Since I began this blog, I’ve wanted to
write down before senility ensues capture for posterity my first international trip – a tour of northwestern Europe back in June and July 1990.(1) My off-and-on labors for this story (i.e., remembering important events/details, outlining notes, writing and revising content, finding and scanning pictures/negatives, researching locations and references, spending too much time Googling memes) began a year ago and continued on in isolated spurts thanks to life and work obligations. Given my work’s inherent headaches and heavy demands, I sometimes wish I turned to a life of crime ran away and joined the circus chose a different career than as a proposal specialist (ironic since it began at a travel management company – I kinda/sorta fell into the job). Then again, I may yet enjoy a second career as a verbose, occasionally witty, and more-or-less somewhat touristy travel blog writer. So, sit back, relax and please to be enjoying this long tale of yore…
The Times, They are a Changin’
As part of Generation X, my friends and I sat front row for the meteoric rise of home computers and the Internet (heralded by
unholy screeching harpies dial up modems and countless America Online (AOL) drink coasters free trial CDs). We also witnessed the end of an anxious era as the Cold War defrosted into a “new world order” of mystery meal leftovers. Despite the overwhelming invasion of technology into every home and enduring tensions between the U.S. and then Soviet Union throughout the 1980s, life went on. Babies were born, bills were paid and Ferris Bueller had his day off. But cities wiped out by atomic mushroom clouds (e.g., The Day After), commies invading the Midwest (e.g., Red Dawn), or technology dooming mankind (e.g., WarGames, The Terminator, Short Circuit) sparked overactive imaginations and lurked in our neo-Jungian nightmares. Eventually, history’s most infamous staring contest ended when the Soviet Union blinked, and computers became more familiar and user friendly. The 1980s ended and 1990s began with the falling Iron Curtain’s resounding thud, and society’s estimation of computers transforming from the chillingly synthetic “SHALL WE PLAY A GAME?” to the warmly beguiling “YOU’VE GOT MAIL!”
Like the end of any major historical era, the Cold War’s demise ushered in global changes, uncertain outcomes and dramatic emotions. Attitudes ran the gamut from anxious and optimistic anticipation to the
same-shit-different-day more-things-change-the-more-they-stay-the-same cynicism. Grand hopes seemed briefly within reach (e.g., universal prosperity, world peace, The Eagles reuniting) and decadent perks presented themselves (e.g., lower gas prices, Super Nintendo, AOL chat rooms), but the new era wasn’t without its challenges (e.g., new ethnic wars, catfishing, overplayed college bands on the radio).(2) No matter what was happening or how one perceived it, the world was reshaping itself and everyone was trying to stand as the ground shifted beneath their feet.
As I’ve mentioned in previous entries, I spent my adolescence with a close-knit group of the
great unwashed frequently shunned high school-age social outcasts – geeks, nerds, artists – essentially the lowly caste of the socially awkward and beautifully eccentric. As the world at large was changing, so was our much more personal macrocosm. High school graduation was upon us, with college and/or full-time jobs looming on the not-so-distant horizon. Our habitual existence of goofing off at school, Friday night role-playing game sessions, weekend Laser Tag matches and hauntings of the Springfield Mall (now Springfield Town Center) were washing away with the tide of time. The familiar shores of suburban middle class First World problems and mildly choppy rapids of teenage angst trailed in our wake as we tacked into the winds of maturity, setting sail beyond our pubescent world’s end. The haphazard estuaries of our teenage wasteland were transitioning to capricious and open seas that all but dared us to engage with the enigmatic monsters hiding in their depths.
Along Came a Letter…
In the Spring 1990, I received a letter from People to People International (PTPI) inviting me on one of their student ambassador trips – a tour of Western Europe (i.e., Ireland, England, Netherlands, Belgium, France, and then West Germany and East Germany). PTPI is a non-profit organization began by President Eisenhower after a meeting with Nikita Khrushchev (yes, he was actually a positive influence for once). PTPI encourages international goodwill and better understanding by sending student ambassadors overseas to experience and learn about other peoples and cultures. Today, they continue to organize and dispatch young people all over the world in pursuit of this noble mission (which I feel is becoming more important as we see the growing trend of nationalistic and xenophobic leaders and movements across the globe).
I was definitely interested and my parents encouraged me to jump at the opportunity. My travel group attended several orientation sessions in preparation for the rigors of the trip (e.g., jet lag, packing, airport security skipping dinner and a movie before patting you down),(3) European customs and expected behavior (i.e., respecting local rules and customs, not acting like American teenagers), and trouble to avoid (e.g., pick pockets, snotty Parisians). The sessions encouraged my group (averaging between 16 and 19 years old) to break the ice, bond and design commemorative t-shirts (I think mine
became a dust rag wore out or was bequeathed to indefinitely borrowed by a college girlfriend). The only glitch was a two-week delay on visa approvals for East Germany (ironically becoming useless once there, but more on that later). Prior to our departure, we spent a day in Washington, DC, attending final PTPI pep talks and a lecture on the importance of diplomacy by then Congressman Frank Wolf (VA-R, pictured on the right).
The intrepid adventurers on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. If we don’t appear very enthusiastic, bear in mind it was hot and during very long day (I’m dead center in the middle of the back/top row trying to look nondescript in sunglasses).
Finally, the following entries are my
scratching a whopper of a retrospective itch reminiscing via a very exhaustive account (sorry about that, I covered a lot in this one) of great memories and personal impacts. This effort also reminded me of my fellow travelers and the experiences we shared together. Where ever they are, I hope their memories of this trip are as fond as mine.
FULL DISCLOSURE AND DISCLAIMER: Over the years, multiple moves and reorganizations took their toll on my pictures and negatives (i.e., some were lost). Happily, a negative scanner recovered most of the them electronically for practical use and safekeeping. This trip was quite some time ago, and despite careful research and consideration, the order of some specific events may be slightly off (I offer no excuses for this). Known milestones I used for extrapolating the timeline are – watching the quarter-finals of the 1990 World Cup in Dublin (June 30), touring London (July 4), in Paris for Bastille Day (July 14), and Pink Floyd’s live concert in Berlin (July 21). I researched locations to ensure pictures are correctly labeled; however, I encourage anyone to contact me regarding any omissions or mistakes (after all, the Internet and its users aren’t known as being very forgiving). Finally, should anyone from PTPI discover this blog, I hope they do not misconstrue any truly-meant-as-humorous comments or other casual observations as criticisms of this trip’s teacher leaders or organization as a whole (i.e., please don’t sue me). Our chaperones performed a magnificent job of corralling an army of teenagers across Europe, and I’m grateful for the opportunity PTPI gave me. Should anyone reading here be invited by or are considering joining PTPI, I whole-heartedly encourage them to help continue its inspired mission.
(1) Maybe it’s denial regarding my age, but I still think of the 1990s as that “not so long ago” decade. It doesn’t help that music from then is now played on classic rock radio stations.
(2) With all due respect to Darius Rucker, I will never understand the success of Hootie & the Blowfish.
(3) This was long before the TSA and its policy of frequently subjecting “randomly selected” travelers (coincidentally of particular genders and/or ethnic backgrounds) to intrusive stripping, groping and probing. Then again, a lot of people pay exorbitant amounts of money for that kind of treatment in Las Vegas, so maybe the TSA should rethink its recruiting paradigm.