© Noel Harrower 2018
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COPYRIGHT From Suez Home There were four of us and our long journey home took us through four countries in four weeks. We were returning from national service in Egypt, and this was the first time any of us had been on a holiday abroad. Europe was just beginning to welcome tourists again after the gruelling war. We were met at Lucre Airport by Royal Naval Commander Steadman, who had retired to Malta.  David had some family connection with him and had been invited to stay with this family for three days. The commander took us by car to the capital, Valetta, which overlooks the Grand Harbour, where the rest of us managed to make arrangements to stay in an army barracks. We explored the island over the next two days, finding few signs left of the torment that everyone had endured during the recent war. Only a few ruined buildings gave evidence of the four-year ordeal of screaming sirens, thundering guns and merciless air strikes, which had forced the people to take shelter deep in the heart of their native rock. The courage of the islanders had earned them the George Cross, and that same spirit was enabling them now to rebuild for the future.  We learned from the Maltese newspapers that overnight the army had seized power in Egypt, and that King Farouk had fled in his boat to an unknown destination, and we joked that the generals must have delayed their coup until we four had left the canal zone. By day we explored the island, and in the evenings we wandered through the illuminated streets of Valetta, enjoying the carnival atmosphere. Sailors came ashore for evenings of pleasure and a band was usually playing, near the statue of Queen Victoria. Two days later, we boarded an Italian ship bound for Naples. There were many nationalities aboard, and only a few British passengers. We shared our berth with a Maltese schoolmaster who told us of his concern for the children of the island, who had lost so much schooling during the war. Our plan was to stay in the youth hostel at Naples, see Vesuvius and the ruins of Pompeii, and then go to Sorrento and Capri. After this, we meant to split up and try to hitch-hike to Rome. Sefton had an uncle living near Florence, David was keen to go to Assisi, and we all want to see Venice. From there we planned to travel north through Austria and Germany, but our route was unplanned as yet. A violent thunderstorm hit Naples soon after we had landed there. We took refuge in the railway station, and immediately a young German couple, also wearing shorts and rucksacks, came up and asked us if we were staying in the youth hostel. We told them that we planned to go there, and they asked if we could help them urgently. They had expected to meet another German student here and return some money that he had lent them, because they had run short of cash. They had said they’d pay him back once they had cashed their traveller’s cheques, but he hadn’t turned up and their train was leaving in five minutes. They handed some money over asking us to give it to Gunther Friesman at the hostel. We said we would try, and, if we could not find him, we would need to return the money. Reinholt hurriedly gave us his name and address. They both thanked us profusely, and the blonde girl blew us a kiss and they ran for their train to Munich.   We were all touched by their honesty, and the way that they had trusted us too. When David looked at the name and address, he saw that they had come from a town called Weisbaden. “O.K.” he said, “When we’re in Germany, we’ll go through Wiesbaden and deal with the end of this story.” Unfortunately, the hostel was full and we could not find Gunther, so we gave the money to the warden for safe keeping, and left wondering if we had done the right thing. Several people were turned away together, and one of them said he knew where we might get a room, so we all went with him. In addition to the four of us there were now four more: a young Australian touring the world, an American, who told us proudly that he was from New York City, a Danish army officer and a Norwegian university student. That night I wrote in my note book, “This type of holiday is really wonderful for bringing young people together from all over the world in friendly circumstances.” We slept for two nights on the floor in a student bed-sit. Our first real experience of youth hostelling was at an old castle at Castella mere di- Stabia, perched high on a wooden headland with wonderful sea views. We were told that it had been used as a British Military Hospital during the war. At the evening meal, I fell into conversation with a young Englishwoman and discovered that she was in the WRENS and must had been briefly in the same Manchester primary school class as me, although we had no recollection of each other. We arrived in Capri to find a luxury yacht moored at sea beyond the harbour. One of our Italian crew pointed to it and said “King Farouk ‘as arrived from Egypt.” So this idyllic island was his hideaway. After seeing it, we thought he had chosen well.    The plan to hitch-hike to Rome on the high road proved abortive, so we dipped into our reserves to buy rail tickets. In the Rome youth hostel, we met a young German doctor who gave us an address for cheap accommodation in Florence. Our train from Rome was very crowded, and we had to stand much of the way to Perugia. The station at Assisi was crowded with nuns, priests and tonsured friars in sandaled feet and girded with brown robes, but the ancient hill town standing high above the monastic tourist centre had a quiet timeless air about it on that memorable hot afternoon. We travelled on by train to Florence, where we tried to meet Sefton’s uncle, but his house was shuttered and we were told that he had gone to England, so we made our way to the recommended address, climbing up a small winding stairway, which led to a landing with two doors marked with the names Senora Poppolini and Senora Farceloti. We knocked at the Poppolini door and almost immediately the Farceloti door opened and both of the senoras emerged. We explained that we had been recommended and were invited in to wait while the senoras rummaged through a pile of questionnaires completed by previous guests this year or last. As they could not find the name of the doctor, they gave us the pile to look through. After a few minutes, one of us the found right paper. On seeing it, the Senoras emitted loud shrieks and told us the price of the beds. Clearly they felt they must charge us the same price. Two of us stayed in each apartment. We had booked for one night, but when we called at the station next day, we found there were no trains owing to a one day strike, so we returned to the lodgings, and were readmitted with shrieks of pleasure, but the senoras told us we would have to share because they had other stranded guests, and please, we must not tell the other guests the price of our beds. The four of us had one room, a Frenchman slept on the dining room table, and there was a Swede in the kitchen. We arrived at Venice soon after daybreak and completed the night dozing in the waiting room. A waterbus took us along the grand canal, a greengrocer passed us in a boat piled high with vegetables, and the water lapped at the walls of large mansions and ornate churches. We disembarked near St. Mark’s Square to wander at will along streets and alleys, visited the Palace of the Doges and crossed the Rialto Bridge. Venice was ours for three days. Our journey took us on to Austria, where our train clung to sloping hillsides of wooded valleys, and plunged through dark tunnels to emerge again by tumbling waterfalls. Everyone was friendly and welcoming. One night we slept in a wooden chalet, where our young landlady who had given birth two days earlier discretely showed us her tiny newborn child. The next night we stayed in a large youth hostel beside the Vienna woods, which was filled with young tourists from Italy, Germany and France. In the evening they danced to the music of Johan Strauss, and the next day we were all taken by mini-bus to see a house where Beethoven had lived. We crossed the border into Germany during the night, and arrived in Wiesbaden early on Saturday morning to discover that it was a gracious spa town with gardens and hanging baskets of flowers. We found the door of the flat given to us Reinholt, whom we had last seen during the thunderstorm in Naples, and were immediately invited to join him and his parents for breakfast. We explained about the money we had left with the hostel warden, and that evening we had a meal in a beer garden with Reinholt and his girlfriend, Hannalore, who was delighted to see us again and kissed us all.     Reinholt was a painter and we spent two nights sleeping on the floor of his attic studio He had been in the German army at the very end of the war. Now he had a clerical job with the American army of occupation, but the warm welcome we got from this family was deeply touching. We explored Mainz, where we saw the oldest printing press in the world, and then took a paddle steamer down the Rhine to Koblenz. Canadians we met on the boat offered to give us a lift in their car to Cologne. We were now a day ahead of our schedule. At the railway station, we saw that there was a boat train to Ostend leaving in two hours time. Suddenly we decided to ditch the plan of a day in Brussels. We had been away from England for eighteen months and travelling home for four weeks, so we all agreed that we would take the boat train now. The last place visited on this memorable tour was the sad ruin of Cologne Cathedral. In the twilight of early evening, an old priest took us round, and an Italian acted as interpreter. We finished the day with a simple supper, the Canadian couple, the Italian and the four of us.     I was sitting on the rolling deck of a channel steamer thinking of all the places we had seen and the friendship we had found from people right across Europe, when someone shouted “The cliffs of Dover.”  The white chalk cliffs were getting taller and we cheered. We were all returning to start new lives in England. We had made friends with former enemies and the omens were good for lasting peace. I arrived at the RASC Depot three days later, and found to my surprise that I was back with the lads from Oudenard Barracks, with whom I’d shared my first fortnight as a soldier. Some of them had been sent to Germany, some to Trieste and others to Malta. I was “Clarkie” again, and my farewell to National Service took the form of marching, with those lads in our passing out parade. But the army had not quite finished with us yet. We all had to serve for two or three years in the territorials. Whilst studying for a degree at Manchester University, I was also a part-time soldier in the Cheshire Yeomanry, which had once been a cavalry force, but now introduced conscripts like me to tank training exercises in Scotland, Cannock Chase and Salisbury Plain. For me, National Service coupled with the journey through Europe and then the university served as a rite of passage. It was those experiences that were the foundation stones of my adult attitudes and behaviour.                                 ______________________________________
National Service.
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