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LOOK HOMEWARD, EURO TRAVELER, AND WAX THY DAEDALIAN WINGS
[posted 11.22.2000]

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THE WHOLE THING HAD THE AIR of an operation planned for many months in advance, detailed in maps and charts, sweated and agonized over in the war room. There was, I admit, a deliberate international spy motif to my machinations:

“At 06.45, board the Thalys Express from Paris Nord to Amsterdam Centraal. Complete hostel registration by 12.30. Be inside Van Gogh Museum perimeter by 13.00.”

Two years into my “professional” life, I was taking my first stab at Eurotraveling. With only ten days to spare, my itinerary resembled a surgical strike mission. I wasn’t just visiting Europe. I was smart-bombing it with my person. Four cities, ten days. It had to be done right.

Given the militaristic precision I imposed upon myself, with the margin for error set to exactly zero and everything accounted for and double-checked a million times over, you would think my trip would go off without a hitch. You would be wrong.

THE BEST-LAID PLANS

Lesson learned: The best-laid plans are always the most apt to go awry.

First, there was the matter of my passport.

My last hour at home before trekking to Kennedy Airport — the only airport, as one of my friends put it, that’s really far from itself, much less the city — was spent ransacking my apartment, screaming “THIS CANNOT BE HAPPENING!” as I threw all manner of documentation onto the floor in a manic search for the One Travel Document You Must Absolutely Never Misplace, my passport. I raced through ever conceivable scenario: Had I left it on the copy machine at my new employer’s HR department? Shoved it in one of the ridiculous mass of empty folders I had for some reason accumulated?

It was only after sheer panic overtook me and I ran into the bathroom to be sick that I found the fucking thing, right there on the bathroom counter — where I’d placed it, nonsensically enough, so as not to forget it.

I hadn’t even left my apartment, and already I was exhausted.

But once abroad, my travel acumen improved.

Sure, I bought an incorrect ticket for the Underground, forcing me — after a shouting match with the lecturing ticket wicketress — to pay a ten-pound penalty fine on a 90-pence fare 20 minutes before my train to Paris left. Yes, my erroneous interpretation of the Dutch word Strippenkaart led me to believe that the Amsterdam tram ticket strips should be torn off as they were used — when, in fact, doing so invalidates the entire strip.

Wanting not to look like the stereotypical American tourist, I had shunned the idea of a backpack. This same logic prevented me from packing any comfortable shoes or clothing: I would blend in perfectly, walking the streets in my hip-hugging trousers, Fly sunglasses, leather jacket and obtrusive duffel. Ergo, the massive blister on my foot, and the crumpled pieces of paper found in my pockets bearing the words drogist and apoteek — Dutch for “pharmacy.” I didn’t visit these places for bandages to put on my foot until I’d spent a whole day slogging around on the rough stones of Amsterdam’s cobbled streets, because I was just that fucking determined. You cannot stop for mere pain.

These foibles notwithstanding, some of my improvisations were a source of great pride to me. For example, I am still receiving mysterious, bulky packages from international ports of call.

Packing, you see, hadn’t been a priority but a much-loathed afterthought. Somehow, my bulky duffel bag weighed 38 pounds.

But the duffel’s weight lightened with each trip to the post office. Which is why the mailman keeps bringing me boxes of laundry, shampoo bottles, an unused voltage converter, travel books and pretty much anything else I could unload. And it’s in carrying out the most mundane activities that you find the little cultural differences that are so charming. While U.S. Postal Service employees are beholden to a regulation that requires you to tape your packages shut before they touch them, French La Poste employees have no qualms about handling your smelly shirts and stuffing them into document mailers.

BACCHANALIA... NO.

Miraculously, despite the fact that I blew up my alarm clock on my first night overseas, I found myself getting up obscenely early every morning out of sheer enthusiasm to follow my plans to the letter. I certainly derived satisfaction from all this: I saw so many museums and monuments and beautiful vistas that I shot 14 rolls of film to capture my disbelief at the splendor.

But I wonder what might have happened had I worked more “air” into the schedule — if I’d lingered a bit longer at a sidewalk cafe or laid out in a park for a few hours rather than a few minutes. Then again, I’ve spent many unmolested hours in Central Park with only my thoughts to keep me company. What if I’d traveled with one of my more robust friends — a chest-beating Moriarty to my Jack, somebody who wanted to run with the bulls and talk loudly in a flat American accent in Café de Flore or La Closerie des Lilas? I wonder if things would have been more Miller and less Sartre that way. A bacchanal, rather than a brooding session? Maybe. But people expect some kind of grand, eye-opening adventure when they visit New York, too, and instead end up stumbling into TGI Friday’s on 34th after a day spent bumping into people on sidewalks while peering at skyscrapers like the jackasses they are.

Mind you, I did spend one night scuffing my heels in the rain as blissed-out canal fodder in Amsterdam, having taken three hits of Dutch White Widow from the pipe of some kid from Minnesota (for God’s sake). When I awoke, I thought the middle-aged Silent Spanish Guy who shared our room and left early that morning had stolen my wallet. I suffered another wave of panic before remembering where I’d flung my wet trousers the night before. Which brings us to a disturbing truth: If you’re all side effects and no high on one side of the Atlantic, it’s not going to change because you cross it.

YOU’RE YOU WHEREVER YOU ARE

Just because you alight on foreign soil and no one knows you from Adam, you do not suddenly transform into an International Playboy of Allure. If you are an addled misfit in the USA, you will be even more of an addled misfit in Europe, because, to paraphrase David Sedaris, you sound like an evil baby when you try to speak their language.

I labored around the Place de la République, wearing my duffel with hard plastic straps as if it were a backpack (a practice that resulted in red marks down my shoulders). I ducked my head into every hotel I saw, my seven years of French instruction enabling me to ascertain that the reason I could not find an available room was because “C’est Paris — vous comprenez?”

On rare occasions I was able to adapt. But for most of the trip — indeed, as for most of my life — I was swimming upstream, never just “going with the flow,” forever seeming to hover on the brink of extinction.

Out of respect for my kind, while waiting at the seafood bar for a delayed flight out of Copenhagen’s soaring, quintessentially Scandanavian, wooden-floored airport, I ate the lobster bisque instead of the salmon.

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dan safarik hasn’t published anything of significance. he lives in new york city.