The summer of 1965, the summer I turned 21, a friend and former roommate, Barbara Stamper and I arranged to meet in London in June. She, a teacher, found an economical route to New York going by train across Canada while I flew from Oregon. She had broken her ankle a couple weeks before but that was not to stop us.
We took separate planes to London. However, when we compared arrival times one of us was using European time and the other one of us U.S. time. So thinking her arrival time was one hour behind mine hers was actually seven hours behind. After waiting in the terminal…checking passenger manifests again and again, I finally took a taxi into London and found a lovely guesthouse…and a bed! This was in the days before Lonely Planet mind you.
The next morning I called every place I could think of in the hopes that Barbara would also be looking for me….American Express, U.S. Consolate, British Consolate, flight desk at the airport…and stayed put. In the meantime I began thinking about what I would do if we didn’t connect and decided that I was all the way here and that I would just take off on my own. But finally, in the afternoon the hotel clerk came to my room…I had received a call! First lesson in traveling…have a plan B!
Before leaving the U.S. I had ordered, through AAA, a shiny bright new red Triumph Spitfire…$2000…from the British factory in London. So the first thing we did was make our way to pick up the car…then to learn to navigate driving on the left side of the road…nearly killing ourselves and possibly someone else until we got used to it.
Cheese & Wine…Barbara still in her ankle cast
After getting the car and ourselves across the English channel to the Continent, we took off across Europe.
However, when we stopped for the 500 mile check in Milan Italy, the mechanic didn’t screw the oil cap on tight enough…leaving us stranded on a lonely road late at night in southern France near Leon. We spent the night curled up under the tonneau cover. The next morning we locked up the car, hitched a ride the 60 km into Leon, had a good strong expresso, looked at each other and realized there was nothing we could do about the car here! So back we hitched to the car. I looked in the driver manual and discovered there was a Triumph garage in Grenoble.
Finally a smallish funny-looking French truck stopped and we animatedly agreed that after he ran some errands, the driver would tow the car to Grenoble. He did return…to our surprise…and he did tow our car to Grenoble…after first taking us on a tour through several tiny dirt-road French towns with small dirt-floor houses huddled together in small French valleys. This was less than 20 years after the end of World War II and the Marshall Plan had yet to dribble down to the local level. The villagers, who had never seen Americans before, crowded around us…touching…laughing…asking questions we didn’t understand. Our driver, proudly, had provided the day’s entertainment!
We had been watching all the American and European kids hitch-hiking around Europe so once we deposited the car at the garage, (it would take 18 days, the mechanic informed us) we hiked to a nearby market, collected two orange sacks, stuffed some clothes in them, left the rest of the stuff in the trunk, and stuck our thumbs out.
In the end, betting the car wouldn’t be ready in 18 days, we left the car there until the end of the summer when we drove it to Le Havre to put it on the boat for the U.S.
In the meantime we had incredible hitch-hiking adventures in Europe…meeting wonderful people and some not so wonderful.
We tried to stick with the long-haul trucks that had to maintain a schedule…Barbara and I often lying together in the sleep compartment above the driver. One funny driver in France had recorded the conversation of a pair of Americans on a previous trip…describing how they had to sleep in a park one night. The driver didn’t understand a word of it but was amused by our facial reactions listening to the tape.
First the running of the bulls in Pamplona Spain where we spent the night in a local home, eating fried green tomatoes for the first time, while thousands of others spent nights sleeping in the fields. There were no night clubs or fancy hotels in Pamplona in those days!
Madrid, Barcelona, through the French Riviera…seeing Michelangelo’s beautiful David in Florence…Red light district in Amsterdam (Why are all these ladies standing around?”) Copenhagen, Belgium…Switzerland, sitting at the foot of the Matterhorn drinking beer while watching other young travelers sunbathing on the ice and snow on the side of the mountain.
After picking up the car in New York I drove to Omaha Nebraska where Bob, the summer before we were married, had jealously spent a dreary summer studying for his medical boards…and piled out of the car in a near state of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion.
This was to be the biggest life-changing experience of my life (and I think for Barbara)…seeing how other people in the world (at least Europe) lived and it put my own life in the States in a precarious perspective. I am still peeling the layers of that experience today…in July 2006…even after spending five years traveling twice around the world.
Tags: Altercations, England, Europe, Europe, France, Germany, Hitch-Hiking, Italy, Reflections, Spain, Travel Tips