For months, I had an idea to write a story about coming of age. But it had become a challenge to complete. It dripped out in bits and pieces. It was not pulling together; lacking a cohesive narrative. Frustration continued but I could not abandon that gut feeling that it needed to be written. This seems to be my creative pattern since I started this entire collection…an idea, a direction gnaws at me and I spin in the “birthing” experience. Then the universe unveils and there is clarity. For this story, my realization happened when I was simply making the bed and listening to a television documentary in the background. The narrator said this:
“To understand the person, you have to know what was happening in the world when she was twenty-one.”
I stopped fluffing pillows as my head seemed to explode with inspiration. Suddenly everything began to flow together. I was 21 years old in 1973. And indeed, what happened that year shaped/changed/inspired me. The metamorphosis can be analyzed with influencing factors such as actual world affairs to family matters to fashion, music, arts, and literature. It all “stuck” at a formative time when I was trying to become…while facing and understanding what is and what came before.
And now, after days of continuous writing, here is the completed story…
It was 1973 and two girls were turning twenty-one. In college, attending U.C. Berkeley, they were idealistic, lovely, malleably agreeable in their search for identity and understanding. They walked with an air of youthful confidence. Their lives beckoned forward towards an unknown yet promising horizon.
It was a time when the changes of the 60s crashed and burned into the reality of the early 70s. The previous decade’s mantras of free speech, peace and love, doing “your own thing” were starting to unravel. Slogans are not truths and soon become cliched “isms”.
And the girls were part of a generation that now had to execute beyond such rhetoric. That is the fate of coming of age…sorting it all out while seeding conviction, direction, and happiness.
Politically, the times were confusing. An idealistic, albeit inexperienced, McGovern had lost the U.S. presidency to a man called Nixon; whom many had considered a has-been politician. There was a war in Viet Nam though the girls, like most Americans, really could not and did not understand the history, culture, and forces behind it.
Of course, they were against the fighting because the moral ramifications of violence and death were abominable. However, the impetus beyond their convictions was manipulated not by their depth of understanding but by such Life Magazine photographs as the infamous shot of a student protestor placing a flower in a policeman’s gun barrel. Even within the hallowed corridors, amongst the intelligentsia of Wheeler Hall in their beloved campus, actual participation in the war became muddled rationalizations.
And chants of “Hell no, we won’t go” were deeply seeded in fears of self preservation.
There was a confusing cultural clash within their immediate worlds as well. They were both students of a very liberal college yet chose to live in what remained of a traditional Greek system of sororities and fraternities. They danced to and sang the anthems of Woodstock but then they shopped at Tiffany’s. Bell bottoms and tie dye blouses competed with Saks and Neiman Marcus. And they both saw it perfectly normal and desirable to seek marriage, motherhood, and a mortgage. Though there was this gnawing desire towards independence from conventional mores, the re-creation of a traditional lifestyle took unquestioned precedence. If ever there was a generation that needed to sort through contrariness, it was theirs.
“… I know that it’s not easy
To be calm when you’ve found
Something going on
But take your time, think a lot
Think of everything you’ve got
For you will still be here tomorrow
But your dreams may not”
So, these two young college students, came up with a plan. They were young, they were invincible. They would go to Europe to get away and self-define. In 1973, it seemed like everyone in their age group was traveling… with their Frommer’s “Europe on a $5/day” travel guide stuffed into what was becoming the new luggage of the youth, a “backpack”. They would work the summer to save their money and take the Fall semester off from college to go on their adventure of discovery.
Three months in Europe. Yes, that was the plan.
“I want to see Paris and Florence. But, one rule, no hitchhiking. Too scary.”
“We will take trains, live in cheap hotels, youth hostels, and visit remote areas that are not expensive tourist traps.”
“But I want to go to the South of France. Maybe we can see Princess Grace.”
“Sure. But we only go to places that have great culture and architecture.”
“Of course, but isn’t that all of Europe?”
“And we have to go Yugoslavia. It’s untouched. And Greece…that is the mecca of our generation”.
September came and they were off, seeking truth as blue jeaned vagabonds.
Their first stop was Paris and it did not disappoint. How can anyone deny its magnificence? In spite of jet lag that manifested in falling asleep on a bench outside the Louvre, their exploration was magical. Walking along the Seine at sunset proved to be just as enchanting as climbing to the top of the Eiffel Tower. They were able to easily navigate the Metro — to their surprise and relief. Without pushing through crowds, they saw the Mona Lisa up close (which makes sense since it is a shockingly small painting.). And they were enthralled to discover that a little house in the Tuileries Gardens presented a beautiful collection of Impressionist paintings that no Art History class could have adequately explained. Ah…the beauty of Paris!!!
In their search for the infamous Café Les Deux Magots on the Left Bank, they found a smaller, intimately alive café…filled with French youth engrossed in their poetry books, political discourse, and café cremes.
“Maybe F. Scott Fitzgerald is inside” one of the girls whispered in anticipation as they entered into a world of tin ceilings and accordion music.
“I know but you know what I mean. This is too romantic.”
They both laughed as the strains of “La Vie En Rose” and the smell of cigarettes and espresso filled the air. A handsome, yes, beret donning Frenchman left his discussion and approached.
“Would you mademoiselles like a Vichy? Let me buy for you.”
Each took a sip and gagged. There was carbonation but the water had a bitter, salty taste. They were embarrassed by their coughing and aversion. It screamed “Touriste Americain”.
The Frenchman smiled and explained, “I will order flat water. It is more to American tastes.” He was right and they were grateful. They introduced themselves, proudly explained that they were students from Berkeley, and unabashedly flirted. Then, the dialogue turned erratic.
“Have you ever studied Sartre?”
They both nodded, trying to remember the reading list from their French 2 class.
“His words,‘We do not know what we want and yet we are responsible for what we are’are powerful. Challenge your American propaganda and domination. Americans are so entitled, living in their isolated world of capitalistic delusion. Revolution! Power to the powerless.”
The girls felt threatened. A similar response to that strange, repulsing sip of Vichy. And yet, they did not fight back. They stopped listening, gulped their flat water, and ran out into the Paris streets.
“Do you think he is right?”
Their silent walk back to their French hostel belied their confusion.
Their itinerary was to leave for the South of France the next day and they did so with a sigh of relief. Yet, as they stood in line at the Gare de Lyon, they came upon a more immediate shock.
“A train ticket from Paris to Marseille is $40?!”
One girl had brought $400.00 for the entire trip, the other $600. As they did the Math and reviewed their budget, they wondered what happened to the promise of $5/day? Flipping through the guide book, they saw something in the fine print…
“Wait, this book was published in 1967!!!”
“How could I have missed this?”
“At this point, does it matter? Throw it away. One less thing to carry.”
They had no choice but to buy the tickets. They would just eat less and cut back on shopping. And with that, they were off to the Cote d’Azur.
To their disappointment, Grace Kelly was not in residence at the Palace in Monaco but they savored its simplistic grandeur, walked amongst the old city to the Cathedral, and wandered through the tony harbor as if they belonged. Each had included a dress in their back pack and decided to go to the glamourous casino one evening to simply enjoy the opulence. It was special to toss off the jeans and slip into something pretty. They felt beautiful. And in their youthful glow, they truly were. Next, it was off to Nice and then to Cannes where they hiked winding, climbing streets in awe of the villas that hugged the hillsides.
But reality continued to sink in as they perused their budgets. There was no doubt that money was getting tight.
“I think we have to cut out most of Italy…only Florence and then onto Ancona to take a boat to Split, Yugoslavia.”
“No Rome? No Venice?”
“They are just tourist traps.”
“But it is September and the tourists are all gone.”
“Well, if you’ve seen one Roman temple, you’ve seen them all.”
They both knew that was not true but there was no point in arguing. They conceded that the Italian part of their travel dream was compromised. There would be no philosophical and personal revelations as they climbed the Spanish steps. But at least they had Florence. The art, the architecture, and the Arno inspired. “I’m coming back one day.” And with that wish, they were crossing the Adriatic Sea towards Split.
There was a quiet charm and natural beauty to Yugoslavia, assisted by the fact that this was a country avoided by tourists due to the continual political and social unrest.
“I had no idea about the turmoil in this country. It’s chaotic.”
“Some countries just are hotbeds of unrest.”
The Dalmatian coast was lovely. Not grand and posh like the Riviera. Just simple and real. Overlooking the beauty of the ancient city of Dubrovnik and its harbor, they found themselves sincerely spouting typical tourist exclamations:
Suddenly a man interrupted. “You must be Americans. Why are you here? You only look at the façade; you do not understand the suffering, the turmoil. You think you are better. But you are just ugly Americans. Go back to your silly ways”. Feeling increasingly surprised by the unwelcoming receptions throughout their trip, they decided to take a train inland from Dubrovnik to finally arrive in Greece. Hopefully, this will be where they will find their peaceful Mecca.
There was a stopover in Skopje. As they disembarked, the weather had turned cold and the town looked grey and depressing. There were piles of rubble everywhere and what was left standing remained half demolished; unlivable. What was going on? They soon learned that an earthquake in 1963 leveled the town, killing many and leaving most homeless. With the struggles of the internal Balkan Wars and poverty rampant, the reconstruction was arduous and lengthy. For the two American girls, it was startling. “I feel like I am standing in the middle of a Kafka novel.”
“I have to go to the bathroom.” The guard at the train station pointed to a free standing, wooden barricade. “Behind that wall”. To their surprise, they came upon a space with a series of holes in the ground.
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Squat. Pretend you are camping. And don’t touch anything.”
“But I have never camped in my life!”
Another American girl standing…er squatting near them…explained these are called Turkish toilets. “Get used to it”. Perhaps the handsome French revolutionary was right. They were pampered Americans!
Finally, the train departed and they were on their way to Greece. For some odd reason that neither would admit, there was relief when the rifle toting, Greek border police stormed through the train and checked passports. This rather abrupt, impersonal, and threatening process did not phase them…they were on their way to the Promised Land of their generation.
Athens was a big, busy city but rich in history and their exploring and discovery went rather smoothly. And then it was off to the islands. It was during this transfer that their relationship finally became challenging.
“We are going to Crete and then Rhodes. That is all we can afford.”
“But I want to go Mykonos.”
“But I like tourists. And I hate to break it to you, we ARE tourists. And, according to every country we’ve visited, we are illiterate and unwelcomed tourists. So, who gives a damn?”
“No…there is natural earthiness in the smaller islands. We will connect with history and our own enlightenment on a basic, real level.”
“Oh, give it up. I am getting tired of your babble. I want quaint shops and postcard charm. I want clean bathrooms and heat.”
“And while we are at it…These so-called backpacks that you talked me into. They should be called back breakers. I am in pain. I am tired and I need a hamburger. I have had enough souvlaki. And I don’t care if you call me an American elitist, you, you are a pseudo-proletariat.”
More dead silence as they left the port town of Piraeus and sailed to Crete. All that was said was this intentionally inane comment of “Hopefully we will find the hotel where Hayley Mills stayed. When she was in the movie ‘Moon Spinners’.”
They arrived in Heraklion and took another bus to the eastern part of the island; a little town named Agios Nikolaos. To their somewhat surprise (expectations were rapidly becoming lower and lower), there was no availability in the few “modern hotels”. They found themselves being driven to a remote inn, hiking with THOSE backpacks to their little room in the middle of nowhere.
“Dare I ask, where do I go to the bathroom?” The tension broke and they began to laugh. And together they responded, “Squat”. Outside, by the front door, was an overhead spigot. “I assume this is the shower”.
Sharing the one bed, they decided to sleep in their clothes. Crete in early November was very cold.
In the middle of the night, they awoke to a buzzing sound swirling overheard. “ZZZZZZ” and then there was a splat…as if someone was suddenly slapped. This sequence repeated over and over.
“What the hell is that?” They turned on the light.
Directly over their bed, was a long, red, sticky strip, hanging from the ceiling and filled with large, dead flies. The slapping sound was the entrapment of each fly. Stuck and unable to move, they furtively buzzed until death.
“I’m done. We need to leave. I am tired of squatting. I am tired of primitive.”
“Let’s face it. We are entitled and unaware Americans. But how can that be? I protested against the Viet Nam War.”
“We’re confused. We traveled to find Grace Kelly and Hayley Mills and some 1970s dreamworld…oh excuse me, MECCA. But we have landed in the middle of a Dostoevsky novel. We are the ultimate “idiots”.
“I guess we are brats. Does it count that we are poor brats? And we ARE trying. I am too tired to think anymore. Let’s just sleep and tomorrow we go to Rhodes. And then back to Athens, Paris, and home. I’ll tell you one thing…I won’t be listening to Neil Young for a long time. Searching for a “Heart of gold” my ass.”
They both laughed and cried at the same time.
To their delight, Rhodes was charming. Yet another discussion ensued about going to Mykonos but the decision was ultimately made to cut back to Athens.
“I read an article in the Times that, because of the pollution, the Acropolis is doomed. It is eroding and by the year 2000 it will disintegrate into nothing. I want to see it again before it is gone.”
“Are you serious? I don’t believe that.”
“Educate yourself. Smog is destroying the world and killing all of us. We will be lucky if we live to our 70s. We are all going to die because of pollution.”
Shortly, they were back in Piraeus. As they disembarked, their eyes started to sting and water. They could see people running as canisters filled with tear gas flew and exploded around them. “Oh my God, what is happening?”
They hopped into a taxi and told by the driver that student demonstrations had engulfed the city. There was an active rebellion against the military junta that had just taken over the government. Yes, they were in the midst of a coup! At their hotel, the Athens YWCA, gun shots could be heard amidst cries and screams.
For some reason, the imminent danger and gravity just did not sink in with the girls So, what did they do? They went to the Acropolis. After all, it would be gone soon…worth the peril for one final look. Inane actions seem to make sense in the midst of a confusing revolution. And, after taking “last” pictures, they walked through the Plaka, stopping to buy handmade baskets and a few souvenirs as final mementos. “How are we going to pack these large baskets?”
“Just carry them onto the plane.”
Ambling down the hill, the city seemed calm. Perhaps the worst was over.
“You know, I am craving a hamburger again”.
“I remember passing a Hilton. It’s American. I bet that’s on their menu. Let’s go”. And sure enough, they soon found themselves feasting on pure Americana adolescent fast food…fries on the side and apple pie for dessert.
They felt like they were back at Larry Blake’s on Telegraph Avenue with their college cronies. As the meal ended and they walked through the lobby and out the doors, they came upon a deserted street. The sole bellman looked puzzled. “Where are you going? Don’t you know Marshall Law has been declared?”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you are not leaving the hotel.”
“But we have to. We have a room at the Y.”
“We paid for it.”
“Well, you need to pay for a room at the Hilton tonight. You will be shot if you are seen walking in the streets.”
The severity finally hit them. Now what? They inquired at the front desk and learned that a twin room was $40 a night.
“Don’t worry we will dip into our extra reserve”.
“We have an extra reserve?!!”
“Actually, it’s just the extra money I had. We can share it”.
“I’ll pay you back.”
“It’s Ok…it’s our emergency fund. And this definitely qualifies as an emergency.”
And before they knew it, they were in their hotel room. It was luxurious compared to the standards of all their cheap hostels, rustic rooms, and minimalistic hotels of the past months. They were in heaven, oblivious to the seriousness of the situation outside.
“Look, a television”. It did not matter that they did not speak Greek. They simply surfed the channels and tried to guess what was being said.
“They have bubble bath. I go first.” They each took a turn filling the tub with foamy suds. It was their first bath after taking all those daily cold showers.
“AHHH, these mattresses feel like heaven.” And that was that. They fell asleep in their first comfortable beds in months.
The next morning, they were told that Marshall law had temporarily lifted so they headed to the American Express office. The walk was tense. The streets were still deserted and there was a pall of urgency in the air. They knew they had to leave Greece and need to find a flight back to Paris. There they would stay until their return flight home (approximately a week away). But to their dismay, there were no flights to Paris available…on any airlines.
“Please help us. What is the next flight to anywhere outside of Greece.”
“There is one last Olympic Airlines flight later today to London. Do you want the tickets?”
“What do you mean last flight?”
“Everything is shutting down. If you want to get out, take this flight.”
And with that, the reserve travelers’ cheques were signed. Their hearts were pounding. After a quick taxi ride back to the Y to pick up their backpacks while the cab waited outside, they were standing at the Athens airport checking in. They could see the seriously anxious looks of the people in the terminal. Suddenly… everyone started running. For a brief moment they stood there paralyzed…it became surreal.
“Run. Get to the gate.”
“But our flight isn’t taking off for another hour.”
“No…I think it is leaving now. Don’t stand there. GO.”
With their Plaka baskets in hand, the two blue jeaned vagabonds ran for what they feared were their lives.
The plane was full of scared people. There was quiet sobbing. Everyone was buckled in and ready but…the plane did not move. They looked at each other in disbelief.
“What if it doesn’t leave? What do we do?”
“It has to leave. For God’s sake, this is not war. This is 1973”.
The man across the aisle shook his head at them. He simply said, “This is war” and looked away.
“Isn’t it convenient that when you want people to speak English they don’t. But when you don’t want to be understood, they are full of opinions…IN ENGLISH!!”
The wait seemed endless and with each passing second, the tension became more and more palpable. And then, slowly, very slowly the plane took off. People cried out in jubilation. The girls sat there speechless and numb.
“We’re going to London. Maybe we’ll see the Beatles or Julie Christie.”
“You don’t give up with your romantic famous people references, do you?”
As it turned out, during their unexpected week in London, they did not meet Julie, John, Paul, George or Ringo. But London was a welcome refuge. Finally, there was no need to seek translation. The contrast between revolutionary chaos and English civility was a relief. It was mid-November and they had to buy coats, scarfs, and mittens. Money was running very, very low so thank God for the reserve. London was a great city to explore and discover. They felt dauntless again and were determined to spend their last week taking full advantage of all that the city and countryside had to offer.
One day, while walking through St. James Park, they came upon a very long line of people dutifully queuing in the cold. Curious, they inquired.
“We’re going to see Princess Anne’s wedding gifts. She got married on the 14thth.”
“So, you are looking at… presents for royalty? What is the attraction? I would never stand in line for Tricia Nixon’s gifts.”
Seeing the angry looks from the English people in line, one of the girls turned to her friend. “I think you need to give it up.”
“Give what up?”
“This judgmental perspective that everyone and every place is not as smart or aware as we. If we have learned anything it is that we really are naïve and limited. There is a world out there that does things differently. They fight for their culture, not just for their generation. They have history. They have heritage. We need to respect that and maybe look again at how we do things.”
“So, what are you saying?”
“I guess I am saying we really have a lot to experience. Actually, I am relieved. It’s exhausting to always feel we have the answers. We don’t. The maelstrom of argumentation is debilitating”
“You are right. This is humbling. (pause) I’m sorry. I really am.”
“Let’s just get in line and see the wedding gifts and maybe even sign a book wishing Anne good luck and congratulations. (another pause) Sometimes it comes to just that.”
As they waited in the cold, the conversation suddenly became more personal. “You know, I never told you that my parents are getting divorced.”
“I heard but was waiting for you to say something.”
“I don’t know what to say. My family seems to just be falling apart. Everyone is confused and hurting. I think I was looking at this trip as an escape.”
“I am sorry. My parents are miserable together. I just wonder if anyone is really happy in marriage. It’s tough. I cannot imagine staying in a horrible situation. Maybe divorce is not a bad thing.”
“All I know is that it’s painful. I guess I have been angry. I am drained”.
“I guess we tell ourselves we deserve more and we can do better. But maybe it is just that we have to be more accepting and make the best of it. You can escape a revolution but you cannot escape the Turkish toilets of life.”
“You certainly neatly slipped that one in, didn’t you?”
“Thank you! This trip has been an escape, a crazy life learning escape. I did get to stand at the Palace in Monaco and now I get to see Princess Anne’s wedding gifts. I’m happy. And, who knows, one day I really am going to Venice.”
“Are you going to hold that over me?”
“No. But I will send you a postcard of the Grand Canal”. She laughs. “You know what? Thank you for coming with me. It was worth it—every moment of this trip. It’s not what we planned or should have planned. I think most of life simply happens but for these three months we exploded. And it was worth it. I will never forget.”
“Stop with the summarizations already. You would think we were 70 years old, taking out our teeth, sitting in our rocking chairs and wrapping up our lives. We are still young. Come on. The world and the royal gifts await.”
When she returned to America, her family was relieved. They had seen the headlines about Greece and could only pray that she was alright.
“While we were worried sick, you were eating a hamburger and taking a bubble bath at the Hilton? And how come a Berkeley student did not understand what Marshal Law means?” asked her mother.
“You forgot to mention the fries Mom” was her daughter’s only and best retort.
Sadly, she learned that, while she was away, her sweet, kind, and adventurous grandfather had passed away on the very day that she was running through the Athens airport. Unable to reach her, her parents decided to wait for her return to advise. This was the grandfather who took all the photos of her youth. Those black and white snapshots that conveyed childhood happiness. He and his wife were there when her parents were preoccupied and disassociated. They were her anchors of love. That night she sat in her room and spread some of his old photos in front of her. For some reason, it made her feel closer to him. It was her eulogy of remembrance. She understood the impactful significance of faded photographs in the telling of a life well lived.
As the 1970s passed by, she graduated from Cal. She married in 1975, lost a baby girl in 1976, but ultimately had two healthy, beautiful daughters; one in ’78, closely followed by her sister in ’79. By the way, her daughters were named after that Princess in Monaco and the young British princess whose wedding gifts were celebrated in 1973.
The seventies came and went as did the decades that followed.
The countries visited in 1973 are now safer, modern havens that beckon tourists. The war in Vietnam did end but others began. She returned to Europe, including Venice, often. The Acropolis is still standing. And, in spite of all the passing years, that handmade Greek basket purchased a half century ago, in the midst of Greek a coup, still survives.
Her life has been filled with surprises and challenges. But then, whose hasn’t? And, having just turned 70 years, the journey continues to surprise.
Unfortunately, her traveling friend and she parted ways after her soon-to-be husband disapproved. At the time, she accepted the separation and rationalized her behavior as dutiful loyalty to the man she loved. Youth can be stupid. But, she has always known that she had lost a special friend. She often wonders about her. Did she go back to Europe and also see Venice? Did she marry and have children? And, now, in these older years, she asks herself if her friend is even alive. That is what happens when the decades pile up…that question eventually surfaces. She is grateful that she will never know the answer. She can close her eyes and recall their shared adventure. In the words of the 70s band, Three Dog Night, the memory prevails “like an old-fashioned love song” to a once friend.
On her recent 70th birthday, her now adult daughters, sons-in-law, and beautiful grandchildren came together for a weekend of celebration. She decided to bring a special activity…a 1000-piece puzzle that contained images of all the people and events of the 1970s. She had seen it in the window of a book store in her beloved Berkeley and thought the puzzle was a perfect exercise to get everyone involved and a great way to fill her family with her life stories.
“Before we start, let’s set the mood by playing 70s music.”
As if on cue, her youngest 3-year-old granddaughter commanded, “Alexa, play sheventies.”
“No”, corrected the oldest grandchild. “Alexa, play 1970’s oldies”.
Amazingly, the first to be heard was Neil Young singing “Heart of Gold”. She laughed. The significant irony was not lost on her. Song after song followed…she was in a 70’s haze.
As the entire family worked together on the puzzle, her commentary of identifying the images and explaining their significance fell on distracted ears. Her grandchildren were ardently focused on placement. Her sons-in-law politely listened but appeared detached. And her daughters simply rolled their eyes…more mom tales that have grown irrelevant and annoyingly redundant in the midst of their adult lives.
Undaunted, she offered one last commentary, “You know…in 1973, I went to Europe.” She looked around the room and realized that no one heard. She understood and decided to stop her biographical monologue. Alexa seemed to understand and played one last song, sung by that troubadour of her generation, Bob Dylan. A song filled with hope and discovery.
“May you grow to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
And may you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
And may you stay forever young”
This story is dedicated to all blue jeaned vagabonds of their generation.
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