Summer of ’75
The white ferry crossing the channel seemed ancient, with a single passenger deck that was mostly a bar. Was it a converted fishing boat? An Isle of Wight ferry? In any case it was certainly unlike the sleek cross channel ships of today. It felt like going to Mars in a bucket.
I was 18. Tall and skinny with wild hair, in a t-shirt and shorts and a blue backpack that my parents had bought me. I’d read “Dove”, by Robin Lee Graham, the story of a 16 year old who left California to sail around the world alone. At the same age I left school to work as bank clerk, but I dreamed of seeing the world and living differently. Robin’s story scratched around in my brain along with other books. I had already hitchhiked to Hadrians wall, to a hippy medieval festival, to the fossil cliffs in Devon, and South Wales.
My first impression of France was of large roads and big fields, a wide open horizon. I felt liberated, everything seemed brighter and more promising than in England which at that time was in an economical marasmus. I remember elm-lined roads in the north, passing under the Eiffel Tower, and my rear end still recalls the trip in a 2CV from Lyon to Orange, with a cortege of hairy students. Eventually a professional boxer in a black BMW dropped me off at the Marseilles ferry port. I paid for the overnight ferry to Corsica with my last francs, 10 francs perhaps.
I could smell Corsica before landing, as the vegetation gave a distinctive perfume to the air. I quickly ran out of money, but rather than being a show stopper it was just another problem to solve. After a miserable mosquito ridden night in a field near Bonifacio, and a beautiful one in a pine forest with chips of tree bark on the ground, my last lunch was some peaches given to me by a lady on a market stall in Bastia. However I did catch a sign that said something about an employment agency, so I washed my t-shirt in a nearby fountain, let it dry a bit and walked hopefully into the building. The man there immediately found me a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant/pizzeria near Alistro, so I hitchhiked down and was working the same evening.
The job included room and board in a small individual hut. In the morning after a copious breakfast I followed everyone to the beach, which I discovered to be naturist. After a day I took my shorts off like everyone else, it’s surprising how quickly bare skin becomes mundane.
I met some friendly Germans on holiday there in a nearby naturist camp. One of them had a yellow BMW with an open roof, her father had something to do with Coca Cola and seemed to be relatively wealthy. Today I believe she was interested in me, but at that time I was oblivious. We played card games where the loser had to drink a shot of apple alcohol. Needless to say, once you start losing, you keep on losing.
The owner of the restaurant was managing everything with his family, he cooked, his wife was at the till, his daughters serving. He told me he needed me in June and August, but not in July because his nephew was coming, so I decided to use that month and the money I had earned to visit Italy. Just like that.
Io sono inglese.
I took the pedestrian ferry from Bastia to Livorno which was more like a yacht. Everyone was lying in the sun on the deck, the sea was calm and flat. I visited Pisa, but the tourist merchants ruined it for me. Unfortunately, the hitchhiking from there to Florence was a pain, it took me 3 days.
Today I don’t recall the exact route I took, just that I zigzagged across Italy without any plan, sleeping most of the time outdoors under the stars. There are only images left, such as a bend in a wide, beautiful road lined with houses and cypresses in the dusty heat near Livorno. I know I was in Bari and Siena, but I don’t remember them, except perhaps the bridges in Siena.
In Florence I saw beautiful buildings, statues, and artworks, oddly I remember seeing a few birds being scared off by a bus at the end of an alley in shadows. The city was so rich in art and history that I almost choked on it, but it was also where I discovered cappuccino.
A young couple from Turin gave me a lift in their car, stopping at a house on the way. I was intrigued by the coolness of the marble floor in the house, having been raised on English carpets. The difference in climate was evident. We ended up on a populous beach near Rimini on the Adriatic where I spent the afternoon with them eating ice cream. I remember seeing an oil rig in the distance and red sand. Although I didn’t, and still don’t, speak Italian, sign language worked well.
At one point I was so tired that I fell asleep on the side of a road to Venice that ran through a marsh with double-trailer trucks passing too close, but I had to stop. Venice, where I had to pay extra to heat up a slice of pizza. I soon found that you don’t have to follow the big tourist arrows but walk behind them to see the real Venice with its clotheslines. At the station, I sat on its large steps before taking a train with wooden seats to Bologna, a name I knew only for its relation to spaghetti.
A small man with dark glasses and his wife welcomed me and gave me food and a bed for the night. They showed me a map of a trip they had just taken in their Citroen DS around the Mediterranean, from Bari through Greece, Egypt, North Africa, Morocco, Spain, France and back to Italy. He told me he was ill, pointing to his head, and explained that wanted to do it before he died.
A man and his son picked me up in an old van. They asked me if I wanted to come to the watermelon festival in his village. I ended up spending the night with about 30 people of all ages in a barn with straw, an old record player, watermelons and wine. I drank, danced, played with the kids, and smiled with everyone. The next morning he took me back to the main road so I could hitch a ride. He bid me farewell and, in doing so, slipped a few banknotes into my pocket. As they drove away I was filled with emotion by these people that had little, but would give everything they had to a stranger.
I was picked up by a jovial truck driver in the Apennines, who stopped to buy us fire-baked, slightly charred potatoes in a paper bag. I arrived in a mountain village where the whole population seemed to be out in the square around 7pm talking, playing music, drinking and laughing. Another day on foot, I turned a corner on the road through these mountains and saw clouds below me in a valley.
I saw some volcanic fumaroles probably near Calabria, but I made my way back to Avellino, where I was hosted by some happy joint smoking students. One of them lived alone with his mother who put me up for a couple of nights. A major earthquake occurred there five years later. I’ve always wondered what happened to them, and regret not remembering any names.
Near Naples, a priest picked me up in his little Fiat 500. I explained that I was on my way to visit Pompeii. He took me there and spent a couple of hours showing me some of the more hidden wall paintings.
Years later, when I saw the film “Le Corniaud” with Bourvil and Louis de Funes, I remembered hitching a ride on the same road Bourvil took around the Bay of Naples, the famous bay Caligula crossed on horseback by lining up boats.
I arrived in Genoa the night before the ferry left for Corsica. I remember crossing high motorway viaducts and a kind harbour keeper who offered me a coffee and showed me an alcove where I could sleep.
Back in Corsica, I worked hard in the restaurant, but also played hard, swimming in the sea with everyone every day for hours. One night we had a delicious steak. Everyone at the table was giggling at me, it turned out they wanted to see how an Englishman liked his horse meat.
I remember distant electric storms at night over the sea like a curtain of fireworks. A car ride in the back seat with the pizza man and waiter to the west coast, through mountains where the sun reflected off the pink granite slopes. A large fish that circled me in a flash while swimming. A tan like I’d never had before, and never since. The discreet delivery of local moonshine, where I found bottles in the early hours next to the restaurant door. The revelation of fromage blanc with sugar. The comical daily slow-motion delivery of bread from the baker’s van. An embarrassingly failed attempt to add a gas cylinder to a whipped cream dispenser. Endless dirty dishes and plates to wash.
But above all the sun.