I’ve been invited to a Slide-O-Rama birthday party. Guests are asked to prepare a short presentation of slides. Do I still have any slides? Do folks today even know what a slide is? Once ubiquitous, the technology is now charmingly obsolete. It took some time to even find a description on the internet: “35mm slides are small, positive pieces of film, held by rectangles of cardboard or plastic so that they end up as two-inch squares. They can be viewed with small hand viewers but are usually projected onto a screen.”
Descending doubtingly into the basement, remarkably I rediscovered a likely container. Inside were two batches of small rectangular yellow plastic and colorful cardboard boxes: my 3-month trip to Europe with my friend Jim in the fall of 1971, and the road trip across America with my brother, John, the following summer of 1972. Eagerly holding them up to the light, I took in each image. What, I wondered, could be more boring, then or now, of looking at someone else’s vacation slides? Even I wasn’t much interested in revisiting these forty-five-year-old souvenirs. I had to come up with something.
I was 20 in 1971 on my first trip to Europe. Jim & I flew from Seattle to London and — armed with our BritRail, Eurail, and International Youth Hostel cards — we travelled throughout Britain and the continent for three months. Our itinerary was so eclectic and speedy that we referenced (perhaps only after the fact) If it’s Tuesday, This Must be Belgium, the 1969 film that became shorthand to illustrate the whirlwind nature of European tour schedules. And how did we determine our destinations? I’m embarrassed to say our interests were interpreted through our exposure to ’60s Southern California culture.
For example on the way into town from the airport, we cooed over the “rooftops of London,” which we’d seen in Mary Poppins. We hightailed it to St. Paul’s Cathedral and even though there was no bird woman sitting on the steps we sang all the lyrics to “Feed the Birds”: “Early each day to the steps of Saint Paul’s, the little old bird woman comes. In her own special way to the people she calls ‘Come, buy my bags full of crumbs. Come feed the little birds, show them you care and you’ll be glad if you do. Their young ones are hungry Their nests are so bare. All it takes is tuppence from you. Feed the birds, tuppence a bag, Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag.'”
I won’t bore you with our entire itinerary, but here are a few more examples of our simplistic approach to culture. When we learned that Castle Combe had been a location in Doctor Doolittle, 20th Century-Fox’s 1967 big budget, musical version of Hugh Lofting’s story, we hopped on the train. We were excited to see the “Prettiest Village in England,” used to portray the coastal town of “Puddleby-on-the-Marsh.” Even if I hadn’t seen the Oscar-nominated film!
In Edinburgh, I was keen to visit the site of Greyfriar’s Bobby, depicted in the 1961 Disney film. I only vaguely remembered the plot: in 1865, an old shepherd and his little Skye Terrier, Bobby, go to Edinburgh. When the shepherd dies of pneumonia, Bobby remains faithful to his master, refusing to be adopted by anyone, and takes to sleeping on his master’s grave in the Greyfriars Kirkyard, despite a caretaker with a “no dogs” rule. And when Bobby is taken up for being unlicensed, it’s up to the children of Edinburgh and the Lord Provost to decide what’s to be done.
Jim & I took the hovercraft to the continent. In Normandy, we visited Mont Saint Michel, the famous commune, monastery, abbey, and prison. In The Mystery of Mont Saint-Michel, Michel Rouzé 1955 children’s book, five children are trapped in an underground passage, when the rising tide cuts them off from their starting point. I was fascinated by the idea that depending on the tide the commune is accessible by road or becomes an island.
In the south of France I visited Carcassone. I remembered reading the legend, when, in the 8th century, the city was under Saracen rule and Charlemagne’s army was at the gates to reconquer it for the Franks. A Saracen princess named Carcas ruled the Knights of the City after the death of her husband. Early in the sixth year of the siege, food and water were running out. After Lady Carcas ask the villagers for an inventory of all remaining reserves, she was brought a pig — in some versions a cow — and a sack of wheat. When she suggested feeding the wheat to the pig and then throw it from the highest tower of the city walls, the villagers thought she was nuts. I still recall the scene when, according to plan the army discovered the fattened pig, and believing that the city had enough food to the point of wasting pigs fed with wheat compelled Charlemagne to lift the siege. Pleased by the success of her plan, Lady Carcas sounded the city’s bells. One of Charlemagne’s men is said to have exclaimed: “Carcas sonne!” (“Carcas rings”). Hence the name of the city, or so the story goes.
In Germany, we visited Nuremburg, the name of which I knew from Judgement at Nuremburg, the 1961 courtroom drama about the post-war trail of four German judges. I knew nothing about its role under the Nazis, nor as the birthplace of Albrecht Durer. I also wanted to visit Bremen, which I remembered from the Brothers Grimm story, “The Bremen town musicians.” A donkey, a dog, a cat, and a rooster all past their prime and usefulness on their respective farms, are soon to be discarded or mistreated by their masters. One by one they leave their homes and set out together to Bremen to live without owners and become musicians there.
Vienna was the site of Miracle of the White Stallions, the 1963 Disney movie that recounted the story of how, in 1945, the fate of Vienna’s famous Lipizzaner stallions was hanging into balance. American general Patton could save them but first he asks to see them perform. I think we blew our budget to see a performance of the beautiful steeds. Similarly, in Salzburg, we splurged to take the Sound of Music tour, riding a bus to the actual locations used in the popular film.
In Amsterdam, one of our first stops was AnneFrankHaus, which we’d read all about in Diary of a Young Girl, then experienced in the George Stevens film adaptation. And of course we had to see the Swiss Alps, having ridden the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland so many times. Disneyland also influenced our visit to Füssen to see Neuschwanstein, the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. Venice was represented by Katharine Hepburn in Summertime. And Rome epitomized all the sword & sandal movies I loved. Spartacus, Ben Hur, Quo Vadis, and especially Steve Reeves as Hercules!
Don’t even ask why we took an overnight train to spend one full day in Paris. (It had to do with a bottle of Phisoderm my mother had thoughtfully sent to the American Express office in Place de l’Opera to help combat my acne.) With our French class, Jim & I had taken a field trip to Hollywood to see Is Paris Burning? about the Germans plan to destroy the City of Light. As I walked through the Palais Royale, did I recite lines to my favorite Audrey Hepburn movies “Carson Dyle has no brother!” (Charade), or was that on a later trip? We certainly understood the sentiment, if not the lyrics, “There’s something missing, there’s something missing I know, there’s just one place I’ve got to GO!” (Funny Face) when we climbed the Eiffel Tower.
We explored a lot more places, but you get the idea. Our European adventure, as preserved in slides, was certainly inspired by our albeit limited, cultural references.