Sunday Natterings: strange foreign entanglements
George Washington warned us against foreign entanglements. Yet I have to say, sometimes they can be funny, scary, strange, crazy, or beautiful. Watching the Olympics, I thought of a few entanglements out of my past.
- While hitchhiking from London to Harwich to catch the ferry to Holland, I was relieved when a man driving a spotless Jaguar sedan gave me a ride. I told him where I was headed and said I was worried about missing the boat. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’m their chef. They won’t leave without me.”
- The moment I stepped inside a French street urinal to use the facilities, a group of women walked into it chattering away as though I were invisible. Or maybe I was just another ugly American. I think they were trying to use the fully visible urinal on the other side, but “sacre bleu!” it seemed impolite to see how they were accomplishing that. I thought of humming a memorable song from “Casablaca” and saying, “We’ll always have Paris.”
- Another American and I stopped in a London pub, found seats at the bar and ordered whatever was on tap. Presently, a working man came up and kept saying in a Cockney accent I couldn’t decypher, something like “Lor’ luv a duck! A John’s walle’ is cushy ‘o nick ou’ ov a back pocke’.” I had no clue. After the bartender translated that I was being warned that a man’s wallet is easy to steal if he keeps it in his back pocket, I bought the man a pint, we toasted goodness knows what, and I put my wallet in another pocket.
After a crash course in Dutch, my volunteer group in the Netherlands followed the sailboat races selling lottery tickets to raise money for our project. I saw a couple of college girls and asked if they’d buy a lottery ticket. “Spreekt u Engels?” they asked hopefully. “Sure,” I said. Turned out they were tourists from Florida and were stunned to find out I was also from Florida. Small world. They didn’t buy a ticket. Later, our group worked at the ship yard to help restore a ship to be re-used as a school. Always wearing old clothes, I was amazed by the number of times tourists came up to me at railway stations, bus stops, and random street corners and said, “Spreekt u Engels?” because they wanted directions to some place or other. I’m sure looking like a local kept me out of more trouble than I’ll ever know.
- While flying over Vietnam in 1969 between the aircraft carrier and Da Nang with nine other men in a small, unarmed Navy plane I was, like everyone else, curious about the view. As we approached the airport, the pilot said, “Gentlemen, there’s been a bit of mortar activity from those hills lately, so I’d advise backing away from the windows.” An ancient chief petty officer said, “If they shoot us down, the last thing I’m worrying about is a shower of broken glass.”
After a long day of group sightseeing in Rome, Bob and I decided we weren’t ready to call it quits, so we walked around after dark, enjoying the sights and glasses of wine at various places along the way. When we got lost, Bob suggested we ask a couple of seductive women leaning against a lamp post (how trite!) if they could give us directions to our hotel. “Bad idea,” I said, but it was too late. They grabbed us as though we were old friends (with benefits) and offered to take us to their hotel for the night. After a lot of swearing, they finally agreed to lead us back to our pensione. When we were asked what happened to us, it was hard to live down Bob’s explanation to the group that we got so turned around we needed a couple of hookers to help us find our way in the dark.
- When a snitty sales lady in a London shop told me “You Americans talk funny,” I said in the thickest Southern accent I could manage, “Bless your heart, Shug, y’all talk funny around here, too.” She didn’t think that was funny. Later, in one of those Berlin restaurants with long communal tables, a clueless American at our table from North Carolina with an accent so thick I had a hard time understanding him blurted out, “Ain’t it a kick, a few years back, all these people here would have been Nazis.” You could have heard a pin drop. I said, “Ich kenne diesen Mann nicht,” and got the hell out of there.
- While riding a small steam locomotive train across East Germany to Berlin long before the wall came down, we were annoyed when guards boarded at almost every stop and demanded more “visa money.” I gave them what they wanted. When an angry American shouted at them in profanity filled English, informing them that they were a bunch of thieves, they hauled him off the train. When the guards looked at me, I said, “Ich kenne diesen bösen Mann [bad man] nicht,” and they actually smiled before they got the hell out of there.
- Hong Kong was my favorite liberty port. Fortunately, a family friend who was a missionary and fluent in Cantonese gave me a tour of off-the-beaten-track sites. Every time kids passed on the street, they scowled at me and shouted, “Gweilo, gweilo.” “They’re calling you a foreign devil,” she said. I guess my Navy uniform gave me away.
- During a memorable horseback ride in the Alberta mountains, we rode up toward the summit on a sunny day and were surprised to find falling snow. Better yet, we were within a snowbow, the first and last one I’ve ever seen. My horse’s name as “Flame,” and that seemed appropriate.
While walking back to the ship during liberty call in Yokosuka, Japan, I got caught in a late night rain storm. Much to my surprise, a bar girl stepped out of nowhere with a red umbrella that matched her sexy red dress and offered to escort me to the pier. When I said I was broke, she said, “No matter, slow night anyway.” She grabbed my arm and stayed so close she provoked catcalls from the flight deck when we reached the ship. She gave me a kiss and said, “Tell your friends we hot lovers.” I think that was a defining moment, but I’m not sure what it defined. It would have made an iconic photograph…the rain, the street lights, the sailor, the girl…
- Most people who have been there, don’t believe me when I say that a bunch of us went swimming in the oily, heavily polluted Amsterdam harbor. That might have been the same day we enjoyed free samples at the Heineken Brewery. The local hosts on our motor barge who told us not to do it, jumped in, too, when they saw us pretending to drink the water. “If you end up in the hospital, Hank and Truus, we don’t know you anymore.”
When my wife and I were driving our rental car in Waterton Park, Alberta, we stopped along the shoulder of the road where bighorn sheep were panhandling for food. One of them stuck his head in the driver’s side window and got his horns caught. It took both of us to twist his head enough to set him free.
- Wearing bright yellow wooden Dutch shoes on the Champs-Élysées attracts more attention than one might expect. The fact that the group had wine for lunch and dared me to do it might have been at fault because people who know me could testify that normally I would never do such a thing.
- Back when people still took passenger ships from New York to England, I saw the Statue of Liberty from the ship as we left port. It’s a sight I’ll never forget and more memorable than everything else from Hong Kong to Paris to infinity and beyond.