I thought I would add a few more stories to the 3 years I spent in Europe. Shortly after I had arrived I bought a French car called a Simca which was the French equivalent of the Volkswagon Beetle. Small, light-weight, stick-shift it cost me all of $950. (Three years later when I left Europe, I sold it to someone just arriving for $800.) This is how I transported myself from the work site in the French hinterlands on Friday afternoons back to Paris, and then back to the work site Sunday evenings.
I would often meet with friends I had made in the office who also drove back from where they were working on Friday evenings, usually at a little French restaurant on the Left Bank where we would compare notes as to how fast we drove. It was kind of mandatory that you drove at least 80 MPH to be in good standing with our group. (At that time there were no speed limits on French roads.) A speed of 85 MPH was better, and if you did over 90 you won the groups admiration. In retrospect it was a minor miracle that all of us made it home safely. On cold winter nights in that restaurant I would have a large bowl of steaming hot onion soup that was coated with a thick layer of cheese, and a plate of escargots. That along with freshly baked French bread and a good wine, was like being in heaven.
Speaking of minor miracles, an incident occurred when I was working at an Army base outside of Orleans which was about 60 miles south of Paris. It was in the French countryside which was virtually all farm land. For some reason French farmers had built 8-foot high concrete walls all along the road to enclose their farms, I guess. I would drive to work over back roads to save time and there would be nothing but concrete walls on either side of the road. It rarely snowed in France, at least when I was there, but one morning it did snow about 4 inches. Having no driving experience in the snow I drove to work that morning totally oblivious. Well at one point the car started skidding and I probably turned the wheel in the wrong direction as my feather weight car started heading toward the concrete wall. This, of course, was before seat belts so if I hit the wall I would have been flattened like a latke. But for some inexplicable reason there was about a 10 foot gap in the wall and I skidded right through the gap into a hayfield. There was nothing special or anything unusual to account for this gap, it was just there. Neither the car nor I were hurt and I managed to back it back onto the road. When I got to the office and told my story the Auditor-in Charge yelled at me for being so careless. “Do you know how much paper work I would have had to fill out if you were killed” he said compassionately.
As time wore on we became experts in French wines and cuisine. We would talk to American or British tourists on weekends on the Champs-Elysees or the Left Bank and advise them of small restaurants off the beaten path to go to, where the food was often better and the prices more reasonable than than the touristy type places. We always got visitors from our headquarters ( who would pass up a government paid-for trip to Paris?) and took them to dinner at our favorite spots while advising them on the best wines and dishes to order. We became more expert in French wines than audit techniques.
We bought our gasoline at Army bases because it was only $1.25 a gallon there versus about $4-5 a gallon at French stations(all those French taxes.) One time when I was driving back to work Sunday evening I had let myself get so low on gas that I knew I wouldn’t make it back unless I stopped at a French station. It was around dinner-time and no one was in attendance at the pumps. I kept honking my horn for service and was about to give up when an obese Frenchman came running out of the adjoining house with a napkin tucked in his collar and a drumstick clutched in one hand. He kept yelling the whole time about crazy Americans but he did fill up my tank.
The first Thanksgiving weekend there, I, with a group of friends from the office went to Berlin for the 4- day weekend. This was at the height of the cold war and the Berlin Wall dividing east and west Berlin. In front of the wall on the east side were Red army soldiers in green holding rifles pointed at the west. About 100 yards away were West German soldiers in blue pointing rifles at the east. German citizens were not allowed in this no-mans land area, but if you showed an American passport they did let you down there. I wandered into that area between the east and west soldiers pointing guns at each other. I asked an east German soldier if he would point his rifle directly at me and look menacing so I could take a better picture with my camera, and he obliged. That Christmas to New Years I went to Barcelona, Spain (I got 5 weeks of annual leave) and with no reservations I told the cab driver to take me to a nice hotel. When I asked for a room they told me they were completely booked except for the Presidential suite which had 2 king sized beds and many other amenities. But of course, I would not want a room that big and expensive. When I asked the price it came out to about $2.75 a night. I hemmed and and hawed and tried to appear reluctant lest they realize the had made a mistake and it was really $275 a night. Finally I said if they were absolutely sure they had nothing else I would be forced to take it since I needed a place to sleep that night.
Barcelona was gaily lit up for Christmas with strings of colored lights stretching over most streets and avenues and various parades and street dancing constantly going on. While there I met some Danish tourists with a daughter a couple of years younger than me. I asked her for a date, and arrived at the lobby of her hotel at the appointed time. Instead of the daughter being in the lobby the mother came down and in polite fashion and a smooth way started to grill me about what it was I was doing in Europe. She wanted to make sure her daughter was not about to go out with some bum. I started to go into the details of my job making it sound so very important (with some embellishment of course.) At one point I got so carried away that for the moment I thought I was going out with the mother instead of the daughter.
One Christmas to New Years I met some other people from the office in Rome and we drank our way through the various sites, sounds and festivities going on then. I visited Amsterdam where a big attraction was girls of the night that sat in windows for your selection. I think they still do. There was a restaurant in Amsterdam that served a 36 course meal. I went there and ordered “the works” and they brought 36 small dishes out on a cart that had 3 tiers. I went to many other places throughout Europe but by now I’m sure you get the picture.
In 1971 I took a 3 week vacation with my wife where we visited London, Paris, Vienna, Copenhagen (Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen to me is like the 8th wonder of the world), and Amsterdam. We had a wonderful time and fond memories but somehow being a tourist was not the same experience as living there. Especially when you’re young, like in you’re 20s.