Crossing Europe: 1974 and Today


1974 Eurail Pass

I’m going to be frank. When I got back to Texas this winter, my Mom immediately pulled out her photo books from her own recent trips and I responded with an eye roll. I tuned her out, dreaming of Tex-Mex, until she said something along the lines of “…but it was so different in 1974.”

That made my ears perk. I knew my parents had traveled through much of Europe in their twenties–I mean, they told me at some point–but, I never thought to ask them about that pre-kids, pre-University sabbatical, pre-nice salary trip. A trip they took when they were like me. So I thought I’d interview my Mom about her experiences traveling across Europe in 1974, when she was the exact same age that I am now. My Dad drops in occasionally, though he was working in the other room when I conducted this very serious interview.

My Mom and Dad in the 1970's.

My parents, Carol and Jack, in the 1970′s.

Susan Sharp: So Mom, tell the whole internet why you and Dad took a trip to Europe in 1974.

Carol Sharp: In the summer of 1974, Jack finished his Geology PhD at the University of Illinois, I quit teaching, and we had the whole summer to travel, move, and find a house before he started his teaching job at the University of Missouri. We were kidless; I was 26, he was 29. So we just decided to go!

Had you always wanted to visit Europe? How did decide your basic itinerary?

We had the time, the curiosity, and two groups of people to meet. Jack’s aunt, uncle and cousins had lived in Paris for years and kept a country house–we had always wanted to visit. We were also catching up with a Geology field trip in Northern Scotland for a week or so. In total, we spent six weeks in Europe, flying into Amsterdam and seeing Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France, and England before going to Scotland.

I remember the country house! I went in 1996 with the cousins while you and Dad went to some Geology conference in Romania. I loved the thatched roof and berry patches that we turned into jam with Cousin Robert. 

They also had artichokes, and we ate them fresh out of the garden.

1974 Rome Tourist Slide

My Mom at the Forum in 1974

Speaking of food, do you remember any specific culinary delights or surprises from your trip? Was there anything that you found exceptionally weird or delicious?

Since we were on a budget, we were seeking out the cheap over the wonderful. We met Australians abroad who advised us to never go into a restaurant that has table cloths. We ate as cheaply as possible, eating at restaurants listed in Frommer’s for Europe on $10 per day.

I do remember Jack made me walk, walk, miles across Rome to get some special dessert. We couldn’t even take the bus and it killed my feet. The worst part is that I don’t even remember what we got!

Hey Dad! What dessert did you make Mom walk all over Rome for?

Jack Sharp: Oh, we got the most wonderful ice cream in Rome!

It wasn’t memorable.

In Italy we went to this terrible place that had “roast beef” three times even though the food was horrible just because it was so cheap. It only cost $1 to get a plate of thinly sliced, but disgusting meat. We were so cheap that stayed in places that offered breakfast and I stuffed rolls in my purse. Then all we would have to do is buy cheese  and we had lunch! I learned how to drink a shandy in Scotland.

I had black pudding and haggis in Scotland.

It was gross.

I loved the sausages and the beer in Germany, and I loved watching your Mother drink a radler [ed note: a radler is half beer, half lemonade]. The cheapest beer in Europe was at the Vatican where there was a vending machine right by the front door.

Did you eat any street food?

We did have raw herring on the street in Amsterdam. I was surprised it tasted so good.

We got some okay street food in Amsterdam for 5 Euros. I was so upset by the expense after spending so much time in Thailand!

And the dollar was much strong in 1974.

Sistine Chapel Slide Aged 1974

My Dad’s slide of the Sistine Chapel. He apparently messed up his tripod and said “DAMN!” really loudly inside. Good thing he found the beer vending machine…

Speaking of money, do you remember what you paid for accommodations and travel?

I kept a scrapbook that holds all the answers! We got a 21 day Eurail pass for $150 a piece and a 10 day Britrail pass for $75. We got on a charter flight through the National Education Association (NEA), but our receipts don’t say the price.

Wait, what? A charter flight? Aren’t those for rich and important people like Madonna and Barack Obama?

No, no, no. My friend Carly’s parents were even on the same flight. World Airways offered a special flight to the NEA to Amsterdam and back that summer that was available to its members. I wish I knew how much it cost. I’ll tell you, we probably spent under $1000 per person on the entire 6 weeks in Europe. If I could only find my damn journal!

Not including transportation, we kept to the $10/day. We used that book like a bible.

Correcting for inflation, $10 in 1974 dollars is like $47 today, which is still a budget trip in Europe.

Anyway, tell me about the trains. 

We rode trains almost everywhere, sometimes using them like hotels. With our first class Eurail passes we could buy nice sleepers for a small fee, much, much less than a hotel room. The trains were on time, clean–just wonderful! Food in the train stations was cheap and we would bring picnics on board. We also used the train stations as bases for a day of sight-seeing in various places, dumping our stuff in the train lockers and exploring for the day. If we hadn’t booked a place to stay, we could always go to the tourist office in the station and get matched up with a hotel that matched our budget.

French countryside from train 1974.

My Dad’s snapshot from a train in France in 1974.

We also picnicked on board the trains. Our favorite stations were in Germany, where you could often find a grocery store next to the platform and buy fresh fruit, cheese, and other things that aren’t currywurst and beer. Some of our best European memories come from riding trains–either meeting people, having those fun moments where you pass for a local, or just exploring the beer menu in the dining car. Do you have any similar memories you would like to share?

We met these two little old Floridian ladies, Betty and Martha, on a train leaving London going west. They had rented a car that they were going to pick up outside of London, and they asked Jack if he would drive them around for a few days–in their car–because they did not want to drive on the left. Of course we said yes, even though we had only known them for 10 minutes, and we drove for a few days with them, and traveled with the Florida gals to Salisbury, Bath, Stone Henge and other villages in the area. Then we took off on a train and forced them to drive by themselves.

We met so many other Eurail travelers on the trains, since the passes were first class and we were often grouped together. Within minutes of entering our compartment, we were picking up advice from other travelers from all over the world, especially Australia because they have great vacation benefits. We also saw some celebrities on a train in France–the guys from the Mission Impossible; we did not talk to them! Ask your Dad their names.

I’m guessing this was the original TV series and not a very young Tom Cruise? Hey Dad! What were the names of the Mission Impossible people on the train in Europe?

Barbara Bane and Martin Landau of Mission Impossible were on the train. Also, in London, all these people were lining the streets so we just sort of merged into the mass and we saw Queen Elizabeth ride by in some sort of royal buggy. She waved at us.

Also, we didn’t think twice about giving up our passports to the conductor when we were due to cross borders at night. That way, no one would have wake you up at night and you would get your passport back the next morning.This was in the days before the European Union, so every border crossing involved immigration officials. Did you ever have to give up your passports?

In Vietnam, the hotels and hostels wanted to hold onto our passports “to keep them safe,” but I believe we were only briefly separated with our little blue books crossing borders on the Trans-Siberian, which definitely made me uneasy. But not as uneasy as when the Russian border patrol thought my passport picture didn’t look like me and had me sniffed up and down by a giant German Shepard while closely inspecting my documents after a Mongolian woman had deposited her “extra coats” in my compartment. Between Istanbul and Budapest, the immigration folks just woke us up–I slept cradling my passport.

Rome 1974 Tourist Slide

My Mom in Rome

Anyway, since my column is called The Dining Car, I have to ask Do you remember what you ate in the train stations and on the trains?

We ate wursts in Germany and lots of bread–great brochens and pretzels. Oh my gosh the pretzels were so good. In France I just remember the bread and cheese; those were our staples. We probably got fruit, too.

We were in a train station in England that had a stand advertising egg rolls for 50p, and we ordered them only to get…a fried egg…on a roll.

Changing gears a little bit, I’m wondering how you could American tourists by sight in 1974. Was it obvious who was local and who was visiting?

American women were wearing red, white, and blue plaid slacks because those were incredibly popular then. When we went back in ’81, we started noticing sneakers on Americans, but those hadn’t been developed for women in 1974. When we were in Warsaw in 2010, the local young people were very skinny, so thin. We didn’t see one heavy young person! Of course people in Europe take the trains and walk a lot more–same in D.C. and Chicago. I think people in cities that have great subway stations are more fit. That’s all I have to say about that. You might not want to put that in.

1974 American Youth Hostel Card

1974 American Youth Hostel Card. Check out the crazy rules! House parents! No alcohol, but cigarettes are cool!

I’m leaving that in, but I’m still curious: is it easier to tell foreigners then or now?

Probably now, by their clothes and their tennis shoes or sneakers. The shoes give it away. But, I’m not sure about young people. What do you think?

I could tell tourists from locals in Europe by their baggage. High-tech backpacking gear is really “in” so that’s an easy give. Also, young tourists tend to behave pretty badly when they are on holiday, so if someone is puking in a tank-top, they’re probably on vacation. Unless you’re in Berlin where packs of young drunkards roam the metro lines.

We didn’t see that. Really, we found most people–tourists and locals– very friendly and helpful, though we couldn’t understand all of the English spoken in Scotland.

I can relate to that. When Andy and I arrived in London we were so excited to be able to communicate in our native language, only to find some of the English being spoken completely unintelligible–so many people sounded like pirates! Though they don’t like to be told that…

The Rhine in 1974 Slide

The Rhine in 1974

 

Did you make any cultural faux pas?

Sort of. We went to the hotel we reserved in Paris only to find they’d lost our reservation. This was exceptional because I paid money through the mail two months earlier and received a receipt. So we took their available room which was more expensive than we thought it was, and we went in and hand-washed our clothes and went to a family dinner. When we got back to the room, all of our wet clothes had been dumped in the bidet. All our clothes were in the bidet. There was probably a sign in French that said Do Not Wash Clothes, but we couldn’t read it, so they threw our clothes in the bidet! That was not nice. Most places provided a place to hang wet clothing, but not this one. We later discovered there were two hotels with the same name, and switched immediately.

Nasty. At least budget hotels today don’t have bidets to throw your belongings in as punishment. What was that mail order receipt about? And what was it like planning travel in the pre-Internet days?

We started way in advance and used actual! paper! maps! to plan our trips and our routes. We paid in advance for almost everything, using international money orders from the post office and keeping all of our receipts.

1974 Eurail Brochure

1974 Eurail Brochure

So tomorrow you are leaving on a trip to Australia and New Zealand. How does your trip planning differ almost 40 years later?

We’re much more spontaneous. Aside from some car rentals and flights, we haven’t booked a thing! We only have general ideas of what we want to see and do–like the stromatolites in Western Australia. We still go to the tourist offices when we arrive in a new place and let them do the hard work for us. This time I’m excited to have a list of things to do in Perth given to me by a Native Perthian.

Do you find that it is easier to be spontaneous in travel today than it was in 1974?

I don’t know if it’s any easier, we’ve just traveled enough to know it’s possible. Our way of traveling has evolved; the last time we were in France  we rented a car and just drove and drove until we found a parking spot. And guess what? There was always something interesting to see! The 1974 trip to Europe was the first we had ever taken. We were constantly moving. We never took a day off to chill. You never get to see it all–you never, ever get to see it all! So don’t worry about what you don’t get to see and enjoy what you do. That’s very excellent advice, if I do say so myself.

For instance, I’m probably the only person who went to Florence and missed Michelanglo’s David.

Well maybe my tendency to skip right over the big attractions is genetic I didn’t do any of the “right” things anywhere.

But you did what you wanted to do, didn’t you? You got immersed in the culture and tried all the food.

Eurail Dining Car in 1974

Eurail Dining Car in 1974

Precisely. So anyway, what’s next on your travel agenda after Australia?

What I really want to do for my next trip is go to some interesting place and stay there for a week or two and just take it all in. Someplace that has hiking and beautiful nature and interesting things to do and just not move. Not move.

______

Susan’s train travel across Europe was sponsored by Eurail.com. They have no control of the content of her writing, but are simply a partner of Vagabundo Magazine.

Author: Susan Sharp

Susan is a Texan with a history in environmental consulting, Thai language learning, hookah bar management, and slinging co-operatively-owned beer. Currently, she’s searching for the best food in a 500 meter radius of any given train station between Asia and America as she travels overland from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Austin, Texas. She writes the website Splendor in the Lemongrass, where the content is everyone’s two favorite things: explicit food porn and travel navel-gazing. While attempting to be productive she lives on Twitter under the @siouxzen handle.

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4 Comments

  1. I LOVE the part about the ice cream the most. So hilarious! This is just wonderful….I love the interview!

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    • I know! Some things don’t change…they are probably in Australia right now doing the exact same thing.
      Susan Sharp recently posted..Turkish DrinksMy Profile

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Crossing Europe: 1974 and Today