Living in Europe is entirely different from living safely ensconced back in the states. There are so many different cultural and historical traditions that have withstood the test of time. Once you’ve lived abroad, it’s easy to see that the world doesn’t evolve around what Capitol Hill has to say…especially now. It’s a much bigger piece of real estate than that. In short, it’s one of life’s lessons that everyone should experience.
This was especially true in Europe during the 1960s when I lived there on several occasions. There was no Starbucks on every corner. Coffee usually meant Nestlé’s instant coffee; just add water and cream. Corner cafés served only tea and cappuccino. The latter was a solid mass of black mud served in a tiny cup under the guise of coffee. If you ordered a soft drink, it almost always came with a straw sticking out of it.
When Brian and Melanie were in college, Sharon and I insisted they do a ‘study abroad’ program. Brian traveled around the world and Melanie went to Ireland. They both came back changed individuals with a greater appreciation for their place in a world outside of Apple Valley, Minnesota.
Scandinavia, in the mid-Sixties, was a world (literally) apart from the provincial, sheltered, prudish Midwestern novitiate I had immigrated from. It was open and accepting of different social opinions, individual sexuality, fuel-inducted free thinking and a world view of themselves. The same was true for the Netherlands.
That environment of freethinking was a bit unsettling for me when I first settled in Denmark but I quickly realized that this lack of judgement to those different from the crowd wasn’t threatening to them at all. The Dane’s open-minded approach to life made examining current social, political, sexual and artistic affairs more realistic and affirming. It was mind-bending and mind opening at the same time.
About two years later, when I returned to Europe for a second time, I spent the majority of my travels in Amsterdam. I became integrated into a community of friends for several months. That city and country had embraced the free-thinking attitudes of the Danes and then pushed it even further down the road of enlightenment. It began for me in some back canal bar when I happened across a solitary guitar player serenading the pigeons gathered around him. We chatted over a couple of beers and soon became fast friends. The smoky atmosphere drifting out of the club probably sped up that process a lot.
John was a student at the local University. He was an aspiring guitar player and a budding architect. He was also struggling to find a major that mattered to his social consciousness and paid the bills at the same time. He was also desperate to move out of his parent’s flat and find his own apartment. We shared great stories of our travels, my time up in Denmark, His desire to go to the states and our collective hope for the greater world beyond the canals of Amsterdam.
One afternoon, I met one of John’s friends who was also his salon companion. I can’t remember his name but the young man was remarkable in his intellectual prowess and yet total lack of social skills. John’s friend wasn’t able to hold a steady job because of his mental and social inability to interact with people. Therefore, he spent most days, reading, writing, and interacting with his beautiful child.
John’s friend lived in subsidized housing just outside of town. His wife was from Indonesia and they had the most beautiful child I’d ever met…before my own kids and grandchildren.
I stayed with them for almost a month in an impromptu, unstructured home life full of questions and comments, pondering the possibilities and forecasting our future. I was their American guide for all their questions about Vietnam, LBJ, unrest on college campuses, current campus fashions, Hollywood movie stars, American capitalism, and our obsession with nudity and (in their mind) the timidity of Playboy magazine.
On weekends, John and I would often travel through the back alley bars and University student union in search of those ever-elusive female companions. These college students loved to interact and exchange ideas with the American traveler and his shy folksy friend.
The women we met were primarily upper class University students wise to the ways of their world and anxious to explore life beyond the canals of Amsterdam. Our conversations gave me a global perspective I’d never experienced before. Our evening socials were a series good natured intellectual fisticuffs, seductive meandering in a safe environment and mind-expanding concepts over cappuccino, coke with a straw and some of the stronger stuff. I can’t remember if the women were attractive or not. It hardly mattered. They were stimulating, engaging and attentive. It was easy to fall in love with them…if only in my imagination.
I’m sure I probably looked like a hobo with my worn jeans, hiking boots and frayed jacket. But the girls didn’t seem to mind. I remember their fashion sense bordered on the simple and practical and yet with a flare of imagination. There was very little of the Carnaby Street or Bibi fashion trends going around at that time. With winter fasting approaching, nowadays we’d probably call it the layered look.
Oh, and I never found out if they were wearing cotton. I’m just guessing on that one. Looking back, I was too engaged in slight exaggeration tempered by intimate soul searching and honest bravado to ever find out. In other words, I was probably talking too much. Some things never change.