España, here we come (1960)
When you travel, travel young. Your mind is still open to perceive the world in an unbiased way. It will stay a crack open, when you get older. You retain your precious memories much better and you are able and willing to undergo hardships, seek and find solutions in emergencies without giving up your dreams. When traveling with my friend and scout companion Klaus F. to Spain, I kept a journal of our journey, in which we two on alternate days made entries to describe our daily experiences.
We described them with humor and wit often exaggerating each other’s foibles in a good-natured fashion. If a particular attack on one’s ego turned out to be a bit too caustic, there was always an opportunity for rebuttal and counterattack the very next day. We traveled on the cheap by hitchhiking through Germany, Switzerland and Southern France all the way to the Spanish border, where we bought train passes, because hitchhiking was next to impossible on the nearly deserted country roads. The journal, which is still in my possession, was my first major writing attempt apart from the mandatory boring school assignments. By composing in vivid and expressive language descriptions of land and people, I discovered and developed a talent for creative writing that led me to dabble in the art of writing poetry, short story, even a novel in the following years. Klaus and I looked handsome and respectable in our khaki uniforms. With them we instilled confidence, especially in older drivers, who would not have otherwise given us a ride.
By train mostly in fourth-class compartments we made an exciting semi-circle tour of the northern half of Spain including Tarragona, Barcelona, Valencia, Toledo and Madrid. In the overcrowded train cars we were with body and soul close to the life of common people. Even though we did not understand a single word of Spanish, we felt the excitement of being part of it all. Wine was being passed around in bulging wineskins. The chatter of peasants talking about their crops and livestock was filling the smoky compartments. The train stopped at every minor railroad station, where women brought cages of chicken on board in the hope of selling them at the next major market place first thing in the morning. Somewhere from another compartment we heard singing (or was the sweet wine we had a little bit too much of?), which lulled us to sleep, as the train was rumbling through the night.
We spent a few days in the capital of Spain, where a visit to the national arts museum, the famous Prado, was on our agenda. There we stood in awe in front of Ruben’s illustrious oil paintings depicting voluptuous women in the buff with their blissful expressions on their faces. A bit shy about this entirely new experience it was not surprising that the erotic assault on our senses did not find any mention in the otherwise so open-minded journal.
The youth hostel in Madrid was modern and had more the appearance of a hotel than that of a simple shelter for young people on the go. We ate; no, we gorge ourselves with delicious food and wine from large pitchers placed generously on the dining tables in the cafeteria. Unfortunately, in this not overly sanitary environment Klaus picked up the stomach flu, which made him stay close to the nearest bathroom for the next couple of days. Our last train ride through the green, lush Basque countryside fed by the mist of the nearby Atlantic Ocean was not exactly a pleasure trip. We lost all interest in the scenic beauty, as my friend’s condition worsened by the hour. By the time we crossed the border into France, he was plagued by a high fever. He needed rest. So at the first opportunity I quickly set up our tent on a lakeshore and made Klaus crawl inside and lie on his air mattress to get if possible a little bit of sleep and recuperate from the ordeal of the train ride.
At a good distance from the tent I heard some yelling and screaming by frantic French women whose message was that we should leave the beach area. While Klaus was uttering incoherent sentences and I was tempted to ignore the warnings pretending not to understand any French, the good ladies shouted all the more loudly and more urgently with words I could not fail to miss lake, ocean, connected, tide, drown. Finally I comprehended that the tide was coming in and we would be under water within three hours or less. Now I had to convince Klaus that we were in grave danger and that we had to move our tent up away from the beach. After much coaxing he reluctantly came out, whereupon I pulled out all the pegs and dragged the tent and its content up to higher grounds. When perusing the old journal and rereading some of the other entries, I became aware how many perilous situations we had encountered on our otherwise fascinating road trip.