by Chris Goff
When I was nineteen
I had spent one year in college, had no idea what I wanted to do or be, and a BFF from grade school who suggested we take a “Gap Year” and backpack Europe. The year was 1974, it seemed like a great idea to me, so we made our plans.
First, we needed some money. After looking at the cost of airfare, Eurail Passes (the kind you could buy back then where you could jump on and off any train in Europe for three months from the date of your first train ride), hostel costs and food costs multiplied by 180 days, and a little extra for the splurges and souvenirs. Total budget: $2,300 apiece.
Second, we both got jobs. We decided that summer we would leave in early-January 1975, so that gave us about six months to come up with the cash. We both moved home so we didn’t have to pay room and board in a college town (Boulder, CO), squirreled our pennies away, told family and friends we wanted nothing for birthdays and Christmas except money toward the trip. By late-September we had enough cash to buy the Eurail Pass ($300), our round-trip airfare (another $300), and then we were broke again but committed. By January, we had amassed our fortunes and left them in trust with our parents, who were going to wire monies to Western Unions in various cities as needed.
Third, we needed to pack and get to the plane. Needless to say, we both took way, way too much. We had our backpacks stuffed so full we staggered under the weight. It took two weeks to send a big box home! Our worried parents had thrown in a hotel room in Reykjavik, Iceland, where we had a layover, and then in Luxembourg, where the plane landed. Bless them!
Fourth, we had to grow up. The third day dawned and we were out on the street, a few Traveler’s checks in our pockets and no real plan. We had decided to go to Munich first, then Austria to ski, and we knew we wanted to save our Eurail Passes for later in the trip. We had to learn how to exchange money, then learn the hard lesson of losing money when you went to exchange it to a different currency at the various borders (there was no Euro back then). We learned to make a plan to be somewhere with a Western Union station before we ran out of money. It takes a few dollars to send a telegram. “Send money. Stop. Alive. Stop.” We discovered how difficult it was to rely on the advice of each other without a wise parent to consult when one of us had to go to the hospital in Vienna and no one spoke English and our German was atrocious. We learned it cost way, way too much to call home and we had to settle for writing letters (three weeks there, three weeks back). We had to learn to be independent.
There was a freedom to that trip that I’ve never experienced again. We were what now would be deemed “unplugged.” No one knew where we were, who we were with. We could go wherever we wanted, whenever we wanted. We learned to use our wits, common sense and moxie to stay safe while exploring an–at times–dangerous world. We made some good decisions and some really bad decisions. Like drinking wine and watching the sunset on a beach in Marseille with pictures of all the women who’d gone missing from the port plastered on the sea wall. Or heading out to experience Feria in Seville with two locals we’d met in the bar. Or… We survived, and with only a few scary, uncomfortable moments and no real trauma We travelled to 13 countries, made lifelong friends, and remained BFFs for more than 55 years.
But mostly what I came home with was a sense of the world. A better understanding of what it was like to live in Europe during the war; what it was like to live under a dictatorship, in a socialist country or under communist rule; and how lucky I was to live in a place where I could take freedom for granted. Where I still can.
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