Roman Anti-Holiday

My 1975 fall semester at Shimer College was spent on a year abroad program in Oxford. I went with my girlfriend (now wife), a parent-frustrating tale with enough turns and twists to fill a novel by itself. But those of us overseas had a great semester, and to conclude it in style, planned to tour the continent on the six week break. We had purchased EurRail passes for about $200, which gave us 2 months of unlimited travel in most of Europe. Pretty cool deal. At the end of the 6 weeks, I was returning to the US to finish my final semester on campus. Cindy was planning to return to Oxford.

We visited Italy first, hoping to spend Christmas in Rome and see the Pope. Around the 18th of December, we arrived in Rome. We only had about $400 to travel with for the 6 weeks, so we had to be stingy. Youth hostels were to be our home while on the road. Our first surprise was that there was no drinking water on the trains we took from Calais. We had no French money with which to buy water ("Buy water? What an absurd concept!") and we were mighty thirsty upon arriving in Paris. Our second surprise was in the restroom. First, a dour and angry old lady guarded the door and yelled at me in French when I did not tip her. I didn't know the protocol, I had no French money, and I didn't speak French! And second, a man tried to walk away with my bag standing beside me while I urinated. I grabbed it and stared at him, but being the peace-loving believer in the humanity and brotherhood of the 60s, I did nothing more. He backed away, maintaining eye contact the entire time, and then turned and disappeared, presumably to attempt theft elsewhere. On terra firma for less than two minutes and already hating the French!

Things didn't improve much in Rome. In Oxford I had purchased traveler's checks, but because I did not order them in advance, I could not get them in the denominations I wanted, and was forced to get one £100 check. I decided to cash this one first because we planned to be in Italy for at least a week. That night in the Roman Youth Hostel, a gaudy Mussolini-built edifice, I slept with my pants hanging from the end of my bed and my wallet in the pocket of those pants. Yeah, well, dumb and naive, I provided a surprise for some criminal in my room. My wallet was found in the restroom, and suddenly, our frugal trip was to become much more so. Down to about $240 to pay for six weeks of travel.

That first night I had sent a postcard to my parents, with the date and time of my return. I had bought it in some tiny candy/post office/cigarette shop. It was a postcard of the Pope, all in red on a sky blue background. I was pretty smug then, (and not so now?, I hear it, I hear it...) and thought it a wildly humorous picture, an inside joke for those of us who knew Catholicism was foolish and its envoys criminals at best, monsters at worst. I asked the guy selling the cards how much postage was to the US and he said 80 lira. I put 80 lira's worth of stamps and sent it on its way. I learned another lesson about the Italians here. Their coins were made from the cheapest metal imaginable, some plastic/aluminum/cardboard concoction that was lighter than styrofoam and about as sturdy. Yet even that wasn't cheap enough, and there was a severe shortage of coins. So change was made not in money but in gum, stamps, and candy.

Soon after, we heard about the post office getting so far behind in mail delivery that they just sold the backlog as scrap paper. Since a rendezvous was dependent upon my parents getting the info, I bought 3 or 4 more Italian postcards and mailed them. At the post office I found out the correct postage was more like 140 lira. Oh well, the first one was a goner, but certainly one of these would get through!

Well my dad was at the airport. They got the first postcard. In 6 days. From Rome to New Jersey. At Christmas time. None of the others ever showed up. I still believe that no one was willing to sell a photo of the Pope as scrap paper.