Twenty three years and three months ago, a younger version of myself made his way through the tourist traps of southern Europe in what I came to call my “Great Euroscape.” Every destination presented a new opportunity to lose myself in the chaotic web of aged streets, foreign tongues and exotic cultures. I spent months preparing for my trip in advance. I would launch from my ‘home port’ of Trier, Germany (where I was studying as a foreign student), and make two giant loops – one to the west, through southern France, up through Barcelona and Madrid, back through Paris and then ‘home’ for a brief respite, before blasting my way through Eastern Europe – into the newly divorced Czech Republic and Slovakia, south through Hungary, and then into Serbia (whose planes, unbeknownst to me, the US was busy shooting down in response to Serbian atrocities), down through Greece, across the strait into Italy, and back to Trier.
But it did not go exactly as planned. Near the end of my journey, I ran short of money, having dropped a couple hundred dollars on an impromptu tour of Pompeii at the behest of a kindly, but persistent, English-speaking tour guide, when up to that point, I had been rationing cash on expenses averaging between 40 to 50 dollars a day. It wasn’t so much an irresponsible splurge, as a failure to calculate the monetary difference between those insanely inflated lira amounts ending in five zeros versus those ending in six zeros. That unfortunate shortfall forced me into a quandary. Do I abandon my plans to visit Venice and Florence? Or do I push through with the original plan, and brave the unknown consequences of having insufficient funds to stay in a youth hostel?
Life is a very long tour of a world filled with choices, where you will thoroughly explore the consequences of every decision you make. We often fancy that our lives can be planned to the nth degree. They cannot – but sadly, that is not the more commonly-made error. Speaking only for myself (and the last several generations of Americans), I kept waiting for life to recognize the eminence deigning to tour it – as though I were Kim Jong Un inspecting a factory filled with fawning paupers. After all, I was so stocked with talent and brains that life ought to just throw its arms wide open and wrap me up in a great love hug of success. Life has never granted me that kind of public display of affection – and unless you are one of a very select handful of people born to wealth or title – it won’t be granting it to you either. After having my head slammed into the pavement a few times, I came to learn this. There are moments when you realize you are stuck in a rut, and it’s time to take action to move forward, even if it opens you up to uncertain outcomes; it may also entail sacrificing comfort to take advantage of greater opportunity.
At the end of March 1994, I had run out of money, and was running out of time, but I was also too stubborn to miss out on the opportunity to maximize a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see this ancient patchwork of Western civilization. I took in the spectacle of Venice, and followed up with an evening train north to Innsbruck, Austria, where a night train would send me south again, so that I could sleep on my way to Florence. I turned my free train pass into a mobile hostel. In the process of this makeshift solution to my monetary shortcomings, I made new friends, experienced new adventures, and wrapped up my European adventure with a bow the size of the Florentine Duomo.
If life is passing you by because you’re not going anywhere, switch tracks, board a new train, and make the most of your resources, because the tour is worth it.