I SAW EUROPE ON $190
He saw five countries from a bike, proving that Europe still welcomes students who can afford bread and cheese
as told to Robert Thomas Allen
THERE are two ways to visit Europe: with money, and without. I did it without. I left Canada in the middle of May last year after my examinations at the University of Toronto where I’m studying architecture, and returned at the end of August. I visited Belgium, Holland, France, Switzerland and Austria, covering a distance in Europe of about 3,000 miles. I roamed the country roads of Europe. I gazed on Notre Dame and sailed on the Zuider Zee. I supped on beer and cheese beside flower-bordered Dutch canals, did the rounds of Paris night clubs, and climbed part way up the Jungfrau. I did all the things I wanted to do, and I did it on $190. You can do it, too, if you go about it the right way. All you need is a lot of determination, a fondness for walking and bicycling, a taste for simple food and some ingenuity.
First, get busy right now clearing through immigration red tape. You’ll find it a lot easier to do here in Canada than in Europe. Write to the Department of External Affairs at Ottawa and get a passport valid for all countries. It will cost you $5.
When you have your passport, visit the various foreign consulates in your nearest major city— they are listed in the Canadian almanac—and get it filled up with as many visas as you can possibly talk your way into. You’ll save yourself a lot of time, by the way, by equipping yourself with plenty of passport-type photographs and letters
of reference. You can get visas for every European country (except Switzerland where no visa is required) for about $15.
Another thing you should do right away is to get in touch with the International Students’ Service which promotes university student contact in foreign countries. They’ll tell you about conditions in the countries you’re going to visit, the best routes to follow and give you a lot of other valuable information.
And while you’re at it, take out a membership in the Canadian Youth Hostel Association. Youth hostels are spotted throughout Europe, many arranged so that they’re just a comfortable day’s walk apart. You’ll be using them regularly. With a membership card a good clean bed anywhere in Europe will cost you only 25 cents. Without a card they cost 50 cents and you’re not going to be in financial shape to toss away two-bits a day.
Now comes the passage. If you’re going to keep your expenses down, you not only can’t afford a first-class ticket—you can’t afford a ticket. You
work your way over. You’ve probably heard of that idea before. What you haven’t heard is that it’s a lot easier said than done. You not only have to work plenty on the ship, you have to work plenty to get on it.
I boarded each foreign ship as soon as her hawsers touched the quay in Toronto without getting closer to a job than a few helpful words of advice from her master. I went to Montreal and tramped from ship to ship and agency to agency without finding a vessel that needed even a cabin boy. There’s no sure-fire way of getting passage in this way and I can give you no advice except to tell you to see everyone who might be connected with shipping, or who knows someone who might be, or who knows someone who knows who might know someone. You have to work at it the way you would trying to land any other job.
I finally got word through friends in the foreign exchange department of the Dominion Bank about a ship putting in for a cargo of horses. The horses were being shipped to Belgium by Gilbert Arnold, the owner of Arnold Farms, Grenville, Que. He was to provide the cargo crew. I hitchhiked to Grenville, met Arnold, and was told that if I was on hand when the crew was signed on I might have a chance. I hiked back to Montreal and nearly did handsprings when I got the job.
Then I was asked, “What about your ticket back?” and I stopped in mid-air. 1 learned that, by international law, they would have to bring me back again unless I produced a ticket for my return trip, and they weren’t having any of that.
But by this time I
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was desperate. I wired home to my family for money and bought a ticket for $160, which I eventually cashed.
1 set sail in the Calvin Victory as an ocean-going cowboy with $150 in my jeans and a shoulder bag containing all my possessions. I had shaving kit, toothbrush, camera, several foreignlanguage dictionaries and, just to keep me in the right mood, a book of adventure. 1 wore a plaid shirt, heavy walking shoes and grey flannels, and 1 packed along an extra pair of socks and an extra suit of underwear. 1 added to my wardrobe during the trip a light khaki shirt, a raincape, shorts, sandals and a pair of dungarees which I wore aboard ship.
1 also took a blue blazer for really posh occasions. You might think that a bit of unnecessary swank for anyone traveling as light as 1 was, but you couldn’t be more wrong, and you’ll be wise to include something like it.
You’ll find out why when you get to Europe. In the first place, you can be dressed up in a couple of minutes. You change from a beat-up, foot-loose character to a student—a dusty, downat-heels student, perhaps, but a student nevertheless, and consequently a respectable citizen. By the end of the summer my red shirt had been bleached pink, the cuffs of my flannels had a saw-toothed edge, the soles of my shoes were held on only by the heel and my underwear was in rags, but 1 could still slip on my blazer and go anywhere 1 wanted, to night clubs, hotels, restaurants, and never encounter as much as a raised eyebrow.
Another thing that’s hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t been a roving student in Europe is that anything you can do to identify yourself, to make people notice you. is all in your favor. People who see at a glance that you’re a student from Canada will go out of their way to help you. Your blazer will do that for you, particularly if it carries some Canadian emblem. My blazer bore a maple leaf athletic crest I’d won for an intercollegiate swimming championship and, although I hadn’t given it any thought when 1 left Canada (it just happened to be on the blazer) I was mighty grateful for it many times.
Best Buy a Bike
Nine days later the low-lying towns of the Netherlands coast appeared through the fog and rain and we entered the River Scheldt. I stepped off the ship with a seagoing roll, $30 richer and a great deal smellier. I now had $180.
If you were in Europe during the war you’ll find great changes. The scars of the war are still there in the charred skeletons of ships, the rubble of bombed-out buildings, the sinister slit of a pillbox in a brilliant garden, but reconstruction has progressed at a tremendous rate, both physically and economically.
In Belgium you’ll find every type of article that you see on sale in Canada, and a few that you don’t, such as American cigarettes. Belgium has control of the rich uranium deposits of the Congo and this has brought her goods and wealth from the United States. But prices are high, partly due to the lowering of the value of the franc during the war, and partly to the fact that Belgium now has hard currency and prosperity.
In the other countries there are still scarcities, but nothing compared to the way things were immediately after the war.
On arriving, if you’re traveling as economically as I was, the most immediate question will be how to get around. The best way, by far, is to ride a bike. I decided to buy one. That was when I received my introduction to postwar European economics. I found that a bike would cost me $70. which I couldn’t afford, but 1 also found that in all hard-currency countries a free market rate exists for the currencies of less fortunate countries. When 1 took my Belgian francs to a travel bureau, and found that I could buy Dutch gulden at half their official rate. I decided to hitchhike to Holland and buy a Dutch bicycle. My figuring was right. Although on the official rate of exchange the Dutch bicycle would have been equally as expensive as the Belgian one, I was able to buy mine for $40.
Travelers’ Cheques Best
I became more familiar with the money racket as I went along. I found that on the free market in Switzerland, and to a certain extent in Belgium, one can buy any currency at its relative value, which places some such as French and Austrian, at a very low par, and places the dollar at a premium.
But there is a difference between the free market and the black market, such as exists in France. On the black market only cash will buy, as travelers’ cheques which can be traced must go through a bank.
But for all this finagling, it is still more practical to carry American travelers’ cheques and certainly a lot more honest in a country where cash invariably finds its way to the black market, as it does in France. In Paris the marketeers have become so barefaced that, in the area around the Place de l’Opera, you’ll be approached by at least three men in every block. But they deal in hundreds. “'Fen dollars? Ahh pardon, Monsieur ”
Fora week I cycled through Holland, stopping where I pleased, riding to any promising tower or church, and struggling with my smattering of Dutch. And, by the way, you’d better spend all free evenings between now and the t ime you leave brushing up your French. Nearly everyone can understand English in Holland, and in the parts of Belgium and Switzerland where Dutch and German are spoken, but if you are going to southern Belgium, France or French Switzerland, at least a smattering of French is necessary.
I followed a route which led through Holland’s most interesting cities, Haarlem, Rotterdam, Gravenhage, and passed through the islands of Zeeland which are sprinkled over the Scheldt estuary. The natives there still wear their picturesque Dutch dress, windmills abound, and the strawberries grow as big as tomatoes.
I stopped at every town to admire its cathedrals and canals, slept on many banks when new-found muscles began to ache, and acquired a sunburn which had turned to a deep mahogany by the end of the summer.
I crossed the Scheldt to Bruges, and from there cycled to Tournai, then Valenciennes, Maries, Laon and Reims, where I revisited the ration office to obtain the coupons necessary to buy the bread and cheese and chocolate which were the mainstay of my pantry.
Rations were always a bother, and gave me particular trouble when I discovered that I’d eaten my complete ration of cheese for a whole week (about eight ounces). Fortunately the people in the stores were so confused with my attempts at French that they frequently overlooked the ration tickets just to get rid of me.
I .ound that I was able to live on
about a dollar a day. You won’t be able to do this if you start off eating in the best restaurants, but you can live very well and get lots of nourishment if you follow my plan. My habits were frugal, but I never failed to eat quite well. My knapsack was always crammed with bread and cheese and chocolate.
For a few cents I bought carrots and a head of lettuce now and then at the stores in the small towns I passed through. I carried a bottle which was sometimes filled with beer but more often with water.
An average day’s expenses would be 15 cents for a loaf of bread, 15 cents for chocolate, 20 for beer, 20 for cheese, 25 for a bed.
One day in Gravenhage I saw a man peddling tiny fish from a pushcart by the side of the road. He urged me to try one. I did. It was good. Then someone else came up and bought one and I noticed for the first time that the vendor cleaned and seasoned the fish as he sold them. It gave my stomach a bit of a jolt to realize they were raw.
Leaving Reims I ran into some of the most difficult country that had yet rolled under my wheels. It seemed to be all uphill, and I soon found that even the flowers at the roadside and the billowy white clouds were losing their rapture for me. For the first time I could have become a lot more rapturous about an automobile. And my map told me that the mountains on the way to Switzerland became bigger and better. My map was right. When I arrived in a lather at Zurich I stored the bike safely and started out to see Switzerland on foot.
I wasn’t altogether a stranger to mountains as I’d been a co-director of a ski school in Ontario, but these mountains in Switzerland were in another league and to climb one had always been one of my ambitions. But I soon found out that it’s a sport that doesn’t go with living on a dollar a day. Climbing equipment can be rented for very little, but the big item is the guide, none of whom come much cheaper than $25 a day. You can see how that will leave a bank account like the one you’re going to take along!
Pick a Low Peak
If you insist on giving it a try, however, go some place where the mountains are low. On the high
mountains you have to stay at expensive hotels, built above the snow line; on the lower mountains, where you can get plenty of good climbing, there are more reasonable accommodations, such as youth hostels.
Take a few days roaming around meeting the people. Make friends.
Swiss mountain people go for climbs in the mountains the way you go for a stroll along Main Street, and if you can get them to take you along with them you can have your mountain climbing very cheaply.
Another thing to do is to consult the nearest alpine club. Explain that you’re just a poor student with an urge to climb just one mountain before you go home and you’ll find them full of helpful suggestions.
The main thing to remember is not to try any mountain climbing without a guide. I did.
I borrowed an ice axe and a rucksack from some Canadian students I knew at the University of Zurich, did a bit of rock climbing with an experienced climber I met who took me along for free, then set out to see what I could do on my own with the Matterhorn! I found that snow had stopped all climbing there, so I changed my plans and headed for the Jungfrau (13,669 ft.),
one of the country’s highest mountains.
Í boarded a small train which climbs right through the mountain to a halfway station on the other side and got accommodation at the Jungfraujoch, the hotel from which ascents are made. But there was a blizzard raging which had dumped seven feet of snow on the route to the top and set climbing back more than a week.
it was a heartbreaker for me, for the longer I had to wait the lower became my finances; so when the storm cleared and the mountains Came into view I decided to climb part way up the most difficult of the two ridges leading to the summit. There was nothing to it, I thought. All you did was wade into the deep snow patches and chop steps on the wind-blown ice.
Arranging an Avalanche
I was hacking away with gusto when I heard someone calling, “Das ¿st nicht gut,” and turned to see a climber waving frantically to me to stop. He was a rugged, Weather-beaten young Swiss German member of a research expedition. He explained, in no uncertain terms, that a few more wallops with my axe and I’d have started an avalanche that would have ended my mountain-climbing days, and probably his, for good.
The next morning I set off again, this time on the more accessible Monch, and with a paid guide. We climbed to the summit, 13,465 feet, which was accessible from the razorlike edge of windswept ridge. The climbing was difficult, through cornices of unhardened snow, but the summit was a magnificent second best, from which the gleaming Matterhorn, Finsteraarhorn and Schreckhorn seemed within easy reaching distance.
When I took the train down from the Jungfraujoch I bought a ticket only to the place where the train emerged on the other side of the mountain. figured on descending the rest of the slope on foot to save money. But when 1 got off the train and watched it toot off down the mountain, leaving me there alone, I found that the snowline had dropped two miles below me. So began to descend in deep snow in my ordinary hiking clothes.
My shoes soon filled with snow and when I took them off to empty them lost my grip on one and watched it toboggan down the slope, teeter on the edge of a cliff, flop over and plummet down for a distance of about a quarter of a mile. I figured I’d do better to get my feet wet and keep my socks dry, so I took off my remaining shoe and went after the runaway in my bare feet. It was the coldest walk I’ve ever had.
That ended my mountain climbing in Switzerland, and at the same time nearly ended my dough. It had cost me more to live for four days in the
j high mountains, pay my guide, and j buy my ticket, on the train than it had j cost me to travel 3.000 miles and live j for a month and a half.
I I spent the next two weeks hitchhiking around Switzerland, staying mostly at youth hostels. 1 visited Geneva, Lausanne, Montreux and Bern, and did it all on $15.
When I returned to Zurich my total resources were one bicycle, a $10 deposit on same at the Swiss border, and about 23 francs in small change. In other words, I was about broke.
Rather than cut my adventures short I wired home for an advance of $40 and crossed the border into Austria. Because I had bought my money so cheaply (the schilling which I bought for three cents is officially worth 25) 1 went on my only spending spree since I’d left Canada. I stayed at the best hotels, ate in the best restaurants, visited cafes and night clubs and lived the life of Riley—all for $12!
When 1 got back to Zurich 1 shipped my bike to Antwerp and hitchhiked to Paris. From there 1 went to Brussels, then to Antwerp. I picked up my bike and rode it back to Amsterdam in the hope of selling it, but someone had started making a lot of bicycles since I bought mine and they were no longer in demand. So it is still there—my foreign assets.
The end of August wás near so I made my way back to Antwerp and there was rehired on the Calvin Victory. An efficient tug guided us through the canals that zigged and zagged along the course of the River Scheldt, past strange-looking barges lying blunt stem to blunt stern, past the bones of burned-out freighters lying in the mud, past new factories, through the locks of the canal and out into the sea, headed for New York.
1 learned when we docked that we weren’t getting paid for the return trip, so I hit New York without a dime and had to call on my family for help. Still, for $190 (my original $150 plus the $40 I’d borrowed) I’d had myself a time and I’d learned a great deal about Europe that I’d never have learned out of textbooks.
I began to realize how close I’d been to the people. I’d met and talked to them on country lanes, on farms and in market places, at their homes and in their shops. They’d fixed the flapping sole of my shoe, helped me up mountains, taught me to eat their food. I hadn’t been peering at them with a guidebook in one hand. I’d been living with them.
It is the feeling that you belong with the people of a country that makes a trip successful, and you can’t achieve that riding in a car or on a train and living in the best hotels.
if you plan making the same trip, the same way, my advice is to buy a bike—and he one of the people. And good luck. if