Reprinted from my blog on www.fiftyisthenewfifty.com
The night of my college graduation, my dad drove me to Kennedy Airport. The next morning I landed in Ireland. And spent the better part of three years hitch-hiking across the continent and the Middle East, and living out of a knapsack. It’s hard to tell the story of a three-year journey – both physical and spiritual – in a few hundred words. So, instead, some of the most vivid memories:
The fighting between Protestants and Catholics and the British in Northern Ireland. The streets lined with barbed wire and broken glass. The crumbling (from explosions) entrances into each neighborhood, with warnings scrawled on the brick walls, and with each neighborhood’s residents challenging me as I approached. And getting caught in the middle of several gun battles.
The lush greenery, on the other hand, of the Republic of Ireland, with its warm people and its great pubs and its ancient family graveyards behind the cottages in the countryside.
Getting tossed out of a reception in London given by Queen Elizabeth for the British Olympic team.
Running into a schoolmate at the base of the Arc D’Triomphe.
In Rome, waiting patiently for a nun to cross the busy streets. And then crossing next to her … because that was the only way I felt I’d make it to the other side without getting run over.
Being pretty much the only one not hurling over the side of the boat on crossing the English Channel toward France … every time I made the trip. And being pretty much the only one not hurling over the side on crossing the Irish Sea from Ireland to Wales … every time I made the trip.
Meeting the family of a long-lost, school-days pen-pal in Israel.
The snowy majesty of the Austrian Alps. And the unbelievable beauty of the Dolomites and Italian Alps at sunset.
A restaurant in Switzerland called Raclette Stube, which had the greatest version of a Swiss dish called “raclette” that I’ve ever eaten.
Being taken aback when, after I asked a Swiss guy about good clubs in Zurich, I was told “where all you foreigners like to go.” (Guess I never thought of myself as a “foreigner.”)
Getting thrown out of the first-class section on a German train (into which I had sneaked with a German friend).
The rain in the British Isles, clouding my vision and weighing down my backpack.
The French people who never seemed to understand my French. And the food in France, sampled in the underground cellars of the Left Bank.
A two-year-old, runny-nosed girl (now probably forty) named Ruthie Jones in Wales; I rented a room in her family’s working-class flat for a week or two.
Seeing the face of my aunt – who I’d never met before – waiting for me in a hotel lobby in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Despairing of ever finding a room in a French village, and just bedding down for the night under a stone bridge, with a bottle of wine.
A group of Turkish guys with whom I shared a compartment on an Austrian train, their fascination with the “yellow woman” (a blonde) in my “Playboy” (the only English words they knew), and the incredible Turkish food they shared with me (especially the grape leaves!).
The signs in Wales, with arrows pointing to towns with names like “Llythllwydd” and “Wylywtthhlydd.”
The Coliseum in Rome.
The golden, eternal beauty of Jerusalem.
The nights spent in shabby hostels with guys from all over the world.
The old lady in Rome who kept screaming at me (“Meestah! Meestah!”), while pounding on the door of the room I was renting from her, because the shower I was taking upstairs was somehow causing a flood in her kitchen.
Trying my first Indian food, while roaming around London with another American guy I had met on the road, and pouring tons of curry all over it. And, a couple of hours later, listening to him moan in the darkness in the decrepit warehouse in which we were staying with some other American and Canadian kids (and hearing him say the next morning that he had heard me moaning all night!).
Those were invigorating, wonderful years, in which I learned not only about the world … but about myself. And in which I was so damned young…!
Steve Winston (www.stevewinston.com) has written/contributed to 17 books, and his articles have appeared in major media all over the world. In pursuit of “The Story,” he’s been shot at in Northern Ireland, been a cowboy in Arizona, jumped into an alligator pit in the Everglades, trained with a rebel militia in the jungle, flown World War II fighter planes, climbed 15,000-foot mountains, explored ice caves at 11,000 feet in the Swiss Alps, and trekked glaciers in Alaska.