Photo of Michelangelo's David in Florence, Italy by Pat Butler
Modern conveniences can affect a traveller's enjoyment - for both better and worse.
It’s 7:14 am in Delphi, Greece. “What on earth is making that racket?” I ask, while lying in bed. After peering out our hotel room window, Eric replies, “Tourists pulling their suitcases to their bus.”
“There’s another modern difference,” I remark, making a mental note to include the invention of rolling suitcases in this piece.
It’s now June 2023. At the start of our current sojourn in Europe, I realized it was exactly 60 years ago – to the month – since I first strolled these history-laden lands. Accompanied by my parents and a cousin, I turned 18 in Venice; I have now just turned 78 in Dubrovnik, Croatia accompanied by my husband Eric. The second birthday dinner was more romantic and included more Prosecco.
Since acknowledging that 60-year gap, I’ve been comparing the elements of European travel in 1963 to 2023 – without assuming things were better in the olden days. The biggest difference is the ease with which English-speaking North Americans can check into hotels, order meals, and shop. Today’s tourist-facing Europeans speak the language, many with impressive fluency.
I say “good morning, please, thank-you” in Greek to demonstrate my appreciation at their speaking English, and am always rewarded with a smile. No need to memorize any detailed vocabulary.
Today all restaurants have English menus. Even in 1963 tourist hotspots like Florence and Venice, my parents always carried a booklet of Italian phrases to help them order a meal. Dad learned to say, “Where is the cathedral?” in Italian, although deciphering the locals’ answers was difficult so there was a lot of smiling and gesturing involved.
Planning our family’s Italian itinerary required countless conversations with a Montreal travel agent.Today, I made online bookings for Croatia and Greece months ago, and others when illness necessitated on-the-fly changes. No need to seek an agent’s help.
The number of tourists I encountered in 1963 was a fraction of today’s hordes – especially after the pent-up travel demand triggered by pandemic lockdowns. Then, waiting in line to see Michelangelo’s David might have taken 15 minutes. Nowadays, laggards who'd forgotten to buy tickets online beforehand can waste hours standing outside the Galleria dell ’ Accademia. And there’s a metal detector to slow you up at security.
1960s travellers were typically back-packing students or upper-middle class folk with the money to travel in style. On my post-university trip, I used Frommer’s Europe on $5 a Day (1957) to find accommodation and cheap places to eat.
Today, international travel has been democratized and every would-be traveller has a wide range of resources to stretch her budget accessible on the cellphone glued to her hand. Advance planning has become much less crucial, although you are later pressed to write a review by every hotel.
Because my family had sailed by ship from New York to Naples, we brought our own car with its Quebec license plates. Every international border patrol slowly perused our passports. Today’s passports carry digital information and are not inspected when travelling from one EU country to another. Some country’s borders are almost invisible.
Seducing tourists to part with money is huge business in everywhere. Locally made handicrafts are not readily available they way they were in 1963 Italian leather markets. Now labels read something like, “Designed in Greece / Made in China.”
Sixty years ago, it was thrilling to shop for Italian-made gloves, jewelry, and clothes which I’d never
encountered before. Even touristy souvenirs like small Italian hand-carved copies of Michelangelo’s David were worth buying.
To quote travel guru Rick Steves, “Travel is intensified living – maximum thrills per minute and one of the last great sources of legal adventure.” Travel abroad teaches different cultures about each other – both hosts and visitors – and promotes world peace. How wonderful that a greater percentage of the world’s population now own passports and use them.
Photographing 1960s sights required owning a decent camera, carrying rolls of film – being careful to separate the new from the exposed – and waiting patiently to see the results after you got home. Film’s expense kept me abstemious when clicking the shutter.
The convenience of using today’s cellphones to capture countless scenes and the ease of discarding mistakes is magical.
Now, to get personal about isolation. In 1965 Liz and I travelled in Europe for nearly three months. I wrote letters on paper to my boyfriend and parents, only receiving responses at American Express or Poste Restante (general mail) offices in cities chosen beforehand.
It was fun to learn home news gradually and to later read letters I’d written when home again. Having only Liz to talk to meant I sometimes felt lonely or nervous. After reading in TIME magazine about US President Johnson sending more troops to Vietnam, I worried, “Is this conflict going to become World War III?” Psychological isolation taught me how to weigh whether or not something merited anxiety. Basically through trial and error.
Today many European travellers appear to be in near-constant touch with “folks back home.” Texts, emails, FaceTime, and phone calls can calm the traveller’s angst and boost a distant parent’s
confidence that their baby is okay, but I think it also dilutes some of the magic of self-exploration when abroad. Gradual maturation is satisfying.
Surely being temporarily cut-off from your home and family is largely the purpose of travel. No matter
your age, you will return home a slightly different person, thanks to having been exposed to foreign experiences – from eating new foods to sleeping on oddly-shaped pillows. Tastes and priorities change. Self-confidence increases as you manage uncertainty and sudden changes in plan. (I missed my train. Now what do I do?)
Isn’t travel about “getting-away-from-it-all”? I’m not advocating turning back the clock, but I celebrate the joy of savouring unfamiliar environments and new cultures. It’s a mindset. My conscious efforts to ignore the immediacy of 21st century communications heighten my personal delight.
That said, I would never trade my lightweight, rolling suitcase for the monstrosity I struggled with in 1963.