I'm most recently a writer. In the six plus decades of my life, I've been a wife, mother, grandmother, Jill of all trades though mistress of but a few, and most of the time pretty content with my lot. As a much younger person, I believed I was called to write, but life and living distracted me for most of those decades. An unwilling transplant from the South, twenty years ago I unintentionally landed in the geographical center of the US. Writing came about in part due to the unwillingness, I expect. When caring for family, gardening, and renovating a century-old house failed to provide sufficient creative outlets, I turned to the one thing I always intended to do. Eight titles later, I'm grateful I found myself while Lost in the Plains!
Monday, March 4, 2013
1970, Europe, and Jan
Fast forward past scraping together the financing, passport applications, barely signing up enough local students to qualify for the trip, the struggle to assemble a suitable wardrobe, not to mention high school graduation, and I'm on my way.
Firsts were hitting me from every side. My first trip across more than one adjacent state, all the way to Atlanta, in fact. My first time inside an airport, my first time on an airplane. My first exposure to what seemed a hoard of younger and in large part wealthier and far more urbane teenagers, my traveling companions for the next six weeks. Was I overwhelmed? Heck, no! I'd been raised to think that if I wanted to do something, I could do it. A few city kids in stunningly expensive clothes (I knew how expensive because my mother worked in a department store where that kind of thing was sold, just not to me) whose shockingly adult vocabulary I understood but would never have dared use myself, were not about to intimidate me. I did, at least, have age on my side. I was technically an adult, and I adopted the air of one too wise and mature to indulge in their childish games. The fact that the games were often of a sexual nature and involved illegal drugs was beside the point. I had sense enough to know what I didn't see couldn't hurt me nearly as much as it was going to hurt them when they eventually got caught.
My aloofness actually served me pretty well. I think they feared I was a plant, a snitch with connections to some adult authority beyond our chaperones, who were apparently not to be feared, and they were careful to be at least polite to me. I think they were also just a little envious because from the time we arrived in Amsterdam, I was singled out by our tour guide as the one student worthy of his companionship. No small honor, most likely bestowed due to the fact that for a twenty-three year old man, I was the least inappropriate choice. Jan, a Dutch graduate student, was a young man any girl could pretty quickly develop a huge crush on. Personable, funny, at times masterful, he was tall, with longish blond hair and a striking red gold beard. In his hippie-like uniform of rough chambray shirts and blue jeans, he walked the pavements of Amsterdam, Bruges and Paris with confident grace. And much of the time in those first days I walked beside him.
Don't get me wrong. I was not solely focused on Jan during those halcyon days. I was bent on soaking up as much culture, history and art as possible, knowing this might be my one chance to do so. He was in fact a knowledgeable guide and a serious student himself, so we shared an occasional educational moment along with our casual flirtation. He was a perfect gentleman, a sweet and considerate companion, and when we said goodbye after two weeks, I was sad to see him go. But all of Spain was waiting for me at that point. I wasn't about to waste my time brooding over someone who lived a world away. I allowed myself some pretty fantasies, hoped for a letter or call (there actually was one call) and went on with my real life, the one in which, at the end of this trip, I'd return to my humble home in a village of two hundred souls. There were still those pesky teenagers to deal with, but even they became more tolerable as the weeks passed. Some of them were actually bold enough to ask about Jan and what we had "had" together. I never really told them one way or the other. I might be that poor girl from an unheard-of speck on the map, but at least I'd acquired a little mystique during my time as Jan's friend.
I still think about him every now and then. He was a large part of that magical experience, after all. The fact is, our traveling companions always hold a prominent place in our memories. The ones we share the journey with, both the good and the less so, become fixtures as surely as the streets and buildings we visit. We take blurred photos of them standing in front of the world's great monuments, because we want to remember them as well. I have one photograph of Jan, standing outside Schiphol Airport holding a bunch of red tulips, which he later used like a banner to lead us through the narrow streets to our student hostel that first day. Sadly, his face is blurred. That's all right, actually. I remember just the way he looked to my unsophisticated eyes, the same way I remember my first sight of the all the wonders I encountered in the following days. He's right there with Van Gogh's Sunflowers and the Eiffel Tower as one of the images I'll always treasure from the summer of 1970.