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From Here to There to There, Etc.
In the summer of 1977, I put twenty-six dollars and a small slip of paper in my pocket, grabbed my banjo, and hopped on a plane to Germany.
The small slip of paper was the address of a friend of a friend who lived in Berlin. My only plan was to knock on their door, introduce myself as the friend of their friend, and ask to stay with them for several months. I had taken a year off of college to travel abroad, and since Germany seemed like a cool place, it was Germany I went to.
The people from whom I was to beg lodging were named Dafne and John. John was from the Bay area in California; Dafne was a native resident of Germany. The only other information I had about them was that they were in their late twenties and had a habit of letting strangers crash on their couch. This hospitality was what I was banking on; until I found a source of income, hotels were out.
When the plane landed, I decided it was too late to go introduce myself with any shred of politeness, so I opted for the cheapest room I could find. My rudimentary German got me into a cramped little hole across the street from several active-looking bars, so I ditched my banjo and backpack and went across the street.
I wasn’t skilled enough to read the menu at the bar, so I ordered the cheapest drink on the list. The first sip almost blew out of my nose as I choked on the disgusting taste. I finished it, hating the entire thing, but unwilling to order another drink in case it was just as awful. It wasn’t until several months later that I learned the drink was a very-much-diluted alcoholic drink served to children in restaurants to give them the feeling of being grown-up.
After a restless night on the lumpy mattress of the hotel, I grabbed my few belongings and took the train to the address on my slip of paper. Since I was not one to stall, I marched right up to the door and gave two sharp raps. And waited.
And waited some more.
Upon deciding no one was at home, I settled down on the steps to wait. There was nothing else to do, so I took out my banjo and strummed a few chords, humming the melody to myself.
An hour or so later, my stomach and my watch told me it was around lunchtime. As I keyed out “This Land Is Your Land,” I wondered idly if Dafne or John came home for lunch. Almost at the same time the thought occurred, I spied a young woman walking briskly down the street.
Her face did not wrinkle in surprise when she saw me camped out on her steps. Instead, her mouth stretched into a wide grin as she extended a hand to pull me to my feet.
“You must be Sam,” she said in perfect English.
I grinned back, totally at ease. “Why, yes I am. How’d you know?”
“I heard you jumped on a plane a few days ago with only my address in your pocket, so I figured I’d better make up the couch.”
We went inside, where she whipped up some lunch and practiced German with me. When it was time for Dafne to go back to work, she escorted me to a busy center of town, where I set up my banjo, propped the lid up on my case for donations, and began to play.
Life went on like that for a few days. I spent my nights soundly on the couch, exhausted from playing all day. In the morning, John awoke me with fresh breakfast and black coffee, the way I liked it. When Dafne and John left for their jobs, so did I, though “job” was a very loose term. Dafne and I would return to the house for lunch, and then I hit the streets again until past rush hour.
I wasn’t raking in the money, but my German was improving every day and I was meeting new people all the time. The money I did earn I stuffed in an old sock at the bottom of my backpack; I was saving up for a cheap dive so I wouldn’t encroach on Dafne and John’s hospitality for too long.
After I had been in Berlin for a week, a letter arrived for me. A friend from home wrote to tell me that a buddy of his was on his way to Berlin, and that I should look him up. The description was “a huge blonde guy, clearly American, talks so loud you can’t miss him.” Following that was a note that Thad, the guy, was on his way to Dafne's and would be there any day.
Not two days later, I was playing “If I Were a Carpenter,” when someone called out real loud, “Sammy!”
My tune faltered abruptly as I looked around for the source of the noise. A big blonde guy, clearly American, was waving madly at me from across the street. He started laughing fit to burst when I saw who was yelling at me.
Charging across the street, he clapped me on the back (nearly knocking me unconscious) and yelled, “You sure were easy to find! Not many Germans playing American songs around here!”
“You must be Thad!” I yelled back, but I was also smiling.
“Sure am! What’cha playin’?” he asked, plucking his guitar from its case.
Thad and I went to a different part of Berlin every day to play. Some days we earned more money than others, but it all went to our travel fund. Once Thad had shown up, I abandoned my idea of an apartment in favor of touring Europe with him.
On a particularly beautiful evening about a month and a half into my stay, Thad and I were playing in downtown Berlin and drawing a huge crowd. It seemed like coins were raining into our cases as we pounded out song after song. On one particular break, a sweaty man in a business suit pushed his way to the front of the crowd, sucking in deep breaths. He started jabbering too fast at us in German, but my knowledge of the language was enough to get the gist of what he was saying.
“You want us to advertise Marlboro cigarettes in our songs?” I asked him in German.
The man nodded. “And sell them, too. You make good money.”
I looked at Thad, who raised his eyebrows at me. I could see that he liked the idea. I liked it, too. Not because I was in favor of smoking (I wasn’t), but because we could start traveling that much so
We each shook the man’s hand. “When can we get started?” Thad asked. A week later, we were playing songs, selling Marlboros, and raking in the cash. Before, people had liked our music. Now, they went crazy.
We probably should have felt a little guilty over selling cigarettes; neither of us smoked. But I, at least, loved the attention and the crowds we drew and wanted to keep it going. Thad never said anything to the contrary, so I assumed he felt the same way. Who really cared where the cash was coming from, as long as it was legal?
I guessed that, together, we made about two grand a week. Some of the cash went to Marlboro, but we got a good chunk of it for ourselves. At night, Thad and I sat down at the kitchen table with Dafne, John, and a map of Europe, planning our trip.
I had graduated our money from the old sock to a good-sized jar not long after Thad’s arrival, but three months into playing for Marlboro, the jar was jammed full. Frasier and I counted the money, growing more excited with every bill.
After we had emptied the jar, Thad and I handed in our Marlboro resignation, said goodbye to Dafne and John, and boarded a train to Switzerland.
Our adventures were everything I had dreamt of and more. The freedom of being able to do whatever struck our fancy or go wherever we pleased was exhilarating. Dafne and John kept in touch, mostly through postcards. They wrote that a new college-age American was occupying their couch. This one was from Florida and he, too, was looking to hook up with the local music scene. We didn’t hear anything else about him for some time.
Because we were young and convinced of our invincibility, Thad and I got into trouble from time to time. Thad tended to get in bar fights (an unfortunate quirk in his generally happy demeanor), so we ended up spending more than one night in jails across the continent. I went along with it patiently, but secretly I was a little irked over having to sleep in a cold, hard cell on multiple occasions.
One night, in Ukraine, Thad got more than a little rowdy in a bar and started picking fights. We were thrown out after he nailed a customer in the eye, but Thad just dragged me into another bar instead of calling it quits and heading to our room. In the next bar, he provoked the new barman, but before it could come to blows, I stepped in and smacked Thad across the face.
He was too far gone to realize it was his buddy who had just slugged him. To him, I was just another guy looking to start something. He punched me back before landing a blow on the barman’s nose.
It didn’t take long for the barman to dial the local police, and even less time for them to show up, but Thad had already overturned a table and chased several customers out of the bar.
I rode with Thad to the jail, mulling over the night’s events. I decided that I was sick of spending nights in jail for something that wasn’t my fault. With that in mind, I watched Thad be escorted to his cell with superb indifference. Once he was locked up, I gave a message to the warden to deliver to Thad when he was sober, along with half of our money. I grabbed my banjo and hitchhiked to the train station.
Going off on my own was a bit lonely, but I met quite a few people and it was nice to only have to worry about myself. Thad and I had already done Spain, Portugal, France, and Switzerland, so I headed south, to Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, and eventually into Greece.
It became my habit to entertain weary travelers in train stations and to sleep on railway benches. I had plenty of money, but sleeping in hotels was too expensive, in my mind. I was rationing my portion of Thad’s and my earnings.
My destination was the tiny Greek village of Makrinitsa. It was only accessible by an ancient bus that ran once a day. Once there, I quickly fell in with the locals and got a gig playing nights at the one bar in town. After a few days of village life, a postcard arrived for me from the outside world.
It was from the guy who had stayed with Dafne after Thad and me, writing to inform me that he would be in Makrinitsa in a few days’ time. Dafne had told him where I was and he wanted to meet up with me.
Every day, for four days, I went to the little bus stop at eleven o’clock to watch for this new potential friend, whose name was Max. I never saw a hint of a foreigner until the fourth day, however.
On that fourth day, I was lazily plucking strings on my banjo, past expecting that Max would show. It was quiet enough that I could hear the bus rumbling down the dirt road some distance away. I looked up as it came into view, spewing dust as it chugged along.
As I watched, a figure flung himself halfway out of a window, waving his arms frantically. “Sam!” he yelled. “Sam, it’s me, Max!” He reminded me so much of a smaller version of Thad, I laughed with delight.
Max played the banjo, like me. We wrote some pretty cool-sounding duets in that small Greek town, eventually heading back to Germany and playing them all the way.
Occasional postcards from Thad let us know what he was up to and where he was headed. He wrote that he had hooked up with several German guitar players and they were making a gig of it in Austria.
After playing all day in the beautiful sunshine, I realized I had no idea what day it was, let alone what month. When Dafne informed me it was June 17, 1978, I was stunned. Had I really been in Europe for almost a year?
Traveling and playing in Europe had been a blast. I met dozens of cool people and stacked up a lot of cash. But I missed my house. I missed my friends and family. I wanted to go back to college.
When I told Max my plans, later that evening, he decided to join Thad in Austria. We went out to dinner one last time, and played one last duet.
The next day, I grabbed my banjo and backpack and hopped on a plane home.