Author John Tracy
In 1980, after working for a year in Portugal, where I was paid little, I was contacted by my parents. My father was having open heart surgery. My mother didn’t drive; never had. All my older siblings were married and had moved away, all my younger siblings were in college or working in other cities.
I hitchhiked up to Paris from Lisbon, with a backpack and a small tent. I had about $50. I had friends in Paris that I would meet. In those days, anybody who could type, which I could, could always earn a few bucks typing for businesses in English, so I knew that I could find work quickly, enough to earn my passage back to USA.
I’d worked a year in Madrid, teaching English, spent some 5 months hitching around Europe, then worked teaching English in Lisbon.
Disaster struck. I went to a post office, and called my folks to let them know I’d soon be arriving. While I was there, I got my pocket picked. They got most of the $50, my passport, but worse, my address book. The addresses of my friends in Paris were lost.
One set of friends did have an address I knew, but when I went there, they had moved, and the landlady didn’t know a forwarding address for them. I left a note, but there was really no way to contact me.
I was in Paris, penniless. I put an ad in a newspaper with my last few dollars looking for work as an English tutor, but that went no where. I discovered an acquaintance and got to spend two nights on his floor. My parents said they could send me money for airfare at the end of the month.
In the interim, I took a hitchhiking trip. I traveled up through Belgium, going without eating for three days. Then I caught a ride back to Paris, hoping that money would have arrived. The guy that picked me up was a gypsy. About 6 foot 9. Big scar across his face. A broken nose. Cauliflower ears. He asked me where I was headed, I told him Paris. He grunted and we drove in silence in the big delivery van he was driving. Frankly, the guy made me nervous. I’m not a small guy. I was six feet tall, and weighed about 190, and I could handle myself, but there was something about this guy that told me he’d been in some life or death situations.
Just as we got into Paris, he abruptly stopped the van. For an instant, I thought it was over, that he was going to beat me, rob me, possibly kill me. But he turned and asked me in French, “How long since you’ve eaten?” I stuttered out an answer in my rudimentary French: Quelque jours.
He handed me ten francs. I was dumbfounded. He said something about being in tight spots before. I thanked him, and asked if I could pay him back. Pay someone else, he told me. I went straight to a shop, bought a baguette, some pâté, and a tomato. Few sandwiches have tasted as good as that sandwich did.