This is my story about our five week trip through Europe in 1964 when I was a year from graduation at NYU Law School and he was a year from graduation at Bard College. It’s my story because it’s based on my memories, which are sometimes not the same as Vic’s. Memory is not history.
A few years earlier, when I was 18 and Vic was 16, we drove his Austin Healy 100-4 from New York to Miami and back although neither of us had a driver’s license. Mine had been suspended and Vic’s was a junior license not valid in states other than New York. We were two young Jewish looking kids in a white sports car with New York plates driven through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and back. We were never stopped by the police, a miracle that may not rank with those of an earlier Jewish kid from the Middle East, but amazing nonetheless. When we got to Miami and were about to cross the causeway to Miami Beach we stopped at a scuba diving shop and rented tanks, masks, regulators and fins. We had never scuba dived before and I guess in those carefree days you could rent equipment without being “certified”. We stopped on the causeway to Miami Beach and tried to scuba dive. We survived (spoiler alert) because we couldn’t get the tank and regulator to work, so we brought the equipment back to the store within an hour of renting it.
That experience was a prelude to what happened to us in the summer of 1964 when we landed in Amsterdam. We intended to buy motorcycles with which to ride through Europe, thinking that things were cheaper there. We soon found that the only bikes we could afford were 50 cc motor bikes; which we purchased for about $200 each. We spent the rest of that day and half of the next driving our motor bikes around Amsterdam and its environs. We quickly realized that the 50 cc motor bikes were too light and slow to travel around a continent. Not knowing what else to do, we brought them back to the dealer the day after we purchased them and explained our mistake. The owner took the bikes back and charged us just $40 each for their use and for returning bikes that had once been brand new. We were shocked and ecstatic, although now relegated to Eurail passes.
In five weeks we traveled by train to Copenhagen, Bregenz (Austria), Florence, Nice, Barcelona and Paris. Nothing of general interest happened in Denmark, but our stay in Bregenz, Austria, on the Lake of Constance (the Bodensee) yielded a few interesting events. The lake borders Germany, Switzerland and Austria. It is beautiful beyond words.
We were there because I had a girlfriend that summer who was working as a nanny in New York. She was from Bregenz and made me promise to visit her parents during the week of their music festival which would take place during our trip.
I don’t know what she told her parents about me and Vic except to expect our visit, but she told me that her father had been and officer in the Nazi SS twenty years earlier and had fled to Argentina for several years after the War where he learned Spanish. I spoke high school Spanish, Vic spoke only English and Mrs. Nazi spoke German and French. Therefore, during our three-day visit to Bregenz all communication was in Spanish between me and the former Nazi then translated by him to his wife in German and by me to Vic in English. This gave me mild headaches. Thankfully, we didn’t stay with them but in a small bread-and-breakfast nearby.
On the Sunday of our stay in Austria, we were taken by our hosts to the top of a ski mountain in the Alps the bottom of which was in the heart of Bregenz. We took the ski lift to the top, had a hearty lunch and then walked down. During that walk I was with the father and Vic was with the mother. Somehow she communicated to Vic that they were curious about our religion. After several attempts to say, “Jew” in a language she could understand, Vic resorted to the only German phrase he knew which contained the necessary information, “JUDEN RAUS!” She pretended not to understand, but that ended the “conversation” about religion.
When we arrived back in Bregenz after an invigorating hike down the mountain, Vic and I went to our B&B for a shower before going to our hosts’ house of dinner. The mother brought out a tray of hors d’oeuvres – small pieces of sliced bread with pieces of cheese, cucumber or sandwich meat on top of each piece. We were hungry and soon realized to our disappointment that the big meal of the day had been the one on top of the mountain. This tray of appetizers was all we were going to get for dinner. Trying to be gracious, I said in Spanish, “This is just what we needed, a good meal.” Mr. N. translated my Spanish into German for his wife and they both looked confused. Trying to understand their reaction, I repeated my Spanish sentence to myself. I then realized to my horror that what I had said was, “What we need is a good meal.”
When I told Vic what I had said, he seemed to try to crawl under the table but realized that would only make things worse.
Mr. N., who worked as an engineer in a hydro-electric plant in the mountains above Bregenz, invited Vic and me to accompany him the next day, Monday, into the mountains to see the plant. He was powerful and persuasive, but nothing could get these two ungrateful Jews to venture into the Alps with a former officer in the Nazi SS.
The only other guests at the B&B were two blond German girls about our age. On the first morning of our stay, Vic and I had our breakfast in the dining room and then realized as we left that the girls were waiting for us to leave before going in for their breakfast. Therefore, on the day of our departure, we explained to the B&B lady that the girls didn’t have to wait for us to finish, they could join us for breakfast. Using our German-English dictionary, the only word that we could find that seemed to fit the situation was, “together.” What we didn’t know was that they had already had their breakfast, but the lady thought we were asking them to join us anyway, and she persuaded them to do so. They didn’t speak English and we endured another meal of quiet embarrassment as they sat with us at the dining room table watching us eat. Somehow communication was established and they invited us to join them in their VW Beetle for a ride in the Alps above Bregenz. It was a magnificent ride, with contented cows in picturesque fields overlooking the lake. Nothing romantic ensued, although I think that the driver, who was accompanied by Vic in the front passenger seat, was enamored of my younger brother.
That was nothing new. He was by far the more handsome and charming, a fact which left me sadly frustrated during our train trip from Denmark to Austria. During part of the trip we were accompanied in our compartment by the most beautiful girl I had ever seen in person. She was Swiss, a secretary returning to Zurich, and spoke five languages. I fell in love at first sight, but didn’t know how to approach her. Vic had no such inhibitions and they amused each other for hours while I sat in silence. She departed the train in Zurich never to be seen again, but never forgotten by me. (I wonder if Vic remembers her.)
We left Bregenz for Florence, traveling east to Innsbruck and then changing trains for Florence. On the last leg of this trip we saw a sign board on the train showing each stop it would make, and Florence was not there. We panicked and found the conductor who told us with weary condescension that Fierenze was Florence in Italian.
By the time Vic and I arrived in Florence, we had been constant companions for about two weeks and were pretty sick of each other. We did some things together but also split up and spent time, each on his own. I was feeling low. I missed my girlfriend in New York and had not been found attractive by the Zurich girl or the German girls in Bregenz. In fact, I had been more directly rejected in a Florence museum called the Palazzo Vecchio where I saw an attractive, obviously American girl who was staring at a painting. I stood next to her for a while and then asked what she found so interesting in that painting. Without looking at me she said, “If you spent more time looking at the paintings instead of the girls, you might learn something.” She left me standing there stunned.
I left the museum immediately and walked a short way to the railing of an ancient porch overlooking the Piazza della Signoria. I was watching the pigeons expectantly approaching tourists when I resolved to stop thinking about girls and just enjoy the food, the culture and the places we were visiting. As that resolution was being made a pretty girl walked gracefully towards me from the center of the Piazza, dislodging pigeons in her path without interrupting her languid pace. She actually walked right up to me, within a few feet of where I was sitting. She looked directly into my eyes as I looked into hers. She smiled — at me. I was shocked. After a moment she continued her walk past me and the statue of naked David into the Palazzo Vecchio where a few minutes before I had been mercilessly shamed. What could I do? If I did nothing and followed my recently made resolution, I would live with the self-inflicted brand of “coward” forever. Instead of following my resolution, I followed the graceful girl.
She was from San Francisco and we were attracted to each other. We hung out together for two days and kissed. It might have been prelude to something more intimate, but that possibility motivated her to tell me that she had just broken off with an Australian boy, her former travel companion, and she was pregnant. It was unwanted and she was unsure about what to do — however, whatever that was, it did not include plans with me. We parted fond friends and I will always remember that magic moment in the Piazza when my depression was lifted by a girl who walked up to me and smiled.
Victor had met a girl in Florence while on his own, and I met another pretty girl who was from Montreal. They were both traveling separately from Florence to Nice, which, by coincidence, was our next destination, or it became that when we learned that our new girlfriends were going there. I left for Nice with my new friend and Vic stayed behind in Florence for a few days with his. My Florence/Nice girlfriend visited me that winter for a weekend in New York City. After that I never saw her again. In Nice, after the girls moved on, Vic and I were alone together again. We disliked the beaches in Nice which consisted not of sand but of small round rocks that were hard to walk on or sit on or lie on. Why have a beach if you can’t walk on it or sit on it or lie on it? The French there seemed to have tougher skin.
We then traveled from Nice to Barcelona which was, and undoubtedly still is, a wonderful city. We rented motor bikes again and explored the Costa Brava north of the city where we found sand beaches full of Germans and Brits. In Barcelona we discovered a wine cave with barrels on enormous shelves high on the walls where Spaniards could bring empty bottles and fill them from the barrels for pennies a piece. I assume those days are gone forever.
Our next and last stop was Paris where we found a small inexpensive place to stay. We were expecting mail from home, possibly money, and Vic traveled each morning to the American Express office in the square called L’Opera. American Express provided a mail box service where American tourists could receive letters and packages simply addressed to them at American Express, L’Opera, Paris, France.
On the Paris buses different fares were charged depending on the length of your trip. Conductors stood at the doors of the buses receiving francs and dispensing tickets depending on your destination. Vic had trouble pronouncing L’Opera with a proper French accent and the conductors embarrassed him by making him repeat the words several times before admitting that they understood him. One night we were having dinner with a girl who spoke fluent French. She taught Vic how to pronounce L’Opera properly, and he repeated it until she said his pronunciation was perfect.
The next morning he climbed aboard a bus and spoke the name of his destination in flawless French. The conductor said something in French, so Vic repeated “L’Opera” again two or three times but the conductor still would not accept Vic’s fare. Vic was getting very frustrated and was about to push his way past the conductor when a passenger translated for him what the conductor was saying, “This bus doesn’t go to L’Opera.”
The girl who helped Vic with his French pronunciation the night before was someone I met while she was sitting and reading on a quay overlooking the Seine. I sat next to her and started a conversation which was easy because she was very pretty and the book she was reading was in English. She was from Cologne, Germany and was studying in Paris. She welcomed the chance to improve her English, which was one of the subjects she was studying. We fell in love and were together constantly for two or three days, although we never did anything more than kiss and hold each other. We felt something that we would remember for the rest of our lives, although by modern standards our relationship was trivial. Perhaps Jane Austen would understand.
Vic and I never traveled together, by ourselves, again. We had our own separate friends, our own marriages and families, and although we have always been close, the opportunity for that kind of trip was over. As brothers just two years apart in age, we were together as babies, children, students and athletic competitors as well as travel companions. The memories we share are known to no one else.
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