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CARP Member Bill Gault shares experiences from his younger days as he sets off to travel around Europe.
Part 4 of Bill’s travel experiences have now been added, please scroll down if you have already read his first three instalments.
I am a retired physicist and long time CARP member living in Oakville. An old knapsack from my early days got passed down to my grandson who is starting to feel the urge to travel. He remarked, “I bet this bag could tell some stories.” I decided to write down some of those stories for him and our family to read. When CARP Halton Chapter offered the opportunity for people to share their experiences with fellow members, I made this story available and hope it will be of interest to your readers and maybe even inspire others to share their story as well.
My grandson, Jordan, has the old knapsack that I used in my youth to do my first big trip to Europe. Jordan wondered, if the knapsack could speak, what interesting stories would it tell? Here are the stories from my backpacking days in the early 60s.
RESTLESS TO GET ON THE ROAD
On the January morning in 1962 that I left Ottawa the temperature was -20F. I had travelled before but this time I was heading off on my own and going to non-English speaking countries; something I had never done before. My parents reluctantly saw me off at the train station. My big adventure, a backpacking tour of Europe, would take me away for 6 months or so. My objectives were London, where I would spend the winter months soaking up culture and exploring the great city before I took to the road and, ultimately, arrive in Greece. I wanted to see the Parthenon and walk where Socrates had walked. In between, there would be other countries to explore, especially Italy. It was a very romantic notion and one I had dreamed about for a long time. It was also a coming-of-age event for me and about time as I had been restless for a long time to get on the road.
The train from Ottawa took me to Montreal, where I connected to the train to St. John, New Brunswick, taking me right to the docks, where I boarded the Empress of Britain, the ocean liner on which I had booked passage to England. She was an impressive size, I thought, 25,000 tons and many decks but small by comparison with a modern cruise ship.
SOME MIGHTY ROLLS
Three days out from St. John I noticed the crew stringing ropes about chest high throughout the public areas. One of them told me it was just in case we have some swells. That was an understatement. The next morning the ship was rolling so much I nearly fell out of bed. I went to a higher deck where I could find out what was happening and saw enormous waves, as high as the ship, with a wind that took every bit of spray and shot it horizontally. I ventured outside but the wind was so strong I could only cling to a railing and hope I wouldn’t be blown away. The wind got in my mouth and blew my cheeks out like balloons. I decided to stay inside, at least for now. Soon, an announcement came over the loudspeakers telling us that the ship would be turned around to face the wind and during this operation, “we might experience some heavy rolls.” As if the current ones weren’t enough!
We succeeded in getting turned around and there were some mighty rolls, all right. Now I understood why all the heavy furniture was attached to hooks on the floor with steel cables. A crew member told me about a storm they had been in when a grand piano had broken loose from its mooring and went crashing back and forth across the room until they could tie it down with ropes. He said that when the wind blows from behind, it causes the ship to roll, and that can be very dangerous, so they turn it to face the wind. But that causes the ship to pitch because it’s riding over the waves, up and over a crest and down into the next trough, over and over again. It’s like being on an elevator that has gone crazy and won’t stop. The least amount of motion is in the middle of the ship, near the centre of gravity, but I went to the stern, to experience it to the max (I was on an adventure, after all). At the top of a pitch, it felt like being tossed up in the air. At the bottom, I felt crushed into the deck (0G at the top, 2G at the bottom).
When the wind had subsided a bit I went back outside and found some sailors cleaning the deck. I asked one what he thought of the storm. He said, “What storm? That was just a breeze.” But the next day when I looked at the log where they recorded our location and weather, I found: “Very heavy seas. Wind Force 9.” For landlubbers, force 9 is a severe gale, a few notches shy of hurricane force (which is force 12), so I’d say we had more than just a breeze.
We sailed at a dead slow speed back towards Canada all day long. That evening at dinner, only about half the people showed up. I could guess what the other half were doing. To my surprise, I didn’t feel seasick at all. The whole thing was just exciting. From a crew member I got some advice on what to do when the ship is rolling or pitching. Stay in a place where you can see the horizon. One cause of seasickness is the confusion between what your eyes see and what your sense of balance tells you. If it’s feasible, outdoors in the fresh air is best. Reading a book is not a good idea. And don’t let yourself get hungry – keep some food in your stomach.
The next morning, the storm had blown itself out and we were sailing east again. This voyage was not a cruise. In 1962, the cheapest way to get to Europe was by ship, not plane. By the time we reached Liverpool, a day late, everyone was very glad to get off that ship.
LONDON AT LAST
I took a train to London and went to the Overseas Visitor’s Club (OVC), a place where young people from Commonwealth countries could stay temporarily while looking for accommodation. In my comings and goings over the next couple of months, I stayed at the OVC several times. In between, I stayed in rooms that were rented out privately called “bed-sitters,” consisting of one room with a bed, a table and a chair or two. Heat was provided by a coin-operated gas heater. Sixpence, about seven cents at the exchange rate of the day, bought you an hour of heat.
Heat was an important commodity in London in the winter because many places did not have central heating. The temperature never got terribly low but it always seemed cold. It was that damp, penetrating, relentless cold that London is famous for. The fastest way to wake up in the morning was to sit on an icy English toilet seat. The shot of adrenaline lasted ’til noon. Coffee was unnecessary.
One night we had some snow and in the morning the ground was covered with it. I woke up that morning to the sound of shouting outside my window. There was a bunch of guys from South Africa, about my age, making a snowman, rolling in the snow and throwing snowballs at each other, having fun like little kids. They had never seen snow before.
People in England found it hard to believe how cold the winters were in Canada. One person asked me and I told him that on the day I left, for example, it was 20 below zero. (We used Fahrenheit in those days.) He said, “Well, sometimes we get 20 degrees of frost here” (meaning 20 degrees below freezing). Then his friend said, “No, no, mate. He said 20 below zero! That’s 52 degrees of frost!” The first guy could hardly believe it. “What! I could never live in that,” he said.
London is a fascinating city. I was determined to make the most of it so I bought a good guidebook and started showing myself around. The area called The City of London is a very small space, about a square mile on the north side of the Thames, and it corresponds to Londinium, the town built by the Romans 2,000 years ago. If you hear someone refer to “The City” in London it means this square mile. Bits of the old Roman wall around the town can still be seen. But today, London is a gigantic sprawl, many villages all grown together. It is hard to know where its limits are but the administrative region called Greater London has more than 8 million people. London suffered a lot from bombing during World War II, especially during the Blitz in 1940-41, when the Luftwaffe tried to bring Britain to its knees. In 1962, there were still many bombed out sites. London was still rebuilding after the devastation of the war.
In the evenings, I went to as many plays and concerts as I could afford and during the days walked and walked and walked, exploring the city and visiting museums, learning as much as I could. The show I wanted to see most was Beyond the Fringe, a comedy review by four guys from Oxford. When I went to the theatre to get a ticket they told me that there wasn’t an empty seat for the next four months. So I never did get to see it live. I found that, in London, hot new plays were always sold out. With plays that were good but not red hot, you could always get a seat. With classical concerts, a lot depended on who was performing. If the concert had a brilliant new soloist, it was impossible to get a seat. The same concert with a less well known soloist – no problem.
I went to see Henry V at the Old Vic, a venerable old theatre that opened in 1818. When I was there, it was the place in London to see Shakespeare. In 1980, the Old Vic was put up for sale. That was when Ed Mirvish bought it by outbidding Andrew Lloyd Webber. There was a lot of consternation in the British press about the Old Vic being bought by a businessman from Toronto called Honest Ed. But Mirvish restored it to its former glory and made it work as a theatre, just as he had done for the Royal Alexandra in Toronto. His obituary is still in the archives of the Evening Standard, a London newspaper, where he is called the saviour of the Old Vic. A photo shows him chatting with the Queen Mother at the reopening of the theatre after the renovations.
Another interesting theatre was the Windmill, a variety theatre. It was the first theatre in Britain to show nude bodies (i.e., women) on stage legally. Nudity on stage was illegal, except…they found a way to convince the censor that nudity was OK if the naked people were not moving. They would be like living statues, and many statues in public places had nude figures in them. The censor bought the idea and the Windmill became a very popular spot, especially with servicemen during the war, and it was one of the only theatres that did not close, even during the London Blitz. The curtain that comes down during intermissions has their motto on it: “We Never Closed.” A movie was made in 2005 about the Windmill theatre called “Mrs. Henderson Presents” starring Judi Dench. It is now a stage musical.
I was seeing interesting things in London but I was doing it alone. My few social contacts were people like me, temporary visitors, on the move. Eventually, the loneliness and the perpetual cold began to get to me.
To take a break from London, I decided to make a trip up to Oxford to visit my friend Boudy, who had won a Rhodes scholarship and was studying economics there.
I stayed in a room in Boudy’s college (University College) and had a close look at life at Oxford, the oldest university in the English-speaking world. No one knows exactly how old it is, but it has been around for at least 900 years. It is a collection of colleges that are scattered around the city of Oxford, each college with its own history and traditions. Most of the colleges are built around a square courtyard or quadrangle (“the quad,” as the students say) of manicured grass upon which you may not walk. Ideally, the students and professors live in the college. An Oxford education is built around the tutorial system where you and a small group of students meet with the tutor (or professor) once a week. You will have been assigned a topic on which you did some research and wrote an essay. You read your essay to the group and have it critiqued by the tutor and other students. Each student reads their essay and has it critiqued by the group. Then you each get a topic for next week and the process continues. After a few years of this, you have researched many topics, written many essays and learned to write, present your arguments, defend them and critique the work of others. There are lectures given and you can go to them if you want to but the heart of the Oxford system is the tutorial.
While I was there, I went to a lecture that was given by Kenneth Clark, a well known art historian of the time. Boudy told me that I would not be admitted unless I was wearing a gown. I had noticed that the students often wore plain black gowns, just loose pieces of cloth with arm holes, over their regular clothes. It seems that, when you are doing any sort of academic activity, you are required to wear a gown. So Boudy lent me his. There was no admission fee; you just had to be wearing a gown.
There is a rich social life at Oxford besides the academic. Some students get so involved in the social life that they neglect their studies and find themselves being “sent down,” i.e., expelled. Being sent down from Oxford is definitely not a good career move.
Sports are considered important and everyone who goes there is encouraged to pick a sport and get involved. Boudy decided to take up rowing and made it to his college’s rowing team. They did a lot of training and then competed against the other colleges. Here is a link to a photo of his boat club that includes Stephen Hawking as a member of the team. Boudy is standing at the back against the wall, left of centre. Rowing is a big deal there and the annual Oxford vs. Cambridge race in London on the river Thames is a huge event. (Oxford and Cambridge universities are big rivals. Each refers to the other as “the other place.”) There are a lot of sports to choose from: cricket, rugby, soccer, karate, swimming, running… Roger Bannister, the first person to run a mile in under 4 minutes, was an Oxford man.
The pubs are another aspect of life at Oxford. Each college has its own favourite pub, a meeting place to relax with friends and have a pint or two. And there are clubs for every area of interest you can imagine. I went to a meeting of the archaeology club, not that I knew anything about archaeology, but I found it interesting to learn about it. I was treated kindly, as a knowledge-free but interested visitor, and was invited to accompany them to one of their digs. They were tracing out the foundations of a building from Roman times, about 2,000 years old. They had dug several trenches and sunk one deep hole in a likely place. They did find some interesting stuff – jewelry, I think. I remember scratching in the ground for a while and finding what looked like chicken bones. Probably some Roman worker had a drumstick in his lunch bag and tossed it away when he had finished eating.
THE OTHER PLACE
I also made a short trip to Cambridge. Cambridge University was founded in 1209 by some people who were forced to leave Oxford and it has the same sort of college system. There were a few things there that interested me. It was more renowned for its science and mathematics than Oxford was. It is the place where Isaac Newton had lived and worked up to 1696, when he left the university and moved to London, where he became Warden of the Royal Mint. Cambridge was where Ernest Rutherford discovered the structure of the atom and where Stephen Hawking works. Newton was one of those very rare people who changed the world with his ideas. He invented calculus and discovered the law of gravity and his three laws of motion. With these, he explained the motions of the planets. He hated controversy but got involved in a lot of it. So I visited Trinity College where Newton worked and saw his library of books. I poked my finger through the screen and touched one of Newton’s books. Maybe some of his genius would rub off on me.
KNAPSACK FOR SALE
Back in London, I decided that it was time to organize the next phase of my trip and get ready to head south. But if I was going on the road, I needed a bag to carry my worldly goods. The suitcase I had taken to Oxford and Cambridge was awkward and needed one hand to carry it. I needed a big bag that I could carry on my back that would leave my hands free – a backpack or rucksack or knapsack. I scanned the bulletin board at the OVC and found a note saying, “Used Knapsack For Sale £5.” I got in touch with the author of the note and had a look at the bag. It was grey canvas with leather straps and a metal frame. It was designed to carry the weight over the shoulders and across the hips, keeping the bag off the spine – a good design. It was big enough to carry all my stuff. I tried it on and it was comfortable. The owner said he had bought it from a New Zealander who had used it for his rock climbing trips, then had brought it on a trip to Europe and sold it when he was leaving to go home. He didn’t know if there were previous owners or just how old it really was. New Zealand, I thought, hmm…interesting. Maybe I’ll go there one day. I liked the bag and I bought it. I called it “Knapsack.”
As I was apprehensive about travelling alone in countries where English was not the common language, I began to look around for a travelling buddy or a group that I could join. I put a note on the bulletin board at the OVC and checked it periodically. There wasn’t much interest but finally I found a group of three, two Australian women and a man, who were looking for a fourth (a male) to join them in a trip to the continent. I met with them and we agreed to go together. But at the last minute, the other guy had to back out and the ladies (for some reason) didn’t want to travel with just one male so they called it off. I decided, enough of this, I’ll just go it alone. I needn’t have worried – this was where the fun really began.
The next morning I put all my belongings into Knapsack and went down to breakfast at the OVC. The place was busy and the only free seat was at a table that already had someone sitting at it. I sat down and we started talking. He was Mike from South Africa and he was heading off to Europe on his own, leaving that same morning. He had had the same experience I did – nobody to travel with so he was going alone. Spain was not in my plans but he wanted to go there. He said if I would agree to go to Spain, we could travel together as far as Rome. He was a Catholic and the high point of his pilgrimage would be the Vatican. So I changed my plans on the spot. We got train tickets for Madrid and set off together.
In my first section of the Knapsack story, I began my travels spending January and February, 1962, in London. There I purchased a big knapsack (which I called Knapsack) and decided to head off to points south. After failing to find others to travel with, I finally hooked up with Mike from South Africa on the morning of departure and the two of us took off to see continental Europe on a shoestring.
KNAPSACK GOES TO SPAIN
The train from London took us to the ferry where we crossed the Channel to France, then caught the next train to Paris. We found a place to stay overnight. On this whole trip, I had no advanced reservations for anything except the ship back to Canada. I seem to have had little interest in seeing Paris and had no idea of the large part it would play later in my life (I worked there for two years.) All I can remember from this overnight was the unfriendly landlady and my first encounter with a bidet. What was that contraption on the floor used for, anyway? Washing your feet? Well, possibly, and some other body parts, as well.
The next day the train took us to Bayonne in the southwest corner of France, just across the border from Spain. We arrived there in the evening and, after a wait, boarded the Spanish train for Madrid. We were trying to save money so we took the cheapest tickets we could find. In France, that was second class but in Spain they still kept the old tradition of providing 1st, 2nd and 3rd class carriages. Third class was dirt cheap, crowded, hard benches and good luck! We boarded the train early and found a compartment with enough room to put Knapsack on the baggage rack.
If I had trouble finding social contacts in London, our overnight ride in a third class carriage on the Spanish train made up for all of that. By the time we left, our section was packed with people, standing room only, and they were intensely curious about us. Where are you from? Canada? Where’s that? Where are you going? Why? It seemed I was having a conversation with people without having a language in common with them. It was a mixture of some English, some Spanish, some French and a lot of hand gestures, but somehow we seemed to understand each other. They were particularly amused by Mike, who had a beard. In those days, Spanish men did not wear beards (maybe they still don’t) and they couldn’t understand why he kept all that hair on his face. (After a couple of days in Madrid, he shaved it off, as he was tired of explaining himself.) We had all kinds of people in our carriage – all ages, from children to aged people, peasants, business people, students, tourists (us), even a priest. Food and drink appeared and everything was shared around. Bottles of wine were passed around until they were empty. The party went on until late at night, when people started nodding off. Some people seemed to be sleeping standing up. Finally, dawn appeared and pretty soon the train pulled in to Madrid.
We stayed in a pensione in Madrid, a home in a row of adjoining houses where the family rented out rooms to visitors. I don’t remember how we found it but it was the best bargain I have ever seen. I had a comfortable bed, clean linen every day, three big meals and lots of information and conversation, right in the centre of Madrid – for $1 a day. Spain in those days was a poor country, still under the control of the fascist dictator Franco. The peseta was worth little. I could have lived in Spain for a year on the money I had in my pocket. Spain moved towards democracy after Franco’s death in 1975.
There was an English-speaking student living in the pensione who showed us around Madrid. We went to a bar with a bullfighting theme where there were ears and tails from bulls killed by various matadors hanging on the wall. When I ordered a glass of wine, the bartender put a glass on the bar, took a bottle and sprayed it in the general direction of my glass. A lot of the wine fell on the bar but that didn’t seem to matter. Wine in Madrid in those days was cheaper than water.
We got back to the pensione rather late and the door was locked. Our student guide clapped his hands a couple of times and a man in a uniform appeared with keys. He opened our door, collected his tip and disappeared. All the doors in our street were locked at a certain time from the outside every night and the only way to get in to your home was to call the night watchman.
We stayed a few days in Madrid, visited the Prado art museum, then took the train to Barcelona on the Mediterranean coast. It is the capital of Catalonia, one of the 15 regions, along with Andalusia, Galicia, Navarre, etc., that were joined together in the 16th century to make the country of Spain. The official language is Spanish but local dialects are still spoken in most of the various regions. Catalonia and the Basque region, on the north coast, are rather different because the local languages are not dialects of Spanish, but entirely different languages. Basque is very ancient, unrelated to any known language, and the Basques have been living where they are for a very long time, possibly since the Stone Age. Catalan, on the other hand, is closely related to the Occitan languages of southern France. Many of both the Basques and the Catalans have strong feelings of independence and separatist movements have developed in both regions. (In 2014, a non-binding referendum supported independence for Catalonia from Spain.)
Barcelona is a beautiful port city with a well preserved medieval section. Picasso spent his formative years here. It is also known for its architects, the most famous of whom is Antoni Gaudi. The cathedral, named Sagrada Familia, is Gaudi’s fanciful masterpiece. He died in 1926, before it was finished. Although it is still unfinished, it is the most visited monument in Spain.
Things were working out well with Mike as a travelling companion. He was interested in a lot of the same stuff I was interested in. He was flexible, willing to change plans as the situation demanded, kept cool in a crisis and had a sense of humour. Mike’s passionate interest was history but he didn’t think he could make a living as a historian and he didn’t want to be a high school teacher so he became a banker instead.
KNAPSACK GOES THROUGH FRANCE
After a couple of days in Barcelona, we took the train north into France to Perpignan, a city near the Mediterranean coast. Our plan was to follow the coast through southern France around to Italy and then go south to Florence and Rome. At Perpignan, we stayed at the youth hostel, part of a network of hostels that provide young people with cheap accommodation. In exchange for a bed, dinner and a breakfast, guests pay a very small fee but are also expected to do a chore. So you might find yourself cleaning the toilets or peeling potatoes for the day’s dinner. By hitchhiking and staying at youth hostels, it was possible for a young person to take a trip on a shoestring. In the 1960s, hitchhiking was an accepted way of travelling and there were lots of young people on the road asking for lifts. At least, that was true in some countries but less so in others. England was good for hitchhiking but Scotland was not. Germany and Holland were good but not France. But in spite of France’s reputation, Mike and I decided to give it a try. We stood by the side of the road out of Perpignan for hours, thumbs in the air, but finally gave up. I hoisted Knapsack onto my back and we trudged back into town and bought train tickets for Marseilles.
We arrived at Marseilles late, after dark. Marseilles had a reputation as a tough town. It was France’s busiest port and was also, in those days, the heroin capital of Europe. Poppies were grown in Turkey and other places and sent to Marseilles, where the heroin factories turned them into street drugs. (Years later, the French police cracked down on this operation. The heroin people packed up and moved, some say, to Amsterdam.)
The train station was in a grim district. True to our plan (or lack thereof) we had no hotel reservation. We walked around the streets feeling very conspicuous – two young guys with knapsacks in a crowd of very rough looking characters. We found a door marked “Hotel” and went in. “Vous voulez une chamber ici?” I guess we didn’t look like their typical client. Yes, we want a room here because we’re exhausted and hungry and just need a bed for the night. And, yes, we know this isn’t the Ritz.
The room was clean enough. It had two cots and no toilet. For that you went upstairs to a little room that contained a toilet that everyone shared. The stairs were dark. The only light was a beam of moonlight coming down through a hole in the roof. I have no words to describe the disgusting mess that was our common toilet.
Back in our room, I suggested to Mike that we go out and find a meal somewhere. He said, “No. You go if you want, but I would rather starve in this room than go out on that street and have my throat slit for the change in my pocket.” He could not be persuaded but my stomach demanded attention so I went out alone. I found a café and ordered a plate of pasta. I thought that would not take long to prepare and I could be back to our room quickly. I sat down at a table and the pasta soon appeared. I had noticed that a man a few tables away had turned and was staring at me. I glanced at him from time to time as I ate and he just sat there, staring at me. I began to imagine his sinister intentions. I was very relieved that, when I got up and left, he did not follow me. Back in our room again, I found Mike lying on his bed, reading a book. “Glad you made it back,” he said.
In the morning, after a night’s sleep and with the sunshine and people going about their morning activities, the world was a much cheerier place. No doubt Marseilles has its charms but we didn’t stay around to look for them. We just went back to the train station and continued our journey eastward.
We stayed at Cannes, the city on the Riviera where the famous film festival takes place. It seemed to be a pleasant enough place with a beach but not very interesting. For some reason, we decided to give hitchhiking another try. At first it seemed that we would have our usual luck, but then a car pulled over. People were waving at us. It was two women, the same two Australians I had tried to hook up with in London. They had recognized me. I could hardly believe my eyes. This had to be a once-in-a-lifetime coincidence! It was also a hitchhiker’s dream. They were going to Italy via Switzerland and Austria, and we were welcome to join them. Switzerland and Austria were not in our plans but we changed on the spot and accepted their generous offer.
KNAPSACK GOES TO ITALY VIA SWITZERLAND AND AUSTRIA
First we drove to Milan, in northern Italy, then north into Switzerland and stopped for a night in St. Moritz, a place famous for its ski resorts. It was March but still very cold in the mountains. Our Australian friends seemed a bit more flush with cash than Mike and I were, so they could afford to stay in decent hotels. Mike and I were trying to make our shoestring budgets stretch as far as possible so we looked for the cheapest accommodation. In St. Moritz, this meant a hostel dormitory. But this was a dormitory with a difference. Instead of the usual individual beds they had enormous bunk beds that could hold multiple sleepers per bed. My bed held five people across its width and I was somewhere in the middle. I took off my shoes but slept in my street clothes. Or rather, I didn’t sleep but lay there all night, wide awake. This was a bit too cheap, even for me!
The next day we were in Innsbruck, in Austria, in another hostel but one that was more comfortable than the last one. Then on to Salzburg, Mozart’s home town, where we spent a day looking around. All this part of the trip, through Switzerland and down the length of Austria, had gorgeous scenery. We were driving parallel to a range of the Alps that runs from Switzerland along the length of Austria. And at the eastern end of Austria was our objective, the city our Australian ladies really wanted to see: Vienna.
We had heard of a hostel in a little park near the centre of town and decided to check it out. We were dropped off at the park and looked for the hostel. It was nowhere to be seen. We looked all around the park, up and down the side streets, checked the address over and over again but couldn’t find the hostel. Finally we found a policeman and asked him if he could help. He pointed to a stairwell going down into a hole in the ground. The hostel was under the park! “Danke schӧn,” I thanked the policeman. “Bitte schӧn,” he replied.
The hostel was fine, as hostels go, except that it was not heated. And it was cold, and there was nowhere to go to get warm. Even the cafés did not open until 4 o’clock. Oh, how I looked forward to 4 o’clock, when I could sit down, unthaw my frozen body and have a warm meal. I tried to soak up enough heat to last until the next day at 4 o’clock.
While in Vienna, I added a few expressions to my meagre collection of German vocabulary. These were, Danke schӧn and Bitte schӧn (thank you very much and you’re welcome – see above) and Auf Wiedersehen, usually shortened to Wiedersehen. This means, “until we meet again” or “’bye for now,” the short term goodbye. It is used a lot. Whenever we left a location, such as a café, everyone would say “Wiedersehen,” even though we had never seen them before. It was as if, just by being in the café at the same time, we had formed a social bond that required recognition when we were leaving. Once we were at the back of a long, narrow café and when we left, it was Wiedersehen, Wiedersehen, Wiedersehen, Wiedersehen, … 10 or 15 times. And of course, when someone gives you a Wiedersehen, you have to give a Wiedersehen back.
The other word that I learned, to my dismay, was Geschlossen (“closed”). It was posted on just about every door that I wanted to pass through. The cafés were Geschlossen until 4 o’clock, the Beethoven and Mozart museums were Geschlossen because it was out of season, the main museum was Geschlossen for renovations, other places were just plain Geschlossen. We did a lot of walking around the city, looking at places from the outside. We visited the Prater, an amusement park, and took a ride on the giant ferris wheel. Vienna is a beautiful city and it seemed that everyone went for a walk on Sunday afternoon. The parks were full of people strolling around enjoying the sunshine.
Vienna has a glorious past, and evidence of that is still to be seen, with a big cathedral and other grand buildings here and there. The former emperor’s summer palace is a huge place on the outskirts of the city. We took a bus there and had a tour of the palace which, for some reason, was not Geschlossen. For a long time, Vienna has been famous for its music. Anyone who was anyone in classical music performed in Vienna at some point and some of the greatest composers lived there. It was the home of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert. Johann Strauss Sr. and Jr., famous for waltzes, also lived there. Sigmund Freud, creator of psychoanalysis, studied and worked in Vienna.
After a few days, it was time to move on. We hooked up with our Australian ladies again and took off across the mountains, into Italy, skirting by Venice (didn’t see it, though) and on to Florence. Florence was a place where I wanted to spend some time, so our Australian friends left us there and went on to Rome, ending the longest hitchhiking lift I have ever had.
FLORENCE AT LAST
This was a city I had really looked forward to seeing. The Italian name is Firenze, derived from the Latin name Florentia, meaning “blossoming.” It was the birthplace of the Renaissance, that great blossoming of art and philosophy that replaced the Middle Ages in Europe. It began in the 14th century and did not happen everywhere at the same time but it started in Florence and spread from there. Florence was the city of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Petrarch, Dante and Galileo. It was also the home of a friend of mine, Mario, whom I met while working at the observatory in Ottawa (where I worked to earn the money to finance this trip.) Mario was in Ottawa temporarily on a fellowship to study spectroscopy. I used to lend him my bicycle so he could go home at noon for lunch. His home base was the Arcetri Observatory in Florence and he told me, when I got to Florence, I had to contact him. On this trip, I accepted all invitations like this one.
A WALKABLE FEAST
Florence is not a huge city and the central core is very walkable. The Arno River flows through the centre and there are several bridges crossing it, including the Ponte Vecchio, one of the most famous bridges in Italy.
It still has shops that are built on the bridge. Earlier, many bridges in Europe had structures built on them but the Ponte Vecchio is one of the only ones left like this. It is a convenient place for merchants to sell their goods because there is usually a lot of traffic on the bridges.
Another landmark of Florence is the cathedral, the Duomo, with its distinctive pointed dome that dominates the skyline of the downtown area. The main structure took 140 years to build, starting in 1296.
The Uffizi gallery is one of the world’s great art museums. It contains a huge collection of (mostly Italian) art treasures. I enjoyed seeing the Botticellis, especially the one of Venus rising from the sea on a seashell. I was very familiar with it from illustrations in books but to see the original was thrilling. At the Uffizi, I developed a bad case of museum fatigue. I had first noticed it in London at the British Museum. As I dragged myself around from one amazing display to another, my eyes started to glaze over and I was no longer taking in very much. I found that multiple short visits to see specific items was a much better way to do it. But I only had a few days in Florence. I think I managed to visit the Uffizi twice.
Mike and I went up to the Arcetri Observatory to hook up with Mario. He showed us around the observatory, which is on one of the hills surrounding Florence. He then drove us around the town, pointing out places of interest. Clearly, he loved his city. I wondered how cars navigated the old town safely, as the buildings are built right to the corners, with sidewalks often only wide enough for one person at a time. If you are driving, you have to enter the intersections completely blind to any traffic on the street you are crossing. Mario demonstrated how this is done: lean on the horn and step on the gas. If you don’t hear anyone else’s horn before yours, you assume that you have the right of way. It sounds risky but it works. In the week we were in Florence, we never saw any accidents.
GALILEO LIVED HERE
Mario took us to Fiesoli, a village on another of the hills, where there is a famous mediaeval monastery. We visited the monastery and saw the tiny cells where the monks lived, prayed and meditated and read their holy texts. Then we went back to his home for a meal. He and his wife and kids lived not far from the observatory, in the same house, I was very surprised to learn, where Galileo had lived and died.
Galileo was the first scientist to point a telescope at the night sky and he made some amazing discoveries: the craters on the moon, the phases of Venus, the moons of Jupiter, and many more. He wrote a book supporting the Copernican theory that the Sun was the centre of the planetary system, not the Earth. But the Church claimed that Galileo’s theories contradicted certain passages in the Bible and that made him a heretic. He was reported to the Inquisition, tried and convicted of heresy and ordered to recant. He did recant because the alternative would have been very unpleasant. He was still considered a heretic but, since he had recanted, he was spared a gruesome execution and was placed under house arrest, in the very house where Mario and his family lived. Galileo lived there for the rest of his life but, in a way, he did have the last laugh. While under arrest, he wrote a book summarizing his work and a friend took it to Amsterdam, where it was published beyond the reach of the censor. So his work did become available to the public. There is a small science museum in Florence, now the Museo Galileo, where you can see two of the telescopes Galileo used to make his discoveries. Also, in a glass case, is one of Galileo’s fingers. After he died, someone seems to have removed it from his body and it ended up in the museum.
HOW TO EAT SPAGHETTI
One of the things I wanted to do while I was in Italy was discover how people eat spaghetti. What I observed in a couple of restaurants in Florence was as follows: take the fork in the right hand, jab it into the pile of spaghetti, hoist it to the mouth and just keep pushing more and more strands to the mouth with the fork. No cutting with the knife, no fancy twirling with fork and spoon, just a very straightforward approach. Although I liked this method, I found that it takes practice. My first attempts were, shall we say, not quite satisfactory.
One day at lunch Mike told me he wanted to talk about a problem he was having. He was running out of money and he had not yet got to Rome, the object of his pilgrimage. He asked me if I would lend him enough money to visit Rome and the Vatican. He had money in London and when he got back to London he would send what he owed me to the American Express office in Athens. Mike had become a good friend during our time together. We had met many obstacles and solved many problems together. I had no reason not to trust him so I held my breath, crossed my fingers and lent him the money. But I realized that if for some reason I did not get the money back, I would have to cut my trip to the continent short.
KNAPSACK GOES TO ROME
We took a train to Rome, found a pensione and set out to see the sights. Rome was much larger than Florence but we could still walk where we wanted to go. We visited the famous sights, walked through the ruins of the ancient Forum, climbed over the Colosseum, tried to figure out where the Seven Hills were. What struck me most was a building we weren’t looking for. We just turned a corner and there it was, a round building with a domed roof and a front porch with classical columns.
It was the Pantheon, an ancient temple to “all the gods” (though that was a nickname) now used as a church. There is a circular opening in the centre of the dome that lets in the light (and the rain.) The dome is 43.3 m (142 ft) in diameter on the inside and is the largest dome of unreinforced concrete on Earth, still standing there, still part of a functioning building after 1,900 years. The engineer in me was very impressed.
We walked to the Vatican on a Sunday morning and stood in the crowd in St. Peter’s Square while the Pope (John XXIII) gave us his traditional blessing from his apartment window. Seen from the square, he was a tiny speck in the distance but at least my Catholic travelling buddy Mike had seen the Pope. It was our day for the Vatican so we also visited St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museum. Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, in those days, appeared to be covered with several centuries’ deposits of grime. The colours were dull. A restoration was started in 1980 that lasted 14 years and stirred up some controversy about how much overpainting had been done by others (to cover some of the bare flesh) and just what Michelangelo had originally intended it to look like. Photos taken today show brilliant colours compared with what we saw in 1962. I have not been back to see the restored frescoes, in spite of my efforts to guarantee a return to Rome by tossing a coin into the Fountain of Trevi over my left shoulder. Maybe I should have used a bigger coin.
One day we made a long walk out past the suburbs and into the countryside, south along the Via Appia antica, the Via Appia antica, the path of the old road originally built by Roman engineers in about 300 BC as a means of moving military equipment and supplies. The stone walls along the farmers’ fields contained what appeared to be bits and pieces of ancient marble, parts of columns, capitals, etc. What I would have thought of as museum pieces were so numerous around here that they ended up as parts of somebody’s wall. We came upon a small church that is commonly known as the Church of Domine Quo Vadis. St. Peter is supposed to have met Christ on the road near here and asked him where he was going (Domine, quo vadis?) Inside the church is a marble slab with two footprints in it, supposedly left there by Christ when he spoke to Peter.
Mike wanted to visit the Vatican one more time so on his next-to-last day in Rome we walked back there. Ahead of us was a small crowd, including a lot of nuns, gathered around a car that had pulled up at the curb. And there, getting out of the car and passing through the crowd, was Pope John, almost within arm’s reach.
It was time for Mike to leave and go back to London. I went to the train with him and saw him off. Now I was on my own.
I went back to the Forum for another look, then found a trattoria and ordered a meal. Seeing the sights and sitting in restaurants alone was a very different experience from having someone to talk to and share things with. I felt lonely and a bit apprehensive about the rest of the trip. I had to move on but I had one more thing to do before I left Rome.
THE GREEN FLASH
A few months before my trip, I had seen a book called The green flash and other low sun phenomena. The author was Fr. O’Connell, a Jesuit priest from Ireland, who worked at the Vatican Observatory. In reply to an inquiry, he had invited me to visit when I was in Rome. I made my way by bus south to Castelgandolfo, the site of the Pope’s summer residence, where the Vatican Observatory is located. Fr. O’Connell welcomed me and gave me a tour of the observatory. We talked about his book on the green flash. Under just the right atmospheric conditions, the last ray of direct light from the sun as it sets below a flat horizon can appear green.
Most people have not seen the phenomenon as it is relatively rare and lasts only for a second or two. Skeptics had suggested it might be just a subjective effect in the eye. From the observatory, there is a clear view to the western horizon over the Tyrrhenian Sea and Fr. O’Connell had taken many telescopic photos of the sun as it was setting. These pictures showed not only that the effect was real, but that it could be photographed on almost every clear evening, though it was often not pronounced enough to be seen by the eye alone. (I looked for the green flash many times before I saw it, unexpectedly, on two occasions, once during a flight north from Edmonton and once from the seaside in Hawaii. It must happen more often in Hawaii; on the west coast of the Big Island there is a Green Flash Café and a local brand of coffee called Green Flash Coffee.
Before I left, Fr. O’Connell gave me a copy of his book and autographed it for me. I added it to the ever increasing load that Knapsack was carrying. I went back to Rome and the next day took the train to Naples.
ON TO NAPLES
I was met at the station in Naples by a bunch of people looking for clients for their hotels. One of them attached himself to me and I decided to go along and see what he had to offer. The room was small but clean and I said I would take it. I tipped my man (generously, I thought) but he was not done with me. He proposed to be my guide around Naples – we would see everything, even Sorrento and Capri. I declined, having neither the money nor the inclination for such a venture. I think he must have practiced his look of disappointment in front of a mirror. It was a performance worthy of Olivier.
My cash reserves were close to zero so I needed to go to the American Express office to cash some traveller’s cheques. My hotel was near the railway station and the Amex office was at the opposite end of a very long street. It was after dark but it was a main street and well lit. It was, however, populated with swarms of beggars, scammers and pimps. I found this pretty unnerving and I had a long way to walk. Every few steps I was accosted and asked for a handout or propositioned about something. At one point a big, mountain of a man stepped in front of me, blocking my path. He pointed his finger at me and said, “You want a girl?” I had read somewhere that, in situations like this, just keep moving, don’t stop to chat. So I stepped around him and kept walking at a steady pace and was very relieved when I finally arrived safely back at my hotel.
The next day I stayed away from the main streets and had a very different experience of Naples. I walked through narrow back streets full of people going about their daily tasks, shopping, hanging out laundry, etc. The place was buzzing with activity and no one paid any attention to me. Lunch was a pizza in the town (I was told) where pizza was born.
The following day I took a train to Pompeii, to spend some time in the remains of the ancient city that was buried in ash by Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD.
I flashed my student card at the gate and was admitted for half price. Throughout this trip I had shown the card identifying me as a student at places that charged admission. Nowhere did it gain me any privileges or significantly reduced entrance fees except in Italy, where the benefits were generous.
In 1962, it was still possible to wander around Pompeii on your own. There were only a few places where you needed a guide to get in – the brothels, for example. Since then, attrition caused by visitors taking bits of Pompeii home as souvenirs has necessitated the mandatory use of guides.
I wandered around the streets for a couple of hours, looking in buildings and generally exploring the place. It was a strange feeling to walk the streets that had been so busy for hundreds of years and where life had come to an abrupt end on August 24, 79 AD. I felt a bit like an intruder. The little museum on the site had some examples of plaster casts of human forms that had been imprinted in the ash. In a building I found a room with two clay amphora lying on the floor. I picked one up and tipped it and some dirt spilled out. I wondered how long that dirt had been in there – 2,000 years?
I took the train back to Naples, past Vesuvius still brooding in the background. Some day it will erupt again.
The next day I was off on the train to Brindisi to catch the ferry for Piraeus, the port of Athens. Greece was calling to me.
KNAPSACK GOES TO GREECE
MY ULTIMATE GOAL
Knapsack was getting heavy and I was glad to board the ferry in Brindisi and stow it in my cabin. The ferry would take me from the “heel” of Italy to Piraeus, near Athens, with a couple of stops along the way. Seeing Greece was my ultimate goal on this trip, the focus of my pilgrimage. I had longed to make this trip ever since my Grade 11 history class had ignited a romantic curiosity in me about the ancient world and about Greece in particular.
We left Brindisi in the evening and arrived at Corfu, an island off the west coast of Greece, in the morning. We stopped there for a couple of hours and I got off the boat to look around. There were spring flowers everywhere. I sat down at a café, ordered coffee and was given a small cup of dark liquid. It looked almost like espresso but wasn’t because it turned into a mud of very fine coffee grounds near the bottom. It was my first experience of Greek coffee or as some say, Turkish coffee (but never say that to a Greek.) I found that, to get the kind of coffee I was used to, I had to ask for “Nescafé,” which seemed to be a generic term for filtered coffee. I decided to stay with Greek coffee and became very fond of it.
I hooked up with a group of Brits of about my age who were also visiting Greece for the first time. They were good company. I discovered that one advantage of travelling alone was that I was more likely to meet other people. We sailed down the west coast of Greece through the Ionian Islands. I kept track of the islands as they passed by because I wanted to identify Ithaca, the home of Odysseus, hero of the Odyssey, the man who was “never at a loss.” I’m pretty sure I figured out which island it was. Anyway, that little rocky island that we passed that afternoon will always be Ithaca to me. I thought I could see Penelope working on her loom … but, no, that was probably my imagination.
We arrived at Patras, the city on the west coast of the Peleponnese, after dark and then sailed east through the Gulf of Corinth. I woke up early the next morning and went out on deck. We were just entering the Corinth Canal, the passage cut through the Isthmus of Corinth so ships could avoid the long and dangerous trip around the Peleponnese.
Such a canal had been envisaged since the 7th century BC and attempts were made to build it, even in ancient times, but the project was not completed until 1893. The channel is too narrow for most modern ships but it is still used by smaller ships and ferries like ours. When we entered the canal, some light was starting to appear in the eastern sky. We emerged from the other end of the canal onto the dark blue waters of the Aegean Sea just as the sun was rising. We sailed east, past the island of Salamis, where the Greek navy had defeated the much larger Persian invasion fleet in 480 BC, and on to the harbour at Piraeus. We docked close to the railway station.
THE ACROPOLIS, BUT FIRST……
My first view of the Acropolis, the big, rocky outcrop in the centre of Athens, was from the train that took me from Piraeus to the downtown area. I could see the Parthenon and other ancient buildings on top. I was very keen to visit the Acropolis but I had some things to take care of before I could do that.
My first task in Athens was to visit the American Express office to see if they were holding a letter from London for me. The length of my stay in Greece very much depended on getting back the money I had loaned to Mike. And Mike proved to be as good as his word – the money was waiting for me, with a little extra as thanks.
One of the popular guidebooks for backpackers in 1962 was Europe on $5 a Day by Arthur Frommer. It had a lot of good tips and one of them was the cafeteria at the YWCA for meals in Athens. That is where I headed next. I found that you could, indeed, get a good meal there for a very good price. At the cafeteria, I talked with a young Greek man who said he would help me find a place to stay. He would be my interpreter. We walked around central Athens from hotel to hotel but none of them had a room for me. Or so they said. I remember one in particular where the man behind the desk just looked at us and shook his head before we had said a word. I began to think that these rejections had something to do with my appearance. I must have looked pretty ragged after a couple of months on the road, and then there was that big knapsack on my back. And my interpreter probably didn’t improve the impression. I had never had this problem earlier on the trip. It was after dark when we finally found a place that would take me in, a small hotel in a side street off Omonia Square. It was definitely not a five-star hotel – the drain under the sink was open and there was a bucket under it – but it was clean, centrally located and cheap, my three main requirements.
I knew I should give something to my interpreter for his services. He seemed to be a poor man and he had given me a lot of his time so I thought I would give him some money or buy him a meal or something like that. He had greater ambitions, however. He said, since we had established a solid friendship in the past few hours, would I be willing to sponsor him as an immigrant to Canada? I explained to him some of the reasons why I could not: I didn’t have the financial resources to qualify for that, the immigration people would laugh at me when I told them how long we had known each other, etc. He was disappointed. He said he worked at the central post office in Athens, which meant that he hung around the post office and sometimes they would pay him to do some translation for them. He told me that’s where I could find him and I did go and look for him one day but he was not there and no one seemed to know anything about him.
The next morning I went straight to the Acropolis, paid the entrance fee and climbed up the steps through the ancient gateway, the Propylaea, and onto the top of the great rocky outcrop. There stood the Parthenon in all its partially ruined glory. It was familiar and different at the same time, more imposing, more breathtaking than I had expected. It is said that there is not a perfectly straight line in the entire building. All the gentle curves are calculated to please the eye in subtle ways. It was a very sophisticated design, the work of Phidias, architect and sculptor, who was also responsible for the huge statue of Athena that was kept in the Parthenon and for the immense statue of Zeus at Olympia. The latter was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
I walked around the Parthenon to look at it from all angles. Much of the rocky surface of the Acropolis was very slippery, polished by millions of visitors’ shoes over the years, so I had to step carefully. There was a small museum that contained many artifacts found on the Acropolis, including some sculptures that pre-dated the Parthenon. (That museum has been moved and expanded and is no longer on the Acropolis.)
The Parthenon was designed as a monument to Athena, patron goddess of Athens and in ancient times it contained Phidias’ huge statue of the goddess, laminated in gold and ivory. The statue has long since disappeared. It also contained a treasury where much of the city’s wealth was stored. The Parthenon looked like a temple but was technically not one because it had no altar and had no priest or priestess assigned to it to perform rites. But it was the centre of a huge annual event in Athens, the Panathenaea, in which a long procession passed through the city and up to the Parthenon where many animals were sacrificed in Athena’s honour and a garment (peplos) dedicated to Athena from the previous year was replaced with a new one, crafted by a select group of girls. It was a great honour to be chosen to help create the new peplos for Athena.
The Parthenon was built from 447 to 438 BC and endured wars and earthquakes pretty much intact for over 2,000 years. But in 1687, when the Venetians and Ottomans were facing off in Athens, a shell went through the roof and ignited the gunpowder that had been stored there by the Ottomans. The explosion destroyed much of the building, leaving it as we see it today. Well, not quite. In 1816, Lord Elgin got permission from the Ottoman occupiers of Greece to remove the sculptures from the inner wall and ship them to England, where they are still on display in the British Museum as the Elgin Marbles. Lord Elgin said he was saving the sculptures from neglect but the Greeks would like to have them back. The sculptures now on the Parthenon are mostly replicas.
I explored the ancient Agora, the area north of the Acropolis that was the centre of civic life in ancient times. It is where Socrates spent a lot of time questioning people and where he was tried and sentenced to drink the hemlock. I wandered through the Plaka, an old part of town that was mostly markets, tavernas and residential buildings. An interesting event I witnessed was the changing of the guard ceremony in front of Parliament at Syntagma (Constitution) Square. It was Sunday and the soldiers were in their white uniforms that included kilts and shoes with pompoms on the toes. They marched with slow, exaggerated movements. Some visitors in the crowd were giggling at this extraordinary display but the soldiers were absolutely impervious to any reaction by the spectators. I learned that the uniforms were based on the traditional dress of the Klepts, a mountain people who were famous for their skill as thieves (thus our word “kleptomaniac”) but also famous for their fierce resistance to the Ottoman occupation. The soldiers’ uniforms were honouring the contribution of the Klepts to the defence of Greece.
I had planned my visit to Athens so I would be there at the time of full moon because I had heard that the Acropolis would be open at night for the three nights surrounding full moon. So on one of these nights I went up to the Acropolis. The Parthenon seemed bigger than it did during the day, big and ghostly in the moonlight. I could imagine Athena stepping out from between the pillars. Hmm…maybe I shouldn’t stay too long.
ON TO DELPHI
There were some places outside of Athens that I wanted to visit and one of these was Delphi, where in ancient times the Oracle would give her prognostications about the future. Delphi was one of the main religious centres of ancient Greece, dedicated to Apollo, and was located on a hillside leading to the peak of Mount Parnassus, home of the Muses, according to ancient mythology.
I took a bus west along the north coast of the Gulf of Corinth to Delphi. It was a holiday weekend and most places were closed. I finally found a taverna that had a few scraps of food left. I was beyond hungry and took whatever they could give me, some chicken, I think. I sat at a table and picked the meat off the bones and I noticed a man watching me eat. He came over to my table and told me that he could tell I wasn’t a Greek because I didn’t eat like a Greek. He pointed out that there was still a lot meat left on the bones. I was surprised because I thought I had done a pretty good job of finding everything that was edible. He took the carcass and pulled some more scraps off, to illustrate his point. Then he helped me find a place to stay. No obligation, just trying to help.
I visited the ancient site with the ruins of the Temple of Apollo and the mottos over the entrance: “Know Thyself” and “Nothing In Excess.” Farther up the slope was a stadium that had been used for races in the Pythian Games, held every four years. In ancient Greece, there were four major sets of games, the Olympics being primary, and the Pythian Games at Delphi second in prestige to the Olympics. I sat on the mountainside and looked across the valley and wondered when I would get back to Greece. I would have been surprised to know that it would be 40 years later.
My reverie was broken by giggling and chattering and I realized that I was surrounded by a swarm of school children. They were from a school in northern Greece and were on a field trip visiting Delphi. They were studying English in school and they were excited to find a real English speaker to practice on. Two of them seemed to speak for the group, a boy and a girl, who would have been about 12 years old. The girl’s name was Eleftheria, a name that means “freedom.” They saw I had a camera and demanded that I take some pictures of them. So we took some photos, including a group shot of me with them. Then Eleftheria wrote down her address and with some English words and a lot of hand gestures told me that when I returned home I was to print the pictures and send her copies. I promised that I would. (I did, and received a letter from her. A Greek friend translated it for me. She was thrilled to get the pictures and had shown them to all her friends.)
GO TO MYKONOS
One other thing I had to do was to visit one of the Aegean islands. Perhaps this idea had been planted in my mind by my high school English teacher, who told us of his dream to have “a little cottage on the Aegean.” I didn’t have any particular island in mind, so I went to a travel agent to ask what would be a good island to visit. “Go to Mykonos,” she said. I thought I should get a second opinion so I asked another travel agent. “Go to Mykonos,” he said. So Mykonos it was. The ferry left Piraeus early and arrived in Mykonos in the evening after stops at two other islands. Once again, I chose the cheapest fare which in this case was deck class. That meant exactly what the name implies: take a spot on the open deck if you can find one. It was definitely an outdoor experience.
I thought that after going through the storm on the North Atlantic, this little ferry ride would be easy. But I had more to learn about that. We were confined to an area on the upper deck at the stern. A kiosk was there where we could buy snacks. It was a small ship, sailing into the wind, and the sea was choppy. The rapid, up-and-down motion soon had people running to the railing and heaving overboard. Several times I thought I would have to make the trip to the railing, too, but somehow I managed to keep my breakfast down. It was an uncomfortable ride until the sea calmed down later in the day.
We arrived at Mykonos after dark but the moon was in the sky, a few days past full. Hotel people were at the dock to offer rooms to those arriving. I spoke to a man who said I could have a room for the equivalent of 75 cents a night. (Prices are considerably higher these days.) I remember that in bargaining with him, I spoke a little sharply, something I regretted later. He proved to be a very helpful landlord. I had brought some of the energy of the city with me that was out of place on the island, where the pace was gentle. There was one policeman for the whole island, I learned, but since he had nothing to do, he just sat around the cafés and talked to the tourists.
My new landlord led me through the narrow, winding streets of the town to my accommodation. The place had an ethereal appearance under the moonlight. The buildings and most of the streets were painted white. My room was a tiny attic loft that could be reached by ladder.
The next day in the bright sunshine it was clear that most of the buildings, as well as some streets, had been whitewashed. Transportation through the streets was mainly by donkey. The street beside the harbour was lined with cafés and there were lots of visitors. The café I picked was the kind where you first go into the kitchen and point to what you want to eat, then the food is delivered to your table. I sampled the wine that everyone seemed to be drinking, Retsina, a white wine with a strong resin flavour. In earlier times, the resin was added as a preservative and people acquired a taste for it so the practice was continued even though it was no longer needed to preserve the wine.
There was a very active cottage industry weaving and making articles of clothing to sell to the tourists. Many houses had looms that were worked by hand, including the house I was living in. One day my landlady proposed to make a jacket for me. I thought that was a good idea as the clothes I was wearing were getting pretty road weary and the price was right so I agreed. She measured me, wove the cloth from goat’s hair and in a few days I had a brand new jacket made from genuine Mykonos goat’s hair that I wore for many years.
Easter for the Greek Orthodox Church was approaching and I was told there would be big celebrations in Athens and I should be there to see them. But I was enjoying Mykonos and decided to stay put for a while and see what Easter was like on the island. On Saturday night there was a candle lit procession through the town. As I stood watching the procession, a woman approached me, handed me a candle, and motioned to me to join the procession. She looked like a peasant woman, dressed in black with a black shawl over her head. After a few minutes, she looked at me and said, “Where you from?” I told her I was from Canada. She said, “Oh. I’m from Ohio.” She told me she had married a Greek who then wanted to move back to Greece. She came with him and had lived on Mykonos for 40 years.
There are many more things I could write about this trip but that’s another story and it is time to bring this chronicle to an end. I was at the end of my budget and had to get back to London and onto the ship back to Canada. Unlike the Greek lady from Ohio, I had to go back to Canada and pick up my life.
I took the ferry back to Piraeus (nighttime deck class – cold!) and took the train through Yugoslavia heading north, through Amsterdam, Harwich, London, Liverpool and onto the Empress of Britain once again, sailing for Montreal.
As I am an older Zoomer now and look to my grandkids to engage in future dreams and goals, I have to hand Knapsack over to my grandson, Jordan, and wish him good luck in his adventures through life. Thank you for indulging me in a bit of nostalgia and bon voyage!