The Idea Of EuropePeter & Markie’s Loon-Clad 70s Euro-Rampage
Hi-jacked while hitchhiking, knife fights with Germans, camping on French rubbish tips… now Britain’s divorce from the EU is finalised, Peter Jukes reflects on his teenage dreams of an ever-deeper union
It was 1977. We were 16. Two schoolboys from a provincial town. But Britain had just voted ‘Remain’ in the first Brexit referendum. We had exams coming up and a long summer holiday ahead. And we were both obsessed by the idea of Europe.
Personally, I blame Ernest Hemingway. If we hadn’t just read For Whom the Bell Tolls, Markie and I would never have planned to hitchhike all the way to Spain, where we expected to find some life and death battle between right and wrong, and some gamin-haired girl for whom we’d make the earth move.
We’d sit on Markie’s veranda (his was a working-class family living in a detached middle-class house, while I was from a middle-class family living in a working-class terrace), smoking Gitanes cigarettes, strumming Am G F E on our Spanish guitars, before dancing around the electric fire with its fake-flame effect, imagining the real fires and shadows of flamenco.
The Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli is also to blame. Romeo and Juliet was our set text for exams that year, and we’d gone to the local cinema on a school trip to see Zeffirelli’s new version. So did the girls from the high school next door. While they guffawed and squawked at the actor’s codpieces, most of the grammar schoolboys were misty-eyed and mournful.Soppy romantics, Markie and I would finish our exams, and then onto Verona to fight for our lives like Mercutio in some hot dusty Italian square.
Forty years ago, Britain still had a manufacturing industry, and our London overspill town was ringed by light industrial estates. Markie got work in his dad’s aerial factory, bending bits of aluminium, plastic and wires together, while I got a summer job at a turned parts factory where my Dad was employed as a lathe operator after his multiple bankruptcies. They paid 50p an hour. After six weeks, we’d have enough to get across the Channel, and then flamenco and Juliet awaited.
But then along came Gunter Grass to ruin it all. I was in the town centre bookshop, warily looking for something to read. Back in those days, you couldn’t even open a book without being forced to pay for it. Then along came a social worker friend of my mother’s who pointed out a paperback with a golden cover. She knew I’d just finished the whole of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and told me that this was the closest she’d come to reading anything so fantastical.
I bought it: The Tin Drum. It should have come with a health warning. Gunter Grass’ wartime classic was like a bad trip on cannabis resin – and I’d had a few of those. It started in Gdańsk on the eve of the German invasion of Poland with a dead horse’s head wriggling full of eels – and went downhill from there. I used to try to read it while cutting metal strips in the turned parts factory. I would look up from my book at the strange beauty of the light bouncing off steel rods from the grimy skylights of the factory. And regularly explode the circular blade in a spatter of coolant fluid and sharp metal.
After six or seven lost blades, the foreman was furious. He called me a “f*cking student” and explained how he’d gone to school with no shoes. My Dad kept quiet at his lathe, with his usual Buddha-like detachment. He’d risen up to being a management consultant and, after a series of disasters, was back on the factory floor.
The workers, wearing overalls and eating fish and chips in the canteen, were completely separated from the management, who arrived in flash Rovers, wore pastel shirts, braces and ties, and were served by waitresses in their own restaurant. I didn’t know how my Dad coped with the snootiness and segregation, having once promoted Scandinavian theories of small egalitarian work teams as a consultant. But he smiled enigmatically still turning the lathe and said “happiness can come from making a perfect cup of tea”. This was my Dad: a walking, talking copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. If I couldn’t read my book, I’d learn his way of alleviating the tedium.
They moved me on from breaking circular saws to polishing steel tubing. Every few hundred or so I’d select for special treatment, filing carefully so every edge was smooth to the touch, and burnishing so lovingly they shone like moonlight. Then I’d sneak them home. This was my revenge on class-ridden 1970s British industry. They’d make perfect slides for an American-style guitar. But, when I gave one to Markie, he pointed out that the steel was heavy for his finger, and made a wrenching sound on nylon strings like an exploding saw.
The tubes rusted unused in my bedroom. We had more important things to plan. Markie had nearly finished The Tin Drum and was trying to teach me swear words in German, Hungarian and Serbo-Croat. We agreed not to take our guitars because of the extra clutter. Rather than busking our way to Spain, we’d do some grape-picking near the Spanish border to top up the £120 we’d both saved. (Because of exchange controls, anything over £100 had to be stamped on the back of our passports.) I told my mother we’d be gone for about six weeks and we booked our ferry tickets.
Nothing would stop us now. We were making the crossing to that vast unexplored place: the Continent.
The Attack of the Killer Slugs
On the platform for the night ferry at Victoria station, I first saw her. It was just like Dylan’s song One More Cup of Coffee. Her skin was white, her hair was black and her eyes like two diamonds in the sky. But she wasn’t Mexican or Spanish. She was from north London. Her mum had spotted us waiting for the train and, since we were about her age, asked us if we could look after her daughter for the crossing. Clara. Her name was Clara. And her heart was like an ocean, mysterious and vast.
Unfortunately, Clara – whose diamond eyes were dimmed by thick glasses – didn’t quite see things that way. We arrived that morning shattered at the Gare du Nord in Paris and helped her negotiate the Metro to the Gare Montparnasse which would take her away to where she was staying for a summer exchange. She gave me a brochure of where she was staying – some vast chateau near Angoulême. I promised to write and come and find her in the dark forests of Aquitaine. And then she was gone. To the valley below.
As we took the Metro as far south as we could, the main thing that told us we were in Europe were the exotic overtones of digested garlic from sewers and fresh bread from shops. If not quite the Idea of Europe, this was the Smell of it. No matter, soon we’d be in Spain surrounded by the scent of orange groves. But first, we’d have to inhale petrol and diesel fumes as we pitched up on a main road heading south and put our thumbs out.
Then it started to rain.
I learned later that Paris is one of the rainiest cities in Europe, worse than London and we weren’t prepared. Markie had a relatively cool-for-the-’70s cagoule. All I had was a thick bright yellow fisherman’s cape that smelt of an inflatable kids’ swimming pool someone had packed away without cleaning many summers ago. The only way to wear it was to pull it over my rucksack – a grey canvas lump my oldest brother had first used in the ’50s — until I looked, in Markie’s words, like some huge drowned bee.
The sight of a 16-year-old with his thumb out accompanied by a huge drowned bee didn’t help with the lifts. It took hours to get the first ride. And every lift was just for a few miles. By the time evening came, we were dumped near some outlandish suburban development near Corbeil-Essones called Evry. If this was Europe, Evry was more like some dystopia from a ’70s science fiction novella – half-completed tower blocks surrounded by diggers and mounds of mud.
After hours walking around the modernist nightmare, we managed to find some shops open in a nearby village and bought what we thought was roast chicken from a local store (spoiler alert – it wasn’t chicken!). As night fell, we bumped into some equally lost Spanish hitchhiker, and all decided to camp in a local field. It wasn’t till morning that we discovered the field was actually a rubbish dump. The Spaniard only had a one-man tent and, out of sulkiness or chivalry (I can’t remember which), I’d given up my place in it for Markie. Instead, I climbed up a tree and tied my belt to the trunk to stop me falling (I must have seen this in some film).
Though I barely slept, lashed semi-upright, I had a better night than Markie. He’d slept head-to-toe with the Spaniard without appreciating that the tent was pitched downhill. With his head sliding out of the tent, he became an irresistible lure for slugs. From time to time, I heard screams in the night when Markie would lash out with the scout knife he’d borrowed from our friend Paul Lennon to fight off the attack of killer slugs.
We started to hitchhike again. It started to rain again. And there were no cars here. Only one every half hour. Two years of unprecedented summer heatwaves stuck in the dull English provinces, baking in its multi-story car parks and municipal tennis courts, and now what? The wettest summer in western Europe for years. We stood on the bleak hard shoulder and shivered. By now something very Gunter Grass was obsessing me: a strange, herbal, meaty smell emanating from my sleeping bag, the bottom of my rucksack, my underarms. What was it?
Then the first car for an hour – a beaten up De Chevaux – suddenly put on its brake lights and reversed. Where did we want to go? the two young men inside asked. ‘Le Sud’ we said, tentatively. They laughed. They were going all the way to Provence. Well, it wasn’t quite Spain, but it was our first proper lift for any distance. We were on our way.
“All I Can Smell is That Cheese!”
The heavy clouds began to break up as the two students drove us south and over the Massif Central. They picked up another hitchhiker – a girl, the first girl I’d talked to since Clara. I thought of her thinking about me somewhere in the wilds of Aquitaine. Some runny cheese was handed out with fresh crusty bread. This Europe was cool – they had a guitar and smoked Gaulois and played political ballads on their tape machine. We started singing along. Monsieur, Le President, il fault t’ecrit une lettre. It was like being driven back into the ’60s, that decade our older brothers enjoyed but we’d only experienced like some bad Monday morning hangover.
Some 12 hours later, once we’d said goodbye to our radical friends at a service station somewhere near Avignon, we hitched another ride south. The driver and his passenger were turning off at a place called Sète, many miles short of the Spanish border. It was well past midnight as he dumped us on the verge of the Autoroute and we looked for a place to sleep in an adjacent field: a rocky, rutted hillside, with lines of gnarled vines. The grapes were small, hard and inedible. But we ate them anyway. We’d made it to the South! It wasn’t raining and below the Mediterranean was glistening in the moonlight. Instead of the meaty herbal smell in my sleeping bag, I could smell rosemary and pine…
Markie told me to shut up. He couldn’t smell anything, or at least anything new. For some reason, the roadside car fumes or the sleeplessness, his sense of smell had seized up and the runny Camembert we ate with the students had lodged permanently in his nose. He’d tried everything – coffee, chocolate, cheap red wine and now these bitter unripe grapes. “I can’t smell anything anymore, Pete!” he said. “All I can smell is that cheese!”
Many years later, Markie discovered he had an extreme lactose intolerance and that polyps had formed in his nostrils. I thought it was just a Gunter Grass moment and fell fast asleep almost immediately. But, invaded by a universe of Camembert, Markie didn’t sleep at all and the next thing I knew he was shaking me: “Pete. Get up. Someone is coming.”
A serene blue sky and bright sun. The blue Mediterranean coast below. Then a shout, a whistle and a clink of iron. I sat up to see a tough, swarthy looking farmer bringing his horse and a plough towards us. In a second or two he would see us. What’s the punishment for trespassing down here? What if we got done for scrumping his grapes? Moments later, the peasant and his horse must have seen something extraordinary: two pale, unwashed teenagers running down his vineyard towards the motorway and the sea.
We kept on running, right over the junction towards the coast. I wanted to stop and start hitching to Spain, but Markie had had enough by now. A second night in a row out in the open, a third night in a row he hadn’t slept; the Smell of Europe was invading him. He needed a bed, a youth hostel, a roof over his head and now my rucksack was broken.
So, we kept on going on the road till we hit the sea.
Knife Fights with Germans
The auberge de jeunesse in Sète was run by a surly chef d’auberge who was so big and moustachioed we thought he looked like Obelix from the Asterix cartoons. We saw everything in clichés. Down in the quayside, as a sailmaker carefully stitched the straps on my mildewed rucksack back together (his nose wrinkling and the strange meaty smell persisting inside), we felt like we were in a Van Gogh painting: people sipping coffee and Pernod over bright table cloths, azure boat hulls, white seagulls, cypress trees like dark flames on the hills.
At that time, Britain had no café culture, and unlike today, it was rare to see outdoor seating. But it wasn’t just the cultural differences that made us feel we were finally in Europe, but the affluence compared to 70s Britain.
Our army surplus gear, scrawny white bodies, empty pockets that could only afford rations of sardines and cheese, all exposed just how poor England was in comparison with Europe. This was most acute and embarrassing on the town’s small beach. There all the teenagers were tanned and toned and wearing sunglasses – the men in bright speedo swimming trunks, the women in tiny chic bikinis, often with the top half removed. We tried not to look at the topless bathers. They certainly wouldn’t look at us. Without sun cream, we slowly fried in the sun, turning into what the French call ‘crevettes’ – prawns.
Famished and dehydrated, we lashed out on our first cooked meal for four days — steak frites in the harbour. Though the meat was gristly, and by ‘chips’ they mean ‘crisps, at least the wine was cheap. And we drank a lot. Glowing with heat and alcohol, we’d then go down to the shore and sit on the rocks mesmerised by the waves. We seem to have spent several days just watching waves, mesmerised.
If the French wouldn’t talk to us, our fellow travellers would. At the youth hostel on a small hill overlooking the town, we shared a dorm with two young Germans. Wolfgang was our typical image of a Teuton, athletic, healthy and tall, topped with blonde curly hair. His friend Rolf was more like wolffish: gaunt with biker style greasy hair, drooping moustache. Markie spoke a bit of German, but typically they spoke excellent English. When not watching the waves, we’d while away the hot afternoons with them, drinking more cheap red wine, and practicing knife throwing against a pine tree.
And that’s how the fight about the knife began.
One of our throws had missed the tree and skidded along the grass to where some other hosteler was sitting. He was in no danger but must have snitched on us to the chef d’auberge. Obelix strode up and, before we could say anything, took Markie’s scout knife from where he’d deftly lodged it in the pine bark. We followed Obelix back to his office, remonstrating in broken French. Silent and unimpressed, he put the knife in one of the drawers of his desk and muttered some unknown dismissive argot before going back about his business.
Markie was not having this. The injustice was unbelievable. Firstly, this wasn’t Markie’s knife but Paul Lennon’s. Secondly, he needed the knife to cut bread, spread runny cheese, open sardine cans, and fend off marauding slugs. Markie was always less rule-bound and conventional than me, and before I could stop him, he had darted into Obelix’s office and retrieved the scout knife from the drawer. We both ran back to our dorm to hide the knife, nervously laughing, and explained to Roman and Wolfgang our great escape.
That was tempting fate. Soon Obelix was back in the dorm, bigger than ever, demanding to know which “voleur” had taken the knife. According to Markie, what happened next was my fault as I started protesting unnecessarily and incriminating myself. In my more heroic recollection, the chef d’auberge started jabbing his finger at me, accusingly. “J’ai pas prit le couteau”, I said righteously. He didn’t like that. Before I could protest again, a sharp hook had knocked me straight to the floor.
Everyone else froze. Obelix looked down, curious, obviously wondering what I’d do next. I was stunned but I didn’t have the knife. I hadn’t taken it. I wasn’t a voleur. I scrambled up, my jaw hurting, but mustering my last bit of dignity I yelled: “J’ai pas prit le couteau!”.
I remember his look. It was the same look my dad gave me earlier that year when he forcibly tried to make me sit down at a Sunday dinner. The strength of my resistance surprised him. I was skinny but nearly six feet tall. He could easily beat me. But was it worth the trouble? Obelix obviously had the same thought. He told us both to pack our things and be out first thing tomorrow.
When he left, we all rejoiced. Markie had kept his knife and – just as I’d dreamed watching Romeo and Juliet – I’d kept some dignity in a fight to the death. We got drunk with Roman and Wolfgang. Not surprisingly, given the cheap wine and adrenaline, all four of us ended up talking about being on different sides in two world wars. In a different generation, we would have been mortal enemies – instead we were comrades in arms against the oppression of the youth hostel commissar. The night ended in tears and hugs and we collapsed on our bunks, the alcohol anaesthetising my sore jaw. We shared addresses with the Germans for letter-writing, and the next day left for Spain.
The Man in the Brown Suit
Hitching in Europe then was a numbers game. Most drivers sped past without looking, and most of those who did then looked away quickly. It was only once in a while – probably one in every 20 – that the red brake lights would light up and we’d be on our way. But we didn’t get back to the Autoroute till evening and, under the signposts south for Narbonne and Barcelone (French spelling), we’d barely had half a dozen cars in a couple of hours.
Then a van passed, erratically stopping and starting with a grating of gears, with two men in the front seats, apparently arguing. At the bottom of the slip road, just before they hit the motorway, the van’s brake lights came on and they started reversing. Our luck was up. We ran towards the van only to find two men inside still arguing, looking at a book. We waved through the window at them, our thumbs up.
The passenger wound down the window and pointed to a beaten-up road atlas of Europe. I’m still convinced to this day he was holding it upside down. Markie worked out they had taken the wrong turn. We pointed to the other side of the motorway. The men nodded and gestured for us to get in the back. We threw our rucksacks in the empty van and they carried on reversing up the slip road to the junction
They didn’t understand a word of English so Markie was trying his impressive array of languages to explain we were heading to Spain. We were across the junction when we finally understood where they were going. Switzerland. Markie and I looked at each other.
What the hell? Somewhere is better than nowhere. Neither of us had ever been. Okay. Switzerland.
As they sped north, past the vineyard where we’d slept, we settled on our rucksacks in the back of the van. From Switzerland we could go across the Alps to Italy. So Hemingway would have to be put on hold, but Zefferelli – here we come…
Next thing we knew our rucksacks were flying around the back of the van and we were slithering across the ribbed metal floor. They’d missed another turning. When this kept on happening we began to realise that they couldn’t actually read the motorway signs. We tried to help with navigation, but despite my ‘O’-Level Spanish, Markie’s German and our joint French, the driver and his passenger spoke a language which had no recognisable features. Markie noticed they pronounced ‘Deutsch’ as ‘Detch’.
To fill the silence, they started playing music on an old four-track cassette machine which sounded like the Smurfs. I joked that maybe they were Smurfs – full size for sure, and without the blue skin or white hats. Markie worked out that they came from a part of Switzerland where they spoke ‘Romansch’. This was the only romance we were going to get that night.
In the small hours they dropped us off on the outskirts of Lausanne where – of course – it was raining again. Before long, we were picked up by a well-off young guy with a top-of-the-range Citroen who offered to take us to the youth hostel, though at that hour he doubted it was open. Compared to hurtling around the van, this was the plushest ride we’d ever had, accompanied by a cool jazz soundtrack on his stereo – but it made us even more reluctant to return to the cold wet Lausanne night. When he did, he was right. The place was shut and we wandered around the heavily-defended building looking for a way in.
A young Italian guy heard us and opened a window. In my memory, it was a high window and I helped Markie clamber in, but without someone to boost me up, I couldn’t follow. In Markie’s recollection, the window was easy to get into, but I just backed off because I was afraid of breaking the rules. (To which my reply is: after the knife-stealing incident, who could blame me?) Either way, in a haughty sulk, I said I’d sleep in the local railway station and find him the next morning.
Battling the rain with my fisherman’s cape, I found Lausanne’s main train station was still open and tried to settle down on the plastic chairs in the waiting room. But the fluorescent lights were flickering and grim, and then I noticed someone was staring at me.
At first glance, he looked like a middle-aged businessman on an important trip, albeit at four o’clock in the morning. But his eyes were gaunt and staring, and he was picking cigar butts off the floor and smoking them. I closed my eyes and tried to ignore him. Next thing I knew, a whiff of stale cigar and he was standing over me.
Close up, the businessman’s brown suit was stained and dusty, as if he’d put it on a year ago and never changed. He stank of stale cigars. Though he was trim and his hair still dark, his skin was stretched taut and translucent around his hollow red eyes as if formed out of tobacco and ash. He stared at me for ages. I wondered where I’d packed my knife. Then he started talking to me in French. I thought of getting out of the waiting room, but where else was there to go? I can’t remember if I said anything, but he quickly worked out I was a traveller. “Ah, jeune homme,” he laughed “tu veux voyager. To veux voir le monde. Mais ilya rien a voir.” He kept on like this all night.
“So you want to travel, to see the world… but you’ll learn…there’s nothing to see…” mocked the Man in the Brown Suit. This was worse than a physical assault. His voice was seeping into my head, trying to ruin my dreams of travel and romance. He was like a character from an Albert Camus novel, full of alienation and despair. Instead of the epic Idea of Europe, he infected me with the Boredom of Europe, its ennui, lack of identity, uniformity: a vast waiting room of plastic seats and fluorescent lights that stretched across the continent to eternity, with nothing to look forward to.
Lausanne and Switzerland came to represent the worst of Europe, a place of cloud and rain and houses as firmly shut as bank vaults. The clouds broke long enough so we could see the Alps and take a rowing boat out onto Lac Leman. But, with a punitive exchange rate, the Swiss Franc only seemed to welcome reclusive movie stars or international financiers. I managed to spend a whole day’s allowance on just one biscuit each in a patisserie, and it was an aniseed flavour which made me gag.
We got out of Lausanne as quick as we could, up the mountains to a town called Martigny where the auberge de jeunesse was modern, colourful and buried deep underground. We spent a night in the best equipped of all youth hostels of the trip. Apparently, it also doubled up as a nuclear bunker.
Next morning, a nice elderly couple took us all the way up to the Grand St Bernard pass where we posed for photos, shivering in front of the snow. With fresh provisions and some carafes of cheap red wine we’d bought at a shack, we started to walk down the mountain towards Italy. A tractor stopped to give us a lift. We sat on the back of his trailer and, for the next hour or so, were rattled so hard that the liquid sprung from its loose corked bottles and sprayed us both with a covering of red wine.
Dumped on a lane on the edge of a forest, we couldn’t tell if we were in Italy yet. The trees were deciduous and the air so cool we could have been back in Buckinghamshire. Then a guy on a scooter stopped and told us we were about 20 miles short of Aosta. We checked it on the map. He offered to take one of us there on the back of his moped. Again, out of nobility, fear or sulkiness, who knows which, I let Markie take the ride to where he’d meet me at a service station. And then he was gone.
For the first time in many days, I was on my own. What was I doing here? What happened to making the earth move for that gamin Spanish resistance fighter? When would our adventures really begin? And would Markie wait for me? What if we lost each other?
I got a lift pretty quickly, in fact, overtook Markie on the scooter, and was waiting for him at the service station. The next ride took us all the way to Milan. The car was actually a taxi, but the cab driver was off work and had picked up a young communist woman and they spent the whole journey arguing about politics, each trying to co-opt us to their side. Maybe that’s why they stopped.
Milan embodied the contradiction of all our travelling. Classy, expensive and unaffordable in the centre; grim and industrial on its outskirts. We spent most of the time cadging lifts on the outskirts, so we decided to cut our losses and take a train to Rome. On the train, we met two young French-speaking travellers, Denys and Pierre, who seemed to like to spend most of their money on cheap wine. We had a hard time understanding their thick accents until they explained they were French Canadians, Quebecois. They were a bit shady, and liked the fact we both had knives. But they seemed to be on a mission to see the Pope: they kept talking about the ‘Vatch-ca‘ in their twangy dialect.
Once again, the auberge de jeunesse in Rome was full to capacity, so the four of us had to sleep out on the hills where hundreds of other young travellers were sleeping rough. When it rained, we headed down a nearby petrol station for cover until we realised it was a notorious pickup spot for prostitutes in mini skirts and high heels. They didn’t look at us ragged English boys, but more than once we were propositioned by men looking for rent boys.
At the Castel San Pietro, we met a young American backpacker who soon joined all four of us on our tours and she took a shine to Markie. In the Coliseum, which at the time was surrounded by a fast impenetrable ring of traffic, she apparently asked him to go down to the catacombs with her – but he resisted. Young Italian men would make disgusting squelching sounds with their tongues as she walked past with us. They seemed obsessed with sex and appeared to have scrubbed their jeans around their crotches so that walking in the Roman streets all you could see were bobbing pale blue codpieces.
Denis and Pierre managed to drag us along with them to the ‘Vatch-ca‘ but all I can remember is the dome of St Peter’s – how vast it was and how it barely seemed to move as we walked under it. We couldn’t be bothered to queue for hours for the Sistine Chapel and instead bought more cheap wine.
Pointless sightseeing. Cheap wine. Cheap cigarettes. Tinned sardines. Cheese. Bread. The travelling was taking its toll. One evening, as the setting sun flared red on the vast white marble wedding cake of Vittoriano monument, I burst into tears. Markie and the Quebecois were mystified. I tried to explain – the kitsch beauty, the red sun. It was fascism, I explained. I was feeling the terrible glory and horror of fascism. They had no idea what I was talking about, and to be honest, neither did I. But I felt much better once the tears had expressed the overload of alcohol in my system. But time was running out. We needed to move on.
We said goodbye to Pierre and Denys and caught a train over the Apennines one dawn, heading to the Adriatic coast. At Bari and Brindisi there we no youth hostels, but at least it seemed warm, so we slept under the fishing boats, waking up every morning soaked by sea mist. Both of us began to develop wracking coughs.
As we continued north along the east coast, I was feeling more and more unwell but then a woman actually stopped to give us a lift. A lone woman? This was a first. It was only when she stopped to fill her Fiat with petrol that we understood why she’d stopped for two British teenagers. She must have been six foot six tall, and towered over both of us. She offered to take us all the way to Venice, but we were determined to see Verona where Mercutio expired. With my smattering of Spanish I could just understand her and she laughed when I said ‘Bologna Basta’.
Back to the ring roads and the gritty reality of city peripheries. We were constantly dropped off in the concrete jungle of slip roads and flyovers. On one occasion, the Italian police stopped and fined us for trying to hitchhike on the Autostrada. But, unless we wanted to walk miles alongside dangerous traffic, we had little choice. Somewhere near the outskirts of Padua, we bedded down for the night in an irrigation ditch around some peach trees. But the place was infested with rats and, as they swam and jumped around us, we sat up all night, back-to-back, knives at the ready.
We never did make it to Verona, but instead took a lift to Venice where nemesis awaited. Once again, the youth hostel on the island of Giudecca was full, so we decided to sleep on the pavements outside. Every dawn, to accompany the glory of the sun glinting over the towers and spires of Venice, a stray dog would try to burrow into our sleeping bags. I don’t know what he was looking for. And he was well advised to steer clear of my sleeping bag. After the strange herbal smell from northern France, it was dominated by something more noxious. On top of the sea mist cough, my guts were finally rebelling from the diet of tinned sardines and wine.
We were just getting off a vaporetto from the Grand Canal when I’d realised I couldn’t find them – my few remaining travellers cheques. Incredibly, we’d been able to survive for over three weeks on only £60 each, but the last £60 had gone missing. Markie was exasperated. I was always losing things or being careless about my belongings. For the first time we argued and I told him to go ahead without me. I’d find the missing traveller’s cheques, I’d go to the police, get the money back and meet him in Yugoslavia – the next phase of our trip. He resisted, but I pushed and pushed, my self-immolating pride getting the better of me. I insisted on walking him to the bus station and said I’d see him in Zadar.
And then I was alone in the big city and very sorry for myself. In the Piazza San Marco none of the drinks or food were in my price range. The waiters looked at me with disdain and sniffed (as well they would do). I was living off one tin of sardines for a whole day. What was I going to do? I reported the missing cheques to the police, but no one had handed them in. They suggested I should go to the British Consulate for help, and I did, telling my story to a sympathetic secretary who immediately got me an aspirin and ushered me in to see the main Consul. Bald, dapper, with a trimmed moustache and an unflappable upper-class accent, he asked me what happened and then for my home phone number. Before I could stop him, he had called my mother (my younger sister answered the phone first) and told her to wire a bank £60 to buy a train ticket so I could go home immediately: I was only 16 and obviously unwell.
This was not what I wanted. This wasn’t the adventure I’d planned. All those weeks saving up. All those poems, books, movies, dreams. But I was also secretly relieved. The idea of sleeping in my own bed in the room I shared with my kid brother seemed much better than tramping around these alien streets, treated like a beggar.
When I got back to the youth hostel we had found, Markie was waiting for me. He said he couldn’t bear to leave without me and would wait in Venice till I got my money back. Then I had to break my bad news. The look on Markie’s face was painful. I had not only let down my own dreams, but his. He couldn’t abandon me, and now I was abandoning him. Markie resolved to continue and we had an awkward parting as I headed for the night train back to Paris.
I spent a delirious night on the train there, retching on Sardines as dawn broke over the Jura mountains. I was completely depleted. As I arrived at the Gare du Nord with my broken rucksack, my filthy clothes, all I could think about is how to explain this to my friends and family. What happened to that great narrative we’d both planned?
And then I saw her, screwing up her eyes, looking up to the train departure timetable. It was Clara! So maybe there was a point to this journey after all. Finally, the story had come full circle. I told Clara the whole saga as we took the train to Calais and boarded the night ferry. She was sympathetic. I told her more of my dreams and hopes as we sat on the deck and watched the White Cliffs of Dover looming in the dark. And, on the train back to Victoria station, I tried to embrace her. She wasn’t that sympathetic and pushed me away.
Back home, I slept for three days and was diagnosed with gastroenteritis. Markie took a week to hitch home back through Austria and Germany, where – on his own – he was regularly picked up by men whose intents were not innocent, and one evening had to barricade himself in a room and get out Paul Lennon’s knife to defend himself from their predatory advances. (At least I hadn’t been thumped by Obelix in vain). So neither of us found romance on our adventure, in fact the opposite. But someone did find my travellers cheques. About a year later, they were sent back via the Venice police and I could refund my Mum.
It took many more years to work out the mystery of the meaty herbal smell of French chicken-that-wasn’t-chicken. On an exchange trip to the US, I made the mistake of going out hunting in a Utah orchard, where they said the local buck rabbits were pests and they mesmerised them in the bright lights of a truck before shooting them with shotguns. I wish I hadn’t gone. I’m still haunted by the robotic dance of a buck rabbit stricken with lead pellets and the wheezing sound it made when it died. But, when my host began to skin and gut the rabbit, the hot innards slithered out with that unmistakable smell that had penetrated my sleeping bag and rucksack in France. He explained that the rabbits sometimes fed on clover, and gave the meat this weird flavour that made the meat almost inedible.
The Idea of Europe
Over the past four decades, Markie and I have been back to the places we visited many times. He went to live in Greece for a while. I bought a small gite (for a while) not far away from the vineyard where we first saw the Meditteranean sun. We made it to Spain on later trips, and have been to Paris, Rome, Venice (though not Lausanne).
But, if truth be told, none of these journeys ever had quite the crazy savour of our hitch-hiking adventures in 1977. We were looking for adventure and thought we’d failed to find it. But we were in it all the time. Like Britain in the European Union, we didn’t know what great times we had until they were over.
Though, at the end of 2020, Britain has finally divorced itself from the EU, the Idea of Europe still hovers over my head, like golden apples on a branch I cannot reach.
And the microbes are still there. The flora and fauna of that trip have now invaded my memories, my guts and my skin just as – for nearly half a century – French cheeses, Italian cappuccini, Danish flooring, Swedish furniture, Spanish banks, Polski skleps, German domestic goods, have invaded and changed our country for good. Whatever tariffs or border checks they have imposed, those continental microorganisms have become a nourishing and intrinsic part of us. And no Brexit bleach or xenophobic anti-bacterial agent can ever replace them.
Sometimes, though, I do wonder if that Man in the Brown Suit in Lausanne train station had a point, and if Europe’s mystery and diversity has gone and turned into some endless waiting room or city ring road with nothing left to look forward to. Since we landed on the moon, and discovered our nearest neighbouring satellite is just a ball of monochrome dust, it’s easy to lose the sense of adventure.
But then I think back to those two scrawny boys and their trip to nowhere and I realise there’s so much left to explore whatever the blandishments of ideologues or the blandness of trade deals. Those passionate fantasies and disenchantments of continental attachment still live on in the hearts of schoolboys and schoolgirls here, and perhaps with more intensity than ever. The future will still belong to those in Europe who have learned to live together with such dreams. And without such dreams.
Originally published in the February 2020 print edition of Byline Times
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