RobWiddowson

Author of Heaven's Tale

Taking Europe by Storm

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Here’s a post that describes a memorable tour through Europe: from communing with Nobel-prize winners to armed robbery in Paris to pulling into Athens in a luxury railroad car and chatting with Achilles in the afternoon sun, all topped off with a mile-high tryst on the way home.

Taking Europe by Storm

        Back in the lab, I was trying to deal with another road-block to using algae to produce hydrogen as an energy source. When I tested my cells to see how much they could produce, I put a measured amount of cells in solution in a chamber that had probes to measure both oxygen and hydrogen. At first I’d keep the chamber dark during which time all the oxygen would be used up and the hydrogenase enzyme would be activated. Then I’d shine a very bright light on the cells, and they would start photosynthesizing rapidly. The electrons and protons would be shunted to hydrogen gas, and the amount rose rapidly. But of course, oxygen was being produced at the same time so not long after, its levels would deactivate the hydrogenase, and H2 gas production would stop. All I was getting was a short burst. I solved this problem by modifying my chamber. I added an input line at the bottom and slowly fed in nitrogen gas so it bubbled through the cells. Nitrogen is inert and doesn’t affect photosynthesis, but it stripped the other gases out of the chamber as soon as they were produced by photosynthesis. That way, oxygen never built up enough to de-activate the hydrogenase enzyme. And in the outpouring gas, I had oxygen and hydrogen which together made an excellent source of energy that is non-polluting; the waste product is water. I pictured a little chimney on top of my chamber with a flame burning at the top like a candle – a biological fuel cell. And I could keep this system operating, producing both gases for 4.5 hours. I was starting to make progress.

About this time, we got word of that the International Congress on Photosynthesis was being held in Brussels during the last week of June 1983. Held every seven years, this was the ultimate meeting in our field. More than 1,000 specialists would convene for ten days and discuss the cutting edge of every facet of photosynthesis. All the stars of the field would be there and so would David and I. And after attending, we would stay in Europe for another eight weeks, traveling. I got a donation for the trip from Mabel Wandelt, and David made out our itinerary.

We left a week early and flew into Heathrow in England, where our old labmate Curt picked us up and brought us to the house that he and his wife had in the suburbs. We spent a pleasant few days with them, playing tourist in London, then took the hovercraft to France. From there we boarded a train that dropped us at the Gare Central in Brussels, just a few blocks from my old apartment.

When I arrived in Brussels this time, I was a success. The Congress opened the next day, so David and I took a tram out to the University where we checked in and were assigned housing – a little house that we shared with six other guys — three professors and three other graduate students. We all hit it off right away; it was a great start to a great event.

The program describing the addresses, panels, and presentations over the next nine days ran over 100 pages. Many events were held concurrently and decisions had to be made. David and I both spent hours poring over the listings, each mapping out separate schedules. And nothing disappointed. From the opening keynote address by Lynn Margulis, every event reached heights of information. For everyone who had dedicated their careers to Photosynthesis – some for 4 or 5 years like David and me, some for 40 or 50 – gave and took information freely. And after the formal daily sessions were over, the informal discussions took place at night. For all of us who were obsessed with the topic, it was a dream come true. It was certainly the high point of my scientific career.

And I was in Brussels. I managed to track down Josette and Bill, the family from the old restaurant/bar where I’d worked. I ducked away from the Congress early one afternoon and met up with them. We spent a few hours reminiscing, and I could tell that they were surprised and delighted at the changes in me. Nine years before I’d been self-destructing to the point of nearly total collapse, drunk every single day. Now I was a successful young scientist on my way up, and I hadn’t had a drink for five years. It was the supreme irony that I would start up again the following night.

It was the end of the Congress. David and I took a room downtown to spend a few more days seeing the city. Of course I wanted to show off for him a little too. And Belgium is arguably the beer center of the universe. They have dark cherry beer brewed by monks, light beer, dark beer – great beer. So when David suggested that I join him, I agreed – just a few sips. But then I started showing him some old haunts around the city. Within two days we both were staggering through the streets, laughing and singing and carrying on. It was going to be a helluva trip.

We took a train to Paris and checked into an old–fashioned hotel on the Left Bank. Our room was in a former garret on the fourth floor with a beautiful view through the dormer window. Only one other room was located on the fourth floor. We spent the next two days sight-seeing and exploring Paris, The Rodin Museum, The Pompidou Center & Les Halles, the Cluny Museum. At the base of the Eiffel Tower we had a choice of elevator or stairs. David, who was also in great shape, challenged me to jog the stairs all the way to the top. We made it.

Indeed, I had decided to swim as much as possible on the trip, and our guide book recommended the Piscine Deligny.  It turned out to be a barge moored on the Seine in the heart of the city. The pool sat in a huge atrium surrounded by two stories of changing booths, bars, and lots of area to lay out tanning. The place was packed, mostly with beautiful women who lay topless and sometimes bottomless all over the deck. I fit right in with my tiny Speedo. After I finished my laps, I found that everywhere I looked, beautiful undressed women were giving me the eye. Paris was a great place to swim.

One night we went to dinner on the Ile St. Louis behind Notre Dame. It was a little tiny place that served all-you-can –eat gourmet food. It was truly Le Grand Bouffe. At the table next to us say two gorgeous women and a man, a married couple who was feting her sister on her birthday. We started by speaking French but switched to English for David’s sake. Both tables ate and ate, also drank and drank. By 1:00 am, we were all sloshed, and they offered to show us the town. We wound up at a very hip disco that was unfortunately nearly empty on a Tuesday night. I had my dancing shoes, so the birthday girl and I hit the floor while the other three continued the serious drinking at the bar. She was wearing a tight low-cut dress, and the spaghetti straps kept slipping off her shoulders completely exposing her breasts. The more it happened, the slower she got at putting her straps right. Finally, she took my hand and led me down a flight of stairs to the ladies room, where without too much trouble, we had furious sex in one of the stalls. They finally dropped us off at the hotel around 4 am. Happy Birthday indeed.

The next day, David and I slept in and went for a late lunch. After touring Notre Dame, we went back to the hotel and discovered that somebody was moving into the room opposite ours on the 4th floor. Bags and packs piled in the hall and the door wide open. While we fumbled for our keys, two lovely women emerged. We all introduced ourselves with the air full of hormones. The next day, David and I went to Montmarte, the area behind Sacre Coeur, the church on the hill. It’s a bohemian section, and the main square is filled with artists selling drawings and paintings. At that time, I was drawing a lot. I did original Christmas and Birthday cards, and I often gave matted drawings for gifts. For this trip, I had purchased three big sketch pads, pens and pencils and had already nearly filled one. I’d done quick portraits, landscapes, and city scenes. Some were good, some were awful, but I was trying to develop a skill; it was all practice. The hardest part was doing it in public because people would always come looking over your shoulder. It was hard not to get inhibited.

As we strolled through the square in Montmarte, we came to a booth filled with drawings and water-colors of old houses in Paris. It reminded me that I had often drawn sketches of friend’s homes as gifts. They were relatively easy to draw and personal. When I saw this man’s work, I realized that I could draw and paint just as well as he could and that, if I wanted, I could run away to Paris and live a romantic and bohemian life in Montmarte. I found the notion that such an option was available to me very comforting somehow, so I bought a small watercolor of a house for about 50 francs. It hung on my walls for years as a reminder to me that, anytime I wanted, I could go to Montmarte and live as an artist.

At dusk we went back to Sacre Coeur and watched the lights of Paris flick on throughout the city spread below us. It was so romantic. When we got back to the hotel, we heard the girls next door rattling around, so we went over and asked them to dinner. David and I had noticed a cool-looking restaurant in Montmarte. Theresa and Gabriella were happy to join us. It featured North African food and served French wine, and soon we were all four very drunk. What was becoming the usual thing for us soon happened. The owner and his family sat down with us, other diners joined in, and soon we had a party going on around us in this charming, romantic bistro in the heart of Paris.

It was after 3 am when the four of us staggered out into the cobble stone streets, and we wended our way back to Sacre Coeur to gaze on the beauty of Paris Below. As we sat on the steps alone, two young, Middle-Eastern looking men approached. They asked in broken English if we wanted to buy some Hashish. David quickly answered yes, and they motioned us to a side terrace. He led, I stayed a little behind, and the girls stood up but remained in the back. When we got to the terrace, one of the guys reached in his pocket and pulled out a knife. They wanted to rob us. I started talking fast to them in French, told them that David and I were strong, and that, even if they could overpower us, the girls would be screaming for help and that there were bound to be police nearby and that they would be caught and that we had just had a wonderful night with their country man at his restaurant and that we had a great impression of Arabs. Amazingly the guy put the knife back in his pocket, and the two of them slunk off.

The girls had seen the knife, and they were frightened. They wanted to know what I’d said, what was going on. We talked excitedly for a few minutes, then we realized that David had vanished. At first we thought foul play, but we would have noticed some commotion. We had no idea what to do. After waiting about 30 minutes, we decided to go back to the hotel. If he wasn’t there, we’d call the police. But there we found him in bed, sleeping like a baby. It would not be the 1st time that David would disappear.

The next day, we dealt with hangovers in the morning, and I led the crowd to Piscine Deligny in the afternoon. If anything, it was even sexier than the first time. Every Parisian showgirl was there trying to bronze every square inch – tiny string bikini bottoms untied. Some gorgeous men strutted around in tiny bikinis. I was in good company with my Speedo. The girls were wearing one-piece suits which they immediately pulled to their waists. They were both on fire, cheeks blushed, licking lips. I got into the pool and started my laps. I pushed hard and did 1 ½ miles, showing off a little. When I finished and jumped out of the pool, every muscle stood out, and my skin was pink from exertion. Suddenly I realized that every eye in the place was watching me. For that one brief moment, I felt like the most beautiful man in the world. That night at the hotel, Theresa knocked on our door late. We sat in the hall at the top of the stairs while our roommates went to bed. After about 30 minutes of chit chat, we started kissing and ended up having sex right there in the hall. What was it about Paris?

The next day, David and I rented a car and headed south for a tour of France. The girls only had a few days left on their trip, and they agreed to join us. We camped on the grounds of an 11th century castle; we had our tent, and they had theirs. There was a small swimming pool, and after I did my laps, Theresa and I found some privacy in the changing room. That night we ate at a fabulous 3-star country restaurant. The next night, David and I rented a room in the castle itself. It was all one room with two beds. David and Gabriella were kind enough to take a long walk so Theresa and I had a chance to make love in an 11th century dwelling. Later on in the dark of the night, we repeated the performance. The next day we regretfully dropped the girls at a train station where they could make their way back home to San Francisco. David and I spent another week touring France – Mount St. Michel, Bordeaux, Loire Valley, Arles, and Carcasson – winding up in Cannes where we ate bouillabaise and said goodbye to France.

We passed through Monaco on our way to Florence, Italy where we found a nice campground about ten miles out of town. For three days we drove into town and visited tourist attractions. A highlight for me was when we went to see Michelangelo’s ‘David’, and the guard gave me his chair so I could sketch. I think Florence was my favorite destination of the whole trip. On the third night, we had a late dinner and drank too much wine. We were pretty drunk as we strolled in front of the Uffizi Palace, and I don’t how the argument started, but suddenly we were screaming at one another. Finally, David stalked to the far end of the plaza, heaved the car keys into the park and took off running down a side street. It took me a long time to find the keys and longer to find the car. Somehow I managed to find my way out of the city and back to our tent. I watched for David the whole way but no sign of him. I was worried when I went to sleep, but when I woke in the morning, there he was, asleep beside me snoring. He told me later that he had no idea how he got back.

We continued to tour Italy, camping one night outside Milan and three nights at Venice where I fell in love with its labyrinthine streets, alleys, and bridges. We drove north and through some spectacular passes into Switzerland where we camped for a few days in a beautiful country town about thirty miles east of St. Moritz. Incredibly, this little town had an indoor swimming pool with thermal glass walls so you could gaze out on the mountains while you swam.

It was while we camped here that David and I had a major falling out. I had brought two little tabs of LSD with me and suggested that this would be an excellent and peaceful spot to take them. David flipped out. I shouldn’t have carried it; we could have been caught; how could I put him in such risk. I had them well hidden and hadn’t really considered the risk. He was right, and I tried to apologize, but he never recovered. I pretended to throw them away, but kept them for what would prove to be an amazing adventure.

From Switzerland, we drove through another high and spectacular pass into Australia. We spent one night camping in the Lake District, a local resort area with long narrow lakes in steep valleys. Then we drove onto Salzburg, home to Mozart, for two days. Finally we arrived at Vienna where we turned in the car and checked into a hostel for four days. Besides drinking a lot of wine, Vienna left us cold, especially compared to Paris and Florence. I did visit a coffee house where Leon Trotsky used to hang out. David and I spent an afternoon waiting in line for standing-room tickets to the Grand Opera House. I brought my sketch pad and did some decent portraits of some of the women who waited with us. We saw Mozart’s “The Magic Flute“, and it was amazing.

Then one morning we packed our bags and got on a train headed to Athens, a thirty-hour trip. We brought lots of bread, cheese, and of course wine. In our compartment was a young Greek man who spoke excellent English, and we really hit it off. We passed into Yugoslavia (where border guards with machine guns searched our compartment) and passed through enormous cultivated fields tended by hordes of traditionally dressed folk with big snow-capped mountains in the distance, all the while discussing Greek culture and history. Our friend introduced us to the poetry of George Seferis, and we read passages back and forth from a volume that he carried and later presented to me. Of course we ate and drank copiously, and when we pulled into the station at the Albanian Border about midnight, we were all well into our cups. We stepped out on the platform to smoke and noticed that an extra car was being added to the train. Our friend spoke to the conductor who said that it was a luxury sleeping car that they were transporting to Athens. A small bribe and it was ours. The three of us moved into something like the Orient Express — wood paneling, easy chairs, plush couches, indirect lighting, and four comfortable beds. All the other passengers had to sleep sitting up in their compartments. We entered Athens in style.

David and I got a hotel room and spent the next two days exploring — The Agora, theater of Dionysius. We visited the Parthenon, then he suggested we split up for the rest of the trip and meet back at the same hotel in a week. He went north to visit the oracle at Delphi. I headed south to a lovely seaside town called Naufplion to commune with Agamemnon. It was a four-hour boat ride from Athens through the bright blue waters of the Mediterranean. The town itself was a harbor with an ancient stone quay across the entire seafront. The town rose steeply up a cliff to the back. I rented a little studio apartment close to the waterside and settled in. A trail cut into the cliff high above the water led out of town and into a neighboring cove with a sandy beach, and for two days I hung out there, romping in the surf and swimming the length of the beach. At night I ate Greek food — it was as good as I remembered from the Pigeon Plume in Brussels — and strolled the streets.

After spending three days in town I took a 9 AM bus to Mycenae. It was crowded with local farmers, and I finally found a seat in the back in front of two trussed chickens and next to a small goat. The countryside was dry, and dust clouds rose up along the side of the road where we passed. At one point we crossed over a straight canal about 200 yards wide that disappeared in both directions. The bus stopped frequently, and after about forty-five minutes we dropped off the last Greek passenger in a little village that sat in front of a hill much bigger than the rest. It stood about seven hundred feet high. The bus climbed a narrow road at its base that ended at a gate set in a grove of small trees. The seven of us on the bus got off to join a small crowd at the entrance. The owner reminded us that buses left from here every two hours, the last at four PM. Then he turned around and sped off.

This was the city of Homer’s Agamemnon, father of Clytemnestra, who ruled here about 1200 BC. Here, the unbearable Greek tragedies of matricide, fratricide, cannibalism, and child sacrifice had taken place. The city was small – about four city blocks — and walled; the front section still existed. We clustered around the guide who collected a fee from each of us and started the tour. The dirt road inside the fence was steep for a while then turned and ran around the hill. Huge stone blocks stacked fifteen feet high on both sides of the road marked the Lion’s Gate, entrance to the site. Here the road was paved with more enormous slabs of stone, and the guide pointed out grooves about four inches deep that had been worn into the rock by chariot wheels over the thousand years Mycenae was occupied. The city rose steeply up the side of the hill and had been terraced. The stone wall surrounding it was broken in most places, but you could see that it formed a square about a hundred and fifty yards on each side. Right in the center, a set of wide stone stairs rose straight up the hill through the middle of town. The guide pointed out the site of King Agamemnon’s palace way up near the top of the stairs. He also showed us how each stone step was concave, worn from the tread of countless feet over millenia. The guide pointed out several more interesting features of the site and about an hour later, left us to explore on our own.

I climbed the stairs to the site of the palace and ate one tab of LSD. I washed it down with a soft drink and sat on the steps to wait.  The breeze blew hot and strong along the side of the hill. The valley below stretched far into the distance maybe hundred miles, and it was easy to see why this site has been chosen. The hill sloped steeply up on both sides of the town, and above it rose steeply to the summit.

About then I felt the familiar tingle in the back of my neck, and my eyes felt like they were melting. My peripheral vision seemed a little out of focus. Just then the guide called something up to me, but it was lost in the wind. I waved downed to him then turned back to the view, that same vista Agamemnon himself must have looked out on every day. I could see the bases of pillars that supported the roof next to me. This part of the palace must have been open to receive visitors, and when I looked down there were three Greek warriors coming up the steps towards me. I knew that they were visions, but they talked among themselves and they wore breast plates, kilt,-like skirts with high boots, and they each had a short sword hanging from a belt on the side. I moved over to let them pass, but right in front of me, they veered off and entered the veranda of the palace which had appeared beside me. The entrance way was draped with curtains and filled with brightly colored cushions.  I could hear their voices and footsteps as they disappeared inside. As I looked down the steps, I could also imagine what Mycenae had been like with its 1,500 residents in their homes cooking, gossiping, and living their daily lives. I wasn’t hallucinating exactly, but the vision seemed very clear and detailed.

Sometime later I heard music coming from the palace. Its rhythm was unusual — stacatto and rapid for a while, then nearly stopping into long gaps between the notes. At first I thought it might be a lute, but the tones had much too much resonance, like Tibetan bowls or gongs. The music came and went several times, and when I looked, the palace had disappeared; only the bases of the pillars remained. And the music, I could still hear the music.      Now it was more erratic, and it sounded like a Glockenspiel. I enjoyed it for a few more minutes, but it wasn’t going away with my visions of the ancient palace. Curious, I turned and looked straight up the hill. Way at the top was a pile of big boulders. I could just make out several animals who were jumping playfully from rock to rock. They were goats, and each one must have had a little bell hanging around its neck because each leap brought a tinkle to my ears. I had found the source of that lovely music.

By now it was well pass noon, and the sun was shining high in the heavens. The breeze was still cool though, and I remembered to drink another soft drink that I had brought. I could actually see waves of heat rising out of the ground around me, distorting slightly the view beyond. Indeed the waves seemed stronger very close to me, especially those rising from the stone stairs just below where I was sitting. As I looked more closely at the step where my feet were planted, the waves became denser and denser until I realized I was looking at a line of small snakes standing about eighteen inches tall swaying in the breeze, maybe ten or fifteen of them. They seemed to be dancing with one another and not very concerned with me, although any one of them could have easily struck my foot. I watched them move for a long time then decided to move down by the Lion’s Gate where part of the wall offered some shade. The snakes disappeared when I stood up, and then I slowly descended the steps to the base of Mycenae. A few tourists were still milling about, and one middle-aged man approached me. “Hey did you see any snakes up there?”

I was a little a little flustered and answered “ No. Why?”

“Didn’t you hear what the guide said? He told us that lots of asps lived up there at the top of the stairs; they’re deadly poisonous you know”.

I thanked him and moved off into the shade. I sat on the ground by the Gate, leaning against the wall and envisioning the traffic that must have passed through. The rest of the tourists drifted off and left me alone with the comings and goings of the people of Mycenae.

Suddenly, I realized that the shadows were growing long, and the last bus left at 4pm. I stood up and said goodbye, then strode through the Lion’s Gate just as Achilles must have done. I followed the road down to the entrance and was looking for a comfortable, shady place to wait for the bus when I had another vision. A beautiful young woman had appeared from behind a boulder, and she walked right up to me. Her gaze was direct, and her laps were luscious; I was dazzled. She said she had seen me sitting on the steps and that I looked interesting, so she waited here for me. She was German, but her English was nearly flawless. She was travelling with her family who were staying in a campground just down the road. I told her that I was staying in Nafplion. She said she could slip away from the family at night but couldn’t go all the way to Nafplion. She asked me to come back the next day and stay in the village overnight so that we could spend some time together. I explained about my altered state of consciousness, and I believe she was even more intrigued. We flirted heavily, and when the bus finally appeared, she kissed me softly on the lips “till tomorrow”. It contained the unquenchable promise of youth.  I stared at her for another minute then turned and sprinted to the bus.  I sat dazed for the entire ride back, and when I reached my little apartment, I took the second tab of LSD and spent the whole night prowling the streets with Jason and the Argonauts.

I spent the next day recovering and the day after that returning to Athens. David and I met up at the hotel as planned. We had less than forty hours left.  That night we bought souvenirs, had dinner, and made sure that we were packed and organized. The next morning we tracked down our friend from the train and had a pleasant lunch at his house. We strolled around the city and finally wound up back at the hotel about dusk. It was our last night. As we stood there looking at a vacant lot across the street where some kind of construction was getting started, I had an idea. We went out and bought lots of bread and cheese and lots of cheap wine and booze-as much as we could carry. We brought everything to the vacant lot. There, we rearranged some old boards and a worktable to rig up a bar with benches for seating. As we were working, three young women from Canada returned to the hotel from dinner; they joined us. As other people passed by on foot, we invited them, a crowd began to gather. Guests began participating. Someone brought a portable radio, and soon people were dancing. Some brought more bottles and our farewell party took on a life of its own. At its peak, we estimated 60-70 people of all nations hanging out together at a vacant lot.

About 3 AM, the last bottle emptied, the last guest left, and David and I cleaned up. We shook hands and went back to the hotel and passed out. We nearly missed our flight which left in the afternoon. When we boarded, David and I were separated. I ended up sitting three across with a lovely woman about my age and her husband who was older. They were German aristocrats and spoke excellent English. We chatted and began ordering drinks.

By dinner, we were all high and then we started on brandy. It was an overnight flight, so after the meal, the stewardesses passed out pillows and blankets. The husband promptly arranged himself and went to sleep, snoring softly. His wife and I continued chatting becoming more and more flirtatious. When the cabin lights dimmed, I took a blanket and arranged it over her lap, tracing some liberties as I did. She encouraged me, then she helped me arrange a blanket over my lap. Soon both of had removed enough clothing to provide easy access and with patient and knowing hands, brought each other to climax, after which we promptly fell asleep. In the morning they disembarked in New York. David and I continued on to Austin. As I stepped off the plane, I quit drinking completely again.

It had been one helluva trip.

 

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