From Paris to Russia and Back

Travel Journal 1

The Italy Leg

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I set out from Paris, with two girlfriends, Liz and Kay, from Melbourne in the summer of 1968. We were studying at university and working at the Air Attachée in Paris, which is where I met Liz. The trip stand out in my memory as one of the high points of my life.

The Italy leg would set the tone for the whole trip: exciting, adventurous, frustrating, exhilirating, with breakdowns and meetings with mechanics (machina caput!) in every country.

July, 1968: Paris

It hardly seems credible now, when I think back on this time. I was young, naiive, and looking for adventure. I’d just lived through the student and workers’ strike in France, which ended in a near revolution. The fear at the time was that General de Gaulle might send in troops to break the stand-off between police and radical students in the Boulevard Saint Michel.

I’d spent the previous twelve months in Paris, working as a clerk at the Australian Embassy, the Air Attaché section; handling secret files labelled “Mirage Jets” or some such. It was boring work, but I’d earned enough money to move on to a more interesting job as a teacher’s assistant in a provincial high school. I was also enrolled in the first year of an Arts degree. During my time at the Embassy, I’d made some good friends, in particular, two girls from Melbourne. Liz was studying Linguistics at the Sorbonne, while Kay was writing a thesis on Jean-Paul Sartre; me, an ex-primary school teacher with no degree under my belt at all. At the end of the twelve-month Embassy position, instead of saving my money, I’d acted impulsively, as usual, and lashed out on a second-hand car.

We three friends decided, over a map and a bottle of rough red Moroccan wine, to leave on a voyage in my car, setting out from Paris and heading first for Northern Italy, before turning southward to the warm Mediterranean countries, then eastward as far as Turkey, and onwards to the Ukraine, behind the Iron Curtain. It was the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. Luckily, Liz spoke a spattering of Russian and we were French/Australians, not Americans. We would travel in a 1960 model French Citroen—a “deux chevaux” (two horse-power) car. It looked like a battered jam tin on wheels, until it moved into action, when it resembled a dazed beetle with the hiccups. It bumped and tottered along. This was the first car I had ever owned.

I set out behind the wheel with my two girlfriends as passengers, on this first day of July in 1968. We were confident in the sure knowledge—as all French people will tell you-—that the engines of these little cars are “increvable” (indestructible). We intended covering about 15,000 kilometres to Kiev and back to Paris again, after visiting Prague and Krakow, in the three month summer vacation we had at our disposal. By the end of this time, we would have passed through ten different countries at least once, and have learnt the technical jargon of auto-mechanics in as many languages. Despite the hardy nature of my vehicle, it broke down at least once in every country we visited, beginning with Italy. However, despite the hardships, the long waits and treks in the hot sun, the over-riding memory of this trip is one of freedom and of novelty. To be speeding along the highway with the roof rolled back, the sun and the wind in the hair … stopping for a swim and for an exotic lunch, often by the sea, and then off into the horizon towards a new culture … a new adventure.

1st Day (Monday, July 1, 1968)

Left on trip at 1.30 p.m. We travelled practically non-stop, without eating, until midnight, when we arrived at Pontarlier, near the Swiss border in France, and were directed to the Youth Hostel.  The woman kindly let us in.  It was wonderful to wash and collapse on to our bunks.

2nd Day

We set off fairly early, after coffee at a terrace café, and crossed the Swiss border about lunch time.  It was exciting to be in our first foreign country, after France, and we noticed the signs in different languages, Italian, German and French. By then, well into mountainous countryside. We were following the route to Lausanne, and the scenery was charming, but the going became harder and harder, the car straining in first gear. Driving along Lake Leman was breathtaking. We stopped about 4p.m. in “Heidi, Girl of the Alps” countryside, flowery and hilly, to give the car a rest; and we drank freezing water from a flowing stream. I picked some flowers and put them in a book. After more climbing and dust, it was like a magic moment to hear the melodious Italian voice at the border, and to find that the mountainous road was over.

We made very good time once on the autostrada, and were in Milan and at my Sydney friend, Juliet’s place by 11p.m. We had to ring for the concierge to let us in, but soon we were in the apartment, talking, eating Italian fruit cake and drinking champagne.  I’d met Juliet at College in the early sixties. The Jewish daughter of Communist parents, she’d been conceived, as were her two siblings, under a portrait of Stalin in a one-bedroom-and-sunroom flat in Bondi. Her father was a founding member of the Party in Sydney.  For me, they were cultural aristocrats, introducing me to the theatre and to ideas.

As the contrary daughter of Country Party parents, I was drawn, like many of my university friends in the sixties, towards Communism, or at least Socialism, as providing the answer to world inequities. One French boyfriend, Michel, the son of coal miners, had said by way of introduction: “Je suis marxiste.”

That night, we three interlopers slept seven stories above Milan on a small balcony, side-by-side in our sleeping bags. I dozed off with the worrying idea that I might sleep-walk, but slept like a fallen log on my father’s cattle property back home.

3rd Day

It was pleasant to wake up above Milan in the warmth of the early morning air. I went shopping for provisions with Juliet, and we prepared a copious, delicious breakfast. Juliet’s boyfriend, Mahi, dropped by with a student friend. He was Algerian, just as dark-skinned as Juliet was fair, and a lovely very friendly man.

 We set off from Milan about 11a.m. and were only an hour along the autostrada when, stopping for petrol, the car refused to start again.   At last we decided to go to a Lake camping spot nearby and one of the mechanics offered to drive us there.  We managed to advise the mechanic to bring the car in the morning.

The camping ground at Lake Eseo was really a family affair. Erecting the tent for the first time was our next challenge.  We met several English-speaking Dutchmen who were staying with their families. Heavenly it was, sitting there on the edge of the lake, dangling our feet in the water, after having bathed.  It seemed like I had been subconsciously yearning for something like this, and strangely enough, the event that had enabled it  was the breakdown: the last thing I’d been hoping for.  We’d been speeding along at 60 and 70 km/hr.  Stopping for petrol and oil, the windscreen wiped, we were laughing and joking and trying to understand the young “garagistes”.  Then I tried to start the car… nothing. The boys tinkered with things, checked everything and tried to push us off, but they were not mechanics.

We were almost back on the highway, when the the garage workers turned away from us and walked back to the garage.  We couldn’t work out why they were just leaving us like that, so we sat down on the grass by the roadside, and ate the cucumber sandwiches Juliet had packed for us.

Cars were tooting as they passed on the highway, and we were signalled to move the car out of the way.  I tried several times to start it, and finally the girls pushed it back, with me in it, after trying vainly to crank the car into life.  I was annoyed at the lack of sympathy at the garage, but walked back and asked what to do.  Finally, we got the head man to telephone the autostrada mechanic service for us.  So we climbed up to the overhead restaurant and bought cigarettes and drinks. I was soon experiencing the strange pleasure of being towed along by another vehicle to the garage, just off the autostrada.  It was my first experience of being towed, and it felt rather thrilling, like certain childhood memories of first accomplishments. It was comforting to know that we were being “saved”, and the humour of the situation was starting to glimmer through from time to time:  the reactions of the spectators, their unsympathetic attitude, and our own concern.

At the service garage, we were met by a crowd of friendly, dishevelled and curious “garagistes”. The curious Italian mechanics all crowded around the car and us, and we received the terrible diagnosis of “dynamo” and “demani mattina”.  Liz was quick to suggest we hitch-hike somewhere, and we at last decided to set off for a camping site with our tent and bags.  After ice-creams bought for us by the mechanics, we were about to set off in search of some water, when one of the mechanics picked us up and offered to take us back along the autostrada to a good spot, to Lake Iseo, about 15 kms off.  We hitched our excellent two-man tent, and got quickly into the lake.  Later we walked to find food and drink and enjoyed a picnic meal of salami, cheese, Russian salad, bread and wine in front of the tent.

We went off again for ice-creams, and on the way back, who should pull up beside us but the mechanic-chauffeur, complete with friends, to offer to show us the surroundings—the night-lights that we could see shimmering like a temptation across the lake.  Of course we were hesitant, but at last, feeling safety in numbers, we relented.  So we went driving around the Lake with the mechanics, dancing and talking broken Italian.  A dangerous night that turned out not too badly.  We benefited linguistically and got to try out our own talking defence tactics at the end of the night.

4th Day

It was raining heavily, but not cold in the tent, and we had slept well.  When we woke up we just stayed in our clothes. A Dutchman gave us a lift into the village, and we went to the bank, had a gelato, a coffee and a meat roll.  Then we hitched a ride to Berscia, which was a mistake; a very charming Italian engineer explained our error, so we hitched back again with a less amicable Italian to the overhead garage.  ‘You are married?’ he asked me. ‘No,’ I replied. ‘Why are you not?’ ‘How old are you?’ ‘Bella’ and other unwanted compliments were tossed around, until he got he message that marriage was the furthest thing from my mind.

We picked up another car to the garage turn-off and, fortunately,  the car was ready. ‘Thank goodness!’ we sang out in chorus, dancing around the garage floor. Soon we were on the road again, this time for Venice.

We made good headway and had time for drinks on the way, reaching  Trieste, beautiful Trieste on the rocky Adriatic seashore.  It was 8.30pm, the sun had gone down and the sky was pink. We passed along the cliff road leading around the city.  The youth hostel was marvellous, like a palace set in trees at the foot of the hills overlooking the sea.  We were given the last beds.  I took a quick cold shower, changed into my sun-dress and we rushed out with little over half and hour to return before the doors were shut.  Luckily we found a tiny bar where we were served pizza and gelato very quickly and we sat there marvelling in this beautiful Italian environment. We recognized other Australian voices as we went in to sleep at the hostel. Liz moved out on to the balcony and we slept well.

5th Day

 After having a coffee and a roll we went down the stairs to the sea area reserved for the hostel, and I soon found myself immersed in the clean, green water of the Adriatic ,swimming, easily out.  Then, lying in the sun, trying to read the Italian newspapers with the help of the pictures:  Liz Taylor at an art auction in London!

Finally, we tore ourselves away from the beach and headed for Yugoslavia.

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