GOING ABROAD THE FIRST TIME
by William Lyon Phelps
There is no thrill like the first thrill. When Wilhelm Meister kissed the Countess, Goethe said they tasted "the topmost sparkling foam on the freshly poured cup of love," and Goethe knew what he was talking about. I shall always be glad that my first trip to Europe had three features-I was young; the steamer was small; we landed at Antwerp.
twenty-five and in perfect health; my head was stuffed with literature,
descriptions and pictures shrieking for verification; my mates and I rode
bicycles across Europe and over the Alps; we lived with impunity in cheap inns
and on cheap food; we were soaked to the skin by frequent rains; we were
exposed to every inclemency of the air and to innumerable germs in rooms, food
and water; we were never sick. We stored away memories which have been paying
It is not well to wait until one is old, for an American is, as a rule, never physically comfort able in Europe. Unless one is reeking with cash one is almost always chilly or damp or hungry or filled with the wrong kind of food. But Europe has all the things an intelligent American wants to see, and it is best to see them when one's health is rugged enough to rise above inconveniences.
I am glad I went on a small boat, for I asked a traveller who recently returned on an enormous ship if the sea was rough: "I have no idea, I never saw it." Our little Waesland had only one deck, and that was sometimes awash. It was not a hotel, it was a ship. Finally, instead of landing at Cherbourg at some unearthly hour, being transferred to a squeaky lighter, and then to a train with long hours of travel before one reached the destination, we steamed up the Scheldt past the windmills and stepped off the boat right in the midst of one of the most interesting cities in the world. The transition from America to Europe was as dramatic as it could possibly be, unshaded by tenders and trains. Thus I advise first-timers to sail either to London or to Antwerp; you embark at New York and you disembark at the desired haven.
I love Europe, London, Paris, Munich, Florence, with inexpressible fervour; but I can never recapture the first careless rapture. I remember after that fine first afternoon and evening in Antwerp, when we walked about in ecstasy in the rain, we bicycled to Bonn from Cologne, and that evening before going to bed in the little Rhenish inn, I looked out from my bedroom window on the river and on the roofs of the quaint old town, and I said, "Is it real or is it a dream?"
The next day was a fulfillinent; for when my classmate, George Pettee, and I were sophomores, we were sitting in the top gallery of the theatre watching a picture of the Rhineland put on the screen by John L. Stoddard. One of us turned to the other and whispered: "I'll shake hands with you on standing on that spot within seven years." The answer was, "You're on! We had no money and no prospect of getting any; but in five years, not seven, we stood on that identical spot, and as we leaned our bicycles up against the road wall, we reminded each other of the night in the gallery. It is pleasant to dream; but it is pleasanter to make the dream come true.
The most beautiful country I have ever seen is England. It has not the majesty of Switzerland, but it has everything else. Almost exactly the same size as North Carolina or Michigan, it has an amazing variety of scenery and climate. As one approaches it from the Atlantic, the cliffs of Cornwall look austere and forbidding; but there the roses bloom in January. Stand almost anywhere in Devonshire, and you see the meadows leaning on the sky; they are separated from one another not by stone fences, or by split-rails or barbed wire, but by hedgerows in self-conscious bloom; Salisbury Plain is like Western Nebraska, a far horizon; the misty slopes of the Sussex downs reach dreamily to the sea. Every few miles in England the topography changes; could anything be more different than those different counties?
But we do not go to England for natural scenery, though we might well do so; we go because in England every scene is, in the phrase of Henry James, "peopled with recognitions." The things that we have seen in imagination we see in reality; there they are! The September afternoon when I bicycled alone to Stoke Poges and saw the churchyard in the twilight exactly as it was in 1750 when Gray described it, I fell on my knees. As we looked from the top of the hill down into Canterbury, the setting sun glorified the Cathedral; as we stood on the most solemn promontory in England, Land's End, and gazed into the yeasty waves at the foot of the cliff, I remembered Tennyson's lines:
One showed an iron coast and angry waves. You seemed to hear them climb and fall And roar rock-thwarted under bellowing caves, Beneath the windy wall.
And here one of the Wesley brothers wrote the familiar hymn about the narrow neck of land and the divided seas.
One day, talking with an Englishman on the train, I raved about Warwickshire and about Devon. "Ah," said he, "if you haven't seen the valley of the Wye you haven't seen England." Accordingly, we went to the little town of Ross in the West; there we hired a rowboat, and two stalwart sons of Britain rowed us many miles down the stream. Occasionally, the river was so shallow they poled us over the pebbly bottom; sometimes it was so narrow we could almost touch the shores; then it would widen out nobly, and we saw the white-faced Hereford cattle feeding in green pastures. "What castle is that?" I asked, pointing to a ruin on a hill. "That is Goodrich Castle, sir." And that is where Wordsworth met the little girl who knew her departed brother and sister were alive.
We moved by Monmouth, sacred to Henry V, the Roosevelt of kings; we came to Tintern Abbey, and you may be sure we stopped there; whatever you see, don't miss the valley of the Wye.