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.