In early August, we left our employment since we had made plans to spend about a week in Paris. We had made arrangements in London to pick up a pre-paid rental car in Ostend, Belgium with the intent to drive into Paris and stay in youth hostels since we were on a very tight budget.
On August 11th we took the train from Victoria Station to Folkestone where we boarded the ferry for the 3 ½ hour ride to Ostend, Belgium. When we went to pick up the car, the attendant claimed that we had not paid for the rental even though we had a receipt. Since we could not speak the language very well and the attendant refused to speak English, we sought the help of a policeman who was at the ferry station. He talked to the attendant and then turned to us and abruptly said “in Belgique speak Belgique” and walked away leaving us at the mercy of the attendant. We had no choice but to pay for the rental again leaving us with almost no money.
On the way to the French border we picked up two hitchhikers who turned out to be German medical students who were on their way to Paris for a visit. They spoke French and English pretty well and proved to be very helpful. When we reached the French border, the Border Police somehow got the idea that the car was stolen and our new German friends were instrumental in convincing them otherwise. It was late, so after crossing the border, we spent the night parked near a farm. One of the German students was able to secure some beer and wine from nearby and we spent the evening drinking and talking. In the morning, we drove into Paris and dropped off our two hitchhikers.
We realized that we did not have enough money for even a youth hostel so the decision was made to live out of the car. This proved to be very challenging, particularly, when you need a public bathroom or a place to freshen up. We never found an adequate substitute for a real bath, so we were quite ripe by the end of our stay. The other problem was every night we would park in what we thought was a secluded area of Paris only to find the Police rapping on the roof of our car in the morning to make us move along. We lived on Vin Ordinaire which is cheap no name red wine and French bread with a crepe every once in a while if we felt like splurging. We actually did go to a real restaurant one night to sample true Coq au vin (chicken with wine).
One advantage was that we looked so shabby that we were rarely hassled at the tourist attractions. We looked too much like local street people, so we were not worth the trouble of being rude to or taken advantage of like a real tourist. We did get to see all of the major tourist spots and even drove to Versailles and hooked up with a tour. Mostly, we experienced the gritty underbelly of Paris. Years later when Annemarie and I took our children to Paris, I was gratified that I could afford to stay in a very nice apartment and experience Paris in style looking from the top down instead of looking from the bottom up, so to speak.
When we returned to London, we only had a short time left so we decided to finally do some sightseeing. I regret now that I did not have a camera and took no pictures. I have only about 15 minutes of grainy film from a small 8MM movie camera that I brought with me. I only became an avid photographer who documented our trips with hundreds of photographs and who took the time to plan each trip with great detail after we started traveling with the children. I guess children do change everything.
There are so many small but memorable incidents that stand out in my memory. There was our visit to the Prospect of Whitby, the oldest active pub in the Docklands area of London where we spent the evening of my birthday drinking and singing dirty limericks with a packed house. Or, the interesting and distinguished older gentleman that looked liked “Commander Whitehead” who bought me several wines at a wine bar before I realized he wanted me to go home with him. Or, the woman who tried to pick me up in a record store, but she looked to be 35 years old or so and way too old for me to flirt back. Or, the ‘underground’ Jamaican bar on the wharfs that a friend brought us to and that was like nothing we had ever experienced before.
There are simply too many people that we met and so many things that we did to describe them all. Glenn and I had enough experiences that summer to last us a lifetime. The friends that we made and the conversations that we had with the many different people we met left us with a better understanding of the world and, perhaps, brought us to a higher level of self-awareness.
When we returned home it was back to college for Glenn and me and our real lives. I can’t say that I felt somehow profoundly changed by the whole experience, but even then I knew that the summer of 1969 was something special that I would always remember.