My husband, Walter, and I were total innocents when it came to travel when we ventured out on our very first really big trip. This was the era of travelling around Europe in a camper van and that’s what we were going to do. We had no clue about what to take, where exactly we were going, how to get there or anything else remotely involved with travel. We only knew that we had sold almost everything we owned, that we had made arrangements for our house and business for the time we were to be away, that we had a new VW Westfalia camper van awaiting our arrival at Tillbury, England, and that we were heading into the unknown for eight months.
We had booked berths on a Transatlantic passenger ship, the SS Alexander Pushkin, and I had illusions of grandeur. In my mind, I could see myself in my ball gown (ask me how many of those I owned!) elegantly descending the ship’s golden staircase to the ballroom. Well, reality certainly differed from my imaginings. The Alexander Pushkin was definitely not a luxury liner but was adequate especially for first-time travellers with nothing to compare the experience to.
What I remember of that shipboard experience:
- that we could never find anything to eat on the ship. We had set times for our three meals but there was absolutely nothing available for any between meal snacks.
- The food was not that great–when we started the voyage, we had roast beef; when the trip ended, we were eating hash. I did find out what profiteroles were, though, because they were the only dessert offered.
- There may have been no snack places on board, but there was an incredible number of bars, at least one on every deck and sometimes two. I became quite taken with a cocktail called a Russian Special which varied in colour, strength and taste at every bar we tried.
- The entertainment was pretty bad as it mostly consisted of passenger participation.
- The terrific three-day Atlantic storm we went through which confined both Walter and me to our berths.
There were good things about the voyage:
- We met really nice people that we stayed in touch with and visited later in our trip..
- We took Russian language lessons and I can still say “thank you” in Russian.
- The entire experience, good and not so good, was new and exciting.
We spent the first month of our trip touring the British Isles and then crossed from Dover to the mainland of Europe. September and October of 1972 saw us cruising around Holland, Germany and Switzerland. We experienced Oktoberfest in Munich–I can still see those barmaids slinging fistsful of beer steins onto tables inside the huge beer tents and taste the delicious curls of pretzel bread strung with ribbon that we wore around out necks. From Germany we travelled into France and spent several wonderful days in Paris at a campsite close to the Bois du Boulogne. And those patisseries! We always stopped at one particular one and bought a delicious goody on our walk back to our campsite.
After our last day in Paris, before we headed south into Spain, we decided to spend a few hours at Versailles and tour the palace. As I stated earlier, we had no idea of what to pack for this trip and we ended up taking way too much stuff, mostly clothes. We had packed up the extraneous stuff we realized we’d never need into a couple of suitcases and had securely strapped them to the top of our van. Being trusting Canadian neophyte travellers we didn’t give a second thought to parking our van in the public parking lot at Versailles and leaving it for the time we toured the palace. When we left the palace and returned to the parking lot, you guessed it, the top of the van had been totally cleaned off. The only things the thieves didn’t take were Walter’s cowboy boots!
We were devastated and felt so violated as one does when one has been robbed. We lost luggage, clothes, presents and souvenirs we’d bought but, by far the worst, we lost the entire photographic record of our trip. We had decided to wait until we got home to print our photographs so had stored the exposed film in one of the suitcases. We also lost 6 months supply of my birth control pills—Walter has always said we should have called our first child Pierre.