How Europe changed my life

How Europe changed my life: A summer odyssey affects a young Republican in the most unexpected way.


Hank Hyena
October 21, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

"Seven hundred dollars each for two months in Europe," announced my roommate, Steven. He squinted through his tiny John Lennon glasses at the sequence of numbers. "$280 for round-trip air to London, $120 for the Eurail pass and 60 days at $5/day. Total: $700."

"Groovy!" smiled Alex, our long-haired best friend. "I got the bread! Mon cheres, here I come!"

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A week earlier, the three of us -- tight chums bonded by girls, games and hallucinogens -- had a simultaneous vision that depicted us traveling together in Europe. Glorious adventures glowed in our imagination.

Econ student Steven, Alex in French Lit and me, a U.S. history major, were now discussing the manifestation of our dream.

"Only $700?" I frowned. My military science classes urged me to prepare cautiously before any campaign. "Your estimate seems idealistic, naive."

"Read it yourself," said Steven. He tossed the Europe-on-a-budget guidebook at me.

I shrugged. "The old continent better be worth it."

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"Far out!" said Alex. "We'll be 'Les Tres Musketeers!'"

"I'll outline an itinerary that will include 13 countries," said Steven. "Sixteen, if you count Monaco, Vatican City and Andorra."

One month later, we checked in our backpacks at LAX -- three 19-year-olds eager to expand our soft innocent brains in the radical summer of 1972.

Steven and Alex sported the traditional olive green Kelty packs, but mine was an "Old Glory" design that I purchased at a fish and game shop -- a U.S. flag pattern, striped red and white with a starred blue flap.

"You're crazy!" groaned Steven when he saw it.

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"People will hate us!" said Alex. "Cool Euro-hippie chicks won't even talk to us!"

"What's the problem?" I asked. "I'm proud to be an American!"

Neither of them spoke to me until the plane was way past Wisconsin.

Politics had never before affected our friendship, but now, my hawkishness was napalming their doves. Steven was a McGovern Democrat, and Alex was an even bigger commie -- he supported the People's Party candidate, Dr. Benjamin Spock. They were both mimicking their parents, really: Steven's dad taught psychology at a junior college and Alex's folks had spent time in the Peace Corps.

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I was the freak in our trio: a Richard Nixon fan. I admired the incumbent prez because he'd give us "peace with honor" in Vietnam, so the entire region wouldn't just fall over like the dominoes of Eastern Europe. Sure, he carpet-bombed Cambodia, Laos and maybe some innocent villagers, but hey, war isn't pretty. My father fought in Korea for a reason. My parents took me to John Birch Society meetings and I admired Barry Goldwater's "None Dare Call It Treason."

My domestic views were also perched on the far right wing. Food stamps, affirmative action and the income tax were, in my opinion, just socialist plots to undermine the American spirit.

"There's Lake Huron." Steven finally addressed me, pointing below us.

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Alex sighed, five minutes later. "In Sweden they'll spit on you," he warned. "Even the prime minister marches for peace, and a lot of draft dodgers and deserters have moved there."

"OK," I conceded. "Maybe I can cover my pack up with a poncho or something."

"Yes!" They both agreed. "Great idea!"

Harmony was quickly reestablished and we launched into a spirited debate about which stewardess was the prettiest.

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We landed in foggy Luton airport at 11 a.m. -- immediately, we scarfed down some bangers and mash before hitching a lift in a lorry that sped us on the left side of the motorway past Canterbury Cathedral to the white cliffs of Dover, where we hovercrafted across the windy English Channel.

Steven's sadistic itinerary allowed us only 15 days of youth hostel lodging. The remaining 45 days had to be "free," i.e., sleeping on trains or "camping out." I didn't dispute this detail before departure, but after 32 hours of adrenalin-pumped and sleep-deprived consciousness, I was eager for some comfortable bedding.

"That looks all right," I mumbled, pointing at a cozy pension.

"No!" snapped Steven. He was waving the itinerary like it was the Magna Carta. "Tonight's a 'free' night."

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We "slept" in a filthy alley behind Lille's largest cathedral. Cobblestones tortured my insomniac organs. When dawn's cruel light arrived, it found me shivering, starving and sniping.

"Damn! That sucked! I hate this!"

"This is what we've been saving our money for," said Steven. "What's wrong with you? Homesick?"

"I need a bath, a big breakfast and a shower."

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"There's art all around us," Alex scolded me. "History. Culture. Don't bum me out."

My companions had both slept soundly; they were now exuberant eager beavers, psyched up for a long day of exploring Belgium.

But me? I was the weight-lifting athlete, but budget travel had turned me into a wimp. I thrived on my fitness schedule -- four huge meals, two hours of exercise, three bowel movements and a scalding 25-minute shower before nine hours of sleep -- but deprived of it, my macho brain and brawn panicked -- I became a frightened brat.

"Please ... Let's destroy the itinerary! Food! Sleep! I want to feel alive!"

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"The itinerary is the backbone of our expedition," said Steven. "It keeps us on budget."

"Antwerp tomorrow!" gushed Alex. "And then ... Utrecht! Wowie zowie!"

Nations flew by me, like nightmares. I averaged three and a half hours of sleep a night: Holland was a hallucination, Switzerland was evil TV. At Pompeii, I envied the ash-covered corpses, sleeping soundly for eternity. In Oslo, I trembled before Edvard Munch's "The Scream" because I felt precisely the same.

Wretchedly I tossed and turned in the most inhospitable beds -- Vienna on an iron bench, Paris in a phone booth. Rome under a roaring bridge, Madrid in a subway toilet.

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I suffered scores of zombie hours on the second-class trains. The itinerary thought the iron horse's lullaby would rock us to sleep, until our arrival in a distant land -- this worked for Steven and Alex, but the roaring rolling kept me alert and increasingly demented as we entered Andalusia, crossed the Appenines or slithered past fjords.

Even the 15 days in youth hostels provided small respite. In Heidelberg, we were triple-bunked in crowded rooms, like concentration camps -- the Irish lad above me snored, the Dane below passed poison farts ... Invariably, I was also forced to rest my 6-foot-2 bones on a lumpy pad that was no more than 5-foot-9.

The Europeans we met were overwhelmingly anti-Nixon, anti-war. In
Florence two anarchists told us they wanted to blow up the U.S. Naval bases
in Italy. In Grenoble my distant relatives scolded me, "France left
Vietnam; why can't you?" In Glasgow we played soccer with quick-footed
lads who dropped their smiles when I said I was a Republican. In Cologne,
lovely Gretel flirted with me until she discovered my politics; she ended
up smooching with Alex instead.
Every day, my opinions encountered harsh rejection. In Salzburg, we
partied wildly at the house of a Schnappes-drinking father and his three
shapely daughters -- a scenario too good to be true. We thought they'd
give us a place to sleep, but we were booted outside when I praised Nixon's
recent actions. The only hawk I ever found on the entire continent was an
alcoholic Norwegian who claimed to love only caviar and NATO.

"You don't look strong anymore," Steven remarked when I took off my
shirt in Naples.
He was right -- my thick musculature had decayed into slender flab.
The whirlwind pace didn't give me enough slurps at the trough -- daily
gruel was often just a stale baguette or a rancid sausage.
I left California weighing 184 pounds, I returned at 157. A half
pound a day withered off my frame: Biceps bolted, quadriceps collapsed.
The only muscles that retained their tone were the nervous slivers that
twitched in my face.
Why are there so many harelips? I wondered. Children with cleft
palates, blind youths, painfully crippled elderly. Steven and Alex didn't
see them, but everywhere I looked I saw beggars without any teeth, Down's
syndrome twins. Europe was poorer than the United States in 1972, and the hostels
were often in "slums" -- but still, I think these sad apparitions appeared
before me in my weakened state to batter the last brittleness of my heart.

"We're anti-war! Don't spit on us!" yelled Alex, when our ferry
docked at Malmo. Three drunken Swedes were lofting phlegm at the patriotic
backback that I carried off the ship.
"I vote for McGovern!" Steven explained to the surly Vikings. He
waved the peace sign at them. "See? 'No more war! No more war!'"
"Outta ... Vietnam!" The Swedes continued to expectorate on my luggage.
I stared, unable to deter the goo.
Eventually, the dried-up Norsemen wandered off. Shaking, I removed
their spittle with a useless map.
"See?" said Steven. "Europe hates Nixon! Are you still going to
vote for that Kent State killer?"
"I dunno ... Maybe."
"You took acid," said Alex. "How can you vote for Nixon after eating
psychedelics?"
"Maybe it was bad acid," joked Steven. "Republican acid!"
"Ha ha ha ha ha!" laughed my two best friends. "Ha ha ha ha ha."
I sat down, suddenly, on a concrete wall that outlined the Baltic
coast. I was exhausted, to the depths of my marrow.
Nearby, I saw a small, dying, half-eviscerated fish. It looked like
someone had caught it, started cleaning it, but then decided it was just too small
to bother with.
The fish's guts gleamed in the Scandinavian sun. Three flies crawled
on the intestines. Tears started blubbering out of my eyes.
"What's the matter?" asked Steven.
"We were just teasing," said Alex.
"Give me a minute," I shivered. "I'm having a nervous breakdown."
I couldn't take my eyes off that innocent, trembling fish.
"I'll buy you a polser," Steven said. "On me, buddy. I'll pay for it."
"The fish is dying!" I sobbed. "It's suffering horrible pain!"
"Don't freak out," begged Alex.
"It's a living animal!" I wept. "Don't you understand? We're all in
this together!"
Steven hurried back with a polser (hot dog), but I couldn't eat it --
I was having a psychotic vegetarian attack, a spasm of compassion for all
sentient beings. Weeks of sleep deprivation and starvation had shattered
my sense of separatism -- I became the disemboweled fish, I felt its pain
and all the pain of the world, the pain of the poor maimed and mutated, the
pain of the bombed Vietnamese, my pain was crazy, Christlike,
uncontainable.
"It's the flies," Steven told Alex. "I think the flies on the fish
are bugging him."
They tried to shoo the scavengers away, but one gleaming insect,
slurping on the minnow's liver, refused to budge.
Swat! Steven bashed the fly into the viscera of the still-twitching fish.
"No more death!" I blubbered. "No more meanness!"
"Shit, he's losing it," said Steven.
"His parents will kill us," worried Alex.

I sniveled for about 20 minutes. When I stopped, I felt like I'd
stepped into an alien brain. The seagulls above me were beautiful.
"I don't know who I am anymore," I announced.
"Hank, you're Hank," said wide-eyed Steven.
"Yes, but ... who's Hank?" I replied.

Gently, they guided me into a hotel. They pushed me into bed. I said
I wasn't hungry but they made me eat two bowls of fish chowder.
I slept on-and-off for three days, near-catatonic.
When I was awake, I thought about Thomas Eagleton -- he was McGovern's
vice-presidential running mate, until he was forced to resign when it was
revealed that he'd had electroshock treatment to combat nervous
exhaustion and fatigue.
I wondered: Were all depressed people Democrats? Did I need a good
zapping?
Steven and Alex watched over me, sullenly. There was nothing to do in
Malmo, and the scheduled itinerary events -- Stockholm, and a museum in
Göteborg -- were canceled by my collapse.
A week later, we flew back to Los Angeles. My parents were appalled
by my emaciated frame and disoriented tales -- they put me on a pampering
schedule. My physique soon recovered, but I remained quiet.
In September I returned to my college campus. I avoided the beer
parties the first week; instead, I went for long walks, trying to sort
things out.
Finally, I jumped out of bed one morning -- I ran to the
local McGovern headquarters. I volunteered all my free time, canvassing,
going door-to-door in conservative suburbs.
When McGovern lost in the ghastly landslide (520 electoral votes to
17), I stood in a room, surrounded by his weeping supporters. My eyes were
dry, though, because my disappointment was dwarfed by the miracle of
actually being there, in my new personality.
In Europe, I saw Picassos, cathedrals and castles, but what I
remember most is my psyche shredding in Malmo. People travel externally
for decades in the hopes of traveling internally. But me? I imploded
my entire personality on my very first trip! Thank you, Alex and Steven,
you sadistic, penny-pinching brutes, for giving me the best nervous
breakdown I hope I ever have.


Hank Hyena

Hank Hyena is a former columnist for SF Gate, and a frequent contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Hank Hyena

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