Seven months after JFK was assassinated and four months after the Beatles played Ed Sullivan, 100,000 American students (I was one) became the first generation of middle-class American college kids who could afford to travel to Europe. That summer of ’64, thousands of us crossed the pond thanks to larger jets, cheap tickets and Arthur Frommer. We clutched Frommer’s “Europe on $5 a Day” like evangelists with a Bible.
Two Pullman cars of us University of Washington students made the round-trip from Seattle by train to Vancouver then Montreal, and by plane to London where we split up. We didn’t have iPhones; often, we didn’t have a place to sleep. For three months, my folks didn’t know if I was alive or lying face down in a canal. I carried $500 for the summer, which meant hitchhiking, second-class railway coaches, and rust buckets on the Aegean.
We were unaware that the summer was a turning point. It was our first whiff of unadorned independence. College provides training wheels, but parents often live an hour away. Now we were forced to wing it solo—“Look Ma, no hands.” Growing up, I was encouraged to get out of Dodge and see the world; when I actually did it, Ma was dabbing her eyes.
Pulling into cities and villages at night and scrounging up beds, we had to become resourceful, but we were 20 and didn’t care. This was my first plane ride, big-time art museum, major cathedral, castle, art gallery, bullfight and strip club. I met European guys who wore sandals with socks and played soccer on the beach and girls who didn’t shave their legs. We couldn’t speak the language or figure out the phones, but we could drink beer legally and gawk at Amsterdam prostitutes.
We were ready for history and culture, Paris when it sizzles and wild Italian parties. We’d seen “La Dolce Vita.” Matt, however, was different. His dad worked for Boeing and had lived in Europe. For Matt, the trip was like a half-hour drive to Tacoma. I’d never been east of Spokane, but Matt loafed in jeans and a cowboy hat and drank beer in the club car.
I carried a diary on the trip and have included a few snippets. It’s no Proustian madeleine, but it gives a glimpse of the summer between button-down 1960 and Woodstock.
LONDON June 22
— Met Sharon and Peggy, and Frank drove us to the Fighting Cocks, the oldest pub in Britain and back to London for sandwiches at the Brush & Palette with nude models and impromptu sketching. Sharon and Peggy took it admirably and were unembarrassed.
Memory, however, like the Tlingits’ raven, can turn trickster. Trips fade and change with the telling, even morph into other trips. The Brush & Palette? Like other chunks of that summer, it has slipped away, as if I had invented characters and scenes for stories I never wrote. My hormones only a few years earlier had announced, “Ready to roll, sir!” and today I cannot recall nudes? And who are Sharon and Peggy? Frank I know. He and his pal David had spent two years working in the States, driving a junker with tail fins so they could later brag they’d owned a Cadillac. We’d met in Seattle, and Frank invited me to crash with him and his parents.
The day I arrived, London was brooding, darkened by soot and splattered by rain, a city of fashionista birds, bankers in pinstripes and Beatle haircuts, frumpily dressed older women and men in heavy overcoats. Shops sold strange candy bars and cigarettes near St. Paul’s Cathedral, this time no searchlights scanning the sky for the Luftwaffe.
It made no impression on me that only 20 years separated us from D-Day.
PARIS June 26
— Tonight am staying in this room with a sink but no window save one that looks out into a basement.
The train surely had starred in an old black-and-white film. In Calais, its steam engine hissed in the dusk, passengers waving from the windows, our compartment full of spies, arms merchants and a young woman heading for a tryst in the City of Light. The engineer blew his whistle, the piercing call of a boiling teakettle, as we rolled through the night, past farmland and houses with shuttered windows, coal smoke drifting into the compartment, then crawled into Gare du Nord at 11 p.m., the Sacre Coeur stark against the sky. I lugged my suitcase along a street of neon signs and Gauloises cigarette smoke, searching for a vacant hotel room and thinking, “Now what do I do?”
PARIS June 27
— Moved to the Hotel d’Athens, at $2 a night. My room’s on the sixth floor, with a balcony and view of the Eiffel Tower. Edd, a Canadian, and I went to Montmartre and got taken at a strip joint. There was a bunch of engineering students from Marseilles, and we yelled and wisecracked, then missed the last Metro.
As we walked back to the Left Bank that night, a prostitute stepped out of the shadows. I’d only seen Shirley MacLaine in the film “Irma la Douce.” This woman looked 60 but was probably 40, tentative and shabbily dressed with a smear of lipstick.
I finally reached my room, which came with a sagging bed, wrought-iron headboard and a john down on five. By now, the hotel has changed names, but I tracked it down online and emailed a photo I’d taken from the balcony to the hotel. The hotel wrote back: “Indeed it is Room 605.” Last October, I stopped by, but Room 605 was occupied. Next time, I’ll book it for a night—it even has a bathroom.
PARIS June 29
— Met a girl from New Jersey who said stop by later. She or her roommate would be home. I went to her place this evening. Just her roomie was there. She showed up with an old beau from New Jersey.
I ducked out. I must have known even then: Never mess with girls with boyfriends from Jersey. The next night I took the train to Madrid. The seats in second-class faced each other and at night slid into a hard leathery “bed.” Eight of us slept head-to-foot, swaying and kathumping, shoes off, hoping our bedmates followed a minimum of personal hygiene, didn’t snore and weren’t thieves.
MADRID July 7
— At American Express, met Ned, a New Yorker, who I’ll get a ride with to Rome. Went to Toledo and El Greco’s house with a Canadian girl, Carolyn. I need a shower and clean clothes.
American Express, like a Hemingway bistro, was a meeting place for us, the scraggly, the tidy, the preppy. We tacked up notes, found rides and most importantly got mail, our letters waiting in clumps. We pored over them like GIs in a tent.
Travel can beat you up, and traveling solo gets tedious and lonely on a barren, unfriendly road. I sometimes envied the well-fed package-tourists rolling along on their tour bus as bellhops waited to wheel their luggage into fancy hotels.
Ned talked of “broads” and “pads” and “scenes.” He seemed abrasive and foreign to a provincial with seaweed behind the ears. Later, when stationed in Manhattan, I finally understood his New York attitude and brassy charm.
BARCELONA July 11
— Heard some local music then hit two side-street bars. Many prostitutes hanging around. Met a guy, who I think is queer, who offered me a ride to Rome. I have no intention of riding with him.
This is embarrassing, but a reminder that regardless of enlightened family discussions about civil rights, we still tossed off epithets. I’ve covered a lot of miles in 50 years. My college roomie has come out. So did my late cousin. So has my nephew. It’s all good.
NICE July 14
— Bob, a teacher from New York, and I set off to find some bread and a rampart to picnic on, but no bread stores were open. Two old ladies felt sorry for us and gave us a baguette. I offered to pay, but they refused.
One grandma had tried to flag down a geezer on a bicycle carrying a couple baguettes, but he waved them off and she gave us her own. When I handed her some francs she shook her head, eyes misty, and said, “Kennedy.”
On to Genoa, where in nearby Portofino I stumbled across an art gallery displaying originals by 1960s icon Bernard Buffet. Buffet painted elongated subjects outlined in black, and his posters were everywhere, including our campus apartment. Do art galleries charge admission? Do I have to buy a painting? (No and No.) I leafed through the art books and gawked at his paintings, then eased out. Buffet got Parkinson’s and killed himself in 1999.
ROME July 23
— Caught the 10:54 a.m. train here with Bob and two girls from George Washington University. We got rooms at the Pensione Aquila from some guy at the station. It costs $1.30 a night.
The pensione was cheap, but then the annual wage in 1964 in the States was $6,000. Major-league ballplayers pulled in $14,863, while Congress paid itself $22,500. A double at Manhattan’s St. Moritz ran $16, and the best ticket for “Hello, Dolly!” starring Carol Channing cost a whopping $9.40.
After four days, I grabbed the train to Naples. Charles Troxel, captain of the passenger liner S.S. Constitution, was in port. He had long corresponded with my mother’s grade-school students and had invited me to visit the ship. I turned up tired and grubby; he met me in his dress whites. We had dinner in his quarters, along with the director of the Naples USO, the U.S. consul and some Coast Guard brass. The ship was sailing to Genoa and he invited me along, but I had just come from Genoa, and was heading to Greece. I mumbled something about working over a summer aboard a freighter. He said I’d need seaman’s papers, nearly impossible to get, but “Sail home with us and you’ll get your papers when you land.”
The next day, he wrote to my parents: “Your eldest stopped in yesterday. Came down from Rome. Looked real good, needed a haircut, however, that’s normal for Italians. I gather he is not too good a pen pal. Says he will write in “a couple of days.” This could be anytime in the next month. Know you worry about Tim, but I wouldn’t if I were you. He is having a ball, growing up fast, and this little trip will be something he will never forget. The best part of it is he is doing it on his own.” I agonized over returning by ship, but the flight and train ride home had been paid for, and I didn’t have the money for another ticket. So I passed.
On the ferry to Greece, I ran into the GW girls and Keith, a student at Berkeley who was a disciple of Free Speech firebrand Mario Savio. We Yanks seemed to follow the same route, like ants on pheromones, and easily slipped in and out of companionship, safe in our ad hoc friendship, understanding the symbiosis without dissecting it. We lived our own la dolce vita. We knew English and old folk songs, and didn’t worry about chaperones tagging along. We took over squares, clubs and cafes, oblivious to the headlines back home: July 30: U.S. Navy Fires on North Vietnam; Aug. 4: Bodies of Four Civil Rights Workers Discovered in Mississippi Earthen Dam; Aug. 4: North Vietnam Torpedoes American Ships in Gulf of Tonkin; Aug. 7: Congress Approves Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
Keith and I sailed to Mykonos aboard the Despina, a filthy, dilapidated vessel. Passengers homesteaded on its grubby floorboards for the eight-hour trip. An Orthodox priest joined a family of six for lunch and a snooze. We rode Deck Class, which meant outside, often camping in the lifeboats, sleeping in the cold, windbreaker for a blanket and suitcase for a pillow, ignoring the “no admittance” signs.
For a while, Keith and I hung out on the fan deck with some American kids and a French girl traveling in a hat, shades, skirt and heels. Oh, those French!
VENICE Aug. 20
— I got in early enough to get into the youth hostel. Met an English girl, Vanessa, and we dodged pigeons and people to see the place.
She was standing in front of the train station, watching the boat traffic, carrying a guitar. American girls traveled in pairs or packs, but she was traveling alone. She had not found a hotel, so decided to stay at the youth hostel.
We wandered around the city, grabbed a bite at some cheap restaurant, then walked along the Grand Canal. On the train the next evening, I played her guitar (poorly) before changing trains for Munich. We made no plans, but when I returned to London, I would find a letter from her.
I drank beer in Munich and more beer in Amsterdam, where we college boys window-shopped outside the brothels but didn’t knock on the door. I didn’t stay long or write much. While I was not ready to fly home, I was ready to return to England.
London had changed—no, I had. In June, the city was damp, dark and dreary. I couldn’t wait to race to the sun. Now the city said, “Right, mate, we all make mistakes. Here you can ask directions in English, tell a joke, get a glass of milk, eat corn flakes, drink a pint and hear the Stones.”
I hitched up to Edinburgh, where I caught, as an adjunct to the city’s huge festival, the “Oxford Review” and its riot of the erudite to the screwball. The music included “Song About a Toad” and two of the skits were “Policeman on Duty” and “Pet Shop.” Catching on? None of us knew that in five years “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” would rule comedy and star two of those student actors, Terry Jones and Michael Palin. (I still have the program.)
LONDON Sept. 11
— Frank drove me over to see Vanessa, whose letter had been waiting for me.
She mentioned my playing the guitar on the train and that after I disembarked, my cigarette smoke “lingered in the air.” Frank had to run an errand and dropped me off at a chic townhouse for a visit. An older fellow (25?), whom she introduced as a cousin, walked through the drawing room. Me: “Hi.” Him: “How do you do.” We arranged a double-date for the following night, but Frank’s girlfriend had to work so that was that. The next day he and I did some sightseeing, but I was out of steam.
MONTREAL Sept. 15
I didn’t write another word. On the flight to Montreal, our student contingent swapped tales, but as the train snaked west, conversation dried up. I dozed and read and stared out the window. We went to the bar car. Matt, whose dad was the Boeing exec, was the only one who didn’t appear to be sleepwalking.
After college, I wrote Vanessa. This time her letter was perfunctory. She informed me her family was listed in Burke’s Peerage, she was addressed as “The Honorable,” and I could look it up. A few years ago I did just that, and she’d been right: Titles, country estate the size of a hotel, privilege. She got married and divorced, and committed suicide in her thirties.
Frank lives in Devon, Keith lives in L.A., and Ned the New Yorker has a pad in Seattle.