The first time I traveled by myself, with no scheduled itinerary, was in 1964 during the summer break between my freshman and sophomore years at Chicago’s Loyola University.
I decided on a whim, actually, to go to Hamburg, Germany because I had read somewhere about the Reeperbahn (being young and full of…), Lake Alster and the modern rebirth of the city. I also wanted to see Amsterdam and then continue on to discover Norway and Denmark, the countries of my parents’ birth.
So I ended up making arrangements with Iceland Air, bought a month Eurail pass, and flew from Chicago to Reykjavik. After a two-day stopover I continued on to Luxembourg. Subsequently, after a rather anticipatory wait, I entrained to Hamburg, arriving at the bahnhof with two suitcases and a small carryon, filled with clothes and gadgets for every occasion which I could possibly anticipate. (Yes, I hear the gasps of disbelief from you readers).
Of the suitcases, one was so damaged in-flight that it was held shut by a piece of large twine wrapped around it, and the handle had disintegrated into something unrecognizable. My undying gratitude and thanks go to the baggage attendant, who kindly found some strong twine for me.
Knowing not where I would lay my aching head and bones, I inquired at the traveler’s desk for the availability of lodging within my price range. I schlepped three blocks, groaning because of the weight my aching arms were manhandling. The heaviest case, the one with the twine, dug into my hand, and all the while I feared about the reliability of the handle of the other one as I searched for the address I’d been given.
Fortunately a room was available – and only three flights up. In my room I dropped my lead-filled bags on the floor and collapsed onto the bed.
Looking about I couldn’t see a bathroom. Hmmm, I thought, I should have asked about that. Oh well, I’d shared facilities in Naval Reserve; I could do it here too. Opening both cases to look for my bathrobe (I was a bit more modest in those days, the Reeperbahn not withstanding as I planned on doing some trinken und flicken) and slippers to look for the bathroom.
I finally found it, on the floor above me. Very clean, but spartan. Why does one of those toilets not have a seat? Why is it next to the other, without a partition? Is it one of those unique Continental urinals? This place must be more up-to-date than I had thought. (If you have questions, children, that is another lesson about health and hygiene.)
From my trip there, the Reeperbahn looks like it is sequestered behind a walled-in area and is rather seedy and dark, with suspicious-looking characters lounging about. By the way, it is very expensive. I never did find Marlena Dietrich. (Half of those characters were probably tourists, as American as I, trying to look as worldly as I was attempting to do, eh?)
Lake Alster is, is, is… It’s hard to describe, but it is picture-perfect. The grand homes, the ritzy hotels at distant ends, the water taxis, the crisp air, the Old World-charm in a New-World age. I was mesmerized, in love with the thoughts of somehow living there, getting employment. Ha!
That was my apprenticeship into independent travel. I suppose I have made most of the mistakes in which I hope to advise you to heed, or failing that, to consider. Some mistakes were costly, some stupid, some unwitting. But that’s what education is all about, isn’t it?