When I was 19 and had finished my first year at the University of Southern California my parents allowed me to take a two-and-a-half month student tour of Europe. Professor Adolph Purvey, who taught at USC, hosted it. He brought along his wife and 14-year-old son and there were also two couples that were parents of a couple tour students.
We were to visit the major countries of Europe. Before this trip I had not traveled out of the country except to Canada. All was excitement as I boarded a plane for Montreal where the tour members would assemble to board a Greek ship sailing for France. There were 36 students in all, plus the two sets of parents and the professor and his family.
After two days in Montreal, seeing the sights of that grand city, we were driven to the docks and before us was our big white ship. I can’t remember the name of it, but by today’s standards it was not very large. It was 11,500 gross tons, carried many passengers and belonged to the Greek Line. It was a tourist class ship and many of the passengers were students from Canada and the U.S., plus returning Greeks who were visiting their old homeland.
By today’s ship standards, our ship was a genuine scow! It had been built in the early 1930s when ships were not as luxurious as they were after World War II. However, the fare was cheap and who cared — we were just kids on our first big adventure.
After boarding, we were shown our cabins. I shared mine with eight other students. The bunks were stacked navy style, three high. The mattress was only three inches thick and we did not have the luxury of a private bath ... it was more than 150 feet down the hallway.
However, we were just kids on our first big adventure!
We unpacked our clothing items and placed them in lockers mounted on one side of the cabin. We had one small porthole so as to know what the weather would be outside.
At noon, the ship’s whistle blew three blasts. We all hurried up to the outside decks to watch as the ship sailed out of Montreal and down the St. Lawrence River into the Atlantic Ocean.
After a few days in the Atlantic we hit a big storm that nearly demolished our poor ship. Pieces went flying off in the wind and we slowed almost to a stop for three days. We bounced through the waves all this time and could hardly walk through the ship without holding on to ropes that were strung in areas to grab onto. Many hardly ate during this period. However, we finally did sail out of the storm and reached calmer waters. The ship once again picked up speed and we continued on our way to France.
During the storm the ship’s hot water system went out and that lasted for the duration of the voyage, so we had to shower in cold water. Burrrr!
However, we were just kids on our first big adventure!
On the morning of the 11th day, most of us assembled on deck as word spread that land could be seen in the distance. It was France! After 11 days at sea it seemed as though we had gone around the world. Before noon we sailed into the port of Le Havre. Within a couple of hours the ship had docked and we walked off the gangway and stood on European ground.
What a thrill for a 19-year-old!
This was in the mid 1950s and World War II had only been over for 10 years. I remember walking around the town of Le Havre for a short time before boarding the train for Paris and seeing Nazi helmets lying on the shore of a river when walking over a bridge. I’ll never forget this sight. I had only seen them in movies prior to this experience.
Later that afternoon we boarded the train for the ride to the City of Light — Paris. Here, we resided in dormitories at the City Universitere located near the center of the city. Some of us took a four-week course in International Law here. I was a pre-law student at the time.
Of course, there was plenty of free time while in Paris and it was used to see the main sights of this glorious city. In those years, Europe seemed so different than the good old U.S. The buildings, the food and the way of life were not as we had known at home. This was a real thrill for our age group — very different. At night, a few of us would board the metro (subway) and ride to various sections of the city, get off, and walk the areas to get acquainted. We could drop into the bars and clubs to get experienced! After all, this was education too.
One weekend afternoon I purchased a ticket to a Grand Opera — La Boehme. Just seeing the opera house was worth the price of the ticket. I have loved opera ever since.
On another day, several of us bought tickets to see the Grand Guinal Theatre. This theater featured short horror plays and was world famous at the time. I remember how surprised I was that all the lines were spoken in French. I was learning that all theater was not in the English language. Yes, I should have known better.
Twice, we went to Les Halle’s, a fish market, and consumed the best onion soup in the world at midnight. I think it only opened to the public after 11 p.m. People would purchase fresh fish here early in the morning. I understand the market no longer exists.
I was also lucky enough to be in Paris for Bastille Day. This is equivalent to our 4th of July celebration. We positioned ourselves in a good spot on the roadway and witnessed the grand parade, which included seeing Charles De Gaulle, the French president at the time, standing in an imposing open car.
From Paris, our group moved on to Brussels, Belgium. Here, we took rooms in a hotel, which was an upgrade from the dormitory at the University in Paris.
I remember how much I enjoyed the food and the wonderful Belgium chocolate. I think I may have mailed some home to my parents. This is also a wonderful country with many important sights to visit.
After any European tour, you have just about had your fill of churches, churches and more churches. I wonder if foreign tourists visiting the United States on tour visit our churches?
Then, it was on to the Netherlands. I really enjoyed the Dutch and their way of life. I have been back several times since, but the first visit is always memorable.
Interesting how the food changes from country to country. This is one of the pleasures of travel. The sausages were the best and you realize ours at home are not as good as those found in Europe. We visited Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague before boarding a passenger riverboat to cruise into Germany down the Rhine through Aachen, Cologne, Bonn, Koblenz and past the various ancient castles.
We disembarked at Wiesbaden for a coach ride into Frankfurt and stayed there for a night or two. Then we went to several other German destinations, including the Bavarian Forest, before entering into beautiful Switzerland where we saw sights in Lausanne, Zurich, Bern and Basel.
From Switzerland we moved into Italy. Italy has always been one of my favorites after first seeing it at 19. This is truly a special country filled with antiquities, mountains, seacoasts, great food, smiling people, warm climate and tasty wines. We were privileged to see many points of northern Italy including Milan and Florence and then Naples, Sorrento and the Amalfi Drive down the narrow road for the beautiful coast views and the Isle of Capri. On then, to Sicily for Palermo and Catania.
The tour was to end in Athens, Greece where we would board another Greek Line junker ship for the return trip to Montreal.
I decided I had had enough of travel for the summer, called my father in Los Angeles and asked him if I could fly home from Rome. He said fine. I booked a flight on PanAm, which took me to New York, and there I changed planes to Los Angeles. This was back in the propeller days of flying and it took many hours to travel home. You can handle this when you are young.
I made several lasting friends on this trip and some are still alive. We send Christmas cards every year to one another.
And, oh yes, I also met my future wife on this trip.