A Summer to Remember
It was 1964. I was fifteen that summer and my mate Fos was sixteen and leaving school. He wanted to do something special. He suggested we hitch-hiked round France for the summer. I was up for it. A minor stumbling block was that we had no money. I put it to my parents and they agree, as my birthday present, to match any money I earnt.
Fos got us work delivering leaflets. For weeks we’d be rushing off down roads cramming leaflets through letter boxes, jumping hedges and running down roads. We must have done a million of them. Somehow we got the money together.
We set off with our huge rucksacks hitching to Dover. I had just bought the Rolling Stones first album and couldn’t bear to leave it behind so that came with me. Heaven knows what I was thinking to play it on. But we had a plan. We were going to hitch-hike around France. Fos even had some vague idea of direction. We were heading South.
We got to Dover OK. A lorry stopped and picked us up. The Ferry was exciting. Then, at last, we were in France. For some reason Fos had selected Le Havre as our starting point. I remember walking through the streets. The French kids still had short hair and wore leather Jackets and jeans. We made quite an impact. They stepped off the pavement to let us pass and shouted ‘Hey – Les Beatles’ as we went by. We were quite the celebrities.
That night we put the tent up in the back of the youth hostel, that being our plan, to camp at youth hostels for cheapness. Fos’s tent didn’t have a front to it. But we’d figured that was alright because it was hot.
We spent the evening taking on the local lads at table football with no spinning. By the end of the summer I was deadly at it.
Blithely we set off first thing in the morning heading for Rouen. We figured that as it was only 60 miles away we’d be there by mid-morning.
Well our huge rucksacks were heavy and for some reason nobody seemed inclined to pick up two long-haired lads with a mountain of luggage. We did more walking that hitching that day. By evening we had decided to modify our plans. The South of France was maybe beyond our reach. Indeed we’d found a lovely little village with a great youth hostel and decided to stay. We put up our tent, bathed our sore feet and were ensconced for the summer.
It was one hell of an eye-opener for me. Back home we had bread, either a bloomer or sliced white, or a brown Hovis if you felt adventurous, and we had cheese – cheddar, cheshire or, if you felt particularly exotic gorgonzola. My mouth gaped open walking round the market. They had whole stalls of bread and cheese. There was black bread, bread with all manner of stuff in, flat bread, round bread and baguettes. Likewise with the cheese - there was cheese of all colours, shapes, smells and textures. There was goats’ cheese and even sheep’s cheese. There were even cheeses with big holes in and I had an epiphany. I realised that this was the cheese they’d used to portray the moon! That market was a revelation.
Shopping was an experience. Somehow the French appeared not to understand their own language and some of them seemed a bit unhelpful, but most were friendly.
On our first night we were going to cook spaghetti. I went out to buy the ingredients. One of the ingredients was onions. I went in the greengrocers and found some fine looking onions. They were quite large and I had no shopping bag so I decided that one would be sufficient for the two of us. They were as cheap as dirt – just 13 centimes a kilo. My onion did not weigh anywhere near a kilo so I attempted to negotiate a price with the bemused shop keeper. He found this extremely amusing. From that day on every time he caught sight of me he rushed out holding an onion in the air and shouting ‘Monsieur votre onion’.
I discovered yoghourt. I’d never had yoghourt before. And we found we had no problem buying wine or beer. We were sorted.
Our life was rather pleasant. We ate, drank and had a great time. The local youth played table football with us, plied us with booze and taught us a whole lexicon of rude words in French. The local girls found us very exotic, which was fun. I hitched up for a while with a Scottish girl who was staying in the Youth Hostel. We’d go for walks and got quite a romance going. A couple of older Romanian girls took it into their heads that we were not having a balanced diet and were far too skinny. They decided we needed feeding up and took to mothering us. They’d cook up these great meals the like of which I had never tasted before, with garlic and aubergines and all manner of other strange spices and ingredients, and feed us up. They were delicious – and so was the food.
We had it sorted.
The Youth Hostel had an old record player and I was able to play my Rolling Stones album. This caused a bit of a ruction. There were two Austrian girls who liked playing Strauss and tended to monopolise the machine. But there was this huge German guy who fell in love with the Stones. He was a man mountain and used to have a whole loaf of bread for lunch. He’d simply cut it in half, stuff it with cheese and meats, and eat it as a sandwich. When he walked in the floor shook. He’d walk over to the table which housed the record player, at which the two shy girls were sitting intently listening to their music, bash his fist down on the table so the stylus skidded right across and simply say ‘Rolling Stones’ in his thunderous voice. Nobody was arguing with that. So I got to play it quite a lot. It always reminds me of that fabulous summer.
One slight downside was the rats. At night the rats would come out and as our tent had no front they came in to visit. We soon learnt that you couldn’t store any food in the tent. They’d be straight in and at it. At first we found it a bit scary. Fos got his big knife out, with its razor-sharp edges, (this was back in the days when all campers had big knives and nobody thought of stabbing each other) and we lay as still as possible waiting for our huge hairy visitors to arrive. Rats are pretty clever. They didn’t come - at least not while we were awake. Fos woke up to find the knife in his sleeping bag. So we didn’t try that again and soon stopped worrying about the rats. Live and let live. That was our motto.
I remember a travelling circus coming to the market square. They had fire-eaters and strong men and acrobats. The whole town turned out and they went round with a can at the end collecting contributions. It was so different, so exciting.
Our whole summer passed far too quickly and I’m not sure I got round to sending any postcards back home. Life was too busy.
All too soon we were packing up, saying goodbye to the guys and kissing all the girls.
That was a summer to remember.