Scene writer Joe Larson shares his traveling trials and tribulations as he and his friends set out to take a trip around Europe while abroad in London
In the London Program, as in all other study abroad programs, there is time scheduled during each semester for the students studying abroad to travel to different locales than the ones they are exploring during their daily routines.
So, like everyone else, I went on a little odyssey of sorts around Europe. Accompanied by one Agent Pigpen and one Agent Funny Roommate, I set off on the trip we planned haphazardly on a Wednesday afternoon.
We were doomed from the start. During our three-hour wait, 10 minute talk session with the travel agent, blind deliberation about certain destinations and shoddy plans for getting places, we devised our plan and believed in it.
The travel agent said it was feasible — why would she lie? Our plan was to fly into Lisbon, Portugal on Friday and then ride the train up through Spain and France to Paris, where we could simply take the Chunnel (for those not down with the lingo, the Chunnel is a train that goes under the English Channel from Paris to London) back to London where we'd celebrate the greatness of our first European vacation.
In our heads, our trip was basically going to be the same one any superstar rock band on tour would have. We made no hotel reservations, no train reservations, we didn't even plan out where we were going to be on what day. Even rock bands do that. We just figured everything would "fall into place," as Agent Pigpen so wisely put it.
Things began smoothly. We arrived at the airport in London and went through customs. Pigpen, Funny Roommate and I were concealing no automatic rifles so everything was cool — until they told us we had to check our bags. Each of us had back packs that we thought would be pretty easy to store in an overhead compartment, but British Airways agreed to disagree and sent us to a small room in the back of the airport where some little man who didn't speak English just kind of threw our bags on the conveyor and smiled at us. Okay, we thought, there goes our luggage, most likely never to be seen again. So we left the little man and the little room and headed for the terminal.
London's Heathrow Airport has an interesting system. Once you go through customs, there is a set of checkpoints that once you pass, you may not return. Deciding to make sure we knew where our terminal was, we inadvertently crossed every checkpoint Heathrow had to offer. Back to the beginning we went. We finally found the plane and arrived in Lisbon, and, surprisingly, our little man came through and our luggage was there.
It was a Friday night, so we decided to hit the town. Instead of consulting our "Let's Go" guidebook, we asked the receptionist, a man who looked like a cross between Papa Smurf and Don Knotts with four teeth (if you can picture that), where we could find a good time in Lisbon. He got a map and drew on it, and we followed it exactly for about two hours.
We found two bars, including one where we were the only patrons. We kept looking. Eventually, we heard loud dance music up the street and headed that way. The place at least had a few people in it. Only something about it was strange. If you made a sharp left after walking through the door instead of heading for the bar, you ended up in a department store.
The evening ended with us talking to the only other patrons of this psychedelic mix of fashion and dancing, several Italian girls who spoke very little English, if any at all. I was talking to one about Italy and after exhausting all other options, I asked her about her impression of "The Godfather." When traveling in Europe, you really should make a conscious effort not to establish yourself to Europeans as a "stupid American," but it never fails, because you are, in fact, a stupid American.
After this awesome night of falling into stereotypes, we headed back to the hostel and I remembered that I had to share a bed with Pigpen. Maybe Axl and Slash had to do this, too.
The next day, we began walking around the city. After a bit more wandering around Lisbon, we decided to take the night train to Madrid, Spain.
After a seven-hour train ride, we were ready to go experience the Madrid nightlife we had heard so much about.
We got dressed up. I'm not talking about dressed up like we're going to the Boat Club, I'm talking like money, like the bomb. Black shirt, black pants, black shoes, dark gray socks (my black ones weren't cleaned for the trip). But I stopped short of the hair gel, I refuse to sell out that far.
But then we ran into a problem: it was Sunday night. None of the big clubs were open and the bars were empty. We went out and tried to have fun anyway.
Now, Pigpen and I speak a little Spanish (very little) and Funny Roommate took German so he had no chance. We met some girls from Moscow who didn't speak English, but spoke Spanish. Pigpen and I both tried about three different Spanish sentences, all three trailing off in the middle because of forgotten vocabulary words, before retreating to the warmth of the bar.
The next day was Monday and we did more sightseeing. We saw the Plaza Major, Plaza de Santa Ana (where Hemmingway used to hang out), all on the way to El Prado Museum, which is the biggest tourist attraction in Madrid.
After walking all the way down to El Prado, we learned that all the museums close on Mondays.
Defeated, we took a siesta (which, by the way, is the greatest invention in the world) and got ready to go out. Funny Roommate was too tired, so it was just Pigpen and me. We planned the night according to the "Let's Go" guide and, once again, simply couldn't find a busy, fun place to go. The highlight of the evening was Pigpen and me in a Hawaiian-style tiki bar, having drinks out of large, painted vases whose contents are still unknown. The ridiculousness of this scene simply cannot be recreated in words.
Next, we left the beaten path for a town called Segovia, where we met with a friend, Agent Ben. Segovia is wonderful. It has the oldest Roman aqueduct in the world — somewhere around 3,000 years old. The views of the Spanish countryside are breathtaking. Ben did a great job showing us the Spanish culture we simply couldn't find by ourselves.
We drank sangria, ate paella and drank a lot of wine. Our train left at 8 a.m the next day. We were in pretty bad shape. Pigpen lost our alarm clock. I lost jeans and a T-shirt.
Our connecting train was in Madrid following a two-hour layover. We finally saw El Prado. We got on the train and, due to the sudden motion of the train, I was forced to evacuate the contents of my stomach into a trash can in the middle of the car.
The funny thing was that as I emerged from the trash can, a little old Spanish woman muttered something in Spanish and handed me a plastic grocery bag. Either the lady said "Take this in case you need to throw up again," or "Could you throw this away for me?" I'm not sure, but I took the bag with me.
Then, we were off to Valencia, where another friend of ours was studying. This is Agent Susan.
When we got to Valencia, which is supposed to be a beautiful beach city, it was raining and cold. Susan informed us that "this is the first day it has rained all year."
Well, that's about right, I figured.
After spending four days in Spain I feel I'm allowed to make a few broad generalizations. The first one, Spain just kind of seems to be under construction. Each city we went to was filled with scaffolding and construction sites. It kind of took away from the picturesque nature of it.
Also, everything you order to eat there comes with fried eggs.
Pork chops and fried eggs. Chicken and fried eggs. Omelets with egg yolk on them.
It's just inescapable. You can even get pizza with an egg on it. It's weird.
Another thing, in Spain, you have to buy a lot of bottled water. So that costs money. Then, you have to pee. Except, you have to pay for that, too. I'm starting to see their evil ploy to suck the pesetas out of your pocket faster than you can say "Donde esta el bano?"
On Thursday, we traveled to Barcelona. We got there and soon found a hostel. We walked down Las Ramblas to the big statue of Christopher Columbus pointing at something which I assumed was America, but our guidebook whimsically pointed out that good old Cristobol was really pointing at Libya — builder's mistake. I guess even national landmarks can be wrong. I didn't feel so bad about our trip now.
Due to our never-ending quest to find this crazy Spanish nightlife that continually eluded us on the trip we decided to, once again, get all dressed up and go out. (By now, our clubbing clothes have been worn and crammed in and out of our bags for a week, so we don't look quite as money as maybe we did in Lisbon, but still pretty money.)
We visited an Irish bar and people were speaking English! Yes! This was extremely exciting because I could barely stand looking at — let alone standing within 10 feet of — Funny Roommate and Pigpen. We'd all been feeling this way.
Here is where we met the most beautiful woman in the world (and her two nice enough friends). They hailed from Sweden and spoke English; we all joked around for awhile and it was great.
After closing out the bar, we decided to keep the night going (even though the Swedes had backed out) by going down to the Olympic Village, which was supposed to harbor some of the coolest nightlife in Barcelona.
Armed with directions and a napkin-drawn map from the bartender, we went. Morale was high at this point. We had just conversed with other people and could now stand each other's presence. That didn't last long. We got down to the pier and, unfortunately, took an early right where there were a few bars.
We thought we had found the Olympic Village. Wrong. The place we entered looked more like a half-full Benchwarmer's. The only difference was the two dancers on two different pedestals across the room. Nice, but not enough. The next night, we found the Olympic Village and the awesome clubs we had been searching for the night before. Better late than never? No.
Then, we saw all of Gaudi's architectural work in Barcelona. The Park Guiel and the Familia Sagrada are absolutely beautiful.
Here's where the trip's swinging pendulum of fatal errors began to progress with more momentum. We were faced with a 12-hour night train ride to Paris. Again, we never planned the trip and now we've realized we had to be home in two days.
We needed to get to Paris and this was the only option. The second leg of the trip was a five hour ride starting at 12:30 a.m.
Again, due to the loss of the alarm clock, we were forced to sleep light (which is basically not at all) in order to be ready to get off the train.
Now in Paris, and we were annoyed. It was a long trip and many things would be nice.
1. A shower. We were making the French smell good.
2. About three days of sleep.
3. A place to stay for the night.
4. Someone in our group who speaks French. (I was deemed the spokesman for the group because I had French class once a week in the fourth grade).
Any one of these four things would have helped the situation. Of course, the pendulum was at full speed now and we are pretty much screwed.
Failing to find a suitable place to stay, we decided to see Paris in one afternoon and then hop on the train back to London.
Okay, to the Louvre. We were standing in line for the Louvre in relatively good spirits, considering our state of affairs and the mind-bendingly strong cup of coffee we've just had. Then, like Tyrell to our Princes of England, some security guard came into view and told us that we could not bring big bags into the Louvre.
We were embarrassingly forced to leave the line and wander around in disbelief.
No Venus De Milo. No Mona Lisa. No bathroom to wash up in.
In our rejected state, we wandered through the garden towards the Champs-Elysees. After walking to the site of 1,343 beheadings during the Reign of Terror we stopped. Pigpen says, "Let's just go home." I can't believe it, but I agree. Seeing Paris without seeing the Louvre is like visiting the campus of Notre Dame without seeing Stepan Center.
Interesting that we decide to end our trip where 1,343 people's heads were lopped off by a guillotine.
So, true to the rest of our trip, we got to the train station and had to wait two and a half hours for the train back to London. So, there you have it.
Six cities, eight days.
I know now that six cities in eight days is too ambitious. Some would go as far as to say it was stupid.
Some would say the moral of the story is to plan better, but I already know I need to do that. I'd like to think it's an interesting look at different culture than our own. Also, it's an experience that makes you feel like an American, stupid or not. A lot of people argue about whether or not we have it better or worse than European countries. I'd just like to point out that the problem is that we just have it different.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Scene Stories for Friday, March 30, 2001