Monday, August 31, 2015

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 16 … Lizard King in the City of Light.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 16 … Lizard King in the City of Light.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

(Sixteenth in a series chronicling my travel year 1985)

The way from Le Havre’s rail terminus to the port city’s preposterously cluttered dockside was signposted, but only barely. Considering the impact of the fearsomely irksome French tongue on my fragile youthful psyche, the route might as well have been entirely unmarked.

Predictably, the tourist office was closed for a lengthy midday break, but I glanced at a city map someone had haphazardly Scotch-taped to the window, and made a few mental notes, plotting my own way to the sea by winding through the streets toward a jumble of cranes visible on the skyline.

Soon enough there was a larger thoroughfare, and then directions in English posted for the benefit of British lorry drivers. After that, it was easy.

All the while, another youthful backpacker seemed to be following me, always a half block behind, displaying the usual signs of confused timidity, trying his best to look oblivious by gazing first at his shoes, then toward the rooftops, and otherwise averting his eyes whenever I paused to study the streetscape.

It was comical, but seeing him fidget made me think: Two months into my first trip to Europe, could it be that I was already looking into the rear view mirror? It appeared he was just as uncertain of the route as me, but trusted that somehow, some way, I actually knew what I was doing, and where I was going.

A foolish American tourist … actually, two of them. But I was leading, and he was following. Earlier in the summer – for most of my life up to that point – it would have been the other way around. Processing this information would require more thinking, and more drinking.

Meanwhile, Le Havre was no garden spot. Rather, it was the required linking point to oceanic access, because after connecting all the land (and one river) transport dots on my itinerary map since Munich, I’d finally run out of continent on the pathway to Ireland, which was a very important goal for me in 1985.


When I joined the backpackers’ queue in Le Havre for the ferry ride to Rosslare, it had been only five days since the last night of relative revelry in Munich, where my cousin Don Barry had assisted in the enjoyment of fine continental summer days and nights amid beer, pork and pervasive Gemütlichkeit.

Staying at separate hotels, long before mobile devices and with no real interest in trying to learn how to use local phones, which cost money otherwise devoted to beer, we’d prearranged everything around periodic meetings at the Gleis 16 Imbiss in the Hauptbahnhof, where solid and liquid sustenance could be acquired at intervals between long Munich walks.

One afternoon was given over to the city’s art museums, and another for a hike to the Nymphenburg palace. Evenings were the domain of the Mathäser beer hall. I wouldn’t be seeing Don again on the trip, and since the next stage of the itinerary would take me back to Paris, and then on to Ireland – and since these places were particular passions of Don’s – Munich offered a final chance to pick his brain, which is a task always best pursued with Leberkäse & Lager. So we did.

From Munich, I caught a train to the city of Mainz and walked from the station to the bank of the Rhine River, where the boats awaited. The plan was to ride one of them to Koblenz, then debark and travel by rail to Kӧln. By this point, it would be late in the evening, and I’d hop an overnighter to Paris, arriving in the best possible position to cherry-pick from the cheap summertime hostels located in temporarily abandoned university dorms.

I’ll grant that it wasn’t a particularly novel idea to take a Rhine cruise, but the July weather was ideal and the scenery gorgeous. There was a succession of tidy, well-ordered towns, surrounded by vineyards perched on slopes, accented with church spires, with manicured castle ruins atop adjacent promontories.

At every bend came another postcard photo opportunity, and this posed the usual problem, because I’m one of the world’s worst photographers.

It would have been a better idea for me to buy the postcards and concentrate my precious, allocated film to taking informal pictures of actual people, but this somehow did not occur to me. At the moment, on the ground, all I could think about was how Europe looked, when the more important considerations were how it felt, and with whom I was sharing the feeling, whether a short-term travel companion or random passerby.

For use in Europe, I’d brought a trusty, manual transmission Pentax K-1000 and a lead-lined pouch filled with film enough to (hopefully) last the whole trip. The pouch was recommended as a precaution against intemperate x-ray machines at the airport, which may or may not have been necessary, but when it came to ineptly framed postcard views, I’m the sort who takes absolutely no chances.

In today’s profuse digital world, there exists no compelling reason to refrain from taking literally thousands of photos, as saved in a space the size of a newt’s eye. I’ve done it, then culled a few dozen to post on social media and forgotten the remainder.

However, in 1985 I returned from Europe with as many as 20 rolls of film, containing hundreds of photos, for which I spent hundreds more in dollars developing the film not into prints, which would have made a modicum of sense, but slides, because I refused to settle for photo albums filled with prints when I could stage evening-long lecture/projections over drinks and snacks.

This worked – for a very short while. Folks got wise, and the following trip came and went. Now the closet is filled with archaic remnants of a lost methodology.

Thirty years later, the 1960s-model slide projector is too balky to use, and even when it actually worked, the bulbs eventually became stupidly expensive to replace. I really need to do something about this, and get my ancient collection up to contemporary standards, although based on the pricing I’ve seen to convert slides to digital images, this project may need to await a lottery win.

On the other hand, if I were to see the photos again, it might contradict the narrative I’ve been writing. It’s a tough call.


There is a vague recollection of walking the streets in Koblenz for a few hours before boarding the train for Kӧln, where the platform was an insane mob scene reminiscent of the post-election ride to Athens in May following the Greek election. Had I not possessed a first-class railpass, my berth would have been a seat on the floor by the toilet, but I found an empty spot in a compartment with six seats, and managed to nap for a few hours.

Paris came early, and while the stay was instructive, my blasé overall reaction to the French capital puzzles me even now. There were no bad experiences of the sort that Americans constantly reference in their lists of grievances; rather, Paris struck me as self-absorbed and impersonal, much in the fashion of most big cities, though not somehow aimed at me.

I spoke no French, but learned the usual fawning basics: Please, thank you and “biere, un pression,” which just might imply a desire for draft beer. I smiled a lot, remained humble, and frequented ethnic shops, where English seemed to be spoken more readily. There were no notable problems.

There were no outstanding experiences, either – save for one, although first there was the required tourist’s checklist of “musts” for checking off: Notre Dame, the Louvre, the opera house, the Left Bank’s venerable Shakespeare & Co bookstore, the catacombs, the site of the Bastille, a day trip to Versailles, and obligatory nightly meals at the very same North African couscous restaurant that Don and I had visited on our whirlwind rail trip from Turin earlier that summer.

The Eiffel Tower? It was out of my budgetary league, and there’s that pesky, usually latent fear of heights. The money saved was a bottle of inexpensive wine earned.

In all honesty, the only Parisian shrine with true resonance for me was one having least to do with the city, and where a bottle of wine proved handy: Jim Morrison’s grave, located in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery, and tucked away behind mausoleums and chapels.

Naturally, the remainder of the cemetery has quite a lot to do with French (and European) history. Among the interred are Proust, Chopin, Molière, Piaf, Delacroix and Oscar Wilde. The Communards’ Wall, where 147 revolutionaries were executed in 1871, is a must visit for anyone fascinated by the history of rebellion.

However, it was the Morrison’s legacy that drew me to Pere Lachaise to pay my respects. The lead singer of The Doors died of a heroin overdose in Paris in 1971, when I was eleven years old. Much of it was lost on me until Danny Sugarman’s book “No One Here Gets Out Alive” was published in 1980. Only then did the long-defunct band and its resident poet/shaman/singer begin to appeal to me.

(Did you know that the late Sugarman married Fawn Hall, who as Oliver North’s document shredder of a secretary became involved in the Iran-Contra scandal?)

You might say I was going through a phase, to the point of Mute Nostril Agony (pulled from a Morrison lyric) serving as one of my college intramural basketball team’s names. Consequently, when I learned that his grave was a place of pilgrimage, international rock music solidarity and drinking, it was clear I’d have to go there.

To find my way to the grave site, I merely followed the “Jim lives” and “break on through” graffiti scrawled everywhere until voices and music could be heard. The immediate scene has changed since then, but at the time, there was open space around the grave, with room for a couple dozen people to congregate.

A bust of Morrison donated by a Croatian sculptor had been placed atop the block-like marker a few years prior to my visit. It was frequently painted and repainted, stolen and replaced, and later permanently removed. It was a messy area filled daily with Doors parishioners partying, much to the annoyance of local officialdom. Candles, cigarette butts, food wrappers and empty wine bottles were all around.

One of my fellow mourners offered me a puff from his pipe. I politely declined. Strange days had found me, and it was okay, even if my shirt smelled of ganja the rest of the day.

Speaking of music, there is a final omen to record before leaving Paris for the coast. At the university housing block, I noticed a British rock and roll magazine parked atop the breakfast table. It was trumpeting something called Live Aid, Bob Geldof’s benefit concert for Ethiopian famine relief, as scheduled for worldwide transmission by satellite on July 13, 1985.

The Wembley concert venue was close, though out of the question, as I’d made no plans to visit the UK, but when the concert aired on television, I’d be in Ireland somewhere. A mental note was made, and the train for Le Havre boarded. Roughly a month remained, and the home stretch was about to begin.



The PC: Euro ’85, Part 15 … The traveler at 55, and a strange interlude.

The PC: We pause Euro '85 to remember the Mathäser Bierstadt in Munich.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 14 … Beers and breakfast in Munich.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 13 … Tears of overdue joy at Salzburg's Augustiner.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 12 … Stefan Zweig and his world of yesterday.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 11: My Franz Ferdinand obsession takes root.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 10: Habsburgs, history and sausages in Vienna.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 9 … Milan, Venice and a farewell to Northern Italy.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 8 … Pecetto idyll, with a Parisian chaser.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 7 … An eventful detour to Pecetto.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 6 … When in Rome, critical mass.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 5 … From Istanbul to Rome, with Greece in between.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 4 … With Hassan in Pithion.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 3 … Growing up in Greece.

The PC: Euro '85, Part 2 ... Hitting the ground crawling in Luxembourg.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 1 … Where it all began.

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