Friends, Together Again

The year was 1980 and I was world traveling with no direction home.  Life was simple.  I carried a motorcycle tank pack and a bamboo mat with a hand-made Greek blanket rolled into it.  I had no camera or sunscreen—it wasn’t around then. Worldkid had arrived.  I also had a Dutch girlfriend who had the most beautiful, big blue eyes that I had ever seen.  I was enchanted.  We had met on a terrace in Paris while waiting for the Magic Bus that was to arrive from London and then head onward to Athens.mb The Magic Bus was an alternative bus service for travelers on the cheap.  From the 1960s to the early 1980s, the buses roamed all over Europe, did the overland route from Istanbul through Afghanistan and on to India and Nepal, and also made North Africa stops in Morocco and Egypt.  It was definitely alternative travelling.  Passengers would light candles and incense in the aisles at night and play guitars and flutes to pass the miles away.  Young mothers would string up their babies from the ceiling in Mayan hammocks or Indian shawls and let the road motion rock their infants to sleep.  On our bus, there was a Brit who we called Magic Steve.  He would arrange things. Whenever we approached a border Steve would come down the aisle calling for all illegal substances to be deposited in a large bag that he carried.  At the border control, Magic Steve would suddenly disappear while all the passengers had their passports checked.  These were the days before the European Union so every country had their own border stations and currency.  Once the customs officials did their repeated stamping, the bus would be humming away again.  Five miles down the road, Magic Steve would return passports to everyone along with any personal items collected before the border.

My Dutch girlfriend (the one with the amazing blue eyes) and I reached Athens and checked into the 2-star Hotel Carolina.  She knew this grand city well from previous visits and showed me the Parthenon, the first Olympic stadium of the modern era and introduced me to retsina, that distinctively Greek white wine with a strong pine resin flavor.  Days later she left for her restaurant job on the island of Kos while I followed the movable feast of Magic Bus travelers ferryboat hopping to the Greek islands of Paros, Antiparos and Santorini in the Aegean Sea.  But after too many nights of ouzo and debauchery, I decided to travel to Kos to gaze into the most beautiful big blues eyes in the world.  I was still smitten.  When my new Dutch girlfriend learned that I was Istanbul bound, she asked if she could join me.  That was the nicest question I was ever asked.  She quit her restaurant job the next day and we boarded a Mickey Mouse boat to the Asian Coast.  We visited Izmir, the ruins at Ephesus, and the Black Sea.  We went to off-the-road places that had not yet been invaded by mass tourism where village children and women would fondle the flowing blond hair of my Dutch girlfriend like they had never seen the color before.  I was content to simply stare into her amazing blue eyes.

We reached Istanbul, saw dancing bears in the street, dined nightly on grilled shish kebab washed down with cold Efes beer, and stood in awe within the amazing domes of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia.  But when the Turkish prime minister was suddenly assassinated, Istanbul turned into an armed camp.  It was time to get out of Dodge.  Five days later on our third attempt we finally elbowed our way onto a bus.  We headed to the Greek border town of Thessaloniki, passed the amazing monastery of Meteora perched high in the Greece’s Pindus Mountains, and hopped a ferry to the Isle of Corfu.  We built a rock shelter on a remote beach and joined a vagabond community of French and Australian travelers.

After two weeks of bliss, another ferry took us to Brindisi, the very bottom of the boot heel of Italy.  It was there we met a guy named Erich from Switzerland who was heading north as we were.  And we also serendipitously ran into Magic Steve leaning on the fender of a northbound Magic Bus awaiting takeoff.  My Dutch girlfriend went up to Steve and asked him if he could get her aboard.  Being the arranger, he said no problem.  Then my Dutch girlfriend pointed to Erich and I standing nearby and told him that she was traveling with two guys who also needed passage.  Magic Steve must have stared into her amazing blue eyes for too long.  A half hour later the three of us were headed along Italy’s eastern coast as the Magic Bus growled northward.

We traveled the entire length of Italy, through the Swiss Alps hemorrhaging with silver strands of waterfalls, and onto Zürich, Erich’s hometown.  Upon arrival there, my Dutch girlfriend and I said goodbye to Magic Steve.  It was the last time we ever saw him.  We then started to look around for a public park to camp in for the night was nearly upon us.  Erich approached and asked us of he could buy us dinner.  We didn’t have a Swiss franc to our names and had not eaten a meal for a day and a half.  The park bench could wait.

We went to a typical Swiss restaurant of wooden beams and low ceilings.  The three of us gorged ourselves on hearty soup, homemade bread and cheese with an aroma that would scare away a cow but one I could not stop eating because of its heavenly taste. After dinner, Erich invited us to stay with him at his communal living quarters in the nearby village of Zumikon.  We spent a week in his lovely Swiss farmhouse complex and met his housemates Kristoff and Irene.  When my Dutch girlfriend and I bid Erich goodbye, little did the three of us know that we were to become life long friends, but that is indeed what transpired.  We saw each other sporadically over the next three decades—back in Zürich, in Amsterdam, then in New Mexico, and also on a three-day adventure of a lifetime down and up in the Grand Canyon. Erich was also one of the first people to know about our son, Sebastian, when his girlfriend, Barbara, took a sample to her Zürich lab in late 1983 and discovered that my Dutch girlfriend was pregnant.

But it was now 2013.  We had not seen Erich in over a decade and only had heard from him a couple of times through email.  My Dutch girlfriend, now my spouse for over thirty years, suggested I contact him about our upcoming visit to Europe.  It turned out that Erich would be in Amsterdam the very day we arrived from the DSC00286Caribbean.  We met for drinks at the VOC Café near the harbor and later for a great dinner at the Waag, the five hundred year old weigh station that is now a restaurant.  We laughed, got caught up with our respective lives, reminisced and laughed some more.  Erich was the first friend that we mutually had.  It was great to share him again after so many years.  I was finished with my glass of wine and looking at those two.  My old friend Erich, smiling as he always did but now with pure white hair.  And at my Dutch girlfriend who still has the most beautiful, big blue eyes that I have ever seen. It has been one long, great run.DSC00284

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