Wherever the Road Leads

Life as a European

I’ll always remember a little device that my cousin Doug made when he was attending the University of Guelph, getting his electrical engineering degree. It was about the size of four packages of cigarettes, had a red light, a green light and a “start’ button.

After the start button was pressed, the red light and green lights would flash alternately. The idea was to guess whether the red light or the green light would stay lit at the end of the cycle. Given that at this time, the transistor radio hadn’t been around that long, this was cutting edge technology, programming a random sequence. It was fun to play with and try to outguess the little box.

Doug explained that monkeys were shown something similar where with every correct guess, they got a treat. The monkeys learned quickly and soon out-guessed their human counterparts. The monkeys figured out that by guessing the same color light every time, they were guaranteed that half the time they would be rewarded.

Humans tried to outguess the machine and scored nowhere near fifty percent. I believe that has been the story of my working career.

At one point early in my work history, I worked for the Canadian government: Department of National Revenue, Customs and Excise, their Regional Headquarters at Yonge and St. Clair in Toronto.

I quit to travel the world on a one-way ticket. Freddie Laker, an English tycoon had an airline in the early seventies that was offering $100 one-way fares from Toronto to London. Sign me up.

After traveling through England and Scotland for a few months, I was running low on funds and it started to get cold in Edinburgh. Lord knows, I don’t like the cold.

Being as I was born in Scotland, I was eligible to get a work permit. I applied and the lady told me that as a British National, I was eligible for a work permit anywhere in the British Commonwealth. That was all I had to hear. Where is the closest – warm – Commonwealth Country, I wondered?

After a trip to a travel agent, I decided I would go to work at the hotels in Gibralter, a British Commonwealth Territory at the mouth of the warm, Mediterranean Sea.

I took the train down to Dover, England and the ferry across to Calais, France. It was my intention to hitch-hike down through France and Spain, ending up in Gibralter.

After an evening and a day in Calais, the feasibility of such an adventure began to dwindle. By one’s self and carrying a thirty pound suitcase, not a back pack, having to travel a considerable distance to get from the harbor to the motorway but mostly the less-than-helpful (to be polite) attitude of the French, put a quick damper on my enthusiasm.

Into the evening, I bought a train ticket to Paris. First mistake, I thought it was an overnight train. Second mistake, I thought the train station in Paris would be open twenty-four hours. Wrong and, wrong again.

I landed in Paris’ “Gare du Nord” train station at about eleven at night. It was a large train station and was easy to not get nailed for loitering, although I did get stopped once by a Parisian Gendarme asking, “Votre papiers, svp” (Your passport, please). At that time, there were a lot of us “on the road”, generally wearing flags of the homeland, so it was easy to find someone of the same language.

I soon learned that Gare du Nord was closing at 1:00am. However, Paris has four train stations, Nord, Est, Lyons (south) et Montparnasse (west). Rumours were that Gare de l’Est was open later, if not all night.

Someone from somewhere knew the way so a group of us headed off on foot to the next train station. My luck continued with only a few hours grace as Gare de l’Est did indeed close at 3:00am.

When I think back on this, even *I* have to roll my eyes in amazement. I had made friends with an english-speaking Italian who was trying to get back to Italy the cheap way. We walked around the streets for a while, sat in a coffee shop or two, then found the perfect place to bunk down.

Much like in Toronto, or probably any city with a subway system, there are air grates at street level that allow the warm air from the subway below to be pushed up as a train travels through the tunnel.

Sleeping on these large air grates was a bunch of homeless people. That suited me just fine. It was warm atop the grate and I was tired. However, I was the only one with a suitcase.

I was awakened after a while rather indelicately by the ringleader of a street gang preying on the homeless and the dimwits from Canada sleeping on air grates in Paris at 4:00 in the morning.

I guess it could have been worse. I was relieved of some jewellery, watch ring, chain and medallion and some cash, but most of what I had left was in, untouched, American Express Travelers’ Checks.

I did find a police station where I told my tale of woe but it fell on less-than-sympathetic ears. “C’est Paree, Monsieur, c’est Paree” I was told.

I wanted out of France as quickly as possible. When the trains started running in the morning, I boarded one south to Lyon. From Lyon, it was pretty much a single-highway, straight shot to Geneva, Switzerland. I figured my luck couldn’t be any worse there and it got me out of France.

I left the Lyon train station with directions of how to get to the autoroute that went the seventy miles to Geneva. I was hitch-hiking by 1:00pm. By 5:00pm, tired and hungry, I gave up. It was particularly frustrating as Swiss license plates are marked with the first and last letter of the city of registration, with Geneva (Genève, actually) being GE:123456….

… or Zurich being ZH:123456. Also, they have both rear and front car tags (licence plates). So, it was possible to tell exactly how many hundreds of people bound for Genève did not want to pick me up that day. My, by now, less-than-thirty-pound suitcase and I headed back to the Lyon train station to get to Switzerland in a more conventional, though costly manner.

I loved Geneva, it is a beautiful, French-speaking city and I enjoyed myself in the bistros and wandering around the city with its ornate and animated, centuries-old cuckoo clocks that would chime as a horse-and-carriage or a group of mountaineers in lederhosen would parade out from the left side of the clock face, round the front and back into the right side of the clock face.

You start to appreciate the beauty of “old”, walking along hundreds-of-years-old stone streets and buildings.

I was stunned when two ladies stopped me to ask, in German, for directions. I asked if they spoke French, then proceeded to direct them where they wanted to go. European French is so much better-pronounced and easier to understand and speak than it’s rapid-fire, half-garbled, Canadian offspring. Granted, this was only a few years out of school but it surprised me how rapidly one adapts.


The “Jette d’Eau” (Jet of Water) is  known world-wide as a landmark of Geneva.

After a few weeks, though, with money running low I made the rounds of the various hotels looking for a job as a dishwasher, anything at all, it really didn’t matter. I learned their non-resident “Catch-22” for employment. You can’t get a work permit unless you have a job. You can’t get a job without a work permit . You can’t apply for a work permit from within the country.

Make sense? You have to come to Switzerland from outside the country then find a job. You then have to leave Switzerland, returning home to apply for a work permit, specifying your prospective job. Once you receive your work permit, you can move to Switzerland to begin employment.

Another of the city’s features was an Air Canada office. Giving up, I stopped in to ask them if they would telex – yes, telex – back to Canada to have someone contact my folks, getting them to put up the money for a plane ticket home.

With great sadness and swearing to one day return, a few days later I climbed aboard a Mirabel-bound (Montreal’s main airport) Air Canada jet and headed for home.




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  1. Susan Calhoun  September 29, 2012

    You are a man of mystery and well-traveled … indeed! Not many people are adventurous enough to buy a one-way ticket and just … go … . One day I will travel like that and teach for 3-4 months at a time in small villages. Europe is incredibly beautiful, but Asia has also intrigued me. Goodness, just to throw a light bag in the overhead, put your head back, and swoosh across the ocean.


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