Graduate school in Dallas was a mixed bag. The performing ensembles were fantastic. Friends were easily made. Dallas itself, in Millennial jargon… meh. There were pockets of “cool” areas, but they were either the forced brand of trendy or just plain boring. Antiseptic is the term that best describes my perception of Dallas in the early 1990’s. With a packed schedule, my Master of Music degree at Southern Methodist University (SMU) was completed in three semesters. Life was busy…but it was fun!
Some of the more advanced wind and percussion players performed with the SMU Meadows Symphony Orchestra. Due to a large number of concerts, as well as voluntary inclusion in the subsidiary conductor’s orchestra, we performed numerous masterworks in a short period of time. One of my favorites from the conductor’s orchestra was Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite—the trumpet part ended with seven ‘high C’s’ at the top of ascending, double-tongued scale patterns. My composure was actually quite good in this more laid-back setting that included only peers. After the performance, the conductor for Pulcinella, a trumpet player named Dave Alpar, informed me that I had not missed a single high C in any of the rehearsals or the performance. After telling Dave that I hadn’t realized this, he replied, “I know. I didn’t say anything, because I didn’t want you to f#$k up!” Trumpet players understand one another.
As much as I loved the orchestra and its repertoire, the wind ensemble provided more life opportunities. 1992 and 1993 featured three trips to music conferences with the SMU Meadows Wind Ensemble, under the baton of the formidable Dr. Jack Delaney (see: https://myunexpectedlife.net/2019/01/11/dallas-texas-1992/.) The 1992 College Band Directors National Association (CBDNA) conference at Ohio State University, was followed by a performance in New Orleans for the Music Educators National Conference (MENC) National Convention. The icing on the cake was an invitation to the World Association of Symphonic Bands and Ensembles (WASBE) conference in Valencia, Spain.
Let’s Go Back
Let’s back up to 1991—two seemingly negative factors led me to SMU in the first place:
1. Poor job interview skills. 2. Being broke.
Picture this: An irrepressibly anxious twenty-two year-old college graduate attempts to land a position as a public school music teacher. A strong education job market and helpful references lead him to interviews before and directly after graduation. Armed with weak communication skills, destabilizing fear, and the face of a fifteen year-old, what could possibly go wrong?…Everything! I simply could not compose myself and froze at the first sign of discomfort. It was not pretty. In my defense, although my interviews were poor, my job skills were not, which is much better than the reverse scenario. The realization that graduate school was the best option was a rapid one. Torture-by-interview was put on hold.
Summer and Fall of 1991
In July of 1991, I worked for a prestigious summer music school in Saratoga Springs, New York. The Saratoga position involved supervising highly-skilled teenaged students, attending concerts by the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), coaching a brass quintet, and playing as much trumpet as possible. Regular attendance at master classes with the Philadelphia Orchestra’s legendary principal trumpet player, Frank Kaderabek, augmented my motivation. The summer came to an end and the fall semester was spent back in Potsdam, New York. Instead of registering for classes, I paid for private trumpet lessons, practiced, and worked at the local Arby’s fast food restaurant. As soon as January arrived—off to SMU! The school had offered me full tuition and a modest stipend as a graduate assistant.
Anyone who has lived through lean times without family financial support learns how to make money last. During college years, student loans are the life line to cover most expenses. Then, one hopes to pick up cash by other means—in my case teaching trumpet lessons in nearby Plano, Texas. I was living day-to-day, and by May of 1993 there was only $150 and a maxed-out Discover card to my name.
Three weeks before SMU graduation, the food situation was dire. Having somehow acquired a Mobil Gas credit card with a $200 limit, I knew what was necessary—off to the Mobil Mart! I strolled the aisles of the closest Mobil station and loaded up on cheap grub, mostly pasta and cereal. At the checkout counter, the surprisingly scowling attendant condescended, “You knowwww, there’s a supermarket just up the road!” I waved my blue and silver gas card in his smug face, and with as sarcastic a tone possible replied, “Welllll…Do they accept Mobil credit cardssszz?” Two minutes later, me and my ‘food’ returned to campus.
A Fortunate Break
Here’s where Spain enters the story. At some point before graduation, Jack Delaney asked me to perform with the SMU Meadows Wind Ensemble during the upcoming summer trip to Valencia, Spain for the WASBE conference. Someone must have backed out. Sparing him the finer details of Mobil Mart cuisine rationing, I sheepishly explained that although Spain sounded amazing, I was broke. Knowing that the college was not hurting for funds, Jack (he insisted graduate students use his first name) dashed to the Dean’s office, had me wait in his office, and returned with news that if I could find a way back to Dallas in mid-summer, the rest of the trip would be covered. I was floored. Despite some mild protestations from my Mom, who tends to focus on immediacy, I took ten days off from my job search that July…The subsequent experience left me with no regrets.
Off We Go!
We departed DFW airport en masse with a red-eye flight to Madrid on or about July 12th, 1993. Free in-flight adult beverages put most of us to sleep in short order. On the plane, I would not describe myself as nervous as much as apprehensive. I simply did not know what to expect. My biggest fear was the language barrier.
Having not traveled overseas before, spending time in a country where English was not the native language was quite literally a foreign concept. We had tour guides throughout the trip, but my ignorance conjured some dystopian scenario where I would be wandering by myself like a Martian on Earth and nobody would be able to understand whatever immediate need might arise. Of course, the trip did not go that way at all. Asking for the bathroom was the only real interaction that required words. After decades of overseas travel, it is now clear that wherever you go in this world, people can tell if someone needs a bathroom. The desperate need to pee is universal.
A Different World
The first thing that stood out upon arrival at the airport in Madrid were the guards armed with machine guns and bullet proof vests. This was jarring to a pre-9/11 American. For those too young to remember, we did not have heavily armed security at airports in the U.S. You could walk your family and friends directly to the departure gate, say appropriate goodbyes, and wave at the plane as it taxied to the runway.
After gathering our belongings, we boarded our tour bus for the three-hour ride to Valencia, a Mediterranean city rich in history. The journey was harrowing. Traveling 225 miles of hilly roads with twisting curves, the bus driver was not timid. We held on to our seats with death grips and white-knuckled it until reaching our destination. I contend to this day that the fear was not unwarranted. Having taking numerous similar trips since, my unwavering opinion remains: that bus driver was a lunatic!
Recollections and First Impressions
Travel writers often encourage keeping a journal. I have one that documented a year or two of my life, but have discovered that reliving experiences by memory is much more satisfying for me. Remembering the sights, sounds, smells, meals, and the way you felt during a particular trip is a journey of the mind. Recollections change as we experience more and more adventures, and as we grow into ourselves. We appreciate simple things more and are less awed by the obvious.
Other than the successful performances, there are three moments I hold dear from my trip to Spain. The first is the sight of the Medieval city gates, Torres de Serranos and Torres de Quart (Google can still add specificity to memories, when needed.) Madrid is generally modern and, aside from the signs in Spanish, the drive away from the airport was not that much different from what one would see in an American city.
However, when we reached those gates in Valencia, something took hold of me. I am by no means an architecture buff, but the austere, regal look of those gates conjured in me images of the ancient. You do not truly understand how young America is until you have been elsewhere. I will refrain from further rhetorical flourishes and simply state that I was in awe.
A Wonderful Meal
Second in my memory vault was a meal with several wind ensemble members on our third or fourth night in Valencia. I could describe the obvious difference in eating time—very late at night, the omnipresent Sangria jugs, and the paella, but that is not what made the meal special. It was the joy! Just as hope springs eternal, so does joy (Jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown referred to his wife as his “joy spring” and wrote a song of the same title.)
I cannot definitively name one person at our table of ten or so colleagues. I use ‘colleagues’ because this particular trip did not have as many of my close friends as other musical travels. Somehow we ended up together in the same restaurant, let the waiter steer us in the right direction, and went with the moment. There was passing of food, laughter, and wonderment. But my most vivid memory from that meal is the smiles. Myself, others at the table, the serving staff, and other customers. Beautiful food, perfect weather, and a joy that sprang eternal.
We ended our trip with a half-day group excursion to the beach. This recollection has nothing to do with bathing suits, amazing waves, or even any particularly memorable views of the sea. Pushing the limits of pretentiousness, this memory is not vivid or awe-inspiring, but instead, it is sublime. What I recall most vividly is the sand. Having only experienced beaches on the Atlantic and the Great Lakes, Mediterranean beaches have different sand. It is difficult to describe why; and I am purposely not researching it. My feet had a peculiar sensation, the sand had a darker hue, and the sea lapped over it in a less brusque manner from what I was accustomed.
The weather was not perfect and I disengaged myself from the others. Looking around, as if watching a group of unknown people, I spent the time picking up the sand and letting it slide through my fingers. A plastic water bottle was nearby, before bottled water was common. I filled it with Mediterranean Sea beach sand. The bottle is still in a large cardboard box where I keep old photos, souvenirs, and the like. Or did I discard it before the move to our new house? I do know that I have looked at it often. It even found its way onto a shelf in one or two of the places I have lived.
Until writing this post, it did not occur to me how important that sand and the memory of that afternoon on the beach has been to my life. It represents not only my first trip abroad, but hope for the future and similarly new sensory experiences. It also reminds me that my first trip overseas made the world feel smaller.What looked on a globe like an impossible venture was only seven hours away. I had been in a car more than seven hours dozens of times, but after hopping on a jet and ending up on another continent in such a short amount of time, the world became smaller! Suddenly, foreign films didn’t seem so foreign. Actual or proposed trips became less daunting. Travel to cities where English is not the native language now elicits excitement, rather than apprehension.
For some reason, I have not been to the Mediterranean since Valencia, despite several opportunities to do so. I suspect that my perceptions would change and I would be able to to provide a more clear, precise, and eloquent description of the water, the beaches, and the seascape. Would I be surprised by the sand or would I not even notice? The only way to know for certain is to return…
In My Unexpected Life: Travel, Food, and More, I share stories, thoughts, and simple ideas to entertain and maybe even inspire others to engage with new food, travel, and more…no matter how big or small those experiences may be.
Even if my writings do not produce the desired result—please enjoy the blog!
I always enjoy thinking about my first experiences abroad. Like you, I’d rather have the memories than a written account. Thanks for sharing!
Thanks for reading!
What Lauren said! I look back at my first trips abroad and boy was I an amateur haha
Ha! I was definitely an amateur, and I still am in many respects. That is what makes new paces so exciting! 🙂
I really liked reading this. When you look back at places and you realised you’ve learnt a lot
Wonderful story, different one.
Great post! I love reading about people’s travels and the knowledge that they learn from it, and it seems like you gained quite a bit. So I really enjoyed this post. Thanks for sharing!
Thank you for reading the post. It is a trip that, as the years go on, I realize was more important for me than I could have known at the time.