by David Williams
When I was a young man and a recent college graduate, I went to Europe for the first time. It was 1976, the bicentennial year here in the United States. On the foreign language bulletin board at school I had noticed a small card telling of an organization, SIA Interchange, that would find temporary jobs in Europe for young people.
SIA Interchange turned out to be, surprisingly, a one-man organization based in Amsterdam. Murray Platt was that man. Murray had come from New Zealand, where he had worked in the textile business. He was a personable man of about fifty-five, already quite bald, always willing to help, and quite the diplomat, which must have helped him a lot as he negotiated, often over the phone, and sometimes through the post, with prospective employers across Western Europe.
We corresponded through the mail several times over the course of three or four months, and finally Murray told me in a brief letter to come on to Amsterdam and he would find me a place to work. He also furnished information about cheap charter flights from New York City to Brussels, and with less than two hundred dollars I took off.
True to his word, Murray found a job for me in Brienz, Switzerland. It was at the Hotel Sternen, a small twelve-room hotel with a restaurant and small staff. I worked there for two months, joined after a few days by two young American women from New Jersey (Diane) and New York (Denise), who worked as chambermaid and waitress.
Brienz was a small town in the middle of the Alps–towering mountains all around–and flanked on its southern edge by a gorgeous lake, the Brienzee. The town was the center of a small wood-carving industry and attracted a lot of tourists; buses filled with them came and went regularly.
My job consisted of kitchen cleanup and whatever else in the way of dull, menial work my boss, Vreni Michel, gave me. We were obligated to stay for two months, and when my two months were done, I was ready to go, the equivalent of about $500 in my pocket and a desire to see as much of Europe as possible. Diane was ready to leave, too, and we set off together.
The Church of St. Eustache, Paris
Our money lasted about six weeks, and through a combination of hitching rides and using the bus and train systems, we made our way from Brienz to Geneva, then on to Paris, back to Amsterdam, across the English Channel to London and Oxford. In this last place Diane and I parted, with plans to reunite a few weeks later in Barcelona. She had bought a Eurorail pass and wanted to go to Greece, and I decided to hitch north to Scotland.
During our first two or three weeks of travel we had been fortunate to spend several nights, at no cost to us, in apartments with locals. In Brienz, a Swiss waitress working with us at the hotel restaurant gave Diane and me an introduction to friends in Geneva, who put us up on a pallet in the living room for one night. In Paris we had shared travel stories and plans with a young man who had recommended a friend in London, who provided a thin mattress and bedding on the floor of a tiny, odd-shaped room in his apartment. We passed several days in London, and this humble room saved us money, helping us to stretch our travel budget a bit further.
These first few weeks had also given us a chance to see some wonderful things. In Paris we went to the Louvre and spent a few hours, also to the diminutive Jeu de Paume, which at that time housed a small collection of Impressionistic art, later moved to the Musee de Orsay. And can you spend any time in Paris without seeing the beautiful Notre Dame cathedral and the Eiffel tower? We couldn’t. We visited more art museums in London and saw masterpieces everywhere we went. At Albert Hall we attended a concert of classical music with full symphony orchestra, and in Oxford we saw a semi-professional production of one of Shakespeare’s plays.
With her train pass, Diane set off from Oxford to Stonehenge, then returned to the continent and continued on to Greece. We were well into October by then, and I began my hitching journey northward. On that first day I learned of the generosity of English drivers. I hardly spent any time on the side of the road, and almost reached Edinburgh in one day. My last ride, as darkness came, was with a man who taught in the public schools. He remarked the time of day–it had been dark for a while–and claimed to know a good pub to get a bite to eat and a bed and breakfast to spend the night at. I was grateful for both.
At breakfast the next morning I met Nigel and his father, Peter. They were on their way to Edinburgh and offered a ride, saying that they planned to stop in at a castle of historical interest to them, if I didn’t mind the slight inconvenience. I was in no hurry and there was no inconvenience, so off we went.
In Edinburgh I didn’t do much. It was a lovely city with a castle on a hill and the fine aroma of breweries, but I had my mind on the Scottish Highlands and soon found a road out of town and stood waiting for a ride. On a narrow blacktop road with little traffic, my hitching luck continued. Two young Scottish women from Edinburgh, both nurses, picked me up on their way to Fort William, where they would hike up Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in England. The two-lane highway had very little traffic, and the heather-covered hills and the lochs were lovely; after a couple of days in Fort William, the Scottish women had to return to Edinburgh, so I did the sensible thing and rode back with them.
From Edinburgh I hitched back to London, then to the ferry and crossed the Channel, returned to Amsterdam and took a bus to Barcelona.
As planned, Diane met me in this splendid northeastern Spanish city, where we passed a few days going to art museums and seeing some of Gaudi’s unusual creations, one being the church of the Sacred Family, which at that time was still not finished. We also splurged on paella at Los Caracoles, still open today after almost two hundred years. Running low on money by then, we were forced to consider an inevitability: returning to the States and home. Soon we were standing by the highway outside of Barcelona with thumbs up for a ride north into southern France.
About this time we had to phone the charter service in Brussels and commit to a departure date. We chose November 6 or 7, about the time that Jimmy Carter won the presidency. Our date confirmed, money and time running low, we had little choice but to move on. Hitching out of Barcelona provided a lesson in futility, and soon we found a train station and traveled the short distance into southern France, where we resumed hitching. The French were more generous than the Spaniards had been and in a short time we were dropped off in Montpelier.
This is where memory failed me. I’ve told this story many times over the past forty-two years, and recently I told it again to friends. A man picked us up after we left the train station just across the Spanish/French border and took us as far as Montpelier. It was getting late in the day by then, so he drove us to the center of town and dropped us off on a sidewalk there, saying that we could find a cheap hotel nearby. Thanking him, we turned up the sidewalk a few steps and around a corner. There in front of us, still in good condition after more than twenty centuries. stood a magnificent Roman coliseum. We were astounded. There were other Roman ruins there as well, including the Maison Carree, sometimes translated as “square house,” considered to have been built in 12BC. Those remnants of the Roman empire seemed so emblematic of Europe, with its rich, varied history.
Arenas de Nimes
There was only one problem, a rather significant one: those ruins are not in Monpelier, they are in Nimes, not far away. All these years I’ve been mistaken and have told the story wrong. As I was thinking about writing this, I knew I should verify some facts, so I looked online and learned of my mistake.
And what of Montpelier? This is what I think happened. Diane and I were dropped off in Montpelier at the end of the day, found a hotel and spent the night, and hitched the next morning to Nimes, where we were dropped off on that sidewalk to discover a bit of Roman history in what you might call its hard form. We stayed a few hours to see the other ruins and architecture and, time running out, caught a train north. We arrived in Brussels in time to catch our plane, with only a few dollars left.
Paris Scene of Tuileries Garden painted by David Williams, 1986
Our flight took us to New York City–JFK airport–where Diane (from nearby New Jersey) had someone waiting with a car to take her home. We said goodbye at the airport. I called family in Texas to ask for money and a ticket home.
I’ve just finished my fourteenth trip to western Europe. Each time I have visited world-class museums and seen an abundance of great works of art and history–in Paris, Amsterdam, London, Madrid, Barcelona, Florence, Munich. I’ve learned something of the fascinating histories of this places and seen architectural wonders old and new. But that moment–not in Montpelier, but in Nimes–turning the corner on that sidewalk and seeing that marvelous coliseum, was a defining one for me. I’ve been unable to stay away since then.
7 thoughts on “My First Trip to Europe”
Greatly enjoyed the article! Always wanted to travel
like that but have never had the opportunity. Amazing that you saw all those places on $500!
Keep writing about your adventures!
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I loved this piece, and I loved your painting of the Tuileries Gardens too, David! Also the beautiful photographs. Your memories of your first trip to Europe were surprisingly sharp and clear considering the years that have passed since then. It sounds like a trip I would have loved to make! I am hoping that you will write more about what you can remember of your other trips there, even if it is just a series of flashes of memory and those wonderful photos. My biggest regret in life is never having made it to Europe; the only time I ever did was in my dreams. If you wrote more about your adventures it would allow me to travel along with you vicariously.
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Thanks for the encouragement.
Loved hearing about that great first trip to Europe — amazing how far a dollar would go back in the 60s and 70s. I never made it to Europe in my travelling days and now I have to settle for the great road trips of the Branyans and friends. So, please keep sharing your travels — past and present — with the rest of us! I’d particularly love to hear about the various artwork you’ve been able to view. 🙂
I’m glad you liked the essay. Yes, the dollar did seem to stretch further then, but I didn’t want to go into details about hotel and eating costs for reasons of space so I will share a few items with you. Cheap hotels were plentiful then in most cities. When Diane and I arrived in Paris that first time, we found a room in a small hotel by the Pantheon (Left Bank, Latin Quarter) for $6 a night. Like a lot of rooms at the time, there was no bathroom. There was a communal bathroom in the hall near our room, sometimes you had to pay an extra dollar for a bath, but there was also in most rooms a sink with hot and cold water and we had already learned how to “sponge bathe” at Hotel Sternen. In Amsterdam we stayed at a youth hostel for a couple dollars a night, dormitory sleeping, one floor for males and another for females. Large communal showers. Cheap sandwiches and burgers at the coffee bar on the first floor. So you can get an idea of what we did to make our money last. Trains were relatively cheap then and there were no high-speed trains, which are quite expensive now. Bus travel was even cheaper. I think my bus ticket from Amsterdam to Barcelona cost about $26. There were wonderful small bakery shops and delicious,inexpensive freshly baked bread, so you could go to a market or a cheese shop and buy things to go with bread and have a meal for cheap. In Amsterdam there were also automatieks, where you could buy small fritters and croquets for hardly anything; there was always an attendant who would prepare an order of pomme frites (french fries). The first time I did that, the attendant asked me if I wanted mayonnaise with the frites, so I assumed it was a common thing and tried it. It was wonderful, and to this day I often use mayonnaise.
As for the art I have seen, there’s just too much to go into now. I like the impressionist period so I often gravitate to that kind of art. One of my favorite painters is Van Gogh and so the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam is a favorite, and it is not as overwhelming as the huge ones like the Met in New York City and of course the Louvre in Paris. I’ve been to Paris the last four years in December, and what I didn’t realize from those early trips is that the city is full of great small museums like the Rodin and Marmatton Monet.
Have you ever been to New York City? I have passed through to make plane connections to Europe through the years, but I only went for the first time to see art in 2014. It’s a great city for art. There’s the Met, which is huge, as mentioned, then the Whitney, the Guggenheim, and the Modern (which has in its permanent collection the Starry Night by Van Gogh). The Met also has some fine Van Gogh’s. There are lots of galleries where you can see lots of contemporary art, a lot of which leaves me kind of cold and wondering WTF? What is the closest city to you with art museums? We are lucky here that both Fort Worth and Dallas have fine museums and often some world class temporary exhibitions plus good permanent collections.
Well I have rambled on and on so I will close and go get the tractor and put out a bale of hay for the cows. It’s cold here and a good day to stay in, my chore won’t take long and I plan to hang close to a fire today.
the Banyans talk about you from time to time and told me that you have had a mishap or two, with a serious injury involved, since we’ve seen each other. I hope you have recovered and are doing better now. Best wishes for the New Year.
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Wow — Thanks for the additional insights. I love the impressionists and post-impressionists, too — and most especially Van Gogh. I have been able to spend a day in NYC and saw the permanent Van Gogh exhibit including the original of The Starry Night. I was so impressed by it that many years later my *ex* paid a painter to go to the exhibit and paint a replica for me — which I still have on my wall — although the replica is much larger than the original. I’ve also spent a lot of time at the Art Institute of Chicago and the two Smithsonian art museums in DC — all of which you should add to your list if you haven’t had a chance to visit. The Smithsonian often has travelling exhibits of serious note so you should check their schedules and plan a trip. Once I was lucky enough to see a spectacular exhibit of Matisse that was travelling around the world at the Smithsonian Museum of Modern Art. Helena is a pretty artsy type of town and we do have an art museum here — but not on the order of the museums in the larger centers. I imagine Seattle and Portland — or Denver — would be the closest to me that would have large collections. But, of course, could not compete with the European collections you visit on your trips abroad.
Yeah — I did get attacked by a homicidal hay bale just over 4 years ago which shattered my right knee which still doesn’t work well enough to be up for travelling a lot these days. So get your travelling in while you can and don’t take the ability to go out and feed a bale of hay for granted! Linda