Nov 19

A Theft or a Souvenir?

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—

As a reminder, go to the Archives on the right side of the page and click on the month and year of that week’s featured Sampler. If you wish, go to the January 15, 2017, blog (“A Simple Reading Assignment”) for more thorough instructions.

If you want to read the entire piece, simply click on the box titled “Continue Reading.” When you want to read the next piece, simply swipe your cursor across the one you have been reading and you will find the next one. Do this every time you want to read the next piece.

Don’t miss the Comments and my replies. Even though the Sampler pieces are from the past, feel free to comment…or not.

Go to the Archives on the right side. Click on April 2017.


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    • Elodie Pritchartt on November 19, 2017 at 16:10

    I’m just glad you didn’t try that little stunt in North Korea.

      • Don Bay on November 19, 2017 at 17:19

      I was just a typical stupid teenager and knew only that Korea was in far-off Asia and that North Korea had visions of uniting the two Koreas. A war between the good guys and the bad guys ensued. At the end of that war, a demarcation line was established separating North and South Korea. It seems as if the war never ended.

      But history aside, did I mention that I was just a stupid teenager whose world was focused on Elsa, not on fighting wars?

      As you pointed out, that stupid stunt was in Finland. North Korea wasn’t on the itinerary. Thank goodness!

    • Donna Boe on November 20, 2017 at 05:04

    What an adventure! You were really lucky to receive such a great graduation present. You showed your cleverness in stealing the flag, but was it really worth it? I’m guessing that with hind sight, you would say that it wasn’t.

      • Don Bay on November 20, 2017 at 06:26

      Because I grew and learned enormously about myself and part of the world, it was a first-rate adventure. I was lucky to have a great aunt who believed in travel as an education. It was the best graduation present anybody could get.

      As to whether stealing the Olympic flag was worth it, the fact that I’m proud of it and still have the flag means it was worth it. Stupid, no doubt, but it showed me part of myself, and that alone makes it worth it.

  1. They say there are two kinds of people; those who have traveled and those who have not. I think there is some truth in that because travel exposes you to so much, including the way people are in different places, and how different they are, or are not, in different countries.

    Such a trip at that age is truly amazing. I’ve been to most of the places you mention, but paying for that means it was a totally different experience. And I wouldn’t trade my travels for anything; well, for most anything.

    And there was an experience you had that you don’t mention here, but which you told me about when we were young., and which I won’t reveal to your readers. To those readers, it isn’t anything you would be ashamed of, just so they don’t think of bad possibilities.

    Thanks for sharing this. Wow!

      • Don Bay on November 20, 2017 at 12:02

      It was a wonderful experience that taught me so much, not just about the way people in other countries live but about myself and what I value.

      I don’t recall what we talked about, but there was plenty to talk about that didn’t make it into this piece. To have written about everything would have made it too long, but it was a great learning experience.

  2. DON

      • Don Bay on November 21, 2017 at 06:15

      We can chuckle now, but at the time, my heart was in my throat from the time the flag hit the ground and I saw how big it was until I was safely past being arrested.

      BTW, although the title asks a question, it was both a theft and a souvenir.

      Thanks for the chuckle and your comment. It’s people like you who keep me going.

    • Susan on November 23, 2017 at 07:38

    Hehe …what fun! I am so amused with the thought of you rotating into that soggy flag!
    Where does that flag now live?
    Were you ever arrested? I was , twice. Neither time was particularly fun or as interesting as your flag wrap. Souvenir and theft for sure👏👏👏

      • Don Bay on November 23, 2017 at 09:53

      Fun for you, but it was less than fun for me…until I was assured I had escaped without being arrested. Looking back at that soggy twirl is humorous now, but it wasn’t humorous at the time. Your use of “flag wrap” reminds me of something one might find a sidewalk food vendor peddling.

      The flag rests quietly in my storage area.

      I’ve never been arrested, but I’m curious about your confession. Was it something serious like protesting some injustice?

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