I was fifteen in 1964 and had decided that I would head off for the continent with my older friend Foss. He was sixteen and about to leave school. Hence he was wise, mature and trustworthy. He would look after me.
We had it all planned out. We would catch the ferry to Calais and then hitch. It was fool-proof.
We worked evenings delivering advertising leaflets and somehow got enough money together to last us six weeks. We took ruck-sacks, a tent (with no front) and sleeping bags.
I’m not sure what was in the ruck-sack, I can’t remember taking much in the way of clothes, but I do know that I had the Stones first album and the newly released single ‘It’s All Over Now’ dangling from the back in a bag. I lugged those records all round France – well at least the little bit we trudged round.
It was a bit of an adventure.
The first thing we discovered was that we did more hiking than hitching. Probably due to our huge ruck-sacks, but possibly because of our long-hair, the drivers seemed reluctant to stop.
We ended up setting our tent up with the rats in the back garden of the Youth Hostel.
The French youth seemed in awe of us. Our long-hair caused a bit of a sensation. They would step out into the road to let us by and shout ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah’ after us. We got friendly with them all and they taught us a full range of swear-words in French. Sadly I’ve long since forgotten them.
A very large German guy called Hans was staying in the hostel. He adored the Rolling Stones and used to give us a great big bear-hug and demand that we play it at full volume. There were two timid Austrian girls who would invariably be clustered round the small portable record player listening intently to classical music. Hans, this giant of a lad, would go across with a jovial grin, thump the table with his ham of a fist, causing the needle to skid across, and say ‘Rolling Stones’.
The girls would scurry away and he’d play the whole album at full volume, nodding his head in time to the music and grinning.
That was a great summer. I became an expert at table football, discovered yoghourt, wine and that there were hundreds of different types of cheeses and bread. In post-war Britain we were living in the shadow of rationing and a paucity of food. The British had become extremely conservative. Cheese was cheddar and bread was white bloomers or sliced fluffy stuff. If you wanted something exotic you had a Hovis.
I was wide-eyed walking round the market. There was a whole stall of bread, black bread, brown, with rye and whole-grain. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Then the cheeses; it was the first time I’d ever seen cheese with holes in, great round cheeses sliced open, goats cheese, sheep’s cheese, green cheese and blue-veined. It opened up whole new horizons. The expansion of my palate was augmented by two Slavic girls who took a shine to me. They would cook up these delicious meals and force them on me. They seemed to think I needed fattening up. I’d never eaten so well. The variety, spices and flavours were heavenly.
Shopping was an experience. I rapidly discovered that the French could not understand French; at least not the way I spoke it. I was reduced, after a painful series of pronunciations that were getting more and more like Peter Sellers, to having to point. But the shop-keepers had a sense of humour. On one occasion I wanted a single onion for my spaghetti. The greengrocer only sold them by the kilo and they were ridiculously cheap – something like 10 centimes a kilo. I tried to negotiate the price of a single onion which he found extremely amusing. From that day on, every time I went past the shop he would rush out and give me an onion with great delight. In other places the humour was not quite so benign. I bought, having developed quite a taste for this novel discovery, fifteen cartons of different flavours of yoghourt. But I had not taken a bag. The shopkeeper was very unhelpful and I could not get him to sell me a bag. He was determined to see how I would manage to carry those fifteen cartons. I was equally stubborn and decided to show him that I could. Somehow I got back only having dropped three.
A circus came to the market square. There were jugglers, tumblers, horse-riders, clowns and a strong man who lifted up weights with these great wicked daggers into his arm-pits so that if he bent his arms he would impale himself.
The summer was long and hot. We drank wine, ate bread and cheese and hung out with a range of nationalities.
I was fifteen and I discovered that people were people where-ever they were from, and we could get along famously. I also discovered that there was a world of difference and difference was good. The whole feel of the place was a world away. Oh – and foreign girls were terrific and they liked little English lads with long hair.
That summer shaped my life.