I would have loved a birthday text from my granddaughter under any circumstances, and I was especially pleased with a recent one accompanied by a selfie from the top of the Gaudí Museum in Barcelona. Gorgeous place, gorgeous picture, gorgeous girl. She flew across the Atlantic a few weeks ago and sent off a stream of photos and texts as she made her way through Spain, southern France, and Italy. Her parents, grandparents, and Facebook friends can see she’s OK, enjoy some of the adventures, and keep track of her progress. If there’s a misadventure of any kind, they’ll be right on it. The birthday text made me think, and remember. In 1951, when I embarked on my first trip to Europe, my mother escorted me to the SS Nelly at the old docks on the west side of Manhattan. We couldn’t find the ship right away – the Nelly was very small. To my mother, who had traveled on the traditional ocean liners in the 1920s and 30s, the Nelly looked like a big, messy rowboat.
When we found her, Mom made a valiant effort to act as if it were no big deal to have to stand aside while four sailors carried off a coffin draped in an Italian flag. Plague? A mutineer, flogged to death? I never did find out what happened to the sailor, but starvation would have been a reasonable guess: there was very little food available even for passengers, and what there was, was almost inedible even for hungry teenagers. We slept in three-decker bunks, about 200 to a “room” (cargo hold, really). We were segregated by sex, of course, but not by susceptibility to seasickness, which would have been more useful. It was sometimes very rough.
Recently I googled the Nelly, along with the other so-called “student ships” of the early 1950s, originally built as troopships during World War II to carry soldiers between continents. The ships were put to use after the war to transport thousands of the unfortunate people known as Displaced Persons – mostly European Jews uprooted and made homeless by the Holocaust – to Australia and elsewhere around the world, and chartered for student groups in the summers. The Nelly weighed 11,086 gross tons and was 492 feet long; for purposes of comparison, the Titanic weighed 46,000 tons and was 883 feet long. Memory is not very accurate: I would have thought the Titanic, as least as it appeared in the movie, was at least ten times the size and weight of the Nelly. Our ship had been designed to stuff as many bodies as possible into the small space available, so it was horribly cramped. The bunks were inadequate, the plumbing way substandard, the entertainment nonexistent, and again – awful food, and not much of it.
We spent eleven days on that ship; she docked in Le Havre after ten days, and some of our new close friends got off. Those of us headed to the UK arrived in Southampton the next day. They were close friends by then, too, some of them. When you’re confined in a small space with several hundred people your own age, with absolutely nothing to do, not much to eat, and a little something (but nothing legal) to drink, you get to know them very well. We complained ferociously, of course, and expended a good deal of energy trying to break into the kitchens at night. We played a lot of cards, and at night deserted our narrow, swaying bunks to spend some time exploring our new friendships in the lifeboats, which were subject to sudden bright lights and loud shouts by crew members whose job it was to keep us out of them. Despite the conditions, the fact is – it was a lot of fun. Unlike college in those days, there were no parietal rules.
I traveled under the auspices of the Experiment in International Living on that first trip, and was thus more or less protected against real emergencies, from lost passports to broken legs. Two years later, though, I took a similarly dreadful ship – the SS Anna Salen, sister to the Nelly – to another summer in the UK, this time with the stated purpose of studying history in a summer program at the University of Edinburgh. Oh, those summer programs! Little studying was done, but we learned a lot. When the six-week term ended we dispersed for independent travel, and I went off with a friend to hitchhike in the west of England. Really – there we were, two girls on the road with our thumbs out, staying in any B&B we could locate. Some of the kind people who gave us rides expressed concern about our safety; as I recall, we thanked them politely for their advice and never gave it another thought.
There were no reservations, no restrictions, and no such thing as communication with home. (Did my parents even know I was hitchhiking?) We had whatever travelers’ checks – remember those? – were left at the end of the summer program, soon converted into cash, and that was it. I remember sitting by the side of the road every day, re-figuring our budgets on the basis of what we had in our wallets that day, divided by the number of days that remained. There was no realistic way to get any more. We sent home postcards and letters written on funny little “air letter” forms – you had to scribble in all directions on both sides of the page. A phone call would have been justified if somebody died. After I left Edinburgh I picked up mail once or twice at the American Express office in London, but there was NO communication on the road, and no expectation of it. We were on our own. One of my friends went off to Italy by himself and ran into a persuasive con man who talked him out of his money. For several days afterwards he survived on the breakfast served in his pensione – coffee and a roll – while he waited for the U.S. consulate to open, to cable home, and get some funds transferred. Odd to recall a world without credit cards.
Last summer, another one of my grandchildren worked as a WWOOFer (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), helping to bring in the grape harvest in an historic vineyard at a castle in Tuscany. He worked hard, drank award-winning wines, and ate extremely well at tables set under the olive trees. What a way to WWOOF, and what a joy to see from afar: the photos, taken on his iPhone, were worth several thousand words. In contrast, our pictures from the early 1950s, as shown above, were snaps from little Kodaks, placed lovingly in albums and fastened to the page by sticky corners. The technological differences in travel and communication seem to – and did – belong to two different centuries. The experience – young, in Europe for the first time? We’ll never know, but I suspect – not so different.
Postscript 8/10/15: Memory can take you in unexpected directions. After this post was published, I recalled something that made me think differently about that long-ago voyage on the SS Anna Salen, and my not-so-Silent Generation…