Sheldon Brown's Retrospective Journal
arrow-left April-May, 1975

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This journal entry is a retrospective look at my first visit to Europe, in April and May, 1975



I had been living in a quasi-commune in Allston, a section of Boston, Massachusetts for about 4 years, when the city took over our house by eminent domain to build a parking lot. My then-girlfriend, Lisa and I moved to Watertown. Some time later, the city government paid us $1500 each as compensation for our eviction. We bought 6 week excursion tickets, giving us all of April and half of May.

I had taken a couple of years of French, and knew a tiny bit of German (mostly gleaned from Wagner opera libretti!) Lisa spoke only English, so I would have to do most of the talking when English wouldn't do. I brought along three cameras and thirty or forty rolls of film, mostly bulk loaded black and white. My main camera was my beloved Nikon SP rangefinder, with 35mm, 50mm and 85mm Nikkor lenses and a splendid 21mm Zeiss Biogon. I also carried my Retina IIIc, which was usually loaded with Kodachrome. In addition, Lisa carried my Nikkormat fTn with 85mm f1.8 lens (lens later given to Arlene.) I carried the camera equipment in my Karrimor canvas handlebar bag.

*******photo My brother Richard, his then-wife Marlena, their twin daughters Bethany and Noel, and Marlena's daughters Julie and Amy Kenner were then living in Istanbul. Lisa and I got six-week excursion tickets to Heathrow, leaving in mid April of '75 and returning at the end of May. Lisa had friends in London and Bristol, and I had friends in Belgium (Peter and Marianne Young). The plan was to visit everybody on the way across Europe to Istanbul. We had intended to travel by train or by hitch-hiking most of the way. We knew about "Eurailpasses", but didn't realize that they could not be bought in Europe.

We stayed with Lisa's friends in london for three or four days, touring about London a bit. I had a Bronica C camera, which I had bought in the states and then replaced with a Bronica S-2. I brought the C to England with me becaused I believed that I could sell it for a better price in England than in the U.S. In the end, I did sell it at a resaonable profit to a wedding photographer, for 90 pounds. Unfortunately, this was only after wasting a lot of time schlepping around from camera store to camera store. We did see some of the basic sights of London, including Parliament in session.

Then we hitch-hiked down to Bath, where we stayed at the Youth Hostel, a converted Georgian mansion. Bath was the most enchanting city I had ever seen. I immediately fell in love with the place. The city was full of flowers and the weather was perfect, warm and sunny.

The next day we took a bus to Bristol to visit an old couple that Lisa had met on her previous trip to England. They received us kindly and were very pleasant, but I cannot remember their name fifteen years later.

After Bristol we headed back to London and thence to Wisbeq, Belgium, where Peter Young was living, with his wife Marianne. Marianne was from Exeter, N.H., and they had lived there together for a while, where they had a coffehouse called the Black Swan, on the main street right next to the river. They had moved to Belgium a couple of years previously, and were living in the tiny French-speeking village of Wisbeq, about 30 kilometers from Brussels. Their house was a brick row house on tha main "place" of the village along with fifteen or twenty other houses. The house had electricity and a telephone, but no central heat or hot water. There was a big coal stove in the kitchen and a portable propane space-heater. For being so close to Brussels, the area was astonishingly rural. We stayed there for over a week, having a wonderful time.

******** photo of Peter The Youngs got around on two wheels; Peter had a honda 50 motorcycle, and Marianne a Flandria moped. They also owned but had never used, a remarkeable vehicle, a Renata tandem moped. This was an old Dutch machine that Peter had found at a flea market, and it used an odd sized tire that could not be found. I think the size was equivalent to 24 x 2.125, but in those pre-mountain-bike days that size was very rare in the U.S. and non-existent in europe. One of the tires was O.K., but the other had a huge rupture in the sidewall, four or five inches long. Fortunately, I was an old hand at booting tires, and I did so literally, using a large piece of leather cut from an old boot to re-inforce the tire. This was successful, and Lisa and I had wheels for our stay in Belgium. This moped was geared fairly high for a moped, and it really made a difference if you pedaled up hills.

We had been planning to hitch-hike or take the train to Istanbul. It turned out that the train would have been too expensive, but Peter saved us from having to hitch-hike. Parked in the field behind his house was a red 1962 Austin-Healy Sprite. The "Bateau Rouge" was very similar in appearance to a MG Midget-'62 was the first year after the demise of the "bug-eyed" Sprite. Peter's had a fibreglass hard top, but otherwise it was a classic british sports car. No wimpy roll-up windows, it had proper side curtains, and a 988cc four-banger. He had brought it from England when he moved to Belgium.

******photo It couldn't go back to England without paying a hundred pounds in road tax. It was not street-legal in Belgium because the import duty hadn't been paid. In addition, it was right-hand drive, and the body was rusty enough to attract unwelcome attention from the authorities. On top of that, it had been vandalized while sitting in the field-all of the switches had been removed from the dashboard, and the wires cut. Peter said that I could have it if I could use it.

We went to Radio-Shack in Brussels and bought some switches, which I installed with the help of a wiring diagram that Peter had for a different model British car that had a similar electrical system. I got some plaster intended for patching walls in houses, and used this to cover the worst of the rust, sprayed red with Dupli-color. It looked ok from a distance, possibly one of the shoddiest body repair jobs in history, but good enough for a month. At "Lenny's Stock Amaricain" we got a muffler bandage and a tin of "Gun Gum" muffler patching cement to fix the rusted out silencer, bought a 30 day insurance policy and were on our way. The car was legal for use anywhere in Europe except for Great Britain and Belgium, so we had to tip-toe to the French border.

Northeast corner of France

The first night on the road we spent in Saarbrucken. We got to the Youth Hostel too late to get in, so we slept in the car in the hostel's parking lot. It was cold and uncomfortable, but we were tired enough to sleep anywhere.

The next day, while cruising down the Autobahn, I happened to see what looked like a blanket lying by the side of the road, at the exit of a reat area. After the cold night in Saarbrucken, the possibility of a free blanket was worth checking out, so I turned around at the next exit and reversed direction on the Autobahn. I saw the blanbket again as we passed in the other direction. Then we came to an interchange and turned around again, and I pulled into the rest area. Sure enough, right in the middle of the rest area there was a nice clean made-in-Germany wool blanket, but it wasw not visibile from the highway! Puzzled but grateful, we picked it up and headed back to the highway, when we saw its twin lying by the side of the ramp! I don't know what we would have done without this wonderful pair of blankets for the rest of the trip, because they really saved our bacon several times. I still have one of them. It is brown plaid and says "Floxan Flossdicke" on its label.

The Sprite was cute and fun to drive, but not designed for mountains. The fuel pump was right next to the exhaust manifold, and when we were climbing the Alps it would crap out every few miles as the fuel in the pump would vaporize from the heat. The only thing to do was to squirt water on the fuel pump and wait half an hour for it to cool down.


Our next stop after Saarbrucken was Saltzburg. What a beautiful city! I wish we had more time to stay there. We stayed at the Youth Hostel there, a comfortable modern building.

I had good feelings about Austria right from the border. Every other border we crossed was manned by very spit-and-polish military types, but the border guards in Austria were wearing coveralls and looked like gas monkeys.

Stopped near Villach for Wiener Schnitzel-Mmmmmm-MM!

We crossed into Yugoslavia near Maribor in the dark, and stopped in a spectacularly scungy "A" frame cabin. I was fooled by the appearance of English. The woman at the reception desk spoke only a few words of English, but with a really excellent accent.


Bulgaria made a very unfavorable impression on us. Everything seemed gray, except for the socialist-realist billboards here and there telling how nice everything would be at some time in the future.

We were forced by some rather slimy border officials to convert rather more of our hard currency into Bulgarian whatevers than we would have was not our intent to spend any time in Bulgaria beyond the time it took to drive across it.

We had a moderately scary encounter with a Bulgarian cop. Driving along on a nearly deserted 2 lane road (what passed for a major highway in Bulgaria) we came to a crossroads, where there was a bored-looking guy in a military uniform standing holding what appeared to be a slightly larger than average red lollipop. As we passed him he suddenly started blowing his whistle at us, and pulled us over. The guy looked perfectly typecast for the role of "redneck southern sheriff" in the bad old days, and he was hopping mad. Turned out that the lollipop was a stop sign, operated by rotating it so that either the face or edge of it faced the drivers, and I had run it. We got a good tongue-lashing in Bulgarian, I said I was sorry in every languge I knew, and he eventually let us go about our business.

After crossing Bulgaria, we were briefly detained by the Bulgarian border guards, who pretended to think that we were smuggling hashish--as if anybody would move hashish in that direction!


It was past midnight before we finally found ourselves in Turkey, exhausted and with no accommodations in sight, so we parked and slept in the car again. When we woke up, the car was surrounded by emaciated, pitiful feral dogs. Lisa was extremely upset by the condition of the dogs, but there was nothing we could do.


Istanbul, 1975.

In Turkish, this type of vessel is called a "feri bot".

Istanbul, 1975
The Bosphorus used to be lined with old wooden mansions like this.
Istanbul, 1975
DeSotos are highly prized by Istanbul cabbies.
Intambul, 1975
Typical Turkish bicycle. This one was unusual in that it had two good tires, even if it lacked brakes and pedals.

Ambassador's launch

Black sea


56 chevys, De Sotos

******photo Bikes with no tires


A letter to my brother

I had long suffered from writer's block, and never really got into writing until the development of the word processor freed me from the difficulty of revising/correcting on paper...but I was inspired to write this letter to my brother, probably from Trieste, Italy:
A brief history of our return--

The first day out from Istanbul took us over the Greek border--where we were very thourgouthly searched--or rather the car was. When they found the can with the remnants of the Gun Gum (muffler patching goo) they really thought they had something--they also never returned my phillips screwdriver.

That night we slept under the stars on a little dirt lane.

We made the mistake of goint to Thessaloniki (downtown) the next morning and getting thoroughly lost. We found a motorcycle cop and said "Skopje, Jugoslavia" to him--no common language. After futilely trying to give us complicated directions in sign language, he climbed onto his steed and gave us a motorcycle escort to the highway. That afternoon we made a wrong turn on the road from Pec [Kosovo] to Titograd [now Podgorica, Slovenia], we wound up heading the right way, but on the wrong road, through a very beautiful, rugged mountainous area on a very narrow, umpaved road--first gear all the way.

From Pec we climbed this incredible road--one blind curve after another-until it was starting to get dark. It was unthinkable to drive that road after dark. We rounded a hairpin, waved to dome folks who were campint in a dilapidated Bedford van, and continued up, envying their comfort. It looked like rain. 500 meters further, the car stopped again.

While waiting for the Sprite to cool off, I walked down to the van to see if I could find out how far it was to the pas. The van turned out to be full of four young British people from the Midlands, who invited us to have some hot food from their Primus stove and to sleep in their extra tent.

I accepted with alacrity, and ran up to the car and rolled down to the small level spot where they were camped. We just got the tent pitched when it started to rain so we all repaired to the van for a pleasant evening of talk, tea and raki. [Turkish Ouzo/Pastis]

The next morning, after breakfast they helped us fix up the car somewhat--cleaned and gapped plugs, removed thermostat, tightened fanbels. We washed in a beautiful icy cold stream, and went our separate ways.

A long pictureque drive on very bad roads got us to Titograd & pavement that afternoon, minus about two feet of tailpipe.

Passing right along, we got stopped by a cop for making too much noise. "Ein Hundert Dinars" was his demand, which was about all the Jugoslav money ew had. [I tried to play dumb, saying "I'm very sorry, I don't speak Jugoslavian" though I understood his German just fine. Lisa, normally not much at languages, "helpfully" explained to me "He wants a hundred dinars, Sheldon." in the end we had to pay up.] He gave us five recipts for 20 dinars each.

We went to a bank in a tourist area and changed some of our drachmas--as usual, we didn't change enough, thinkin gwe could always change more. We didnt' reckon with the sparsity of banks in Jugoslavia. We also called Peter & Marianne in Belgium, and asked them to to send us some money, which we would pick up in Trieste, Italy. We drove on in the dark, arriving in a place called Kotor [Montenegro]--quaint beyond belief--10 minutes after the Youth Hostel closed.

Kotor is one of several small towns on a nearly landlocked bay with a very narrow mouth. There is a ferry service across the mouth which saves perhaps 50 km driving, but we skipped the ferry to get to the Youth Hostel which the ferry bypasses. The bay is completely surrounded by mountains. Every house seems to have its own little harbor behind stone sea walls, which many used-looking small craft. We slept in the car outside the Hostel, and first thing in the morning I repaired the exhaust system--two feet of tailpipe being missing, I unbolted the muffler and moved it forward so as to meet the remnants of the pipe. Fortunately, I had bought a large spool of steel baling wire in Belgium for just such an eventuality. (At the same time I had also bought two stainless-steel hose clamps, without which I would not have been able to patch the leaks which developed in radiator hoses.) I re-mounted the muffler with the baling wire.

On the road again--in and out, up and down, we acquired great skill in double-clutching.

Every ascent was a challenge to see whether the right combination of gears at the right time could keep the car from overheating. At this point we were driving a lot with the hood partly open. Every so often, the temp gauge would reach 215o F or so and the car would stop. Then the routine was to squirt water on the fuel pump and wait 15 minutes. We had to go through this also, almost every tim we stopped in the mountains for any reason.

Most of this day was spent searching for a bank. There was one in Dubrovnik [Croatia] but we missed the exit. The road mostly was at a rather high elevation, with very steep side roads going down to the towns. We didn't want to go back, and we thought we would find banks elsewhere, but we were wrong. Our dinars dwindled. We had enogh for gas and oil, but not food. By the time we got to Split it was too late for banking. We elected to continue as long as we could that night so as to be within striking distance of Rijeka in the morning. The terrain was unlike anything we had seen before--everything was made of stone. We would drive along for hours on end--no soil to be seen--olive groves with the trees growing out of a surface of potato-sized rocks. Between olive groves enormous fat ston walls--not built for security, but they had to put the extra rocks somewhere. From time to time we would see what looked at first like a small stone house, but when we would get closer it would turn out to be a house-shaped rockpile--weird.

We drove on into the night, higher and higher--we wanted to do as much climbing at night as possible, as teh overheating problem did not exist at night. Incredible winds--every bridge had a picture of a windsock as a warning sign. Fortunately, the Sprite, being so low slung, had no trouble, but we were very glad at that point that we were not in a van. Finally we just had to sleep, so we pulled off the road into a shallow gully and slpt. The wind was howling like a wounded bear. One minute it would be 150 km/hr--the next flat calm, the next 150 km/hr from a different direction. We later learned that this was typical. be continued...

spark-plug as pedal


British sprites vs Italian sprites

Cheapest campground in Trieste-3 Argentinians

making do in Italian

Thrown rod, over the Brenner pass


Student cafeteria


Abandonment of Bateau Rouge, (Brussel)


Back to the Future!

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