A summer backpacking through Europe
I was fresh out of a long-term relationship and my 9-5 job, traveling across the pond with two other girls. Technically, I was an adult but desperate to be a carefree kid for just a bit longer before starting medical school. The Euro-Rail pass granted me two months of exploration with not a care in the world, except the relative emptiness of my wallet. My goals were simple: experience life, art, food, wine, music, and people, and return with enough savoir-faire (and photos) to last me four years of med school, three-seven years of residency, and one special souvenir to remember it all by; preferably, a fine looking Italian leather jacket obtained via crafty bargaining.
To assist in accomplishing my goals, I sought out some inexpensive accommodations. Often that meant the young person’s social mecca: the European Youth Hostel. In London, that meant camping out with the fam in a cozy attic. In Prague, it meant following a perfect stranger off the train platform to a huge flat, 15-minutes walk from the city Centre, for $11/day. At that price, we decided to stay the week! This trip was soon enough after the end of communism that the view outside the flat resembled what you’d imagine the streets look like in a Dostoyevsky novel. My artistic talent is non-existent, but you get the idea from my sketch of the scene, taken directly from my travel journal that summer:
Our Munich accommodation was comical. We stayed in a nunnery with a 10pm curfew; I’m not sure whose bright idea that was. The nutella at breakfast was a nice touch, but not enough to keep me in Deutschland. The girls I’d set out with weren’t quite ready to go. So for the first time in my life, feeling several palpitations which I interpreted as exhilaration, I found myself traveling alone internationally, on a train heading for Venice.
The ride through the Alps foreshadowed what would later become one of my favorite places in the world, as well as a trajectory for my own path years down the line. I rode that train like a dog in a jeep in summer – tongue hanging out, panting at the beauty of the majestic mountains. The red-roofed homes and fields were downright off the set of the Sound of Music.
And then…I fell in love. With ITALY. I loved everything Italian: the food, the wine, the language, the music, the beautiful people, and of course, the fashion, especially the leathery kind that I was saving my lira for (yeah, it was actually THAT long ago)!!!
Somehow, for a few weeks I still managed to travel within a budget, deviating only briefly in Verona when a scalper offered $60 tickets to opening night of AIDA at the Arena. Unreserved seats on the stone layed 700 years ago to watch the gladiators, the Arena holds 20,000 people, so getting to the good seats requires climbing on people’s laps. Once in the prime location, you are sitting on stone for four hours with a person sitting one millimeter in front of your feet and your own ass one millimeter in front of someone else’s feet. I was one opera lover who just couldn’t pass that up! And I’d still have enough for my leather jacket, if I bargained the right way.
The next day I was off to Florence. Night one: I found the black leather jacket – done! Purchased for 400,000 Lira ($220), taking the vendor down from the original price of $255. I thought I’d done well, but later wound up getting a good lecture from my well-traveled British cousin whom I’d met up with. She was pretty sure she could’ve talked him down another $70 or so, and I have no doubt she could have done it; but I have every reason to believe I could not. Ah well, I had my gorgeous jacket, and still enough cash for proper souvenirs, and to drink wine and eat decent food until making my way back to the family in London. But this had to be it for the big purchases – AIDA and black leather, an Italian affair to remember!
“That dress was made for you”
That was the plan (no more big-ticket items) when I accompanied my cousin on her shopping the next day. While browsing the racks of the garage-turned-leather boutique, the vendors handed me a dress to try on “just for fun.” Since I only had $125 left to my name, there was no way I was going to buy a dress, so what the hell? It was long, brown, suede and sleeveless, and turned out, was “made for me.” It fit like a glove and made me feel like a million bucks – you know the dress. The vendor asks me, “How much can you spend?” I really thought about it; how much can I part with and not starve until I get back to London? “$25” I said. There was a chuckle, and the vendor tells me the dress is made from a single perfect piece of leather, hand-crafted into this work of art, and the original price is $250, so, “Really, how much can you spend?” Now, my bargaining skills suddenly materialize. When I have no money, I can really haggle! “$25, is REALLY all I can spend.” Vendor makes a call, comes back to me saying “$175.” I backed off, “Grazie, but no grazie.” I wasn’t in the game to begin with; I tried on this gorgeous one-of-a-kind dress that just happened to be made for me, “just for fun.” Again, the vendor asks, “Really, what’s your MAX?” Again, I say, “Really, my max is $25.” Another phone call: “$125.” Me: “No grazie.” Her: “Your absolute max?” Me: “Absolute max (take out wallet, show the lack of money) is $75.” Five minutes later I became the proud owner of the perfectly made brown suede dress that so far cost me $10 per wear and looks like this over 10 years later:
And that’s how to succeed in haggling without really trying!