My Adventures Touring Europe in 1982 (24) England (via Belgium)
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Thursday, July 29
This morning, we parted company with 4 of our tour group members. Margo, Danny and Leah decided to stay behind in Paris. Danny was in tears as he bade us farewell. "Every time I come to Europe, I get a new perspective," he said. "From now on, every time I see five dollars, I'll think it's 7000 lira."
Now I wish I’d paid more attention to him. He has such a positive personality; I don’t recall him complaining one bit.
Gayla left before breakfast, boarding Eurail to her Eckankar workshop in Amsterdam. Though we were heading to Brussels, which would have cut her trip by half, she was so desperate to get away from the group she didn’t want to spare herself the extra trouble and expense by going with us. She had packed all her things the previous night. She rose before everyone else in the room, and we bade a quiet goodbye to each other before she set out.
After our Continental breakfast, we lugged our suitcases to the bus. Since this was near the end of the tour, they were a lot heavier than they had been nearly 6 weeks ago. Amy and Marcy had gotten around the problem by leaving their luggage on the bus. They were in for a rude shock; we discovered that during the night the bus had been broken into, and their luggage stolen. Except for the broken lock, the burglars had been careful not to damage the bus in any way.
Europe doesn’t have much problem with violent crime, but in some countries, theft is a major issue; this is especially so in France, Italy and Greece. I was told of a purse snatching in Venice, where a couple guys rode up on a moped, shoved a box over a woman’s head, and as she reached up to push it off, they cut the strap to her purse and rode off with it (in America, the thugs would have pulled the knife on her, and possibly done far more). Also, when our bus was towed in Florence, some people had left valuables on there; Johannes had said this was OK to do, as long as they were hidden out of sight (nothing was missing when the bus was retrieved). So in a way, this break-in came as no surprise. It was also fortunate that Marcy and Amy did not lose anything really important, just mostly souvenirs. Still, though, it was a very upsetting way to end their tour.
We set off for Brussels, Belgium. We passed through Luxembourg so briefly, I didn’t even know when it happened. This tour was supposed to include 14 countries and 4 principalities. We did visit the latter; West Berlin, San Marino, The Vatican, and Monaco. As for the former, it was a formality really. I definitely added to the number by entering Sweden and East Berlin on my own!
In Brussels, we stopped at the Common Market Headquarters and were given a tour. It was a grand square lined with ornate mansions. We viewed the famous Mannekin Pis statue, which they used to place over Hitler’s portrait back during World War II as a protest. It’s actually quite small!
Then we headed back to France, so we could board the hydroplane in Calais to sail to England. At the border, we ran afoul of Customs. Some confusion occurred outside, then Johannes called me off the bus. “I don’t know what’s going on. Since you speak French, could you help us out please?” he asked me.
It turned out Lakis was supposed to show them a certain green paper with all our names on it, and he didn’t have it. As a result, he had to pay 600 francs (about $86 US). He lacked the full amount, so it looked as if we were stuck. Some of the group talked amongst themselves, wondering what to do.
“Well, you realize we’re dealing with someone with subnormal intelligence, don’t you?” growled Eric. I felt that was totally unnecessary. I wanted to say something in response, but then Robin and some others loaned Lakis money to pay the fee. Since they would be departing for America in 3 days, they might not get their money back. Our group certainly ranged from the worst to the best, didn’t it? It even did within some of the same people!
The customs officials searched some of our luggage, including mine. Amy and Marcy were extremely piqued at this.
We missed our scheduled hydroplane, and had to wait for the next one. Within a few minutes after boarding, I got sicker than I’d ever been in years. I thought of all the comparisons I’d read about crossing the English Channel in a clam boat, and saw where they came from. And this was a hydroplane, supposedly the smoothest ride available! Somehow I managed to avoid vomiting, but it was the longest one hour trip in my life! This is the only part of my European tour I would NOT want to relive!
At long last, we made it to England’s shore. I staggered off at first opportunity, and found a rail to cling to while waiting for the others. They seemed fine, though maybe I was too sick to judge correctly. Fortunately, my illness cleared after a few minutes, then I gazed around at the Port of Dover. It's just an ordinary-looking dock and seascape, but here I was at last in the land which housed my childhood princess fantasies and my favorite rock stars. Here is the country of A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, and the Rolling Stones, Elton John and Led Zepplin. This is the home of the Beatles, who changed - actually reinvented – Rock and Roll history. This is where American bands like Heatwave and the Gogos got their start, when they couldn’t get airplay in the US. This was the land of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, who had just gotten married last year in that extravagant wedding ceremony.
“Yoleen, quit looking so dolefully at England,” said Mary. “Dolefully” means sad, but I think she meant I was gazing in awe, which I was.
“This country seems so tame,” I told her. “But there’s a lot of wildness to it, don’t you think?”
“I think it’s the most boring place on Earth,” answered Mary.
“Even with the punk rock movement?”
“Oh – you’re into that.”
England is one hour behind Central Europe. It was about 9:30pm when we boarded the bus, but it was still light, because once again we were very far north. As the bus pulled away, I felt zapped with the most fabulous vibe. Apparently everyone else got it too, because we began hooping and hollering and dancing in the aisle. Lakis put on European disco music, and flipped the inside lights on and off.
An oncoming car honked at us. We were all startled, then Lakis swerved to the other side of the highway. That’s right, people in England drive on the left side of the road! We nearly had a disaster, there!
We passed through rolling green hills dotted with sheep. After dark, we found a small isolated restaurant. Lakis parked, and a bunch of us got out and ran to the door, where we were calmly met by a woman wearing a black dress and a white apron. Blocking the entrance, she informed us the restaurant was closed. So we got back on the bus and rode on, until we could find another restaurant for dinner. Finally we did, and they were nice enough to take our traveler's cheques and give us change in British pounds. I had to order a cheap sandwich, since I was running out of money. I wondered how I would make it through the next 3 days with what I had left, since the only meals provided on this part of the tour was Continental Breakfast.
We arrived at our London hotel after midnight. It was a charming place, with lofts in the rooms. I roomed with Chiara, Jennifer, and Eve; I slept solo in the loft. There was an extra bed up there, but no one else wanted to take the extra trouble of climbing the stairs.
We were all so hyped up, no one complained about our late arrival time.
Friday, July 30
England is the sanest European country for driving. Except for operating on the left side of the road, it’s like the US; the streets are even laid out in a grid, after a fashion. Lakis had a little snag when he went on the city street and realized the fast lane is on the far right side. That’s not too hard an adjustment to make. I’d drive in England, but nowhere else in Europe!
Today, we got a tour of the Westminster section of London. London is the biggest city in Europe, with 32 boroughs, so there’s a tremendous amount to explore. Like Paris, it’s so huge you really need a two week stay to begin to do it justice.
We crossed the Thames River, viewing the Parliament from its opposite side. “London dates back to the first century AD,” our local tour guide told us. “The Thames River was used as a dumping ground for centuries, and was extremely filthy as a result. However, in recent years, efforts have been made to clean it up, and now it’s possible to catch trout in it." The water was a murky gray color. I noticed she didn't say whether or not you could eat the trout you caught.
“Here is London Bridge. However, I must inform you; it is not the real one. You have that one. We sold it to you Americans back in 1968, to help pay for the heavy expenses of replacing it. To see the real London Bridge, you will have to go to Lake Havasu, Arizona.” We all laughed at the irony "As you see, London Bridge is not designed to take cars, having been originally built during the era of Roman conquest. This is the bridge that has taken its place; it was built 9 years ago.” She pointed it out to us, it was just a few yards away from the towering landmark.
“No doubt you’ve heard of London Fog,” she went on, as we gazed out the bus windows at the sunny sky. “Actually, it was not real fog they’re referring to; it’s the smoke from the factories that were spewed out during the 18th and 19th centuries. There was no Environmental Protection Agency in those days. It coated the buildings, and clean-up efforts towards that end are still being done today. As you see, some of these brick buildings are red on one side and black on the others. They have been cleaned for the wedding procession of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. The reason the entire buildings have not been cleaned is because of the current poor economy.” We laughed as we viewed the buildings.
“Now we come to the Buckingham Palace,” she continued. “Unfortunately we can’t stop for photographs, because last week there was an incident where someone climbed a lamp post and made threats. So do the best you can from the bus. We can slow down a little, but we can’t stop.” I managed to take a couple pictures through the bus window.
We stopped and got out at one place where they were having a Changing of the Guard. A man barked a command, and everyone stood still with their horses. Silence followed for a long time, then I suddenly looked around; none of my tour group was there. I ran towards the bus, and our local tour guide gave me a dirty look as I boarded; apparently I was late. That sure was the strangest Change of the Guard I’d ever seen.
We saw many more sites; Hyde Park, Picadilly Circus, Queen Anne’s Statue, and Big Ben. “And now we’re passing Mick Jagger’s house,” she continued. “He doesn’t live there anymore, because Bianca got it for their divorce settlement. To spite her, he had it painted bright pink, but she repainted it white.” London is one hilarious place, isn't it?
The tour took most of the day. For dinner, I went into a McDonalds and had a lousy hamburger meal which cost me $5, which is more than it would have cost in the US. Europeans aren’t big on fast food, so the restaurants there are fewer and more expensive.
That evening, I played guitar in the bar that was part of our hotel. I had no money to spare for drinks, but a nice Swedish guy bought me beer there. English beers are really good; in my opinion, they rival the Germans.
The Swedish guy and I flirted between songs. He taught me a drinking song, explaining that in Swedish the words “meowing” and “drinking” are the same:
“Once there was a whole Angora cat, falerah
That made love to an ordinary cat, falerah
The consequence was meowing (drinking)
But it’s no longer full - ing
For now it’s just a half angora cat, falerah.”
I taught him the drinking song I had learned in Austria at the castle ruin. After awhile, he invited me to come with him to a pancake house.
“I’d rather stay here, thank you,” I told him.
“Aw, c’mon. It’ll only be for a little while,” he urged.
“Leave a bar and go to a pancake house? That doesn’t make sense.”
“Why not? We can drink there, too.” He reached for me, and I backed away. This was beginning to resemble my experience with the guy in Sorrento. I found this strange, since all throughout the tour, I found Northern European men far more civilized than that. Then I remembered the Essence magazine article that stated Swedish men tend to find black women easy lays.
“No, I’ll just stay here,” I insisted.
He got angry. “Look, I was nice enough to buy you beer, and now you’re refusing to go with me!”
“If I’d known there was a price tag attached to it, I wouldn’t have accepted!” I snapped back.
Everyone, including the bartender, looked in our direction. Realizing he was making a scene, the Swedish guy sputtered, “Well – uh – that’s not what I meant – “ then he walked out.
“Good for you!” called Donna, as several people cheered.
After I played guitar for 2 hours, we all went upstairs to bed.
Saturday, July 31
Today, we’re free to explore London on our own. As usual, I went off by myself without asking anyone else what they were doing. It was such an ingrained habit I was totally unaware of it.
This time, my habit got me into a bit of trouble. As I was walking down the street, a skinhead pulled up, honked the horn, and flipped me off. I’d encountered blatant racism from whites only once before in my life, so this frightened me. Was he going to jump out of the car and attack? I ducked down a side street and turned the corner. I saw him look to see where I was going, but fortunately he didn’t follow me.
Walking down another major boulevard, I heard a car horn honk again. Now I was really creeped out. I knew because of England’s history of acquiring colonies and the African slave trade, there was more racism here than anywhere else in Europe, but I hadn’t expected it to be any worse than in the US. Maybe my roommate Sydney was right after all; her father had been attacked here. But all I heard was a man calling out, “My, you sure look good!” I headed back to the hotel, deciding maybe I should hide out there, but since I encountered no more problems on the way, I changed my mind and chose to make use of my opportunity to explore London.
I visited Carlburough, a square full of shops that sell hippie clothes. “You’re feeling England’s cold?” a sales clerk charmingly asked me, indicating the parka I was wearing. He had blue eyes that looked as if they could glow in the dark. We chatted and flirted awhile, and I began to relax about being in England. I felt bad that I couldn’t afford to buy any clothes; as it was, I had saved bread from this morning’s breakfast in case I couldn’t find a cheap place to buy a late lunch.
Next I went to view Westminster Abbey, where the father of Christine McVie, Fleetwood Mac’s pianist, used to play the organ (I took a picture, but I don’t know what happened to it). Last, I toured Tate Gallery. It was full of exquisite paintings of wealthy people wearing silk clothing, the artists’ skill was so great, it looked like the real fabric. One painting that stood out in my mind was of a girl wearing a white dress. She appeared to be about 8 years old, and she had an expression on her face that indicated that she was TOTALLY spoiled.
Overall, I walked about 7½ miles. All along the way, I kept encountering people with glow-in-the-dark blue eyes. I guess that’s an English feature! Also, much to my relief, I had no more problems with racism or anything else; everyone was very friendly.
I returned to the hotel to take a nap; I was very tired. I rose that evening to attend the tour group’s Farewell Party, held downstairs in the bar. It turned out to be an awards ceremony, hosted by Donna. Once again, I had no money to buy beer, but an Austrian woman sitting next to me bought me one. “Wow – thanks!” I told her, and introduced myself.
“My name is Edith,” she told me. “I’m Johannes’ girlfriend.” I looked around; Johannes was nowhere to be seen. “That’s great of you to come all the way here to meet him at the end of the tour,” I told her. A painful expression crossed her face; I couldn’t understand why.
One by one, Donna called up members of our tour and gave them their awards, announcing them. Everybody got a positive review, even Garnet, who I thought was the meanest one. Chris got “A Girl in Every Country”, and his brother Joe got “A Girl’s Best Friend”. That’s right, we’d had many great conversations together.
Edith ordered a second beer for me. “Whoa – that’s really nice of you. I don’t have any money, so I can’t reciprocate,” I told her.
“That’s ok – you don’t have to. It’s all on me,” she replied. “Out of all the countries you visited, which one did you like best?”
“Austria!” I answered. “I envy you for living there. What’s it like?”
“How do you feel about England?” she asked, abruptly changing the subject.
“I find it a really cool place. Full of hippies and royalty. They have the best music, too.” She listened avidly as I told her about my day.
I was called up. “To Yoleen, we present the award, Guitar Player of the Year!” Donna announced, giving me the award. I thanked her, then returned to my seat. Bruce was called up next, and received the award, World’s Best Musician.
Edith ordered me a third beer! Having had little to eat all day, I was getting really snockered. I declined, but she said, “Never refuse a drink,” and insisted I take it.
It was then I saw Johannes across the room, sitting and holding hands with Jane. Realizing I’d finally noticed them, Edith explained, “Johannes called and asked me to fly here. This is the news he gave me.”
“That’s terrible!” I responded. “I’m really sorry about that! I’ve seen Jane around; I don’t like her. Johannes is making a big mistake. But surely in your wonderful country, you can easily find a better boyfriend.” I decided not to add that I hadn’t particularly liked Johannes either. While it wasn’t an active dislike, I was disappointed with his poor social skills in managing our group. And now here he was, acting totally unprofessional, running off with member – dumping his girlfriend in his home country for someone who lived thousands of miles away, no less! I overheard others talking around me; “Is she going to stay in Europe, or is he going to move to the US?”
“Drink your beer,” Edith said shortly. I took a gulp.
“And now – last but not least – Lizzie!” Donna announced, calling up someone I had barely noticed. She walked to the front of the room.
“We know how you love to drink,” Donna told her. “So to you, we present the award – The Winer!” The whole room roared with laughter. Lizzie grimaced, crumpled the award in her hand, and dropped it on the floor. This was the only negative review given. Boy I’m glad Gayla’s not here!
“This concludes our Awards Ceremony,” stated Donna. She was interrupted by a drunken local man shouting.
“You Americans betrayed us! You didn’t support us with our invasion of the Falkland Islands! Yet you come into our country and turn up your noses at us!” Then he physically attacked Johannes! Three of the men in our group jumped him and pulled him off. The bar was in an uproar as the drunk was hauled away by British guards.
I had planned on playing guitar, but everyone around me decided this was a good time to leave the bar and go to bed. I agreed, so we all went upstairs. I carried what was left of my beer with me. “Thanks again,” I told Edith. “It was really nice meeting you. I wish you the best of luck as you move on to better things.”
“Thanks,” she said, smiling at me bravely. The attack on Johannes hadn’t fazed her one bit.
Once in our room, Eve asked me where I had gone that day. When I told her about Westminster Abbey, she sighed enviously. “I’m a huge fan of Fleetwood Mac. I wish you’d told me you were going there; I would have gone with you. I think you’re a really nice person; I wish you’d been warmer to us. I know our group broke off into a bunch of cliques, but if you’d been friendlier, you would have been included. You rarely spoke to us, and whenever we spoke to you, you’d give a response that ended the conversation right there.”
“Oh – shoot – I’m really sorry,” I told her. Had I really been that bad?
To tell you the truth, to this day, this is a problem I struggle with. Growing up in the ghetto where I was constantly being attacked has made me into someone who hesitates to reach out to others. Being older and wiser now, I’ve learned the most important part of leaving the ghetto is to make sure you don’t take it with you.
I went upstairs to my loft, covered the beer with paper in an attempt to preserve it, and went to bed.
Every End is a New Beginning...
Sunday, August 1
This morning, I finished the beer. Though it was warm and flat, it was still good.
We were all gloomy as we gathered for our final Continental breakfast. The cliques talked amongst themselves as if there was no tomorrow – as well there wasn’t. Tears filled my eyes; I could barely choke down my roll.
“What’s the matter, Yoleen?’ Donna broke away from her conversation long enough to ask me. No doubt she was wondering who I would miss, since I wasn’t part of any clique. How could I tell her I was about to lose my status as an exotic creature and revert back to being an ugly duckling, possibly even winding up again in a ghetto?
After loading our luggage, we boarded the bus for the last time. Both Johannes and Lakis had tears in their eyes as we rode to the airport. “As you know, this concludes your tour of Europe,” Johannes told us. “I hope you all had a great time, and will remember this journey forever.”
Lakis spoke; this was one of his rare occasions. “Anyone who returns to Europe without contacting me, I’ll punch them!” he said gruffly. We managed a laugh. “We’ll make sure to contact you,” we reassured him.
They helped us board the plane, then our tour group remained together for the last time, on our voyage back to America. We would be saying our final good-byes at JFK airport in New York City, since they would be departing for Chicago and other points; I was continuing on to Los Angeles alone. What were they thinking? Were they reflecting on new experiences, such as I had; visiting Anne Frank’s house and having the book come real in my life, entering East Berlin alone, the dance at the Waltz Palace in Vienna, the special evenings at the Plaka and the plate-smashing dance on Hydra, gambling in Monaco, our last supper in Paris, and the great vibe we all experienced once we set foot on England’s soil? Maybe since so many of them had been to Europe before, and had reasonable assurance of returning, this was just another trip to them. Perhaps their cliques would continue after they reached the US. I reflected on all the really neat German guys I’d met all over the continent. Would I ever get a chance to return and have a real relationship with one, or were my glory days over?
The plane taxied to the runway, and lifted off. I gazed out the window until Land’s End passed out of sight.
To read the final chapter, Epilogue, please visit this link
© 2013 Yoleen Lucas