Many of those that read my book, The Flight of a Wild Duck, said they enjoyed the personal stories very much and wanted more of that. So I am augmenting my book with a few such stories. Here is one.
After checking into a pension on the eighth floor of a commercial building, I began to explore the streets of Barcelona. Although the city is now a renowned gourmet capital, it was far from that in 1964. Instead, it was a bustling working-class port city with a slightly intimidating atmosphere. The sun had set around 7 pm, and I easily got lost. As a 19-year-old, slender young man with long hair and a bushy beard, I was pursuing a dream that would soon morph into a nightmare.
Upon returning to the building housing the pension, I was dismayed to find the main door locked, with no apparent way to get in. The square and streets across the building bustled with people, as was common even late at night in Spain. As I repeatedly failed to open the door, a stranger approached me from the street. He spoke Spanish, which I couldn’t understand, but gestured for me to stand on the street and clap my hands. Initially, I thought he was playing a prank, but eventually, I complied. Standing on a crowded street, clapping loudly, I felt foolish. However, an elderly man carrying a huge ring of keys soon arrived, unlocked the door, and let me in. Relieved, I took the elevator to the hostel, where I found my bed and contemplated the enormity of the journey I had embarked upon, which I would later consider foolhardy.
I had traveled to Spain to learn Spanish, immerse myself in its culture, and await the arrival of my girlfriend, H., after she graduated from high school. H. was turning 17, and her arrival was nearly a year away. Fluent in Spanish, H.’s father’s family hailed from Spain. I had intended to learn the language before she arrived so that I could express my love for her in Spanish. However, that dream would never come to fruition.
H. and I had met a year earlier on her sixteenth birthday. Our mutual friend Betty had invited me to join them for the evening, likely hoping I would give her a ride home later. When it was time to drop off Betty, I asked H. if she wanted to come along. I was already smitten with the kind of love only the young experience – first love. After dropping off Betty, H. and I parked the car in a secluded spot and kissed passionately. From that moment, we were inseparable and deeply in love. H. was strikingly beautiful, intelligent, and talented. She could have pursued a career in science or mathematics, but singing was her passion. I would accompany her on the piano as she sang The Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, an enchanting piece for soprano and eight cellos composed by Brazilian composer Villa-Lobos, which I played in a piano arrangement.
Though H.’s parents liked me, they disapproved of the seriousness of our relationship, particularly since we were sexually active. We wanted to be honest with them and share our love, but their reaction was unfavorable. The situation grew tense, prompting us to devise a plan to move to Spain. In reality, it was more of a fantasy than a plan; we had not considered what we would do once we arrived, assuming we would continue studying music.
As a merchant seaman, I had saved some money but needed to spend it cautiously. The most affordable way to fly to Europe at the time was via Icelandic Airlines. They operated a weekly flight from LaGuardia Airport in New York to Luxembourg via Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital. To reach LaGuardia, I took a budget flight on TWA, which stopped in Tulsa and Kansas City. As a smoker, I likely consumed two packs of Kent cigarettes during the flight.
Upon arriving at La Guardia Airport, I had to wait a few hours before boarding the Icelandic Airlines flight. The waiting area teemed with young people my age, many of whom were backpackers. The plane, a DC-06 propeller aircraft, accommodated around 80 passengers. The eight-hour flight to Iceland was followed by an hour-long layover before continuing to Luxembourg, a journey of approximately 20 hours in total. We were expected to arrive in Luxembourg in the early evening.
However, heavy headwinds forced our flight to make an unscheduled stop at Goose Bay, Canada—the same location where numerous planes landed on 9/11 when US airspace closed. After a few hours spent refueling and waiting out the storm, we finally proceeded to Iceland, landing four hours behind schedule.
I made friends with several passengers, which helped pass the time. After spending a few hours in Iceland, we continued to Luxembourg, arriving at 3 am due to the delays. I barely remember Luxembourg Airport, but it must have been quite small. A bus transported us to the town center’s train station, where I planned to catch a train to Paris to meet my friend Mike, who had studied guitar in Barcelona.
The first train to Paris wasn’t scheduled until 7 am, so a few of us lingered at the station, growing hungry until we could exchange money and buy food hours later. In those days, it took four hours to travel from Luxembourg to Paris by train—nowadays, it likely takes half that time. The first train would get us to Paris around 11 am.
Onboard the train, I sat beside a young woman named Maria, of Philippine descent but living in the USA. She was quite pretty and fell asleep with her head on my shoulder. I gently stroked her hair, and despite finding her attractive, I remained committed to H.
Upon reaching Paris’s Gare de l’Est, Maria and I decided to share a taxi to the Left Bank. As we drove through Paris for the first time, I marveled at the city’s beauty and grandeur, unaware that I would return a year later with a broken heart to live there.
Upon arriving at Gare de l’Est in Paris, Maria and I shared a taxi to the Left Bank. The city’s beauty and grandeur left a deep impression on me, though I couldn’t have known I would return with a broken heart a year later to live there. My piano teacher and friend, Jan, had recommended a hotel on Boulevard Raspail, and after some confusion regarding my reservation, I checked in under my then-name, Arnold Goldfinger.
After settling in, I ventured out to find food. Though I spoke no French, I managed to order a meal at a nearby Chinese restaurant. Later, I met up with Mike, who showed me around Paris and shared his knowledge of Spain.
A few days later, I boarded an overnight train to Barcelona, a 15-hour journey. Once there, I began setting up my life for the year. I enrolled in a Spanish language school and found a room to rent. As I explored the city, I grew increasingly homesick for Holly.
Missing H. consumed me, and I couldn’t comprehend why I’d chosen to spend a year apart from her. I eventually called her from a post office and confessed my desire to return. Though she sounded disappointed, I was determined to go back. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had stayed in Barcelona.
Inexplicably, I booked a bus trip to Munich for Oktoberfest. After two days of travel and a brief stay in Lyon, France, I found accommodations in Munich. However, I quickly realized Oktoberfest wasn’t for me. Not only was I uninterested in the festival and beer, but I realized that every man I saw forty years or older was probably a former Nazi.
I returned to Paris by train, a 12-hour journey, and booked a flight back to San Francisco with Pan Am. At the time, direct flights were unavailable, so we stopped in Ireland before continuing to New York and finally San Francisco.
My relationship with H. lasted another year before she ended it, influenced by friends and family who believed she was too young for commitment. Heartbroken, I saw the film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and decided to move to Paris. A week later, I was on my way.
Nice to hear such stories:)
The breadth of our experiences shapes the depth of our wisdom. What a great story.