23 years ago, as a fourth-year architecture student, I spent the Fall semester traveling around Western Europe soaking in all the architectural wonders I could find. I was 22 years old and had done very little traveling of any kind … through the good graces of my parents, The University of Texas School of Architecture, and Virginia Tech, I was able to travel extensively at an age when I was barely prepared to do much of anything in the real world. Most of what I learned from that time (other than I didn’t know how to spell) didn’t have as much to do with architecture as I anticipated … I grew up.
The image above is my “box” of stuff … the stuff I will look through when I invariably end up in some institution with no visitors. This box is full of memories of things that I know my brain will eventually fail me and I will forget. I was digging through this box to find a particular letter from my Mom that I wanted to re-read and as I sorted through the contents in this box, I came across the letters and diaries I kept from the time I spent in Europe. Talk about a time sink, it’s really difficult to ignore these things once they are right there in front of you. I thought I would pull some out and share them to show just how different things were back in 1990 –
No internet … Research meant going to an actual library and sorting through the card catalog and the Dewey Decimal system so you could pull out books.
No email … you wrote letters. Can you imagine?!?
No cell phones … if you wanted to make a call, you used a pay phone. Have you ever used a pay phone in Europe to call someone in the states? It required stacks and stacks of coins, arranged like little soldiers waiting their time when you would feed them into the pay phone slot.
My mom saved all the letters I wrote to her and gave them back to me as a remembrance of the time I spent in Europe. This is an envelope from one of the letters I sent. Think it was a nice touch to write “Starving Child” in the return address slot? Probably not …
This is one of the few dozen letters I wrote home. It is written on the thinnest paper you can imagine and with the smallest handwriting ever because mailing a letter from Europe cost a lot of money to a student who was counting their pennies (or pence, pfennig, lire, etc.). I’m not entirely sure my parents could even read this letter.
It is amusing to read about the items that I thought were newsworthy as a 22-year-old. Down at the bottom of this letter, I briefly spoke about the time I spent staying at Le Corbusier’s Sainte Marie de La Tourette which as it turns out is still one of my favorite buildings of all time. Actually staying in that building for a few days added an entirely different sensory level to my knowledge. I even sketched the floor plan of my room at the bottom. (You can click this image and a new window will open up with a larger version of this letter will open. Click this new image again and it will get even bigger.)
This image is from a spiral notebook I kept – it was a daily diary of what I was doing, the money I was spending, and generally what I was thinking about at the time. It is equal parts fascinating and painful to read. I flipped to the page when I was in La Tourette so there would be some continuation/ comparison of what I wrote in a letter to my parents versus what I thought I would like to remember about my time spent here. I didn’t know this would become such an important building to me at the time, the experience of staying there contributed to the reason I am so fond of this building.
I also have the postcards that I sent home. The ones above are a two-parter that cost me almost $8 to mail (the exchange rate in 1990 was kinda rough on the US dollar). These postcards are fairly amazing as points along my personal timeline. I wrote about my visit to the Berlin wall – which had fallen in 1989 but most was removed in 1990, the year I was in Europe. I also briefly told my parents of some trouble I ran into on the train – it was much worse than I let on in these postcards. It’s a fairly amazing story but I think I matured about 4 years during a 20 minute window when I was kicked off a train in East Berlin, lost my passport (which I recovered that 20 minutes later from East Berlin Police who were hiding it from me) and had to sleep in a Red Cross shelter.
Finally, I thought I would include a letter I wrote from my spiral notebook that covers several cities but recounts the story of when I was in Budapest and our group got caught up in the middle of revolt, an uprising, maybe an attempted coup d’état … whatever it was, it was pretty serious. You’ll have to read the 4-page letter above to get some of the details but I’ll tell you that it involved being trapped on a bus for almost 2 days, the KGB, a small piece of salami, and driving through a cornfield to escape. It’s another great story and life experience and I have it recorded very unceremoniously on paper from a spiral bound ledger.
I love that I have these documents, and I don’t think that having these in email form would allow the stories to contain the same sort of power. I have already spent a considerable amount of time thinking about how I can expose my daughter to the experiences of traveling but it will never be like it was for me in 1990. Writing letters, looking for working pay phones, not having a smartphone in my pocket where I could look up any translation or bus schedule I wanted. There is unquestionably some old-timers nostalgia to this – I’m quite sure that my challenges have simply been replaced with new challenges, I just don’t know what they are, not without having to go through it myself.
Architecture students should definitely travel … I think every student should do some traveling. Learning is certainly a great by-product of the experience, but so is growing up.