George Matei was short and muscular, a working class body, with the broad, open face of an optimist, a mass of tousled brown hair and a scar on one cheekbone that seemed incongruous. His eyes, in this confusion of impressions, were grey blue and watchful, making contact with mine and only looking away when he seemed satisfied by something.
George was on his way back to Paris and we offered to give him a ride. It was a routine trip until we neared the French border. George suddenly wanted to be let off, said he had to meet some friends and would see us for dinner at a small cafe across the border in France. He darted away, leaving his two heavy suitcases in our trunk.
It was creepy. I had read a scene like this in a mystery novel, George Hector carrying documents for a mysterious stranger in Eric Ambler’s The Dain Curse. I wondered how I would stand up to Spanish interrogation. Anti-fascist movies like Rossellini’s Open City were popular after the war, and torture always seemed like a real possibility if you found yourself in the wrong circumstances. But neither of us wanted to dump George’s bags and with our US army license plates we sailed through the border without trouble.
George met us for dinner on the French side and we had a good laugh about the documents he was smuggling back to Paris for his Spanish Communist comrades. Later that summer, I would spend more time with George.
It was June by now, and we sold our Morris Minor to an arriving tourist for a nice profit. Doug went off to spend the summer with his family in Germany. I bought a Peugeot touring bike and headed down the Rhine River to Cologne, a burned out shell of a city with fake facades and Quonset hut interiors. It was difficult to internalize the incredible destruction of modern warfare.
Or the devastation of people’s lives. Women and girls stood outside factory walls at lunch. There few if any men. The workers ate thick slices of brown bread covered with a heavy spread of lard.
The long climb over the mountains to Belgium seemed like a struggle after the lazy drop down the Rhine. I went through Belgium, crossed into the Netherlands, stayed in Amsterdam for a few nights.
When I hit a wind out of the north on the endless plains of Germany I caught a train and fell in love with a fellow passenger, Birgitta Hawkinson. We stayed in Copenhagen, took the boat train to England together and biked from London to Lands End and back, staying in dry, sweet-smelling haylofts of farmers along the road in exchange for a few light chores. I went with her back to Paris where she was starting an au pair job for the summer.
I met George’ Mattei’s comrades, survivors of the resistance, carrying on the struggle for a socialist world. In memory, who knows what was real and what was imagined? A beautiful girl I admired, slightly interested in an American boy. George told me she had helped lead the resistance in Marseille. Another slender beauty had seduced German officers and slit their throats. George’s friends were a heady mix of intellectuals, students, workers, and petty criminals. Desperate for money to stay beyond my September deadline, one of George’s friends offered to buy my passport for enough money to live for another year. I was tempted. Should I have chucked it all, stayed in Paris, become a man without a country, ended up in the French Foreign Legion? It didn’t seem like a good idea at the time.
Birgitta met me for one last time at Gare de St Lazare where I caught the boat train back to LeHavre. Another black and white movie scene, the huge engine wheels waiting, steam pouring across the platform, wet smells of leather luggage, the dark clothes of a still beaten Europe. An aching kiss of farewell, my intense feeling of coming up short, that I was simply too chicken to jump feet first into life. I was still a boy.
I met Doug in our cabin on the Maasdam and headed back to the United States for a second year of college.