“The word adventure has gotten over used. For me, when everything goes wrong—that’s when adventure starts” – Yvon Chouinard
A volcano trapped me in Europe, but strangely enough, that isn’t where the story starts. The story starts a few weeks earlier, during my year studying abroad at the University of Edinburgh, where “Spring Break” is three weeks long. Armed with a EuroRail pass, a carefully mapped trajectory, and a duffle bag I wore as a backpack, I was ready for my Grand Tour. Or, as close to a Grand Tour as I was probably going to get, given my gender, income status, and the century I live in.
My friend and I started the journey with five days in Paris. We’d eaten plenty of croissants, clomped all over famous French memorials, and kissed Oscar Wilde’s tomb stone (leaving bright pink lipstick smears mingling indistinguishable among their fellows). It was time for our night train to Venice.
Only someone was in our berth, and as a helpful, if stern, official pointed out, our tickets were for a month and some days later. Thank goodness for the young French woman behind the customer service counter, who took one look at our desperate American faces and then asked in English, “Alright, so where are you trying to go?”
She took our map, our EuroRail passes and our itinerary, and then presented us with some options that would get us out of Paris that evening. We picked a night train to Ventimiglia. We say it was because that route took us along the French Riviera through Monaco, along beautiful coasts we never would have seen otherwise. Really though, it was because we both loved Gilmore Girls.
nice, we had a one-night trip to Ventimiglia, another train to Milan, a hostel in Milan, and then another day of traveling. We ended up eating gelato in a tiny beach town on the edge of the Italian coast. We washed down delicious focaccia and prosciutto sandwiches with warm Pepsi on the sun-drenched train platform of a sleepy little town somewhere between Ventimiglia and Milan. We stayed in a strange, haphazard little hostel that might have actually been someone’s house, commandeered by the house sitter. Of course, we were panicked in Milan—unsure how the rest of the trip was going to go, unsure if we could even make it to our next stop. We were ready to scrap all of our plans completely because there were no train tickets to be had to our next destination. At least, no one who understood us well enough to sell them to us. We ate kind of mediocre pizza, and then I curled up in bed to read Percy Jackson, which just goes to show, you can’t have everything.
We did finally get a ticket to Belgrade, Serbia, the next stop on our journey. After three different train stations where they were not selling these tickets, we basically offered our first-born children to the travel agent who finally figured it out for us. The train itself was definitely older than we were and the air conditioning didn’t really work. The concierge spoke Serbian, German and Italian. We, suffice to say, did not. Mostly he talked to us in Italian and we tried to match it up with the French we knew, romance language to romance language. We did, as it turned out, finally make it to Eastern Europe, back on track to meeting up with another friend in Athens, our final destination.
Between getting lost in tangled webs of back streets, eating fried cheese in five or six European cities, taking seated showers in a bathtub, drying ourselves off with our t-shirts, and ripping our only pair of pants each, we finally made it to Athens. When I called my parents to let them know we’d arrived, they had some dire warnings about some volcano in Iceland, but I waved them off. It sounded as absurd to me then as it probably does to you now. A volcano? In Iceland? The Grecian sun was bright, the sky was blue, burning almost too brightly above the monuments. There was no ice to be seen!
“We’re going to be here for five days or so, it should have cleared up by then. We’ll be fine,” I said. My parents were skeptical but I ignored them and went back to hiking ruins, eating gyros, catching up on Bones, and drinking sweet, gritty coffee in the blinding Greek sunlight.
And yet, while we clomped all over Athens, the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, continued to blanket the European skies with thick, black clouds of ash and dust—grounding planes all over Europe, including the one that was supposed to take me and my friend back to Edinburgh.
We were stuck. The friend we were visiting was leaving on a trip of her own, and due to a booking mishap way back in January when we were planning this trip (yes, the adventure started early), we actually had tickets to Rome in our back pockets as well and so we figured that we might as well be stuck in a new city. We saw the Sistine Chapel, ate delicious gnocchi and pizza, stayed in another haphazard hostel run by a lewd, if ruggedly handsome, Italian and his more earnest, but no less lecherous Irish counterpart.
Later, people would hear this story and say sardonically, “Oh poor you, stuck in Rome! How awful!” And I will agree that there are much worse places to get stuck in the world. We had food, we had wine, we had ruins and warm brick and dappled sunlight. We had gelato.
We also had no money. While in Athens, a vicious ATM ate my friend’s debit card, so we were living on my bank account alone. We wouldn’t be able to get a train for weeks, and even if we could somehow find our way onto one, the tickets were about three hundred dollars. Our best plan was finding a train to France and then hoping against hope that someone would rent us (only recently 21) a car with an automatic transmission. Our second best plan was to try to stowaway in a DHL delivery truck. We sat in a café, alternating between giddy appreciation of the word “adventure,” and nervous eavesdropping on the conversations of the Brits sitting near us. We wondered if they would ever be able to get out of Italy, if they’d be willing to take us with them.
Finally, after three days, the smoke and ash cleared long enough for us to get a flight to Glasgow and a midnight bus to Edinburgh. When we got home, we slept for days.
It is, bar none, the best vacation I’ve ever taken. I think, in all likelihood, it will remain so for the rest of my life.
A million things went wrong, and we spent a few nights desperate and uncomfortable. We were nervous and scared a lot. Regardless of our fears, however, the sun rose the next day and we figured out what to see, where to go. We figured out how to circle Europe. It was a trip made up of old churches, art that stole our breath away, fried cheese, sunlight and rain, ripped jeans, endless train tracks, and uncountable, unbelievable stories. We were terrified and amazed. We were indomitable.