In the spring semester of my sophomore year, 1960-61, the College of Letters group moved to Paris. On the way, I stopped in London and visited two old friends of my mother’s who had known my father but never met me. One was Louie Gibson, who must have been in her 70s and lived in a fine old house in the West End, filled with British colonial knick-knacks. The other was Ernst Gordon, a colleague of my father’s who managed to get out of Germany just in time, and was now the priest at a Church of England parish in a working-class neighborhood in the East End. Both treated me very kindly.
In Paris our group was enrolled at the École Supérieure pour la Préparation et le Perfectionnement des Professeurs de Français à l’Étranger, a division of the Faculté des Lettres of the Sorbonne. This was nothing like the Alliance Française, which was for tourists. We had a heavy schedule of lectures together with our own supplementary seminars. A roommate, John B. and I lodged with a French family, the Nicoladzes, whose roots were in Georgia on the Black Sea. Their place was at 104 rue d’Assas just on the other side of the Jardin du Luxembourg from the Boulevard St. Michel and the school. Our program forbade us to speak English. We ate at student restaurants, which were subsidized by the government and were an enormous bargain; you could have a full meal for the equivalent of 22 cents.
Over the spring break, I bought a second-hand Lambretta scooter and drove to Madrid, staying at youth hostels. A small hostel off the beaten track near Itxassou in the Basque country especially charmed me; it was next to a creek on a narrow road that had been a smuggler’s trail and a supply route for the French Résistance. In Madrid, I marveled at the paintings of Bosch, Goya, and Velazquez at the Prado. Seeing them full size and up close, with the texture of the brushstrokes almost at my fingertips, gave them a visceral impact that no reproduction could equal. Along the road, I passed the remains of Roman aqueducts and the mouths of inhabited caves.
Immersed and saturated in Paris, we soaked up a lot of French in a short time. I made up for my freshman “F” and, at the end of the semester, I placed second in our class in written French, narrowly edged out by the gifted John Jarzavek. John and I both got the “Certificat d’assiduité avec mention” — the certificate of completion with honors.
In the summer after Paris, I hopped on my Lambretta and again headed south. I stopped in a banlieue of Paris to invite a bewitching blonde Yugoslav friend I had met at a student restaurant to join me, but she declined, and I went on alone. I crossed Switzerland into northern Italy, spending a night in a pension on the edge of Lake Como, and then to the youth hostel in Florence. This was at the time a noisy cosmopolitan hangout where a boom box blared Venti-Quattro Mille Bacci and Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu at all hours. I took in the museums and the duomo and the piazzas and the other world-famous attractions. I made a side trip to Sant’Andrea to visit the small museum dedicated to Machiavelli.
Then on to the youth hostel in Rome. There I ran out of money. A scheduled money order from home was delayed. At a museum, my hopes rose when I bumped into a preppy schoolmate from Wesleyan who happened to be vacationing with his parents at a hotel there, but the S.O.B. refused to lend me even five dollars. I felt hunger pangs that I hadn’t known since childhood. I picked up and ate oranges that dropped from trees in a park. The youth hostel manager, a sympathetic young Italian who spoke French, slipped me leftovers from the kitchen. I made myself useful to him by translating for the German and English-speaking visitors.
After a difficult week, the delayed funds from my mother finally arrived, and I resumed my journey. I spent a few days in Naples, and then crossed the boot to Brindisi, the port of departure for the ships to Greece. I found a friendly pensione who agreed to store my Lambretta. At the youth hostels I had learned about economical methods of ship travel, and applied this lesson immediately. There was a class of about 40 German-speaking Swiss students of about my age traveling on a group ticket, and I simply mingled with them as they boarded the ship. When the ship’s purser came around to collect passengers’ tickets, I simply said “Gruppe” in a Switzerdütsch accent. No problem. The ship dropped us in Piraeus, the port of Athens, and I headed for the hostel and did the tourist thing in the Greek capital. Then I stuck out my thumb on the road to the Peloponnesus, the southern peninsula that was the heart of classical Greek antiquity.
Hitchhiking was easy in those days. Tourists in their Mercedes would dust you, but Greeks in their beat-up farm trucks would stop and give you a lift. I was standing in the bright afternoon at a junction somewhere in the boonies waiting for the next ride, when one of these old trucks pulled to a stop and another hitchhiker got down. She was a German about my age, a student, rather petite. She was named Rose Z. and she was on the same antiquities circuit as I. After some initial posturing and negotiating there on the side of the road, in the dry, dusty heat, with practically no traffic, we struck a pact that for this afternoon we would hitchhike together, posing as brother and sister.
Eventually a Greek farmer took us to the nearest town and, on hearing that we had no place to stay — we spoke some very primitive Greek then, and used a lot of gestures — he offered us the hospitality of his late mother’s house. This was typical of the Greeks we met outside of Athens. Hospitality was a religion to them. He offered us the family’s bedroom, and indicated that he would sleep outside the door on a mat on the floor, to protect us. He ignored our protests that we would be happy to sleep on the floor and he should take the bed — no, no, that was not the Greek way.
My “sister” Rose lay in the double bed, and I in a single bed a few feet away. As the light went off, the sexual tension between us, which had begun almost from the moment we set eyes on one another, and had flared with each contact of our shoulders, elbows, and knees in the cab of the jolting truck, rose past all restraining. Silent as a cat, I slipped off my bed and tentatively slid onto the edge of the big bed, seeking consent. She gave it by moving aside to make room. In a few moments, with a fever only constrained by the imperative of silence, we found each other’s lips and stripped off our clothes. She was small, so I lay on my back and she got on top. In that romantic, furtive setting, a couple of months before my 21st birthday, I lost my virginity.
We traveled together and saw the ruins of the original Olympic stadium and other sights, and slept outdoors in parks or on beaches, sharing a sleeping bag. One day at dawn, after we awoke and had our first lovemaking session of the day, we realized that a group of fishermen were camped within easy view, watching us, and that our brother-sister act was wearing thin. No matter, nobody bothered us.
I still marvel today, fifty years later, that we casually let one another go a week later when our paths diverged. What fools we were! I have tried to Google her, but her maiden name is one of the most common in Germany. It would be a cause for celebration for me if she were to read this and contact me. I have heard and read many first-encounter stories. None approaches the deliciousness of my first night with Rose in the Peloponnesus.
After the Peloponnesus circuit I took a ship to Mykonos and then to Crete. In Crete, at the port of Rethymnon, I somehow became friends with a group of dock workers and fishermen who let me sleep on their boats. Apart from one incident where I had to make a quick escape from an amorous young fisherman who wanted to have his Greek way with me, these encounters were marked by friendship, courtesy, and generosity. I returned to Piraeus on a freighter, experiencing some of the Mediterranean’s rougher weather, and then back to Brindisi and on the Lambretta back to Paris. And then back to Middletown for the fall semester.
(Continued in College (4) Real World Learning)