20 Years Ago this Month: My First Trip Abroad (Part I)
(Apologies for the poor-quality photos - they were taken with a basic Vivitar I got for my 14th birthday, then scanned in approximately 10 years after the trip)
As the 2020 calendar flips from October to November and the leaves evolve from vibrant to rusty, the paltry amount of travel I had just begun to do this fall will surely shrivel again. One thing that keeps my wanderlust alive during the cold season's doldrums is looking backwards rather than forwards, cherishing the many sweet travel memories I've made over the years.
In this post, we'll set the time machine to 20 years ago. Do you remember where you were on November 2, 2000? I do. I was eagerly awaiting a bus in the parking lot of St. Joseph's Church in Laconia, NH, surrounded largely by 60- and 70-somethings, but also my high school-age-friend Andrea, ready to embark on a pilgrimage to the Iberian Peninsula.
At 18 years old, it was first trip anywhere remotely foreign - unless you count the 8th grade class trip to Québec City and Montréal in June 1997. An adventure, no doubt, but despite that trip's awesomeness, it was flecked with middle school melodrama and immaturity. This was the big leagues. This was Europe!
The mood was one of tense excitement as the boxy bus lumbered in, ready to cart us to Boston for our overnight flight to Lisbon via Paris. I savored the very names of those cities, whispering them to myself as one would savor a delectable morsel of food. I was utterly incredulous that my feet would be climbing 1,000-year old cobblestones in Lisbon's Alfama District the next day. I distinctly remember learning about Portuguese explorers in history class the week before, thinking "next week I will BE in Portugal." I couldn't repress a knowing smile while my fellow students surely raised an eyebrow.
The pilgrimage would be a quick one - 10 days, 6 hotels, 3 countries. Lots of time on a bus, which I looked forward to, buying a Rand McNally fold out road map of Portugal and Spain that I still have today. I was the weird kid who'd be scrutinizing every detail of the landscape, reading signs, and following along on the map while most others were chatting or sleeping.
We'd start in Lisbon and motor north and east across the heart of northern Spain, making stops at churches and religious sites in places such as Fátima, Ávila, Burgos, Zaragoza, and Montserrat before crossing the Pyrenees into Southern France, and finally flying back to Paris, where we'd spend a few days before the return journey.
After that long, excitement-filled wait at the gate with which all travelers are familiar, we boarded the plane around 7:30pm and I settled in to my middle seat. Minutes before the Air France 767 was set to push back, a white-haired lady several rows in front of me popped up, loudly exclaiming 'WAIT A MINUTE!'. She had apparently forgotten her purse in the terminal ladies' room, which contained her passport and whatever else white-haired ladies' purses contain.
A flight attendant, surely annoyed, quickly escorted her off the plane and back inside, delaying 200+ Paris-bound passengers. Amazingly, she was able to locate the purse in fairly short order, and we were on our way. I can't imagine the horror that would have overcome her had she discovered the missing passport just five minutes later!
The flight itself was uneventful, though I do remember trying a salad with bits of duck meat in it. All airplane food stereotypes aside, the French did it right, and I enjoyed the novelty of an airplane meal immensely (scan of actual menu below). Across the Atlantic we went...
The plane's wheels squeaked down at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris on the morning of November 3. The chill, sunny air was full of anticipation and diesel fumes. My memories have become a bit foggy after 20 years, but I do recall a sense of urgency as my group shuffled, bleary-eyed, to catch a shuttle to a totally different terminal at the strangely-designed air hub. Someone snapped a photo of my first moment in Europe as we waited beneath the wing of our aircraft.
One would think that my exhilaration would have subsided after 6 hours on the plane, but my mind had remained more active than a child on Christmas morn while everyone else slept overnight. It would be a long day ahead, but I'd make it through just fine.
Flight #2 swooped low over the wide Tagus River and the red Ponte 25 de Abril Bridge (a Golden Gate lookalike); the terracotta-roofed city center was visible in the distance from my greatly-preferred window seat. When we disembarked, I noticed it was much warmer here - probably in the 60s. Upon departing the airport, palm trees (which I had only seen once before in my life) towered above and lent an air of exoticism to the already foreign surroundings.
We gathered our baggage and met our middle aged, barrel-chested bus driver Vitor and leather-jacket-clad, trilingual tour guide Elisa. Elisa was very slender, bespectacled, and probably no older than 30. She would accompany us all the way to Paris, sharing historical and cultural tidbits in a calm, lilting Portuguese accent.
Our time in Lisbon (pronounced Leezh-boa in Portuguese, as I learnt) was extremely limited, but we were able to explore its narrow streets and duck into a couple of stunning churches, including the Sé (Cathedral), which dated from a mind-bending 1147 AD. As would be expected from a European newbie, I was on sensory overload, urgently absorbing the sights, sounds, and smells of Portugal like it was my last day on earth. The whoosh and clatter of a tiny yellow tram, swerving perilously close to passersby. Two weathered gentlemen on a bench, chatting cross-legged as they had for decades, perhaps about first loves, grandkids, or Luis Figo's latest goal. The mild breeze, languidly rustling some nearby leaves and whispering its Portuguese well wishes in my ear. It was all so new, so foreign, so captivating.
After a short time, we re-boarded the bus and left Portugal's capital behind. I didn't want to look away from the window for a single second and risk missing anything. Elisa's soothing voice told us of the princes, palaces, and earthquakes that shaped this proud city's past as we made our way north, making another brief stop in the small city of Santarém. I remember seeing a lemon tree growing on the roof of a tiny dwelling, the cobblestone alleys so narrow we could scarcely walk three abreast.
By the end of the evening we found ourselves in Fátima, site of the 1917 Marian apparitions and associated 'Miracle of the Sun'. We would have more time to explore the miraculous local history the next day, but after being awake for 36 hours I was totally spent. I was able to phone my parents before going to bed, but I then slept like the dead, eagerly anticipating my first full day in Europe...