We’ll save the cow money and go, my mother said. We weren’t farmers, but we kept two cows whose milk was worth cash. For years this money was faithfully stowed in an account marked “E,” along with the baby bonus cheques. (Our mother ignored this Canadian endowment because we were anti-confederate.) Then, one Sunday afternoon in the spring of 1963, my brothers and I were summoned to a dining-room table cluttered with pictures of the Eiffel Tower, the Crown jewels and the masterpieces of the Louvre. There were postcards of great cathedrals, Venetian gondolas and paths that meandered along the Rhine and the Arno. There was a globe, and foreign dictionaries and a weighty book of “Ancient and Modern Marvels.” The time had come for our marathon trek through Europe. I was ten, and hated it already.
There was no ambiguity in my mother’s vision. A young widow and three kids—we would be fearless voyageurs, making our way in any town. Itineraries and reservations were dismissed as restrictive; tours and packages were for the less imaginative. We would tackle the great cities of Paris and Rome, navigating the streets with our maps and our wits. We would seek out the tiniest pueblos of Spain and knock on doors until we found a room for the night. We would shop in the markets, picnic by rivers, walk through the canvas of Monet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe. A life-changing cultural experience, my mother enthused, seeing before her a team of junior aesthetes. But I had already encountered the highest art: I’d seen a grade-six girl skip Double Dutch.
We dressed to travel, lest somebody label us scruffy Newfoundlanders. Three seersucker dresses were folded into my suitcase, along with shoes with heels and a mysterious junior undergarment. (I might develop early and we wouldn’t have the vocabulary to track down necessities in a foreign country.) Hats to wear in church were collapsed and jammed in, along with rollers, in case we couldn’t find beauty parlours. My mother was glamorous and I, perhaps in rebellion, was a refractory tomboy. Travelling about in nylons and bonnets, I would be touring Europe in drag.
We boarded the SSHomeric at Montreal in early June. As we set out for the French port of Le Havre, most passengers stayed on deck, waving to family and friends. We four huddled together, my mother beaming. As the city’s skyline began to fade, my last hopes went with it. For weeks I had tried to will myself into measles or mumps, appendicitis even; alas, I was in top form.
I was a kid not meant to travel. I wanted to be home at night with the Bobbsey twins, sneaking out of bed, opening the window and freezing myself for the pleasure of crawling back under the covers and reading more. By day, I was flat out. I had a two-gun holster. I made my own bows and whittled my own arrows for cowboys and Indians. I had a tiny Red Rose tea album in which I busily pasted cards, like hockey cards, of birds I saw in the garden. I hitched a wagon behind my bike and kept a rigorous schedule delivering empty milk bottles to imaginary customers all over our eight-acre property. There were climbing spikes that needed to be nailed higher in the chestnut tree, and there were hours of pond swimming and boating to pack into the short Newfoundland summer. All this and more gone, as we left land behind.
During the voyage, my brothers disappeared every day, except for meals. They were considered old enough to hang out on their own, doing what, I never knew. That left my mother and me with a crowd of men in Bermuda shorts and white shoes—at home we called them mainlanders—who scuffed along the deck with what looked like window poles from my school, pushing pucks. In the mornings I endured shuffleboard so my mother would have company. Then the activities schedule moved us from the deck to the lounge for “compulsory” Italian lessons, which ended with an American couple, tipsy at 10:00 a.m., trying to squeak out Neapolitan songs. Every morning after the last doubtful notes of “Volare,” I was sent to youth prison, somewhere in the hold of the ship. It was meant to be a recreation program, but the fun eluded me.
I still have the photo from the last day of the voyage, one of those “deals” in which an unctuous photographer snaps your picture “with no obligation” and then nags you into buying it for about $50US. The Greek, Italian and Spanish kids might have been picked for this voyage for their beauty: olive skin, black eyes, glossy thick hair. They look as if they understand that their cultures are superior, know that their countries have tombs and treasures sought by all travellers. They are proud and sure of themselves, like pillars of the Acropolis. With my freckles, red hair, fake curls and the wrong clothes, I look like I’ve been airlifted from a birthday party for dorks and dropped into a gathering of European children modelling designer play clothes. I’m scowling. In fact, of all the pictures taken that summer, there’s only one in which I don’t look like a hostage who’s lost hope. The photo was taken in a restaurant in Rome. We’d been escorted there by an Irish priest who wanted to spend the evening flirting with our good-looking mother. Everyone else in the picture is smiling. I’m too busy to pose, tucked into the only familiar food that I saw in the whole three months: a steak.
My Newfoundland childhood had failed to prepare me for the challenges of European cuisine: Wiener schnitzel, fondue, escargot, goulash, borscht, viande sechee. Even spaghetti was unrecognizable—the Italians were surprisingly unfamiliar with the Newfoundland preparation. Breakfast, previously taken for granted, required a maturity I could not muster. There was an embargo on toast, it seemed. All that was on offer were buns so hard we called them bones, and long, crusty loaves we’d seen sticking out of the backs of scooters travelling through soot and diesel. The day I broke down and cried for a real breakfast, my family took me seriously. My brothers pored over their pocket dictionaries and my mother, undaunted by language barriers, drew upon her wiles, but to no avail. On the entire European continent there was not now, nor had there ever been, a bowl of Sugar Pops.
Even more foreign and intolerable than the food was the heat, generated by a merciless blazing sun. Was the wind blowing fresh at home unable to reach across the ocean? No whiff of a breeze to move the heavy still air; just the noxious diesel fumes of trucks and trains. And crowds. We competed constantly for space; every venture onto and off a bus was a battle; all “attractions” had queues. I developed a lifelong dread of lineups. No pavilion, no play or musical, no opera or concert—nothing has tempted me since to queue, except the time I lined up for Bob Dylan, not so much to see him as to see him in St. John’s.
It wasn’t long before pensiones lost their appeal as well. I wanted a hotel with an elevator and an elevator man; better still a motel with a pool. A nice Howard Johnson’s, decorated all orange and blue and with a kid menu; somewhere you could get Chicken-in-a-Basket or Shirley Temple cocktails. But there were no hotels or motels on our journey. We scoffed at these, and sought out garni and inns. We scarcely saw the inside of a car, choosing instead buses, trams, trolleys, the Metro in Paris, the tube in London, funicular when necessary. We did take taxis in London after we saw My Fair Lady, in which Eliza Doolittle pulls up in front of Henry Higgins’s house and says to the butler: “Tell ’m I come in a taxi.” To be in London not riding around in those wonderful black cabs would be like boycotting gelato in Florence.
We travelled from city to city almost exclusively by train. With Eurail passes, we could hop on and off trains at will, as much as a mother, three children and eight suitcases can be said to hop, without advance notice or reservation. The perfect way to do Europe—unless you’re ten and wearing heels. My mother’s idea was to travel on a budget, and see how the Europeans really lived. You would not find us in the dining car with Hercule Poirot; we ennobled ourselves on railway platforms, grabbing hard rolls, strong cheese and warm flat agua. We never stopped long, trying to cover as much territory as we could during the life of the pass. It was a summer of countless hours spent in railway cars engaged in bitter conversations with an imaginary pet monkey I’d adopted from the Munich zoo. At ten, I was too old for pretend companions, but my girlhood was one of retarded development.
I wasn’t a fearful child, though—at least I hadn’t been, but the journey became a string of tiny nightmares. In Ireland, I was hung out over the side of Blarney Castle an inch too far, a second too long, trying to plant my lips on that cold Irish bull’s eye. New horrors waited in Paris, where the platform quaked— no, we quaked as the platform shook when we stood on the second level of the Eiffel Tower. (The fear of heights is still with me: a few years ago on a steep trail that climbs above the ocean on the west coast of Newfoundland, my companions were astonished when I fell to my knees, turned around and crawled back down.) At Madame Tussauds waxworks in London I burst into tears when I realized my brother had made me ask directions of an embalmed policeman.
And the trip went on. Was there no end to the sights to be seen? The Pieta, David, the Mona Lisa, Montmartre, Chartres, the Tower of London, the Crown jewels. I trudged, begrudged and tramped my way through the lot of it. At any one of these precious sites, I would have sold myself into slavery for a bowl of Frosted Flakes.
Tourists’ craving for exotica and adventure was incomprehensible to me. Why were we over there dying of the heat, lining up to see boring things, when we could be home playing cowboys and Indians and driving my “3” (a tiny motorboat with a 3-horsepower engine)? From the moment we left Torbay airport in June until we arrived back on Labour Day weekend, I was hot, tired and dying of thirst. If there was a television set in all of Europe, we never saw it; yet no tomb, tower or baptistry door could make up for three months without Leave It to Beaver.
Our itinerary, unofficially, had a Catholic aspect. At home we were daily communicants and said the family rosary each night. Shortly into the trip, we abandoned these routines for practical reasons: four can’t kneel in the squatty room of a pensione. As for mass, it was weeks before my mother recovered from finding herself in a Protestant church in London—her introduction to high Anglicanism. Yet we did keep our eye out for relevant sites, places like Castel Gandolfo, an extravagant summer camp for popes, and Assisi, where St. Francis let me down: I fell about a foot off a steep path and was saved only because my thirteen-year-old brother, whose usual reaction to my terror was to laugh, sensed real danger and dragged me back.
Coming to grief in holy places seemed part of my burden. At Lourdes, in the south of France, where the sick are made well, I became sick. The magnificent shrine on the spot where the young Bernadette Soubirous had “seen” the Blessed Virgin was the site of cures for people who then left their wheelchairs, canes and crutches hanging around the church. We left nothing, but took away a spoon from the hotel so that my mother could continue to give me the medicine a French doctor had prescribed. (She mailed the spoon back from Ancona.) And in the Portuguese village of Fatima, I was ill again—ill at the thought of those heroic child martyrs being dipped in boiling oil by a Communist mayor eager for them to retract their claims of sighting the Virgin Mary.
On the voyage over, we’d received the news that Pope John XXIII had died. This was a setback. The only planned engagement we had for the entire three-month journey was a visit to the Vatican: we were in possession of much coveted tickets for the beatification of a Redemptorist bishop. At age ten, I took the news of the pope’s death in my stride, but my mother was keenly disappointed. Even my two brothers took it hard. But they were being groomed for the Redemptorist seminary; perhaps the stubs from a beatification would have the same cachet there as hockey tickets in a different environment. Now Rome would just be Rome, with no hoopla or privileges.
But we arrived there to discover excitement: a covey of cardinals was hard at it in the Vatican, attempting to elect a new Pope. To catch out Pope candidates and cardinals in so pedestrian an activity as an election was shattering to me. (At home in Newfoundland, even the premier wasn’t elected, or so I thought: Joey Smallwood was the head of state, as a matter of course, and had been since before I was born.) But here was an election being secretly conducted behind the facade of the great and mystifying Vatican!
We hung around St. Peter’s Square, waiting, waiting, with just a few other hopeful tourists like ourselves, keeping an eye on the sky for the puff of white smoke (the ballots are burned after each vote, but when a clear winner emerges, some potion is put in the fire to make the smoke white). The square was virtually empty, quiet and peaceful except for the odd nun scurrying across the courtyard, looking more ominous than the nuns at home. On the second day of our vigil, white smoke appeared. From behind pillars and inside doors, from all corners of the square, from walkways and ambulatories, people came. We were swarmed as eager Italians ran to get closer, so they could hear the cardinal when he appeared in a distant balcony and announced the name. There were shouts of “Habemus papa!” (we have a pope), and suddenly we were swept under. I grabbed my brothers’ hands and held tight.
When the crush was over, our mother had vanished. We climbed statues and peered out over the crowd, but it was hopeless; there were thousands of people in the square. Well trained, we swallowed our panic long enough to kneel at the appropriate moment as Pope Paul VI gave his first public blessing. Even as kids we knew the value of a plenary indulgence. But in this moment, which should have been suffused with a sense of history and holiness for me, I could feel only hot as hell, and desperate for a Coke. We ended up finding our mother by asking directions to a part of the Vatican where a Newfoundland monsignor lived; she’d had the same thought.
And after Rome there was Venice, glorious Venice. We travelled the canals in water taxis and gondolas, and I got sick as we wended our way through the rotting garbage floating on both sides of us. Now, nearly forty years later, I go to wakes on the first day, before the flowers wilt, lest I be transported back to the foul Venetian canals. There were more troubles on the Adriatic, when a plateful of fresh cherries—confounding anyway as they bore no resemblance to tinned Avon filling—brought on a seasickness so visceral I still can’t listen to Verdi’s Otello without feeling queasy in the opening scene.
And on we went, traipsing across the continent. In East Germany heavily armed soldiers boarded the train and checked our papers. We saw the Berlin Wall and its gatehouse, which my mother passed through with her left arm held tightly to her side, hiding the traveller’s cheques she feared might be taken from her. Brussels, Amsterdam, Nice, Seville, Milan, and through it all, nothing made an impression on me. In my mother’s journal, if you crossed out all references to me and substituted another name, you would think the family was travelling with an invalid with special dietary needs who had to be carted from place to place. In the entire three months, there is only one moment in which I seem to have perked up and taken note. In a souvenir shop in Rome, the customer ahead of us was a nun who bought twenty-four pairs of rosary beads. My mother’s diary records: “Marjie amazed.”
Since then I’ve returned to Europe four times to travel and twice to live. I’d like to report a developing maturity, a desperate desire to see the Pieta one more time, but instead it is the chocolate croissant I seek. I savour every bite, chuckling over that pitiful relic from my past—toast! I search not for holy water but wine.
Ah, the constancy of Europe: diesel fumes, noise and crowds. But now I embrace the continent and bask in its glorious cluster of lands and languages, cultures and cuisines, all within a day’s reach. Far from the bland expanse of Canada, I breakfast in Switzerland, lunch in Italy and dine that night in France. I stand outside museums and churches, consider the treasures they harbour and turn away quickly lest I be caught in the swirling masses pushing to get inside. I beat a fast retreat to shrines that didn’t appear on my mother’s maps. Inside the bodega I compete for a good window seat. I wash down olives and calamari with cool cerveza, and watch the streaming Catalans and extranjeros stroll up and down the Ramblas. I could go back and take a second peek at that famous statue—what was it?—but really, what’s the chance it’s changed, like grown a new leg or something? I consider pleasures to add to our long ago childhood itinerary, and sip my beer, grateful for our mother’s clever gift: whetting our appetite for more.