Love's Gay Fool. Autobiography of John Alan Lee.


Chapter 7. My first travels abroad


On my return to Howland House at the end of summer, 1956, an exciting proposal awaited me. The Communist Youth Movement of the People's Republic of China was inviting the Canadian SCM to send a delegate to China, as a member of an international youth delegation. There were few young SCM members with a broad range of experience in social and political activism. I was already headed for Europe, where the delegates would assemble. Would I like to go?

What a unique opportunity! Canada didn’t even recognize the existence of this new state, although it had already survived an American blockade and the Korean war. I consulted anyone available about correct protocol. My journal continues the story:

September 15. I’m on an ocean liner sailing down the St. Lawrence from Montreal. I share a tiny cabin for four, far below deck. The prepaid food is terrific, and I'm ordering everything I’m allowed. My huge suitcase occupies all my storage space in the cabin. I was advised to take maple sugar, postcards of Canadian scenes, little flags, political buttons, and other Canadiana to give my young hosts, since they would be be showering me with little souvenirs.

September 24. London, England. I’m staying in Limehouse, the working class East End, at the home of two Anglican worker-priests and their families, including five children. John Rowe and Tom Walden both work in factories – beer, and cigarettes! They pool their wages. Every morning they celebrate communion; every evening there are family prayers. They consider their lives part of the "redemption of industrial society.”

The Rowes and Waldens are certainly living in simplicity. The "loo" is a shed at the end of a tiny walled-in backyard. There’s only cold water on tap. The bedroom is frigid.

September 24. Today Nancy and I met for a long walk on the Thames Embankment. Her mind is made up. She will marry Robert.

September 25.  Paris! On my way I have seen the exquisite cathedral at Reims, where I was fortunate enough to arrive during an organ recital. Hitchhiking through the French countryside was easy, wearing a big Canadian flag on my backpack. One couple took me home to their lovely chateau for dinner and a night in their son's bedroom – he's off at university somewhere.

September 26 The Place Pigalle youth hostel is a repulsive dump, but I've met a friendly German traveller – Wolfgang – and he speaks quite good English. We will spend the next few days seeing Paris together.

September 28 I went to the Opera tonight. The hostel has an 11 PM curfew and the opera wasn’t over until midnight. I took the Metro train to the last station, walked a bit farther, found an unbuilt area, and now I’m under a bridge. I’m quite cozy in my mummy bag.

As a naive tourist I was an easy mark for a con artist in the park of the Louvre. A man in a raincoat sidled up to me: "You wanta see dirtee pichas?" He flashed a pack of cards. The top photo showed a naked woman recumbent on a couch. I bit, for one franc. It was a pack of photographs of art works hanging in the Louvre! How artful. If challenged by police, he was only selling art.

October 5. Munich: here I expected to find many exciting art treasures, and I’m not disappointed, but my pensione room is unheated, though there’s snow on the ground. The hausfrau is not at all obliging. After a couple of days doing the usual tourist sights, I asked her for directions to Dachau Concentration camp. Our relations promptly froze. "Why you want to go there? You not Jewish?"

Dachau must be a chilling sight even on a summer day. After wandering about for half an hour, I sat and wept. At work camp we read The Diary of Anne Frank at meals. I argued against her conclusion that “basically all human beings are good.”

It’s just not true, as this camp proves. There is real evil in the world. I don't care what Quakers assert about "That of God in every person." Perhaps it was so when they were born, but some have extinguished that light. What was done here, with such deliberate efficiency, could not be accomplished by people who were basically good.

Sociology is much to blame for our tendency to label evil euphemistically, to excuse it as social conditioning, dysfunctional family life, the injuries of class, the malfunctions of a deviant subculture. When sociology exculpates the evil doer by ignoring his duty to make choices, when it converts the wrongdoer to a victim of circumstances, sociology is an accessory to evil.

October 8. Today I strolled about the heavenly streets of Salzburg, Austria. Distant mountains and a blue sky form the backdrop for charming narrow lanes. A decorative sign identifies each shop. The Austrians seem friendlier than the Germans, even affable. This evening I heard a transcendent concert in the local church. I only wish I could find someone to share my joy.

October 10. At last, Vienna. Surely one of the grandest cities of Europe! The air seems magical, and music is often heard coming from buildings. The parks are resplendent. This is a city for walking.

I have discovered apfel strudl , and eat some with breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is temptingly cheap, and a welcome change from the diet of bread, peanut butter, cheese and fruit I have carried in my backpack for weeks. Opera here is truly democratic – the cheapest seats are only a tenth the cost of the most expensive. Tonight I was able to see Aida – live elephants and all – for one mark (25 cents), in Standing Room Only. This afternoon I visited the impressive socialist worker's quarter, where many low-cost housing units are constructed.

October 14. I’ve just crossed the Iron Curtain into Czechoslovakia. My passport will bear no record of this portion of my trip, because the Chinese have supplied an insert page which all Communist countries will use. That way my ability will not be compromised to travel in countries which do not recognize People's China – especially the States.

The Iron Curtain is real. It is barbed wire fence, or rather three fences ten feet high, with wide, fresh-ploughed fields between, where footprints easily show. The middle fence is electrified. High watch-towers stand within sight of each other, and there are guarded checkpoints for roads and railroads intersecting the curtain. The border guards are stiff and surly, as they move down the train, armed with machine guns.

October 17. Prague (Praha). I have arrived a day earlier than the other delegates thus today is a free day. Carl, a medical student, is assigned to me as interpreter. He and his two parents and two brothers all live in an "apartment" consisting of one room, a kitchen, and a bathroom shared with another family.

I took Carl out to lunch. The prices stunned me. In the rest of Europe an American dollar (the currency I carry) buys more than in Canada, but not here. The official exchange is seven crowns to the dollar. A loaf of bread is three crowns, a bottle of jam, eight. A suit of jockey underwear (I needed some) cost me twelve crowns. All these prices are far higher than in Canada. Carl says the average worker earns 1000 crowns a month, which would not go far but for the fact that housing is very cheap.

Carl and I wandered the streets of a city spared by war (Prague was never bombed). The old bridges and clock towers are marvelously intricate. We visited the city's art gallery, where socialist realism reigns. Carl also took me to Praha University, where I spent some time browsing the library. It had very few titles by western authors. Most of the shelves are crammed with Marx, Lenin, Stalin.

October 19. The delegation has assembled and we are in the air, on a Tupilov 104, the world’s first passenger jet. The 1250 miles to Moscow will require only two and a half hours, flying at six miles above the ground. What a capital way to fly for my first time!

Some delegates seem to be "fellow travellers" like myself, not communists. There are four Brits – Frank from the UN Association, David from the YMCA, Michael from the Youth Theatre, and Sylvia, a journalist. I am the only Canadian, and there are no Americans. Among the communists are Pablo from Cuba, Kalache from Algeria, Bruno from Italy, Emile from Belgium, Ivan from Chile, Galal and Shakir from Egypt, Pierre from France, and Heinz from East Germany. Tor from Sweden and Carl from Denmark are social democrats. At 23 I am the youngest delegate.

We will be joined by Russians in Moscow, and Asians in Peking, making 29 people from 21 nations, speaking 11 languages. Our hosts will group us around interpreters in English, French, Russian, and Spanish.

October 20. Moscow. We got a regal welcome on arrival, and a free day to see the city. Five of us visited Red Square, where a soldier cut us into the front of a long line (said to be 10,000 people!) waiting to enter Lenin's tomb. What a macabre sight the corpse is! Next we visited the great cathedral, several of the Metro stations – which are stunning– and the GUM department store where selection is poor compared to western Europe. Russians pay a heavy cost in the socialist struggle with capitalism.

We also visited the new skyscraper campus of Moscow University, where I had an opportunity to argue politics with some English-speaking students. Again I found that many widely-used western books on social and political topics are unavailable in the library.

October 21. Moscow Airport. The Russians don’t use an organized seating plan. When a plane’s readiness is announced, everyone rushes onto the tarmac – like a Toronto crowd cramming into a streetcar. We’re on a two-propellor plane headed for Omsk, Siberia.

Later - One of our engines is on fire! The plane is having trouble staying aloft. People all around me are in panic, some in tears. Will this be my last journal entry, ever?

Four hours later: Our pilot managed to glide to an airstrip. We’re all very shaken. Our difficulties were reported back to Moscow, and some bigwig ordered local officials to ready a Tupilov sitting on the field. We have flown over a huge storm, skipping several stops in Siberia where a prop plane would have landed for refuelling. We made one stop in Mongolia, just long enough to see the astonishing flatness of that country.

Clouds prevented us from seeing the Great Wall, but now, as the plane is drifting back toward earth, we can see North China. It’s an endless quilt of irrigated fields broken only by small villages. We are about to land at the capital, Peking.


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