Sheldon Brown's Retrospective Journal
April-May, 1975

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Bateau Rouge | Bath | Blankets | Bulgaria | Camera | Istanbul
Munich | Sprite | Trieste | Turkey | Peter Young

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

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Background

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. 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 it 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.

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. It had a gorgeous leather-covered steering wheel. He had brought it from England when he moved to Belgium.

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, then into West Germany

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 rest 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 Flossdecke" 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.

Saltzburg

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!

Yugoslavia

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.

The drive across the plains of northern Yugoslavia was uneventful. I did get a headache, and we used our Serbo-Croatian phrase book to buy a bottle of "Aspirino", the only word of Serbo-Croation I know.

Bulgaria

We got very bad vibes from Bulgaria. It looked as everything was gray, except for the government signs telling how nice everything would be in ten years.

We were forced to change more money into Bulgarian doohickeys than we wanted to, even though our intent was to drive straight across the country without stopping except for gas and maybe food.

We had a run-in with a Bulgarian traffic cop. We came to an intersection, and he was standing in the middle of the intersection nonchalantly holding what appeared to be a red lollipop, maybe 3 inches across. After we passed him he started blowing his whistle and chasing after us. I stopped, and it became evident that this "lollipop" was a stop signal, depending on which way he held it. He was quite furious, and rather scary looking (looked type cast for the redneck southern sherrif, except for his more military uniform.) I guess I eventually managed to make it clear to him that I'd never seen anything like his lollipop before, and that I'd never drive past one without stopping again. He wound up letting us go.

Then, at the Bulgaria/Turkey border, the Bulgarian border guards gave us a hard time, asking if we were carrying any drugs! This was probably their idea of a joke. The idea of anybody smuggling drugs into Turkey at that time, from Communist Bulgaria, no less, was ludicrous beyond belief.

Turkey

We finally crossed over into Turkey late at night, and sacked out in the car by the roadside. I wouldn't have thought it possible to sleep in a little sports car, but we were tired enough that it wasn't difficult. Thanks to our lucky blankets, we were even warm.

When we woke up, we were surrounded by a pack of emaciated feral dogs, which got Lisa very upset. She wanted to save them all, but the life of a dog in Turkey is not as soft as might be wished.

We stopped at a bank to cash a traveler's check, and were amazed and dismayed at what an elaborate, time-consuming procedure it was.

Istanbul

We arrived in Istanbul in mid afternoon, and managed to find our way to my brother's house in the suburb of Tarabiya. We stayed 10 days in Istanbul, and had a blast.

My brother taught me a few words of Turkish, which made a tremendous difference. "Me'er haba" is a greeting much favored by the Turks. I gather that it is a blessing as well as a greeting. All I know for sure is that if you say it to a Turk, you get a great big smile in return, and they'll do anything to help you out if you're lost or otherwise having problems.

It is very rare to find a foreigner who knows so much as a single word of Turkish, and a little bit goes a long way. My brother speaks fluent Turkish, and whenever I traveled around the city with him, we were treated like long-lost relatives. A few other useful phrases are "merci" (MEHR-ci) for thank you, "choke merci" for thank you very much, gule-gule (goo-lay x2) for "good bye"

Turkey has the absolute best bread I've ever tasted. It's pretty much standardized everywhere you go, and the price is kept low by government subsidy, but nevertheless it is amazingly good, even better than the French. It is always sold still warm from the oven, and is pure ambrosia.

The Turks also make very excellent beer. Although the country is predominantly Muslim, it is a basically secular country with a strong wall of separation between mosque and state. This is part of the legacy of Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

My brother laid on a special treat for me, a cruise on the Bosphorus at sunset on hte Ambassador's launch. This was a marvelous old polished mahogany boat, the ideal way to see the city, and watch the sun set over the Topkapi palace. Unfortunately, my film supply was running out, and I wasn't able to photograph that particular scene.

My brother took the whole familiy up to go swimming in the Black sea, a treat indeed.

Lisa and I visited the Topkapi palace, now a museum. They had amazing decadent stuff there from the Ottoman era. I particularly recall muskets and drinking vessels heavily encrusted with diamonds and emeralds, and one drinking vessel that was carved out of an emerald! We were amazed at how little security there was for these valuable objects, but it is my impression that that's no longer the case.

It seems that every G.I. who ever served in Turkey brought a car along with him, and sold it to a cab driver when he was rotated home. The streets are (or, at least were,) full of 56 chevys, and older De Sotos, as well as a miscellany of other U.S. cars. They are kept shiny and beautiful, and are generally preferred for taxicab service. They must have some wonderful mechanics to keep these cars running so well, so long.

Driving in Turkey is a bit of a challenge if you're not used to it. The rules of the road are rather different. The rear-view mirror is a useless appurtenance in Turkish traffic; you may change lanes, stop or turn without any regard for vehicles behind you...unless the overtaking vehicle blows its horn. It is every passing vehicle's responsibility to honk before passing. The system is consistent, and reasonably safe. It's only downside is the noise pollution from everybody blowing their horns all the time.

Bikes I saw in Turkey were mostly extremely ratty old roadsters, in amazingly poor condition. Most bikes that I saw had at least one flat tire, or were even being used on bare rims. Pedals were commonly missing as well. (Turns out that you can use an old spark plug as a pedal, and lots of them did.)

When the time came to head home, we decided to take a more southerly route, along the coast through Greece and northern Italy.

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 going to Thessaloniki (downtown) the next morning and getting thoroughly lost. We found a motorcycle cop and said "Skopje, Yugoslavia" 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, Montenegro], 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 camping 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 pass. 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 fanbelts. 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 we had. [I tried to play dumb, saying "I'm very sorry, I don't speak Yugoslavian" 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, thinking we could always change more. We didn't reckon with the sparsity of banks in Yugoslavia. 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, Yugoslavia, 1974
This star-shaped bay surrounded by steep mountains was ringed with this sort of mooring fences.
Kotor, 1975.
Kotor is now in Montenegro, but was badly damaged by an earthquake since I was there.
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 guage 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 time 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 enough 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 stone 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 the 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 slept. 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.

...to be continued...

Trieste

We arrived in Trieste just after the banks closed on Friday afternoon, so we had to spend the weekend there, with very little money. Fortunately, we were able to change the 1000 Drachma note my brother had given us. (They wouldn't honor it in Yugoslavia, because it turns out that it was illegal to bring that much Greek money out of the country. Fortunately, the Italian money changers didn't mind.

While changing money and trying to find a cheap place to eat, we were taken up by a young Italian guy who was intrigued by our car. Turns out that he was a big Sprite fan. He had an Italian Sprite, which is a British sprite with a gorgeous Pinninfarina body. His car sparkled, and looked brand new. He felt that cars like that were common as dirt in Italy, and really lusted for our British one. He said he would buy it for 2 million lire if there were some way to do it legally, but unfortunately, that wasn't possible.

He was the manager of a car rental place near the railroad station, and he got his mechanic to weld up the exhaust system for us for free. He was very nice.

We rented a cabin in the cheapest campground around, right near a rocky adriatic beach, and settled in for the weekend. I had not originally expected to be anywhere near Italy, and had made no preparations to deal with the Italian language. Fortunately, the little bit of French I spoke at the time served me quite well. I remember buying some fruit juice, and reading that it was "pamplemo"...which I recognized as a cognate for "pamplemousse", grapefruit.

Also staying at the same campground were 3 young Argintinian guys, a couple of whom spoke English. We hung out with them and had a jolly old time despite being broke.

On Monday, we went to the bank, and got some money that Peter and Marianne had wired us. We headed for the Autostrada that would lead us to the Brenner Pass.

The Italian Autostrada was an expensive toll road, but a beautifully built and engineered one. I had been impressed with the West German Autobahns, particularly the clever rows of paddle like objects they put on the center strip in some areas to keep you from being blinded by oncoming headlights. When I saw the Italian solution, I didn't think the German way was all that cool after all--the Italians used neatly manicured hedges!

We hadn't been tooling along the Autostrada for very long when suddenly the car lost power. It would still run, but not at highway speeds. It was noisy and rough, and made a lot of smoke. We took an exit and made our way to a garage that, fortunately, had a French-speaking mechanic. He determined that we had thrown a rod, and had only 3 working cylinders. It would be prohibitive both in money and time (we did have a plane to catch) to get it fixed. I asked him how far we could go as it was, before it would strand us. He said it might go 50-100 km on the flats, but "sur les montagnes? C'est impossible!" Since our only choices were driving or hitch-hiking, we decided to try it, impossible or not. We took the older side road up and over the Brenner Pass, amazingly making it all the way. Fortunately, the road was well graded, so it never got too steep. The big problem was the oil consumption. We were only getting maybe 30-50 km to a liter of oil, and this was during the Embargo era, when oil was something like $4.00/liter. Our money was getting burned up at a ferocious rate.

Munich

We made it to Munich with maybe 6 Deutchmarks to our name. We called Peter and he said he'd lend us some more money, he'd wire it to the Munich American Express. When we got to the American Express, the money hadn't arrived, and they were about to close for the day.

I felt really out of place in Munich. Everybody and everything were so neat and clean, and it seemed as if everybody but us were beautifully dressed. We, on the other hand, were dressed in hippy-ish fashion, I had a scraggly beard, and we were both quite rumpled and unwashed. This made our treatment at the hands of the locals all the more remarkable. We had an old guide book that said that you could eat very cheaply in the student cafeteria, so we headed over to the University. Unfortunately, it turned out that that information was obsolete, and that you had to have a student I.D. to get in. In some mixture of English and broken German, I asked the guard if he couldn't please make an exception, because we were so hungry. He said yes, and we paid a couple of marks for a big platter of some sort of goulash. It's not normally my kind of food, but we were so hungry that it was fabulously delicious.

We slept in the car again, and headed down to the American Express, but the wire still hadn't come in. They suggested that we go get some breakfast and come back in an hour or so.

We went to a little cafe that served breakfast. I showed the woman behind the counter how much money we had (maybe 2 1/2 marks.) and asked what we could get for it. She said a couple cups of coffee and a couple of rolls with butter and jam. We ate our breakfast, then when we went up to pay she said "the gentleman who just left paid for your breakfast, you don't owe anything." To this day, I don't know if she was telling the truth or not. Did she make that story up so that there was no way we could refuse her own charity?

In any case, to this day I get a warm feeling in my heart whenever I hear the name Munich.

I learned a crucial German word in Munich, that I wish I'd learnt earlier: "Das biligest" i.e., the cheapest. I really needed this for buying oil...I think that a number of times I would up putting premium grade oil in the engine that I could ill afford.

Although the faithful Bateau Rouge had gotten us over the Alps in the face of all the odds, it was becoming clear that we were not going to make our flight at the speed we were going, nor would our money buy enough oil for the trip. We rolled into a restaurant on the Autobahn outside Stüttgart, went in for a meal, and when we left, we walked to the highway and held out a sign that said "Brüssel" We had been advised to spell it thus in the German manner. The Belgians are so polarized by language, that if we'd used either the French or Flemish spelling, we'd have no chance of getting a ride from a speaker of the other language. Similarly, in Belgium, unlike anywhere else I've visited, it is safest to speak English rather than chancing the local language, so I didn't use my French there except with known Francophones.

In the end, we made it back OK, with no more interesting incidents.

I brought along three cameras and thirty or forty rolls of film, mostly bulk loaded black and white Tri-X. A photographer friend of my brother's in Istanbul let me process a few rolls in his darkroom, and reload some of the cassettes with what turned out to be not very good Ilford film. I finally ran out of film at Kotor, so I missed a lot of opportunities, alas.

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.

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