Many of you are not aware that I actually traveled to Europe before I lived there. :) This first posting of the "In the Blink of an Eye" series is going to be able that trip. For the record, I visited the countries in June of 1996 while I was still in high school on an "unauthorized" school field trip.
My memories begin in the airport in Berlin, Germany. Prior to this trip the only other country I had been in was Canada and only in the major cities. I was excited as our beloved German teacher pulled us all aside while we were waiting for our luggage to arrive and told us with a big smile, "I want you to go out and experience Europe...just don't tell me about it!". Herr Luke was not just our teacher, he was also someone we really admired and looked up to. We all knew after this trip we may never see him again because he'd lost his job at our school and many of us felt it was partially because of continuing with this trip after the school said it was not allowed (but France and Spain were acceptable for their clubs).
During the 36 hours we were in Berlin I met up with my boyfriend, a soldier stationed overseas and his best friend (the man I would someday marry many years later). I also had my first cigarette (given to me by our tour guide while hearing a lecture from her "off the books" about how everything great in the world came from Germany that reminds me now of the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding). It also included my first legally consumed alcohol and lots time spent just walking around the immense city. I remember being utterly shocked at how "open" they were about...well...everything. It seemed like everywhere I turned there was another sex store or poster promoting some club with naked people on it. The people on the streets looked decent enough but if those streets had been vacant I honestly would have expected people to come out wearing absolutely nothing at all! I was from Chicago and no stranger to cities, but for it to be this "in your face" was a whole new concept to me.
I cried as I said goodbye to my boyfriend on got on the bus to what would be my favorite city of the journey, Prague. I fell in love with what was called Czechoslovakia at the time but remember being stunned again as I drove past the Berlin Wall and into what had, until rather recently, been East Germany. The destruction from Communism was rampant. Beautiful buildings crumbling in every city we passed, sometimes on purpose, other times by accident. There was no outer sign of faith on most buildings or even in buildings. When we made it into the city I went and found this gorgeous old cathedral, Katedrála svatého Víta or St. Vitus Cathedral. I stayed in that beautiful home of the Archbishop of Prague for hours on end. Cathedrals fascinated me and this was the first that I ever got to go into since I was not Catholic. I was befriended by a priest while in there and he gave me an excellent tour as we struggled through broken German, broken English, 0 knowledge of Czech, but a decent grasp of Latin on my part. :) LOL (For GORGEOUS photos to show you how I fell in love go here for the interior and exterior of this amazing Cathedral!)
The next country we went to was Hungary and we lived in Budapest. Hungary was quite the blur but I fondly remember Apricot Schnapps (which apparently you can't buy in this country! Peach, but not apricot - it's not the same!!). Hungary, however was being occupied by another country. Men dressed in black carried large rifles that I now know were AK-47s. They scared me half to death. We were told to avoid them and not speak to them for our own safety. I accidentally took a wrong turn getting off the Subway and ended up lost. The only people I could find were those men. I was a terrified 16 year old girl with no knowledge of the country's language and completely alone. I knew enough to know that made me an easy target. One of the men in black motioned for me to come over. I was shaking in my boots but you don't say no to someone with a fully automatic rifle. Fortunately he meant me well. In broken English he asked where I was supposed to be and then personally escorted me to the Subway stationed and helped me find the stop I needed to get off at and got me back to safety. I am forever grateful for that man, whoever he was and was immensely relieved to make it back to the safety of my circle of friends and fellow travelers and regaled them with the tale over even more Apricot Schnapps.
Next on the tour was Vienna, Austria. Yet again I peeled off from the group in search of my own solitude, this time to a large park I found in the heart of the city. I walked the formal gardens, ate a lovely chocolate sundae and then found out that there was rum in the chocolate sauce and ended up being rather tipsy for the first time in my life. For the rest of Vienna I think I slept, I don't really remember why. The next day we were in Salzburg, home to The Sound of Music and I loved learning all kinds of trivia and such but we had a brief few hours before we were back on the bus to drive to Munich, the place I was most excited to visit, and also dreaded most of all.