A Sortorian Trying to Figure It Out

“You cannot not know what you know nowt” Thick of It


Summer 1981 (England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany)

Summer 1981 (England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany)

I was 14 years old and would be entering the 9th grade in the fall.  We lived in Virginia, but my dad was stationed with NATO in London, and I was going to England to spend a month with him.  This would be my third trip to England, but my first traveling alone. On July 29, 1981, I was dropped off at the curb at the Baltimore International Airport and my mother and sisters continued driving south to Virginia.

I waited four hours (alone) for my flight on World Airways to London’s Gatwick Airport.   (At this time, the airlines did not have escorts for unaccompanied minors.) I arrived in London the next day–a little unprepared with no British money.  I didn’t even have my dad’s phone number.  I looked into a sea of strange faces and saw no one I recognized. England at this point in time was continually in the news for IRA bombings and hunger strikes—public places were on high alert.  What to do–14, no money, no phone number, no father at the airport, rest of family an ocean away.  I was very relieved when M (my dad’s girlfriend) arrived after being delayed by a train.  She told me that my dad was in Brussels and our plans had changed.

Returning to London,  I checked into the Eccleston Hotel in Eccleston Square, London, for one night and paid £10 for my room.  I remember a small room with a lumpy twin bed and no TV.  That night,  M took me to the Players Theatre on Villiers Street in London for dinner and to see the Late Joys, an old-time musical show (£3 including VAT).  M dropped me back at the hotel and went to her flat for the night.

On July 31st, I checked out of the hotel, and we headed to the Hovercraft station in Ramsgate.  At 13:45, we took the Hoverlloyd LTD Hovercraft from London to Brussels for £15.  We disembarked in Calais, France, then took a bus to Brussels to meet my dad who had the family orange Datsun 610.  The plan was to drive from Belgium to the U.S. Army base–Camp Darby in Italy. After 230 miles, we stopped in Colmar, France, and setup our campsite.  Colmar was a picturesque town with lovely waterways. As we passed through border control stations, I always remember M’s UK passport was reviewed quickly and with a smile, and our American passports got an extra stare.

Driving over the Alps was quite an experience in a 1970s Datsun loaded down with camping gear.  Much of the time I couldn’t look out the window – we were simply too high. When we got on the Autobahn, it was startling to realize there was no speed limit.  No speed limit in the Datsun wasn’t a big deal except that everyone flew past us. It was another 100 miles from Colmar to Interlaken, Switzerland. Interlaken is between two lakes: Brienzersee and Thunersee in the Jungfrau-Region of Switzerland.

On August 3rd, we rode the cable car to Mürren/Schilthornbahn.  We bought bread, cheese, and saucissone to eat for lunch that day.  At one of the cable stops, we walked around the village and ate our lunch.  We had coffee at a revolving restaurant at the top of the mountain called Schilthorn-Piz Gloria.  The weather changed dramatically from the basin to each stop in the cable car, all the way to the top of the mountain.  It was interesting to learn what types of plants/trees stop growing at certain altitudes.

I soon finished my book, and I started reading dad’s while he was driving–“The Agony and the Ecstasy” by Irving Stone. It is a historical biography of Michelangelo.  From then on, dad and I were competing for this one book.  It was even more interesting when we arrived in Italy and specifically, Florence.  We drove another 240 miles to Camp Darby on the Italian coast near Tirrenia.  Dad rented a pop-up camper, so our amenities improved somewhat from the tent.  We made several day trips to nearby cities (Pisa, Livorno, and Florence) and spent time on the beach. 

Tirrenia is a small beach town with shops and restaurants.  Dad and M negotiated with Roberto for several marble pieces (David, Athena, and a bowl with small birds perched on the edge).  For some reason, I thought a modern orange phone was the best option, and it was a major hassle to get it to work at home.  The Italian beach was beautiful, but the Mediterranean Sea was much different than the ocean—the water was warm, there were no waves, and there seemed to be a lot of seaweed.  The beach was crowded and they had a fence to separate the Army beach from the Italian side of the beach. 

I loved that teenagers could openly drink wine in Europe. It helped me tolerate camping, and I’m sure it helped them put up with a periodically sulky teenager.  The food was always delicious specifically the pizza. I had spinach noodles in my lasagna for the first time.  I had my first gelato one hot August night in Livorno. We drove to Pisa one day, and dad and I climbed all the way to the top of the Leaning Tower while M waited below. The stairwell was very old, the steps were worn stone, and the passageways were very small.  I was surprised that the openings on each floor did not have a railing or guardrail.  We took a one-day guided bus tour or Florence (Firenze).  We visited the Medici Palace, the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral, the Ghiberti Doors on the Baptistery, the gold bridge, the Michelangelo Museum, and a leather factory.  At the Michelangelo Museum, the artwork displayed had been discussed in detail in “The Agony and the Ecstasy” and made it that much more interesting.  I always remember the cathedral had a crypt inscribed with “I once was where you are now, you will soon be where I am.”  We checked out of Camp Darby and began the long journey back to England. Staying at a hotel that first night on the road felt so luxurious after camping.

Our route back to England took us first to Garmish, Germany where we stayed overnight.  We took a tour of one of the first concentration camps in Germany – Dachau. We watched the movie about the camp, and it’s hard to explain how this place felt.  It was strange that there were no birds singing.  There weren’t mass killings at Dachau–they transported them to other camps like Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz.  It’s a very depressing place.

Our next stop was in Bruges, Belgium, a beautiful town near the coast. There were many historic buildings positioned alongside the many canals.  We then caught the ferry in Zebrugge to cross the English Channel.

I spent one more week in London with dad before I was scheduled to fly home.  He arranged for some dental work to be done before I returned to the U.S.–I had five cavities.  I rode the train into London by myself, found the dentist’s office, and I was in his chair for over three hours.  He was the first and last dentist who setup a latex-clamp type of operating table around my mouth and it was awful.  I was also scheduled to meet the children of his workmates at a museum in London before taking the train back to his flat. Unfortunately, I was very numb from the dental work and miserable.  I still don’t know how I navigated around London by myself—especially post-dental work. Dad escorted me home on a M.A.C. flight for $10 from Mildenhall, England.  We stayed in a small Bed & Breakfast close to the base since they had no rooms available.  A few days later, the only flight we could get to the East Coast was to Charleston, SC. This was a 14-hour flight in the cargo area of a C141 plane.  We sat in the back jump seats, and it was a much different experience then the trip over on World Airways.  The ‘bathroom’ was a bucket, which thankfully I never used.  In South Carolina, we stayed overnight before the 8+ hour drive home.

It was the trip of a lifetime, and I still think about the places we visited.  As reluctant as teenagers are to participate in activities, these experiences remain with us years later.   These days, we have GPS, Facebook, and Twitter to keep a log of where we were and when.  I would never have remembered this level of detail (dates, locations, cost) without the scraps and receipts I had kept and recently discovered in a desk. I wish I had kept a map and circled each place we visited and the date.

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