My First Time

That's me on the right at the OSU School of Architecture in 1978

That’s me on the right at the OSU School of Architecture in 1978

My first day of my first foray to Europe was one nerve-wracking experience. It was a cold and blustery day in February 1979 that I boarded my first overseas flight, packing one medium-size suitcase (no wheels) and my newly purchased Canon AE-1 camera, headed to Madrid, Spain. I was a very, very green graduate student studying Architecture at Oklahoma State University, having grown up in McAlester, Oklahoma, a small (18,000 pop.) town 90 miles due south of Tulsa. At this point in my life, I had traveled very little, and rarely out of state. And so, here I was, plopping myself down in the middle of Spain, a country that had been led by a communist government until 4 years previously, and I having no foreign travel experience and no foreign language skills (at all). That flight (out of Boston) took approximately 8 hours, but it seemed like 8 days, and sleep on the plane, are you kidding? No way! I was wound up as tight as a tick on a bloodhound (sorry about the gross analogy).
So, I get to Madrid, and somehow managed to get a taxi to the train station and buy a ticket to Salamanca, a medium-size town approximately 100 miles northeast of Madrid. The train ride was slow and side-to-side bouncy, as were most trains in Spain at the time. Good thing I don’t get seasick. Salamanca would be my first real experience in this new place . I would be spending several days with a very generous young couple with two young children who would help me acclimate, and this was again, a major stroke of luck for me. It just happened that Kristy, the daughter of the Architecture School Librarian who was in effect a second mother to most of us architecture students, was living in Salamanca, Spain, and had married a Spaniard, Epifanio, who was a professor of International Law at the University of Salamanca, and they were willing to take in a complete stranger into their home free of charge. It’s a wonderful world when there are people like this, and I am still totally in awe of how generous some folks can be.
Ok, now I can now finally explain the most nerve-wracking of that first day, that for me would teach me that no matter how bad a situation might seem, it would all turn out just fine in the end. What happened was that there was a bit of miscommunication of how I was to contact my voluntary hosts when I arrived in Salamanca. Keep in mind that in 1979 there was not even the idea of an internet. There were no cell phones. There was only land lines and phones that were connected by wires to a box on a wall. I had to spend some time to study the pay phone at the Salamanca train station to figure out how to use it, all the instructions were in Spanish. When I finally did get the phone to work and I dialed Kristy’s number, a woman answered the phone who only spoke Spanish, and hey, this green Okie didn’t speak a word of Spanish. Obviously this was not Kristy, and I had no idea what the woman was saying, so, I hung up, and immediately called again, thinking I must have dialed a wrong number. The same lady answered again. Ok, what to do, what to do? I must admit, I was beginning to panic. After regaining some piece of my mind, I got out my tiny Berlitz Spanish Pocket Dictionary and started looking up words. In the next hour, I was able to learn enough words to call again and try to understand what the lady on the phone was saying. Somehow, I figured out that I had dialed the correct number and that Kristy was not there. As it turned out, Kristy was at work, a fact that I was not expecting. The poor lady on the phone, as it was, was the housekeeper. I just wish I knew enough Spanish to understand from the housekeeper that Kristy would be home later. And so, I was back to the “what to do” state. I did not have a map of the town. I did not speak but a few words of Spanish. I could not find anyone in the train station that spoke or was willing to speak English. So, I found a place to sit and ponder my fate. Well, luckily enough, after a couple hours, an American student saw me sitting there looking a bit frantic, and sat next to me to offer some help. Hooray, saved at last! This guy knew the town and offered to guide me to the address I had for Kristy, which he did. Once we arrived at the address, Kristy showed up, having returned from work, and invited us both in for some refreshments. And so, at that point, all was right with the world.

I would spend about 3 days with Kristy and Epi, and their two very young sons, and they would graciously help me acclimate to this crazy new world I was in. I would spend the next 5 glorious months vagabonding through the western European continent, having a hell of a time learning, and seeing, eating, and drinking, an meeting a lot of wonderful people.


  1. Wonderful writing Gary. It was great seeing you at the AIA last week and I am excited to follow you on your new adventures in Europe. Don’t forget your translator. Thankfully now phone based. Wayne


  2. Laura Manning Johnson · · Reply

    What a fun part of your Spanish odyssey. I never heard that part. Getting past that did seem to make you the intrepid traveler that you are! –Laura


  3. Sharon Traverse · · Reply

    Really cool pics and great writings. Guess we just have to live through you. to be so lucky to be there!


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