When I was a senior in high school, I took Mrs. Eichhorn’s classical literature class. Mrs. Eichhorn was a tough old lady (we jokingly called her “The Third Eich,” not because she was mean, but just because she graded hard and we were high school kids and it was funny) who might as well have gotten to teach the seniors at my high school just because she won the passion contest in the teachers’ lounge. Don’t get me wrong — I had some really talented teachers in high school (I make a living writing now, so they must have been pretty good), but Mrs. Eich really loved this stuff. She made us all read Heinlein and Dickens and Faulkner and Hemingway. She made us read Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, promising us that it was the greatest novel ever written. I didn’t agree with her then, but that was, again, because I was a high school student. After having read through the book as an older man, I’ve since come around to her point of view.
Anyway, Eichhorn took some of her students on a trip to Europe every year — it was a very famous experience at my high school, and unless you were a big sports star or happened to already have a college-level affinity for math (neither of which were true about me), Eichhorn’s trip basically served as the highlight of your high school career, both as the experience of traveling through Europe with a garrulous and opinionated teacher who’d been there for many, many years in a row, and as the experience of being thousands of miles away from anyone you grew up with, with just your peers for hotel room company.
At the exact time that this trip was offered to me, I was forehead deep in the drama department. I had started out in high school along the football star path, but then quickly discovered, after a few health-threatening days of practice in full pads and a 101-degree St. Louis summer, that it wasn’t for me. So I’d turned to drama, and specifically the tech side. I rigged lights, I cut boards to build sets, I painted backgrounds and I set up speakers and screwed wheels on things. I was fascinated with the theater and the way it worked, and well on my way to a college degree where I’d eventually invest in the art of combining technology and imagination. On the very week that Eichhorn was scheduled to take us on her trip, the drama department was set to open up a high school production of Kiss Me Kate, and mere days before I had to fill out the final paperwork (all of the various consent forms and parental approvals required to follow a teacher around another continent), I was asked by my high school drama teacher to be a full tech director for the play.
Tech director was quite an honor: My drama teacher, Mrs. Rothermich (who I actually dedicated The Shape of Teeth to) was always listed in the programs as the “director” of our plays (except for the yearly one-acts show, where students got to direct), and this was basically her asking me if I wanted to share the marquee. Of course I did. But the show itself, which I definitely wouldn’t be able to miss, was supposed to open the exact same day I would have arrived in Europe.
I felt my life split into two different paths. In one, I went with Eich to Europe — I studied classical art, I learned all about the masters, I became an international traveler as a teenager (and, let’s be honest, I probably made out with some of the other girls on the trip). In the other, I stayed home — I tech directed, I went on to study technology and how to combine it with great art and storytelling, and I made out with some of the girls in the theater.
In the end, as you probably have guessed, I took the second option. I decided that while Europe would always be there, I would never get to tech direct my senior high school play again, and so I stayed home. I worked like crazy on Kiss Me Kate — I designed and built a three-part stage that actually split up and rotated around for the scenes in front of and behind the play-inside-a-play, and the whole show was a huge success. I have all of my old programs still, including the one listing me as tech director alongside my teacher (and signed by all of my friends, including plenty of cute high school girls telling me what a great job I’d done). I of course went on to a great and spectacular career, one that’s still continuing to break new ground to this day, making me the hero of millions all over the world. Happy ending for everyone, really.
Except that now I’m nearly 32. I’ve done a lot of what I set out to do — I do have a career doing what I love, I’ve made a lot of great friends in many different places, and just a few years ago, I finally moved out here to the west coast — I see palm trees and sunshine outside my windows, and I can walk down to the beach whenever I want.
And yet I’ve never been to Europe. In fact, though my parents are huge travelers (not only have they driven us around to every state, and up into Canada and down into Mexico), I’ve never even been off of this continent. Up until a few months ago, I never even had a passport. Never needed one. The last time I had the option to go overseas was back in high school, on that trip with the Third Eich, and for reasons listed above, I turned it down.
So last October, driving home through the streets of Los Angeles, I decided it was probably time. For a while, I’d been waiting on a trip overseas, waiting for the right vacation group, or for even the right relationship, to have someone to bring along with me. But there’s no reason to just sit here and wait for that, I decided. I’ve waited long enough. I said to myself, way back in high school, when I decided on the play instead of the trip, that I’d always have the chance to go to Europe again. And last October — I can specifically remember the exact moment — I decided it was time to take it.
I jumped through the hoops of grabbing a passport last November, getting my birth certificate out of the safe deposit box, and paying the fees as requested (including the expedited fees, just in case) to a surly, jaded postal worker who regarded me warily, as if she couldn’t believe that someone had actually gotten all of the paperwork together in exactly the right order for her. Last December, I went online, and bought a ticket to London.
The ticket was kind of a concern: How long should I go for, and where? I am both unlucky to be a freelancer, in that no one’s actually hired me for a full-time, benefits-enabled job just yet, and lucky to be a freelancer, in that I have a pretty flexible schedule, and work on the Internet from wherever I please. So I have a little bit of extra space and wiggle room in my job — I don’t actually have to be in an office anywhere, as long as I log in and deliver what I need to when it’s needed. And I didn’t want to make the trip too short; this is a big deal for me, and I want it to feel like it is, like it’s meaningful progress in my life.
So I decided to be both gratuitous and careful. I did buy a round-trip ticket (as opposed to an open-ended one), and I will leave and come out of London, England. I will leave Los Angeles on April 1st (April Fool’s Day, yes, but I am serious), on a Monday afternoon, and I will arrive back at LAX on May 1st, 2012. In between that time, I am planning to tour the continent — my four main destinations are going to be London, Paris, Berlin, and then Amsterdam, but I also want to make sure that I arrive with only a skeleton of a schedule. If I want to flesh it out with an unplanned trip to Rome, or a few day jaunt over to Prague, I want to be able to do that.
And, as you can tell from this already-too-long introduction, I am going to be writing about it. I am going to write every single day while I’m on the trip, and even quite a bit before it (and maybe a little bit after it). I have said a lot about why I’m taking this trip in this initial essay, but I have more to say about what I’m doing and why, and I’m sure I’ll have endless reactions to all of the new and wild and incredible I encounter while over there on my journey. I am fortunate enough (especially as a writer) to be the kind of person for whom almost everything can be fascinating, and I’m sure I’ll have no shortage of fascination overseas.
Anyway, that’s enough to start. In the coming days and weeks, I’ll tell you about the schedule I’m putting together, and if you have suggestions for what I should see or do while over there, please email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or tweet them to me and let me know. I will also tell you about how I plan to pack for the trip — so far, it’s the smartest packing scheme I’ve ever come up with (helped out by the fine folks at Tom Bihn, who kindly have sent me some luggage to try). And I aim to tell you about my relative lack of plans for lodging. Of all of the ideas I have in my head about going to Europe, the places I’ll get to lay my head number fewest among them, so I am very open for recommendations and insight on that front as well. In fact, if you are a European person and have a place for me to stay, I will very likely take you up on it.
Man, am I excited. All of my writing will show up here on the site, but depending on what people think of it and how it comes out, I may try to publish it elsewhere, in a book or on another blog. Stay tuned, also, for photos and videos, and lots of other fun documentation of my trip and where I am and what I’m doing. Obviously, that probably won’t start in earnest until April 1, but there will be some things up here before I leave for sure.
I don’t know where Eichhorn is right now — I assume, given that she was older when I was in high school twenty years ago, that she’s not still teaching, and even if so, she’s definitely not taking a pack of high school kids on a trip around Europe. But I do fondly remember her class, and her passion for brilliant literature, and her constant offer, to high school seniors, to take them overseas and show them what real history, and real art, and real sculpture and architecture, and what real real is like. And I hope that this trip, crazy as it will probably be, lives up to what I had to turn down all of those years ago. I can’t wait.
Posted on Monday, February 27th, 2012 at 10:10 pm. Filed under general.