Western Europe suffered a major invasion this summer. As soon as American schools and colleges lot down their bars in June, students started swarming across the Atlantic by the thousands, looking for culture, education, and other things.
They went all sorts of ways. Properly chaperoned young ladies traveled first class on the Queen Elizabeth; impecunious college students worked their way across on cattle boats. In between these extremes were the many who went on the half-dozen student ships.
Cunard's "Scythia" and "Samaria" were former iuxury liners which had been pressed into service as troop transports during the war and had only partly recovered. So were Holland-American's "Volendam" and "Tabinta." The United States Lines ran three little war-design ex-transports with the ominous names of "Marino Tiger," "Flasher," and "Shark." None of the boats were exactly models of comfort--the Cunard ships, which had had a capacity of 500 in their luxury days, were carrying up to 1400 this summer. And there were ugly rumors that the reason half the ships sailed from Quebec was that their fire equipment could not pass the New York harbor requirements. But students who survived the 5 feet 10 inch bunks and the endless queuez for everything on board had a very good time.
Life on the student boats was unique. It was a bit like a college campus set afloat: the ships' bulletin boards were plastered with notices beginning "Meeting of World Federalists . . .", "All Ohioans interested in working for the defeat of Senator Taft . . .", and, coming home, "Ride to Chicago wanted--Share Expenses . . ."
On the way over, there were language classes on some of the boats to brush up fading high school French and German; on the trip back, one boat's students were teaching English--to 200 DP's headed for Canada. Meetings and conferences sprang up in abundance. The moment one found a quiet corner, it would turn out that some sort of meeting was about to begin there, on anything from Scandinavian socialism to the German Baroque.
Organized and Unorganized
The students on the ships, like labor, can roughly be divided into the Organized and the Unorganized. The Organized were the ones on planned group tours and projects, such as the many Youth Hostel and NSA tours. There were also the people on the Experiment in International Living, who spent part of their summer living with foreign families, Friends Service Committee workers headed for reconstruction camps, and a sprinkling of Budapest Festival delegates. Each little group held its own meetings too, which added to the confusion.
The Unorganized were a motley bunch of free-lancers. There were graduate students pursuing material for these more ordinary tourists laden with guide-books, artists bound for Florence to paint, and bon-vivants looking for eligible game. A few forlorn newly-weds mourned their interrupted honeymoons--the 100-bunk dormitories were, needless to say, not coeducational.
Any mass movement of mankind has its historians and its philosophers; so did this summer's migration. A Columbia professor and a group of students went to Europe just to write a book on American students in Europe. And a Social Relations man was running a complicated poll to find out why everyone was going.
The passengers kept themselves well amused. The ships had their bars and canteens, and since a ship at sea constitutes a sort of neutral no-man's-land, liquor and such comes tax free. Needless to say, it flowed freely. The foreign lines were more than happy to encourage the Americans to spend their money, especially when they spent dollars. The Dutch Line went so far as to mint some special ships money, script and coin, to keep the students from spending Dutch guilder.
Dancing, like pingpong, is a difficult game on a lurching deck, but 500 pretty women on a boat were not to be wasted. Students practiced square dances in the daytime and danced them at night, waltzed on the open deck, and learned new steps from the crew. Where there are women and beer, there is also song: the ships' pianos were rarely quiet. Barber shop mixed with the classics.
The final effort of one voyage was a spontaneous performance of Bach's B Minor Mass by some vacationing members of the Harvard and Radcliffe Glee Clubs which had elements of sincerity if not harmony. On the same trip, a strange organization known as the Liverwurst and Yodelling Society appeared and kept the boat awake late into the night with loud and beery epics.
Even the press kept up its work. Passengers were making pin money by writing travelogue copy for their hometown newspapers. And on some of the ships, enterprising pressmen put out ships' newspapers, with the latest tips on the weather and briefs of the ships' radio news.
On the "Samaria's" last trip, where the official paper was a dull sheet called "The Link," a junto led by some energetic Princetonians decided to put out a rival. They infiltrated the mimeographing room one night when the "Link" staff was carousing, helped themselves to a couple of thousand pieces of mimeographing paper, and printed up a parody number called "The Missing Link."
The balmy summer nights were much too nice to spend below decks, so many evenings were taken up with quiet outdoor amusements. Lifeboats were rated excellent substitutes for the parlor sofa or the back seat of the family car, and it was rumored that some of the blanket rolls on the boat deck were cood.
On the last night before reaching shore, passengers followed the old tradition of putting on ship's variety shows. The "Volendam" ended one trip with a skit called "North Atlantic," featuring the music of "South Pacific"; a "Scythia" production led with the verse:
"What the heck, we've left Quebec, But we're sort of new at Europe."
The sentiment of the last was appropriate. It was the way the students felt when the ships unloaded them in London, Amsterdam, or Le Havre. Everything was strange. They were no longer just individuals, to be judged on their own merits. To the cold eye of the people in the street, they were first and foremost specimen Americans.
Their immediate forerunners had been the G.I.'s; the most evident contribution of their culture to Europe seemed to be coca-cola, jeeps, and the Hollywood movie. They were met with the expectation that they turn out to be a combination of Babbitt and the Lone Ranger, bulging with money and utterly boorish. They discovered that the humble dollars in their wallets represented the solidest value in the world, the item which seemed to be the chief reason for Europe's respect for the U. S. They found themselves the target for postcard salesmen, black marketeers, hotel keepers, and souvenir hawkers all the way from Rotterdam to Barcelona.
A Real Hamburger
To some extent, the students met the expectation. Sometimes they were loud ties and talked in loud brash tones about how cheap everything was in Europe but how ridiculous the foreign ways of doing things were and how they would love to get back to good old New York for a real hamburger.
And sometimes they succeeded in looking extremely typical. The typical American college boy abroad in his tourist uniform looked something like this: He had a crew cut, khaki pants, and a seersucker coat with the green edge of a U. S. passport showing above the edge of his inside breast pocket. There was always a camera in a leather case slung Sam Brown belt style over one shoulder, and in his right hand he carried a guide book, open. Vendors of beads, lace, and leather goods, and certain attractive young business women could spot him a mile off.
The typical American girl was well-dressed, with new-look skirts (many European women have not converted), and page-boy hairdo. She carried her valuables in a handbag with an over- the-shoulder strap, a device unheard of abroad. Gentlemen on the street would stop to give her a long appreciative stare, a stare which began at her feet and worked its way leisurely all the way up to her bat.
The students did not always look typical, but wherever they went, they created a minor whirl. Some of them tangled with the ultra-polite. London Bobbies who had to remind them that British traffic really did run on the left-hand side of the road. Some penetrated the iron curtain and became small international incidents before AMG authorities got them released from jail.
One enterprising contingent from the banks of the Charles wangled a free ride into Berlin on a U. S. military train. Once in the city, they found that the U. S. Consul General was a Harvard man, and were soon living in luxury at the Consulate. They were taken on guided tours of the city, and after a pleasant stay, they got a free flight back to Tri-zone in an empty air-lift transport. Another Harvard undergraduate with a flair for the lurid spent a weekend with the Salvador Dalis in Spain.
Students got about in Europe by every conceivable means, from gondola to airliner. Bicycle is the fashion abroad: on maps, roads are even marked with little pointed things to show where the hills are and which way they go. Jeeps are cheap and rugged. A few stalwarts went about on motorcycles, which are fine except on cobblestones, where they shake you to jelly.
The coming thing in continental transportation, however, is hitch-hiking. It apparently came in with the G.I's. Its local name is "auto-stop," and differs from the U. S. variety in that it is considered impolite to stick out one's thumb. The proper method is to hold out the whole arm, bout at the elbow. Even girls can hitch-hike without eyebrows being raised.
"Auto-stop" has the advantage of simplifying travel arrangements. Trains and busses mean tickets, and tickets mean the problem of effective communication with the man at the other side of the ticket window, whether he speaks in Cockney or dialect French. Travel is supposed to promote international understanding; it seems to be more apt to produce complete international confusion.
The moment American students were deposited on the shores of the Old World, they began to come scropper over strange foreign customs and to get themselves entangled in other countries' red tape. They ordered the wrong things off the menu, got the wrong directions for the wrong places, overstrained their meager vocabularies, and waved their hands in despair. Occasionally the misunderstandings could lead to ferocious consequences, for instance if you didn't know that when an Italian says "Basta" to you, he means "enough," and not what you thought he meant.
The summer evaporated in no time at all and the thousands of students, minus a lucky few who stayed on to study or work, came swarming back to the Land of the Loud Tie and the Hot Dog. They all had stacks of snapshots of themselves with monuments in the background, suitcases full of bottles of cheap French cognac, and perhaps a "not-to-be-introduced-into-the-United States' edition or two of Henry Miller. And once back at college, they all settled down to pceve their friends no end by comparing everything at home to "the way it's done in . . . ."
(This is the introduction to a series of articles on what American students did and saw in Europe this summer. The later articles will take up the story country by country.)