by Leighton Gage
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
When I was twenty-three years old, I gave up my employment in New York, flew to Europe and bought a bicycle.
I left a plum job, the kind most kids in my college graduating class would have killed for. My bosses at ABC-TV told me I was crazy. And so did my mother.
The values of their generation were forged in the Great Depression and tempered by the Second World War. For them, you didn’t waste your college education by going off to bum around Europe. College educations weren’t about learning. They were the keys to the door to the good life.
But this was the sixties. Young people were in revolt. And so was I.
I ignored their advice – and went.
The cheap way to get from the U.S. to Europe, in those days, was to fly Icelandic Airlines. Their aircraft were Lockheed Constellations, prop planes that stopped in Reykjavik to refuel. After what seemed like an interminable journey, I landed in Luxembourg.
I bought my bike there, and struck out, first, for Amsterdam. Then back through Belgium again, and through France to the Mediterranean coast. Arriving in Marseilles, I bordered the water, through Cannes, through Nice, through Monaco into Italy. I kept going south through Rome and Naples to below Sorrento. Then I crossed Italy to Bari and went North, to Trieste, and into Yugoslavia. From Yugoslavia to Austria. From Austria to Germany. All by bicycle.
A year after I started, I ran out of money in Munich.
I sold my bicycle for money to eat.
I worked in a laundry, worked in a distillery, drove a truck. I enrolled in the Goethe Institute at night and became fluent in my first foreign language, German.
And, when I’d saved up enough money, I went off to Spain and hitchhiked around the country.
Arthur Frommer had published Europe on Five Dollars a Day a few years earlier. That, for someone on a two week vacation might have sounded cheap, but, to me, five bucks was an extravagance. I seldom spent more than two-and-a-half.
And I never spent more when I was in Spain. The peseta was at sixty to the dollar. You could get decent wine for four pesetas a liter and very decent wine for six. Of course, you had to bring your own bottle.
Ever drink wine out of a bota? If you never have, my advice is – don’t. To make sure they don’t leak, they’re sealed with tar. I kid you not. Tar. If you don’t “cure” them by pouring away your first liter or two, and if you don’t drink the wine you replace it with very quickly, it tastes dreadful.
It used to be the custom to toss botas into the bull ring to salute a matador after he’d made a particularly skillful kill. The matador would take a drink and then toss the bota back to the owner. I don’t think it’s done anymore. Too many matadors gulping too much bad wine.
I remember one time, in Aranjuez, when I tossed a bota to El Cordobes. And the poor guy drank from it. From the look on his face, I remain convinced he would rather have confronted one of Don Eduardo Miura’s finest.
But I digress.
Between hitchhiking and a bicycle, I recommend the bicycle. Not so much because you can control your own progress, although that’s also true, but because touring bikes tend to have very narrow seats of hard leather, and even for a well conditioned derriere they get to be pretty darned uncomfortable after twenty or thirty kilometers.
So you’re always looking for a good excuse to get off.
And, moving slowly as one does on a bicycle, there are always exciting things to find.
Those cherries in the tree next to the road.
That little café hidden in a side street of that little village.
The stream of clear water where you can lie prone on some mossy stones, stick your face into the water and drink your fill.
Things that sustain the body.
And things that sustain the mind.
I remember an abandoned Jewish cemetery, below a dyke in South Holland, where the dates on the tombstones abruptly stopped in 1943. I was standing there, in the high grass, deciphering the others, when the impact of that came home to me.
And there was that other stone I saw, half-hidden in more grass, near a small town in France. I would surely have missed it had I not been on a bike. The inscription told me that on the 13th of May, 1944, on that very spot, seventeen people had been shot by “the cowardly bandits of the SS”. (I’m translating that from the French.) One of them was thirteen years old.
Languages opened worlds to me.
I learned Dutch from my first wife, taught English to my second.
One of the great frustrations of my mother’s life was that she couldn’t communicate with her grandchildren when they were very young. My first three kids were raised speaking Dutch, the last two speaking Portuguese. And those are languages we still use among ourselves to this very day.
When I first set foot in Europe, I intended to stay “away” for about six months.
It's like a book, I think, this bloomin' world,
Which you can read and care for just so long,
But presently you feel that you will die
Unless you get the page you're readin' done,
An' turn another -- likely not so good;
But what you're after is to turn 'em all.
I wound up living “abroad” for most of my life.
And I can tell you, with absolute certainty, that ignoring the advice of my elders, and following my own inclination, might well have been, in a life of good things, the single best thing I’ve ever done.
Which is why, these days, I’m always cautious when I give advice to my children.
The passage that begins this piece is from Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken; the one near the end is from Rudyard Kipling’s Sestina of the Tramp-Royal.
Leighton Gage lives near São Paulo and writes crime novels featuring the Brazilian Federal Police. The New York Times has called his books “top-notch”, “entirely absorbing”, and “irresistible”. His fifth, A Vine in the Blood, will be launched in hard cover, in the United States, in December. It’s already available in most other places as a Kindle book, on Amazon.