Remembering Europe

My first visit to Europe was in 1966.  I was a teenager with more git-up-and-go than sense.

A friend an I flew to London (Heathrow) and immediately hopped on a train to Yugoslavia. We were going to meet some of my friends buddies there. They lived in a Communist country, and Yugoslavia was one of the few places we could all reach without too much hassle.

We met in Opatija, in what is now Croatia. While my friend was catching up with his Communist friends, I busied myself discovering the local breads and mineral waters. I spent hour after hour swimming in the Adriatic. You know those pretty urchins? They can really hurt when you step on them. Ouch.

The most common language back then was French. My French really sucks. When I tried, they’d usually just chuckle and ask me to go back to English.

I had two assets: a Eurail pass which gave me unlimited travel on the European train system and a suitcase of Levi 501 jeans. The trip across the English Channel was brutal. Crossing that bit of water was almost a half a day, as I recall. They broke apart the train and loaded all the cars onto ferries to slosh from England to France. We took the Eurostar on a more recent trip. Crossing the English Channel through the Chunnel was a whopping 13-minutes. It just isn’t such a big deal as it once was.

The Levi jeans were along because somebody said I could make spending money on them. Holy moly, they were right. Back then 501s were something of a rarity in Europe. It seemed like everybody wanted a pair, and they were willing to pay much more than I thought they were worth. I basically ended up with an empty suitcase and a full wallet.

With the train pass, we didn’t have to worry about things like schedules. We rolled into Munich one afternoon and found the entire city was full. There was some kind of crazy convention or event going on. Even the youth hostels and ma-and-pa room rentals were full. No worries: Eurail Pass to the rescue. At the ticket counter, we asked for the next sleeping car on the schedule. Our pass let us get a sleeper by paying an upgrade from First Class. It meant that a fancy sleeper was cheaper than most hotels. And that’s how we came to visit Hamburg. We hadn’t planned on visiting that place. It was my first “red light” district. (Who knew they existed for-real. Right?)

My friend took great pains to introduce me to what he called a German delicacy: sweetbread. His obvious delight should have been a clue, but I’m a slow learner. I think “sweetbread” is a high-follutin word for a cow’s thymus gland. I decided two things that day: first, I was going to make damn sure I knew what I was eating before I ate it; and second, I was going to lay in a serious plot to get my friend to eat some “calf fries” on our return to Texas. I’ll see your thymus and raise you a cojone or two. Hamburg: such memories.

We went to the town of Bayreuth in Germany. It’s the home of a big Festival of Richard Wagner’s operas. I’m not a fan of opera. If I were a fan of opera, I still wouldn’t like Wagnerian operas. But we went because (a) my friend loved Wagnerian operas, and (b) he loved tormenting my ears. Those things are so long that they break for food during intermission. My friend dragged me to the stage door:

“Herr Bohm,” he told the guy at the stage door. “Ich bin ein Freund.” There were some more words, but I don’t remember them. Anyway, in a few minutes, this old guy walked up. They obviously knew each other. Karl Bohm was one of the greatest conductors of Wagnerian operas in history, and my friend knew the guy. Not only did they know each other, but we ended up at a local restaurant during intermission. The two of them were rattle off things too fast for me to translate, so I just ate and drank beer. I don’t know if it was legal for a 15 year old to order beer, and I never asked. I just ordered it and drank. And drank. And drank. I missed the entire second half of the opera marathon because I was passed out up in a corner of the festival house.

Everybody has their own memories of adventures. My memories of Bayreuth have gaping holes.

We hit Belgium and the Netherlands and Yugoslavia. In Italy, we spent several weeks going through cathedrals and museums. In Austria, we got up into the bell tower just before noon. If you haven’t heard humongous bells sounding out the Angelus from a distance of a meter or two, it’s something you won’t soon forget. I learned two things that day: first, you can’t hope to stay standing when the bells are that loud; and second, my traveling companion had a total mean streak.

In Austria, my friend took me to the apartment of an old friend of his: György Ligeti. I didn’t know the guy was famous. I just thought he was a really old guy. Ligeti was a composer, but he never did music you could hum or understand. Ligeti once composed a piece for pipe organs where you put little weights on all the keys and selectively remove them one at a time. It was a kind of inverse music. The trouble was that they picked a pipe organ in Lübeck in East Germany. It was a famous organ, and Ligeti’s music blew out some of the organ’s guts. This famous organ was designed by a short-sighted engineer who didn’t think somebody like Ligeti would try to have every pipe blowing throughout the song. Ligeti was asked to leave Lübeck.

At Ligeti’s apartment in Vienna, his wife served us ice cream. She apologized because it was Thursday. My friend had to explain it to me. It was an “ice cream Thursday” (sundae). International puns can be tricky on the best of days.

So a couple of years after this trip, I saw Stanley Kubrick’s moving, 2001: A Space Odyssey. As the credits rolled, I saw “György Ligeti” scroll across the screen. He wrote some of the music for the movie. Cool, I know this guy! His was the weird wonky stuff you can’t hum or whistle. Nobody ever tapped their foot to a Ligeti creation. Whatever. I wrote to Mr. Ligeti and told him how happy I was to see he was branching out into theatrical music. He wrote back that he knew nothing of the matter. Apparently Mr Kubrick thought he could slide the music through without paying for it. It ended up in court. Ligeti sued. Whoever owned the rights to Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube and Richard Strauss Also sprach Zarathustra also sued. This was all from a stupid congratulations letter from me.

Years later, I saw a note in the newspaper that Ligeti finally settled with the movie company. I wrote to him, suggesting that a finder’s fee would be justified. I asked him if I would get a cut. Mr. Ligeti wrote back, saying that what I got from the transaction was his gratitude.

Humph! Artists.

We almost went to Venice, but there was a thunderstorm raging when our train rolled into the station. That much water in a thunderstorm: we begged off and stayed rolling.

In Paris… yum. There were cathedrals and all the famous buildings. We did the Louvre for three or four days, and we weren’t even close to being finished walking through it.

One evening, we decided to catch a ballet. It was Bluebeard by Michel Fokine, not my favorite but we could afford the tickets. During intermission, I met the most adorable French guy. He was about my age (15) or there abouts. And he was stunningly sexy as so many French men are. I was smitten to the point that I completely missed the second half of the ballet. And for the next few days, the French boy and I were inseparable. I wanted to figure out a way to immigrate, but my evil/mean travel buddy told me that my collection of Levi 501s would probably run out before I was able to learn enough French to get a job. (Bitch.)

It was a glorious few days in total lust with my French pastry. We ran and skipped and kissed through the windy streets of that city. Great fun.

Back at our youth hostel, there was a phone message for me. This was a time when calls between France and the USA were difficult and expensive. It had to be my French boy toy because he was the only person who knew where we were staying.

Nope. It was a phone message from my mother. She reminded me that the streets of Paris have eyes, and that she expected me to act with the decorum of a proper 15 year old.

From that day to the day mom died, she refused to tell me how she knew.

I’ve been back to Europe several times. Somehow none of the stories are as whacked as 1966 when I was 15.

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