Innocence Abroad: Chapter 8



Weak knees at the pit stop

London: June 3, 1991...




had until the seventh to be out of the country. That meant a jam-packed four days for me, leaving little time for leisure, for losing my momentum . . . or for letting anxiety get the better of me. It was a moment of extremely high vulnerability, weary as I was from the rigors behind me, yet knowing they could hardly be more than a tepid prelude for the plunge I was about to take. But I had enough to take care of, in these four days, to keep the fears buffered for awhile.

Thankfully, Marjory's ever-generous hospitality gave me the quiet and private space that the transition required. From the panelled vestibule of her well-appointed home, to the five bedrooms upstairs, to the breakfast readiness of her morning table, it was like being in an inn; and with her full evening dinner service it was even more. After the briefest of greetings, I was out of there to get the mail that awaited me at my old Balham address. On my return, I pulled the blinds in the small room with a narrow-slice view of St. Paul's dome in the London distance, that Marjory had provided for me, and let myself crash for the rest of the afternoon. It was the moment I had been waiting for, all day.

At dinner, for house-guests from Italy, Spain and Japan, as well as Marjory herself, I offered a brief report on the journey. Three thousand miles in 35 days, nine hundred of them by hitch-hiking. I'd stayed with fifteen hosts for 26 nights, lodged in four hostels for one night each, adding up to $34, and I'd slept out five times, dry all but once. My further journey costs came to: $166 for transportation, $144 for food, $45 for eleven books and their shipment to London, and $98 for all else. A grand total of $487, or $97.40 per week.

Finances for the road ahead were Tuesday's first order of business. I closed out the Westminster Bank account, taking in exchange £750 in American Express travelers checks. Equating, at the moment's trade rate, to $1275, it was essentially the income from my Choice articles, and would be my backstop, held in reserve until its use was absolutely necessary. It assured me a flight home from anywhere, as long as I could hold on to at least half of it. Overcoming my habitual reluctance for long-distance telephoning - even though it was toll-free - I made the call to VISA in California and took the time to explain all my concerns to them. They promised to rush my new card immediately. Through Terry, that meant I'd get it either in Paris or Amsterdam - IF I got it - and I had until the end of July to continue using my old card . . . IF it continued to work for me.

Then there were friends to see, one more visit to the Balham Skills Exchange to get out a brief Stateside newsletter, and a bit of shopping to do. More than a bit, costwise. I wanted to replace my winter-heavy sleeping bag with something more appropriate to a lightweight summer, and found a fine two-and-a-half pounder in the youth hostel shop for $100. Still worried about the hassle of being a language orphan everywhere I went, coping with a different culture every other week, I picked up a particularly good quick-reference volume called the Traveller's Survival Guide, along with a hitch-hiker's guide to Europe. I also paid an easy $8.50 for a Senior Euro-rail card, providing discounts of 30% to 50% off rail rates for the entire year - for bonafide British residents. My still valid London senior railcard turned the trick for me.

There was finally a lot of packaging to be done. I had to ship, or arrange with Marjory for later shipment of, a half dozen cartons. Some of my belongings were going directly back to the States, and some would be held for later shipment when, and where, I should end up - for the idea of a second winter of settlement somewhere had already become part of the loose plan. And yet a third group of materials were to be sent by Marjory in a series of monthly mail drops in care of poste restante, or general delivery. That way, I was able to break my assortment of maps and host lists, along with relevant pages torn from a copy of Let's Go: Europe, into month-by-month packets to keep my load light.

The Plan, much as I wanted to avoid pre-planning, had to accommodate such mail drops, which meant I had to have a skeletal framework of timing, and stick to it. I didn't want it any more elaborate than that. Unfortunately, it had already taken on more elaboration, and I had to wrestle with some hard choices while I was still in Britain. The original fantasy had been a grand clockwise circuit of Europe, ending in Spain, with hope of finding a place of winter settlement there. In the deep of my London winter, I roamed among the consular and national travel offices of the various countries in search of maps and literature. But the Spanish consulate was closed for remodeling, so I sent a letter, which idly included a question on the funds required of a traveler, on entry. I seldom asked this of any other consular office, but it seemed wise considering my thoughts of settling awhile in Spain. I didn't want to hazard a last-minute refusal of entry.

I was jolted by their response: the visitor had to bring in eighty dollars for each intended day of the stay. I wrote back, supposing that a six-month residence might make a difference, but it merely got worse on those terms. So I crossed Spain off my path and looked instead at a winter in Greece, where no such strictures applied. The "circuit" was now looking more like a crescent, with Italy, as well, chopped from the plan. In fact, it was a rather crumbling crescent, because I was having second thoughts about east Europe. Those countries had been open to visitors for less than a year, and some were still restrictive. Czechoslovakia, for one, had a minimum-cash requirement. It was not so high as Spain's - I could have handled it - but I was put off, and had even sent a letter of rebuke to Vaclav Havel. I had visions of authoritarian border inspections, in which anything might go wrong.

The end result was that I decided to avoid the former Soviet states, even to the extent of chopping Berlin from the crescent because it required travel through recently east territory to get there. The single exception in my plan, and the one that preserved any semblance of a crescent to it, was Hungary. I wanted to reach there if I possibly could, because I had a longtime correspondence friend, an attorney, in Budapest. I couldn't pass up this chance to meet him in person.

All of that juggling had taken place before I took off on my round of Britain. Now, things were jostled again. A letter was there in Balham from old friends now living in Berlin, who would love to see me if I could get there by early July. I also had word that the group I was affiliated with in Seattle, the Earthstewards, were holding their first European Gathering in the southeast corner of Holland during the last week of June. And it got more tangled: just as I had tried to set up weekend hosts in Britain - a great idea that went sour - I did it also for my first few weeks on the Continent. The results that greeted my London return were a mixed bag, if ever there was: conditional acceptances, outright rejections, and entirely missing responses. "Can you come two days later?" "If you could be a week earlier..." Try as I might, to tie these loose threads into a pattern, they only tied me in knots.

It was a microcosm of life, itself. Something has always come along to throw me off balance, however much I attempt to assure the predictability, or at least the safety, of my world. It wasn't as if I didn't already know this; but the awesome prospect of going, now, into a land entirely remote from my life's reality. . . going there as a total innocent, with no real idea of what I was letting myself in for, had generated these desperate efforts to be sure of something - anything - that was likely to become of me, once I left the shores of language understood.

I finally had no choice but to write each of these potential hosts a letter, thanking them for their generosity and saying that I might be in touch as I came through, but I could keep no agreement. All except for a Paris host whose invitation I kept, in the sure prospect of a city so large and threatening that any small claim on security was too precious to let go.

Thinking about my budget constraint, alone, was enough to give me spasms of anxiety. Sure, I could handle it on the road in Britain, where every sign was readable, any question askable . . . where I could spot the last-minute notices, take full advantage of the small print, and find my loophole in the words that spelled it all out. How was I to contain costs where none of these cues were working for me? And the distance - every day would take me farther and farther beyond an easy retreat to British soil. How could I even use the telephone when I had to?

It was a thin and fragile prospect, the whole business: travelers checks I'd rather not use, a VISA card with built-in uncertainties, and the long gamble that I'd be able to contain expenses at $100 per week. Even students, given every discount and traditionally the most impoverished of travelers, do not attempt it that cheaply. Europe by Train, a guidebook especially addressed to students, advises that lodging and food alone (without transport) should be figured at one of three basic levels: for expensive countries, $47 per day; for medium-cost countries, $25 per day, and for the cheapest countries, $21 per day. I was shooting for ALL expenses, in ALL countries, all summer long, at $14 per day.

Thursday evening after dinner I was alone with all these misgivings, knowing it was too late to back down - even if there was still time to do so. It's an odd conflict, when you're scared but committed. I felt suddenly more lonely than I had ever been in my entire life - as if I was getting ready for my own execution. I turned in, with all those goblins on my mind, for such sleep I could get in the circumstances.

The following morning, June 7, 1991, I made a long journal entry just before departure, in an effort to stay on top of my insecurities...

" ...Well, yes, I'm fearful, in a sense. That's what this feeling of imminent and highly personal doom is all about. But the bird out my window, as Francis would point out, is burdened by no sense of concern for what the day might bring. And he is very lightweight! Would that I could approach it. I should keep it in mind, tho - and, as well, the always-right things that happened to me on my just completed journey. Let my burdens be only on my back, and not the constraintive pressures of having to get to a certain place by a certain time, or the fear that I'll otherwise be among devils. For I know in my heart it isn't so - tho my left-brain refuses to listen.

"I've got about six hours to deal with all that remains here. And then I'll be self-contained once more, ready for anything, and almost as free as that bird. I'm just going to navigate toward clusters of [Good Neighbors] possibilities - first at Rennes, then in Paris, taking my pleasure (or fate) in the open countryside as it comes. With much more freedom than in Britain, even, for there are hardly any advance impressions of what I may encounter, good or bad. And maybe that's the way to avoid being a tourist, when all is said and done."



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