This summer, we swapped houses for seven weeks with people in France. It was a glorious holiday. Until we bumped into some old friends.
Traveling in 2010, they complained, was nothing like the good old days. They were in Paris in the '70s and Prague in the '80s. Those days were the golden era for travelers. Back then, Europe wasn't overrun with Americans in khaki shorts and Crocs, and French radio stations weren't playing the same Lady Gaga song they'd left home to escape.
"It was more fun then," one friend said. "You felt like a serious traveler, not just another tourist."
He wasn't wrong. European travel was more of a challenge 30 years ago. But does that make it more meaningful?
When I first traveled to France in 1978, mailing a letter meant going to the Bureau de Poste to purchase a packet of aerogrammes — the prestamped, Gauloise-blue pages that folded into their own envelope. They were as delicate as butterfly wings; a heavy mist rendered them unusable. Receiving mail meant standing in line at the American Express office — traveler's checks and passport in hand — and begging a clerk to please check one more time.
Making a telephone call meant another trip to the Poste, to stand in another queue. You'd request a cabine with an international line and wait hours in a cavernous room, hoping to hear your name and cabine number called. The brief conversation over a crackly, echoing line cost a fortune. Local calls were hardly any easier. Public telephones did not accept coins or calling cards; they required a special token, called a jeton, which could only be purchased at the Poste or a licensed tabac.
Now, instead, you send texts and e-mails from a laptop, iPhone or BlackBerry. To telephone, you can call from anywhere using an inexpensive international calling card or purchase a cheap European cellphone and buy telephone time on a pay-as-you-go basis.
Changing money back then was another ordeal. Getting cash required going to American Express, or the Banque de France, standing in line, filling out forms, signing your checks under the watchful eye of a solemn clerk and then waiting until a different solemn clerk counted out the colorful franc notes — attached to each other by a straight pin. The 100-franc note was broad enough to use as a picnic blanket. If you were in Italy, you left with a bundle of lire as big as a bedroll.
Today, you visit an ATM that offers a menu of instructions in English, recognizes the same bank card you use at home and happily spits out fresh euros. And you don't need much cash anyway because shops, restaurants and even some taxi drivers take credit cards.
Everything is easier. I remember rising at dawn and waiting in line for hours to gain admission to the Prado, the Uffizi, the Vatican or the Louvre. Now I buy museum tickets online and don't stand in line at all. I recall gargantuan lines at train stations too, where hundreds of travelers waited hours to find out whether a sleeping car was even available — and then unfolding blanket-sized francs to secure one. I remember arriving in strange cities at strange hours and marching about for ages trying to find a suitable, affordable hotel room.
Not anymore. A month before I left Los Angeles, I'd already bought reduced-rate promotional tickets for the family on the French TGV train. It was all a mouse click away, as were the house exchanges we arranged last spring. In seven weeks of travel, I don't remember standing in line once — until I got back to the airport to fly home and had to face the modern nightmare of scanners and security agents.
Has the increase in convenience meant a decrease in color? Sure. European travel has lost some of its traditional atmosphere. Last year, France banned smoking in restaurants. Last month, Barcelona outlawed bullfighting. Most train stations no longer offer a "left luggage" service, and French McDonald's now offer drive-through service, called McDrive. In Paris this summer, I passed a Subway sandwich shop and saw the most amazing thing inside — customers!
Modern currency has lost its charm too. The efficient but clinical euro lacks the Old World portraits of Delacroix on the franc and Caravaggio on the lire. Gone are the peseta, the dinara, the escudo, the guilder and the mark.
Worse still, the ease of online transactions has eliminated much of the human element. I learned to speak French and Italian in large part because I had to know how to say things such as "stamp" and "postcard" and "traveler's check." I got the inside line on the great restaurants, cheap hotels and undiscovered villages from people I met in those horrible long lines, in conversations that started with phrases such as "Where are you from?" and "Where are you headed?"
Europe has withstood substantial modernization since travelers began making the original Grand Tour 400 years ago. Since the beginning, one assumes, jaded veterans have been pronouncing the good old days gone forever.
But I spent half the summer hiking the hills above the Rhone Valley, walking stretches of the ancient pilgrimage route from Paris to Santiago de Compostela, and exploring the Loire and Cher river valleys over bridges and roads built by the Romans in the 2nd century. I'd gotten there using the latest technology. The experience was still timeless.
Charles Fleming teaches at USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and is the author, most recently, of "Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles."