The success of my efforts in Montreal made me more committed to mastering French and so I decided to go to France. Commitment leads to success and success reinforces commitment.
In June of 1962, I quit my summer construction job and went to the Montreal docks to look for a working trip to Europe. For three days I climbed on board oceangoing freighters, asked to see the Captain and then offered to work in exchange for passage to Europe. On the third day I got lucky. A small German tramp steamer, the Gerda Schell out of Flensburg, had lost a sailor in Quebec City and needed a crewman for the return voyage. I was on my way.
Aside from the hard work and constant tossing of the small tramp ship on the North Atlantic, the voyage was an opportunity to experience just how inaccurate cultural stereotypes can be. The crew was half German and half Spanish. Contrary to what I had been conditioned to expect, the supposedly industrious Germans were laid back and often drunk, whereas the supposedly temperamental Spanish were tremendously hard working and serious.
We arrived in London after ten days at sea. I ate as much as possible of the free food on the ship in the hope that I would save money by not having to eat for the next day. In fact, that strategy was not so wise and I ended up feeling ill.
London seemed an oddly exotic place to me, since everyone spoke English and yet it was so different from home. Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park has stuck in my memory, as has the old money system of shillings and pence and quids and bobs and guineas. I also remember that I spent one night sleeping on a sidewalk to get tickets to see Laurence Olivier in Shakespeare’s Othello but then had trouble staying awake during the performance. I stayed in London for one week and then pressed on for the continent to pursue my language learning adventure.
I took the ferry from Dover in the United Kingdom and arrived in Ostende in Belgium after nightfall.
A Flemish Belgian on a motor scooter gave me a lift to the medieval city of Bruges. I was young and ignorant and had not read the history of Flanders during the Middle Ages. Nor did I realize that the same kinds of language tensions that existed in Quebec were also burning in Belgium between the Flemish speakers and the French speakers. I would return later to Bruges to explore the well preserved medieval atmosphere of that town. But I was a young man in a hurry then, and the following day I hitchhiked on to France.
The French have a reputation for being rude, but the people I met were friendly and hospitable. Outside of Lille in Northern France, I was picked up by two school teachers who allowed me to spend the night in a schoolroom, since this was the period of the summer vacation. Then they invited me out to dinner, where I met some people who drove me to Paris the next day. I can still remember the feeling as we drove down l’Avenue de la Grande Armée towards the Arc de Triomphe, which I had seen so often in film. I could not believe I was really there.
My French friends invited me to stay two weeks in their modest apartment in the 20th Arrondissement, a working-class district of Paris. I was given a short term job in a travel bureau doing translations. I lived and ate with these people for two delightful weeks, as I explored the city on foot and via the Metro (subway). My new friends included me on picnics to chateaux outside Paris and other social occasions. I was sorry when I finally decided to move on south.