I spent the year after college graduation (1978-79) living abroad, in Tours, France, in the heart of the Loire Valley. Finances hadn’t allowed for junior year abroad (and I was not the least bit resentful – why, certainly not I!), but I was lucky enough to receive a Rotary Fellowship that paved the way for 10 months of graduate study in Europe. In addition to tuition, I was given a stipend for living expenses to spend as I pleased. I opted for renting a room in a retired woman’s lovely old townhome in the city center, rather than go the much more expensive route of living with a family and being fed three daily squares. I managed to eat on just a few dollars a day, saving all the rest for traveling. And travel I did.
It was shoestring trekking at its best and I simply wanted to go everywhere. I had lists of places to see – those I’d heard or read about over the years and those that were unknown to me but recommended by my landlady. Almost every weekend, I headed out of town by train and I stretched my travel dollars as far as they would go, sleeping on trains and station benches and in cheap guestrooms. I always managed to treat myself to one proper sit-down dinner on each of my journeys – usually at one of the “best-buy,” prix-fixe restaurants I’d found in Let’s Go – where I would have a salad, entrée, dessert and a carafe of wine, all for about $10. At these dinners, I took lots of time to people-watch and usually wrote my weekly batch of postcards to friends and family back home.
While I enjoyed the familiar routine of keeping in touch, long before the advent of the Internet, email and cell phones, I had an incredibly difficult time adequately writing about the places I’d visited and conveying the sense of adventures (there’s that word again!) I was experiencing. How was I to describe the awe of seeing Mont St. Michel as it rose ominously out of the gloomy English Channel for the first time or the briny smell of the fresh seafood proudly displayed along the narrow streets of St. Malo? What words could possibly express the fear of suddenly being stranded in an unexpected and fierce late-December snowstorm, slipping, sliding and falling in my flimsy white sneakers in the walled fortress town of Carcassonne on a Sunday night when all the hostels and the hotels I could afford were full? Or the subsequent relief of finally being taken in by an elderly nun (with more creases in her face than I’d ever seen in my life) in full black and white habit after knocking with the huge brass knocker on the medieval timbered gate of an unheated convent for the night? I did my best to describe my travels and the places I experienced for those back home, but the words and the pictures were just never quite adequate. I’m certain that my writing never did justice to the poignant, sad story of the grandparents and their grandson I met in Lourdes. The older couple had spent their life savings to travel all the way from Iowa to bring the teenager afflicted with a serious case of cystic acne to the springs of Lourdes, hoping for a miraculous cure. To this day, I’m overcome with melancholy and uneasiness when I think back on my time in Lourdes and the hundreds of people I passed in wheelchairs, on crutches and being carried on their pilgrimage to the holy waters.
Most of my travels that year were solo, although occasionally another student or two joined me. Apparently, few of my peers shared my lust for regularly leaving town. At times I was pleased to be out by myself, determining my own itinerary, but there were many bouts of loneliness, wishing I could be sharing my exploits with someone. It was during the months I spent studying abroad that my now husband and I solidified our relationship – he sailing on merchant ships and I gallivanting around Europe – and I promised myself that one day we would come back to explore Europe at length and create our very own travelogue together. I’d had enough of my unaccompanied jaunts and unsuccessfully trying to describe them to others. We’ve been back to France and Europe many times since my solo year, but only for a week or two at a time – hardly enough time for genuine and thorough exploration.
So here we are, anticipating our gap year in Europe, ready to begin discovering new places and revisiting familiar haunts. Together. We'll share our exploits. Together. No explanations needed.