You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed with sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafes.
― Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
Funny how Hemingway summed up the dreams and aspirations of a group of young teenage boys who set forth on a European adventure. Perfectly.
We didn’t get that drunk, mostly sticking to orange, exotic, Fanta in deliciously heavy brown glass bottles. Oh, and ok, the occasional beer. We were young, I was only thirteen. And being thirteen in the Summer of 1975 was a world away from being so in 2016.
Sex? Well we dreamed of it a lot, fantasised about every girl we had met, and were yet to meet. But sex, as in real, messy, sex. No.
But, we, like everyone back home, we were heading off on a new adventure, we were set to visit Europe. Only two years after the UK, for the third time of asking, finally joined the party in 1973.
Oh, and the photo I have used above, is, I think, the first I ever took with my Kodak Instamatic 25, my very first camera.
I’ve been thinking about writing this piece for a while. I was also thinking of writing a piece about my feelings about the recent referendum. Yes, that one. Then I thought maybe there is enough already written about that.
And yes, I am proud to say I voted to remain. Cut me through the middle and I am British and proud of it, but I’m also proud to call myself a European.
And I will always be both.
Back then, I had never set foot outside the UK, in fact a trip to Wales was considered rather exotic.
That hovercraft was a bloody nightmare, no wonder they are no longer in service, they didn’t slice through the waves or roll majestically with the tides, they were the playthings of a demented giant flipping a stone across a pond. They bumped and jumped and kept an entire industry of hovercraft sick bags in business for a generation.
No tunnel then.
It was ship, hovercraft, swim or, if you were (filthy) rich, fly.
The tunnel was the stuff of science fiction, barely credible. The white cliffs of Dover had a physical presence and a meaning they no longer have.
Each of us were only allowed to carry the princely sum of fifty pounds in sterling (and yes, it was decimal). But, and this is a big but, it had to be divided and exchanged, before we travelled, into sufficient local currency for the trip we were about to make. That meant, at least, French Francs, Italian Lira, Deutschmarks, Yugoslavian Dinars (oh, the paperwork), Swiss Francs and possibly a few I have forgotten. Imagine all those little brown envelopes full of so much currency. Calculating the local price of a bottle of Fanta in each new place, each new currency, almost rivalled, as a form of entertainment, listening to the only music we had, a cassette tape of The Doors (Weird Scenes Inside the Goldmine) and surreptitiously (with a torch inside a sleeping bag) reading the racier parts of a collection of Sven Hassel novels (perhaps not the most diplomatic choice with hindsight).
The cold beaches of northern Belgium soon gave way to our first glimpses of the Atomium, I experimented with my camera and used some 50% of my available film cassettes taking shots of the bridge of Namur. Much to my family’s general amusement (if not mine) on my return.
Motorway signs announced otherworldly speed limits of 100 plus (ok, I admit it took me a day or two to remember they were in km not miles) and we snaked through western Germany and through the mountains of Switzerland. Here my gift to the family album was a series of pictures of ducks on the lake in Zurich. Always the details, forget the landscape.
Later, perhaps after we had our first shower, we were camping and I recall having a shower at least three times in the three weeks we were away, there was the incident with the spines of the sea urchin. And my foot. In Pescara (that followed Roma, how could I forget Roma!) .
Even later, during a balmy sea crossing across the Adriatic, in between falling in love with a red dress (or the pretty girl inside it) and nursing my sore foot, I snapped some shots of islands in the stream. Apart from the red dress, my main recollections of a drive along what is now the Croatian coast revolved around the smell of poor quality diesel fuel, the sound of wooden flutes and the sheer joy of leaping off rocky ledges into crystal clear (cold) water.
And then, there was Venice. Of course by that point we were battle hardened warriors, looking for more red dresses, or better, small scorpions to store in match boxes. Don’t even ask. And yes, the bridge of sighs was added to the bridge at Namur (if not so many times).
Venice became Genoa became Avignon became Paris.
And soon we were home.
Dirty, penniless, our minds expanded to breaking point by The Doors, the price of Fanta, that red dress, those crazy speed signs and the thought that this whole wonderful world was just ‘over there’ across the channel.
We didn’t know it then, or maybe some of us did, but we had become Europeans. Our country never looked the same again. The differences we saw, and experienced, made our own lives richer, the people we met, the food we ate, the drinks we drank, the sea urchins, those bridges, that girl in the red dress, they all lived on in our minds.
We had, in small silent steps, become Europeans.