The first overseas trip I took was to London. It was 1987, and Vince and I had become obsessed with Dr. Who and spoke to each other in terrible English accents. I read that the guy who played the Doctor, Tom Baker, was going to be in a play in London. Like so many trips I’ve taken since, it was that slim thread of a reason that got me started.
But I had also gone to a lecture by Arthur Frommer, the travel guru, on how to travel cheap. He mentioned volunteering with places like Volunteers for Peace. I paid my $400 for the one-week “experience”, bought a plane ticket, and away I went.
Looking back, I can hardly believe I did it. The only other country I’d ever visited was Canada, where in those days you could flash your driver’s license as you drove over the border. I don’t remember what I did there; probably fed potato chips to black bears out of the car window.
My mom was more than happy to keep Vince, who was nine. He was happy to be spoiled.
I went a week before the program started and from dawn to dusk saw all the sights. With my map in hand, searching hopefully for a street sign and stopping people to ask directions, I must have reminded them of Crocodile Dundee in the scene where he says “G’day, mate,” to every passerby on the sidewalks of New York. As I was informed in due course by my fellow volunteers, I was a “typical American” because I wore jeans and what we used to call tennis shoes and I complained that there was no Diet Coke or ice or ketchup.
I was dazzled by the Crown Jewels. I saw Tom Baker on stage in “An Inspector Calls.” I went to Friday services at a synagogue and saw a woman with numbers tattooed on her arm. I got lost over and over which led me to the Dickens Museum, which turned out to be my favorite museum. I was propositioned by a creep in Hampstead. I stayed in a “hotel room” the size of a cracker box with a cold water bathtub down the hall lighted by a dim, bare bulb. I got the exchange rate backwards and paid way too much for a sweatshirt at the Hard Rock Café. I stole some toilet paper from a public toilet that had “Council Property” printed on every square.
You know, the usual London stuff. I took a lot of pictures of cars; I’m not sure why.
My VFP group included 20 20-somethings from Poland, West Germany, Holland, India, Sweden, Italy, Spain, and Mauritius, a country I’d never heard of.
We were there for a “work camp”—a terrible name but basically VFP housed us in flats in London’s East End and we babysat immigrant kids during a school holiday so their parents wouldn’t have to take time off work. The flats had peeling wallpaper, cold water, and mattresses on the floor. The smell of rotting garbage was constant.
I was bewildered that my fellow volunteers weren’t hooking up or drinking. I would have expected that from an American group, but these kids were so serious.
At night we were lectured to about how the Bengalis and Pakistanis and Indians came to work in the East End basically as indentured servants, and how now the National Front was outraged they “these people” were bringing their families over.
The kids were adorable and they knew an opportunity when they saw it. Another volunteer and I tried to take a dozen kids to Epping Forest, but before we got there they scrambled over the wall of a private garden and stripped all the apples off the trees. The homeowner ran out, screaming. I think if we hadn’t been foreign volunteers, she would have called the police.
This was when I thought, “What am I doing here, babysitting other people’s kids while mine is 4,000 miles away!?” It was my first extended time away from Vince and I couldn’t wait to get home.
And as soon as I got home I couldn’t wait to go on another trip.