My roommate, Dan Sullivan, loves maps. I only discovered this over the past three and a half weeks as we travelled around Western Europe. If it were not for Dan, I would have been perpetually lost. Thanks to him, we saw as much of Brussels, Paris, the French Alps, Lake Como, Florence, Rome, Nice and Barcelona, among other places, as two people could in that time. After a while, Dan moonlighted as a tour guide and vacation planner for countless students we encountered in our travels.
One of the more surprising aspects of the trip was the number of students we encountered. At every train station we saw, armies of twenty-something students touring in packs. All of them wore really big internal frame backpacks (the Canadian students had Canadian flags on their packs to show that they weren’t from the United States, but I won’t get into that now). All of them wore New Balance sneakers. All of them had money belts. All of them clutched Let’s Go: Europe 2000. And just about none of them spoke the native language of the country. I’m a little embarrassed to say that Dan and I fit almost all of those descriptions (down to my New Balance 802 Trailrunners), except for the fact that I speak a little French and can get by with Italian, and Dan speaks a little Spanish.
The other common feature uniting just about all the students was that none of them had any clue where they were going. That’s where Dan’s map skills came in. While everyone else dogmatically followed what the Let’s Go gods decreed, we were free of such fetters. Sure, we had Let’s Go and Lonely Planet, but Dan made sure that we went to every tourist office, asked every hostel receptionist for suggestions and stopped to look at every public transportation map.
I was commissioned several times to ask a randomly chosen, old Italian women for advice. Our conversation would always entail my saying that my grandma spoke Italian very well, but I didn’t, and then asking where a good restaurant was. I always got a good reception with that, and found some good restaurants in the process. I guess they love grandmas in Italy.
Armed with maps, advice and the occasional subway or bus ticket, we explored Western Europe. Thankfully Dan was much more motivated than I, so we saw much more stuff than I would have by myself. For example, I was happy enough to see the Nike, Samothrace in the Louvre and Notre Dame while we were in Paris. Dan made sure we saw much more than that.
He also made sure that we knew exactly how to get wherever we were going in the shortest possible amount of time, while seeing the greatest amount of things in the process. It was a truly amazing experience. Usually much of the trip planning occurred while riding trains from place to place. I spent my train rides doing one of three things: sleeping, reading Ulysses or looking at maps. Dan always looked at maps. I’m glad he did.
Besides the backpack and the New Balances, just about every traveller had a Eurail pass, a nifty little ticket that basically allows you to travel by train in X number of countries for Y amount of time. Of course, the pass was kept in the money belt. Needless to say, we also had a map of the train routes. While in the U.S. it is odd to take the train from one city to another (except for the route between DC and Boston), Europeans use trains pretty regularly. Thanks to the rail system, we were able to get from place to place without much trouble.
In fact, right now, most of the Williams-Oxford people (including Dan) are still on their trips. They might well be riding a train as you read this. I decided to come back to Oxford a little early, though. I got worn down from the travelling, and am glad to just be sitting around, not riding trains and sleeping in hostels. But I had a lot fun. And now, thanks to Dan, I have a whole collection of maps to chronicle my journey.