August 1997 was a big month for me. On August 21 of that year, I completed my Peace Corps service in the Republic of Armenia and was finally free to live a life in the first world again. For so many reasons, I was really looking forward to being done with my service, even as I realized that it would mean I’d be unemployed and probably still stuck living with my parents (which sadly eventually came to pass). But in the weeks leading up to leaving Armenia, I was also looking forward to a one month trip through Europe.
My mom actually told me to take this trip, even though it would eat up some precious funds and time spent looking for work. She said I’d never again have such a golden opportunity to see the world. She was right, of course. Someone in the Peace Corps office had left a copy of Rick Steves’ newsletter, Europe Through The Back Door. Rick Steves puts out books of the same title, but back in the 90s, he sent out little news magazines that included the current Eurail pass fares. I was 25 years old in 1997, which made me still young enough to purchase a second class youth pass. That was a blessing, given the fact that first class rail passes are a lot more expensive!
Anyway, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Europe loomed like a big playground just waiting to be explored. I purchased a 30 day second class pass that was good for all 17 of the countries affiliated with Eurail back then. I remember it cost about $600, which was a lot of money for me at the time (and still is now). I had a Northern Irish friend who was doing an internship in Slovakia and would be finishing up around the time I planned my trip. I met him and his girlfriend in 1994, when we both worked at a church camp. Today, those two are married and have four kids. They live in the UK.
I remember really sweating up until the last minute, trying to get my pass. Although we had been allowed use of the diplomatic pouch for most of my service, we recently had to give up our privileges and depend on the local mail system. Armenian mail was pretty messed up back then, so I used an alternative method. Eurail passes can only be sent to US addresses, so my mom had to send it to France, where it would then be sent on to Yerevan on a charity plane. It turned out there was a videocassette in the package Rick Steves sent, which held up my pass in Paris. I waited weeks to get it and when it hadn’t shown up, I enlisted my sisters for help. Thankfully, one of them is fluent in French and she called Paris and found out what the issue was. She had them remove the offending videocassette and I got my Eurail pass with about a week to spare… whew!
I also remember purchasing travel insurance, since we had been told by Peace Corps authorities that if something happened to us after we left service, we would be on our own. I wanted to make sure I could be airlifted if I ended up in an accident or deathly ill.
I had about a week to kill before I was to meet with my friends. Flying Armenian Airlines was my only way out of Yerevan unless I wanted to use Aeroflot and deal with a layover in Moscow, Russia. Having heard all the horror stories, I searched Armenian Airlines’ schedule for a suitable flight. Unfortunately, a lot of Armenian Airlines’ flights took off and landed at obscene times of day. I remember the most reasonable choices were Sofia, Bulgaria, Athens, Greece, and Frankfurt, Germany; all three left at around 11:00am. They were all fairly new routes for the airline, which is now mercifully defunct. Everything else– flights to Amsterdam or Paris, for instance– left at about 3:00am.
I had already gone to Sofia the year prior and knew it was still a bit rustic in Bulgaria. I gave some thought to going to Athens, but that seemed too inconvenient. I settled on Frankfurt and bought my one way ticket. I remember paying about $18 extra for business class, mainly because I wanted the extra 10 kilos of luggage allowed for that class. My flight to Armenia had been a nightmare because Armenian Airlines was using ancient Soviet era planes that were scary. As it turned out, they’d leased a new airbus recently and the Frankfurt flight was on that aircraft. I ended up enjoying a really nice flight out of Armenia at the very front of the plane. I had my own row and even the food was good. Had I wanted to, I could have even used the special business class airport lounge.
Rick Steves had talked up a town called Bacharach, which is on the Rhine. I realized it wasn’t too far from Frankfurt, either. So when we landed in Frankfurt, I went to the very helpful lady working the Deustche Bahn desk and asked her how to get to the Rhine. Pretty soon, I was diving into train travel in Europe. Come to think of it, it was a lucky thing that I started in relatively user friendly Germany, where a lot of people speak English and people are generally pretty sensible. After a couple of false starts, I finally managed to board the right train to Bacharach, where I would spend my first couple of days out of the Peace Corps.