? When I was 26, and
living in Maryland, USA, I made a wanderlust trip through Europe, Africa,
USA, Mexico and Central America that lasted over 35 months, almost three
years. That was in 1957-60. When I returned home I began
writing a memoir during 1960 and ’61. When I finished, I put it
away in a closet and forgot it. I really didn’t forget it. I just
didn’t think I should publish it because there were so many episodes
and descriptions in there that would prove awkward to people like my relatives
and my friends along the way. So I left it all alone. It’s
now 2010, almost 40 years later and my family and me are living
on a farm in western Wisconsin. I’ll dust off the manuscript and
publish it here for the first time. –RE
After the first leg
of my voyage through Europe and Africa, I sold my photos and story to
the Saturday Evening Post, a popular magazine in 1958. This taught me
that maybe I was cut out for a career in photojournalism.
Click on photo to enlarge
A FAREWELL TO PARIS
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Click on photo to enlarge
ROHN PLAYS A TUNE
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TOBY AT WORK
Toby and Rudi were
asleep when I returned to the studio. I tiptoed in and hit the
sack immediately. When I woke up Toby was washing up and Rudi was gathering
our belongings, preparing for our goodbye to Paris. I went out to bring
back some baguettes for breakfast. By the time I got back, Rudi had rounded
up just about everything of ours for the trip. As you can imagine, we
had collected a lot of stuff in Paris- but we couldn’t take them
with us. No room on the scooter! A couple of things I mailed to my parents.
I think Rudi sent some stuff to Wuesterheide.
“What did you
say the name of your girl friend was?” Toby asked Rudi
as we munched on the baguettes and cheese.
“I didn’t “ Rudi said.
“Well what is it?” I said.
“Why do you want to know?” Rudi answered.
That was strange, I thought. It’s not that Toby or me were going
to steal the girl away
“Well, if you don’t want to tell us, that’s O.K. too”
Rudi grudgingly got his wallet and pulled out a picture of a girl, a nice-looking
“Her name is Genevieve,” He said.
I was beginning to see that
some things were very personal with Rudi and he just didn’t think
they deserved to be talked about in public. Maybe back in Germany he left
a girl behind and he felt he was being insincere. Or maybe a guy’s
love life wasn’t proper to talk about back in Wuesterheide. During
the trip I learned later that his love life wasn’t the only thing
he chose not to talk about.
I’m pretty good at getting information out of people. Rudi didn’t
have to be forced to ‘spill all’ -- but he wasn’t someone
to jibber jabber all the time. That would be annoying. And he wasn’t
anyone for just shootin’ the breeze, that sort of thing.
I didn’t press the point, and Toby didn’t care anyway. Rudi
started whistling. I guess it was a way of his saying that the case was
Toby got the point too and
said, “Well, I must say, you guys have spent a worthwhile three
days in Paris! Most tourists spend a couple of weeks and half a bankroll
and don’t experience a fraction of what you guys have.”
“Rudi acknowledged Toby’s
comment with a slight smile as he put our sleeping bags under one arm
and his suitcase under the other. I was learning that a slight
smile from Rudi meant approval.
“Here, let me help you
with that stuff.” Toby accompanied us down to the patio where we
loaded up the scooter. “I’m going to miss you guys,”
He said kicking the rear tire of the Vespa.
“We’ll see each other again,” I said confidently.
“See you later, Toby, and thank you!” Rudi said as he shook
hands with him.
Toby was still waving when I looked back.
We headed out into the lively
Paris afternoon, this crazy Paris that was saying, “Don’t
go!” and then on the other hand, “Get the hell outta here!”
We had tasted Paris and wondered if we would ever return. It didn’t
matter. The world was waiting for us; we knew it. There was more on the
platter to enjoy, and we were anticipating it.
In a half hour, we were breathing
gulps of the French countryside air as the skyline of Paris behind us
disappeared out of sight. Next, -- the skylines of Lyon! Barcelona! !
Madrid! Lisbon! Tangier! Casablanca! --- they all awaited us.
The landscape of rural France stretched out. It looked much like the land
between Belgium and Paris -- rolling hills, well-kept farms, honey wagons
(manure spreaders) horse drawn wagons full of hay, narrow tree-lined roads,
vineyards on hillsides facing south. We were headed south toward the Mediterranean
shoreline, and then west to Spain and Portugal. Our music supported us
but also other things like washing restaurant windows, painting signs,
sketching portraits, working on farms.
We did anything that
would get us into homes of people and getting to know them. Well,
I did anyway. Rudi was more interested in dinner and a dry bed at night
and performing his songs. He was really good at singing his songs. Back
in Paris, one of Toby’ friends had invited us to visit a music academy
for singers. Rudi could’ve given any of those students at the music
academy a run for their money. Rudi was really an untrained opera singer
at heart. He had the right voice. It just needed some polish.
On the other hand I
was the opposite in many ways. I enjoyed singing harmony to Rudi’s
songs if it meant it would allow us to introduce ourselves to the people.
Sure, music is universal. Never fails. We figured that out. And I think
we would have been only half as successful on our trip if we didn’t
have our guitars.
We never knew what we were
going to get into when we stopped at a farm in early evening before the
sun went down. Everybody’s a stranger until you get to know them.
Even the roughest-looking peasants wouldn’t shoot at a couple of
foreign strangers who had nothing more than guitars as their weapons.
I told that to an American
guy in Paris and he said, “Wait a minute. That may be true in Europe
but what are you gonna do in Morocco with the A-Rabs or in Black Africa?
They might have never seen a guitar before and they might think it’s
a club or something and come at you with sabers and stuff.”
Well, he had me there.
I had no answer to that. But he was on of those guys you meet all the
time on a trip like this. They want to discourage you. They don’t
mean anything by it, they’re just envious. They’re just mad
as hell that they see some guy doing something they wish they could be
doing. They start building up scary scenarios and possible tragic evens
for you. Sometimes it makes me mad, but then if I put myself in their
place, say back in Baltimore. I wouldn’t be surprised that I’d
do the same thing myself. I’d be so jealous.
Maybe I was biting
off more than I could chew on this trip. But then I would say
to myself, “First things first. I’ll see how far I can get
in Europe.” I wanted to know these folks in Europe. Also, I was
beginning to realize that I was depending a lot on Rudi’s experience
with these kind of dangers, over there in the Near East or the Far East
and he never talked about that sort of thing. Maybe he had some kind of
experiences about killing that he wasn’t telling me about.
I dismissed these thoughts. Back to my mission. I wanted to learn more
about Europeans. Yeah, I’m European - way back. My father’s
family came from Norway and my mother’s grandparents came from Ireland.
But, so what? I’m American. I don’t need to learn like how
many centuries some French family has been living at some farm, or why
their uncle emigrated to New York City a couple generations ago and then
to a farm in Missouri. Instead, I wondered what made the people happy
if they happened to have a contented style about them, or if they didn’t
seem to be happy. I wanted to cut down into a deeper level of understanding
of the person. I wanted to dig down farther than the usual information
that strangers are willing to share with you...
I’m not a scholar-type
or anything like that. I guess I just had a strong curiosity
about how others were living their lives and how they got along with each
other and their community and what they did when they didn’t get
along. For me, maybe the good things would sink in and the bad things
would be exposed and there would be some consistency in all this in the
different countries we would go through, even Africa. So otherwise, why
was I making a trip like this? If I didn’t want to dig into their
lives, I could always read a book about these countries we were traveling
to. Or I could go to a movie or a lecture about these countries and satisfy
my curiosity. That kind of information didn’t appeal to me. As I
said, I wanted to know what worked for them and if I could borrow any
of it for myself. I wanted to lift up the curtain of privacy that people
have about themselves and their family. Naturally people anywhere want
to protect their privacy.
It was rewarding to me to see a farmer come in from the fields at sundown,
wiping his forehead and watch his face change to a smile at the entertainment
of our songs or to see the delight in the face of a grandmother as I showed
her my sketch of her grandchild. Everywhere, so far, we were usually
given lodging and meals. It was working.
We arrived at the farm of Monsieur Blanchard in late afternoon.
He was a barrel-chested man with black eyes that sparkled when he smiled.
After a few words of conversation with him, his expression changed from
doubt to curiosity and finally to acceptance. “Why of course, you
two can sleep in the hayloft tonight. Have you fellows had any supper?”
He asked as he opened the large wooden door of the barn.
“No yet,” Rudi said. His French was getting better.
“No, well then come on in the house when you’ve got your things
arranged; we’re just sitting down to the table!”
“Thank you!” We set up for the night in the hayloft. Our hungry
stomachs could taste supper already.
An aroma of baking bread hit us first and then a dinner
table of whispering and giggling children, awaited us when we came in
the back door of the farmhouse. Two small boys, maybe 8yrs and 10 and
a young girl maybe 16 or 17 awaited us. Madam Blanchard, a stout woman
wearing a plain cloth white apron, was at a huge wood-burning stove stirring
a large pot of potato soup. She nodded and smiled when we entered.
The evening meal in the countryside in France is usually light. The main
meal of the day is around noon and usually a couple hours long. At night,
it’s usually a hearty soup of some kind, some fresh bread leftover
from the afternoon meal, a salad of green leaves mixed with oil and vinegar.
If there’s dessert, it’s usually a local cheese, like goat
cheese, plus apples or pears.
And then there’s the wine. At the farms we would visit, wine was
always served. Someone told us to expect wine with every meal because
the French farmers always served wine because the drinking water was not
always pure. The alcohol in wine killed the bad bacteria
they said. As for the children drinking wine – the mother or father
always poured rain water out of a large vat and served it two thirds water
and one third wine to the children.
After supper, Rudi
and I got our guitars. The two young boys, Henri and Paul, competed
with each other to sing songs with Rudi and me. The girl, Yolande, was
shy and was satisfied only to listen. But Madame Blanchard joined in on
a couple of the French songs. She had a high lovely voice. Monsieur Blanchard
smiled through the whole evening.
The sun had gone down and it was getting chilly. Madam Blanchard sent
the children to bed and Monsieur Blanchard put some more kindling in the
wood stove and opened another bottle of wine. Pouring it in our glass
and smiling he said, “This is some of our better year, 1955.”
It tasted the same to me but it seemed to help me in my finger work with
the guitar as Rudi and I broke into a few more American folk tunes.
When we were ready to go to bed, we heard a tumbling noise over by the
head of the stairs. One of the boys, Henri, had snuck out of the bedroom
and settled at the top of the stairs to hear more music. He dozed off.
He wasn’t hurt and we all had a good laugh. We sang him
a lullaby and all retired.
Monsieur Blanchard yawned and
said, “I want to show you fellows my American tractor tomorrow if
you’ve got time, “
“Sure!” I said, realizing for the first time our trip had
no time restraint on it unless we made it ourselves.
When we arose the next morning, the children were already eating breakfast
and we joined them with a cup of coffee and some more fresh bread and
Monsieur Blanchard started up his brand new tractor, an International
Harvester “Cub” and hooked up a trailer. “Jump aboard,”
he hollered to us.
He had a 60-acre farm that was considered large in middle France. In addition
to his grape crop, he showed us his corn and wheat. .
“Thanks to your American machines we can use our fields to the fullest.”
He shouted to me, patting the bright red fender of the tractor.
By the time our tour was over, it was nearly noon. “Why don’t
you boys stay for the mid-day meal, and then head off with a good French
lunch under your belts?”
That sounded fine to us and we gladly accepted. In fact we were learning
on this trip you never want to disappoint your host when they want to
give you something. That tactic became a little more sensitive when it
came to giving you more booze.
Madam Blanchard had worked up something special for us: Rabbit.
I never tasted rabbit before. It was something like veal, but the way
Madam Blanchard marinated it overnight, or spiced it up, made it taste
special. We also had some of that “’55 best year” Burgundy
wine again and local-made cheese.
After dinner and just about the time we had everything packed and ready
to go, Rudi announced, “We’ve got a flat tire.”
There was nothing we could do but take everything off the scooter again
and repair the tire. With all the running around we did in Paris, we didn’t
think to check if our spare tire had air in it. It didn’t.
The whole family gathered around. “You all take it easy,”
Rudi was on the ground and looked up at the group of us. “Yolande
and I’ll fix the tire.” He said, winking to their
16-year-old attractive daughter. “Can we help, too?” The boys
“O.K., “ Rudi grumbled.
“Yolande started to leave, but when the boys said, “And tell
us more of what you did in Paris.” She elected to stay around and
“Well, Rohn, let Rudi have his fun, Monsieur Blanchard winked at
me “You and I are going to visit the wine cellar.”
“Fine!” I said, happy to see I was finally getting to see
what one looks like.
“You’ve never been in a wine cellar?”
he asked, opening a cellar door that was built at a 45-degree angle to
“Nope - first time.” I said as we descended into a dark clammy
“Watch your step,” He warned in a voice that was deadened
by the dampness.
When my eyes grew accustomed to the nearly black interior, I saw seven
or eight large wine kegs on each side of the musty room.
“The temperature is always around 55-58 degrees down here he said.”
In the hot summertime you can come down here to get cool and in the frozen
winter you can get warm!” he chuckled. We produce the best wine
of the whole Burgundy Region right here in our cellar!”
He washed out two glasses under the faucet on the wall and filled them
with wine from one of the nearer kegs. Holding his glass up to the light
of a small window he asked, “Do you know why I’m doing this?”
He knew I wouldn’t know and said, “We do this to see if they’re
any impurities in the wine.”
I raised my glass to the light of the tiny window but couldn’t see
anything unusual in the bottom or floating around the top. “Must
be fine wine!” I smiled at him.
“Try it!” He said punching my shoulder. “Try it!”
he said again, throwing his head back and emptying his glass.
“That was 1955; how’d you like it?”
“Delicious,” I said. It was mellow and not sweet.
“Good boy!” He said, giving me a healthy slap on the back.
“Now last year, there wasn’t much sun in August so the wine
isn’t as good as this vintage. And he filled our glasses with 1956.
I couldn’t taste the difference.
“This year we won’t have a good wine either.
The frost killed most of the blossoms this past spring. But we have enough
down here to last us two more years!” And he filled my glass again.
“You mean the wine in these barrels is just for your family?”
I was amazed.
“Sure!” He laughed. “You can never tell when there’ll
be a bad year. If we get some good years in a row, then we sell some of
it on the market.” He filled our glasses again, this time from a
“That’s fine wine!” I remarked, lowering my glass.
“And now - my special wine made from table grapes.” He said
“All the grapes aren’t the same?” I questioned.
He filled our glasses again. “Of course not.” Ordinary wines
are made from ordinary grapes. And special wines are made from special
“That sounds like a singing commercial on the radio,” I laughed,
and I put it to a melody. . singing… " Vins
ordinaires sont fabriqués à partir de raisins ordinaires.
et… vins spéciaux sont fabriqués à partir de
raisins spéciale” … …
He laughed, and poured our glasses again. Locking elbows, and tripping
lightly on our feet, we sang the refrain together in harmony. Monsieur
Blanchard was a good-humored guy.
“Here is my oldest wine, 1953, -- five years.” We clinked
our glasses together, and the delectable bouquet disappeared down our
throats. “Don’t be bashful, pour another.” He said when
he saw how much I was enjoying his wine tasting.
I tried my hand at turning the nozzle on the wine barrel and to avoid
a Marx Brothers scene of the wine gushing out onto the cellar floor, I
straightened up, put on a forthright face, and as professionally as possible,
turned the vat’s handle. It worked just fine. Proud of myself, I
sat down on one of the smaller barrels. So did he. We began to doze off.
I heard his wine glass drop to the floor and smash. So did mine.
Later I heard voices, “ Here they are” … “Wake
up you two!” .... “Supper’s ready!” It
was Madame Blanchard’s voice. I opened my eyes slowly and remembered
Monsieur Blanchard and I had cleaned up the broken glass and then wobbled
over to the barn for him to answer my question about how the wine press
works and then decided to take a short siesta in the straw. Rudi and Yolande
and the boys had taken a walk down to the river and had just returned.
Rudi and I stayed another night at Madame and Monsieur Blanchard’s
farm, but the evening’s conversations avoided the subject of wine.
The next morning, as we were preparing to take off, Monsieur Blanchard
presented us each with a bottle of his ’53 vintage, “Treat
some of those people down the Rhone Valley with some good wine!”
he said with a wink and a broad grin.
On to Cravant.