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  • Writer's pictureGary Gruber

It was rocket science!

Europe in 1970 was an idyllic place: It perfectly enumerated the fundamental assessments I learned to apply to temporary housing later in life: Cheap, Clean, and Safe. My parents put me on a $50 per week allowance for my time abroad. I had to get up early in the morning to figure out how to spend that much money in that short a period of time.

After our semester in Munich ended, me and my friends scattered to the winds. I headed south, because that was the first train leaving the station that day. We all had Eurail Passes, those magical cards that permitted you to hop on and off trains at will, albeit in third class only.

A simplicity of life hung in the air wherever we went. Whatever language you spoke fluently (except English) could be found in the student section of principal cities. Once you got rural, you got really rural really quickly. Just before our Diaspora, we spent a week in Kufstein, Austria. It was as if we just got shotgunned down the rabbit hole.

Right over the Germany / Austria border, this little burg of a nibble of a town still had its 16th century protective wall around it to keep the hungry hordes out. Apparently, it did a real good job. 18 of us rode into the only hotel in town. We kept punching each other in the face to see if we were dreaming, but when the blood started to pool on the floor and the locals started to look at us askance, we put our left hooks away.

About 2 miles of blonde haired, blue eyed fields down the road was an Olympic sized swimming pool – a training area for the ’72 Olympics yet to come. We could step from ancient to modern and cross back as often as we pleased. The locals were an even mix of friendly and curious. The normally stoic Teuton loosened up real easy after a couple of beers, especially when served in mugs that took two hands to lift and a bladder the size of the Titanic’s cargo hold to store.

I was sort of the Pied Piper, since I was the only one who spoke German fluently, and there wasn’t enough English spoken to fill the warning label on the back of a pack of Marlboros. When I went to eat, EVERYBODY went to eat. We were killing time one evening (I mean, how much beer can a guy really drink?) when we found the only movie theater in a town that by all rights shouldn’t have had entertainment higher on the Ed Sullivan entertainment scale than the occasional puppet show.

To rudely yank us back into a reality us long hairs could relate to, Peter Fonda’s epic “Easy Rider” was playing. We had all seen it and had the gospel preached to us, but we had to see it again. Strength in numbers I guess. During the climactic scene, where both protagonists get blown away by hippie hating Southern Trash with a capital ‘T’, the roof lifted off the theater as the local began to laugh convulsively.

Curious, we pulled a couple of guys aside and asked them why they thought Fonda and Hopper getting perforated with a 12-gauge shotgun was comical. They told us that couldn’t possibly happen in the U.S. of A. since everyone rode horses, not motorcycles. The only exposure these chaps had to American culture was through reruns of ‘Big Valley’ (Pronounced Pig Wally due to the German W/V grammatic inversion) and ‘Bonanza’.

Even after we stressed the importance of staying north of the Mason-Dixon line to them, they strolled away unconvinced.

Once I was cut loose at the end of the semester, I made stops in Zurich and Venice before pausing for a rest in Florence. My German got me nowhere, and my Korean and Japanese drew blank stares, no matter how polite I was. Fortunately, Every Italian on the bus knew exactly where I was heading and would not permit me to get off at the wrong stop. They finally motioned in unison when it rolled up to the Youth Hostel. My camera bag in one hand, backpack resting securely, I trudged the mile in stifling heat up the dirt road to the hostel. Nearly there, I spied about a dozen young people gathered around an enormous tree out in the woods. A recently-released-from-service American G.I. came and invited me over to the tree.

There were more women than men, and I liked those odds. Where and when else in the world could you leave all of your worldly possessions, including cameras, passport, and money under a tree for the day and expect to find it untouched when you returned that evening?

The temperature was rising, so after five days I bid farewell to my new found friends, including two giggly English girls and an All American honey who had been especially nice to me. At the train station I met Luis, a Mexican student on holiday. He spoke fluent Italian and had a devious sense of humor, which almost got me into a world of hurt.

Third class accommodations were cramped at best, two padded benches just far enough apart to keep knees from knocking, enough overhead storage to keep the floor clear. Luis and I squeezed into a compartment with an Italian family already well ensconced. They were arranged by size: daughter, mother, father. Father was overweight with one of those weary smiles. Mother was heavier but with hawk-like eyes, very protective of her daughter, nestled nearby.

I didn’t give it much thought. It was 12 plus hours to Paris, and I thought I could pass the time by gazing out the window at the splendid countryside as it rolled by. The conversation between the father and Luis began almost as we pulled away from the station. He knew enough not to address the mother or daughter directly. Show respect, talk to the father. Probably something both cultures had in common.

While their conversation didn’t concern me in the least, it actually concerned me in the most, because the words traded that day were about the fictional character Luis set me up to play. He was performing a major goof on me, and in retrospect, it might have been the source of the somewhat wry sense of humor I picked up on the way from there to here.

I sensed eyes shifting, sort of like what you see watching spectators watching tennis. Luis was explaining to poppa that I was an American nuclear physicist on vacation. The long scraggly unkempt hair and stained blue jean bell bottoms was my disguise, aimed at keeping strangers at bay while I carried out my main mission -- finding a suitable Italian wife for myself.

By the fourth hour of the trip, momma and papa were smiling at me, daughter was blushing. The tale Luis was weaving was as fine and handsome as the legendary men’s suits of Milan. He mistranslated every word I spoke, making it appear as if I was asking for his daughter’s hand in marriage.

The father’s gaze went vertical, sizing me up as a suitor. I’m pretty sure the mother saw dollar signs, but also plenty of babies. Four hours later I was betrothed to the young lady, but Luis was still keeping the punchline to himself. All three smiles were now tattooed across that side of the compartment, and finally the daughter started giving me the once over, at least twice.

As the train lumbered into Gare du Nord in Paris, Luis leaned over and whispered in my ears the words I did not long to hear. As his tale unwove around me, sinking in like a poorly made Soufflé, He grabbed his bag and darted off the train before it stopped at the station. He looked back once with a smile and a shrug and disappeared in the crowd. I was not athletic in high school, but a new spirit erupted inside me as I saw the mother and father as opposing linemen of the Green Bay Packers, and me as the Y.A. Tittle of the Wilkes-Barre Jewish Community Center.

There was nothing to say that could explain this away. The operative word now was ‘away’, where I most wanted to be, as soon as my legs could carry me there. The last image I had was loping through the train station with backpack and bag, being chased by the family, again by size. I heard what sounded like really nasty words coming out of all three of their mouths, but eventually burst free and ran down the first flight of stairs I could find, hopping on the first subway car available.

Should have gotten Luis’ address. Like I’ve heard many times since: “Paybacks are a bitch!”

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