European Travel 50 Years ago – a Widow’s Diary

At our first Bed and Breakfast in London,
June, 1969
In 2008, I discovered my mother’s three volume diary from a family journey taken almost 40 years before.  My brothers and I remember the trip well.   How could one forget a ten-week European tour?  But only now as adults with children could we understand the courage this took.  Mom had been widowed with five children under the age of 20, and yet planned the trip herself at a time when European travel was just opening up for Americans.
This decision was not completely out of the blue.  My mother fell in love with traveling in 1931 at the age of 11.  In the midst of a depression, she ventured out of Texas for the first time.   Her father had little money and her mother had died when she was five. But her grandmother took her to California by train to visit family.   Mom’s face was always transformed at the mention of San Francisco.  She was seeing the San Francisco Bay for the first time with its deep blue water and the city on the hill and she was never the same after that. The trip revealed a world awaiting discovery and her exploration began after she married a West Texas farmer and had a few babies.
        Every summer, Mom would put her children in the back of a Plymouth station wagon and head out to a predetermined destination in the United States. Distance didn’t matter. Seattle, Los Angeles, Colorado, South Dakota, Washington, D.C., were all in her sights. My father claimed the potato and cotton crops required his attention, though he would still occasionally fly up and join us. By the time I left home, my brothers and I had checked off 35 states. But it was after my mother was widowed in 1966 at age 45 that she looked beyond the continental U.S.
In 1969, she decided the family needed to see Europe. Her original plan was a guided tour of the major cities in Western Europe.  But Bonnie, a family friend, convinced Mom that she could do it independently and more economically, even if it included children ages 20, 19, 17, 15, and 13.  Bonnie enticed my mother with comments like “You have to eat ice cream and read the Herald Tribune at St. Mark’s square.” Courageously, Mom decided to try it.
Arranging a trip of this magnitude was right up her alley.   My mother was born to organize.  This was the woman who maintained a list of the outfits she wore to her various clubs and school board meetings, so duplications were kept at a minimum. Grocery lists were arranged according to the layout of the store and the menu for the week.  As a volunteer, she kept track of recipes for local cookbooks and of names for church directories.  In our summer travels, each of us was given paper sacks pulled out of a box that held age appropriate games or reading material.  The sacks were distributed slowly over the length of the trip.  Five kids times five sacks times three surprises equals an active imagination and a lot of organization.

Of course, planning a European tour was something else.  The publication of “Europe on $5 A Day” in 1957 abolished the myth that Continental travel was only for the wealthy.  Promises of $1 a night hotels in Spain and 50 cent meals in Italy caught voyagers’ attention.   With the dollar trading at four German marks, a British pound equaling $2.25, and charter flights starting to appear, Europe wasn’t just attractive, it was attainable. And our family wasn’t alone.  In 1969, five million Americans (2.25% of the population) traveled abroad.  This was a significant increase from 1950 when only .45% of the population ventured out of the country.  Our baby boom population and higher income contributed to the growing numbers. But it was a far cry from the 27 million, or 10% of the population, who traveled abroad in 2000.   In 1969,  a European tour still was very unusual, especially in Plainview, a town of 18,000 in the Texas Panhandle, where my mother was born and raised.
Mom dove in.  She bought Europe on $5 a Day, Fodor’s Guide to Europe, and Fielding’s “Tours”.  This was long before faxes, cheap telephone calls or the internet. Friend Bonnie suggested an itinerary and Mom filled in the rest. The U.S. Postal Service was used to reserve hotel rooms at every major city on the route.  Thin, inquiring aerograms flew out of our home at 2601 W. 11th Street,  to wide- flung European destinations.  Two to three weeks later, letters in rich, thick envelopes appeared with exotic stamps and return addresses.  Formal language acknowledged receipt of her request for two rooms and most hotels confirmed the reservation.  Occasionally, a deposit was required.  Credit cards were not widely accepted at the time and we didn’t have one.
 Mom used a Volkswagen dealership in Lubbock, Texas to order a green Volkswagen van to be delivered to London where we began our trip.  The cost of $2,299.80 included $7.00 for push-out windows and $39 for an AM Radio.  The equivalent in today’s prices would be a modest purchase price of $13,633.  Where she found the information about shipping the van back to the United States, we don’t know. But in pre-internet days, it was an impressive feat.
Other preparations included clothes for all of us.  They had to be “drip-dry”, the precursor to no-iron. Jeans and t-shirts were out.  We were allotted three outfits each.  In our pictures, my brothers look amazingly well-dressed with slacks and button-down, short sleeve shirts.  Mom went so far as to buy nylon underwear for the boys.  The oldest brother rebelled, but the younger ones acquiesced, while complaining under their breath.   Baseball season was already lost for them, so what difference did uncomfortable clothes make.
I had some of the strangest clothes. Skirts were required in many churches in Europe.  So Mom cleverly made an outfit for me that was flexible.  She sewed two one – piece shorts outfits with a reversible wrap-around skirt.  One set was brown with white polka dots and the other white with brown polka dots.  It didn’t look so bad with the skirt on, but in the shorts alone, I appeared totally shapeless.  Add to that my habit of wearing my long hair in pig tails and my short five feet height, and you got, well, you got stares.
Student travel and discounts were then readily available and a  perk for university students.  Thanks to having two college aged children in the family, we could purchase airline tickets through Student Travel Inc. in Austin, Texas.   The charter plane landed in London and ten weeks later, departed from Brussels.  The price was right  – $279.00 each ($1,654.47 today). “Tourist-Economy” fare with Pan American Airways would have cost $500 per ticket ($2,965 today).  Wisely, Mom bought six tickets for Charter #8.  The confirmation letter even informed us that we would be flying on a Boeing 707 and that our flying time would be nine hours with a refueling stop in Maine.  Since passenger jets were only introduced in 1958, this bit of information on the plane was not always a given.

The Student Travel Inc. organization, assuming you had never done this before and needed direction, issued two pedantic Charter Bulletins (No.1 and No.2). They made specific suggestions as to what guide books to use (Fodor’s was in and Frommer’s was out), mode of transportation (leasing or buying a car was the best with Eurail pass a second choice), who to use for your photographs for passport and student IDs (professional, please) and even the need for your banker to know how to wire money.  The implication was that small town bankers wouldn’t know the steps which was probably true at that time.   
Since the air passage price depended on the fullness of the flight, we were encouraged to sign up other travelers.  We were expected to be impressed at the “computerized flow chart that shows the location of all of the aircraft at specific times and dates” which would finally determine our exact departure time.  What they DIDN’T want was for us to call them about costs, departure times, etc. They would provide all that information in due time –    21 days before the flight!  “Trust us,” “We’ve done this before” was their mantra.
Our first train ride from the London Airport into town
June 5 was “D-day” as Mom wrote in her diary. We were dressed like we were going to church.  Three of my brothers wore a shirt, tie, and sport coat.  I was in a flowered dress and both Mom and I had corsages given to us by my aunt.  It was the only time I ever wore a flower on a plane but it signified the specialty of the occasion.  An itinerary of the “Walker’s Waltz” across Europe was left with family members. The charter flight out of Dallas left one and a half hours late.  But nothing dampened our excitement – Europe for ten weeks.
Mom had read her guidebooks well and was prepared to travel economically, especially with food.  We stayed in moderate lodgings where breakfast was always included. The European emphasis on breads, butter, and jam didn’t impress any of us.  All agreed the English breakfast of eggs, toast, bacon, jam, tomatoes, juice, and hot tea was the only decent morning food of the trip. Lunch was a picnic or a meal where the locals ate – cafeterias, department store dining rooms, university dining halls, train stations, or often at what Mom referred to in her diary as a “joint”.  “We ate lunch at a joint – food was OK.”  In France, Switzerland and Italy, dinner was often included in the price of the room, another savings.  Two rooms, breakfast and dinner for six went for $36 in Chiavari on the coast of Italy.
We are fighting over the baguettes.  Please note the
robes two of my brothers are wearing which Mom
thought were important enough to take up
precious suitcase room.
We knew when a meal was expensive by its inclusion in her diary.  Lunch at the Louvre cost $6.50 for six ham sandwiches, six drinks, and four ice creams. Mom considered that high.  Of course, today that meal will set you back $88.  The most dear meal was at the Hilton Hotel steakhouse in Paris.  We were starved for American food and tired of bubbly water.  The splurge for the BBQ and steaks totaled $33.  “Expensive as the devil, of course, but worth it” read this diary entry.
             We started picnicking more as the trip progressed including an unexpected picnic insidethe van, inside a train transporting our car, inside a mountain on our way to Lugano, Switzerland.   The menu was also unusual – lemon chess cake, two oranges, potato chips, and water.  Mom didn’t include any complaints but there had to have been some mutterings.

Many new food experiences were noted – steak tartare and pretzels in Germany, Swiss cheese fondue, cooked Romaine lettuce, Indonesian food, German wiener schnitzel, English beef and kidney pie and the famous Austrian Sacher Torte.  Danish pastries were so superior to the “danish rolls” we had at home, it was hard to believe one descended from the other.  In England we enjoyed our first high tea and at Coventry Cathedral, a gooseberry crumble served at the church rectory rated the superlative of “best”.  Today, none of these dishes sound exotic because of widespread traveling and availability of international cuisine in the U.S.  But in 1969, they were all new to our palates.  Some were disappointing (the Sacher Torte was dry) but others captured us.  After the discovery of wiener schnitzel, two of my brothers tried to order it wherever they went.  I still wrap my spaghetti around a fork using a large spoon as a brace, as taught us by the Italian waiters.  And for years following the trip, my mother searched for gooseberries.
We covered approximately 4000 miles as we drove through England, France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Holland and Belgium. My older brother (20) and I (19) took turns driving.  According to Mom’s diary, we got lost a lot, drove in a bus lane in Paris, chose back roads to find restaurants and small hotels, and used maps extensively.   We purchased gasoline coupons in Italy (30% discount cards for tourists) and hoped the hotel discounts promised would work.
Isle of Capri, Italy.  I don’t know who the guy in the passenger seat is.
 I laughed at Mom’s description of ordering and paying for a lunch at an Italian roadside café.  “You first paid for the food to get a sales slip, then went to the (food) counter and fought the crowd to get your choice.  Didn’t matter whether you were in line or not, people would push their way right in front.”  I could have written that description  in 2008 at a roadside café on a tollway in Sicily.  Some things haven’t changed.
Much of our time was spent with the usual tourist activities.  As a commercial art major, Mom was determined we would explore the major museums.   To see the actual Magna Carta and original scores by Bach and Mozart at the British Museum was thrilling for this farmer’s widow.  The small, unassuming Mona Lisa at the Louvre was open for close examination, free of the massive crowds of today.  In Florence, Mom learned the fruit wreaths used at home were named for the artist, Lucia Della Robbia, who painted the sculptured fruit frames in bright colors.  And Tintoretto’s massive paintings at the Scuola de San Rocco in Venice were pondered for their contrasts in light and dark. 
Plenty of time was set aside for shopping.  Cheap ski equipment impressed my brothers.  The purchase of skis by my oldest brother at the Galeries Lafayette in Paris exposed our ignorance of tourist refunds.  We thought a discount was offered, but it was actually the right to turn in our receipts at the border and have a refund mailed to us.  All of this took two interpreters and two hours to understand.  The rest of us chose to buy ski boots.  I have no idea what we were thinking.  It just seemed cool at the time.  The equipment came in handy when we unexpectedly got to ski in Zermatt, Switzerland.  Even with new boots and skis, we must have looked pitiful coming down the mountains with socks for gloves.  For the remainder of the trip, we had to shuffle the skis and boots around in the Volkswagen bus to make room for our increasing purchases.  Thankfully, Mom collected spoons from each country which took little space.

In 1969, every country had a different currency.  Without ATMs, Mom had to bring sufficient traveler checks for the entire trip.  She learned to store the checks in the hotel’s safe.  Still, there was a constant calculation of how much would be needed to be changed for the stay in each country.  And, bank hours had to be factored in.  On a Saturday in Venice, we were down to $35 to last through the week-end.  We had to choose between a gondola ride and a real meal.  We went with the boat ride and ate cheese and crackers in the hotel room.  Interestingly, the European countries were just beginning to explore that year the idea of a common currency in their drive for economic and monetary union. The first policy statements were approved in 1969 by members of the EEC at a summit at the Hague.  It took 30 more years for it to happen (January 1, 1999).
The best experiences were personal.  At a very out of the way country inn in France, the stout owner appeared surprised to have an American family arrive. Our exchange was often through pantomime since my school French didn’t pick up the subtleties of her conversation.  Madame Reine Nantou particularly loved our being from Texas, using her hands as pistols to demonstrate her understanding of our heritage.  She imitated a snorting pig to illustrate the pork dish on the menu.  And she was horrified when my youngest brother asked for Coca-Cola, insisting on serving wine to all of us.   Even after these 40 years, I still remember her fresh tomatoes as the best I’ve ever had.   It was also our first experience of a prix fixe.  At our departure, Madame insisted on giving us wine glasses.  As we waved good-by she blew kisses.  She singlehandedly changed our impression of the French.
In 1967 our family had hosted a foreign exchange student from Asperg, Germany, named Helmut.  His family was happy to return the hospitality and welcomed us with the best food of the trip – sausages, cream cakes, pretzels, goulash, home-made noodles, pickled cucumbers, strawberry torte shortcake, and wine and beer.  It was at their home we realized Europe was still recovering from the war.  The Gabauer family had to build a fire to heat the water for our showers and they had no telephone.  Mom used the home telephone of Helmut’s girlfriend to call Texas, the  only phone call of the trip.

 Helmut joined us later in the trip on our drive through Germany and Denmark.  He was particularly instrumental in introducing the older kids to beer halls.  The casualness of teenagers drinking in Europe surprised my mother and excited the rest of us.  But we had to be careful not to match them drink to drink.   They had years of conditioning on those of us who came from the 21 year drinking age country. 
A visit to the Mumm Champagne factory in Reims introduced my youngest brother, age 13, to his first alcohol buzz.  We all were taken with the idea of free alcohol at the end of the tour and managed to explore two breweries that summer.   My older brother and I found youth clubs in most of the major cities for late evening fun.  Discos had not yet arrived.  At a Jazz Bar in Rome, Meadowlark Lemons of the Harlem Globetrotters sat at our table to chat.  In Berlin, we felt out of our league in a darkened, candle lit cabaret straight out of the 1930’s.  Phones in the booths were used to invite other patrons to dance.  No one called us.
The siblings share many favorite memories – skiing in Switzerland, snorkeling in Sorrento, Italy, celebrating the 4th of July at the American Embassy party in Rome, figuring out the bidet, exploring the Salt Mines in Austria, and crossing Checkpoint Charlie on a tour into East Berlin.  In July, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.  We were up very early to watch it at our pension in Salzburg, Austria, and later joined crowds on the street peering into store windows with televisions. 
In Switzerland, I think.  I’m wearing a wig, which was quite popular then.
By the time we arrived in Brussels ten weeks later, we were ready to return to American soil, especially my mother.  She reports none of us wanted to do anything in Belgium.  Our luggage had doubled despite boxes of goods that had previously been mailed.  Without wheels on suitcases, all of us were loaded down. The van was dropped off to be shipped.  Our plane was six hours late in departing but no one cared.  It was time to go home.
Upon returning, Mom was the toast of the Texas Panhandle.  Everyone wanted to hear what it was really like “over there”.  I found her notes for a speech she was asked to give about the adventure.  It was a take off on the question all travelers dread: “Which was your favorite country?”.  She broke the countries into categories.  Austria had the best scenery, Italy the most impressive art, England the friendliest people, etc.  For her, though, the most moving experiences were patriotic ones – being at the 4th of July party in Rome and watching the moon landing.  She missed her country and was happy to return.  Looking back, she wistfully ended her speech with, “I always thought I had as much chance of going to Europe as man had of walking on the moon.  And then there was the summer of 1969.”
It’s now been 50 years since we first explored Europe.  Mildred Walker, the subject of this essay, died in 2010. Her dementia had prevented her from remembering many of the details of the trip.  When I read the diaries to her, she just smiled and said, “We had a wonderful time, didn’t we?”  Yes, we did, and this adventure opened up the entire world to our family’s exploration which continues to this day.  All it took was Mom’s courage to try.             

2 Responses to “European Travel 50 Years ago – a Widow’s Diary”

  1. Mary

    I love this story… your mom was amazingly organized and I cannot imagine planning and executing this type of trip without today's conveniences! Thanks for documenting the memories …

  2. Brad and Yibi Smith

    Great story Mary! Thanks for sharing those adventures. We look forward to another trip w you!


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)