Forty years ago I set out with a high school friend to travel around Europe and beyond. This is the first article in a five-part series that looks at my yearlong journey which would eventually determine my life as a photo journalist and adventurer. In this first part we travel around northern Europe and eventually make our way to Chateau Brandeau, a tiny winery near Bordeaux, where we work for six weeks. I made my debut in photography on this trip using an Olympus 35RD camera rangefinder camera with a fixed 40mm f1.7 lens which I kept until it was stolen from my dorm room at the American University in Cairo in 1981.
Text and Photographs by Norbert Schiller
After finishing my first year of college in the summer of 1978, I had no a clue about what I wanted to study and much less what to do in life. I had dabbled in theater thinking that, since my father was an actor, I could forge a similar career. In reality, I knew it was a pipedream especially as my father had done his best to dissuade me from following in his footsteps. One thing that I still fantasized about was going back overseas to continue where I had left off the previous summer. After graduating from high school, my father sent me to Europe with a rail pass in the hopes that I would connect with his life there before he emigrated to the U.S. I was so enamored with the places I visited and the relatives and friends I met that all I could think about was going back there to continue my travels.
I was in this dilemma when a former high school water polo teammate, Steve Eccles, called me out of the blue and asked, “Do you want to go to Greece with me and pick cherries?” Without the slightest hesitation I answered, “Yes!” After selling our worldly possessions and buying a one-way ticket, we were on a flight to Amsterdam, never mind that the cherry-picking season was still some ten-month away. It turned out that two of Steve’s sisters had been invited to spend a year with a family that owned a cherry orchard in northern Greece and they invited us to tag along.
Since we hadn’t planned our itinerary for this interim ten-month period, we resorted to hitchhiking aimlessly around northern Europe popping in on family friends that our parent knew, with little or no advance notice. A good example of our lack of sensitivity, like typical teenagers, is when we dropped in on a friend of Steve’s father late one night in Denmark. We had hitchhiked nearly 800 kilometers in one day from Duisburg, Germany to Copenhagen where we arrived at 10:30 p.m. After roaming the streets looking for the address, we finally arrived at the apartment complex. Steve looked at the names listed at the entrance and when he found what he thought was the correct name, he rang the buzzer. We didn’t even notice that it was nearly midnight!
“Hello, is this Mr. Erikson? My name is Steve Eccles. You worked with my father in India, do you remember me?”
There was a long silence and then a man’s voice answered in English “No!” followed by, “but please open the door and come up the stairs.”
We entered and climbed up to the apartment and, as we approached the front door, a middle aged man wearing pajamas and a robe came out to greet us. He looked at Steve with a smile and said, “are you Robert Eccles’ son? Come in.”
It was obvious that we were starving, so his wife came out in her nightgown, showed us to the guestroom, and then went into the kitchen to make us something to eat. After spending three days with the Eriksons in Copenhagen and at their house in the countryside, we were back on the road hitching rides and paying unsuspecting family and friends surprise visits.
Since the cherry season was still so far off, we actually had to tentatively plan what we were going to do for the coming months. One of my father’s acquaintance , Peter King, owned a vineyard near Bordeaux, where he offered free room and board to young travelers who were willing to do some manual work. My oldest childhood friend had gone to Chateau Brandeau two years earlier for the grape harvest and had loved it. Vendange was still a month off, so we decided to go to Berlin first.
Of the two sectors of the city the communist east was by far the more interesting. After spending a day wandering around this part of the city, which still carried considerable damage from WWII, we thought that it would be fun to see how close we could get to the Berlin Wall and take pictures of each other posing next to it. Reinforced with a few steins of beer from a local bar, we clambered behind a derelict building located beside the wall where we found a sign written in four languages that read “Border Area, Passage Not Allowed”. We snapped our shots and scrambled away for fear that the camera flash would alert the guards of our whereabouts.
From Berlin we crossed back into West Germany, then Belgium, and finally made it to Paris where we stayed with my father’s first wife, Paulette, and her family, for a few days before hitchhiking south to Chateau Brandeau, east of Bordeaux.
Peter King, who was born in England, had moved to the United States to work as a university professor at Stanford and then at San Jose State in the San Francisco Bay Area. He and his wife Fox had always dreamt that one day they would own a small winery in France, so after he retired they bought a vineyard near Saint-Emilion. With the help of their two children, former students and wayward travelers they built a little paradise for all to visit, do a little work and enjoy life.
Although the work at the chateau was demanding, the simple life, communal environment, and abundance of wine created an exuberant atmosphere. When Steve and I arrived on September 30, Peter gave us a tour and told us we could sleep wherever we found a suitable spot, so we chose the hayloft. After the welcoming glass of wine, we had our first chore which consisted of stacking firewood before dinner. The chateau had a few rules which were fair and easy to follow. First, the meals were a collaborative effort and we took turns to prepare them. Second, hot showers were only allowed once a week although cold ones could be taken anytime. Third, instead of using the restroom to urinate, the men were asked to stand on a small wooden platform and aim for the compost heap. To this day, one of my fondest memories of the chateau was taking a pee in the open air at night while looking over the vineyard under a full moon. The last rule was that Sunday was a free day.
During my first week at the vineyard I did everything from cutting down trees, to scraping and painting wooden doors and window frames. However, towards the end of the week I came down with a nasty cold, so Peter suggested that instead of doing strenuous work I reinforce the fence around the pig pen. The two pigs, affectionately named Francis and Francesca Bacon III, saw me as a novice fence builder and every time there was a slight gap in the fence they would bolt. In the end, instead of taking it easy I found myself running all over the vineyard trying to round them up, much to everyone’s delight. When I confessed my affection for Francis and Francesca, Peter suggested I don’t get too attached to them because in a few months they were destined to end up on the Chateau Brandeau Christmas dinner table. While I juggled with the fence and pigs, Steve found his calling as a fulltime lumberjack and spent most of his days in the woods behind the vineyard chopping down trees.
Chateau Brandeau attracted an interesting array of characters who came from all corners of the world. Some were old family connections such as my babysitter Georgia, then married to a well-known Swiss architect, who arrived with her young son Ruben. I hadn’t seen her since I was a child. But mostly, the people I met there were complete strangers who had made their way to the vineyard for different reasons. Peter, a former soldier in the Rhodesian army, had abandoned his homeland after it was imminent that the rebel ZANU (Patriotic Front) party led by Robert Mugabe would takeover from white minority rule. Graham and Pam were siblings from New Zealand who, along with their friend Tim, had taken a year off to explore Europe and other places. In the 1970s and 80s, a substantial portion of young traveller consisted of New Zealanders and Australians who felt isolated from the rest of the world due to their geographic location. The trio had bought a car when they first arrived in Europe and were going wherever the wind took them. Jonathan, from England, had spent considerable time on the vineyard and was sort of a foreman assigning jobs to those who had run out of things to do. His girlfriend Lisa from San Francisco was obsessed with Janis Joplin and Eric Clapton and was constantly singing their songs. Nick, who showed up with two girls from Slough in southern England, introduced everyone to Punk Rock music as a counter to Clapton and Joplin. Ham was another young traveler from England who wore the same dress clothes with vest and white shoes everyday. On Sundays, he would remove the tie that he used as a belt during the week to put it around his neck. When I was building the fence for the pigs, he used to sit in the enclosure where he played the guitar and sang to the animals. Jean Yves was a young Frenchman who grew up on an artichoke farm in Brittney. He spent the entire day drinking wine and when he didn’t show up for dinner one of us simply followed the trail of discarded clothes to find him sleeping stark naked among the vines. Young travelers came and went throughout the years to help Peter and Fox, build their dream. In return, Chateau Brandeau was a home-away-from-home to those wanderers who needed a place to settle down for a while before setting off on a new adventure.
A week into our stay, our high school friends from Santa Barbara Cathy and Maria (Pillar) showed up and in no time they hooked up with Graham and Tim, the male contingent from New Zealand.
When vendange came, we dropped all our chores to focus on picking grapes. Harvesting grapes is all about sugar and there is nothing worse than a massive rainstorm to dilute the fruit’s sugar content. We picked grapes from dawn until dusk, sang songs, drank far too much wine and prayed for no rain. I found it amazing that no one was hurt considering the state we were in when using shears to cut the grapes off the vines.
Chateau Brandeau was a very small winery and, in order to survive, it was part of a cooperative that included other wineries of the same size. On the final day of vendange we dressed up in costume, decorated the tractor and remorque (trailer) that carried the wooden vats filled with grapes, and joined Peter to drop off the final load. I don’t recall much from that day as I had drunk far too much wine and passed out on the remorque during the journey back to the vineyard.
The last day of harvest didn’t mean the end of vendange at Chateau Brandeau. Peter had his private white grapes, which still needed to be crushed the old fashioned way through stomping. The only rule was that nobody was allowed into the giant wooden vat with any clothes on. So, after harvesting the remaining white grapes we all shed our clothing and took turns crushing the grapes with our feet and drinking the white wine that had been made in the same fashion the previous year. Peter insisted that no one wander outside the barn naked as he was desperately trying to save his reputation in this largely conservative catholic area of France. Moreover, the surrounding wineries were already envious of him for being able to attract a crowd willing to work for free, so he didn’t need to create more tension caused by scandalous behavior.
With the end of vendange came a period of relative calm. Everyday our group was getting smaller as people began to leave in search of other adventures. I went back to plowing the fields with the tractor as I had done before the harvest, while others did chores around the vineyard in preparation for winter.
Steve and I had been at the vineyard for nearly six weeks, and I could feel that it was time to move on. One day Pillar and Cathy came back from an outing where they had spotted a car for sale and wanted to know if Steve and I were interested in pitching in. After negotiating a price, we purchased a 1961 four-door Simca for 700 francs.
After much headache, we managed to clear the paperwork and find reasonably priced car insurance. We then filled the car with 25 bottles of Chateau Brandeau wine, said our goodbyes and set out on a new adventure south to Spain and Portugal.