By Jeff Fuller
I spent the spring semester of my junior year of college studying abroad at the University of Edinburgh. It was 1996. Scotland was entertaining a separation from the United Kingdom, possibly provoked by the previous year’s movie Braveheart. The band Oasis was wildly popular. “Don’t Look Back in Anger” and “Champagne Supernova” could be heard around every corner. Trainspotting was a hit movie, especially in Edinburgh, where the disturbing movie was set. Tracks from its soundtrack like “Born Slippy” and “Lust for Life” pulsated through the nightclubs.
Students at Edinburgh were blessed with a four week break from classes from March 15 to April 15. My fellow international students and I were eager to use the extended break to go backpacking around Europe. While the internet was around, we still relied on guidebooks like Let’s Go Europe and maps to find our way around, book accommodations and read about interesting things to see and do in each country.
Andrew, an American friend of mine at the University, wanted to travel somewhere warm, but he only had a week to travel before he needed to go back to the States. We settled on traveling in Portugal together.
Andrew and I flew to Lisbon, explored the castle, cathedrals, the medieval Alfama district, and chanced upon cute little restaurants. At the time, English was not widely spoken in Portugal, but I learned enough Portuguese to help us get by. I remember being stunned by how good-looking the men were there. But at this time in my life, I wasn’t ready to accept these feelings. After a few days in Lisbon, Andrew and I traveled down to the Algarve, the sunny coastal region in the south of Portugal. When we arrived in Lagos, I noticed that the pousada we had booked had a rainbow flag sticker on its door. Once we checked in, Andrew smiled at me and said: “We probably look like a couple.”
From the Algarve, I said goodbye to Andrew and headed by a bus overland to Spain. Interestingly, the bus never stopped at a border. The European Union’s Schengen Agreement had gone into effect the prior year, which abolished border crossings. However, we still used different currencies in each country we traveled to.
In Seville, I met up with my friend DeVere for a few days. I remember being so enthralled with Seville, its history, its architecture, its food and especially its men. From there, I traveled with two girls to Cordoba, Granada, Barcelona, Nice, Rome, Siena, Pisa, and Florence. After several days of travel with the girls, I was ready to explore places on my own.
In Florence, I told the girls that I was going to stay at a different hostel. One evening at the hostel, I ended up striking up a conversation with a Canadian guy who was also traveling around Italy. Having no travel companions at this point, I asked him if he wanted to find some dinner with me.
We located a restaurant a few blocks from the Duomo. Over dinner, I asked him who he was traveling with. He said that he sung professionally with a group of a cappella singers. I mentioned that I sang with a rock gospel choir at Edinburgh, so he asked me to sing something for him. I politely refused. He asked me if I had seen Michaelangelo’s David yet and what I thought about it. Nice try! I eventually got him to admit to me that was gay. He asked me if I was. At this time in my life, I hadn’t opened up to anyone about my sexuality and this person seemed completely safe. However, I told him I was not. But I could tell that he didn’t really believe me. He invited me to come with him to a party that an Italian friend of his was having. I wanted so much to go, but I resisted, told him good night and went back to the hostel.
A backpacking trip around Europe is a rite of passage, how college students often find themselves. That spring inspired many more journeys for me. It gave me the confidence to travel on my own and get to know people along the way. This trip gave me glimpses of who I was, but I kept looking away. At this time, when borders were disappearing all over Europe, acceptance of my sexuality was a frontier that I would not cross.