An Inappropriate Life

Memoir by Stan Gotlieb

Where is Omar, When You Need Him?

When we got to Salonika, Greece, in May of 1968, we were ready to accumulate the gear we would need to hitch-hike and camp. Finding cheap plastic and pot metal plates and utensils, condiments and tea, was easy. Locating a cheap tent proved to be a hopeless quest: the few we did find were either too small or too expensive.

What, then, could we do? I've got it, I exclaimed. “Got what”, Ellen replied. The solution for the tent problem. I'll have one made. "What do you know about making a tent?” asked Ellen - farm girl become teacher become world traveler - far more practical than I. What's to know? Anyone with an industrial sewing machine can make one. “The guy at the campground store on the Mediterranean said he could order one from Athens in a few days, maybe we should wait”, says Ellen.

Hey, my dear, time is money as the man says (why does it always have to be a man that says something as stupid as that?). In a few days, we can be at the beach on the Dalmatian coast of Yugoslavia. At least let me check out the possibilities.

Next day, I began looking for a tent maker. No-one had ever heard of one, but more than one persons suggested talking to the guy who made tarps for cross-country trucks. I went to his workshop, one of those garage-with-a-rollup-door kinds of places, jumbled full of tag-ends from old jobs, pieces of what looked like thin but strong structural steel and aluminum; and in what was left of the space, a couple of rolls of canvas and a chair, work table, and heavy-duty sewing machine.

The owner, a dour, round-faced Macedonian with a thin and molting mustache, squinted up at me through the smoke from his dangling cigarette, and said “I don't make tents.”

Undaunted, I asked, But you do make coverings for trucks, don't you? (A peevish nod). And a tent is just a covering with longer sides and a floor, isn't it? (Dour acquiescence). So, let me show you my design, with dimensions. (I Unfolded a piece of paper with the side, front, and top views). Can't you build something like that? (a cold shrug).

How much will you charge? How long will it take? “What material do you want?” What is available? “Well” warming up to his subject, “you probably want it to be of light weight.” Good idea, thanks for reminding me (in my head; in the “real world”, I respond yes, I suppose that would be o.k.)

We pored over samples of canvas, finally picking a relatively light weight, water resistant material of canary yellow hue. Fantastic, I thought. The sunlight will infuse the interior with a saffron glow.

And what about the floor? (This was where my genius really showed itself). Do you have anything made of rubber, to keep out the damp? “Not real rubber, but we do have several kinds of flexible plastic”. That will do, what sort of kinds do you have? (He showed me samples.) That one, there, I said, with the plastic on the outside, and the furry texture on the inside.

Windows, too: ventilation is important. One on each side wall; one in the rear wall, and of course the front flaps, full sized and with zippers so that I can tie the canvas back and expose the mosquito netting underneath. That way, we can get plenty of ventilation, but be able to button up when the rains come.

He quoted me a price in drachmas that was higher than I had hoped to pay, but at that point there was no turning back. We settled on a delivery date of three days, and I gave him a deposit. When I returned to our housing, and told Ellen the news, she cocked her head to one side, looked at me down her nose, and said “Oh…).

The grand day arrived, and when I showed up at the shop, there it was, clean and new and gleaming, with stake loops, and aluminum tent poles, and – much to my surprise, but judging from his grin not news to the maker - weighing a ton. Oh, oh.

Hi, honey, I'm back. Here's the tent, isn't it lovely? “Why is your face so red? Why are you breathing so hard? Isn't that a little larger a bundle than most tents make?” Yeah, well, so I made a little miscalculation, but don't worry, I'll soon get used to the extra weight, and the exercise will be good for me.

We each had a backpack. They were both full. The tent took up half of my backpack. That meant that we were going to have to pare some “unnecessary” items, like our heavy sweaters. We weren't going to need them at least until we got to Norway, ages from then, and then we'll… we'll… we'll do whatever we have to... “Humph”, she said.

Off we trudged, hitching and taking buses north through Greek Macedonia, into Yugoslav Macedonia (that Alexander was some kind of land grabber); over the mountains of Montenegro and so to the beach. We ended up in a small, very basic (to treat it kindly) campground, in the sand next to a ramshackle restaurant run by Hungarian refugees. The food was so good compared to what we had been forced to eat since leaving Saloniki (Macedonian cooking left much to be desired), that we decided to stay for a week. Personally, I was deeply moved by the thought of seven days without having to disassemble, tote, and then reassemble the goddamned cursed tent!

After a couple of days, we began to notice the amount of sand we had tracked in. Because the floor was fuzzy, and because – by my design – it curled up the sides of the tent about three inches, sweeping the sand out became a seriously difficult exercise. When we left, we tried to turn the tent inside out to dump the sand, but ended up just accumulating more sand.

A few stops later, we found ourselves in our first French campground, a truly beautiful site complete with a one-star restaurant. We ate and drank and lolled about until a Paris date with friends from Jerusalem dictated that we haul ass. We now had bits of leaf, pine needles, and some clay-bearing soil sharing our nappy floor with the sand.

We arrived at the campground in the Bois de Boulogne, set up our pinche tent, and went to the supermarket that was located in the campground to stock up on groceries for the month-long stay we intended. Just as we crawled into that godawful miserable tent, it started to rain.

The guy in Salonica had followed my suggestions to the letter. The tent floor did indeed curl up, protecting the tent from a rise in the water level. However, the seam where the floor met the tent sides was on the outside, forming a perfect holding area, allowing the tent side to get sufficiently soaked to leak. The water gratefully mixed with the sand, the pine needles, the bits of leaf, and the clay soil to form a goo that coated our knees and the palms of our hands every time we took to and left our air mattress.

After ten days of playing in the mud, we pulled up tent stakes and moved north, ending up after a month on the road in a campground high up in the mountains of Norway, about half way between Oslo and Bergen. The first morning, we woke up to a frost in mid August. There was about an eighth of an inch of rhime covering out tent, and the goo on the floor was not only slippery but cold.

We looked at each other. We smiled. “Time to go home”, we said in unison. That morning, we packed up our gear, and headed for Luxembourg and Icelandic Airlines. We left the goddamn pinche mal-dicho tent behind.

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