Appeared in Business in Vancouver – July 29, 2014
Sixty years ago, almost to the day, I left for Europe. I was 19. Preposterously, I believed I was destined to be a poet. I associated poets with dirt. I didn’t have a full wash for six weeks.
I sailed on Cunard’s Scythia from Quebec City to Southampton. Interruption: This won’t be a travel story or personal memoir, unless I lie. This being a business paper, it’s a business story. So expect numbers meant to shock and amaze.
Some 3½ months in Europe cost a steep $1,000. Right, if you lived as grungily as I did you could wring maybe a month out of it even today.
The eight days on the Scythia, a 1920 vessel used as a troop ship in the war and looked like it, cost $140.
Cunard wrung extra profit from me: missed every meal but the first. Seasick.
I knew no one, but family friend Lila Beaver linked me with saintly Hugh and Ivy Fraser, Sandringham Gardens, North Finchley.
Gathering strength, I departed for the shrine of George Bernard Shaw’s Ayot St. Lawrence home, unaware rural England rolled up the sidewalks early, and blundered into the costliest lodging of the entire trip: Railway Hotel, Cambridge, one pound, $3. A B&B typically charged $1.50.
In Paris – at another shrine, Oscar Wilde’s grave – I met pious Quebecer Jean Menard, bound for the priesthood, who had a car but couldn’t drive.
Off to Switzerland and Italy for six weeks.
Variously wedged into a tiny Austin A30 were a Belgian lawyer, a social worker I called Madame Egypt, and Mlle. Brantford, who may or may not have wed an eastern potentate. All the churches and medieval art one could see, on $5 a day.
Old France lost enormous character with closure of the street pissoir, a metal maze into a mass urinal over a sewer; Italy lost a similar facility, the frankly urinal-in-a-wall vespasiani, named for a considerate emperor, which possibly offended prudery and tourists and women.
More shrines: the graves in Rome of the drowned Shelley and the tubercular Keats.
Hungry, I spent less time looking at El Grecos and more staring into bakery windows.
There’s always a woman, isn’t there? This one was a pixie. Ignited by An American in Paris, our circle babbled about going to Europe, but only I went, shamed into it by the pixie. The Dear John letter awaited when I returned to Paris in November. The autumn rains fell on a broken poet mourning along the Seine’s bleak banks.
Hitchhiking, I was humbled to borrow $10 from Mr. Charles J. Bussell, 30 Rue Joubert, Paris office of Harding & Messenger, London. I was cheated by the Scots, the English and the Welsh, the latter a blacksmith in the hamlet of Glasfryn, defining quaint: lamplit, no electricity.
I resolved to fly home – commercial transatlantic air travel was just out of diapers. But a Thomas Cook travel agent assured me that the 20,000-ton Scythia’s ride couldn’t compare with the mighty 82,000-ton Queen Mary’s, which would cut imperturbably through the Southampton-New York seas. Wrong. Seasick again. And for a pricey $165.
The foregoing is unlikely to make readers yearn for a time machine to retrace my youthful steps. But the $1,000 was well spent.
I returned convinced that Canada could be as rich as Europe in artistic and intellectual expression, in books – and in bakeries and bistros and “foreign” restaurants.
When I moved to Vancouver in 1963, I asked yet-to-be celebrated journalist Allan Fotheringham to list some good, not fancy, restaurants. He named three.
Now look at us.
© Trevor Lautens, 2014