Updated: Jul 12, 2019
This month twenty four years ago, in the summer of 1995, I made my first trek across Europe. I began by touring England and Scotland before heading to Stuttgart to meet my German family for the first time. I went with some of them for six weeks in a camper van up the Rhine, through France, over the English Channel, up again through England and Scotland, and over to Ireland. When we reached Dublin, I bade my German relations farewell and flew to Italy to begin my semester at the University of Dallas Rome campus.
PART ONE: SCOTLAND, LIVERPOOL, & BATH
We began in often-mispronounced Edinburgh, home of haunted castles, tucked-away tea shops, and Arthur's Seat - the extinct volcano that provides a great vantage point from which to see it all. My friend Jason met me over there, and then we met up with a professor of mine from my art studies in Chicago and his friend who was a professor at the University of Edinburgh. We had a lovely home-cooked meal, toured the city, visited museums and cathedrals, and met many friendly Scots. We next trained to Glasgow, where we did more of the same.
Our plan was to head from Glasgow to visit the Loch Ness Monster in Inverness, but a chatty train conductor encouraged us to ditch the popular tourist destination and make the lesser-traveled journey up to the Isle of Skye. Jason and I decided to follow his advice and disembarked at Kyle of Lochalsh to catch the ferry over to the island.
Near the ferry landing we found the lone, near-empty youth hostel and paid for our beds. We were not in the town, and there wasn’t really anything to do near the hostel. The desk attendant suggested we sign up for “Nick’s Bus Tour”.
“No, thanks,” I replied, “I do not like group tours, or bus tours, or guided tours.”
I have not taken many, but the ones I have taken have felt restrictive and confining.
The hostel worker assured us, however, that this was not your typical bus tour, and, as there were not a lot of alternative options, we signed up.
Shortly, Nick arrived with his friend Boris. He drove an old VW van blaring Bohemian Rhapsody. Jason and I hopped in the back seat (we were his only tourists for the day), and we set off on a hilarious, often fictional, fantastic tour of the island. We visited gorgeous glens, rivers, and waterfalls, petted the hairy cows and highland ponies, stopped wherever we fancied, and met Nick’s friends in Portree, the little town that served as center of the island’s industry. I bought a great Stone Roses album there, and to this day when I listen to it memories of Skye come flooding back. In the late afternoon, after the tour was over, Nick invited me and Jason to come out on his boat, from which he showed us cliff-perched castles, basking seals and schools of dolphins. It was certainly like no other bus tour.
Liverpool was our next destination, where I visited the Tate Gallery Liverpool and the Walker Art Gallery. I was amazed at the bond traveling created amongst the people we met from all over the world. Everyone was so friendly, so willing to help, and we easily found new friends to go out and about with. At our youth hostel we met a long-haired guitarist, Brian, who was studying at Boston University. We went with him and some other travelers to see Cat Scratch Fever, a local rockabilly band, and saw the town. Brian asked to meet up in London at a later date, and he seemed nice, so I agreed. We said goodbye to loads of new friends and left for Bath.
In Bath we stayed at a hostel outside the town. Jason left to walk down to see the sights while I rested, and we planned to meet up for dinner later. When I was ready, I took the map given out by the hostel and a helpful hostel employee let me know about a shortcut through a park. I set off for town, and turned off through what I thought was the park. As I snooped around the shrubbery for a pathway, a posh English lady called from behind me, “Hullo! Are you looking for the shortcut down to the town? People often make the mistake, but this is a private garden.”
I apologized, laughing, and she asked me about myself. She and her son, Kiros, a student of French and Spanish at Cambridge, had been having wine and cheese on their wide stone veranda, and they invited me to join them. I ended up spending several hours in pleasant company and interesting conversation before Kiros offered to show me around the town.
It is always preferable to see new places with the native dwellers, and the majority of my travels have involved visiting people I have met rather than places. Some of the most important reasons for travel in my opinion are to get to know people from various backgrounds and cultures, to learn to see things from new perspectives, and to build friendships. Traveling also fosters the ability to see the hand of Providence in seeming mishaps. Had I not mistaken Kiros’s garden for the shortcut, I would never have had the remarkable experience of Bath that I did.
I primarily wanted to visit the Roman baths, the central attraction and the one from which the city derives its name. When we arrived, however, to my great disappointment, we found them closed for a private party. Thankfully, Kiros knew a good place to scale the exterior wall, which we did, alighting on the rooftop terrace that runs around the perimeter of the pool. We sat unnoticed and watched elegantly dressed party-goers mingling by torchlight before heading to the pub where I was meeting up with Jason. The evening, as the day had been, was delightful. I corresponded with Kiros and his mother for years after our one meeting. After our time in Bath, Jason took off for home and I continued on to London alone...
I think I was really in a state of euphoria during these weeks. I met with no one I didn’t like, saw some of the most beautiful places I had ever seen, made friendships that would grow and last for years to come, and broadened my perspective. I took in all the museums, cathedrals, libraries, and places of natural beauty that I could, as well as enjoying the local music and pub scenes. Throughout all of it, I wrote and reflected, purposefully focusing on Christ and making this trip one of spiritual growth, while enjoying myself immensely (without the merriment of alcohol or the convenience of a mobile phone).
Before this trip, I had only traveled abroad once before - to take a class in Israel. That was a very structured group trip, and though I loved it and grew tremendously, I prefer planning and orchestrating my own independent travel, free to spend as much or as little time with the people I meet and the places I visit. This was my first taste of that, and It set the tone for a lifelong passion for adventure and exploration of the human heart across cultures.