Sunday, July 06, 2008

back door man

A while back b1-66er threw me a meme about books, and I fudged a little when I answered “a book that changed your life.” I couldn’t think of just one that made such an impact on me that it changed the way I move through the world.

But it occurred to me as I was packing up for the river trip I’m taking next week that there is one.

I picked up a dogeared copy of Rick Steves’ Europe Through the Back Door when I was in college, on a friend’s recommendation, at the Trident bookstore in Boulder.

It changed my life.

For “when I was in college” read: “busted broke and lucky to find a place that rented out for $190 a month because I was only making $450 a month and somehow managing to pay my way through college. Loans helped. So did all that oatmeal. And the gig at the Trident which let me tap into the caffeine pipeline for free.”

There’s not a lot of cash left over for traveling when you’re living on just about nothing. But Steves’ book taught me that travel is a choice you make -- you can do it for cheap, and if you want to do it badly enough you’ll do it instead of doing some of the other stuff that costs money. Like buying furniture or clothes. Or food.

From Steves’ I learned how to pack a bag (LIGHT. and roll things so they don’t wrinkle. load up your suitcase then cut it in half, then cut it in half again. and never pack anything that you won’t wear at least three times. AND be done packing for the big trips at least two days before, so you can just chill before you go.), how to picnic on the road to save money on food, how to bring just the pages that matter (“rip out appropriate chapters from guidebooks and staple them together”), how to pack a universal sink stopper and Dr. Bronner’s soap in order to wash out my clothes in my room and not to be afraid to wear my jeans wet the next day (paraphrasing: “you’ll be amazed at how fast they dry!”).

How to pack pictures of home and small gifts for the friends you’ll meet on the road. Which, importantly, I read as: expect to make friends.

I learned from Steves that you can never do it all but you can always come back, and I learned from him something that I only much later formalized in language but lives at the core of all the choices I make, the good ones and the bad, and it’s this: There are two kinds of wealth, Experiential and Material. Choosing one often excludes the other. Choose wisely.


a.m. said...

Ah sweet experience. I too rambled through Europe on a similar budget. I wish I had read Steves' book before then. We lived on bread and peaches all through Italy, finally heading into the soon to collapse Yugoslavia just to eat all we could of the inexpensive meals. I lost 15 pounds in a month, slept only three nights in a room for that entire time, spent my board money on museums all across Europe and slept on trains or in train stations.

We discovered that with a Eurail Pass, you could work two cities that had an overnight train between them. Catch a night train, sleep, wake up in Florence, spend the day, and head back to Innsbruck the next evening. If you scheduled your jumps right, you could spend most nights on the train. Weekdays this worked great. Weekends you could be stuck on a foldout hallway seat all night... No room in the cars.

One night in Venice, sleeping on the steps of the train station with several hundred other fellow travelers, I stayed up drinking wine and listening to the guitars and singing and couldn't imagine being any richer.

Thanks for the reminders.

anniemcq said...

Oh man. I am yearning now, in earnest. We've been putting off trips this year due to family expectations, and the cost of gas, and the sinking dollar, and it leaves me wondering if it can be done on the cheap any more.

You've got me all twinkly and hopeful.

Mikkel said...

That's nothing. I've rambled through Europe on a tiny budget for almost 35 years.

rahul said...

I love this post 'cos it reminded me that I'm not the only geek who enjoyed reading (and watching) Rick Steves.

My favourite memory of when I did the typical backpack thru Europe after graduation was when he said that one of the best places to grab a tea/coffee and croissant in Paris was on the roof of this department store that had a view of Paris. His book actually said that you should walk through the store looking like you know exactly where you're going, take the elevator up to the 6th floor and go up to the roof. I did just that and it was, by far, one of the most glorious things I've ever done. Summer in Paris on a rooftop (as cliched as it seems) is a beautiful thing.

Thank you for reminding me of this experience and helping me realize I need a lot more of these experiences!

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