In Brief — The author’s remembrance of his youthful trip through Europe with an eventful visit to Finland. [Written in April-May 2017.]
A Risky Act —
I’m an old man now, but many years ago a rich great-aunt gave me a high school graduation gift of a trip through Europe. It changed my life. “Travel is an education,” she said. Without knowing it, she planted a seed: “At some time in my life I want to live in a country other than the one into which I was born.” Today, Sweden has been my home for twenty-three years.
At eighteen I was a naïve innocent from the vast scenic deserts and mountains of New Mexico. In June I found myself on the crowded sidewalks of Manhattan. The buildings soared high above me, the ground shook beneath my feet as unseen subways roared to unseen destinations. A woman’s “Outta my way” reminded me that hurrying New Yorkers didn’t abide fascinated tourists blocking the sidewalk.
We stayed at the Waldorf Astoria where I was introduced to Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s senior aide. I met Walt Disney and his family, soon to be fellow passengers on the Queen Elizabeth. The imposing Empire State Building gave a view of the huge city that was soon to be in the ship’s wake.
The Trip Begins —
Her name was Evelyn. I’ve forgotten her last name. She was the tour leader responsible for nineteen girls and six guys between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six. Did I mention that twenty-five youngsters generated enough energy to power New York? Evelyn’s first mistake was when she told her charges that one of her proudest possessions was a souvenir Olympic flag. Another seed was planted.
Somewhere in my tossed salad life I read that the definition of confusion was trying to herd cats. Evelyn was about to learn what herding cats was about. I suspect that she retired to a quiet town after the tour.
While I traveled in First Class, some of our group didn’t have to wear a tux to dinner, but I never had trouble finding my way to get-togethers with my fellow travelers.
Through Europe —
Our travels would take us through England, Norway, Sweden, Finland for the 1952 Olympics, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and France, so our first stop was England. Big Ben, the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, Parliament and even Stratford-on-Avon for a taste of Shakespeare. England breathed history. I was hooked.
The trip across a rough North Sea to Bergen, Norway found me falling in love with spirited Elsa who had eyes only for drunken Dixon not for a scrawny hick from out west. But those blonde Norwegian girls planted a libidinous seed that eventually led me to marrying a beautiful Swede and living in Sweden.
Sweden and Stockholm were fascinating. They still are. Old Town, the Royal Palace, luscious food, a trip to Drottningholm with its vast gardens and charming theatre. History.
On to Helsinki, Finland, and the Olympics. The points of interest and the games faded in contrast to that forest of alternating Finnish and Olympic flags beside the stadium. A souvenir grew from that seed Evelyn planted.
The Flag —
It was a drizzly night when I stood looking up at that fluttering Olympic flag. I waited for the night‘s strollers to pass. My razor-sharp pocket knife cut the rope as if it were butter. It was only when it hit the ground that I realized how big the flag was. Not to be deterred, I removed my raincoat and rotated to wrap the soggy flag around my body. Donning the raincoat, I made my way across the city’s crowded main street drawing more than a few looks of wonder at such a fat person with such a thin face.
Once in the room, I carefully folded the damp flag and placed it next to my white tux jacket. The next day as the customs inspector riffled through my bag’s contents I was as nervous as a whore in church with visions of the inside of a Finnish jail cell. Thank god it wasn’t a Finnish flag. I didn’t brag about my feat until we were well on our way once again. Needless to say, my stature increased markedly among my compatriots…but Elsa remained focused on balding Dixon.
Several of us became briefly separated from the tour group, but we came within a short distance of East Germany. Evelyn breathed again when we were reunited.
I experienced my first hangover in Switzerland after an evening carving my initials the Lucerne student club’s table. A few friends and I narrowly avoided being arrested after setting off firecrackers in a quiet Lake Como town in northern Italy. Evelyn must have winced at that adventure.
Rome’s Coliseum, Trajan’s Arch and an open-air operatic performance of Aida were highlights. Being blessed by Pope Pius XII at the Vatican after absorbing the priceless art of the Vatican Museum was breathtaking. When I gave a rosary blessed by the Pope to my mother’s Hispanic maid, you’d have thought it was a bar of gold.
Along the French Riviera, a swim in the Mediterranean, the perfume country of southern France, Paris, ah-h Paris and coffee at a sidewalk café leisurely watching strolling passers-by. The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre with its incomparable art…and, without having to deal with terrorists, finally, home.
A few weeks later, my mother’s new husband’s Finnish cousin listened to my story, laughed and informed us that his father’s factory in Finland had made my souvenir Helsinki flag. How’s that for irony?
I still have that flag…well, the moths and I.
The Weekly Sampler—
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