Having been a teenager in World War II, I was determined to save the planet from future catastrophic wars. I pored over political science texts at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, and participated in Clifton Fadiman’s World Federalism Now movement. I received a fellowship for graduate study in political theory at the University of Minnesota, but like so many 1950’s women, lightning struck, and I married right out of college. There went the fellowship. You couldn’t have it both ways. You followed your man.
Glen and I were married on June 24, 1950, the day before the Korean War broke out. The 25th was the only day of our married life that my husband didn’t read The New York Times at breakfast, or any other newspaper he could get his hands on. Missing such earth-shaking news really upset him. He wanted to be the first in line to re-enlist, being a proud veteran of WWII. I held on tight, however, and we kept to our plan of sailing to Europe on the SS Volendam, a relic of the Holland-American line that we were told was making its last trip before being salvaged. That was in July 1950. Eighteen months later, when we returned, it was still chugging along.
Our reason for such an extended honeymoon was to indulge our twin passions—traveling and writing. We planned to hitchhike through Western Europe and North Africa, with the idea of sending interesting travel stories back to, of course, The New York Times Travel Section. No flies on us! We had sent several adventure stories to various publications, mostly Glen’s harrowing experiences with the Russians in East Germany right after the war, but nobody had contracted for our services. Yet. I was sure it wouldn’t be long….
We also wanted to return to some old haunts in post-war Germany, Denmark, and France, where I had participated in Quaker work camps and Glen had been in the army.
Hitchhiking in the U.S. and Europe was prevalent in the ‘50’s, and, for that matter, right up through the ‘70’s. It was easy, and a great way to meet people, get invited to their homes, and gain insight into their culture. Since we were following our noses, each visit sidetracked us and we never knew where we’d end up. And we didn’t much care. That was half the fun.
After making a sign telling each destination in turn, we’d sling our army surplus packs over our shoulders, stand by the side of the road, and stick out our thumbs. We wore hiking boots (which I alternated with saddle shoes…anybody remember those?) and carried a double sleeping bag that left duck feathers everywhere we landed. I dressed in a dirndl skirt and peasant blouse and Glen wore old army fatigues. We carried few material possessions. All we owned was on our back. We were young, in love, and there wasn’t anything we couldn’t do. We thought.
Our first encounter with a Frenchman was a shopkeeper in Le Havre, who looked us up and down and said, with disdain, “Why don’t you dress and act like the rich Americans you are? Nobody here has the money to travel like you do, so why are you dressing like bums and pretending to be poor?” Very good English, to be sure, but what a surprise. We hadn’t realized what a curiosity we were, or how bad we must have looked.
Fortunately, this was the last such encounter. Twenty miles outside of Paris a Frenchman in an open jeep picked us up. Although he spoke little English, he was able to convey to us that he was a member of du Hot Club de France. As the sun went down over the horizon and the buildings of Paris came into view, he and Glen shared familiar riffs from jazz greats like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Jack Teagarten, Jimmy Lunsford, Benny Goodman, and the Dorsey brothers. I’m surprised we didn’t end up in the ditch, especially when our driver tried imitating Teagarten playing the trombone with one hand!
Once inside the city limits our new friend deposited us at the Rue de Budapest, where we found the only hotel not used by the femme de la nuit (ladies of the night), the Hotel du France. For one dollar a night you could book a double room with a balcony overlooking the activity around the Gare Saint Lazare. I was clueless about what was going on in the street for some time, until I noticed the glares given me by the ladies. No doubt they felt I was infringing on their territory. Sadly, upon returning twenty-five few years later, I found that our hotel no longer existed and the whole area, except for the railroad station, had changed, drastically. But I did find Rue de Budapest.
Breakfast in bed cost $2.00 in francs and was delivered to us by a giggling maid, who, we later ascertained, thought we were not married. Such a transgression was rare in the early fifties and most hotels made certain of your marital status before renting you a room…even in France. I guess the maid hadn’t gotten the message!
We explored Paris, and took in numerous museums and every opera. Glen wasn’t too keen about the opera, but it was all the entertainment we could afford (box seats were $4.00). The only movie we saw was Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton in The Third Man, which had been playing for months at a small movie house near the railroad station. And it was in English!
For many postwar travelers the communication hub in whatever country you visited was the American Express office, invariably located in the capitol. There’s where you went to socialize with ex-pats and fellow hitchhikers, and pick up your mail from home. Remember, there were no personal computers, e-mail, internet, or cell phones. One day, on an impulse, we plunked down $80.00 for an ancient motorcycle being hawked in the square by a Yale student, who probably laughed his way through a month of Parisian nightlife and may be laughing still. We christened the bike One-Lunger, because it was so anemic that I had to walk up every hill in northern France while Glen chugged on the bike alongside me.
To this day I can’t remember where we ditched it, but once the bike was gone, we hitched through the Low Countries, ending up in Amsterdam where we formed a lasting friendship with the Heslenfelds, a family who had been active in the Dutch underground during the war. We had met at the border where Dickie, the father, and a seller of office machines, left several of his samples on the side of the road to make space for us and our huge packs in the back of his tiny Fiat. How about that for hospitality? The next week was spent with his lively family on Larrisastradt near the Rijksmuseum, and we fell in love with this city of canals and windmills and beaches. Months later, during Easter week, we returned for a longer visit, and, together, explored the area surrounding the WWII memorial to the 100,000 American soldiers who died in the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes Forest near Bastogne, Belgium. The war was still fresh in our minds, and walking on a battlefield that had such a major impact on history was deeply moving. Although I had been a teenager at the time of this final battle, it had made a lasting impression on me.
Then it was back to France, where we spent a couple of days saying goodbye to our favorite cafes and wandering around the countryside, stopping at several farms in search of a petite cheval (small donkey), suggested to us as a sure way to get to Morocco and a great way to explore North Africa. Alas, we never succeeded in buying one, and by the look on the faces of some of the farmers, I was sure they thought our scheme was a bit hair-brained. In retrospect, I agree.
Sans donkey, it was on the road, again, with a sign saying Morocco. A jovial fellow, Hervey De Bivort, who worked for the International Labor Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, picked us up and suggested that we make a short detour and visit his family before heading to Africa. Wow! What a treat that was! A chance to experience Lake Geneva nestled between Switzerland and France, and see the Alps in the bargain, if only from a distance. Subsequently, Hervey offered to have Glen accompany him on a business trip to Germany. As a result, we both ended up getting jobs with the U. S. Signal Corps in Hanau, a small town near Frankfurt, and home of the legendary Grimm Brothers. There we lived in an apartment built like a bank vault and formerly part of a German Luftwaffe (air force) base. In Frankfurt we bought a snarky British MG model TD for $1400 with Glen’s army savings, and for the next year-and-a-half acquainted ourselves with postwar Germany. Alas, we never did make it to Morocco, and to this day it’s still on my wish list.
Being fifty miles from the Russian zone tended to make us nervous, so we spent many weekends poring over maps and exploring the roads to perfect our escape route out of Germany, just in case the Russians decided to make a move. As far as we could see, the American military was dismantling its war machine at a fever pitch. Salvaged trucks and tanks dotted the landscape. Everybody wanted to get home and back to normal. But the Russians were still rarin’ to go and rattling sabers. The Cold War had not been declared, but if you were on the Continent it could give you pause….No wonder we took advantage of the base’s offer to give us Russian lessons.
We did little socializing on the base, however, but made some close friends living nearby in the tiny town of Langendiebach. Those were the days of cobbled streets, so it was really quaint. Our closest friends were Alexander Harder, a well-known Russian painter, and his charming wife, Maria, who had fled their homeland when the Soviets took over. Like several of their compatriots, they chose to stay in Europe to be close to Russia when Stalin fell. That turned out to be much longer than they imagined.
Mr. Harder had been commissioned to paint an historic mural in Hanau in memory of its most illustrious citizens, the Grimm brothers. He also specialized in impressionistic landscapes. And portraits. He even painted one of me with my long hair and peasant blouse. A true friend.
Of all our trips, which included Italy and Alsace-Lorraine, the most eye-opening was to the former Yugoslavia while Tito was still in power. It was my first experience in a Communist country. Just before we crossed the border, I hid my camera. It was one of those inexplicable hunches that come out of the blue. I had not known that cameras were confiscated, but soon found out, when the only other couple crossing the border near us had their cameras seized.
You can’t imagine how jarring it was to find out that we were being tracked wherever we went. “Good evening Mr. and Mrs. Peterson. How was your journey?” greeted us upon arriving at our first destination.
I filled an entire notebook with tales of our drive down the Adriatic Coast, our wanderings through small towns, and our visits to the homes of Ivan Mestrovic, the famous artist and sculptor who had fled Tito and whom we had gotten to know while we were both studying at Syracuse. In fact, his impressive wood carvings of the life of Christ still lined the walls of Hendrick’s Chapel at the university on the day we were married. He was eager to give us letters of introduction to friends and members of the clergy in Split and Zagreb, where he had lived. We couldn’t wait to explore this country he so lovingly described.
Driving down the coast on narrow gravel and dirt roads, dodging reclining cows and other animals that wandered onto the road was beautiful but somewhat eerie. Not a single Westerner. Not another car. Just us. One night we decided to sleep out under the stars and chanced to meet some locals, who, in halting English, gave us an idea of the struggles that made up their daily lives in a dictatorship. They seemed genuinely happy to meet us and shared their food and drink. We lay in the tall grass, hovered over by a full moon, listening to the waves lapping at the high cliffs. Heavenly!
Over the next week, several other such conversations filled in more and more details of life under the Tito regime. One especially powerful exchange came when we visited with the mayor of a small town and sat around a table having tea and sharing one small piece of cheese. His final words to Glen were, “Please tell the world what a hell it is to live in Yugoslavia.” Such an experience made us realize that we could not publish a story about this trip without endangering the lives of those who had communicated so openly with us. This saddened us, for these were people who really admired the United States, something that was in short supply in many of the places we visited. And we felt that their story needed to be told.
After visiting Mestrovic’s once-glorious and now rundown mansion in Zagreb, and meeting, clandestinely, with several of his friends, we headed back to Trieste. There is nothing like an Italian city on the sea to lighten your spirits and lead to celebration. This we did for two days and ended up trading our new MG TD for a custom-made Alpha Romeo with the steering column in the middle and a non-existent stack (convertible roof). I know. Sometimes when you’re young you’re a little bit crazy. Thank God it wasn’t the rainy season!
I had a wild time some months later making my way to Milano to get the pedigree of the car from the home factory. This was my first time in Italy and opened my eyes to the beauty of its cities and landscape, and how modern its stores, trains and ships were. I hadn’t realized how provincial I was! I sneaked in a side trip to the Tuscan city of Livorno on the Ligurian Sea, where I remember, vividly, coming upon a group of cab drivers standing on the corner with their arms around each other singing opera. Italy is a country of singers, and for an opera lover like me it was heaven!
By the beginning of our second year in Germany we had become disenchanted with our work. I had twelve Germans reporting to me, translating a signal corps catalog into German, and, since I spoke the language, I was well aware of their daily grumbling about the “stupid Americans.” And Glen was not happy overseeing inefficient procedures to cover the waste and salvage operation going on in the Signal Corps. When I became pregnant, we headed home through Naples and Barcelona and arrived by slow boat in time to participate in the baby boom and the economic prosperity of the postwar years.
As for our fancy Alpha Romeo, we made just enough from its sale to buy a used 1949 Volkswagen…you know, the one with the tiny rear window and the quirky semaphores that popped out of each side at the top of the window as directional signals. I can only imagine what the Alpha is worth today.
Our first year back in the States was spent in Syracuse, New York, where we rented a small cottage behind a fraternity house for $85 a month. That was very close to Glen’s weekly salary at the Syracuse Municipal League. Even with a graduate degree in Public Administration from the Maxwell School, that was considered good.
Like most young couples in the 1950’s we started out with used furniture plus side tables made from orange crates draped with colorful material. Then there was an old refrigerator we dubbed Hammerin’ Hank, because that’s what it did, shake and vibrate. We had few appliances, no washing machine, no daily New York Times (it was too expensive), and we walked a lot, even though twenty-five-cent-a-gallon gas seems like nothing today. Yes, we really did live on love!
But despite all our parsimony, life was an adventure that first year: growing climbing nasturtiums and morning glories up our front porch; taking long walks through the rose gardens of Thornden Park; and awakening to the fact that one tiny creature can keep two adults totally busy 24/7. We even had a peeping Tom, who returned one evening while I was nursing the baby and Glen was busy in the bathroom. I started to scream unintelligibly. Glen grabbed his pants and the Japanese sword hanging on the wall, that his brother-in-law, a former marine, brought back from the Pacific, and stumbled out the door. I could hear the two men running around the house and hoped with all my heart that Glen wouldn’t catch him. A decapitation would not look good on his resume.