In 2008, I discovered my mother’s three-volume diary from a family journey taken in 1969.
Mom was widowed with five children under the age of 20, and yet planned the trip herself at a time when European travel was just beginning for Americans. Mom’s original plan was a guided tour of the major cities in Western Europe, but a family friend convinced her that she could do it independently and more economically, even if it included children ages 20, 19, 17, 15 and 13. The friend 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.
Managing a 10-week trip of this magnitude was right up her alley. My mother was born to organize. The publication of “Europe on $5 A Day” in 1957 abolished the myth that continental travel was only for the wealthy, and she used it extensively. Before faxes, cheap telephone calls or the internet, the U.S. Postal Service was used by Mom to reserve hotel rooms at every major city on the route. Thin, inquiring aerograms flew out of our home 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 by asking for a deposit check.
Thanks to having two college-aged children in the family, she could purchase airline tickets for $279 each through Student Travel Inc. in Austin. And Mom used a Volkswagen dealership in Lubbock to order a green Volkswagen van for $2,299.80 to be delivered to London where we began our trip.
June 5 was “D-day,” or departure day, as Mom wrote in her diary. We dressed as if headed to church on Easter. Three of my brothers wore a shirt, tie and sport coat. Both Mom and I had corsages given to us by my aunt. It was the only time I have ever worn a flower on a plane.
Mom was prepared to travel economically, especially with food. We stayed in modest 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 covered approximately 4,000 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.
The best experiences were personal. At a country inn in France, the stout owner appeared surprised to have an American family arrive. Our exchange was often through pantomime. 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 50 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-bye, she blew kisses. She single-handedly changed our impression of the French.
My siblings share many favorite memories — skiing in Switzerland, snorkeling in Sorrento, Italy, celebrating the Fourth 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 Strasburg, Austria, and later joined crowds on the street peering into store windows with televisions.
Upon our return, 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 gave about the adventure. Breaking the countries into categories, she noted 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 Fourth 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.”
Mildred Walker, the subject of this essay, died in 2010. Her dementia prevented her from remembering many of the details of the trip, but 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 the world to our family’s exploration which continues to this day. All it took was Mom’s courage to try.