Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Return to Eastern Europe

Athens, July 1990
Twenty years ago (how could it be that long?), I was lucky enough to backpack a bit of Europe with my three cousins. I was 20 at the time. I'm the dorky one on the far left with the caterpillar eyebrows.

Since we had almost no money, we spent most of our time touring in Eastern Europe where life was cheap. Armed with our Eurail Pass, we slept on trains at night, sitting straight up in a compartment full of strangers. We would time our arrival for the opening of the tourist information offices, the banks to change money, and the embassies to arrange the visa for our next day’s destination. We stored our backpacks in the central station lockers and ate from street vendors. Each morning we would read through our travel bible, the “Let’s Go Europe”, deciding on destinations for the day focusing first on the places without entrance fees.

The night train to Belgrade
 I traveled Europe for less than $30.00 a day.

After 21 days, I had changed. I had lost 10 pounds. Dinar, Drachmas, and Forints jingled in my pocket. I had seen the inside of many beautiful churches, and the outside of many famous museums and music halls. I had met gypsies, communists, Aussies and Kiwis, and cute boys from Eton. I had traveled so far by train I was convinced I surely should have fallen off the edge of the earth.

And I swore that I would never travel Europe again on so little money.

Prague, 2010
This past weekend, my husband and I celebrated 15 years of marriage by traveling to Prague. Our one hour flight defied the 1000 killometer journey beneath us. And there we were, in a Golden City full of towers and castles and medieval bridges. We ate in fine restaurants and slept in a soft bed. We entered each castle and museum never giving more than a moment’s thought to the cost, (ok except the Jewish Cemetery which was wildly expensive. I hope they put the entrance fees to a good cause).

Old Jewish Cemetery
 I have everything (within reason) that I’ve ever wanted. I have the most amazing of husbands and three beautiful and healthy kids. I’m living this crazy expat life where ladies of leisure get together at coffee to discuss their travel plans, their maids, and their tennis game.

Still, crossing the medieval Charles Bridge with the seething mass of tourists, I saw backpackers. The real ones, carrying their world on their back like turtles. The whole of their adventure was before them.  They were off to see the inside of churches and the outside of expensive museums. They would soak in the architecture and look in shop windows.  And that night they would stare at the schedule board in the Central Train Station and decide where to go next. They will meet everyone: gypsies and communists, Aussies and Kiwis, thieves and saints.

And for that moment, I was jealous.


  1. Amazing what you've shared here! I wish I had grabbed life by the horns like that 20 years ago.

  2. What a great story! I feel the contrast too, though I'm just a couple years past the (very extended) student days and into salaried life. There is something very freeing about having no choice but to go for the cheapest option - every time.

  3. I'm learning that spending money buffers you from those around you. Sleeping, eating, sightseeing are decidedly less social. This can be a good thing. It's expecially nice not to worry about pick-pockets while I am trying to sleep. Still, I was surprised how much I missed meeting a vast variety of people and hearing their stories.

  4. I must be born without a "danger" gene, or something, because that sounds incredibly cool.