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Innocents Abroad / THE SEQUEL : In 1867, young Mark Twain recorded his impressions of what has become a rite of passage: the Grand tour of Europe. Here's how it's done in 1993.

August 29, 1993|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

LONDON — A great city flashes past outside our bus windows. A ton of baggage shifts and settles in the compartment beneath our feet. We sit elbow to elbow, 51 tourists in 52 seats, peering out at the corner pubs, the drivers on the wrong side of the road, the grounds of Buckingham Palace. . . .

"The Kings!" shouts 24-year-old Shannon Savala as we round a corner by the palace gates. But she is looking the other way.

"The Kings lost in overtime," she continues. "It was horrible!"

She is from Villa Park, Calif., she is talking about the last hockey score she heard from home, and this is a clue. Most of the passengers on this tour bus are young Americans, still swimming in their own culture, but come to gather their first glimpses of Europe. Aboard we have six voluble and intrepid young women from Southern California, 23 less voluble and less intrepid law students from Valparaiso University in Indiana, two teachers from Missouri, a postal worker from Pittsburgh, 19 others from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and Japan, and me, the reporter who has come to gather glimpses of the Americans gathering glimpses.

This is the trip of their lives. Two of the Orange County crew, each just graduated from college, have been scheming to make this journey since 10th grade. One of the Missouri teachers, 27-year-old Cindy Anderson, is following through on daydreams that began in her first high school French class, when she imagined being kissed beneath the Arc de Triomphe.

At the head of the aisle stands tour manager Amanda Gardiner, a slim 29-year-old with an Australian accent and a microphone at her chin. For most of the last four years, she has been shepherding young travelers across the Continent on tours with Contiki Travel Europe. Gardiner first welcomes us, then warns us.

"You are not going to get to see everything," she says. "This tour is a matter of choices. This is what we call our appetizer of Europe."

It's a crowded plate, and it will be hurled at us. In the next 12 days, this bus will cross England, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland and France--eight countries, if you count the Vatican. The package price: $1,195, double occupancy, not including air fare.

Among other things, this journey is a measure of how far Western Civilization has come from the 19th-Century days of steamships and Grand Tours. In 1867, when a young journalist followed several dozen Americans on the first organized pleasure tour from the New World to the Old, the trip was a six-month enterprise that cost $1,250 per person, and delivered its takers to deeply unfamiliar places.

"The people of those foreign countries are very, very ignorant," wrote Mark Twain upon his return. "They looked curiously at the customs we had brought from the wilds of America. They observed that we talked loudly at the table sometimes. They noticed that we looked out for expenses, and got what we conveniently could out of a franc, and wondered where in the mischief we came from. In Paris, they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language."

Twain's account of the trip became his first book, "The Innocents Abroad," and launched him toward international fame.

So much for ancient history. The explorers here on Contiki Tour HP 311 are young in a new time. Twain, at 32 years of age, was 20 years younger than most of his fellow travelers. I, at the same age as Twain, am a decade beyond most of those aboard the bus. They come from the first generation of travelers with CNN to prepare them, jumbo jets to deliver them, McDonald's and the Hard Rock Cafe to comfort them, and no Iron Curtain to impede them. Surely, their Europe will be like no one else's.

Southbound on the bus. Eagles harmonizing on the sound system. Narrow streets give way to the broad green meadows of the English countryside. Ahead, a ferry will carry us across the English Channel on our way toward Amsterdam.

The day begins at 6:30 in the parking lot of London's Royal National Hotel, when driver David Hook pulled open the various hatches and doors of bus 9101, and four-dozen groggy adventurers in T-shirts and shorts climbed in clutching complimentary rainbow-colored Contiki knapsacks. Now, several hours down the road, the women of the Orange County gang are flirting with Hook (another 29-year-old Australian) and comparing impressions of London.

"There are so many people walking around," says Shannon Savala's 22-year-old sister, Kelley. "It's like New York. And so many buses."

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