The Last Ferry to Dover

After Mont Saint Michel the plan was to drive up to Calais and catch the ferry to my must see place. London England, where I planned to meet the Beatles and be instantly accepted into their inner circle.

Which is exactly what happened.

BeatlesJan

Hanging with the boys at John’s estate. My truncated feet inspired John to write “I am the Walrus.”

Once again we’d fallen into the “it doesn’t look that far on the map” trap. Readers – never make this mistake in rural France!   In my defense, I was from Nevada – a vast, scarcely populated state with (at that time) no speed limit.   And Carolyn, well, she was from Southern California, a maze of freeways on which people drive as if there is no speed limit.  France is a little different. From Saintes it took us three hours to reach Mont Saint Michel where, as luck would have it, rain lightly fell. The gravel parking lot already looked like a swamp so it wasn’t a big surprise when the attendant informed us we had only one hour until high tide would make leaving the Mont impossible (unless we had a boat.)  Thus we were forced to make a mad dash up the crooked cobblestone streets to reach the top.

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View from the chapel at the top of the Mont Saint Michel – a sea of mud.

We arrived back at our car just as the deluge deluged.

In wind and rain there is one car you do not want to careen wildly down unknown roads in:  A Volkswagen Beetle.  Especially one with flakey wipers and wimpy headlights.  Beetles have a tendency to spin like the tea-cups at Disneyland if you brake at high speeds.

Roadblock

Roadblock in Normandy

I honestly don’t know how we survived that drive but our recklessness was all for naught.  By the time we arrived at the docks in Calais the last ferry to Dover had sailed.  However we were not alone.  Standing at the locked gates were three young men also watching the ferry chug away.  Noting the two us, they exchanged words and then approached.

“You are American?”  One of them asked.  He was tall, dark-haired and very good-looking but not in a self-conscious way.

“Yes,” I said.

“And you go to England?”

“Not now I guess.”

The other two began pelting him with questions in a language undeniably Latin. “I have forgotten me of my manners.”  He finally said to us. “I am Massimo Punatelli of Carrera Italy.  Here is Alberto and Pier Andre, also of Carrera Italy.  You may know – for marble?”

“Yes, of course.”

He took in a breath, thought of his next words and continued. “My compatriots – that is the right word, non? They do not speak English but I am at University of…”  That was as far as he got before the one called Pier Andre became impatient and interrupted him with gestures of wild intent.  He was shorter and had a profile more distinctly Roman than the others. Massimo translated: “Pier Andre has urge me most passionately that we depart.  There is a ferry to Dover which departs Ostende at nine so we must away fastly.”

Alberto, a pale man with Art Garfinkle hair, gestured toward an emerald green Ferrari parked nearby as Pier Andre turned and ran towards the car.

“Pier Andre say you follow us.”

Carolyn and I engaged glances. She shrugged her shoulders.  “Okay,” I said. What did we have to lose?  Besides, she pointed out, they were driving a new Ferrari (Pier Andre’s) so they had to be trustworthy, right?  Sure.

They kept track of us for a little while and then sped off when they realized we could not keep up; if they were going to catch the last ferry from Ostende, they had to dump us.  Well, that’s that, I thought.  They’ve abandoned us.   But I was wrong.

BeatlesMahJan

The boys insist I go to India with them.

Next time:  What the heck language do they speak in London?

 

 

 

 

 

The Samwitch Stand

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The next place on Carolyn’s Must See list was Mont Saint Michel which I’d never heard of.  However, friends, that is the best way to first see this amazing place for the first time – with virgin eyes.  We were still miles away when it began to take shape through the mist hanging over the marshy farmland.  It looked like a pyramid. Or like the hat of a Chinaman rising from the sea. MtSteMichel2

As we got closer the castle walls came into  view, clinging impossibly to the sides of a rock. Who would built a castle on a rock in the bay, I thought.  Later I learned it was not a castle but an abbey, built in the eighth century by the bishop of nearby Avranches.  His motivation was self-preservation.  It seems the Archangel Michael really, really wanted an abbey built on what had heretofore been a useless mound accessible only during low tide.  And so, when the bishop ignored the archangel’s demands (delivered to him in dreams) Archangel Michael blew a gasket and thrust his pointer finger through the bishop’s skull. (bishop’s skull info here).

Mont Saint Michel isn’t easy to get to, even today. There aren’t a lot of signs, the roads are two lane asphalt and the nearest town, Avranches, doesn’t exactly pimp itself as the “Gateway to Mont St. Michel” so you can imagine what it was like back in 1970. Because I knew nothing about the place, I went along with Carolyn’s calculation of a day’s travel time.  She was wrong.  It’s located in at southern tip of Normandy (the northwest corner of France).  Of course it didn’t help that we started out late after a big breakfast with Hans and Klaus.

By noon Carolyn wasn’t hungry.  I warned her that we’d better stop and eat.  European restaurants weren’t open all day long like in the US.  She didn’t believe me and we BlanesFrancepushed on past the larger towns of  Marseilles and Toulouse until somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, Carolyn decided she was starving.  It was two fifteen in the afternoon.  “There has to be someplace open for lunch,” Carolyn whined as we encountered town after town whose cafes were closed until nightfall.  Whose bakeries were closed until the morning. Whose tiny stores looked unsavory to her.  Finally along about 3:30 we passed a roadside stand with a hand painted sign that read “Samwitches.”

“Stop!”  Carolyn ordered.  “I have to eat.”

“The French don’t really eat sandwiches,”  I warned as we made a U turn.

“I’m starving.  I have to have something.”samwitches

“Okay.”

The farmer smiled enthusiastically as we approached.  “What do you sell?”  I asked in french.

“Samwitch de sausages et samwitch de fromages,”  he replied.

Carolyn ordered the sausage samwitch and I ordered the fromage.  He grabbed a fat sausage hanging from a hook behind him and with grimy hands and a bloody cleaver hacked off a piece on an old crate.  Then he took the same cleaver and hacked off the end of a baquette.  d99d9b45b10aec7df84c46aeea57983bProudly he handed the resulting samwitch to Carolyn.  Blood soaked through the bottom layer of bread as with ashen face she paid him and quickly walked back to the car.   Mine was a little more appetizing – although there were bits of straw in the soft cheese and it smelled funny.   A few miles down the road we discarded Carolyn’s samwitch.  I offered to share mine but she claimed the cheese was rancid.  I suspect it was the memory of the farmer’s grimy hands that caused her appetite to disappear.  That night we stopped at the small town of Saintes, too exhausted and hungry to go any further.  There we lucked out.  Dinner, breakfast and a room with a tub for the equivalent of one dollar and fifty cents in an old hotel that was shabby but clean and quiet.

Next – More boys!  These time three Italian lads in a Ferrari on their way to London.

Never Joke with a Border Guard (no matter how cute he is)

It was almost noon by the time we finally reached the Spanish border somewhere high in the Pyrenees Mountains.  The air was thin and dry.  We were sweaty, hungry, and crabby, especially after noting that every car not displaying a Spanish license plate was being pulled over and the occupants questioned by men in skin-tight military uniforms standing upright and proud in the sweltering heat.

“Oh my God,” I whispered to Carolyn, “they really are paranoid.  But cute.”

She glared at me. “Just don’t say anything,” she hissed.  We were in a car with DAC license plates which, in Cold War Europe, was akin to driving around with a nuclear bomb on your back seat. The Department of Army Civilians, you see, was a front for the CIA or so many Europeans believed.   This belief was so wide-spread in Germany that the local politzei had invented a game called “harass the occupiers,” in which they would pull over people with DAC license plates for flimsy reasons and confiscate their licenses.  They caught my Uncle Bob several times (okay, in his case considerable alcohol was involved) which is why he didn’t need his car! He couldn’t drive it.

Anyway, back to my story.  As soon as our car was identified as belonging to the vile CIA, extra guards were called and Carolyn and I ordered away from the vehicle.

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Spanish Military Officer – you may look but do not flirt!

“Do you have any drugs?”  One of the guards asked me.  His  brown eyes burnt through my sleep-deprived body like a lightening rod.

“Sure,” I answered, “The car’s full of them. Ha, ha.”

Next thing I knew Senor Passionate Eyes and his buddies were ripping out the seats of the VW, dumping all of our stuff on the ground and searching through it.

“It was a joke!”  I cried, as they pulled Carolyn’s sexy little undies from her suitcase and stuffed them into a bag (evidence?).

“Shut up,”  Carolyn scowled.  Men were pawing her underwear because I’d been stupid enough to flirt with a humorless hunk.

Hans and Klaus, who’d managed through the checkpoint with ease, waited for us and when the Spanish Inquisition was finally over, helped put the car back together. Hans even managed to convince the guards to return Carolyn’s undies which he gallantly handed to her one by one as she blushed. Then we followed them to the campingplatz.

Barcelona

Klaus, Jan and Hans on the beach in Blanes Spain

The campingplatz was indeed full of Germans of all ages, shapes and sizes, all of whom had arrived with the intention of wearing as few clothes as possible.  I can still remember the nightly parade of naked fraus on their way to the communal, out-in-the-open showers. Not a modest lady in the crowd.  Carolyn and I showered in our bathing suits.  Typical American prudes!

By the time we assembled Hans’ thankfully roomy tent, the sun had set and the temperatures cooled considerably.  The sound of a band playing nearby led us to an outdoor cafe where we ordered pitchers of sangria and paella and giggled as the singer massacred the English lyrics to the song Sugar, Sugar, sung by the regrettably forgettable band – The Archies.

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“Stop you rascal!” Hans gets frisky.

The first night went well.  We were all exhausted so a couple of pitchers of sangria knocked us on our butts.  However, the next night  I awoke to:  “Stop, you rascal!”  Hans’ hands had  found their way over to Carolyn’s body.  In the morning he asked me what “rascal” meant and I told him it meant we must be going…

Next – Mont St. Michel and the Samwitch Stand.

A Roll in the Hay, the French Riviera

After abandoning Elizabet and Soboric to their fate, we stopped in Cannes which is a noisier, more crowded city than Nice.  The beaches weren’t nearly as nice and the people decidedly rude.  NiceBlanesAt Carolyn’s insistence, we rented a room for the night at a rundown hotel which we could barely afford. She simply had to have a bath after spending the previous night in a car and the morning sleeping on a beach that smelt of fish.   I can still remember guarding the lockless door to the communal bathroom while she showered.  Ah, the annoyed stares and perturbed grunts I got from other guests who had to take a dump but were forced to wait for the spoiled, puritanical American to wash her already clean body!  Then we slipped into a twin-sized bed with no sheets for a very restless night’s sleep.  In the morning, we left Cannes firmly believing we would be sleeping on the beaches of the Costa Brava that night.  We did not realize that August is the month eighty percent of all Northern Europeans take vacation, generally to affordable places to the south.  Like Spain.  Thus we were about to find ourselves in a two day traffic jam with no food, no water, no detour.

We spent eight hours sitting in stop and go traffic, looking toward the famous French Riviera and seeing nothing but hot, dry beach towns, until the traffic finally came to a dead stop. It stayed that way for about an hour as the sun set.  Gradually families began abandoning their cars and setting up camp in fields that had gone dormant.  We had no idea what was going on until two young Germans in the Mercedes next of us came to our rescue.

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Klaus, Hans and Carolyn after a night spent sleeping in a field.

This happened every year, they explained in German (they spoke little English), the reason being that the Spanish border guards would only allow a certain number of cars into Spain before the borders were closed.  We would have to spend the night in our car or sleeping on dried hay in the fields. As they had expected this to happen, they were supplied with bread, sausages, and most importantly – wine – which they were more than happy to share.

We woke the next morning hung over and thirsty as hell with hay in our hair.  Luckily Klaus and Hans had orange juice and apples which we ate in the morning light, chatting until people started returning to their cars.  They asked where we were staying and I replied that we had no plans.  Why not stay at the campingplatz with us, they suggested.  There were hot showers, toilets and beautiful beaches at the campingplatz and, being that it was full of Germans, it was safe.  After I translated the word “shower,”  Carolyn said, “Well, let’s try it for a night. They seem like gentlemen.”  Famous last words, everyone, famous last words!

Coming soon – Never joke with a border guard (no matter how cute he is.)

Nice is not nice

After gagging down as much hot and sickeningly sweet Coca Cola as we could stand, Carolyn and I set off for Nice France, one of GenevaNiceher must-see places even though, according to the Five Dollars a Day book, it had no one star hotels. Nor did Cannes, its sister city.  Still, several movies Carolyn absolutely adored had been filmed in that vicinity so she just had to go, even if it meant sleeping on the beach.

The road through the mountains started out gently but soon we found ourselves on a series of unguarded switchbacks clinging narrowly to the side of steep slopes.  We crept along behind beat-up delivery trucks, too afraid to pass, unlike the French who swerved around us tires squealing and horns blaring.  Every time we were passed, a wave of doom swept over me.

mountainpassSure enough, about an hour into our trip, the trucks we crawled behind abruptly came to a stop. Ahead was a plume of smoke.  I can still remember the sound of sirens echoing against granite cliffs and the look of profound sadness on the face of the truck driver who’d walked forward to investigate. There was nothing anyone could do, he reported.  It was head-on crash between car and truck and the car lost.   After what seemed like forever, one lane was cleared and the police began to direct the backed up traffic in both directions around the nauseating scene.   As a result, we didn’t arrive in Grenoble until sunset.

Grenoble

Grenoble

The town of Grenoble sits in a deep valley in the perpetual shade of the French Alps, which, even in August, were snow-capped. We stopped, bought baguettes and cheese and looked around the laid back city center where old men played bocce ball.  Then we set out for Nice.   On the outskirts of town a young man and woman hitch-hiked in the growing darkness.  She had thick, wavy blond hair that hung practically to her butt and model good-looks.  He wore leather pants and was scruffy.  We judged them safe to pick up (or rather I did, Carolyn had her doubts).

Nice

Carolyn (standing) Elizabet and Soboric (sleeping on the bench)

Her name was Elizabet and she was Swedish.  His name was Soboric and he was Hungarian.  Neither spoke English but he spoke a little German which we used to communicate.  He claimed to be a political refugee on asylum in Sweden and I really never figured out what she did other than be beautiful of course.  They were on their way to the island of Corsica for vacation.

Too soon night fell and we found ourselves on an even more torturous mountain road, one with tight hairpin turns every hundred feet and narrow lanes whose edges dropped off into ink-splot ravines.  We could only guess how high up we were or how far we would fall if we missed a turn and plummeted off the unguarded side of the road. The wimpy headlights on the VW only provided a thin stream of light directly ahead, the stars in a moonless sky, far away. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, fog billowed up from the valleys below.  It enveloped the car often without warning, dropping visibility to around zero.  Thus we inched along and didn’t make it to Nice until five in the morning.  Exhausted, we stumbled onto a pebble beach where fishermen untangled their nets in the pink dawnlight.

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Sail boats by Van Gogh

When I woke hours later, the beach was full of people in bathing suits or naked, eating lunch or just sunbathing.  Soboric had disappeared.  We walked to the car to find him bent over, head in hands on a nearby park bench.  The car had been broken into.  Carolyn’s camera was gone, as was Soboric’s satchel containing all their money and their passports.  Their trip was ruined.

And that’s when we met the real life Inspector Clouseau. He was manning the front desk at the tiny police station in Nice.  ClouseauUnfortunately I’d never learned the word for thief or robbery or even stolen in Madame Burkholder’s French class so when Soboric and I walked up to Inspector C. railing on about “bandidos,” he naturally assumed we were confessing to a crime.   He summoned another constable and they put us in handcuffs, took us downstairs and locked us in a cell.  There we sat stunned until an interpreter was found and the situation cleared up. Soboric, who claimed to have been jailed by the Hungarian police for his dissident activities, became outraged.  Especially when Inspector Clouseau made it quite clear that the case was sans importance and if we did not departee immediatement  he would lock us up again.  So we drove Elizabet and Soboric to the Swedish Embassy and then sadly went on our way.

Next: Jan jokes with the Spanish border guards and it ends badly…