Monday, June 7, 2010

Trudging Through Europe

In the summer of 1970 after I was discharged from the Army and my friend Paul graduated from college, we took a 3 month break from our lives and backpacked through Europe. I had missed the whole ‘60s phenomenon having been on a 3-year all expense paid assignment for Uncle Sam on US Army bases and in South East Asia. I felt I had missed the biggest party and the best music of my generation. Paul had been at the University of Wisconsin, noted for its huge protest rallies with active radical anti- government and anti-military sentiment. Paul was in ROTC during his four years there. Walking across campus in his uniform on the way to an ROTC meeting was a supreme challenge. He said he had to pick his route carefully, dodging around buildings trying to avoid the many radical students.
But that summer, we were both free of our uniforms, growing our hair long and determined to make up for lost time. We found that we were not the only adventurers in Europe that summer. The continent was crawling with young long hairs from all parts of the globe, milling around in the historic cities, hitchhiking along the roadways and camping in parks and on the pristine Mediterranean beaches.
We bought backpacks for the trip. Paul found a canvas one at an Army Navy surplus store. Mine was nylon with an external aluminum frame. Both packs got progressively heavier as we went along. We filled them with presents for our families and items that we just could not pass up. For example in Italy we discovered a new kind of sneaker made in Germany. They were called Adidas and were sort of like a tennis shoe, but more streamlined and with better arch support. They came in a variety of colors and had three stripes on the side. We
were excited about showing people at home these new shoes and
wondered if they would ever catch on in America.
This was two years before Nike started the running shoe craze for everyday wear. We appreciated how these shoes felt as we trudged around with those heavy packs.
The Spanish trains were slow. We were working our way toward Portugal along the Spanish Riviera, but it felt like it was taking forever. In Valencia, a beautiful seaside town, I bought a flamenco guitar and a soft case with a handle. I was a fairly new guitar player and only knew a few songs, but I had visions of serenading some babes down on the beach. Well, that never happened, but I did became a one handed pack animal from then on.
When we got into Barcelona it was late at night and we found there were no rooms to rent because there was some kind of festival going on. We spent the night unsuccessfully attempting to get comfortable on wooden park benches with no pillows or blankets. Vowing never again to be caught out unprepared, we kept our eyes open for light sleeping bags or blankets.
Greece had the best and cheapest stuff of all. We bought jewelry for our moms, dresses for our sisters and some ornate vases that were intricately carved and must have weighed about 5 pounds each. Into the packs the stuff went. I wanted a shoulder bag and found an endless variety in the tourist shops. I bought a yellow one with a Greek design across the middle and a white rope cord. I saw a lot of guys with shoulder bags. I thought I looked hip with it slung over my shoulder. Paul later told me I looked “twinkie”. We each bought puzzle rings that required a fair amount of practice to put back together after they fell apart with regular frequency.
From Greece we took the Orient Express up along the coast of Yugoslavia. We stayed at a youth hostel in Belgrade. There were pictures of Tito everywhere we went. We had no idea who the guy was but agreed he was very popular. The people in Yugoslavia, still under Communist rule at the time, were extremely nice and very curious about anything to do with the western world. At the hostel however, we thought we had been treated poorly, I don’t remember what the issue was, but we felt justified stealing a couple wool blankets they had supplied us for the night. In the early morning we slipped out with our stolen blankets cleverly concealed. Once clear of the place, we readjusted our loads draping the blankets over the top of our packs like saddle blankets on a cowboy’s horse.
We wanted to go up into the mountains of Austria and felt we needed hiking boots. The pair I bought was big, made of hard leather and very heavy. Paul envied my sturdy rock climbing boots, but actually his lighter boots were the smarter purchase. We went on a few hikes in the mountains of Austria and Switzerland then had to carry the boots around with us everywhere else. We tied the laces together, readjusted the blankets and slung the boots over the top.
The purchase we were most looking forward to was Swiss watches. First, we went to a Rolex distributor. For about $300 we could have bought gold watches that would sell for thousands of dollars today, but we decided to go for the less expensive Bulovas. They had just come out with the tuning fork design that kept perfect time and ran off a battery. I opted for a slightly less expensive self-winding watch with an attractive blue face. Paul bought the more high tech battery powered watch, a present for his dad. He was so worried about customs, that he smeared chocolate all over it on the airplane and wore it concealed on one wrist, while his own watch was on the other.
After returning home Paul took the watch to the local jeweler to find out the real value of this most cherished purchase bought from an authentic Swiss dealer. The jeweler carefully looked at it and then motioned for Paul to come over and look in one of his display cases. There it was, the exact same watch and for less money. My self-winding watch never kept time very well and then petered out all together. I still have it in one of my desk drawers along with the broken puzzle ring and some broken Greek jewelry my mom dutifully wore several times just to be appreciative. She was that kind of mom. The Greek dress was too small for my sister and quickly got discarded. My blanket was eaten by moths, amazingly Paul still has his, but our boots got moldy and had to be thrown out. The guitar is long gone and of course the Adidas have been replaced numerous times by Tigers which predated Nikes, Pumas, Reeboks and Sauconys.
Both Paul and I consider that summer trip one of the highlights of our lives. I’m relatively sure that by the time the summer was over, we could have confidently signed on with a Himalayan expedition as sherpas. Man those packs were heavy!

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