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Thursday, August 20, 2015

My story for the Monti: "On the Road"

Summer of 1974, at a damp campground near Amsterdam I joined a hippy expedition already in progress. We were 21 cheapskates driving to the Soviet Union in three beat up VW buses crammed with moldy old canvas tents, sleeping bags, kitchen equipment and tattered suitcases. I met my designated tentmate, Phoebe, a gloomy nerd, and she asked me to help her pack up. While she fumbled and I tried to be patient I watched a tall lanky guy with a moustache breaking camp much more efficiently than we were. We piled into the rusty vans and set off.

I'd been hoping this adventure would help me forget a failed love affair but so far it hadn't gone well. In London my wallet had been stolen. Then I'd puked my way across the choppy English channel. Then I'd stupidly visited my old flame in Paris where he was living with a new girlfriend. Things looked up in Amsterdam with its dozens of brightly painted psychedelic weed-selling coffeehouses, and I accepted an invitation from a total stranger to spend the night in his loft overlooking a canal. I hadn't realized we'd be sharing his bed, but what the hell? It was the last bed I'd sleep in for six weeks.

So now the VW caravan took off across Scandinavia; tall lanky George was our driver. We arrived in Sweden on Midsummer Night, when the sun never sets, and the campground was full of revelers carousing around bonfires until dawn under a weird maroon sky. Next day we boarded a ferry to Helsinki and the 16 hour crossing was an another all-night party as the northern lights, a brilliant green, were reflected in the dark sea. George and I leaned on the railing and watched silent black islands glide past, some only big enough for a single pine tree. Turns out he was an engineer from Kansas, hah! That's why he was better at everything than the rest of us.

At the border between Finland and the USSR, guards with machine guns and dogs checked our papers and made us take everything out of the vans so they could confiscate any drugs, blue jeans destined for the black market, bibles, or decadent music. After a four hour inspection we were on our way, now with Russian tourguides in our vans to keep us in line. If we ever started down a road not on the approved itinerary, police cars came screeching up out of nowhere to head us off.

Phoebe's lugubrious nature and camping ineptitude got on my nerves, and our tent leaked. I kept my eye on that lanky guy George. I like tall men, and he would have been good looking if it hadn't been for his ridiculous handlebar moustache. He was a little dull, but on the other hand he could get a fire going in the blink of an eye and his tent DIDN'T leak. For the first and last time in my life I seduced a man for material gain: ignoring the moustache, I cut him out of the herd and moved into his tent with him, abandoning dreary Phoebe. When he warned me not to fall for him because this was just a summer fling, I said: "Fine, George." Nowadays one would say: “Whatever.”

So here's a thing we learned about Soviet campgrounds: only the best of them even had outhouses. We'd reach one of these sorry dumps, set up in the least filthy place we could find, and then get dragged by our guides on a long non-optional tour of local Lenin statues and cement factories.

In Moscow banners of Stalin, Brezhnev and (surprisingly) President Nixon were on every wall. Bent little old ladies swept the streets with brooms made of sticks. George and I drank kvas, made of fermented rye bread, from vending machines on the street, you drank from the one communal cup and left it for the next customer. We met a guy who'd flown to Sochi, partied hard, and then flown back to Moscow with a suitcase full of oranges he could sell on the black market for enough to finance his whole debauched vacation. In a marble steam room doughy naked women flagellated each other with bundles of birch branches and invited me to join them.

If I'd liked Moustache George more it would have been romantic, camping by a river in the shadow of the Caucasus mountains, riding a rusted-out ski lift that rattled and shook high above microscopic sheep on the rocky fields below. We posed for a photo on the Odessa steps and in Yalta marveled at the palm trees and at fat men strutting proudly down the beach in tiny swimsuits. We crossed the Black Sea to Romania on a steamship that had a swimming pool and a dance band and a talent show which I didn't win.

We got off the steamship and really had to haul ass back to Amsterdam to make our flight home. Eastern Europe whizzed by in a blur, we hurled ourselves into the plane, I don't even remember saying goodbye to George. Senior year started and I forgot about him until I got a letter postmarked Lawrence, Kansas. So much for us being a summer fling, now he wanted to marry me. I turned him down, though, because I didn't believe Kansas was really even a place, and, then, there was that moustache.


At 3:35 PM, Blogger Alma U. said...

What a wonderfully vivid story. Why haven't you written a book?


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