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Innocents Abroad Paris And London 1948-1949

From: Sewanee Review
Volume 121, Number 4, Fall 2013
pp. 548-559 | 10.1353/sew.2013.0108

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There used to be in not distant times a magical allure about traveling by ship. I'm not talking about cruises down the Baja Peninsula or in the Caribbean—I mean relying on a ship to get from one place to another because it's the only mode of transportation across the ocean sea for ordinary travelers. So there was a certain romantic quality about the venture when my wife, Flo, and I, with our two small children (Mike, four and a half years; Linda, fifteen months), boarded the English liner Mauretania in the summer of 1948 and set sail for a year abroad so that I could do research for my dissertation in history for the University of Wisconsin in Madison. There are those who would say there is no romantic element in such a venture (our parents who saw nothing but danger and disaster ahead would be among them) when you are traveling with very young children, regardless of the mode of transportation. But then my Flo and I were young ourselves, mere babes in the woods on such matters, and we were undeterred by the fact that we were heading into the unknown, and so for us there was indeed a romantic air to this adventure.

Americans of course have been traveling to Europe since colonial days. Some made the voyage for business reasons, some for governmental and political purposes, a handful of the wealthy for the American version of the Grand Tour, some for individual research or formal study in European universities, some to stimulate and focus their artistic talents with brush or chisel or pen, some just for fun ("When Our Hearts Were Young and Gay" wrote Emily Kimbrough ages ago, before the word gay took on a meaning that would have stunned her). On two occasions in the first half of the twentieth century large numbers of Americans arrived as warriors. In the prosperous second half of the same century, equally large numbers of Americans descended on Europe as tourists, many of them repeat offenders as time passed and air travel became routine and reasonable in cost. Except for the last fifty years, most of these Americans, whatever their purpose, traveled by ship.

Ship travel, of course, can have its problems. The Mauretania was a relatively new liner, having been launched on the eve of World War ii in 1939, and to me and my family it seemed a marvel. But the North Atlantic, as the passengers of many a ship from the Santa Maria on could attest, is cursed with violent storms. We hit one a few days out of New York and endured a day and a night of pitching and rolling. This was in the days before ship stabilizers, and I worried greatly whether the ship would right itself. For a time the romance of ocean travel faded away, and I found myself regretting that I had been so foolish as to take my precious family on this cursed vessel. Having experienced a horrendous storm on the mighty Pacific a few years earlier during the war, I had grounds for fear. But my wife and children, happily, having never before been on a ship, thought this was normal for ocean travel. They were somewhat in the same boat (no pun intended) as my mother several years later on her first flight, a jaunt halfway across the continent. When her plane, struck by lightning and partially disabled, had to make an emergency landing, my mother was not bothered at all because she thought this was a common occurrence when you traveled by air. The morning after the storm, a ship's officer said to me casually, "Bit of a toss, that, last night, what?" Sure! I could imagine his saying something comparable not too many years earlier after unloading a few tons of bombs from a Lancaster over Berlin, "Bit of a drop, that, last night, what?" I suppose he was also, which I was not, secure in his English conviction that we were traveling by the most secure and safe method known in modern times. I was reminded of that a few months later at my boardinghouse in London when an...

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