In September 1984, at age 23, feeling lost and directionless and brokenhearted over a girl that was all wrong for me, I packed up a bunch of clothes, my cassette Walkman and some tapes, threw them in the old orange backpack I'd had in my possession since Boy Scouts, bought myself a plane ticket to London and a Eurail pass, and bummed around Europe for three and half months. It was one of the greatest things I ever did.
I had many adventures on my solo voyage in Europe, some great, and some utterly stupid. Here is one of the stupider ones.
In late October, I found myself in Heidelberg, Germany. I say "found myself" because I often had no idea where I was going or what I was doing on any given day, until I arrived there. If you've been on the European youth hostel circuit before, you know what I'm talking about. I'd randomly meet people in the hostel of whatever city I was in--equally directionless, drifting 20-somethings--and we'd hop on trains with no particular destination at all, often getting off on a total whim.
At this point in my journey, I was traveling with two sisters from Wisconsin, a big Mormon guy from Salt Lake City, and a gorgeous blonde woman from Sweden named Wiveka. We had all rolled in to Heidelberg--an absolutely gorgeous city in southwestern Germany--on a Saturday afternoon, and had a delicious lunch of bread and cheese in a beautiful forest setting.
I have a journal buried somewhere around the house with all the details of the trip, and if I found it it could fill in the blanks of why the next thing happened. All I remember now is that later that evening, a Saturday night, after wandering around the city, I was by myself at around 11 pm and needed to catch a bus back to the youth hostel before they closed for the night. The problem I had throughout my travels, except in England, was that I spoke no second language. Sure lots of people spoke English (always the lazy American attitude) and I could basically get myself through any situation with lots of pointing and facial expressions, but still, there were certain times you really needed to engage in some solid communication. For example: Finding the right bus to take you home late at night in a city you're totally unfamiliar with.
Looking back, I suppose it wouldn't have been hard for me to fully ascertain the proper bus to the youth hostel, between studying the transit map and asking folks at the bus stop. I may just have been too tired, or too weary or embarrassed to play charades with Germans to find out. All I know is that what I did do is just hop on the first bus that looked reasonable, and hope for the best.
I settled inabout 2/3 of the way towards the back of the buss, popped in U2's Unforgettable Fire in my cassette Walkman, and looked out the window looking for reassuring signs that I was heading the right way. There were a fair number of passengers on the bus for this late at night, but, one by one, over the next 20 minutes, as the bus tooled along, they began getting off, until I was alone except for two other people. It was at this point that I began to get worried. Not only was the bus nearly deserted, but, outside, the suburban streets were getting sparser. Out my window to the left it was now pitch black, as all there was was countryside, and no streetlamps. Soon we would out of the city entirely.
Finally, with panic starting to set in, I made my way up to the front of the bus, and asked the bus driver--and old guy with a big, grey, walrusy mustache--the important German word I had learned in the last few days: "Jugenherberger?" ("Youth hostel?" Upon hearing my mangled German, the bus driver assumed an expression of bewilderment, repeated the word even louder and more questioningly that I had said it, and then stopped the bus and opened the bus door. "Go back, very far," he said in English, pointing to the exit.
What choice did I have? I asked if there was another bus coming, but I don't think he understood the question. I got out of the bus.
So now I began walking along the dark, empty street, no idea where I was, all hope of making it back to the youth hostel in time gone, and no idea, in fact, where the youth hostel even was. At this point, the self-pity and self-loathing was in full effect, but there was one more bad thing to come. I was wearing my contact lenses (with no backup pair or backup pair of glasses), without which I approach Mr. Magoo levels of blindness. As I walked along this dark road, cursing myself, my right eye started to get irritated by the lens. I rubbed my eye, in an attempt to readjust the lens and relieve my eyeball, but, in the process, managed to rub the lens right out of my eye. Because it was late at night and my eyes were tired and the lens was dry, I simply could not get it back in my eye. Because I was not carrying a contact case on me (and, recall, too, that this was before the existence of disposable contacts, so this was an expensive lens) , the only thing I could think of to keep the lens from drying out completely and cracking was...to pop it in my mouth.
I found my way back to civilization eventually, and flagged the first cab I saw to take me back to the hostel. And the hostel personnel had mercy on me and let me in for the night. So it was ultimately a happy ending.
But sometimes when I'm having a bad day, or maybe when I'm just thinking about that trip to Europe 27 years ago, this is what I picture: Me, all alone, in the pitch black, totally lost, on a road outside Heidelberg, Germany, with a contact lens in my mouth, cursing myself.
It makes me laugh every time.