Old travels

May 4, 2020 • 9:30 am

Matthew is being nice and calling me every day because he sees that the solitude is getting to me. And, in response to my telling him that what I miss most now is travel, and telling him a few of my youthful stories, he urged me to recount some of them as a form of therapy,—or at least a way to reduce the “travel longing” that plagues me.

So here’s one, and there may be more. Some of the details may be a bit hazy. It’s been a long time.

In 1973, after I had graduated from William & Mary, had entered Rockefeller University as a graduate student, and then gotten drafted as a conscientious objector, I took the government to court after realizing I’d been conscripted illegally. (From the class of 1971, nobody was drafted into the Army, but COs were still conscripted: a violation of the law. I had already worked 13 months in a hospital before I learned about the illegality of my conscription.) The federal courts decided the class action suit of Nixon et. al v Coyne et. al in our favor, and I was released from service, along with about 2500 other COs in the “class.”

The issue of graduate school wasn’t settled (I was supposed to come to the University of Chicago to study with Lewontin, but, unbeknownst to me, he’d accepted a job at Harvard), so I decided to go to Europe for a Wanderjahr. (Well, a Halbwanderjahr).

In April, my girlfriend and I flew to Athens, intending to hitchhike across Europe, winding up, we planned, in Spain. In fact, we were gone about five months, the total cost of the trip was a bit less than $600 (excluding airfare), and we did fly back in August from Madrid.

After a few days in a grubby hostel in Athens (this is a town where, after spending 3 days, you shouldn’t linger), I got my student identity card and we headed out of town. I still have that ID, and you can see that I was a longhaired hippie freak in those days, though an academic one. That card was essential in getting discounted admissions to museums and archaeological sites.

Our plan, as I recall, was to take the subway from Athens to its port, Piraeus, and get on the first ship going to a Greek island, no matter which one. When we got to the port, a ship was leaving almost immediately for Crete, and so we hopped aboard. It was an overnight journey and we slept on deck in our sleeping bags and groundsheets.

We landed in the port of Xania, and decided to hitchhike across the northern coast of Crete, going as far as we could and hoping to find some place to settle for a while and absorb some small town culture. (I had lived in Athens as a kid from age 5-7, and perhaps for that reason the language came easily to me.) I was fearless back then, and, like Neal Cassady, open to whatever lay ahead, and so we found the coastal road and stuck out our thumbs. Hitchhiking in Greece at that time wasn’t hard, and we quickly got a ride. (Traveling with a woman immensely improves your chances of being picked up.) The vehicle was a big truck carrying a huge load of oranges in its bed. My girlfriend climbed in front, while I climbed up on the tall pile of oranges in the rear. As we trundled along the coast in the morning sun with the sea to my left and the breeze ruffling my hair, I helped myself to the fresh-picked fruit, a great restorative.

I can’t remember if that truck went all the way to the end of the road, but we eventually made our way to Sitia, on the northeast coast. Here’s our journey:

Along the way we hooked up with an American medical student who was traveling, and we resolved to try to find a house together in Sitia. Back then, Sitia was a small and sleepy fishing village with a beautiful harbor, and had the three requisites for a stay: cheap and available housing, a few good restaurants, and a zaxaroplasteio (ζαχαροπλαστείο), a pastry and sweet store, for I adore Greek pastries and required a daily baklava with Greek coffee. Below is what Sitia looks like now, but back then it was just tiny hamlet with no tourists. There were few houses above the waterfront, and none atop the hill.

Yes, the water was that color.

I can’t remember how we found housing, but the three of us rented a sparsely furnished three-room house (two bedrooms and a kitchen/common room), with our share being $30 for an entire month. At some point the med student departed, and we were left to chill out for several weeks.

That’s probably the only time in my life since college that I’ve been settled for a while in a foreign town and had no work to do. But there was plenty to occupy our time. Back then I’d sleep late, and we’d wander into town to the dairy: a small, windowless room where they sold milk, cheese, and yogurt. There was also a rickety wooden table where we’d sit and have breakfast: either a huge plate of Greek yogurt with sugar (Greek yogurt is the best in the world), or a glass of warm sheep’s milk with rusks.

After breakfast it was time for a swim or a wander. We’d take long walks over the dry hills, and I still remember the scent of wild sage stinging my nostrils. At lunchtime we’d repair to the εστιατόριο (restaurant), a small family-run place. As is the custom in such places, there was no menu: you’d walk into the kitchen, lift the lids off the pots, and see what looked good. There might be stuffed cabbage, or moussaka, or pastitsio, or maybe I’d get a big peasant’s salad (horiatiki salata) with bread. It cost almost nothing.

After lunch there might be more swimming or wandering, or perhaps a sojourn at a waterside cafe to have an ouzo with the inevitable side of mezedes, the small plate of goodies that comes with every drink. It could be beans, or bread with taramosalata (fish roe), or peanuts, or whatever the taverna had on hand. It’s possible to spend hours in such a place, sipping, reading, or just watching the sea. The hours would rabbit by, and then it would be time for an afternoon visit to the zaxaroplasteio for a baklava or kataifi, with a tiny cup of Greek coffee, which I was able to order in Greek to the amazement of the waiters. (It’s either “skettos” [plain], “metrios” [a tad of sugar] or—my choice—”glykivrastos”, γλυκήβραστος [sweet and well boiled]).

There was more idling before dinner, either in a restaurant eating a big salad made from ingredients at the local market (we didn’t cook). After an evening stroll, it was time for bed.

And so a month went by, but it seemed to last just a week or two. I’m not sure I even have the ability now to relax that way, or to do nothing but cool my heels and eat for a month on end (I weighed 135 pounds back then and didn’t gain an ounce).

As the month’s lease came to an end, we had to decide where to go next. The decision was made for us, and a good one it was: there was a weekly ferry from Sitia to the island of Santorini, which turned out to be one of the most beautiful spots on earth. And after that, a long road ahead.

I revisited Sitia about two decades later, and was appalled to find that they’d built a huge Club-Med style resort there, the place was crawling with tourists, and there was little solitude to be had. But I had my memories.

50 thoughts on “Old travels

  1. I was in Greece for the summer of 1973. I slept in a tent on the beach for a month or so.

  2. Great story! Maybe you should write a travel book. Or an autobiography. Not the first time you’ve had something interesting to relate from the past.

  3. Thank you for the memories. That sounded wonderful especially during tnese times of shelter in place.

  4. In ’73 while you were in the Greek Isles I was in Australia working on a trawler in the Gulf of Carpentaria. When the season was over I caught a ride on another trawler and ‘sailed’ over the Cape York Peninsula ,stopping briefly at Thursday Island of legend, and down through the Barrier Reef, scuba diving all the way to Cairns.
    What’a gas!

  5. More of this, please! Takes me back to my first trip to Europe: 4 girls (ahem! young women) with Student Hostel cards and Student Rail Passes on our first trips anywhere without family. That was 1970. I’m glad that in your recent travels you could still find some of the people and places from your student days – hope they survive the pandemic.

  6. That’s a really good story. I had finished my European tour by the time you were doing yours. All expenses paid from Jan. 1969 to May 1972.

  7. Jerry, with all the traveling you’ve done, your love of food and culture and your writing skills you might want to consider a travel memoirs book. I’d certainly read it.

  8. Why is it generally always heart-breaking returning to an area you haven’t visited in a long while? Why can more changes be good ones?

  9. I am not a “foodie” by any means, but when you talk about your travels, the descriptions (and often pictures) of the food really bring the places to life for me.

  10. Those were the good old days.
    Too bad we didn’t take very many pictures back then but we sure are making up for it now.

  11. Looks like the kind of picture that accompanies a story about a socialite falling in love with her Marxist revolutionary kidnappers. ‘Coyne, leader of the group, instantly became number 1 on the FBi most wanted list’

  12. Great new feature – fascinating to hear about your travels, but also the draft class action suit. I’m half anticipating a regular “Photos of Readers as Hippies” slot…

  13. … he sees that the solitude is getting to me.

    Yeah, me, too. It’s got me cranking the hi-fi up to eleven and screaming along with The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”:


    This, I do not take to be a leading indicator of a salubrious state of mind.

    1. Thanks for this memory jog! We (my husband and I) were listening to old rock music and we couldn’t remember the name of the group who sang “House of the Rising Sun”… it was right there, on the tips of our tongues. Getting old and mush-brained, sadly.

    2. This does bring back memories. “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” was a favorite in Vietnam. Every band played it and we got up on the tables to sing at the top of our voices.

      1. I was studying for 6 months in Florence and we had dance parties every Thurs night and that song was blasted. Also saw the movie Help Dubbed in Italian that summer. Fortunately the songs were left in English though we did start singing “Aiuto!” And “Otto Giorni della Settimana” which didn’t scan very well.

  14. I did the ferry to Heraklion, then bus to Chania which in 1986 had lots of decayed Venetian style houses. Too hot in July for me!!!

  15. 1973, Greece still under the yoke of the Junta. I was in Greece a few years later (78 or 79) , but the sense of relief, of freedom was still palpable. Add that to the kind of travel you describe and it can’t get any better.

    1. I was in Greece in July 1963, as a boy scout taking part in the Jamboree in Marathon. We traveled by train, first from Belgium to Cologne, where we changed from a steam locomotive to diesel traction. We followed the route of the famous Orient Express, crossing the Alps at very high altitude, through a foot of snow. We continued through Yugoslavia, then a Communist country, and farm workers boarded the train, and the train stopped frequently in the middle of fields where the workers were released to do the harvest. We arrived in Skopje, a day after the destructive earthquake of 1963. The view was eerie. The earthquake must have been very violent, over a distance of 15 miles every single window was scattered, and when we stopped in the main station, I saw that even the glass of the station clock, which had stopped during the quake, was scattered. The station was filled with people, asking for food, and we handed out all the sandwiches we had. The train proceeded very slowly, and we passed over a large steel bridge, crossing over collapsed houses. Our adventurous trip continued and when we entered Greece we saw several locomotives that were derailed (probably during WWII) and were lying in the valleys. At one moment we came head to head with a oncoming freight train, which had to back up over quite a long distance. Arriving in Athens we were amazed about the omnipresence of the army, they were everywhere. King Constantine was still in power. In Athens we took the underground, and we were amazed by the pre-WWI luxurious underground carriages, furnished with mirrors and wood paneling. Apparently the were taken over from the London underground (I don’t know if they were still in use in 1973).

  16. A wonderful reminiscence. Πολλά ευχαριστώ!

    In 1965 or 66, my wife and I traveled around Spain, visited family friends in Galicia, and then ended up on the Atlantic coast, renting one of the few small rooms at a local taberna near a huge, almost empty beach. Each night, we joined a small group of young local beach campers (all Spaniards) to play guitars and sing songs at the taberna. My hazy memory is that the tabernero distributed free drinks to one and all, but that must be mistaken. Memory grows furtive.

  17. Great story Jerry!

    When I was young and indestructible (so I thought), a friend and I had an interesting “hitchhiking” experience.

    We were on a tourist bus coming back from Sharm El Sheikh in Sinai in Egypt. In the middle of the Sinai desert, east of the Suez Canal, with nothing but dunes and wrecked military hardware in view (and the long road in either direction), at sunset, the bus broke down.

    The driver and his assistant hopped out of the bus and were soon gone — picked up by a car.

    Shortly after that, all the Egyptian passengers had done the same.

    A small group of us western backpackers were left at the side of the highway, in the rapidly falling dusk.

    We decided to do the same as the locals and flag down a vehicle.

    Eventually, a fish truck stopped for us and we all climbed inside the back of the fish delivery truck (empty). We had to hold the back door ajar by hand as the truck trundled towards Cairo.

    The truck stopped on the outskirts of Cairo, unwilling to risk being stopped by the police while transporting tourists.

    We hopped out in complete darkness and somehow, we flagged down a cab. The cab, after playing bumper cars on the highways of Cairo (literally) and stopping many times to ask directions, finally got us back to our hotel in Cairo in the deep middle of the night. Just another crazy adventure.


  18. “Please sir, may I have some more?” Please share more of your adventurous travels with us. I’m so glad you had this opportunity, and numerous others to travel, but I am also envious.

    Due to my life choices, I married young in 1959 and had three children from 1960 to 1963. My first trip ever out of the country was a camping trip with my husband to British Columbia in an old pickup with a camper shell. The back roads were twisty-windy and many were one lane of dirt or gravel held up from the drop-off to the river by corduroyed logs. Many went under rock overhangs with signs telling you to watch out for logging trucks, which often came towards you from the other side of the overhang, previously invisible. Very scary. We made it all the way to north of Lilooet, which seemed like a great distance at that time. We were able to camp out at a spot where my husband fished and I picked fresh berries. Not Cret, but it was wonderful.

    1. BC is still beautiful and they have greatly improved that road north from Vancouver (for the Olympics a few years ago).

  19. Great story and so well written. It’s really very evocative. I was wondering if writing like that comes easily to you? My tales of travel tend to read like a list.
    I’m lucky enough to have been to the Greek Islands and they really are stunning.

  20. Lovely reminiscing…I also remember being able to eat anything, anytime and never gaining an ounce. Sigh…

  21. My analogue age-wise consisted of about a month in Spain in the summers of 1964 and 65. I was doing a Ph.D. at Manchester at the time, had had a kind of ‘Espanola travel desire’ for years, and needed some sun as a relief from cloudy Britain, esp. northwest England. Northern Quebec/Ontario had got me accustomed to pretty good sunshine, though not heat. As I recall, there also about $4 per day was quite enough to live comfortably. But it was the case that my ‘Labour Party supporter’ friends/fellow students disapproved of anyone going to Spain and supposedly propping up Franco.

    Much later, about 10 years ago, we did fly to Athens for just about Jerry’s 3 days, did the subway to Piraeus as they did, and a boat to Chania overnight. But then, much more affluent, we rented a car, stayed down on the south coast of Crete for 5 days and visited the archaeological sites mainly. South coast is less crowded they say. Anyway it was almost before tourist season. The norwegian.com plane to Oslo from Chania had more steward(ess)s than passengers, going up to pick up the first Norwegian tourists heading for the Mediterranean beaches.

    Our frequent habit, of getting extended visits to Norway and/or Iceland by first a cheap flight to Portugal/Spain/Paris/Italy/Greece, then Ryanair or similar within Europe we did many times, still do, often soon after winter is finished. Then Icelandair back–they are good, overall good prices despite not being a single ticket. But you better stay awhile each place if only to avoid missed flights due to the previous one getting messed up. As many already know, you can get up to a week in Iceland for the same price on an Icelandair between Europe and North America. We do usually visit Iceland longer, as much as 6 weeks when renting just beneath Snaefelljokull (Snow-mountain-glacier) where Julles Verne’s’s intrepid journeyers ‘to the center of the earth’ descended.

    At the end, they came shooting up at another volcano, Stromboli. The book is juvenile in every way really. But no reason for Jules to know any genuine geology which nobody else knew either. He is second only to Agatha Christy in number of translated books sold.

  22. That dude with the International Student Identity card — five’ll get you ten that J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO unit was clocking him.

  23. Loved that story. You were hairy then weren’t you? Well you get a chance to relive your former hirsute days now!
    I’m 50 and when I was that age (of Greek JAC) I had an International Student Card also, but by the early 1990s there was no hitch-hiking, anywhere as far as I knew.
    I didn’t get to go to Europe (I grew up in Australia0 but I did see SE Asia and lived in Japan – a different flavor but no less important in my biography.
    Great story and I loved Nixon v Coyne.
    D.A., J.D., NYC

  24. Great story, great memories from back in the “Europe on $5 a day” times. I was briefly on Crete, and Kos, in 1971. Yes, the yoghurt! More travel memories, please.

    1. Now I miss Greece even more….

      My wife and me worked for 3 years in Athens following the olympic games in 2004.
      It took some time to acquaint ourselves with the city, but now we love it. More than 3 days in Athens is too much, less than a year is not enough. I miss our friends and neighbors, the food & the acropolis.

  25. Wonderful story. Reliving travel has also kept me sane through all this. While in quarantine I’ve been to Sardinia, India and France. None as inexpensive as Greece though! Thank you for the destination inspiration when travel is safe again.

  26. That sounds beautiful! Partly why I want to visit all the unknown/less traveled places now so that I can actually see the culture/ways of the locals instead of a place catering to just tourists.
    The irony is that I’m one of those tourists 😬

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