Tuesday, January 30, 2018

My Log 591 Jan 30 2018: Chronicles from (almost) the Tenth Decade: 28; An old diary reveals a slightly uptight, judgmental, traveller ---- me! ---who is simple enough to have fallen head over heels for our new Lambretta scooter, Doppo.

                                                PART I
I have always been a big believer in doing only what you can comfortably afford to do. For example, we would not have been able to take any holiday in France in 1952 except by tandem bicycle, camping, and eating frugally. 
A year later, when we both had jobs in Coventry, England, we figured we could afford to buy a motor scooter. So, we invested the equivalent of less than $600 in buying a Lambretta, whose sleek lines appealed more to us than did the more popular Vespa, and off we set for three months around the continent. I find it almost difficult to believe now, but those three months cost us one hundred pounds --- equivalent at the time to $384. That was the total cost for transportation, accommodation --- in camping grounds ---- food, entertainment and anything else.
The secret to that was that the scooter, I figured later, did 122 miles to the gallon; that during our month in Italy the cost of our spaghetti meals was four cents a night, and that most campgrounds --- usually owned by the local municipality --- in those days charged minimal fees, of only a dollar or so per night.  On our way to catch the ferry in Dover we were cheered along by a visit to my older brother, who had just returned from a weekend in Paris, which cost him 72 pounds, and gave him no satisfaction. He had been glad to get out of “that punk country,” in which his wife (one of the all-time worst cooks I have ever encountered), found French bread to be “not good”, and the cooking in general “disappointing.”  No accounting for taste, as they say.
For myself, I can say I feel now to have been privileged to have taken a small part in the remarkable phenomenon of what might be called “the scooter revolution”, designed and carried out with incredible flair by a number of Italian vehicle engineers who set out to beat the post-war poverty by providing a way for your average guy and girl to get around in the most economical way possible.
We bought our scooter in Coventry, a super-duper model with a top speed of 30 mph (35 downhill), and the fancy braking system attached to the front wheel. For some reason I cannot remember I took the front wheel off, followed the instructions for the simple process of reaffixing it, and, trying it out on the road, pulled the brake handle and sent both of us over the handlebars when the front wheel locked tight. I sprained my wrist, so Shirley for a time had to do the driving as we went into the country to Leamington, Birmingham and Stratford to look at theatre productions. Thus, by the time we were underway on June 23, having both quit our jobs, with the intention of taking a ship to Canada after our holiday, we were in pretty good shape with two drivers available, even though, to be frank, one of us did not approach the task with great enthusiasm. Not to worry, off we went.
From somewhere we had got the idea that the Lambretta was  usually affectionately referred to by its owner as a Doppolino, whereas the correct word was Topolino, (although even that seems to have been incorrect, because it was used to describe a small Fiat before the war, and seems never to have been applied to a scooter) but from the first we got into the habit of referring to ours as Doppo, and to be honest with you, it is the first and only time I have ever almost fallen in love with a machine. Doppo may have been small and slow, but he was so thoroughly within our modest mechanical skills, so responsive in every way, and so beautiful as a piece of perfect engineering, that we were soon in the habit of treating  him with the sort of attention we later found was necessary for a parent to devote to a child.
Our intention on this trip was to go to Yugoslavia, to visit a teacher Olivera Glicic, who had been a fellow-student in Scotland, sent for the non-diploma course by her teacher’s union, and also, with any luck to visit Jo Jarru, an amiable French house-painter from Lyons, also sent by his union to the same adult-education course. Before leaving we called on the Yugoslav embassy for word of the visa for which we had applied (it hadn’t appeared), and also on the Canadian embassy for the last hurdle to our proposed emigration, our medical tests, which we passed without any trouble. The only barrier that remained was the requirement to have $50 to keep us afloat after our arrival in Canada, and that depended on our selling the scooter before getting on to the ship.
I discovered the other day a diary I kept of this European journey, and it reveals me to have been, at the age of 26, a rather straight-laced, judgmental kind of guy who was only too aware of his inadequacies, and seemed anxious to overcome them. For example, even before getting off the ferry, I recorded my displeasure with the fact that some Americans, who were travelling in the customary big American car, having spotted some dolphins gambolling around the ship, were ready with the camera to record the next  appearance, causing me to wonder why such travellers seemed not to trust the evidence of their own eyes, but apparently felt the urgent need to record everything they saw so they could show off to their neighbours on their return home. When we passed them along the road a little, sitting by the roadside, we gave them a cheerful toot, but then when they passed us later, no toot was forthcoming from them. What’s wrong with such people, I wondered.
We camped that night in a field next to a nurseryman. When a roughish kind of man approached our tent, we nervously were less than friendly, but when it occurred to us that he was probably taking us for stuffy English  types, I  took my pocket phrase dictionary in hand, and went out to talk to him.  He turned out to be the nurseryman, and we had a great conversation about the war. He had not liked the way the Americans and Germans did their bombing, but the English “bombed like gentlemen,” he said, rather a difficult concept to get hold of. We agreed we had “pas de confiance” in giving guns to Germans. He showed us around his nursery, picked some flowers for Shirley, then took us inside to watch TV, and offer us some vin blanc. Lovely people, I noted. Expressive and voluble in the way they talked.
Moving across northern France, we came across the many vast cemeteries of both French, German and other foreign soldiers who had died in the two world wars, more especially in the first of the two.   I found it impossible not to be moved by these fields of crosses, each one bearing the name of a young man or woman who had died in one or other of these battles.  One cemetery alone had the bodies of 44,000 German soldiers who died in the First World War, and I would defy anyone to see that without being moved by the futility and madness of war.
The first protest we had out of Doppo  came  as we moved south towards Reims, when the silencer, that had made the odd protest as we were hurrying towards Dover so as not to miss the ferry, finally gave out with a loud burst. We stopped at the next town, a small one called Festieux, where for 200 francs a business-like mechanic had it fixed in a jiffy, and directed us to a camping site under a bank at a road intersection. I had time to consider how much the mixture of gas and oil needed for the scooter’s two-strike engine was costing --- the equivalent of nine shillings a gallon, I figured, which indicated that the Europeans were already being charged more reasonable prices for gasoline --- that is to say, higher prices --- than were the English, or, reportedly, the North Americans. Doppo seemed to be quite contented with the situation we were in, although there had been some trouble with our arrangement of the luggage. Along the way we had to fix an arrangement of straps in front, which seemed to be okay, except that when we opened our tent we discovered that, rubbing against the horn, a hole had been worn through the tent bag, and also through the flysheet. By great good luck, the holes were low down, and so did not pose any dangers from rain waters seeping in.
Doppo appeared to have appreciated the gift we gave him the next day of a new luggage carrier we bought, as he chugged uninterruptedly across France, following the river Marne for much of the way, on the way to Basel, in Switzerland. Nothing much surprised us here --- we had expected it to be shiny clean, and it was --- but on our way to Berne the capital city, we were caught in a rainfall that froze us to the bone. At the Yugoslav embassy a young woman who spoke perfect English said it was unusual for a tourist visa to take longer than a couple of days, but when I explained that I had registered as a journalist, all was apparent: journalists had to be approved by Belgrade.  With this, we almost gave up hope of ever making it to Yugoslavia, although we asked the woman to send our visas on to Rome if they arrived. I notice in my diary a tendency to apply stereotypes to the people we met of various nationalities: for example, we were very guarded when a young man with a South African accent turned up in a neighbouring tent, having just travelled through east and north Africa on his way to
England. My caution arose from the fact that in Coventry I had worked with an English-speaking South African who was a veritable compendium of racist insults when speaking of the Africans, an experience that put me on my guard against his countrymen that has lasted almost to this day.

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