“My Gutsy Story®” Laura McHale Holand
The Icelandair flight taxis down the runway. I peer out the window, a brown suede shoulder bag clutched to my chest. Moments later, the jet lifts off and zooms toward the clouds. New York City shrinks, the North American continent recedes, and it hits me: we’re crossing the Atlantic; there’s no turning back.
I open my bag to affirm the travelers checks, passport and open-ended return ticket are tucked where I last saw them—about a minute ago. Also inside is a note with the address of a friend of a friend in Switzerland, along with a list of Youth Hostels in Europe.
It’s 1973. I am twenty-three years old, and feel like my adult life so far has been a great big zero. No, scratch that. It’s been a negative number. I just left a man 13 years older than I am. A man I met when I was eighteen, and confused. A man I never loved but I married anyway because I thought I’d never be able to leave him. A man who recently threatened to kill me. That jolted me out the door, at last.
Now I am about to land in Luxembourg without a plan. I might be crazy; I don’t know. I’ve attended night school and I want to return to college full time. But when I think of sitting in a classroom with students several years younger than I am, I can’t imagine what I would say about myself. That I could have gone to college right out of high school, but I put it off, stumbled instead into things that ripped me apart and left me that way? That I allowed myself to be so completely controlled by someone that I often couldn’t even speak? That I don’t know if I deserve to have any hopes at all? Not exactly good ice-breaker material.
I want to create a new life, a different me. Flying to a continent where I don’t know a soul may be foolhardy. But I’ve heard that young people from all over the world hitchhike and ride trains throughout Europe, and the people there welcome them. I thought I’d give it a try.
I nap during the flight and then delve into The Teachings of Don Juan before the plane lands for a stopover in Reykjavik, Iceland. It’s 11 a.m. and pitch black when the other passengers and I deplane to explore the wares on sale in the airport store. I admire a brown lopapeysa-style sweater with a yoke of brown white and tan. A woman who looks about my age approaches and says, “Nice, huh.” The lenses of her wire-rimmed glasses are slightly fogged.
“Sure is, but it’s probably way too expensive for me.” I say.
“Me, too. Dan–the guy over there; he’s my boyfriend.” She points to a tall man with long, wavy red hair. He’s wearing a green parka and looking at a jewelry display–”Dan and I have about four hundred dollars to last us our whole trip.”
“I’ve got less than that, but there’s only one of me.” We both laugh.
“I’m Mags” She extends her hand.
“Laura.” I reach out, too, and we shake.
“Where are you headed when we land?” she asks.
“The Youth Hostel.”
“That’s where we’re going, Let’s go together.”
“Sounds good to me,” I say.
Dan looks up and motions for Mags to come over. “Oh, my guy’s up to something. I’ll see you later,” she says.
After we arrive in Luxembourg, Mags introduces me to Dan and three other young travelers she’s just met. We all pick up our backpacks and duffel bags and share a ride to the city, marveling at the breathtaking bridges we pass. Once we’re on the street, I find the address of the local Youth Hostel. Dan studies his map and picks a route. We march off but are soon lost.
“We should ask for directions,” Mags says. “Anyone speak French?”
I know a little French, but I’m sure someone in the group is more fluent than I am. After a long pause, I say, “I can try.”
I approach a tall woman with black hair and smiling eyes, “Excusez-moi, s’il vous plaît. Où est ‘lauberge de jeunessse?”
She replies with such speed I cannot understand her. I ask her to please speak slowly. She laughs and then drags out, “Allez tout droit pour un bloc, puis tournez à droite et il sera là.
I thank her and tell the group, we’re just a block away.
Mags grabs my hand and says, “You’re handy to have around.” She pulls me, skipping toward the hostel. I feel a little blush of pride.
In the morning, all those who bunked in the dorms gather over cafe au lait to talk about where we’ve been and where we’re going next. Mags and Dan are headed for Amsterdam. Two guys from Ohio are meeting friends in Paris. They ask me to join them. I recall staring at posters of Sacré Coeur and Montmartre during French class when I was in junior high. I opt for Paris.
The group of Ohioans and I become siblings for a few days. We buy croque monsieur sandwiches from street vendors, tour the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, and all the landmarks I used to dream about as a child. We talk over French bread, cheese and wine long into the nights in our pension. Then they board a train to Marseilles, and I catch a ride with a Canadian family bound for Madrid. As I settle into a spot in the back of their VW van, a blue eyed preschooler offers me a bag of trail mix, “Wan’ some?” he asks.
“Sure.” I say. The van lurches forward. The boy tosses a roasted nut into my mouth. I toss a raisin into his. We continue our game as the van bounces along, and I realize my new life has begun.
LAURA MCHALE HOLLAND is a multifaceted storyteller and indie publisher, who has released two books: the flash fiction collection, The Ice Cream Vendor’s Song, and the award-winning childhood memoir, Reversible Skirt. Laura’s work has appeared in such publications as Every Day Fiction, Wisdom Has a Voice, several Vintage Voices anthologies, and the original San Francisco Examiner. Her prize-winning play Are You Ready? will be produced by Sixth Street Playhouse and Redwood Writers in May 2014. In all of her work, Laura strives to illuminate truths that are often hidden. Intrigued? Get her newsletter at http://lauramchaleholland.com.
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