All 72 chapters are collected at this link. Complete list of links to the 1987 European summer travel series (30 years ago today).
I always strive to write for a broader readership, rather than myself, alone. If only a handful of other people are reading, that’s great. However, my travelogues from olden times function more as personal reminders. Otherwise, I’m afraid I’ll forget them completely.
In 2017, I recalled my travels in 1987. Next to come is 1989. A mere 20 months passed between the end of the 1987 trip and the beginning of the one in 1989, but these proved to be of critical importance for my life, right up until this very day.
Consider the essay below as summary and segue. For those of my readers who tolerate these digressions, thank you.
In halcyon days of youth, slide film was the chosen method for documenting my travels. It seemed like such a good idea at the time.
Let’s start with the basics: what is slide film? In simple terms, it’s the opposite of color negative film. Instead of a negative, it makes a positive. This is why it is also called color reversal film. When you develop it, you see a tiny photo – no print needed. Think of it as bizarro world color film, or opposite day color film if you prefer. If you were born before 1990 there is a very high chance you were forced to watch old slideshows of your parents’ vacations from the 1960s. In fact, the term “slideshow” comes from the ancient practice of subjecting one’s friends and family to sit in the dark and stare at images projected on a wall for hours while they drone on and on and on about that camping trip to the Grand Canyon that one time.
In a plea of self-defense, allow me to say that any of my friends and family sitting in the living room’s shadowy gloaming were properly bribed with beer and snacks, and they were allowed to leave any time they wished – with explicit permission from the lectern, of course.
From the occasion of my first trip to Europe in 1985, and even as late as 1994, I stubbornly insisted on using slide film, which worked fine until the world went digital overnight, sometime around 2002.
It didn’t help that the family heirloom, a 1970s-vintage slide projector, eventually became balky — and replacement bulbs with a life span of a few short hours started costing $50 a pop (and boy, did they ever).
Although slide film still exists, modernity eventually intervened. Decades later, left with a few thousand slides and no effective way of viewing them, I finally broke down in January of 2017 and invested in a scanner for digitalizing the historical record.
No longer possessing a valid excuse to dither, it became a matter of organizing the project, and as such, it might help to know that organizational skills aren’t among my strongest suits.
Consequently, I suddenly awoke one morning in May of 2017 seized with the revelation that if I acted quickly, certain of these newly revealed photos from 1987 could be posted on the blog with scintillating commentary, exactly 30 years to the day they’d been taken.
This would improve on the approach of being held hostage in a darkened house, but a full month of commemorative opportunities already had elapsed before the idea finally occurred to me.
It was necessary to dive into the task without delay.
The banker’s box repository of trip relics was hauled from the basement, and the cataloguing began, with increasingly elusive memories being helpfully supplemented by photos I hadn’t seen for more than 20 years.
Ten weeks later, on the 30th anniversary of my return home from Brussels, the 1987 project finally was finished – except it wasn’t, because I’d somehow neglected the entirety of Yugoslavia. Back into it I went, and now the job really is complete, at least until the next revision.
In short, “30 years ago today” became its very own long, strange trip. It was filled with diversions, updates and surprises. The poetic symmetry of U2’s Joshua Tree 30th anniversary concert in Louisville stands out (I’d seen the band in Cork in 1987), as well as the chance to exchange messages via social media with at least a few folks I hadn’t seen since we said goodbye in Warsaw.
If just a few of you found these images more interesting than camping in the Grand Canyon, it’s fine by me. They reawakened all sorts of memories, most of them wonderful.
But it also got me thinking about 1989, a crazed, exhilarating and messy year of transitions, upticks and downfalls.
First, we’re compelled to rewind to the evening of August 16, 1987. The return flights from Brussels had been endured, and someone was at the Louisville airport (Bob? Barrie?) to pick me up and take me home, again, in Indiana.
I was proud of myself. I’d planned and managed a four-month-long encore to the 1985 European debut junket without suffering from any semblance of a sophomore jinx.
There were unexpected problems, and yet dates were kept and connections made, often through the good offices of Thomas Cook’s amazing book, without the luxury of electronic homing devices that didn’t yet exist. It had been an uproarious good time, and I was overwhelmed and humbled by the intensity of my experiences, particularly the stays in Eastern European lands.
There was no turning back for me. The 1989 Mach III trip would be bigger and better than ever. The planning for it began long before I returned home from the 1987 expedition, perhaps in Prague, Budapest or Skopje — or most likely, every waking moment.
In part, this was because I’d gradually been made aware of opportunities on both sides of the Iron Curtain to volunteer my time to help with worthy objectives (clean-ups, archaeological digs, beautification) in exchange for lodging and three squares.
These were exciting possibilities, fully worthy of consideration. They’d stretch travel dollars even further. In the meantime, funding this future trip’s budget was the issue. The immediate question in 1987 was much the same as in 1985, but possessed of an even greater urgency.
I had the same two flexible but modestly paying jobs to resume, working days during the school year as a substitute teacher, and nights at Scoreboard Liquors selling beer from foreign breweries I’d now actually visited.
Would it be enough? I didn’t want to sell a kidney.
The working grind began anew, but my life and times in America were about to change irrevocably. Ironically, a similar process was underway in Europe. We just couldn’t see it at the time.
The act of most lasting impact occurred immediately after my return stateside. My old pal TR called for a catch-up chat. I was woefully depleted of gossip, so he suggested lunch at a new joint called Sportstime Pizza, apparently recently established somewhere near Grant Line Road. I couldn’t form a mental picture of the place until he resorted to a past-tense directional comparison: “It’s where the Noble Roman’s used to be.”
In other words, in August of 1987 I first walked through the doors of what eventually became the New Albanian Brewing Company. Now it’s January of 2018, and I’m still waiting for my tab to be settled so I can leave.
A few months later, Barrie Ottersbach got married. Our European revels in the summer of 1987 always had been intended as an extended, 50-day-long bachelor’s party. Our next trip together wouldn’t come until 1993.
It was an entertaining turn of events just after Christmas, when two of the three Danes we’d met during the summer came to visit Kentuckiana (or Indyucky). Ominously, in four scant months I’d become enough of a Sportstime Pizza regular to host the inaugural New Year’s Eve party there, which Kim Wiesener and Allan Gamborg attended.
Along with “Big Kim” Andersen, they went on to become forever friends, and I’m grateful. Barrie and I also took them to the legendary K & H Café in Lanesville, where I’d spent roughly half my life in the early 1980s.
The two Danes handily drank us all under the table, but it was bittersweet in retrospect. Owing to the changes about to occur, there was to be gravitational pull in my social life, away from the hill and into New Albany.
Consequently, I returned to the K & H only a handful of times before the owners Kenny and Straw retired, circa 1993.
Just after the New Year, now entering 1988, Bob Gunn got a respectable, well-paying job in Louisville. After about month, UNI Data Courier hired me, too, thanks to Bob’s recommendation.
I kept my evening job at the liquor store and began bankrolling 1989 travel money. Shortly thereafter, Bob, TR and I rented a house in Floyds Knobs.
Each day I’d drive a few miles and meet the TARC bus for the trip into Louisville, using cheap tickets subsidized by my employer. Once there, most of the periodicals I abstracted were British, focused on politics, geography and world affairs. The corporate atmosphere was bleak and soul-crushing; the education was absolutely priceless.
In August, Scoreboard Liquors moved from West Spring to East Spring on the other side of town, with the store’s cantankerous manager Duck taking this opportunity to retire. Scoreboard lasted a while at the new location, and fresh friendships were made as a result. However, it never really was the same for me.
Meanwhile Bob got married and moved out, and our friend George, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, moved in. He already was famous for his valuable public service of convincing Sportstime’s owners to stock $1.75 bottles of Pilsner Urquell.
As the pre-digital calendar’s page turned to 1989, the metamorphosis was completed when I awoke one morning to a hangover and the surprising information that for the first time since college, I seemed to have an actual girlfriend. By this time, the itinerary for Europe 1989 was largely set. My life had become confusing.
Looking at oneself in the mirror, resolving to be completely honest, might be the hardest thing in the world for any person to do.
There are many reasons why I was an emotionally dysfunctional basket case as a young man. They’re so numerous that the full self-lacerating confessional will have to wait for a multi-volume series, one I have no plans to write any time soon.
It can suffice to say that hating yourself probably isn’t the best platform for interaction with a wider world. It took many years and a handful of visits to the vicinity of rock bottom (not the brewpub chain) before it got better, and the process of recovery is ongoing.
And so it was that in the 1980s, I fell head over heels in love – with Europe.
I loved traveling in Europe, learning about Europe, and using Europe as self-medication.
My life was an unsolvable mystery; Europe made precise sense. Travel seemed an ideal way to displace the anger and angst, to forget for a little while how ridiculously slight my self-regard really was, and to discover the sense of purpose otherwise missing from my life.
Travel allowed me to stall for the time required to understand myself, and to be at peace with me. Travel was the crutch, and also an evasive maneuver. Tellingly, I still resisted giving myself over to it with any semblance of permanence, and I merely pretended to be an expatriate.
I went away, and always returned.
It may seem tacky to a millennial, but when Bono said he hadn’t found what he was looking for, I could relate. Here I am, three decades later, still trying to explain it. I’ve learned so much – and nothing at all. None of us are promised a rose garden, after all.
Beginning in 1983, the European obsession expanded exponentially, allowing me to avoid growing up, or so I imagined. However, by 1989 — with a magnum opus of an extravaganza on the horizon — my carefully interlocked edifices of predictability and stability were crumbling.
None of these changes would be allowed to alter my plans for 1989, and yet the outcome would be far different than I ever imagined, both in personal and geopolitical terms.
The established orders at home and abroad simply couldn’t survive Vladimir Putin and Roger Baylor crossing paths over lager beer in Dresden, and the walls all came tumbling down.
Here’s where I stand, today.
The plan for 2018 is to begin by moving backward. The 1985 travel narrative previously published two years ago at my Potable Curmudgeon blog will be updated and republished at NA Confidential, with the first-time addition of digitalized slide images.
When this project is finished, preparations will begin for 1989. In all honesty, the prospect of documenting 1989 is more than a little daunting, and it might take a while.
For one thing, there is the sheer length of the trip (more than six months) and the commensurate number of slides to scan.
In a more conceptual sense, the 1989 journey was like the ambitious, flawed album that follows a flurry of hits. Think of it as my personal Be Here Now by Oasis, minus the cocaine. In 1989, perhaps precisely because the reference points all seemed in flux, my reach exceeded my grasp.
The logistical law of averages also caught up with me. For example, on one memorable occasion I somewhat idiotically decided to mail home a package of valuable keepsakes from East Germany. It never arrived.
I hope the Stasi agent of record enjoyed them.
At various times during the trip, I lost my credit card, had my pocket picked, and was famously slipped a mickey and robbed. The latter episode resulted in a splitting headache and my backpack being stolen, and with it my trip diary, the absence of which will make a day-by-day rendering of 1989 difficult.
Moreover, having at long last arrived at the ideal juncture for meeting female Europeans – the Hungarians, Czechs and Russians, duly boggling male minds and libidos – I had a gal back home, later to be both wife and business partner.
Not only this, but she eventually joined me on the trip, and so to discuss the 1989 trip is to come to grips with this ultimately failed relationship, both personally in the years to come, and later as it came to impact the business.
Unsettling isn’t an adequate word for the encroaching trepidation, though it’s probably better resolved before penning the story. After all, I can’t pretend it didn’t happen.
In the spring of 1989, I flew into a continent divided into “cold” warring blocs, and much of my summer was spent behind the lines of America’s presumed enemy. By the time I flew home in November, the Berlin Wall was down and everything was changing.
I’ll probably spend the rest of my life mulling over how well, and badly, I reacted to these changes.
Such is life.