Our Passport was a Dishrag
Washing pots in Sweden, baby-sitting in Holland, drawing beer in Warwickshire, these two Canadian girls saw a Europe the tourists never even glimpse. They didn’t bring back a Fath creation but they did once try to wash themselves in wine
EVERY once in a while these days we pick up a magazine and discover that some author is telling optimistic readers how they can see Europe for five hundred dollars.
Five hundred dollars? We saw Europe on two dollars.
In fact, we covered fifteen thousand miles of it and we were gone eighteen months, from the spring of 1950 to Christmas 1951. We visited the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden. We even spent a couple of months in frozen Lapland, one hundred and thirty miles north of the Arctic circle. We didn’t have any contacts or friends to pave our way, we didn’t speak any language but
our native English, and we didn’t wire home to Canada for a cent.
We had a fine time.
Of course, most of the time we had to sleep in buses, barns, cowsheds, ditches, hedges and overturned boats. In Norway we slept in a bomb shelter, in Cornwall on rocks, in Somerset in a corner in some old ruins, in Calais in a graveyard.
Once we wandered into what we thought was a deserted Salvation Army church in Scandinavia, and woke up next morning to find the congregation filing in.
Once we fell asleep on the banks of the Loire, in France; when we opened our startled eyes next day we found ourselves soaked in rising waters and crawling with live slugs.
Once we bedded down late at night in Rotterdam’s largest park and woke at dawn surrounded by a dozen ducks, a crowd of staring people and a burly Dutch policeman indignantly kicking our bottoms.
Our food was mostly pork and beans. Usually we ate them cold, scooped out of ragged-edged cans, balanced on the blade of a hunting knife, and washed down by water. They tasted wonderful.
Our clothes were limited to a single pair of blue jeans each and a couple of threadbare jerseys. Our only make-up was one comb and one lipstick shared between us and two washcloths. We toted forty-five-pound rucksacks containing our sleeping bags. Our souvenirs are mostly physical: fingers still sore from washing dishes, peeling vegetables and scaling fish in icy water; feet still leathery from trudging along hundreds of roads and sidewalks.
In case all this suggests we’re an odd pair of girls, we’re not, really. We’re quite ordinary, quite respectable, we think. When Lenny’s not traveling, she lives with her parents in a small farming community called Burgessville, about nine miles from Woodstock, Ont. Her father is a farmer and her mother is interested in church work. Johnny lives in Lindsay, Ont., with her father, a locomotive engineer, and her new stepmother. Both of us are the youngest of our families and we’re both Home Economics graduates of Macdonald Institute in Guelph. In fact, that’s where we met each other, four years ago. We suppose we’re as good to look at as most girls. We’ve always had dates at home. We had a lot of dates on our European jaunt and we’d like to get married someday, but at the moment there’s no romantic interest in our lives.
We’re both twenty-one.
Our yen for traveling dates back to our graduation dance in June 1949. On that night we caught the late train for Banff, where we’d hired as college-girl waitresses for the summer season. Three months later the job was over, but we’d fallen in love with the Canadian west: we hitchhiked on to Jasper, Vancouver, the Okanagan
Valley (we arrived in time to pick and grade the apple harvest) and so home via the Rockies and Edmonton, just in time for Christmas. Our trip convinced us that two girls willing to work their way across Europe could have a pretty good time and see a lot of country. We told our families our plan. They said “Go ahead. Remember we’re here if ever you need anything.” We promised to write home every week and we kept our promise.
We applied for jobs as waitresses in a Laurentian skiing resort and by the spring of 1950 we’d earned enough for two one-way passages to England, plus forty dollars in cash. We booked passage on the Samaria sailing from Quebec City and shipped half a dozen suitcases of clothes there, to be picked up and put on the ship on sailing day. Then we checked into a Montreal hotel for our last night in Canada.
At this point something terrible happened. We overslept. When we opened our eyes on sailing day the last train to Quebec had departed hours ago! Frantically we leaped into our clothes and dashed to the highway to hitchhike east. But three hours later we were only one hundred miles outside Montreal. The Samaria was due to sail at 8 p.m. We called a taxi. It cost us thirty-eight dollars. That’s why we entered England with a two-dollar bill and only the clothes we stood in.
We had decided to look for work in Blackpool, the resort season being on, but when we hitchhiked there and saw the place we took an instant dislike to it. We went back to Coventry, where we were offered jobs as barmaids in a local pub called The Grapes. We were undoubtedly the worst barmaids that ever drew a beer, for we knew nothing of drink, were mystified by the English coins, and couldn’t make out the local accent. Still, nobody seemed to mind and in any case we were staying only two
Continued on page 30
Continued from page 23
weeks, having been hired, sight unseen, by a summer resort in Devon.
We hitchhiked to our new job and arrived at midnight to find the place shut tight. We were just trying out our newly bought sleeping bags in a hedge when a flashlight was shoved in our faces. It was the night watchman. When we told him we were the two new girls, he just chuckled. “I thought as much,” he said. “No English lass
would turn up at this hour of night.” Next day we began our duties, which included shelling peas (six huge sacks to serve three hundred and fifty people at dinner), peeling potatoes and scrubbing floors. Discovering that we had come to England penniless, the boss set about finding extra work for us, at extra pay. He even lent a hand himself whenever he could find the time. He was amused the day our half-dozen suitcases turned up from Canada, and he found us auctioning off our clothes to the other hired help. We’d decided to get rid of everything but the
essentials, for forty-five-pound rucksacks were enough to lug around on our backs. The other girls seemed starved for clothes: they begged our hair ribbons and even fought over an old watch that we warned them didn’t run right.
September found us hiking through Cornwall, across the moors, through Penzance and St. Ives. It was odd to be seeing places we’d known all our lives in nursery rhymes and music. We muttered the old rhyme about As I was going to St. Ives I met a man with seven wives . . .
and hummed Gilbert and Sullivan in the proper geographical setting.
Outside London we were picked up by a wonderful little Cockney lorry driver called Joe Heather, who insisted on taking us home to his walk-up flat near the docks so that his wife could make us a good cup of tea. The number of English wives who have had to make tea for us two Canadian girls must run into the thousands. Then he took us sightseeing. We can still hear his broad accents: “’Ere’s Petticoat Lane” . . . “This ’ere’s the Bank o’ England” ... At night he took us to the highway and pressed fruit and sandwiches into our hands.
“Whenever you’re in London you’ve got a bed with us,” he promised. We think English lorry drivers are the salt of the earth.
Fun Is Better Shared
We wandered on to Cambridge. We hiked to Stratford-on-Avon and saw The Merchant of Venice. In Leicestersuire we suddenly remembered we knew an English girl named Peggy Cox who had waited on tables with us at Banff. Peggy had traveled alone all over England, in Canada, and over a good part of the Continent. In Canada she’d got herself a Stetson and learned dozens of cowboy songs; later, in European cafés and night spots she had put on her cowboy hat and sung for her supper. She was just back from Italy. Now here she was, settled in with her mother and three terriers in a cosy little cottage. “Hi!” she said. “You’re just in time for the potato picking!” We settled in with Peggy and picked potatoes for eight hours a day for two weeks. It was the most hack breaking job we’ve ever had.
We moved on to Surrey. Unlike Peggy, who prefers to travel alone, we were glad we were together. Every thing seems twice as much fun when there’s somebody to share it with. We had arguments occasionally, and once in a while an out-and-out battle, but nothing important. We got along fine.
In Surrey we ran across an old college friend called Mike, who was running the family farm while his father worked in the city. Luckily, we timed our arrival with the departure of the cook and the maid on their fortnight vacation, and we were hired in their place. It was a beautiful big house, and for once we had soft beds and cool sheets to sleep on, but bv now we’d developed a taste for sleeping outdoors and much to the astonishment of Mike and his mother, we insisted on sleeping in the hayrick.
The days passed pleasantly, the cook and the maid came back. Sitting in front of the fire one rainy morning Johnny said impulsively, “If it’s cleared by morning and the sun’s shining, let’s go off to the Continent.”
The sun was shining brightly next day as we hitched a ride to London and bought two stout army rucksacks and a couple of warm overcoats. We intended to go to the Riviera and offer our services as nursemaids, but an elderly couple who picked us up told us the Riviera season was over, and some American boys caught in the draft and returning to the U. S. said Sweden was the place to go if you wanted work. Accordingly, we turned our footsteps toward Stockholm.
We arrived three days later, on the day of King Gustav’s funeral. Everything was shut tight and the city was filled with mourners. We were broke again, our shoes were worn through, we hadn’t eaten for two days, and it was useless to look for a job until the next day. We walked up and down all that night to keep warm, and in the morning we remembered something
that every hitchhiker in Europe knows: in a pinch—you can always sell your blood We hurried over to the blood bank, sold a pint of blood each for twenty-eight kroner (five dollars), and bought ourselves a good breakfast and patches for our boots. Thus fortified, we applied for work at the back door of one of Stockholm’s oldest and most famous restaurants, the Tennstopet. We were hired as potwasher and assistant fish cleaner, with the job of peeling, scaling and cleaning hundreds of different kinds of fish, including eels, alive md dead, in icy water for twentyfive cents an hour.
Wehad been in England five months. We wire to be in Sweden for six. We grew 10 love the place with its terraced lawns and magnificent mountains, so clean by day, so beautiful by night. We found a room out of town over a baker/. The proprietress, a shy lady in a big apron and kerchief, brought us coffee and pastries for breakfast every morning. Swedes are noted for their hospitality and a hostess’ regard for haguests can be estimated by the number of kinds of pastries she prepares for them. When we visited a Swedish friend one day we were served eleven kinds of tarts— a high compliment.
We were living in Stockholm when Lenn\ got influenza. Lenny is the accident-prone member of our team. Every second day she stuck her finger into a meat-grinder, and once she took so many aspirins for a toothache that she went into a coma that lasted for hours. So when a flu epidemic hit Stockholm Lenny was about the first to get it. She was delirious for days and ran a terrifying temperature for a week. When it was all over and the fever had subsided she had lost twenty pounds and her partner was near exhaustion from working an eighteenhour shift.
The Day Blondes Rule
We were in Stockholm for St. Lucia’s Day, in December, when beautiful blond “Queen Lucia’s” are chosen to reign over the festive season, when sweet buns and heavy red wine and gaiety are the order of the day. Our hotel gave a staff party. We attended in our shabby blue jeans and greasy aprons, amid the white-coated chefs and the neat table waitresses . . .And we were in Stockholm for Christmas, when the city is like a fairyland of stars and lights and streamers, when bakery windows are resplendent with iced cakes in the shape of sows and litters of little suckling pigs, when ! street Santa Clauses sell decorative angels and tiny straw reindeer and Swedes say “Skoal!” and drain glass after glass of schnapps.
We loved Sweden so much we’d probably still be there if we hadn’t heard about Riksgranseen, a skiing resort in Lapland one hundred and thirty miles north of the Arctic circle. We applied for jobs there and were accepted, so we gave our notice, collected our references as potwasher ! and assistant fish cleaner, and took the overnight journey by electric train to our new jobs.
Lapland is strange and wonderful. When we arrived in early spring, it was daylight there only four hours out of twenty-four: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. By June, it was sunlight twenty-four hours a day. Riksgranseen catered to people from every country and seven different languages were officially spoken. Our jobs were over at four o’clock in the afternoon and we were free to spend the rest of the day and evening skiing with our new friends. Much of our time was spent with a twenty-sevenyear-old mountain guide and skiing
instructor named Vashti, whose proudest boast was “I speak Canadians vely well.”
We met native Laplanders, learned to chew tough reindeer meat and drink thick Lapp coffee, in which the grounds are served as well as the liquid. We bought strong steel knives wit h handles of reindeer horn and wore them on our belts. On Lenny’s birthday, both of us were given silver Lapp spoons and entertained at an all-night party by a group of Swiss, Dutch and Austrian friends.
In June when the season was over,
Vashti and a Dutch girl and we two Canadians all left together. She was returning to Holland to practice up for the Olympic games, he was returning to Norway for the mountain climbing, and we were bound south for France. We took the four-day boat trip through the fiords to Jotunheimen. where there was snow on the mountain tops. Then, overnight, we were in Oslo and the lilacs were blooming. It was all amazing and beautiful.
We didn’t have any set route, but wandered as fancy took us through Sweden again, Denmark, Holland.
Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and France. We learned all sorts of t hings: which cities were good for jobs, which were hospitable and which were not, and, in Sweden, where to sell our coffee ration on the black market (we received twelve kroner or $2.40 for each pound I.
We grew to admire the slower pace of European life. We found kindness wherever we went. Motorists stopped at the flick of a thumb and, even if we couldn’t understand each other’s language (which seldom happened for most Europeans have at least a
smattering of English), we found them the soul of hospitality.
In Norway a pleasant-faced man picked us up and although we didn’t tell him we hadn’t eaten for twentyfour hours he must have suspected it for he entered the next wayside inn, came out with half a dozen bulging bags, and drove on in silence for several miles. Then, coming to a grassy slope, he said casually, “That looks like a good spot for a picnic,” and spread out before our startled eyes a feast of liver paste, fresh bread, pickles, pastry and pop.
In Holland a man whose son had been associated with the Canadian forces gave us a lift. He took us to see famous Dutch windmills, Queen Juliana’s home, and various hunting clubs, before taking us to a luxurious hotel and insisting on putting us up there for the night so that we could sleep in a clean bed and have a good hot breakfast next morning. And a street cleaner in Amsterdam, in wooden shoes and shabby trousers, pressed a guilder note into our hands when he discovered we carne from Canada. “Your boys liberated our country and I want to do this,” he insisted.
In Germany we wandered into an inn hidden in the woods, on a rainy night. The place was filled with people who insisted on buying us a huge tray of doughnuts and seeing that our clothes were hung before the fire to dry. At the end of the evening we picked up our rucksacks and said goodnight, at which the proprietor burst out, “Don’t be ridiculous. You will stay here. You can have my bed.” And he slept on the floor.
The loveliest four days of our whole trip was given to us by a motorist in Switzerland, at Thunersee, near Interlaken. He insisted on lending us his beautiful summer home on the edge of the blue Swiss lake and he even arranged with a neighbor woman to bring us breakfast each morning for as long as we cared to stay.
It was getting on for July 15, Johnny’s twenty-first birthday, and we’d decided we’d spend the day in Paris, even though we wouldn’t be able to afford much of a celebration.
The celebration was waiting for us, for we arrived on the fourteenth — Bastille Day. All Paris was gay. In the Latin Quarter people wore paper hats, danced in the streets, blew tin horns, rode horseback. A surging mass of students carried us along with them to an all-night party where we cheered and danced and feasted and drank champagne till dawn. As Johnny says, it was the most exciting coming-of-age party any girl ever had. It was also the most glamorous of our adventures in France, for we were now quite poor again.
We soon came to know a different France—a France where there were no public toilets for women and you had to use the men’s; a France where thrifty kitchen maids wiped maggots off a roast of meat and then calmly cooked it for dinner; a France where, again on account of refrigeration difficulties, people shopped for small amounts of food a couple of hours before each meal; a France where, in country areas, peasants washed their clothes in the river and drank awfultasting wine. We once bought a bottle of wine but it made us choke and we finally washed our hands with it.
We left Paris and spent our time mostly on the Brittany and Normandy coast. Our jeans had been mended and remended with twine and denim we’d bought in England the year before. They’d been washed threadbare. Once we even boiled the seats out of them.
In late autumn we crossed back to England. The captain of our Channel
boat heard that we had worked our way through ten countries and was so delighted at our adventurous spirit that he presented us with bed and breakfast with his compliments.
We were starved for music, and happily we reached England in time to hear some of the festival music. We went to the opera, bought tickets for ballet; we even saw South Pacific with Mary Martin. To pay for all this we got jobs as early-morning “chars” and our parents would have had a good laugh if they’d seen us on our knees scrubbing steps at 5 a.m. while other chars, aged women with a lifetime of scrubbing behind them, entertained us with gruesome details of their operations. Later on we took office jobs in the London bureau of the Reader’s Digest. But we found it strange and unnatural to be “ladies” again, in skirts and blouses and hats and pearl necklaces.
Last Dollar on the Plate
We sailed for home on the Empress of Canada, early in Dec. 1951. The boat was carrying forty or fifty new Canadians to our country and they were wonderful young people, full of high spirits and hope for a new life. We had five days of good talk and singing and laughter. They particularly wanted to see snow. We guaranteed that they’d see plenty of it in Canada when we landed, but when we arrived in Saint John there was only a grey landscape lying flat and listless under a drizzle of rain.
For the first time we realized that our wonderful trip was really over. While we’d been in Europe we’d been too busy or too tired or too broke to really savor each moment. Now we realized how far away we were from the roof-top gardens of Norway, the clean-swept streets of Holland, the mountains of Sweden, the charm of coastal France, the lace-capped children of Lapland, and all the people in all the countries who had made us as welcome as if we were at home.
Then, just as suddenly, our depression lifted. We were back home in Canada. We wired our families that we were coming, shipped them our rucksacks, and hitchhiked a thousand miles to Toronto where we took a hotel room and cleaned up for the final lap of our trip home. On Dec. 16 Johnny’s father answered her knock and was unable to say more than, “Oh my dear! Oh my dear!” Lenny’s father did better. He took one look at bis wandering daughter and called over his shoulder to his wife, “Have we anything to eat in the house, Eva? Because guess who’s come home?”
Well, that’s our story. We figure we made and spent about a thousand dollars each in Europe on our yearand-a-half trek. Johnny put the last dollar of our money on the collection plate at church that Sunday.
We’ve seen a lot. Not as much as we’d have liked to, but not bad for a first trip, and we can always take another. We’d like to choose one country and stay longer in it next time, learning the language, getting to know the people better, and getting the feel of the place more.
Right now we’re saving up for Alaska. If we work hard and save we figure we’ll have enough money to buy two motorbikes, or maybe an old automobile. They say that we could easily get jobs in Alaska, but that we’d have to guarantee to stay a year. We’d rather do it our way-—just get ourselves there, take our chances at employment, and move on when we’re tired of it.
By the time you read this we’ll be on our way. -A