As a general rule, and for a great many years, beer has been very good to me.
In fact I’ve found it to be a beverage that pairs perfectly with travel, especially in European locales where alternative modes of transportation have always provided the means to allow someone else to do the driving.
But every rule has its exception, and one of my most fabled of missteps occurred in Europe in early November, 1989. While beer was being consumed at the time, it was only peripherally involved, and yet the story is worth retelling because it reinforces the truth that positive lessons can result from the most cringe-worthy of screw-ups.
At least I hope I learned something from this episode.
With our departure from Copenhagen in September, the Euro ’89 crusade entered a new phase. Amy and I activated our Eurailpasses and embarked upon a whirlwind tour of West Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, Italy, France and Ireland—places I’d been but she had not; I was perfectly content to serve as the concierge.
When she flew home from cold and damp Dublin in late October (coffee actually tasted better than Guinness), I immediately set off for points south, arriving in sunny Madrid following a textbook 40-hour budget traveler’s grueling journey via Atlantic Ocean ferry and a succession of French and Spanish trains.
These were the classic sort of Eurail-inspired transport connections that I wouldn’t consider attempting in my slightly more prosperous dotage, and even if such a long haul became necessary nowadays, it’d be a simpler matter of using one’s iPhone to book a $100 budget airline ticket and be done with the transfer in a single morning. But at the time, the accepted habit was to squeeze every last free mile from the rail pass.
I did it, and so be it.
Once arrived in Madrid, the vastly improved weather was tonic for a growing malaise, even if the palliative was only temporary. In retrospect, I could accurately diagnose this melancholy patch for what it really revealed in me, namely a bone-deep, pervasive exhaustion borne of five solid months on the road, with the accompanying realization that I’d committed to another month and a half of increasingly chilly travel before returning home.
Winter’s approach, surely exacerbated by the claustrophobic Irish climate of cold daily rain, obviously had induced a measure of seasonal depression. In denial, I still hadn’t gotten around to shopping for a reliable winter coat, much less buying one.
All along the stated objective of the 1989 journey had been to remain in Europe for as long as possible, dipping past Christmas into January of 1990. I’d carefully budgeted for this goal. But in Madrid during my customary long and introspective walks, I began to reconsider the options. Maybe it would be better to find an inexpensive, interesting and warmer locale (Iberia, Sicily, Greece?) and stay a while, as opposed to getting my Eurail’s worth by riding the rails for 45 more days.
Traveling on a shoestring wasn’t always easy. I had a certain amount of money to spend, and no more; this meant discipline, diligence and adherence to a routine, with little margin for error — or, precisely the same personal qualities for which I’d never been particularly celebrated back home. It was difficult to become fairly adept at budget travel, but I’d done so, and for the most part, this constant challenge of connecting dots in the cheapest possible fashion remained fascinating.
At the same time, having spent 12 months in Europe spread over three different years, luck had always been on my side. Thousands of inconsequential daily actions had occurred, almost all of them smooth and utterly forgettable. Apart from losing my hat in Italy in 1985 and being accosted by a drunk Hungarian communist functionary outside a Budapest eatery in 1987, nothing unfavorable had ever happened to me. This said, by late autumn of 1989 it seemed that my fortunes were becoming a tad less predictable. Evidently the cosmos had become intent on leveling down.
The lost luggage claim ticket in East Berlin was a first warning, even if the problem was easily rectified. The next lapse came in Vienna, where I somehow managed to lose my debit card, which didn’t become apparent to me until two days later in Rome. By then a scofflaw had predictably used the card to purchase $1,500 of jewelry in Venice, but this disaster was resolved satisfactorily by my bank, although it required a few phone calls on my own dime from Rome, accompanied by a fee or three.
Obtaining a new card without a fixed mailing address in Europe constituted a thornier issue, although it wasn’t yet a major problem, as traveler’s checks remained the norm, and I still had plenty of those. However, at some point soon I’d be compelled to pause somewhere long enough to broker a solution.
Then in Paris, while at the American Express office to change one of those traveler’s checks, my pocket was picked of cash while we were crammed into a crowded elevator. The loss wasn’t severe, just another hundred-dollar pinprick of inconvenience, and a few more splurge meals down the drain.
What else could go wrong? I’d find out soon enough, but for the moment, in Spain for the first time, it was warm with ample time to roam before heading off to Portugal, where I hoped to stay for a far longer term owing to its legendary affordability. Lisbon might even be the ideal place for resolving the debit card issue. In the meantime, I tried not to over-think the coming weeks.
In Madrid there was an excellent budget cafeteria near Puerta del Sol, and it was there one evening that I chose a seat next to a talkative man approximately my age who said he was Greek (and obviously, spoke good English, or else I’d have been shoegazing). We struck up a conversation, and he made it a point to record his address on a scrap of paper in case I made it to Athens later in the trip, as intended.
He invited me to meet him for a couple of beers the following day, as I’d have ample time to kill before boarding the overnight train to Portugal later in the evening. It would be the usual travel drill for me: check out from my dingy room, stow the pack in a train station locker, get a couchette reservation while at the station, then loiter in Madrid until it was time to leave.
Having explained all this in excruciating detail to my newfound Greek acquaintance, he suggested we loiter together, buy some bottled beers from a shop and drink outdoors in a park. Obviously it would be cheaper this way than at a bar, and after all, the weather was drop-dead lovely.
So I ran my errands and we met as scheduled around lunchtime, taking the subway to green space near a palatial structure; it might have been Palacio Real, although try as I might, I’ve not been able to recall precisely where we went, apart from it being near a subway stop (Opera?) It was a grassy knoll (really) in a public area, next to a busy street, with plenty of people around. At any rate, we stopped at a shop and purchased beers and sandwiches for the picnic.
It all seemed sensible and normal, and my primary motivation was to keep track of the public transportation connections for me to get quickly to the train station when the time came to leave. Conversely, the spot ideally suited a lightning-fast GETAWAY for someone who’d never found an easier mark than the Hoosier rube, as fit to be slipped a mickey (via the beer), then relieved of his train station locker key, cash and traveler’s checks.
That address in Athens? Non-existent, as best as I could tell afterward.
Just like that, five hours of consciousness were wiped clean. I remember almost nothing, awakening late in the day, just before dusk, feeling like I’d consumed twelve beers and a bottle of Scotch, not just a solitary watery lager. I was experiencing a level of disorientation I’d never known, although to onlookers, there’d have been no alarm bells; just another drunken tourist at siesta, sleeping it off.
Panicking, I took stock of what was gone, and what remained, lurching first to the subway, then riding to the train station and stumbling into the locker area to find the locker door wide open and my belongings long since cleaned out. In reality these were worthless to my assailant and surely ended up in a dumpster within minutes. Fortunately my passport, rail pass and other documents were in my back pocket, untouched.
All I had left was my day pack, camera and the clothes on my back; it seems odd I still had the camera, but maybe he had to move fast. I found a policeman at the train station; providentially he had lived in Los Angeles for ten years and spoke perfect English. He was kind and helpful, taking my report, sadly noting a recent wave of similar crimes, and referring me to the American embassy.
In 1989 the embassy in Madrid had a loan fund to assist people like me, which subsequently I reimbursed upon returning stateside, and because of it I was able to rent a room for the night and metabolize the drug, whatever it was. It was clear enough to me what had happened, and I didn’t bother seeing a doctor. The next day Am-Ex justified its good reputation by promptly refunding the stolen traveler’s checks, and after a trip to the massive El Cortes Ingles department store, I became duly restocked with a change of clothes, toiletries and a gym bag to carry them.
Confusion quickly morphed into a much needed reality-based chat with myself, and this led to immediate and welcomed clarity. The next day I called home and gave instructions to Mary Pat, my travel agent. She was able to get my plane ticket changed; instead of a month and a half, I now had two weeks until returning home, and 45 days of budgeted funds to squander. I could relax and let loose as I departed Spain, not for Portugal, but to Copenhagen, my new return flight departure point, and a place I could bivouac with my Danish friends (who fortunately approved).
So it transpired that my travel luck finally turned sour in Madrid, and this wasn’t good, except that the aftermath hinted at an epiphany.
Unusually for me, I didn’t stew over the incident or beat myself up for being stupid and trusting. Rather, my reaction was bizarrely Zen-like, entirely absent anger, and if anything, I felt relieved. I may have been drugged and robbed, and yet the action was non-violent. I actually slept through the most traumatic part. There had been no guns or knives. Traumatic, yet clean and clinical, all the way around.
The biggest insight of all came fast and furious. Being robbed clearly was a sign to return home earlier than anticipated. Fatigue was eroding my discipline; there’d be further travels, some other year, and at any rate, 1989 had become a dead horse without further cause to be beaten. Thus began a long train trip from Madrid to Copenhagen via Paris and Munich, providing ample opportunity to reflect.
Then, during a few days in Bavaria, a transformative event occurred that rendered the trajectory of my own life momentarily inert. Reporting for duty at the Mathäser Bierstadt, I noticed televisions were being wheeled out, and for good reason: out of nowhere the Berlin Wall was being dismantled—and Soviet troops remained in their barracks. This certainly was different.
In geopolitical terms, the World War II era was at last coming to a close, and the map of Europe was about to be redrawn. In the wake of these upheavals, I’d be experiencing a few changes of my own.