet: For years, this was a Parisian fixture. It was near the Gare de Lyon and I remember the neighborhood at the time was very quiet at night. You went into this ware-housy building, took a tiny elevator up, and you were in this fabulous restaurant whose specialty was cheese. We had a lovely dinner, and it was better given that it felt so secret.

Switzerland: This was a country I never, ever would have chosen, and I would be hard put to go there again. I was really sick when we arrived at a tiny little youth hostel high in the Alps, so Mom asked the proprieter for a glass of milk to settle my stomach. The woman held the glass close, held out her other hand and barked, “2 Swiss francs!” We hadn’t had time to change money from France. Later on I was well enough to walk, so we travelled the 3 blocks that constituted the Swiss village we were in. We bought a Swiss knife for Jon and a small bottle of wine, thinking that the corkscrew on the knife would work just dandy. It didn’t, but we did manage to hack out the cork with the main blade. We sat on the side of the Alp drinking wine out of plastic cups and, both lightweights, were giggling in no time. At one point, someone stuck her head out the window and sang in a ghastly yodel, “High on a hill was a lonely goatherd.” About 20 people screamed “Shut up!” in unison. We laughed until we cried. Lucky we didn’t start an avalanche, or at the very least, tumble to our deaths.

Milan: Only a brief stopover on the way to Florence, but we did see something incredible in a small church. It was famous for some masterpiece, but toward the back were some “prisoners” by Michelangelo. This is when the artist carves just a part of the sculpture and abandons it; you see an arm reaching out, part of a face, a leg emerging from the marble. Incredibly moving. 

As a side note, one of the greatest things about the trip was the synergy Mom and I had in our taste; we both were awestruck by the same things. So amazing to share those moments with someone you love, or to gasp, and then look over to your buddy and see she gasped at exactly the same moment, independent of you. 

Pisa: We climbed to the top when that was still possible. Here’s the awesome thing: the tower started to lean before they finished. So they just kept building it anyway, taking the lean into account. Sort of. Those crazy Italians. On the leaning side, you had to clutch the wall or you’d slide off. It was quite scary, but fun.

Rome: After the horrible standard tour bus trip to see City Highlights in the crush of the afternoon, Mom and I got up at dawn and went to the virtually empty Colliseum. With no one around, in the gray early light, we could feel the ghosts. Afterward, we traipsed through the Forum. For me, that will always be what is so magical about Rome. You can have all the Renaissance stuff, including – blasphemy – the Sistine Chapel. Give me the ancient rocks any day of the week.

The Changing of the Guard at the Vatican: A continuation of the Changing of the Guard at the Prado in Madrid. No, there is no Changing of the Guard – officially. In Madrid, at the tender age of 16, I managed to walk in on a museum guard with his pants down around his ankles. Sure enough, I managed to take a wrong turn at the Vatican and run into a Swiss guard in his goofy outfit. He was fully clothed but a bit peeved. Perhaps he was about to disrobe. In any event, I was mortified yet again. Sadly, I remember this more vividly than all the treasures I’m sure I saw in a crowd of about a million or so people.

Capri and Sorrento: We ditched the group, went to the Blue Lagoon and had lunch up in Anacapri, at the top of the island. Mom looked astonishingly beautiful that day; I think it was the first time that I realized she was a woman and not just Mom. Then we went to Sorrento and she bought a beautiful statue of an old man, currently at Becky’s house, and a cameo ring for me (it was stolen when I was in college). Someday I’m going to go back there and get us both a copy of that ring….

Athens: I highly recommend that anyone who goes to Greece learn Cyrillic, because without it, you’re completely confused. It’s not as if the old city is laid out on a grid or anything….We jumped in a cab with an address written down to a folk dance performance. The cab driver threw his hands in the air, then started driving. I thought that he couldn’t read English, so I made sure he saw the Greek address. He shook his head and laughed; he couldn’t read that either. Two women hailed the cab and got in, told him where to go, chatted with us for a couple of minutes, got out without paying, and off we drove, hoping as we left Athens behind us that we weren’t being kidnapped. We did end up at the folk dance performance, and it was great.

Other Greek observations: the Aegean really is wine-dark, the baklava was great, never drink retsina unless you are fond of turpentine, and I don’t think that Athenians sleep. Ever. Oh, we did get to actually walk through part of the Acropolis; they had started to cordon a lot of it off at that point, but there were still some pathways that you could meander down. They were, as one would expect, quite worn.

London: My favorite thing here was a toy museum we found in the East End, in Bethnal Green. We took a double decker bus out and loved how the accents grew increasingly Cockneyed.

By this time, we had declared open war with the group. They were rather ghastly. Harry the tour leader looked like Ray Walstone (My Favorite Martian) but without the sense of humor. His wife painted on her eyebrows; she was rawther frightening. Then there was a woman we named Mrs. Buy-a-Purse, who bought a commemorative handbag everywhere we went. She probably still has them. The kids with Harry were revolting. I remember one loud, overweight girl who kept going on about “Boo-ja-lay.” Ass. Also, Harry’s daughter was a bitch. For some reason, I remember her name was Christina. At one point in London, they shaving creamed our door. Mom marched over to Harry and said, “Now, Harry. You clean that up.” He got down on his knees and did it. Heh.

Apart from all the touristy things, the stuff I remember is the stuff where Mom and I could just savor things on our own. I hope someday that I can do that with E, the spouse, and the youngest, because those memories, as well as others from all our other family adventures when I was growing up, are some of my fondest and are responsible for so much joy even all these years later. I’m already starting to look for cheap fares…..

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