Wednesday, April 27, 2011

My 1968 Grand Tour of Europe

My parents gave me a Grand Tour of Europe as an initiation into life, back in 1968. The export model Volkswagen bus, which cost $1900 new, was a gift which would later be sent home and travel the United States with me. My friend Randy and I started our trip in Holland, where we saw Ann Frank’s upstairs hidden apartment, the famous “red light” district, numerous canals and tulips and learned all about how Edam cheese was made. Most of our trip, we survived on Edam cheese.  Ann’s place and the girls of the night made quite an impression on us. In the museums of northern Europe, we viewed the art of Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Raphael, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, etc., to C├ęzanne, Picasso, Fra Angelico, etc. - yada, yada, yada. Before leaving Germany, we visited a huge beautiful stone castle from 853 A.D., Burg Hohenzollern, complete with three drawbridges and a moat. This place fit every image I ever had of a castle. The doors were ten inches thick! But a day that I’ll never forget was visiting Dachau concentration camp.  It’s now a fully restored museum, but you get the idea of what it once was- full on Hell.
 After seeing the gas chamber valves at floor level, a beautiful butterfly crossed my path in front of the massive crematoriums.  This was like seeing Beauty and the Beast at the same time.  Walking through the yard, billboard-sized black and white photos captured images of emaciated Jewish prisoners piled, dead and rotting.  How can men commit such atrocities?  Is there any hope for mankind?  Is there really a God, and, if so, how could He let this happen? These were some thoughts I had upon leaving Germany. I was only nineteen years old and seeing so much.         
 After trying spaghetti in northern Italy, which was nothing like Mom’s, we ferried over to Greece, reaching the ruins and Oracle of Delphi as our first stop in this ancient land. Over a bottle of yellow wine that resembled piss, an ancient Greek mariner prophesized to me. He had traveled the world and said that I looked like I came from Chile.
After scaling the Acropolis, where the 5th Century B.C. Parthenon sits overlooking the city of Athens, we drove up the western side of Italy, stopping at Rome, Pisa and Florence. The coliseum in Rome seemed to house most of the city’s feral cats, as we visited it in pre-dawn early light. At the Pope’s house, the Vatican, we saw the Sistine chapel frescoes where Michelangelo had painted the ceiling from scaffolding lying on his fricking back! Again, we did yet more museums that left us exhausted. These museums are huge all day affairs. We were getting callous and burned out to the Masters of Western art. The underground Christian catacombs, however, were haunting and fun to explore. This labyrinth of tunnels, eight miles long, contained tombs and secret meeting chambers. A spooky feeling unfolded for me there. These early Christian sure could dig! There were 174,000 Christians buried around the
Apian Way
and Saint Sebastian, Peter and Paul were all buried here too. Now that’s far out!
After visiting the leaning Tower of Pisa, Venice with its black canal water and Michelangelo’s David and Pieta in Florence, we spent a long day at the Pompeii ruins outside of Naples. Volcanic Mount Vesuvius still looms in the background.  Vesuvius erupted on August 24, 79 A.D. burying Pompeii in ash. This archeological city was huge.  We saw frozen bodies of humans and dogs, screaming, as the volcanic ash turned them to stone forever.  Pompeii affected us much like Dachau concentration camp had- memories that leave a lasting impression with some even frozen in stone!”
After driving through the Italian Riviera, we sampled Monaco and the French Riviera, before heading on to Barcelona, Spain. Here, replicas of Columbus’s ships, the Pinta, Nina and Santa Maria, were docked for display.  We were amazed at how very small Queen Isabella’s ships really were.  And we heard flamenco music here, too.  The guitars and flashing rapedo boot heels really stirred our Anglo blood.  I’ve always loved Spanish music and in both Italy and Spain, we heard Tom Jones’s Dear Delia sung by everyone and recorded in numerous languages.
In Barcelona too, we saw the famous ballet team of Rudolf Nureyev and Joan Fontaine perform at night, in a bullfighting arena.  He held the record for high jumping, long distance style ballet and in ’68 they were both world famous superstars receiving a lot of media attention.  We were very blessed and fortunate to have seen them.  Also in the same bull arena, we saw six bulls killed in the matador’s death dance before 34,000 people. This was sad to watch but the crowd greatly enjoyed it.  At least this gruesome sport had a happy ending; the orphans ate freshly killed beef that night.
In France, anti-American sentiment was strong.  The Vietnam War was the cause.  Graffiti of “Yankee Go Home!” was everywhere. This was strange when I saw the French wearing what appeared to be American Civil War caps.  Poor Randy, my traveling companion, stood out like a sore thumb.  He had that blondish brillo crew cut and apple pie look.  I was usually mistaken for French, English, Jewish or Canadian.  We had a Canadian flag on the van’s rear view window, German tourist license plates and a Netherlands decal near the exhaust pipe, so nobody knew quite how to take us.  After four years of French classes, where I was called Robere Rideaux, I tried out my new tongue.  The results were insane.  They understood me perfectly, but their sexy-sounding replies to my standard questions were so fast that I shut down.  Let’s stick with English, damn it!  It’s the universal language and most Europeans speak it anyway, along with four or five other languages.  I should be so lucky.
The Eiffel Tower, the Citadel of Love, was fairly impressive from a distance. Up close it was very rusty and in need of a paint job.  The Louvre Museum was one of the biggest and best yet. Of course, we saw a lot more Flemish masters, Madonna and Child paintings, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and a ton of French impressionism.  All the best the world of art had to offer!  How very fortunate we were.  I was having so much fun. Despite their lack of affection, my folks had indeed given me a very great gift. When I finally got mail, I realized that I missed my family immensely. This was my first real time away from home for so long, and being only 19 years old, I couldn’t wait to see them again- especially my sister, Joyce.
We also took in the Follies Bergere and Moulin Rouge- the prototype original seminude stage shows that would greatly influence Las Vegas. There was an authentic forty-foot tall waterfall on stage with beautiful topless ladies descending down on ropes from above, all in feathery costumes. This was a royal night out for us.  We even wore ties, a first for me, as they enforced a strict dress code. After Paris, we ferried over to the iconic white cliffs of Dover, England.  That August night we saw those infamous white cliffs gleaming under the moonlight. Now we couldn’t wait to finally try British fish and chips. We luckily found a vendor still open late at night.  What a disappointment!  Our greasy meal was wrapped in newspaper and the added vinegar made the ink come off all over our fingers, lips and food.
In London, we came down with the Asian flu which was very popular that summer of ’68 but a real pain in the neck, literally.  Our eyes felt like we had knives stuck in them.  We’d tie our black dress socks around them to keep out the piercing light.  We both had very high fevers and probably should have seen a doctor.  But we just sweat it out in the van, taking aspirin and hotter Kool-Aid and tea. As a result of this flu, we didn’t see much of London. We didn’t see much of anything for awhile with those socks wrapped around our eyes.  I remember wandering around Carnaby Street, all spaced out after our illness.   Here we saw the Beatle’s Apple store, which had been previously painted in beautiful psychedelic colors.  Now, it was all whitewashed over and had the word Jude scrawled across the windows.  Was this anti-Semitic graffiti? It certainly looked that way, especially after the concentration camp tour and Ann Frank’s house still mentally on my mind. No, it was soon to be one of the Beatles most beloved songs, Hey Jude.
Returning back to Holland, we picked up Randy’s Texas friend Paul for the remainder of our European experience. He was a Mobile oil kid too. Now, we headed north through Germany again to Copenhagen, Denmark.  Here we saw the famous Little Mermaid statue seated on a rock in the bay.  She was donated as an art gift by Carlsburg Brewery, and later some fool decapitated her bronze head off. Is nothing sacred anymore?  Carlsburg was very wealthy and a patron of the arts.  His brewery had life-sized elephant statues supporting the entrance and gold plated handrails on the guided, gilded tour.  We got roaring drunk in the tasting room and smuggled beer out in our jeans. We were just beginning our youthful experiments with alcohol on this trip. Randy was dry-heaving in a five-gallon bucket, as I somehow drove us to our campground.  We were very lucky not to get a DUI in Scandinavia. Even in ’68, one could get imprisonment and loss of driver’s license for life!  Here, drinking people took cabs; responsible drinking.  I sure didn’t know then that drunken driving would be the demise of my golden years.
We drank heavily again at Touberg brewery.  But this time, we knew well how beer was made and could have cared less about the damn tour.  We only came for that one free hour of all we could drink.  To double our fun, we then did both brewery tours again, back to back.  More vomiting resulted, but this time Randy wasn’t alone, as Paul and I retched right along beside him.
After passing through Sweden quickly at night, we went on to Oslo, Norway and the Norwegian fiords. The people had that Viking look and the natural topography reminded me of my area of Washington State.  In Vigeland Park, we saw many naked statues by the artist of the same name.  There was a monolith about three stories high composed of piled up, naked sculptured bodies.  Another couple of aging crones were on their knees, breasts sagging, looking up at the sky.  These strange stone people reminded me in some ways of the real stone bodies we’d seen in Pompeii.  Also in Oslo, we saw Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki raft in the local museum.  Downstairs, we could view the small raft from underneath, in an aquatic mural setting complete with mounted fish.  This raft actually fell apart at the end of Thor’s voyage between Peru to Tahiti.  Here it was authentically reassembled for display.  It’s amazing such a small raft actually crossed that large body of water.  Thor’s diary was there too, from which he penned his acclaimed book, Kon Tiki!  Across the Pacific by Raft.  Real Viking ships were on display too, but not quite looking as glorious as the Hollywood versions.
After ninety days abroad, I arrived back home a seasoned traveler, with a taste in my soul for more foreign travel. I found out that traveling is the greatest education, as you see for yourself how things actually are, instead of someone else’s interpretation in a book.
In 1968 our world was still rather innocent and safe for travel.  Today’s world for an American traveler is far different.  Even by ’69, things had begun to change worldwide, especially due to drugs.  I was lucky to see Europe in that window of opportunity I had. I will always be thankful to my parents, forever, for my Grand Tour of Europe. It certainly opened my eyes to the world we live in.

Singer/songwriter Rob Rideout is the award winning author of Still Singing, Somehow. He lives on a farm overlooking Colville, WA with his three cats Baba, Maya and Olive. He just released a second book of poetry, based on his song lyrics and has a CD of original songs scheduled for release May 2011. These songs of three decades are meant to accompany both books.  Rob’s books can be viewed or purchased @ www.stillsingingsomehow.com He can be contacted there too.

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