"Stories" from the Collective (YOU)

Mary's 1st Trip to Europe

by Mary McGarvey
(San Francisco, CA, USA)

Mary's inspirational story is a long one but I encourage you to read it all. It's a story about a vision - travelling to Europe from the US - and finding a way to make that vision come true. It's a story about the letdowns and setbacks that can get in the way of our vision, but ONLY if we let it. It's a positive story that we can ALL make use of today, in some small way, whatever our age...

How to go to Europe when your family can't pay for it...

Many a young person, probably the majority these days in USA, cannot afford foreign travel as a student because their families are barely paying all the bills, the tuition and living costs of student life. The "year abroad" of previous generations is getting harder to do, as Europe gets more expensive and university costs rise higher.

I was just such a student in late 1970's San Francisco. I lived at home, always carried my lunch, never owned a car, didn't even ride the bus but used a bike in order to keep the money I was earning from babysitting, temp jobs downtown, newspaper delivery, and garden maintenance for neighbors. Minority youth were much more likely to get scholarship help, but not "white" Americans like me, although we never thought we were "white", simply Irish. With four siblings and one income only, in a very expensive U.S. city, paying tuition and books and everything else made foreign travel look like the true impossible dream.

I made up my mind that I would find a way. I studied German at a local community college, with cheap credit costs, in evening classes. I scoured bulletin boards and asked everywhere about finding work in Germany so that I could get over there and do something, anything, just to live there and pick up the language.

Finally, after graduating, and working my first real downtown job, still living at home, still no car, buying everything secondhand or not at all, eating those bag lunches and so on, I took the third semester of German and found an announcement from a local German fellow who'd organized summer jobs abroad throughout Europe.

Down at Foothill College, we young folks (students or not) could sign up for jobs in France, Italy, Switzerland or Germany, for 10 weeks in summer. You could work in a restaurant, hotel, a farm, or as a nanny in a family.

I chose a farm. I had Walton's Mountain dreams of three generations happily working together, speaking no English, forcing me to learn quickly and to be physically active also.

It was set up for me, a family farm in Nordrhein-Westfalen, near Bielefeld. This was now summer 1982, and I scraped up all my savings, bought a one-way ticket to Frankfurt, and began speaking German the minute I hit the streets, asking questions, riding transport, finding the youth hostel and so on.

Mind you, some of this was with a heavy heart, as I was supposed to have come with my best high school friend. She'd been taking the German classes with me in the evenings, but she backed out of the commitment a month before blast-off. I could have stayed home, but I knew it was either go or forget it forever. That alone is something all of you readers must remember: a friend or relation, perhaps a wife or husband or lover, will someday let you down, and you must not give up.

The thrill of practicing my German and being independent was overwhelming. It was not only my first trip abroad, it was my first real trip at all anywhere, and I was on my own in a foreign language. I stared at the TV for hours, making neither hide nor hair of the speakers' content, but I was determined someday I'd get it.

The family of four kids, parents and grandparents were an unhappy lot. Their middle child, a girl of 9, had drowned the previous summer in a swimming hole. They were trying to get over their grief by inviting me.

What a disaster! I at 21, having studied and worked for years, could not be a little girl anymore. I couldn't understand their dialect, and they wanted me only as household help, such as cleaning, vacuuming and so on. They didn't want me as a farming assistant at all, for indeed, as the father said, if we'd wanted a boy we would have got one. The mother didn't like a woman of my age in her house and treated me coldly. The kids pretty much ignored me as a hopeless idiot, since they couldn't talk to me or I to them. They loved TV, so it was work work work all day, eat and eat, then watch TV, then go to bed early and start again early again.

I was depressed and miserable. I was barely learning any German with them.

I made up my mind and told the father after five weeks my point of view, and that I felt cheated in not being allowed to do any real farm work. In the end, there was no compromise, and I had to call the program director and tell what had happened. But I was adamant that I had not been correctly informed about the real work, so therefore the contract was invalid and it would be best to leave, as they didn't need "a boy farm helper", only a "girl household help" (German is precise!!!!)

What then? I took my backpack and started hitchhiking, as someone had suggested.

Never in my life in USA would I have done such a bold and dangerous thing. But there along the Neckar River, leaving Heidelberg, it seemed wonderful.

It was absolutely fabulous how well my travels went: everyone was helpful and full of information, they talked nonstop to me, invited me to coffee, lunch or dinner, and often home to their families to help them learn English. I was rapidly speaking German and seeing the whole country for about $10/day, living like a king (compared to my desperate penny pinching back in San Francisco). The Germans and Austrians and later all kinds of nationalities around Europe encouraged me, plus a new girl I met through a Swiss hostel, to not go home, take the time while young and unburdened to really see as much as possible. They stressed that the time of young adulthood is priceless, never to be repeated.

Boy were they right! I often think of those thousands who helped and encouraged us two rather poor students, who couldn't afford any exchange programs as the better-off Americans could. We were learning so much, so much faster than the kids whose parents were paying huge amounts for them to live in student homes. They associated amongst themselves, fooled around and drank beer. We talked German all day and lived with the Germans, visited museums, ate anything and everything - true, back to a lot of sandwiches, fruit and yoghurt like at home...

In the end, this girl and I stayed friends, later going to Russia, China and Japan when we were in our late 20s, our last great trip together. Now we're 51 and 52.

I use German almost every day because I am a fulltime tourguide and tourbus driver in San Francisco for the last 15 years. I make a living based on what I learned in Europe, and never tire of meeting all the visitors coming to my city.

If I, a girl with very limited money in my teens and early 20s, could do this, then you the reader can still do it. Make up your mind to learn a language, go to that country and do it. Don't let people say you can't, or that you need more money, or an official exchange program. It's still a fantastic experience for a young person.


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