My 12 year old grandson, Ben, always calls every night so I can read to him. We’ve been doing this for five years, starting with the Harry Potter series, which we’ve read twice. We also read “The Hobbit”, two of the Redwall books, “The One and Only Ivan”, the Hunger Games series, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, “The Yearling”, “Old Yeller” and a few others neither one nor the other. we can no longer remember.
Most recently, we read “Shoeless Joe”, the novel that served as the basis for the movie “Field of Dreams”. The story of the ghostly ball players who mysteriously appear on an Iowa cornfield has a special place in my cinematic heart. When I was young, my dad, who taught me to love baseball, played semi-professional ball. It would have been in the 1920s, not much later than the novel’s Ghost Players. I treasure an old photo of him in his baseball uniform posed stiffly with his teammates like a still from the movie.
When we finished “Shoeless Joe” I gave Ben the book to keep and wrote on the title page, “To Ben, from Pops. Follow your dreams.” I doubt it will appear on listing anytime soon, if ever. But if he does, I hope it inspires him to do something extraordinary and amazing, as I was lucky enough to do in the old days.
It was in the spring of 1968. I was living in London as a student at University College London, but calling myself a student would have been a misnomer: I attended classes from time to time, which was appropriate because I was an “occasional student”. which means I did not receive any credit. Fortunately, neither my parents nor my dashboard knew this.
This amazing arrangement left me free to travel, first in and around London, then to Manchester to kindle a romantic relationship with someone I had met the previous summer in New Orleans (where I had played the violin in the streets of the French Quarter to earn enough money to come home, but that’s another adventure story), then to Paris in November and Moscow, Leningrad and Warsaw in December. The entire 16-day trip to Russia and Poland, including train travel, meals, tour guides, and even entertainment, costs just $ 170.
For years this kind of overseas adventure had been my dream, and now, thanks to a combination of luck and courage, I was living it. But the ultimate goal – the outrageous, crazy, and possibly dangerous fantasy – was to hitchhike across Europe.
As I wrote later in a short story I wrote titled “Wandering” based on my adventures across the continent, “I had no liability and four hundred dollars in American Express traveller’s checks, which seemed to me enough for eight or ten weeks of cheap hostels, food simple and free transport. America’s problems – King’s assassination, ghetto uprisings, GIs fighting a jungle war, campus protests – seemed far away, and the alluring Old World with its party towns and pastoral countryside beckoned.
“In my backpack was everything I needed: my passport, three pairs of clothes, a sleeping bag, some toiletries, a Hallwag road map of Europe, a directory of European youth hostels and some tourist guides. The general idea was simple: stick my thumb out and go where the rides take me. I traveled six days a week and then, like God, I rested on Sundays.
“That was the main advantage of hitchhiking. Against the uncertainty of where you would end up, the trip would be cheap, casual, and full of adventure.
Despite the joys of serendipity, I quickly established a routine. I would stay in inexpensive hostels, where experienced travelers would share helpful tips on the right places to visit and the right places along the route to report a ride. My rough plan was to head south through France and Spain, dive into Morocco, then return north and east to Austria. From there, money and luck would determine my route. I traveled all day everyday, as if hitchhiking was a nine to five job, albeit the funniest ever: sampling the world from dozens of country roadsides or from the passenger side dozens of cars and trucks, discover new horizons and new challenges at every turn, and meet and often travel with new companions. As I wrote in my short story, “It was part of the inimitable adventure, making friends with strangers.”
I only stopped on Sundays to rest and write at home. A standard letter would take stock of the adventures of the previous week and reassure my parents that all was well, that accepting races from people I did not know, thousands of kilometers from home, often in a country where I didn’t speak the language, was the most normal and wonderful thing to do – which for me was.
The first Sunday I ran aground in Biarritz, a seaside resort in southwestern France, and the following week I crossed the border and south to Madrid, where I spent a few days, then , with a companion I had met in Paris the previous November, was heading for Gibraltar. In the remote border town of North Africa, Ceuta, Diana and I were surprised to be escorted off the bus bound for Tangier. No explanation has been offered. We tried again the next day. She got away with it, not me.
Three or four days later, heading north along Spain’s Costa del Sol, I was dropped off at a beach near Marbella. Surprisingly, I spotted Diana walking around near the water! She had felt isolated and vulnerable in Tangier, she informed me, and fled Morocco after 48 hours. We traveled together for several more days, marveling at the wonders of Granada and the weirder-than-fiction coincidence of seeing each other again and then going our separate ways for good.
I continued on my own through northeastern Spain and across the French Riviera, northern Italy, Switzerland and southern Germany, spending a few days in Munich. Next stop: Salzburg, then Vienna, to visit Mozart and Beethoven. Or so I thought.
But taking a drive on the highway east of Munich turned out to be almost impossible. Hour after hour, I persisted, the cars going so fast they probably couldn’t even see me. Anyway (I learned later), hitchhiking on the freeway was illegal. When a patrol car marked “Polizei” honked at me across the dual carriageway, I knew it was time to head back to the nearest town. Just then, a battered old VW pulled up and the driver opened the passenger side door. ” Where did you go ? He asked with a slight German accent as I went upstairs. When I told him Austria, he looked at me, smiled and said, “Do you want to go to Israel?
It took me about a nanosecond to accept. As we headed south, Wolf told his story. He was a Berlin vet who had given up an office practice to follow his dream of which it was the first step: to travel around the world. Along the way, we picked up other hitchhikers, whose names and addresses he duly noted down in a small notebook so that he could visit them if he ever came to their town. There were often two or three of us stuck in his old double-clutch Beetle. We stopped for lunch in a quaint town where we made sandwiches from fresh bread filled with slices of cheese and cold meats, drizzled with white wine. Wolf insisted that we eat by a lazy river. It was an idyllic little travel party.
We mostly bypassed the coastal super highways, preferring the inland side roads where we sometimes had to wait for herds of sheep and goats to cross both lanes.
We spent a few days in Belgrade so that a local friend who owed Wolf money could convert dinars into western currency, then we continued on to Greece. It was there, on the road up a hill just north of Athens, that I first saw the Acropolis, an unforgettable sight. That evening we partied in the Plaka, the entertainment district under the Parthenon, before driving the next morning to the port city of Piraeus, from where we sailed to Haifa.
In Jerusalem, I reconnected with a dear college friend who let me sleep in her dorm at the Hebrew University. My two weeks in Israel, especially the time I spent in the Old City of Jerusalem, have been fantastic, except for a brief scare when a Tel Aviv taxi driver dropped me off and then drove off. spun with my backpack, my passport and my cash in his trunk. Fortunately, I found him at a taxi stand a few blocks away.
But there was a bigger problem. My trip to and from Israel – the boat from Piraeus to Haifa, the plane back to Athens, the ferry from Piraeus to Brindisi, the train from Brindisi to Rome – resulted in large cash expenses, so much so that i managed to burn everything down. the rest of my traveller’s checks and was broken by the time we got to Roma Termini station. I returned my passport to a pensioner near the train station and waited for the American Express office to open the next morning, expecting another injection of money from the house. But when I got there, I found out when I opened my mail that there was no money. I managed to borrow 2000 lire to call home. My father told me that he had, as requested, wired $ 150 four days earlier. Sure enough, when I got back to the American Express office in the afternoon, the money was waiting for me!
After that, flush with my newfound wealth, I pre-washed in Rome and Florence before taking an overnight bus back to London. I flew to Chicago in time for the Democratic convention in August. But that’s yet another story.
There were times before I left Chicago to begin my fabulous odyssey that I questioned the wisdom of it. Live alone in London? Hitchhiking across Europe? Missing a year of school? It all seemed so extravagant, so far fetched, so impractical. And that meant sacrificing all the comforts of home, including great meals and the warm company of friends and family.
But there was this dream, and the dream supported me and energized me and changed my life. I knew after I got home that I had made the trip of my life.
There have been many adventures since, of course, but none are as vivid and memorable as this spring and summer over half a century ago while hitchhiking across Europe. in pursuit of my dream.