European Passage

A Texan’s sentimental journey through a civilization in decline.

For anyone under the age of 35 who has been to Europe, 1975 marked the passing of an institution. Arthur Frommer’s classic best-seller, Europe on $5 a Day, is gone, the victim of price increases undreamed of when it first appeared seven­teen annual editions ago. Its place has been taken—predict­ably—by a Frommer book called Europe on $10 a Day. The new book is unlikely to last seventeen years.

Like virtually all the other young Americans who toured the continent in the Sixties, we took along our well-thumbed copy of Five Dollars. The time was 1963, that zenith of American optimism, when people still quoted Kennedy’s in­augural address and it was easy to assume that his promises to Insure the Survival and the Success of Liberty carried a price tag as nominal as the bargains Frommer said awaited us in Europe. Three of us, straight from college, spent a summer there and discovered that Frommer was not far wrong. We bought a Volkswagen at the factory, put 11,000 miles on it, averaged $7 or $8 a day for lodging and three meals, and came home thirteen weeks later each about $1200 poorer, not counting the purchase price of the car.

Europe was cheap—cheap enough for students to take for granted that they could travel in the comfort of a private automobile, spend the night in hotels or first-class pensions, and eat in restaurants well above the average. We puzzled only briefly over the paradox of unemployed American twenty-year-olds sitting alongside German executives in Munich’s swanky Walterspiel, dining on Forelle Blau and quaffing Brauneberger Juffer Auslese ’59. The Walterspiel, after all, was a Frommer recommendation, and hadn’t From­mer told us we would be living cheaply, as the Europeans did? All but the most expensive tier of travel amenities was open to us then, including much that was quite beyond the reach of any blue-collar worker on the Continent; and any­thing we could not have, Frommer deftly let us rationalize away as something not worth having. “By the mere act of overpaying,” he intoned from the pages of Five Dollars, “Americans [rob] themselves of all the thrill and flavor of Europe… . Who needs it? Who needs the waltz competi­tions and the planned picnics of a Biarritz resort?” He made us happy as we pictured ourselves among artists and “real” Europeans, feeling real pity for our gullible American elders over at the Hilton being hoodwinked into trading all our authenticity for a room with private bath. And so we or­dered another bottle of that Juffer, and a chateaubriand for two. For one.

It never occurred to us that there was anything topsy­-turvy in all this, that the resentment we occasionally en­countered might be traced to the affronts and humiliations which we and thousands of other spendthrift young Ameri­cans unwittingly left in our wake as we cruised wonderstruck through class-conscious Europe. We simply assumed that a convenient warp in the nature of things had ensured that Americans would have more money than anybody else, and have it in perpetuity—an assumption that mirrored everything else we saw about America’s preeminent place in the world. We thought the Age of Frommer would never end.

Frommer himself would say it never has. From his head­quarters at Arthur Frommer International, Incorporated, in New York, he oversees an empire of travel clubs, hotel chains, and travel guides (36 of them, from India to Guate­mala and Australia to Morocco). But diversify as he may, he will always represent the time when Americans had Europe in the palm of their hand. Notwithstanding Ten Dol­lars, that time seems gone for good.

For the sad truth is that inflation, devalued dollars, and a rising standard of living in Europe have already combined to make Ten Dollars an anachronism. On the surface, every­thing seems fine; Frommer’s infectious good cheer reassures the reader that a $10 budget today is as adequate, if not as lavish, as a $5 budget was for us twelve years ago. Huge

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