Note from Ravenna

In 1974, when I arrived in London, I had a short list of European places to visit.

Most of my list was the result of an art history class taken the fall semester of 1973 in the then new art museum of the University of Iowa. The art collection was removed during the 2008 flood and never came back to that building.

I wasn’t a good art student, and elected a pass-fail grade versus A – F. My teacher was disappointed when he discovered my choice. I passed the elective course.

Despite my chary engagement as an undergraduate student, there I was in London beginning a 1970s version of the Grand Tour. It was a rite of passage to elevate myself from the blood, slop, bacteria, and gore of two college summers working in a slaughterhouse. It was the same plant in which Father died in an accident. I had rejected the post-college job the company recruiter offered me that spring. It was time to break loose from my local moorings. Once I got to Europe it became clear there were hoards of young people doing the same thing.

A wad of American Express travelers checks was tucked inside the baby blue bag Grandmother made for me, about $2,000. The money came from selling the band equipment and the Volkswagen micro bus used to haul it around. It turned out to be enough cash for the trip.

On the list were the Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna, Italy. Our art history teacher marveled at them and inspired enough enthusiasm to pique my interest. It was that way for many of the places I visited. It was also an easy side trip enroute to Vienna, Austria where a student I met in Stratford at a performance of Twelfth Night had invited me to stay.

Ravenna was significant for more than mosaics. On the train rides from Barcelona to Rome, along the Mediterranean coast, I met several Italians. They insisted I learn to speak Italian if I would visit Italy. I studied French in college and had reasonable fluency. Learning another Romance language wouldn’t be too hard, I thought. I searched a book store in Genoa for an English-Italian phrase book and found none. I settled for a French-Italian phrase book which served. By the time I got to Ravenna I was able to check into the hostel, order meals, and converse on a limited level without speaking English a single time.

I was concerned about funding the rest of my European trip while in Ravenna and sent the pictured note to Mother. She came through with an American Express travelers check which was waiting for me when I arrived in Amsterdam. It turned out I didn’t need the cash. I don’t recall whether I gave it back to Mom when I returned to Iowa. She kept the note.

No regrets about spending most of the money I had in 1974 on a trip to Europe. A return to the continent seems unlikely today. At least I escaped the slaughterhouse. That will have to be enough.

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