Editor’s note: The following reminiscence was inspired by Guy Sprung’s poem, Food for Thought, published in this blog on Nov. 22, 2023.
It does bring back memories although nothing directly related. Everyone’s youthful experiences backpacking Europe are different enough that one is reminded that it happened rather than considering similarities.
I do remember waking up in a decommissioned hospital, in a crowded room full of squatters, with a beautiful naked woman scrunched against me in my sleeping bag. I was hung over and remembered the awkward feeling of lovemaking in public before we passed out.
I had difficulty understanding how such a beautiful woman (she was a model) ended up in my bag. The hospital was in the city of Haarlem, in the Netherlands, and the squatters were a group of free-thinking, free-loving hippies who assured me that staying in this building was legal and there was nothing the authorities could do as long as the squatters were present.
The woman was as flawed as she was beautiful. Over the next few days she increasingly saw me as a saviour from her insecurities and addictions — to alcohol and sex. I did what I could before once again hitting the road on my unsuccessful trip to Israel. I ran out of money in Greece, sold my blood and caught a ride back to Holland where I hung out on a cold, rainy beach by Bloemendaal until I could rebook my flight home to Canada.
The model eventually convinced me to return to Holland, forfeiting a plan I had made with my buddy to learn how to sail by working the boats in Vancouver then buying a boat to see the world.
I spent 10 months trying to learn Dutch and freezing in an attic suite I shared with the model. I bought a van from an artist and converted it into a mobile home and I met the model’s family — four sisters, the oldest of whom was born the last year of the war and subsequently caught polio, which gave her a limp and twisted one hand, but she was still beautiful, kind and smart. The other three sisters, a set of identical twins and one 10 months older who was indistinguishable from the other two, enjoyed teasing this awkward Canadian prairie boy who was made bashful by their beauty and sexuality.
I helped the oldest sister, recently a new mom, as her small family moved from the 10th-floor apartment to a 100-year-old classy home in the suburbs. I rewired the house for modern appliances and converted what had been three individual suites into a single, large and stately home.
I slept each night with Jeannette in my van and most nights we would sit in smoky bars while other guys would try to pick her up the drunker she got. They were sometimes successful and her sister would lecture her for treating me so poorly.
Jeannette’s father loved Canada and Canadians, and treated me like I was the young Canadian soldier who one night in early 1945 — when Jeannette’s oldest sister was days away from starving to death because the Germans were withholding food from the Dutch of Kampen — braved sniper fire to cross a steel bridge and thrust a box of goodies into his desperate arms.
The family convinced me to bring Jeannette with me when I returned to Canada, hoping getting her away from the streets of Haarlem could be her salvation. I borrowed money from the hometown TD and bought her a return ticket to Ottawa.
It was clear within days of her coming to Canada that the damage was too great for the fresh air to fix. My oldest sister, in Ottawa, told me she could tell within minutes we were wrong for each other. Jeannette tried not to drink but the doors to the bars were too easily entered and there was always someone there to buy her a drink. She went back to the Netherlands after meeting my family and visiting Banff.
We wrote back and forth a few times, but both of us read the clear messages between the lines. When I next went travelling, I went south instead of east and the lines went silent.
I did get a letter from one of her sisters, the one who looked like the twins. I picked up my mail at the Canadian Embassy in Lima and there was the letter telling me she was going to be in Peru and she hoped we could connect. The letter was almost a year old and there was no way for me to know if or when she actually came.
My parents later told me they were contacted by a woman in Holland who asked where I was and they told her I was in Peru. They were also contacted by a desperate woman in Switzerland who spoke only German and wanted me to explain what happened to her daughter who had travelled with me in America. And a woman from Denmark came to my hometown to ask where I was.
Besides the letter, my Lima mail included a notice of a small package which, after a day at the post office refusing to pay a bribe, I eventually opened to find a note from my sister, a small cheap camera and a ten dollar bill that my sister asked I use to buy her something.
That $10 was actually from Viviane, whom I had never met but who was my sister’s roommate and landlord. When my oldest sister learned of Viviane she told me that she knew within minutes that she was the right one for me. My parents, brother, and other sister, however, all warned Viv to stay away from me because of all those people who were trying to track me down. (The jury is still out on that. It’s been 44 years and we’re still pretty happy together, but one always hates to be presumptuous.)
The friend I deserted to go back to Jeannette learned how to sail, bought a boat and saw the world from the deck of a catamaran.
OK, I admit it, Guy’s poem did make me reminisce.
Below: Jeannette, right, and two of her sisters.
Second photo: Jeannette on her visit to Banff.