The Grand Tour: Chapter One
by Elizabeth Castro
The Grand Tour is a serialized travel memoir written by Elizabeth Castro. It is published here in several parts.
Sex in the City meets Jack Kerouac, travels Europe and writes a memoir. That’s the best description I have for Elizabeth Castro’s mostly-true travel memoir. She has the reckless, rambling writing style of a Kerouac, with the same no-subject-is-off-limits ethos. Her story spans decades in a single paragraph, but makes complete sense in a way that only true free-spirits understand. Liz is a native Angelino who grew up in the sixties and seventies, and came of age in the eighties. Those three decades saw an explosion of respect for the arts and artists, and sent many dreamers like Liz tumbling out into the world. Those dreamers now find themselves in a new, more sober century, with an entirely different world to conquer. For the ever-young Ms. Castro, however, all these years and all the adventures bleed into one as she stuffs her luggage, downs one last American cocktail, and heads out to prove that all roads do, indeed, lead to Rome.
I found myself in the most unexpected place, a month before I left for Italy, having sex with someone I hardly knew, in my bed that had never seen any action. I bought it new at the May Co. mattress sale in 1984. You know the ones, end of the season, blah blah, best deals, $88. I thought at the time, why do I need a mattress? I live at home, drive all the way into the city for school, I am nowhere near getting my own place, but I bought it anyway, and stored it in my friendʼs spare room. I would visit her often, and it, sometimes wandering into the spare room where it was kept, leaning up against the wall, off in the corner, and I would lean up against it, standing in bed, thinking I CANNOT wait to break this thing in. I am thinking about all of this while doing this Chinese guy in my bed, me on top. Drunkenly on top.
Unexpectedly, drunkenly, stupidly on top. In the middle of my foggy haze, my stomach starts to rebel, and I think I should probably head into the bathroom. Iʼm there quite a while, thinking… not thinking… it’s all a haze. The guy? Donʼt know, I guess he left at some point, skulking past the bathroom door, on the way out to used up Chinese-guy land.
Back to the important part. Italy. Italia. Iʼd always wanted to go back to Italy. Iʼd gone the summer before I started high school, with my family – aunts, uncle and cousins. Eight of us total, in a VW bus we bought, fresh off the assembly line in Mainz, Germany. We picked up my older cousin, Ricky, who was stationed there in the army. And we just took off, drove. All over Europe. Germany, Austria, Italy. It was an adventure. First time out of the country. Well, that’s not true. Been to Mexico. To the bull fights, in a test drive, in a rented VW bus, and the load of us driving down, to see how it would be. A test run. But first time on an airplane, that’s for sure.
You know how there are some people that just chat at you – you are mostly not listening, and not falling asleep out respect. And then, you perk up, you absorb some bit of advice that really sticks with you. For me, The Great Advice came from my roommate at-the-time Sarah. We worked together, and, well, we recently had become roommates. Not because we were best pals and HAD to live together. But, mostly, because I was walking by her desk one day, and she asked me “Hey Liz, want to rent Sam Tendlerʼs house with me? It has a pool…” Didnʼt take much more than that for me to move out of my first solo apartment. I kinda pretty much moved into THAT place on the advice of a psychic I went to see this one time, while on one of those 24 hour cruises with my mom and my aunt. She said Iʼd have 2 great loves of my life – one with someone I already knew, and one with the initials DR. Well, now I canʼt help but try on every DR I meet. As for “the one I already know”… we did end up together, 2 years after the Italy trip, but that’s a story for another time. The last item from the psychic was I would move out on my own. Find my own place. Which I couldnʼt see at all. I mean, I had this fabulous roommate. We werenʼt friends, but we were honest with each other. Honest, not like Does this skirt make me look fat? But more like, Hey, lady, do the dishes before my head explodes. That kind of honesty in a roommate is refreshing. We set up those parameters before we moved in together, and it was great! About 6 months after that psychic meeting I started looking for my own place. I donʼt know why. I guess it stuck with me. I told the roomy Hey, Iʼm looking for my own place. She appreciated it.
Three months later, I had my own two- bedroom apt, and she bought a duplex. Best roommate I ever had.
What this tells me is that I am, apparently, very susceptible to suggestions, whether they come from some random Chinese guy, a psychic, or some girl I work with. It took me two seconds to see that having a pool in a house was better than living alone. So Sarah and I took the house. Again, not really friends beforehand, so the roommate part worked out, mostly. Our cats hated each other though. Her cat ended up taking off, and adopted some other family. She didnʼt seem too concerned about it. He did come back once, after Sarah had already moved out. He sat out on the brick wall, looking in, looking for Sarah. Or looking out for my cats. I went outside to try and get him, maybe, but he took off. Never saw him again.
And Sarah was ok. She was going through her own shit, I could see that. Didnʼt take too much of what went on with her too personally. But she is the one who gave The Great Advice. “Two most important things in life – Family & Friends… and Travel.” Well, the family part was my own addition. Seems right. She had kind of a fucked relationship with her family. I never figured out why, until I met them. So I could see why she didnʼt include them.
And that leaves Travel.
I couldnʼt shake it, The Great Advice. It was like a lightbulb went on inside my head. She got me thinking. It was never in the forefront of my brain to travel. It could be because I didnʼt have a stable enough job to really go somewhere, being freelance and all. That wasnʼt the case anymore. I had a great job, and by all accounts, it would last a while.
My work schedule is similar to a teachers – seasonal, with summers off. Thatʼs how working on a TV show is. Start shooting in July or August, done by early May. First trip I took by myself, while Sarah was still my roommate, was a train trip up the coast of California. Making stops in various cities along the way, ending up in Vancouver. Traveling by train here isnʼt the same as it is in Europe. No America-rail pass, hoping off and on. But it could be done. I took advantage of a special offer, but you had to plan every stop, every segment beforehand. Did not leave any room for spontaneity. First stop was to visit Jill, a co-worker who quit the biz and moved to San Francisco after we worked together with a particularly bitchy editor. We couldnʼt stand her. During the LA riots, after the Rodney King verdicts came out, this Bitch had the gall to complain her check was late. While 3 out of 4 corners in my neighborhood were burning, sheʼs screaming at me “Iʼm hungry, my KEM needs repairing, and where the fuck is my paycheck?”
On my way back down from Vancouver, I visited an old high school chum, Laura. Lesbian. Cop. She had come out to me the previous year, hard thing for her to have done. But I eventually outed her to some of our other classmates, and later drunkenly revealed this all to her. Yea… I pretty much never heard from her again, but we had a great time in Sacramento!
The next year I graduated with a trip to Europe. Greece. Beautiful beaches. Oh, I love all the stories of the Greek gods and their shenanigans. Did I mention I was one of those drama geeks in high school and college? To tour where theatre was born was indescribable. I soaked up the energy from Delphi, Olympia, Crete. Met some wonderful people. Hung out with two Texas girls, a couple of guys from Canada, and two chicks from down under. Oh that was the best. To meet people, talk, decide to hang out together, share rooms. Hang out. Eat.
It started with the 2 Texas girls on the overnight boat to Crete. I could hear their giggling, giddy with the fact that it cost $20 to rent a cabin on the boat. I later met them in the bathroom. They introduced me to the Canadians. We all 5 hung out together on Crete, then decided to head to Santorini together, where we picked up the Aussie girls. Drunken nights, sky thick with the Milky Way, hangovers and music. Donkey rides. One of the Texas gals was going through the I-just-graduated-from-college phases. Iʼm not ready to get married, so Iʼm going to Europe! We kept in touch briefly, and a year later we met up in Ireland, where she was traveling with blind kids from Spain on holiday. I don’t think she ever went home from that Greece trip. Just went to Spain, learned Spanish, and we ended up in Galway drinking Guinness together a year later. Awesome. I sometimes wish I had had that kind of chutzpah at 22.
But the next year, at 34, I had some of it, to go off to Italy with a gal I barely knew. Cassie and I were satellite friends. We knew each other, but only hung out together when we were with Lisa, the mutual friend who introduced us. At this time Lisa had started a Friday night drinking club. Not really a club, but every Friday night weʼd meet at a bar. Every Friday night, for a year. The same bar. After work. And it got to be that all our friends knew about it, and would show up. Some Fridays, it would be just us two gals, others we have 10 to 12 people there, laughing and drinking Toasted Almonds. Oh that was a good drink. check it out. Yummy. And Cassie would show up and make us Laugh. That’s right, capital L Laugh. She has no filter, no internal editor and is not easily embarrassed. Ok, I should say it is impossible to embarrass her. A quality which I wholeheartedly lack. Which is what drew her to me.
These are the things I knew about Cassie before we decided to go to Italy together.
1. She was funny.
2. She had these ENORMOUS Dolly Parton boobs.
3. She drank.
Enough for me. Sold. Again, it was the easily susceptible to suggestion thing. We were at the bar one Friday night, a night Cassie showed up. It was towards the end of the TV season, close enough to start planning a trip. I had had success with the train trip, and Greece. Next on my list was Paris. Oh, I wanted to go to Paris. Not for any reasons youʼd think. I wanted to go because the summer before I started high school I went on that family vacation to Europe. Me, my dad, my brother, My dadʼs sister Aunt Trini, her husband Uncle Lee, and their 2 sons. And, my dadʼs oldest sister, Aunt Josie, who was to be my roommate. I love Aunt Josie. She is both the sweetest and strongest of all my aunts. I remember when her husband died, Uncle Louie. Oh I liked Uncle Louie – he was easy going, and cool, and I remember he always seemed to wear these white long sleeved shirts. We were at his wake, you know, in the family section off to the side. And all the friends were coming up to pay their condolences and I remember Aunt Josie – she smiled and thanked everyone for coming. My two cousins had lost their dad, and they were crying…. everyone was. But not Aunt Josie. Not a tear. Strong. And my roommate. As a 13 year old, I guess you couldnʼt do any worse than your 60 year old widowed aunt as your roommate on a European trip. I didnʼt mind.
I got to graduate early from 8th grade, you see, because we had planned this family trip. I was singled out that day. boy. My class threw me a going away party, cause I would miss Jr High graduation by 2 weeks. they made a cake, we had a party, and they all gathered around saying “speech! speech!”. So…. I said ʻSPEECHʼ. Just like that. Speech. Faces fell, but Dr Bennett, our teacher, could tell public speaking was not my strong suit. I donʼt think I EVER even had that suit in my closet. I kinda felt bad about that speech.
Anyway, during this party, this boy I had a crush on, Jose Perrera, came up to me and said, “Hey, think of me when youʼre on top of the Eiffel Tower.” OH i liked Jose. He was funny. And he talked to me. And he was cute. And he wore glasses. Now I had a mission – to get to the top of the Eiffel Tower so I could think of Jose.
This trip we were going on was supposed to be 6 weeks, in Europe. My dad had seen this article somewhere where you could buy a VW bus fresh off the assembly line in Germany. But before they ship it out to you, you can show up, with ID, and pick up the car and drive it around. For free. When you are done, you park it at the airport, with the keys inside, and they go and get it and ship it to you. We got free transportation for our trip. Well, except for the purchase price of a brand new 1978 VW bus, but you know what I mean.
So Dad and Aunt Trini bought a bus, and that’s how we got around Europe. Driving from town to town. It was fun! Not so much fun for Dad, as it turned out. no one else would drive. Not his sisters, that’s for sure. not sure that I would have even wanted them to drive… my brother was just old enough to drive in the US, but didn’t drive on this trip, for some reason. That left Uncle Lee to share the driving duties. I think he drove once. my dad says he never drove again, I can’t remember why. Might have to do with the fact that he got chased out of a hotel when the clerk thought he was a Turk.
What I do remember is my aunts berating my dad because he was driving too fast. On the Autobahn. With all the other cars passing us up.
“AYE, CUIDAO! ALBERT, WATCH OUT!” Not much of a vacation for my dad.
The trip lasted three weeks instead of six. Aunt Trini twisted – later, we found out, broke – her ankle in Florence, on the cobblestone sidewalk, while we were looking for our pension. It got big and blue, and, bless her, she tried to keep going.
We made it to Rome and the Pope. No way was she gonna miss that part. But after, she was in pain so we had to go home. My dad was quite happy to go home early. But that meant we never made it to Paris, I never got to the top of the Eiffel Tower so I never got to think of Jose Perrera.
Twenty years later I still thought of Jose and how I wanted to get to the top of the Tower so I could think of him. Was planning it, too, until Cassie tells me, that Friday night, “Hey, my editing crew is in London, and they canʼt afford to hire me until they move back to LA. Who wants to go to Italy?”
Do you see a pattern?
Paris and Jose would have to wait another two years.
(to be continued)