Friday, 06 December 2019

Looking Back--1969

1969. That year seems impossibly far in the past now. It was a time filled with turmoil in our country, much as we are experiencing today. I was nineteen that year and fifty years later, only vague images remain of my life at that time. I was a college student, a Vietnam war protester, an occasional environmental activist and, of course, a sex-crazed teenager (weren't we all?).

A recent cleaning of the attic turned up many old family photos and, much more evocatively, a diary kept by my parents during the year of 1969 when they traveled across Europe and lived in Spain. For some of that trip, I accompanied them, before I had to return to college in early September. For those who no longer recognize the word, diary, it is an old fashioned habit that people used to have before their attentions were grabbed forevermore by their smartphones. Somehow, I cannot imagine my own son poring over the list of emails that I now leave in my wake.

The diary stretched from July 2 of that year to the following April of 1970 and ranged across a good deal of the European continent. It was well over a hundred pages long, written in longhand, my parents taking turns writing in the ledger each night. I think it is an unusual compendium because both my parents were university English professors and the range of their experiences and reflections are beautifully and evocatively written. It was not at all like the diaries of the 1800s in which the most prominently featured comments were about the weather and the crops and who was sick. One other feature of the diary is that my father's handwriting is much harder to decipher than my mother's. I've read other old diaries, and this can be a significant issue for later readers. If you keep a diary, please write legibly.

Still, so many things were evocative to me, not least of which was to be able to detect the personalities of my parents in their words. It sent chills down my spine. The early trip was arranged around preparing to drop me off for two weeks in Denmark, where I planned to bicycle by myself across country, staying in hostels. Demark may not have been the best choice. I was surprised at once by how cultivated this small country was. There was virtually no place to set up my small tent for occasions when I didn't reach a convenient hostel. Pedaling tiredly late into the evening, I would finally find a small clutch of trees at a crossroads between enormous cultivated fields. I would laboriously lift my bike down into what was little more than a culvert and set up camp. On one of these occasions, I was finally settled, lying in my sleeping bag and writing in my diary (yes, I kept one too--more about that later), when it suddenly seemed that the ground all around me was moving. I stared in disbelief as hundreds of three or four inch long snails all seemed to be creeping toward me.

I never broke camp more quickly in my life. It felt like something out of the Walking Dead. It was nearly dark, and I had no alternative but to load up and continue biking into the night until I finally found a place that I could collapse without having to deal with escargots. Like many awful old memories, of course, I got to relate this story to family and friends for the next half century.

Just shortly before my parents' diary was found, I had actually come across my own diary from this same period. It was quite enlightening to read my mother's worries as she saw her only son head off alone into the wilderness. Well, Denmark was hardly wilderness, but her worries came across vividly, and it was fascinating to read my own tales of travail side by side with her thoughts. One of my biggest problems with my two week bike ride was the wind. It seemed to blow off the ocean on all sides at fierce levels and always against me. Those flat, cultivated fields, offered no protection. I fought the gales daily. At times, I became so frustrated that I would stop, turn around and try to go in the other direction with the wind at my back. It never worked. The wind seemed to change constantly. I never escaped it.

It was also interesting to read about how much fun my parents were having as they trolled around Europe. While I fought the winds and the snails and hunger--I could often find no place to buy food-- they stayed in beautiful hotels, had wonderful meals in exotic little restaurants, climbed about fabulous museums and chateaus and cathedrals and met many interesting people to talk to. It was quite a contrast.

Later, when I rejoined them for our final six weeks of travel together, through Norway, Sweden, France, Austria and Spain, I got to realize what hardships I had entertained in my windblown travels. Friendly and talkative, my parents practiced their language abilities, which mainly consisted of relatively poor French, on whomever they encountered. One memorable passage, written in my mom's hand, told of a meal we shared in a restaurant with two delightful young Frenchwomen, who had just returned from a Moroccan holiday and were full of travel lore about Spain and Africa. My mother wrote in the diary about these two young women: "Very friendly to Chris. One gave him her address and told him to come stay with her and learn French next year!"

I have utterly no memory of this event. What a terrible memory for a nineteen-year-old boy to lose. That's the sort of thing diaries can bring back to life.

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