One of the unanticipated joys of writing a book about recent history, it turns out, is hearing from people who were active participants in the cultural moment--individuals for whom the now-legendary triumphs and travails and watershed moments are not merely the stuff of books but were once day-to-day reality.
I've been getting quite a few letters and emails from 1960s travelers like my mother, Grand Tourists from that initial, influential wave of budget travel. Many of the emails come with stories or questions--I used Frommer's book for real; I stayed in the same hotel in Rome; Do you know if this restaurant in Amsterdam is still open?
I particularly enjoyed the story I received from Ron Dunn, and I'm grateful that he has given me permission to share it here on the blog.
|Athens, Kolonaki Square, 1895. Via Flickr Creative Commons, photo by Martin Baldwin-Edwards.|
Wants vs. Needs
By Ron Dunn
The early March weather of 1967 was pleasantly warm and sunny as I sat down at a table in Athens’ Constitution Square, just across the street from my hotel. My visit was for three days so I had bought enough Drachmas to cover my needs and left my traveler’s checks in my hotel room. A band was playing bouzouki music as I placed an order for a beer from a wandering waiter. This was a dramatic change from the bleak winter I recently left in the Midwest.
When the beer was served and paid for, a girl who was very distractingly dressed sat down beside me and asked, “What airline are you with?” I was surprised at her comment, but, Olympic Airways was offering airline personnel a weekend in Greece for $49.99 and Athens was flooded with airline people. I must have looked the part—and I was. My situation was with Sabena’s 30 days in Europe for $100. I may have looked like a wealthy American—but I was not.
She ordered a drink and continued to talk in fairly good English about the city, then to my disgust, turned to more personal issues. My finances were limited; I wanted to experience as much Europe as I could. Girls are expensive, especially her type. Her cleavage caressed a pearl necklace with each lusty breath—and captured my gaze and attention. In spite of that I showed no interest in her advances; advances that went from verbal to physical. I chased her away with surprising ease and was enjoying the rest of my beer until the waiter firmly demanded payment for her drink—a very expensive drink. When my hand went into my pocket I discovered a stomach churning, stunning, emptiness. She was a professional pick-pocket, and the waiter was part of the scheme. I’m sure he told her where the money was and that there was a lot. The waiter insisted on payment and convincingly threatened me. A brief thought of trying to flee entered my head, but left when he took me by the arm and told me to go to my hotel and cash a check. His thumb ground painfully into my right bicep as we crossed the street and entered the hotel. He made note of my room number as I claimed my key and reminded me that I must return—or else… Return I did, cashed a check and paid him off. He ran out the door and away from the square.
When I cashed another check and explained to the clerk what had happened, he told me to go to the tourist police, which was nearby. The police interrupted my story and told me what happened. The man was not a waiter. He went to a café, bought the beer and set me up with the girl. Their only help was to advise me to beware of the company I keep. Their cavalier attitude was discouraging, but I held no grudge against the Greeks. This could have happened anywhere, even at home.
It was time to recalculate my finances. My library copy of Arthur Frommer’s Europe On Five Dollars A Day listed some very inexpensive hotels in the remaining cities I would visit. None cheap enough to allow me to also eat or drink, my per diem was now down to about three dollars a day. My personal checking account was as empty as a pick-pocket’s victim and my only credit card was with Standard Oil. I could have gone home but the thought never crossed my mind. The Siren’s Song that led to this turn of events would not keep me from Holland, France, Monaco, Italy, Belgium, and Switzerland. There I was, thousands of miles away from home with the only sure source of food coming every three or four days when I changed cities. Every change involved flying back to Brussels and then going to the next destination. That was a little inconvenient, but had nourishing fringe benefits; food and drink was served on each leg.
Creative provisioning became the order of the day. Breakfast really did break a fast every day. Going toward the end of the serving period just as most were leaving allowed me to pick up leftovers to give to my very “best friend,” my tote bag. Hot chocolate was the beverage of choice, it has nourishment. Mountains of jams and jellies covered rolls and bread from crust to crust. Lump sugar was available for coffee—but not after I left. My pockets were filled with the contents of the bowls. It is a bad source of energy, but it helped to keep me going. The inventory of fruit stands was often reduced as I walked by. Flight attendants passed through the cabins with baskets of hard rolls. My “best friend” captured them for later banquets. Sometimes we would deplane through the galley and the horn-of-plenty bread basket provided even more feasting items. Cheese and wine were very cheap, so I bought those from time to time with spare change I could not trade in at a currency exchange.
The hotels I stayed in during the rest of the journey were all family owned and offered little more than shelter, breakfast, and a toilet down the hall. Business and personal travel of later years provided exceptional accommodations on three continents, but none provided the comfort of the old-world lodging of this trip.
Public transportation and the “shoe-leather express” took me to places the average tourist would never see; I was a traveler, not a tourist, especially not an American tourist. The bus line from Nice, France ended at Menton, France, about a mile from the Italian border. A short walk by European standards placed me at the border where I was thoroughly cross-examined by the border guards. They could not understand why an American would walk from one country to another. They were suspicious of my “best friend” and its contents. After a lot of dialog and enough gesturing to create “Italian Elbow Syndrome” they finally let me pass. After several hours I was back at the French border and was subjected to the same treatment. I asked them to check with the Italians, but there had been a shift change and the Italian guards knew nothing about an American on foot. With a reluctant “bon voyage” I was allowed to pass. Years later, I laughed as I saw an I Love Lucy episode that was staged at the same crossing—with similar problems.
The highlight of my trip was to be a week of skiing in the Swiss Alps. Captain Bert Jensen who I knew from a previous Austrian ski trip was in the Regina, a five star hotel in Grindelwald, Switzerland. He was leaving the next day, but made arrangements at his hotel for me to cash a personal check for one-hundred Swiss Francs, about forty dollars, that I hoped would arrive home after I did. He also referred me to a nearby economy hotel of questionable stars.
Frau Moser, the owner of the Bel Aire Eden didn’t want to rent me a room with breakfast only. She preferred to provide half or full pension service and made some comments about cheap Americans. When I told her my story she softened a little and let me in, but I had to pay in advance. Ski rental and lift tickets would put me back to survival living again.
The next morning I noticed Frau Moser watching over her “Inn Mates” like a prison warden watches in-mates. Creative provisioning was out of the question. I listened for my native language and targeted Anthony Atkinson from England. As we talked over breakfast, I discovered he was on limited finances too. One could take only a small amount of money from England at that time. His full pension included a picnic lunch, which was more than he cared for. We struck a deal, I would buy two beers for us, and he would share his lunch.
Tony and I walked into the hotel and the lovely aroma of the evening meal as we returned from each day’s skiing and parted company. He went to a nice dinner; while I suffered a double dose of caloric deprivation. I went to bed with hard rolls (there weren’t any fruit stands in the Alps) and tried to stay warm. Frau Moser was very stingy with her heat. This was the start of a “love affair” with the area that lasted over twenty years. I returned to the Bel Aire Eden for a few years until I had a family and rented a chalet. The half pension service was wonderful, and there was heat when Frau Moser’s son took over.
My month in Europe came to an end in Grindelwald. Three trains, five airplanes, and about forty hours later I arrived in Kansas City. My “best friend” was empty, my stomach was full, there was a dime in my pocket, and I was happy to have a treasure chest of long lasting pleasant memories. Memories that make one understand that what is really important is what one needs—not what one wants. I came to fully appreciate this while sitting on a hotel room balcony on the French Riviera enjoying some airline, by then, very hard rolls, cheese, wine, stolen fruit, and fascinating scenery. Earlier in the day I had stood visually devouring a pizza being made in a storefront Trattoria and felt sorry for myself because I was so poor that I could not go in and enjoy the simple comfort of a good hot meal. The water from my drip-dry shirts was playing a tune on the newspapers I gathered to quell the flood. I took inventory of my situation and felt a wave of delight sweep over me. I had shelter, clean clothing, food, wine, and much more exotic surroundings than Kansas City—I was a very wealthy man.