My First Experience Abroad: Travelling to Europe as an 11-year-old

The following is an excerpt from the manuscript of my memoir, BACKBONE. Please feel free to respond with feedback, but keep in mind, this is only a draft. Enjoy!


When I was 11 years old, my world expanded. My mom waltzed into the sunken living room, where my dad, sister, and I lay sprawled on the couch in front of the flickering TV. “I’m going to Europe,” my mom announced. “I want to visit my relatives in Denmark. Who’s coming with me?”

I looked at my father, then my sister. “I’ll go!” I piped up.

I insisted on packing my suitcase myself. On our first morning in Amsterdam, I discovered I’d forgotten to pack any underwear. My mom laughed, and then looked at me curiously, as if realizing for the first time how different this trip would be from the hitch-hiking Eurotrip she took when she was 20.

Still wearing yesterday’s underwear, I followed my mom on the train to the Vincent Van Gogh Museum. I didn’t know much about Van Gogh, or why he had his own museum, but my mom told me the sunflower painting on my sister’s wall back home was his. Eventually, the train stopped. Unfamiliar words came over the intercom. “It’s the last stop,” a man told us in an accent that reminded me of rusted tractors back home. I squeezed my mom’s hand.

“It’s alright,” she told me. “We’ll just cross the tracks and take a train going back.” Once we found our way to the art gallery, I let out my breath. I felt safe in the quiet entrance hall; protected by the larger-than-life statues in the garden. I fell in love with the soft strokes of colour that created worlds and scenes I couldn’t even dream up.

When the sky grew dark, seedy-looking characters began to take shape in the shadows. I watched a man emerge from an alley with an outstretched hand, lustrous eyes wet and unfocused. Others slept in doorways, waking only to jangle a cup of coins that made me jump. You’ve got to have a death wish to sleep outside in northern Alberta in the winter, so I’d never really seen homeless people before. “Wait,” I said to my mom as we walked past an old man sitting against a wall, strumming for change. “Listen.”

The man looked up from his guitar. “Do you know this song?” he asked.

I recognized it from my orange-tinted kitchen, from the warm smell of chicken and my mom singing as she did the dishes. “Of course,” my mom said. “It’s Bob Dylan!”

She tossed a few coins into his hat and we returned to our hotel. I took off my shoes and coat and promptly disintegrated into a pool of salty tears. “What’s wrong?” my mom asked, grabbing my shaking shoulders. “Are you hurt?”

“We didn’t give him enough money,” I sobbed.

She stared at me. “What?”

“The man. Playing guitar. We didn’t give him enough money.”

Her eyes softened. “We have to go back,” I cried.

“Okay,” she sighed.

We returned to find the street musician still strumming and singing a little out of tune. We bought him a meal from McDonalds, and I got an ice cream cone. I felt better, but something inside me had changed.

I’d met the world. And I didn’t like everything I could see.


One comment

  1. With my father being in the Air Force,after living in Edmonton,Calgary and Winnipeg,we were off to Germany for three years.While there we seemed to often be going somewhere- France,Spain,Luxembourg,Austria,Switzerland,Belgium,Italy.Holland and,of course different places all around Germany. Those were the days of the Iron Curtain so there were parts of Europe we could not go to but nevertheless by the time I was twelve and we returned to Canada,I had seen a lot,much of which I still remember.

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