by David Williams
When I was a young man and a recent college graduate, I went to Europe for the first time. It was 1976, the bicentennial year here in the United States. On the foreign language bulletin board at school I had noticed a small card telling of an organization, SIA Interchange, that would find temporary jobs in Europe for young people.
SIA Interchange turned out to be, surprisingly, a one-man organization based in Amsterdam. Murray Platt was that man. Murray had come from New Zealand, where he had worked in the textile business. He was a personable man of about fifty-five, already quite bald, always willing to help, and quite the diplomat, which must have helped him a lot as he negotiated, often over the phone, and sometimes through the post, with prospective employers across Western Europe.
We corresponded through the mail several times over the course of three or four months, and finally Murray told me in a brief letter to come on to Amsterdam and he would find me a place to work. He also furnished information about cheap charter flights from New York City to Brussels, and with less than two hundred dollars I took off.
True to his word, Murray found a job for me in Brienz, Switzerland. It was at the Hotel Sternen, a small twelve-room hotel with a restaurant and small staff. I worked there for two months, joined after a few days by two young American women from New Jersey (Diane) and New York (Denise), who worked as chambermaid and waitress.
Brienz was a small town in the middle of the Alps–towering mountains all around–and flanked on its southern edge by a gorgeous lake, the Brienzee. The town was the center of a small wood-carving industry and attracted a lot of tourists; buses filled with them came and went regularly.
My job consisted of kitchen cleanup and whatever else in the way of dull, menial work my boss, Vreni Michel, gave me. We were obligated to stay for two months, and when my two months were done, I was ready to go, the equivalent of about $500 in my pocket and a desire to see as much of Europe as possible. Diane was ready to leave, too, and we set off together.
The Church of St. Eustache, Paris
Our money lasted about six weeks, and through a combination of hitching rides and using the bus and train systems, we made our way from Brienz to Geneva, then on to Paris, back to Amsterdam, across the English Channel to London and Oxford. In this last place Diane and I parted, with plans to reunite a few weeks later in Barcelona. She had bought a Eurorail pass and wanted to go to Greece, and I decided to hitch north to Scotland.
During our first two or three weeks of travel we had been fortunate to spend several nights, at no cost to us, in apartments with locals. In Brienz, a Swiss waitress working with us at the hotel restaurant gave Diane and me an introduction to friends in Geneva, who put us up on a pallet in the living room for one night. In Paris we had shared travel stories and plans with a young man who had recommended a friend in London, who provided a thin mattress and bedding on the floor of a tiny, odd-shaped room in his apartment. We passed several days in London, and this humble room saved us money, helping us to stretch our travel budget a bit further.
These first few weeks had also given us a chance to see some wonderful things. In Paris we went to the Louvre and spent a few hours, also to the diminutive Jeu de Paume, which at that time housed a small collection of Impressionistic art, later moved to the Musee de Orsay. And can you spend any time in Paris without seeing the beautiful Notre Dame cathedral and the Eiffel tower? We couldn’t. We visited more art museums in London and saw masterpieces everywhere we went. At Albert Hall we attended a concert of classical music with full symphony orchestra, and in Oxford we saw a semi-professional production of one of Shakespeare’s plays.
With her train pass, Diane set off from Oxford to Stonehenge, then returned to the continent and continued on to Greece. We were well into October by then, and I began my hitching journey northward. On that first day I learned of the generosity of English drivers. I hardly spent any time on the side of the road, and almost reached Edinburgh in one day. My last ride, as darkness came, was with a man who taught in the public schools. He remarked the time of day–it had been dark for a while–and claimed to know a good pub to get a bite to eat and a bed and breakfast to spend the night at. I was grateful for both.
At breakfast the next morning I met Nigel and his father, Peter. They were on their way to Edinburgh and offered a ride, saying that they planned to stop in at a castle of historical interest to them, if I didn’t mind the slight inconvenience. I was in no hurry and there was no inconvenience, so off we went.
In Edinburgh I didn’t do much. It was a lovely city with a castle on a hill and the fine aroma of breweries, but I had my mind on the Scottish Highlands and soon found a road out of town and stood waiting for a ride. On a narrow blacktop road with little traffic, my hitching luck continued. Two young Scottish women from Edinburgh, both nurses, picked me up on their way to Fort William, where they would hike up Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in England. The two-lane highway had very little traffic, and the heather-covered hills and the lochs were lovely; after a couple of days in Fort William, the Scottish women had to return to Edinburgh, so I did the sensible thing and rode back with them.
From Edinburgh I hitched back to London, then to the ferry and crossed the Channel, returned to Amsterdam and took a bus to Barcelona.
As planned, Diane met me in this splendid northeastern Spanish city, where we passed a few days going to art museums and seeing some of Gaudi’s unusual creations, one being the church of the Sacred Family, which at that time was still not finished. We also splurged on paella at Los Caracoles, still open today after almost two hundred years. Running low on money by then, we were forced to consider an inevitability: returning to the States and home. Soon we were standing by the highway outside of Barcelona with thumbs up for a ride north into southern France.
About this time we had to phone the charter service in Brussels and commit to a departure date. We chose November 6 or 7, about the time that Jimmy Carter won the presidency. Our date confirmed, money and time running low, we had little choice but to move on. Hitching out of Barcelona provided a lesson in futility, and soon we found a train station and traveled the short distance into southern France, where we resumed hitching. The French were more generous than the Spaniards had been and in a short time we were dropped off in Montpelier.
This is where memory failed me. I’ve told this story many times over the past forty-two years, and recently I told it again to friends. A man picked us up after we left the train station just across the Spanish/French border and took us as far as Montpelier. It was getting late in the day by then, so he drove us to the center of town and dropped us off on a sidewalk there, saying that we could find a cheap hotel nearby. Thanking him, we turned up the sidewalk a few steps and around a corner. There in front of us, still in good condition after more than twenty centuries. stood a magnificent Roman coliseum. We were astounded. There were other Roman ruins there as well, including the Maison Carree, sometimes translated as “square house,” considered to have been built in 12BC. Those remnants of the Roman empire seemed so emblematic of Europe, with its rich, varied history.
Arenas de Nimes
There was only one problem, a rather significant one: those ruins are not in Monpelier, they are in Nimes, not far away. All these years I’ve been mistaken and have told the story wrong. As I was thinking about writing this, I knew I should verify some facts, so I looked online and learned of my mistake.
And what of Montpelier? This is what I think happened. Diane and I were dropped off in Montpelier at the end of the day, found a hotel and spent the night, and hitched the next morning to Nimes, where we were dropped off on that sidewalk to discover a bit of Roman history in what you might call its hard form. We stayed a few hours to see the other ruins and architecture and, time running out, caught a train north. We arrived in Brussels in time to catch our plane, with only a few dollars left.
Paris Scene of Tuileries Garden painted by David Williams, 1986
Our flight took us to New York City–JFK airport–where Diane (from nearby New Jersey) had someone waiting with a car to take her home. We said goodbye at the airport. I called family in Texas to ask for money and a ticket home.
I’ve just finished my fourteenth trip to western Europe. Each time I have visited world-class museums and seen an abundance of great works of art and history–in Paris, Amsterdam, London, Madrid, Barcelona, Florence, Munich. I’ve learned something of the fascinating histories of this places and seen architectural wonders old and new. But that moment–not in Montpelier, but in Nimes–turning the corner on that sidewalk and seeing that marvelous coliseum, was a defining one for me. I’ve been unable to stay away since then.