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The discovery of Europe

Features | July 2016


‘Abroad was a frightening place according to my parents. Neither of them had ever been there but they knew it was dirty and smelly and full of untrustworthy foreigners.’ Six writers remember their first encounter with the Continent

Opium and a dream of incest

In 1974, aged seventeen, I set off with three friends on a roadtrip around Europe.

In Paris, someone gave us what she said was opium. We thought it was probably safe to take, as it sounded so much more artistic than heroin or cocaine. We convinced ourselves that it was a life-changing experience, though it was closer to taking a mild sedative. Heaven knows whether or not what we took was in fact opium. It had the sweet taste and gooey texture of fudge, so that was probably what it was.

From Paris we drove all the way to Italy. ‘Will you be going to Firenze?’ someone asked me at a house we stayed in on the way. ‘No’, I said, ‘But we’re definitely planning to go to Florence.’

We had a short list of people to stay with, bohemian friends of the most bohemian member of our party. We arrived late at night at a house, possibly somewhere in Tuscany (I never asked) by which time everyone else had gone to bed. I was the first to wake, and went downstairs. As I was furtively rustling up a cup of coffee, a beautiful woman came downstairs in a dressing-gown.

I recognised her instantly from the dust jackets of her novels. I have never forgotten the first words she ever spoke to me: ‘Tell me – is it awful? I’ve just dreamed that I was making love to one of my sons.’ 

I attempted to stutter some sort of reassurance that it was all perfectly normal, but all the while I felt my reddening cheeks were offering an opposing point of view.

It was the summer of streaking – the irritating novelty song ‘The Streak’ kept coming on the car radio – and as we arrived in the dusk at a small Italian town, one of my gang accepted our bet to streak the length of the main street while we drove behind him with our headlights on. On the way back to England, having parked beside a beach in Normandy, we came back to find our car was stripped of its tyres. The friend whose parents’ car it was screamed generalised abuse against our host nation into the air. We were obliged to hitch-hike to the nearest garage. An old Rover stopped and picked us up. I sat in the front, my friends in the back. The driver, a French hippy in a bowler hat, spoke good English. He told me he had lived in England for two years.

‘Where?’ I asked him. 

‘A mental institution,’ he told me. ‘People were invading my head.’ 

My friends in the back remained curiously silent, so I had to make all the headway. It was only after we got out of the car, and the hippy in the bowler hat had disappeared from sight, that they revealed that a long sharp knife, covered in blood, had been alongside them on the back seat. 

In Calais, the cross-Channel ferry was cancelled due to stormy conditions. We had run out of money, so we had to sleep in the car park. We agreed that four people in one small car would never get any sleep, so drew lots to find out who would sleep in the car, and who would sleep beneath it, out of the rain.

When we arrived back, the world returned to normal: no opium, no dreamy novelists, no streaking, no mentalists. What had I learned about Europe? Not so much that they do things differently there, as that we – the British – do things differently there. We let our hair down, we go native, we take a holiday from ourselves. Europe is where we go when we grow tired of behaving like Brits. It is why we like it, and why we distrust it, too.

Craig Brown 

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Pavements are much alike

My parents had never been out of England – and when I say England, I mean England. We lived in Leicester and, as the kind mother of a Kent-bred university friend later said to me, the Continent would have seemed dauntingly far away. Our holidays were invariably on the east coasts of Norfolk or Lincolnshire, chilly and blustery even in high summer. My mother had once been to the west coast but, she said, it gave her a headache.

Then, when I was sixteen, came a chance to join a school trip to Italy. Not if it involved an aeroplane, my parents ruled. Happily, we would cross the Channel by boat and proceed by train, modes of transport regarded as marginally less dangerous. Alas, the trip involved a smallpox vaccination. My parents, who were not religious, opposed vaccinations of all kinds for reasons that were (and still are) opaque to me. There were long and bitter family arguments, during which I unsuccessfully pleaded the need to acquaint myself with Renaissance treasures. Finally, I said that, since I could not possibly tell my friends that the vaccination was the problem because they wouldn’t believe me, I would have to say we could not afford the money. That did the trick. Family pride dictated surrender.

We visited Rome and, I think, Florence and Assisi. On the train through France, I impressed a Frenchman with my pronunciation of Organisation de l’armée secrète (a terrorist group opposed to Algerian independence), drawing an admiring ‘exactement’. In the opera house in Rome, I was enthralled by a performance of La Bohème, even though I didn’t understand a word. The first night in Italy, I felt a thrill that I was walking a foreign pavement for the first time, but next morning felt vaguely disappointed that it didn’t seem much different from an English pavement. I remember little else. I recall the family argument that preceded it more vividly and how the prettiest girl in the school wanted me to accompany her to the end-of-term school dance and, because our departure to Italy was due some days earlier, I had to turn her down.

Peter Wilby 

People kiss when they meet!

Mr Gallacher the French teacher had white mutton chops and favoured brown three-piece suits. By stature (petit) and nature (gentil) he was a Bilbo Baggins, but my recent reading of The Hobbit led me to think of him as Gandalf, an impression intensified when he knocked on the door of our flat and proposed that I go on an adventure.

This was late in 1985. I was twelve. Mr Gallacher had come round, he told my mother, in order to suggest that I spend a fortnight living with a French family. The idea was that this would improve my language skills but I believe, looking back, that it was the kindly act of – old-fashioned phrase – a Christian gentleman who wished to do something to staunch a family’s grief. My wee brother Liam had died not long before.

I flew alone to Paris; first time abroad. Sylvain, my new pen pal, turned out to live in An Actual Mansion. His father was a big noise at Daddy Suc, France’s Tate & Lyle. There were sugar cube ziggurats in a kitchen cupboard. I’d strip their bright pink wrappers and let them dissolve on my tongue. Guilt tasted sweet that Easter. I felt ashamed of our council scheme which Sylvain would see when he came to visit. And ashamed of being ashamed.

France seemed, to use a word of the time, racy in comparison with home. Sylvain’s sister sunbathed topless on the beach at Arcachon. We children were encouraged to drink a little wine with meals. The kiss-cheek greeting had not yet reached dour old Scotland, and seemed daringly intimate to a boy who considered a brisk handshake sufficient. I was a spotty John Knox in Speedos, pink with sun and flushed with vin de table.

A further confusion was that I had to pretend to be Catholic. Sylvain’s family had a strong faith, which they assumed I shared. To admit otherwise, I feared, would mean being sent home early. So I went to Mass and made poor attempts to copy them making the sign of the cross. In any case, in any language, I didn’t believe in resurrection. Liam, I knew, was never coming back.

On my last night in France, I rowed out to the middle of the lake in front of the house. Lying in the boat, looking up, I mouthed a beautiful word new to me – étoiles –  and tried not to think about the smaller, sadder country to the north over which, inconceivably, these same bright stars shone.

Peter Ross

Bah to the German miracle

As a child in a tiny Yorkshire village, I’d little notion of Europe. Even Leeds seemed exotically remote and London was another planet. But there were traces of Europe about the house, in the glassware and teacups my parents had brought back from their honeymoon in Austria and Switzerland. And in May 1960 we made our first family foray abroad, flying from Ringway Airport, Manchester, for a week in Majorca – early beneficiaries of the post-war boom in package holidays (charter flights had been introduced just a few years before). 

To a nine-year-old accustomed to the Pennines, the heat was overwhelming and the Mediterranean implausibly blue. A taxi driver took us round the island, five passengers crammed in his ancient car, where the highlights included seeing a donkey (or was it an ass?) driving           a wooden water wheel – not a heritage tourist attraction but routine agricultural procedure. If Spain, or the Balearic version of it, stood for ancient tradition, modernity meant Germany, whose tourists outnumbered those from other countries at our hotel: they were the ones with the loudest voices, fattest wallets and most favourably positioned sunbeds (reserved, so it was alleged, while the rest of us were still sleeping – an accusation that has dogged German tourists ever since). Fifteen years on from VE Day, my father was too affable to harbour grudges about the war but he found the evidence of the post-war German miracle hard to take: why were the vanquished so much more affluent than the victors? Still, we Brits were no less quick to take advantage of cheap Spanish goods. I came home with a hand-stitched leather football for which we paid just a few pesetas. The memory of things undreamt of till then came with me, too: paella, bullfights, open-air swimming pools and my first romantic crush (she was from Croydon, but without the foreign setting love would never have bloomed). 

The following year, on holiday with a friend’s family in the South of France, I encountered something even more excitingly European: nudist beaches. Home just wasn’t the same after that.

Blake Morrison

Can you sit on the WC?

Abroad was a frightening place according to my parents. Neither of them had ever been there but they knew it was dirty and smelly and full of untrustworthy foreigners who would steal from you as soon as look at you. Like many of their class and generation they routinely talked about Frogs, Wops, Spicks, Greaseballs and, of course, Huns, Krauts, Nazis. They would have been outraged by the idea that Britain was part of Europe. 

Imagine their horror then – and mine – when in 1959 my French teacher told them that I needed to go to France. I was just embarking on my A-levels and my teacher warned them that, although my written French was good, there was a danger I could fail my oral. She offered to arrange an exchange but my parents vetoed the idea: they would take me to France themselves. Woe, woe and thrice woe. My parents grimly started reading guidebooks and looking at ferry timetables. They decided we should go to Cancale, Brittany, because it was cheap and near the St Malo ferry, and I had to write to various pensions asking about their toilet arrangements: ‘Avez vous un WC où on peut s’asseoir?’ Anyway, the pension was fine, the toilet was fine – the trouble was that Cancale proved to be a deeply boring place. It was famous for its oyster beds but of course we wouldn’t dream of eating oysters. However, I acquired a deep knowledge of Les parcs à huîtres de Cancale which I duly relayed in my French oral. Unfortunately the examiner then asked how I liked eating oysters, which sent me into stammering silence. 

I scraped a pass. What no one told me was that, along with my specialist knowledge of oyster breeding, I had also acquired a very strong Breton accent. Apparently I sounded like a parody yokel – I cumz up from Zummerzet – but I didn’t know this till years later when my husband’s parents were living in Paris and gently suggested that I should try to acquire a more ‘Parisian’ accent. I never did, though I did learn to love oysters.

Lynn Barber

One of us never returned

My first time ‘abroad’, a word that implied all sorts of possibilities, was a Scottish trade union trip to Romania. I was eleven. I went with my dad and eighty other comrades to Eforie Nord, near Constanta on the Black Sea. (My mum was visiting her mum in New Zealand.) The plane, an old Russian one, dived in and out of air pockets. I thought we were all done for. I sat behind Jessie Clarke and Margaret Haldane who talked about whether or not their husbands kissed them full on the lips. 

‘My man never snogs. He just pecks,’ one said. The plane swooped. Already people were loosening their guard. Romania – where at a street market we could buy half a kilo of fresh apricots in a brown paper bag when at home we didn’t have kilos or apricots. Romania – where we played volleyball matches in the sun. Romania – where my new Romanian friend Costel told me to shout ‘te iubesc’ at the top of my voice, and later told me it meant ‘I love you’.  

But on the very first day of our holiday, there was a terrible tragedy. The red flag was up, but one of my dad’s friends ignored it and went off into the sea with a drink in him. When they saw him struggling, my dad and two others from our group went in to rescue him and brought him onto the beach. They pumped his stomach and water spilled from the side of his mouth. 

But he died. I remember the confusion of trying to understand it all through our interpreter, Peter, and the terror of things going wrong and not speaking the tongue. His wife, Annie, wanted to take him home to Glasgow for a Catholic burial and had to wait ten days for a plane that could take a body. Every day she took my hand and walked back to the spot where Johnny had drowned and talked to him. She didn’t want to be with any of the adults.    

The holiday continued, as it had to do. We played table tennis, ate pork and polenta, and drank Romanian wine – or at least the adults did – and every night we danced the handkerchief dance, where there were two circles and one of us in the inner circle pulled another of us in the outer circle into the middle by tugging at the handkerchief round their neck and kissing them on the cheek, still dancing. Then that person pulled another in and so on, until the two circles became one. Meanwhile the new widow Annie stayed in her room. When I think of Romania I think of her, talking on the beach to her dead. 

Jackie Kay

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Our contributors: Lynn Barber is the most celebrated interviewer of her generation; Craig Brown is a writer and humorist; Jackie Kay was appointed Scotland’s makar, or national poet, earlier this year; Blake Morrison, poet and novelist, is professor of creative writing at Goldsmiths; Peter Ross is a journalist in Glasgow; Peter Wilby formerly edited the ‘Independent on Sunday’ and the ‘New Statesman’.


This story was from July 2016 issue. Subscribe Now