Robert St. John column

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 20, 2012

St. John thrown back to college dorm tactics as trip stretches

PARIS— While staying the City of Lights, I could write about the Louvre, Versailles, and French food. But as I start to wind down this six-month trip, I catch myself in a reflective mood looking back over the journey.

 Back in Greece, I watched several college-age kids ride up the ramp of our ferry on motorcycles ready to cross the Adriatic Sea. I regretted not taking time off during my college years to backpack around Europe. I was always working.

 As it turns out, traveling with a wife and two kids throughout Europe in a small SUV, while checking in and out of hotel rooms, is a lot like college.

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 The Levi Principle— After six months on the road, I catch myself saying things like, “I’ve gotten nine days out of this pair of jeans. They look pretty good, except for that red-sauce stain on the back pocket. Maybe I can get to Madrid before they need to be washed.”

 Keg Party Aftermath— Traveling on a budget has made me appreciate “family rooms.” Many hotels over here have rooms with a full-sized bed and two twin beds or bunk beds. I take advantage of these at every opportunity because it means I don’t have to buy two rooms for the night. But after two days with a 14 year-old girl (who over packed), a 10-year old (who has no concept of neatness and organization), and a third member of the family who shall remain nameless for the sake of marital bliss (but one who also over packed), the room begins to look like a college apartment after an three-day Homecoming party.

Clothes are scattered everywhere, remains of leftover food are on any available flat surface. Soft drink cans overflow out of the tiny hotel-sized trashcan. Clean towels are on the floor and dirty towels are hanging from the rack in the bathroom.

 I’ve been dog-cussed in seven different countries, in eight different languages, while passing housekeepers in the hallway. I think one even put a gypsy curse on me.

The Dorm Shower Challenge— I spent an entire semester in my college dormitory never taking a relaxing shower. A shower should be peaceful and serene, a time to wind down. In my dorm the shower room backed up to the toilet room, and anytime someone flushed, it created a scalding effect in the shower room. This caused everyone to spend brief bursts of a few seconds each under the showerhead, just getting enough water to wet or rinse as was absolutely needed.

And speaking of washing, that brings us to the next example:

The No-Wash Cloth Dilemma— I am not sure what happened to my washcloths after I went to college. There weren’t any. I know my mother packed an assortment. Maybe I used a few of them for napkins. I probably spent seven years just rubbing a bar of Dial soap on my body. Actually, I rubbed whatever soap was available and laying around in the general vicinity of the bathroom.

 In Europe, they don’t use washcloths. Seriously, there are no washcloths to be found. For me, a washcloth is a must. In the beginning of the trip I just used a hand towel from the hotel, which at first was like a giant washcloth, but eventually became too cumbersome.

After a month, my wife found these shower glove-type things that are portable and quick drying, but are about as soft as a coarse sheet of 60-grit sandpaper. She bought four color-coded pair— one for each member of the family. My son lost his after a week, and it was a month later that I realized that he had been sharing mine.

 I remove several layers of dermis during daily showers. My wife calls it exfoliating. I call it painful.

The Great Towel Hoard— In places where we will stay more than a few days, we usually rent an apartment. It’s been a hit and miss proposition. In Venice, we couldn’t have asked for a better space. In Budapest, we found ourselves on the edge of the Hungarian slums, in a place that made my college apartments look like The Ritz. In such locations, a family of four is allotted four towels for the length of their stay.

I am spoiled. At home I use a towel once and then put it in the hamper. In college, I could stretch the use of a towel for days, weeks even.

 Traveling with a family is different, however. People tend to not respect the man of the house’s towel allocation program, and no one follows the everyone-must-use-their-own-towel rule. It’s a mad dash at bath time trying to find the one clean towel that might have dried out from the previous day, and one that the 10-year old didn’t leave crumpled on the floor under the sink.

This practice led me to resort to cloak-and-dagger tactics with towels. You would be surprised at how many places there are to hide a towel in a tiny European apartment. It took me a few months, but I got sneakier and more stealth-like the longer we traveled. As I type, my towel is drying in a closet hidden behind several suitcases. Shhhh.

 The Road Trip— Traversing Europe by car is exactly like a college road trip: Everyone loads in at the last minute, the vehicle is crammed full with blaring buffoons, it’s loud, no one is comfortable, strange smells emanate from seemingly nowhere, and the driver is the only person who has a vague idea of the end destination.

These days I catch myself saying things I never thought I’d say. Things such as, “Alright, who ate a croissant while sitting on the toilet?” On second though, maybe I did the right thing skipping the college backpacking-around-Europe thing, after all.

 Oh, and by the way, the Louvre is amazing, Versailles is beautiful, and French food is remarkable.

(Restaurateur, author and self-described “world-class eater” Robert St. John with his family has embarked on his most ambitious project yet — a months long trip to Europe to expand his culinary traditions and conduct research. Contact him at