In Memoriam



In Memoriam

(From left to right Anisa Omari, Joan Farwell, Bedia ?, Mahaut de Perthuit, Maria Teresa de Zaldo)

Sadly we lost one of our four travelers this year as well as two of their lifelong friends they met in the summer of 1949: Anisa Omari, Mahaut de Perthuit, and Hilde Stotz. All three had full, wonderful lives; all three were such energetic women and good, caring mothers who leave several generations behind them.  All three were fascinating women to interview.

(From left to right: the Stotz boys in  front, Maria Teresa de Zaldo, Joan Farwell, Hilde Stotz, Carmen de Zaldo, and a family friend)

Because of other commitments, my transcriptions of the interviews are moving glacially, so if any family members would like the tapes, let me know, and I can email them to you.

With love from Terry.

Joan in Germany

Dinner with the Stotz family 1949From left, clockwise around the table, Carmen, ?, Maria, Hilde, Joan. Photo by Fred Stotz. Summer 1949.

This blog is about the obvious–that when you write or talk about your culture, you inevitably discuss place, food, and basic necessities.

*   *   *

From 2005-2007 I took a detour from teaching at the College of Wooster to teach at the higher-ranked Grinnell College, which is located in a small town (Grinnell) of 8,000 residents in the middle of Iowa. It was an opportunity for me and a tough transition for Charles, although he ended up so comfortable and happy there with his friends Rafe, Nick, Josh and David that it was an even tougher transition for him to return to Wooster.

For six weeks, my first year, we were joined by Ulli, Hilde’s granddaughter, who wanted to improve her English. I had emailed Christa, her mother, and forewarned her, “Please tell Ulrike that Grinnell is a small, isolated town; it will be boring here.” Ulli wrote back, “I am used to a small town.” What Ulli discovered, when she arrived, was that she was used to a small town in northern Germany. Almost all small towns there are easily accessible to cities via streetcars, trains, and buses. Grinnell’s closest city was an hour away, and there was no public transportation between Grinnell and any city. I believe that Ulli discovered the meaning of “isolated” over those six weeks in a small town surrounded by miles (literally) of cornfields and only survived because she made friends with a firefighter’s wife.

Grinnell, IA,_Iowa. (modified June 5, 2015). Web. June 24, 2015.

At Grinnell I discovered three things: 1) That Wooster, was not, as I had previously thought, in the Midwest. The real Midwest was in Grinnell, 620 miles to the west. 2) That I was too old to adjust to living in the middle of the United States where everything seemed to be flat, rudimentary, and far from water. 3) That fresh food is surprisingly hard to get in the breadbasket of America, as its mega-farms harvest up their bounty in huge batches and immediately ship it all over the world except leaving Grinnell bereft of fruit and vegetables. So, over the winter, I would order vegetables from California.

I discovered a variation on this last concern when I found myself on a search committee for Ethnic Studies/Creative Writing at Grinnell College. The submitted writing samples included realist and magical realist writing, straightforward and baroque styles, accessible and disorienting vocabularies, all from a variety of Asian, African American and Latino cultures. But after a while we noticed that most of the writing samples had one thing in common–food. This realization came to the fore when my colleague, Ralph, promoted one sample because, as he put it, “This is the only one that’s not about food.” Eventually, however, we ended up hiring someone who had written a short story that was centered around the Vietnamese cuisine of his childhood. He didn’t work out at Grinnell; but that’s another story.

*   *   *

 Hilde: in those days we lived by the Martins Tower (Martinstor), over the shop, under the roof.

That sentence brought me back to my first visit to Freiburg-im-Breisgau in 1968, when I was twelve-years-old. Freiburg, and the Black Forest that surrounds it, immersed me in my childhood notion of what Germany would be like–so much so that it felt like a welcome home after our disorienting tour through what seemed to me to be dark Gothic, Madrid homes; damp, cold, dirty London (it was quite cold that summer–the first thing my mother did was buy me a coat); a lovely idyll in Amsterdam, with its canals and hot chocolate (perhaps the origin of my love for boat tours); and the beautiful medieval/Renaissance Lucerne, with its picturesque buildings, but terrifying seventeenth-century mural of the dance of death, which occupied my dreams for a while.

skeletons 9-29-2012. Web. 6-22-15.

What struck me about Freiburg was not only the lush enchanted-forest look of chalet-type houses in the Black Forest or the quaint, still much-inhabited, wooden houses with thatched roofs, but the way that houses had flowers painted on the outside. The word “charm” is not enough to elicit the feeling of delight and discovery on seeing what amounted to a Grimm’s fairy tale setting, but in the sunlight and without goblins, witches, or stepmothers.

Hotel Bären FreiburgHotel Bären, Freiburg. My photo. 8-19-11.

 Onkel Fred’s clock shop was part of this delight. Whirring and ticking clocks neatly placed everywhere, with the enchanting cuckoo boinging out of clocks and a warm feeling of wood everywhere. Occasionally, a little circle of wooden figures would do a kind of dance around the top part of a clock. At eye-level there were cases with watches of all shapes, sizes, and colors in them. I remember being particularly fascinated by a watch whose face frame one could actually change. I was so taken with a red enamel face that I’m surprised I’ve never brought one like it. But I did know that it was too expensive to ask for, so it has lingered as a kind of consumerist dream at the edges of my consciousness.

Freiburg remains charming, colorful, and cobblestoney, but one is jostled about more, as the small city has blossomed into a major university town and tourist center. The Stotz clock store is now a Segafreddo espresso shop; I never went in–it was always so crowded, almost as crowded as the adjacent MacDonald’s.

Tante Hilde's old apartmentThe Stotz shop and flat in the 1940’s; now a Segafreddo. My photo. 12-14-12.

*   *   *

As Hilde chatted with me about 1949, we drank tea and nibbled on the kind of cookies she would send us during Christmas. So it’s not surprising that when we remembered Joan, we thought first of food.

Terry: And Joan–she wouldn’t eat potatoes, right?

Hilde (laughing loudly, strong emphasis on the “J” as a hard “Ch”): Joan!!!!

Terry: She always wanted….

Hilde: The diet–the diet! Diet! Diet! (die Schlank! Schlank! Schlank!)

(fairly extended pause to laugh, both of us clearly remembering how stick-like thin Joan was)

Stotz picnic 1949Proof that Joan occasionally ate. From left to right, Mami, Joan, Hilde, Carmen, and Onkel Fred’s sister. In the front–the three boys. Photo taken by Onkel Fred. Summer, 1949.

Here, too, Joan was the archetypal American tourist. Maria talks about how, on their first visit to the Stotzs’, Fred and Hilde, still struggling financially and dealing with postwar food shortages, nonetheless plied their guests with a cornucopian feast, piled high with sausages, local bread, and pastries. My mother said, “I can’t imagine how much this cost; and they had no money.” As Hilde offered her guests food, Joan responded,

“No thank you, I’m on a diet.”

I can only wonder how Fred and Hilde Stotz–having until recently lived through extreme food shortages–took this statement. It must have sounded like utter nonsense. I think Mami is still embarrassed by Joan’s response.

This is a good moment to remind our readers that Joan had American standards of hygiene as well, standards so inbred that she could not even imagine someone using a chamber pot for its original function, which is why she used one as a bowl in which to present fruit to friends.

So, perhaps, her response–at the under-the-roof flat near Martinstor while visiting with the Stotz family and being plied with food that she wouldn’t eat–was not surprising.

Hilde: And then Joan decided that she needed to use the bathroom–the bathroom was in the back, by the kitchen.

Being well-brought up, Joan didn’t come out and ask where the bathroom was, but discretely got up to hunt for it.

Hilde: And we just heard Joan cry out: “NAAAHYYY! In the water!” And in the bathroom–in the bathtub–she found three young children in the same water, full to the brim.

(long pause for hysterical laughter.)

Stotz family 1950ishThe three Stotz boys outside of the bathtub. Photo from Hilde Stotz. 1950?

 Terry (laughing, while trying to think and speak in German): “… it was–ah–ga–it was Peter, Michael, Mannfred?”

Joan’s response was not only surprise at finding the bathroom stuffed with boisterous boys, but also something like horror at witnessing three dirty young boys splashing about in the same bathwater. Scarcity of water was simply not a concept for her.

Hilde: “Ja. And your mother had then said: ‘She’s screaming?” And I said: ‘she had an unexpected event.’ Then your mother said: “She can be the godparent to the baptism!” [I believe she was playing with a pun on “Baden.”]

Terry: Un hunh. [Code for “I didn’t quite get that, but when I listen again and look up some words, I will.]

Alabama: a Coda

As a coda to this conversation, we ended up discussing my short-lived (two year) sojourn in Mobile, Alabama, where I lived from 1995-96. It struck me how much of my life Hilde not only knew about but remembered. She wondered if I was homesick for Alabama. “No,” was my emphatic response, as I added that my friends there had left and that the university had not been a great place, although the city itself was lovely. But I mentioned that I’d like to go back there to show Charles where he was born.

mobile-alabamaDowntown Mobile Alabama. n.d. Web. June 22, 2015.

Only later did I remember that Hilde had wondered about Anisa being homesick. Might Hilde be homesick for her youth in Berlin, or is it that, having lived almost all her life in Freiburg-im-Breisgau, she found it hard to imagine moving away from home?

It was getting late enough that I thought it was time for me to go into Freiburg. Tante Hilde answered, with a laugh.

Hilde: well, you can always find me here. And if you can’t find the place, call out, and I’ll say… “Teeeeeryyyy” (loud), then you can walk towards my voice.



The War under Mahaut de la Noue’s Bed


 American Hospital , Neuilly-sur-Seine

This is a tale about how World War Two in Paris came to and end under Mahaut de la Noue’s bed.  It is, in this way, also about the conflicts, conversations, and interactions between Americans, French and Germans in the quiet (except for the avenue Charles de Gaulle) Parisian suburb of Neuilly. Indeed, during World War II, the Germans, seduced by the beauty of Neuilly, turned this quiet town into a crucial center of German operations and residence. More importantly it is here, at the American Hospital, August, 1944, that Mahaut de la Noue, recovering from lower-back surgery at the American hospital, disovered fragments of the last, violent shudders of the war under her bed.



( 4 Aug 2014

In mid-century Neuilly sur Seine, was—and still is–one of the most desirable neighborhoods right outside of Paris. Adjacent to the lush green spaces of the Bois de Boulogne and with the Arc de Triomphe easily visible, even walkable,  from much of Neuilly, it is small wonder that, over the course of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries, this neighborhood attracted prosperous French citizens, American expatriates, and, during World War Two, the German military, many of whom chose to die, as well as live there. But they are not buried in the cemetery of Neuilly (actually just outside of Neuilly) at La Défense, despite its international flavor.  This is where Bette Davis, François Truffaut, Aristotle Onassis, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Wassily Kandinsky, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Duchamp, and Pear White—the star of The Perils of Pauline films–chose as their final destination. It is a quite lovely cemetery, which like most French cemeteries, looks like a mini city with its neat blocks of granite tombs topped with little roofs, but  just as Neuilly is greener than Paris, so this cemetery is greener than the Père Lachaise. (, “Most Popular People who Died in Neuilly-sur-Seine France”).

This blog, however, is more about those who were working and convalescing in the area of Neuilly. The French, of course, had long been there, but the Americans first established a prominent foothold with the creation of the American Hospital in Neuilly, completed in 1909 and inaugurated in 1913 by President Taft. The hospital was created to serve ailing American of tourists, students, and expatriates who had been drawn to Paris and fallen ill there; in fact the charter required that it provide free service to Americans, although of course one paid extra for private rooms.  ( 4 Aug. 2014; Americans in Paris p. 71).

During World War II the hospital remained in operation, but already by 1938 the Hospital’s Board of Governor’s offered their services to French soldiers should war break out. Inevitably, too, the governance of the hospital, at least officially, changed from an American to a French governing body once the United States declared war on Germany in December, 1941; but if it was now primarily staffed by French doctors and nurses, it kept on many of the American doctors and nurses who had opted to stay in Paris during the war. Taking on Red Cross status, the hospital catered primarily to Canadians, French and the few Americans who stuck the war out–including injured American and Canadian airmen and French Resistance fighters whom it smuggled in and out. The director of the hospital since October 1940, Sumner Jackson, was able to keep Germans out of the hospital during most of the war by finding ways to fill hospital beds with French and Americans. The American Hospital itself was a strange island of non-Germans within the German occupation, for, as Mahaut notes, “The hospital was surrounded by the German police.” (Charles Glass, Americans in Paris 72).

Neuilly was the last district of, and surrounding, Paris to surrender to the Allied troops in 1944, which is why, days after the Allied army had entered Paris, Mahaut de la Noue, following doctor’s orders to remain quiet and calm in her hospital beds, found herself to be one of the few Parisians still inhabiting German-occupied France.

I like to think of the young Mahaut as a kind of allegory for the often imperturbable Parisian spirit under their years of German occupation. But there was, of course, also fear and anxiety. Here, as in most of Paris, the expectation of imminent liberation was accompanied by rumors that Hitler had ordered Dietrich von Cholitz, the city’s German military governor, to destroy Paris rather than surrender it to the Allies. And there were immediate anxieties as well. For Mahaut “our terror was that of being without water. One always needs water.”

They were not, of course, alone in their fear.  As one New York Times reporter–who left in March of 1944 as part of an exchange of Germans and Americans–wrote, “The Paris air is more highly charged with menace than at any time since the French Revolution. Invasion, civil war, siege, famine, prison–whatever form the future may take–Parisians are minutely expecting the deadliest phase of the war” (Americans p. 351). News of an imminent allied landing didn’t help, as this key moment was preceded, throughout the spring of 1944, with the constant and oppressive sound of R.A.F. and Allied Air Force bombings, alternating with the screams of air raid sirens. Although central Paris itself was not bombed, the planes were close enough, targeting the industrial neighborhoods just outside of the city, with bombs landing in Montmartre and quite close to Mahaut in the sixteenth-arrondissement. Terror only grew from the fact that evacuation was difficult; lack of food rations could lead to starvation, transportation was limited, and the advance of German troops threatening trainsmade evacuation more risky than staying put.

But two things kept working. As Mahaut notes, “They didn’t cut the water supply; they didn’t cut the telephones. We thought about it afterwards; they could have cut these off. We think that the doctors worried that the loss of water meant that they could not keep the hospital disinfected. We did have electricity. I think that they had what they needed to generate their own electricity.”


Von Cholitz may be the hidden hero, or anti-hero of this narrative. He certainly did not have a record of being a humanitarian, but the fact appears to be that Hitler asked von Cholitz to destroy Paris—to leave it as utterly desolated and ruined as Stalingrad and Warsaw had been left, and von Cholitz chose not to obey that order. Some people state that von Cholitz was a pragmatist who knew that there would simply be no political or strategic benefit to destroying Paris; others say that  von Cholitz simply loved Paris too much to watch it destroyed. Perhaps the latter suggestion was true; we do know that Von Cholitz quietly returned to Paris in 1956, revisiting his wartime headquarters, the Hotel Meurice. Whatever the motive, Parisians and those outside of Paris remain grateful that, at the end of the war, Paris, unlike Caen, Dresden, or London, looked pretty much as it did before the war.

Von Cholitz was not the first to save Paris, but his act has been the most remembered.  When the Germans entered Paris in June of 1940, the French government–having evacuated–left Paris to the American ambassador, William Bullitt, in part the Germans would only negotiate with a nation with which they were not at war. Bullitt was essentially the default governor since, according to a telegram he wrote on June 10 to the Secretary of State, “This Embassy is the only official organization still functioning in the City of Paris except the Headquarters of the military forces, Governor and the Prefecture of Police” (Charles Glass, Americans in Paris, p. 15). General Georg von Küchler of the occupying army, angered by a French sniper, gave orders for an “all-out artillery assault on Paris.” With telegraph lines cut by the Frenach, Bullitt scrambled to get a phone line open to Berlin, asking the government to recognize that Paris had been declared an Open City.” Fortunately Bullitt succeeded.

Imprisoned in London after the war, von Cholitz was taped (unknown to him) saying to his fellow prisoners, referring to Hitler and Nazi Party members, “We all share the guilt. We went along with everything, and we half-took the Nazis seriously instead of saying, ‘to hell with you and your stupid nonsense’. I misled my soldiers into believing this rubbish. I feel utterly ashamed of myself. Perhaps we bear even more guilt than these uneducated animals.” (


But during the last days of the war, there was no way of knowing if Paris would be saved, as Mahaut lay quietly in her bed, hoping for daylight, the time when she could read. Electricity there was, but it was mainly reserved for surgeries, sanitation, and other crucial aspects of the hospital, so Mahaut only had an hour or so of electricity per day in her room. Fortunately, it was late summer, so there was plenty of daylight for Mahaut to read what turned out to be forbidden books.

“When I was in the American Hospital, they gave me books to read, in American. They were detective novels. They kept me entertained and I learned that steam came out of the sidewalks in New York; how to break into houses., and so on. So when I arrived in New York, I knew how to break in, even through windows, and then, when my mother got upset and nervous at seeing smoke come out of sidewalks, I was able to say, ‘Don’t get into a panic—it’s not serious; it’s normal, it’s normal.”

But Mahaut’s doctor severely limited even this one pleasure;  the interchange went something like this:

Doctor: “but who gave detective novels to this child who is supposed to stay as calm as possible? Not with a detective novel! “

Mahaut: So they gave me kids’ books instead. Well, I had no idea how horrible fairy tales were….. And there was a book that made me cry…”

Terry: was it American, this book?

Mahaut: yes, but it was no better, and it had ghosts to boot.

Outside of horrible fairy tales and maybe an hour a day to listen to the radio, Mahaut had few distractions. The nurses and doctors were too busy tending to the many wounded flooding the hospital in the last days of the war to pause to chat with her. But Mahaut did get visits from family members who were hardy enough to cross the phalanx of soldiers at the doors of the American Hospital, soldiers who certainly did not terrify Mahaut’s indomitable mother. Madame de la Noue, who came to visit on her bicycle one day with a little basket attached in front. She was of course, stopped by one of the soldiers, whose duty was to check her belongings. One soldier asked, “But what do you have there in that basket?” It was a very small basket. “A terrorist,” she joked. He gave her a half-exasperated look, checked inside the basket, just in case, and found a puppy. Fortunately, as Mahaut commented, Germans love animals—who doesn’t love puppies? So they let her in with the puppy.

The bored, recuperating Mahaut petted the playfully nipping puppy, as her mother caught her up with news. “Leclerc is already about to enter Paris; we’ve seen the first tanks of his armies arriving already.” “So,” adds Mahaut, “we thought that the Germans in Neuilly would surrender at any moment.”

But Neuilly was not surrendering; instead, more and more young, exhausted, traumatized German soldiers–the dregs of the war–were arriving from Normandy, having escaped the horrors of the Falaise Pocket offensive of August 12-21. Here the Fifth and Seventh Panzer armies of the Germans were encircled by allied troops, a battle which led to the destruction of the majority of Germany’s forces west of the Seine. Yet the Germans did not decamp, having been forbidden to retreat by Hitler. According to Wikipedia, “Historians differ in their estimates of German losses in the pocket. The majority state that between 80,000 and 100,000 troops were caught in the encirclement of which 10,000–15,000 were killed, 40,000–50,000 taken prisoner, and 20,000–50,000 escaped.” (Falaise Pocket. May 28, 2014). Eisenhower, touring the area after the battle, had this to say: “The battlefield at Falaise was unquestionably one of the greatest ‘killing fields’ of any of the war areas. Forty-eight hours after the closing of the gap I was conducted through it on foot, to encounter scenes that could be described only by Dante. It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards at a time, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh” (; May 28 2014).

This is how Mahaut remembers it, “For the Germans, this represented a loss of men equivalent to that of Russia at Stalingrad.” She notes that the Germans were surrounded by “the Canadians, The English, and also the French… The Germans arrived traumatized and exhausted because they were always hiding from airplanes. They arrived at Neuilly at night. “


Throughout it all, Mahaut, all-but abandoned in her quiet, civilian, wing of the hospital, slept peacefully in her separate civilian wing of the hospital. Six months earlier Max Shoop, a governor of the hospital, had sent a telegram to Nelson Dean Jay, the hospital president in Washington, DC., in which he described the hospital as follows: “1st floor occupied French soldier patients, next 2 reserved civilians, 4th floor west terrace built into few patients rooms, food problem difficult but same old Chef also still there, … not one window broken.” (Americans p. 341). The telegram, not surprisingly, keeps quite about the basement where Dr. Jackson routinely gave safe haven to American or British soldiers who had been shot down and survived.  Generally, after attending to them, Jackson listed them as missing or having escaped, when in fact he was part of an efficient, organized Resistance network that was spiriting these airmen out of France. The network created the kind of alliances that crop up during war, as French customs officers and smugglers worked together for one to smuggle airmen out of France and into Spain. Perhaps one of my favorite stories about this operation was told by an Texas airman to at Herald Tribune reporter in 1944. “at Toulouse there were police at the station asking everybody for identification papers. We just showed them our American cards, and they handed them right back without batting an eyelash. They were French, of course. Still, it was a terrible moment.” An illustration of French sang froid.

As Mahaut remained dutifully calm upstairs in her civilian wing exhausted nurses tended to the German wounded arriving from the battle of the Falaise pocket. Oblivious to cries for nurses, cries of pain, or the screechy noise of beds being wheeled from room to room, she dreamed that she was out in the countryside in the Côte d’Or in Burgundy, probably wandering about isolated farmhouses and châteaux, vineyards and poplars. Behind the dream were thoughts of cousins living there, not far from the line of demarcation, the area that marked the boundaries between German occupied France and the French Free (or not-so-free) zone.

Mahaut: Then suddenly I thought, “Be careful, it smells like Germans here.” Nonetheless, the smell woke me up and I noticed there were strange noises under my bed.”

Terry: “The puppy?”

Mahaut: “On no, not the puppy; he returned home on the bicycle with my mother. No, it wasn’t a puppy; it was Germans.”

Terry: “Woah!”

Mahaut: “So, not knowing any German at all, I did know to say “Heraus” (Scram!), then in French “Foutez-le-camp! Foutez-le camp!” (Scram! Take a hike!) The electricity was out, so I couldn’t ring the bell for the nurses. And I wasn’t allowed to get up, as I was still recovering from surgery. Finally a nurse coming by heard me and poked her head in.”

Nurse: “Oh has it been a while since we checked on you? Well, since you’re normally so calm, … you know, we’ve been overwhelmed because the hospital is filled with wounded Germans.”

Mahaut: “Yes, but I, I have some of those Germans under my bed. I don’t know how many there are.”

Terry: She believed you?

Mahaut: “Well, she just had to crouch down to look. Of course she believed me, since I was known to be the calm one. So I said, ‘So, I’ve argued with the Germans; I told them ‘Heraus.’ I thought that would do it, but they wanted to stay. They told me ‘pompe’ (gasoline pump), ‘avion’ (airplane), all of that. I told them, ‘But you’re Germans; you don’t have any reason to… you don’t need to be afraid here. Stupid!’”

Terry: Well, they had a point.

Mahaut: The Germans thought the bombs were of the allies. So I told them, ‘You’re Germans; what does this matter to you? They realized that a young girl was making fun of them.” The next day some German officers came to apologize.


So, the Allied invasion of Normandy moved south to Paris and under Mahaut’s bed. And from her bedroom Mahaut heard about, and watched, the fall of the German empire in Paris.

“They had set the wine reserves on fire nearby—right at the edge of Paris; it burned up immediately. And I could see airplane battles in the sky. I saw airplanes fall from the sky like drops of water. They fell, in flames, over Bercy (in the southeastern corner of Paris). And Bercy had all the wine reserves for the city of Paris, reserves that were being guarded zealously in preparation for the celebration of the liberation of Paris. I remember also, there was a plane—a Spitfire—chasing after a German airplane. They passed right by. I had an upstairs room with bow windows. I couldn’t resist; I went to look. And there was the dogfight, right at the level of the bow windows. And I saw the German who was turning his airplane and who couldn’t see. And at one point he must have jumped with his parachute, as the plane caught fire in front of me! All of this happened quite quickly. He was able to jump; the nurses went to get him. He had broken his legs, but that’s all.”


From her hospital room Mahaut also saw the surrender of the last of the German soldiers in the Paris area.

In another illustration of the difficult of separating French from German, good from bad during this time, Pierre Laval one of the leaders of the pro-Nazi Vichy government, was part of this confused mix.  His daughter, Josée Laval, had married Laval’s son, René, back in 1935, a wedding attended by President Teddy Roosevelt’s famously outspoken, independent daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth. René’s mother, Clara, had stolidly kept the American Library open during the war with help from equally steadfast volunteers, and,as Mahaut notes, Clara’s wife, Laval’s “father-in-law, was part of the committee which oversaw the American Hospital because he was part of the group of friends descended from those who had aided the Americans in the American Revolution.

Laval’s own political origins had changed considerably over time.  The son of a poor family, he was at first a socialist, then an independent, moving more to the right as he grew richer in his professions of lawyer and politician. In 1931, he became Prime Minister and soon became the first French Prime Minister to visit the United States, earning the title of “Man of the Year” from Time magazine as a result.

And so he made an agreement with the Germans to surrender, and my mother went to watch because there was a group of angry men who threw down the weapons in a large pile and there was one huge German who began breaking rifles as he could. It’s not easy to break a rifle.” (information not from Mahaut is from Americans, 44).

Terry: No.

Mahaut: But he was so angry, and then they added, “We don’t want to surrender to a bunch of written notices; we want to surrender to soldiers.” So, then they asked the Leclerc division to arrive with a tank, and then the German soldiers deposited the rest of the rifles by the tank.


Harrod’s and Other Enticements

Harrod’s 1949

Tourists and Shoppers: London, Scotland, Cambridge

Note: To distinguish between speakers, I’m putting my comments in “regular” font, Maria’s in italics, and Anisa’s in bold.

Part One: Harrod’s and London

Warning: this section contains a controversial comment by Maria, but I think that, over sixty years after this trip, my mother can air her true feelings about Anisa’s shoes.
In 1949 Harrod’s was the de rigeur place to shop. Its fame rose in the late nineteenth century, when, after burning to the ground in December of 1883, Charles Harrod nonetheless fulfilled all of his Christmas orders.  Soon its clientele was made up of the famous and fashion-oriented—Oscar Wilde, Lily Langtry, Ellen Terry, Noel Coward, A. A. Milne, members of the British Royal Family, and even Sigmund Freud.  Who knows, the store may have inspired Freud’s book Civilization and its Discontents.

* * *

Sunday, July 29, over lunch, watching the Olympics–the men’s bicycle race.  The conversation went something like this:

Terry: Wow, it looks like they’re going right through London.

Tom: No, there’s no way they’d bring the bike race right through the city; it would stop all the traffic.

Terry:  Well, it looks like London, or, maybe it’s just one of the near suburbs that has buildings like part of London—the church and the bridge, could that be Putney?

Tom: There are a lot of churches with bridges just outside of London.

(minutes pass)

Terry: No, wait, that building—it’s Harrod’s; the race is in London.

*   *   *

By 1949 Harrod’s was still its plucky, cornucopic self, having dusted off most of the detritus of World War II.  Once more it was a “must visit” place for tourists.

Above all, Harrod’s was Anisa’s go-to store in London—a nice, ten-minute walk straight down the Old Brompton rd. from the Rembrandt Hotel.; she made sure that she introduced Joan, Maria, and Carmen to Harrod’s.

This is how my mother remembers one conversation about Harrod’s:

Anisa went to Harrod’s and got a pair of shoes.  She had pounds.  She knew about Harrod’s because all her Arab friends spoke of Harrods as the non plus ultra place to shop.  Y entonces she bought shoes there.

Anisa: Look at the shoes I got at Harrod’s.  They are so comfortable.

I didn’t like them at all.  Fueron muy muy, vaya, del tiempo de la guerra (they were very, very—well—wartime shoes): heavy, heavy Oxford-like things, but she was delighted with them.

Anisa: Because I’m a foreigner, I don’t need a ration for shoes.

Carmen: Maybe we could buy things for other people in England who are under rations.

Mother right away found the loophole.

Joan: “Where did you get the shoes?” 

Anisa: Harrod’s 

Joan: What is Harrod’s? 

Anisa: Don’t you know what Harrod’s is?”

Anisa was surprised that Joan—who had already visited London–had never heard of Harrod’s.  But Joan’s taste in clothing was tried and true Chicago-American; she was only happy when she was wearing Best and Company or Sax’s Fifth Avenue.

It is possible that Harrod’s is the place where Maria bought the white shoes she wore to visit the queen.  (Must check on this.)

Part Two:  What to Eat, Whom What to See.

With its generous breakfast, The Rembrandt Hotel took care of the travelers’ nutrition needs through the afternoon.  But then the travelers had to deal with the food at English restaurants, food that was often gloppy, gristly, gruesome.

Then, enlightenment:

Maria: Somebody said,”Just go to the Indian restaurants; they have the best food.”

Maria: Anisa, why didn’t you tell me about Indian restaurants before?

Anisa: Oh, I thought you wouldn’t like that kind of food.

Indian food became the staple dinner for the last week or so in London, except for a grand dinner at the Berkeley Hotel, across from Fortnum and Mason.  If it’s anything like the food served these days at the Berkeley, it must have been a wonderful experience.  If you go to the Berkeley August 2012, you can start with “Foie gras, pineapple, cinnamon, brioche,” then move to “halibut, cockles, razor clams, fennel” or “suckling lamb, beans, oregano, Flower Marie,” pause for a selection from the cheese trolley, move to “moelleux, peanut, raspberry.”  And I’m sure that they bring delicate little mini-biscuits to go with coffee and the bill.

Berkeley Hotel, Knightsbridge


According to Anisa, they also had a nice meal at the Savoy, so that’s two nice dinners in a month:

It seems there were many English people, whether bank owners or other people who lived in Cuba and knew your grandmother. I never realized there were so many Americans in London at the time—ordinary American citizens working in England, in some kind of American institution in England.  There was this lady; your grandmother knew her from Cuba.  She was very nice.  She invited us to a cottage she had in one part of England.  And we saw many American people playing tennis.  It was lovely weather and very nice.  Later on this lady friend of your mother’s—before we left England, we invited her for a dinner to the Savoy.  She was her dear friend.

* * *

And, of course, the travelers met Anisa’s friends:

One day Anisa said, “I’d like you to come with us to see a friend.”  I don’t remember if Joan went, but mother and I went, and suddenly I heard something that sounded to me like “wo ho hqwauw” and then the father said that the daughters were in their room—two little girls.  Anissa went to see the girls and I heard something that to me sounded like “Oy, coockoo dhoo doo, tootoo too.”

Carmen: I don’t know where our family comes from originally, but these people sound just like us; the only difference is that they say these things in Arabic and we say them in Spanish—but the same sounds and tone, and saying things like, “Oh how pretty.”  Just like us; we must have some Arab blood in us. 

 Frankly, for mother this was an amazingly valuable experience—that we got to know Arabic people not from books but in life, and saw that they are just like us.  For me it was an enormous lesson.

My mother at this point suggested how Spanish must sound to Arabic-speaking people: “pah pah leh voo voo voo voo woo woo woo wo.”

Terry: the Mediterranean.

Part Three: Leaving London: Scotland and Cambridge.

At one point the travelers split up–Joan and Anissa going to Scotland, while Carmen and Maria went to Cambridge.

Anisa: While we were in England, Joan and I decided to go to Scotland.  So we took the bus—a very nice coach—we took it from London.  It stopped in York, which was beautiful.  And there is Yorkminster the town, with its old walls.  We spent the night there, and then we went to Edinburgh.  I loved Edinburgh.  There was a castle, and there was the Princess gate, and there was another castle.  We enjoyed it very much. 

Edinburgh Castle, Scotland

Interruption by Terry:  I have to pause here because I taught a course called “Queens” last fall, which was about writings by and about Catherine of Aragon, Mary Queen of Scots, and Queen Elizabeth I.  We read the controversial sonnets by Mary (are they about Bothwell?  Who knows.) and of course read about her all-too-colorful stay in Edinburgh castle, including how she fled Edinburgh for her life, and for a life of imprisonment in England, forced to leave behind her six-month-old son.  It’s a beautiful castle, but must have seemed grim to Mary, isolated from her friends in France and in a vulnerable political position as a foreign Catholic queen.

Back to Anisa’s experiences:

Coming back, we went on another route, where we stopped in Chester.  This—I was impressed with Chester because the town was of two levels—the streets and the shops.  It was wonderful.  And then we returned to London.

Every time we took the bus we stopped in some place to have coffee or tea.  In the bus it seems they put the numbers in back of the seat.  When Joan and I, got back in, we looked for the numbers, we looked a little bit confused.  The English people, they looked at each other and said “Americans.”  “Americans.”


Background information:  my mother is telling this story in the kitchen; this is what it’s like to have an interview with my mother.

Mami: Y entonces, Mamá knew un doctor en Cambridge y we went to Cambridge, y yo estaba looking for a job and he gave me a letter of recommendation someone in UNESCO whom he knew.  And he was, I think, German-Jewish and he went by “Jake”; everyone called him “Jake.”

(Click, clack—my mother puts down her cup of tea.)

Carmen: He is English—English-English,”

Maria:, “Mamá, I’m sorry; este hombre no es inglés” (this man is not English).

(clackety-clackety-clack in the background)

Maria: Excuse me, the eggs are ready; I have to get them off the stove.

Terry: Did he have an accent?

Mami: No, well, his wife definitely had a German accent.  And so I asked, “What part are you from?”  And I got from his wife that they came from Bavaria. England was filled with German refugees.

(click of footsteps in the background—Elizabeth, who helps out with cleaning, has come in to wipe the counters in the kitchen) 

But it was thanks to him that we came to Cambridge and we saw Cambridge in its glory—the weather was glorious.

And then—and this is typical of your grandmother, by the way.  As I was being interviewed by the doctor—“Jake,” a little old man comes up and mother says:

Carmen: “I’m just enjoying the flowers, and everything is so wonderful; yesterday, we had the best strawberries.” And the next thing she knew the little old man had returned with a basket of rasberries, saying,

Little Old Man:  I just wanted you to try our rasberries. 

You know, it was a wonderful time.  England was rediscovering itself.

(Sounds of water gushing from the kitchen sink.)

Jake took us punting on the Thames, y I think it was just mother and myself; and afterwards he took us to a place for tea, where you sat on the grass–it was very English, and there was a little boy running about, happy as a lark, and mamá–well, while I was finishing at Vassar, Doctor Gardiner, who had been my father’s doctor when he had cancer, found mother un jobcito en Children’s Hospital, so that mother could stay near me.  And that’s where she met “Jake,” who was doing research—cancer research.  And when Jake sees the healthy little boy running about shirtless, Jake says to mamá “Look, Carmen, no cancer!”

It was just a glorious, glorious time. 

After that we met up with Joan and Anisa and then we had the “great episodes,” y es ir a Staines, with the queen.


Harrods 1949:
Berkeley Hotel:
Edinburgh Castle:×546.jpg


The Queen! The Queen!

Queen Aliyah of Iraq

Now it’s time for “the” story, which makes me a bit nervous: where to start?  How to tell it well?  So I will let the travelers tell most of the story in their own words.

But I do need to give some background information, so that the details of these accounts are clear.  King Faisal I of Iraq was son to King Ghazi I and his wife, Queen Aliyah.  King Ghazi died in 1939 in a sports car accident that some people believe may have actually been an assassination.  King Ghazi’s son, Faisal I became king at the age of three, but, given his youth, his uncle, Prince Abdul Ilah (Queen Aliyah’s brother), served as regent until King Faisal came of age in 1953. (Trivia moment: Inspired by a photograph of the three-year-old King Faisal in a National Geographic article of 1941, Hergé created his fictional Prince Abdullah—the extremely spoiled, naughty, and engaging character who appeared in two Tintin books.  King Faisal’s cousin, Sharif Ali bin Hussein commented, “I have read Tintin since childhood, but I never made the connection with King Faisal.”) Since King Faisal was born on May 2, 1935, he would have been 14 years old when our travelers were in England.  At this time he was attending Harrow along with his first cousin, Prince Hussein, the future king of Jordan, with whom Faisal was a close friend.  The two princesses to whom Anisa refers are the sisters of Queen Aliyah, Princess Jalila and Princess Badia.

(sources: “Faisal II of Iraq” Wikipedia; The National, Aug 13, 2011 at; and “Kingdom of Iraq” at

King Faisal at age 5
(“King Faisal II of Iraq” July 25, 2012)

Here is the story as told by Anisa and Maria.  Anisa’s comments are in blue. Maria’s comments are in red and in italicsMaria and Anisa agree on almost everything, except that Anisa believes that the travelers took the train to Harrow while Maria remembers, instead, that they took a bus.

Given the epic nature of the subject of focus, I decided to start the narrative in medias res, but will skip the invocation to the muse.


Part One: Chance Encounter

Anisa: In 1949, one day, when I was walking, just by myself, trying to cross the street as I was going through Hyde Park corner–suddenly a small car stopped, and I realized they had noticed me, and they stopped just behind Hyde Park corner, at the side of the park.  I suddenly looked—the queen! The queen was driving.  Next to her, the nurse who took care of the king.  She had cared for him since he was a baby, and behind them the two princesses–the one who had gotten married, and next to her,  her other sister, who was not yet married.

Tala: Princess Badia?

Anisa: Princess Jalila and Badia.


(“Iraq.IR Photo Gallery:  July 25, 2012)

 At this time, in ’49, the king  was older and he was studying at Harrow’s–Harrow School, and they had bought or rented a house near there–outside London.  So suddenly when I went there, I said “Hello, your majesty.”

She said, “Oh, Anisa” I heard that you were in London.”  Iraqi friends had told them, “Anisa has come”.  Well, Iraq was a small community; everybody knew each other.

I said “Yes, your majesty, I am here with friends of mine.  I’d like to see you, but I have my friends.”

She said, “Come and bring them with you.”

I said, “all right.”

The queen turned to her sisters and she asked, “What do we have on such and such a day?”  They said “nothing,” and she said “Come on such… a certain day” I don’t know, Monday or Tuesday.

 I said “Thank you very much”.

I told Mrs. de Zaldo, everybody.

Terry: my grandmother loved that story. She would say, “And, we found out that Anisa bumped into the queen of Iraq.”

 Anisa: Yes, and Mrs. de Zaldo kept saying, “Oh, the Queen of Iraq.”

Maria: One day, Anisa comes and says, “Oh Mrs. De Zaldo, I was walking through Hyde Park, and all of a sudden the car stops, and the Queen of Iraq comes out and says, “Anisa, you’re here in London and didn’t call me?” 

Anisa explained that she was with other people, and the Queen said, “Oh bring them over.”

And before we left for the visit, mother had all of us practice our curtsies over and over.  

Part Two: Back Story

Anisa: All my childhood I knew our royal family.  When King Faisal came to Iraq in 1921, he wanted to get used to the Iraqi families.  My parents, my aunts, all of them, used to visit the family, the royal family.  And actually, I used to go with them, whenever any of my aunts used to visit the royal family.  They used to receive people; they were very simple people, very casual.  There were not all of those ceremonies, nothing.  Actually, at that time the king had died some time ago in 1930….

Tala: 30…  39?

Anisa: ’39, I think it was.  His son was four years old, the king.  There is a picture among my pictures here that they made when he was one-year old, before his father had died.  They had a party, from every family one child was invited.  They invited us to his birthday party, and I remember going to the palace, and seeing the queen. I loved Aliya, and there is a picture of myself, my cousins, other people we knew from the whole group who knew each other.

So, in 1946, I used to see them on certain occasions.  I used to know the queen and her sisters, and her brother became the regent there.  In 1946, the year in which I first came to England—at that time, it was just when the war was over, and they wanted to come to England.  One of the princesses had gotten engaged, and on the first opportunity after the war they came to England to do all the shopping necessary for the wedding—everything. The Iraqi English society made parties for them, and I used to attend them.  I saw the queen, her sisters, everyone, and other English people who had worked in Iraq before, people who were still in touch. I met them in 1946.  And I said good-bye to them; I went to America, and they went to Paris, later on to Iraq.  They had the wedding of the princess, while I was away.


Part Three: The Journey

Anisa: So we learned how to take the train, how to go, how to walk there.  We walked from the station to the house.

 Maria: We had to go to Haines Point (near Harrow).  The king of Iraq and the son of the King of Jordan (Hussein) were at Harrow.  The queen mother (a widow), leased a house near there. We got on the bus; everything was fine.   We got to Haines, and we showed the address to someone and asked how to get there.

 Anisa: Suddenly, on my way, I told Mrs. de Zaldo, “We should purchase something.”

Carmen: “Oh, why didn’t you tell us before?”

Maria bought new, white shoes to see the queen, but

Maria: los zapatos me estaban lastimando los pies” (The shoes were killing my feet).  And we had to walk from the bus stop.  I just couldn’t take it any more, and there was brook right by the road. “Que delicioso río!” (What a delicious brook!”)  It was a long walk and such a hot day.  And I said “I can’t stand it any more.  I’m going to put my feet in the water”

 Joan: “Maria, don’t do that; your feet are going to swell up like anything, and you won’t be able to put  your shoes back on.  You won’t be able to put your shoes back on!”

 Maria: Sure enough, she was right.  How I got to the house, I don’t know; it was pure torture to get to that place. Joan never let me forget the incident.  Joan was like a mother.

 All the way there Abuelita kept saying:  “Ay que jardines!  Ay que jardines.”  (Oh, what beautiful gardens!)  She loved English gardens—their lushness, the roses; they were so well kept up.

 Then we had to find out which one of the houses was where the Queen of Iraq was living. 

 Then mother said:  “Look at that house. This is not an Englishman’s house.  The English are crazy about their gardens.  Look, there are no roses, and it’s all weeds”. 

 Right away guards came out and said something that sounded to me like, “Hwaa, hwaa, hwaa” I don’t know what they said, but Anisa talked to them, and we went in.

 Anisa: Anyway, we walked in.  It was a nice, simple house.  The garden, everything.


Part Three: The Visit.

 Anisa: The queen came, and her sister Badia came to sit with us.  So we talked—about America, about the king and his school.

 Maria: The queen received us in a small room…. Two of her daughters were there.  One of them asked “There are still gangsters in Chicago?”

  Joan: “Oh, yes, and in the spring they bring out the bodies from the water.”

 Maria: And I stupidly said “Joan why in the spring?” 

 Joan: “You have to wait for the ice to melt, and then you can take out all the bodies.”

 Anisa: ”Joan do you realize that they know my family and they will tell my family about this visit, and now my father will never let me go to Chicago?”

 Anisa: Joan and Maria talked about certain things, about how Bedia Jamil was always getting someplace without any kind of chaperone; in Iraq she always went with a chaperone.

 Anisa: Mrs. de Zaldo said, “This is not diplomatic.  Telling the queen about breaking the law in college or something—talking about Bedia like this. Why did you tell this story? It is as if you are lawless souls, breaking the law.”

 Maria: And the whole time Mami (Carmen) tried not to turn her back on the queen; Mami almost knocked something down trying not to turn her back.

Anisa: Anyway, the queen was really very nice.  I told her, “it is very strange” I said, “your majesty.  When I came here, visiting some of the shops, I saw that they are selling the Iraqi dates.  I was surprised”.

 So, when were leaving, the queen told the matron who was taking care of the house to give us Iraqi—very special.

 Maria: As we left, the servants gave us the most delicious dates stuffed with almonds.

 Y entonces despues we had to walk back y catch the bus back to London, with my feet still hurting.  Gas was still rationed, so they couldn’t offer us a drive in their car.








The Rembrandt Hotel, London

The Rembrandt Hotel: Eating and After Eating

This blog has three parts:

I: buildings and personalities

II: The Rembrandt Hotel and what to do after you’ve eaten food.

III:  The Rembrandt Hotel and food.

One hears comments like “the spirit of the place,” something I never thought about until we bought our house on Quinby ave. in Wooster—or perhaps I should say until we didn’t buy the house.  There were, it was true, a lot of troubles with negotiations, as one owner would tell us one thing, like, “Oh yes, we don’t want any of the fixtures, so we’ll leave you the stove, the chandeliers, everything else,” and then his spouse would say, “actually we’ll probably take everything”, and the lesson is “always use a real estate agency”.  After awhile it became clear that one owner wanted to sell the house, while his didn’t—she had just lived in the house too long, about twenty-five years.  In the end negotiations broke down, although we did eventually buy the house a year later.

There is, I think, a spirit of the place.  Whether it is the spirit of the baby who died there in the 50’s (I doubt it—she probably headed straight to heaven), I began to think that the house had been very comfortable with its previous inhabitants and  just wasn’t ready to be sold.

One other example: we rented a house in Hudson, Ohio to be near Charles during his first year in boarding school (the story is much more complicated than that, but I’ll spare you).  The house was owned in the 19th century by the fiery abolitionist John Brown’s father (John Brown never lived there, but did probably visit.)  It’s a lovely, neglected, sprawling white frame house in the middle of a busy area, but you turn into the driveway and suddenly you’re in an isolated nook where deer like to come and munch on the weeds that have taken over the yard and a woodchuck goes scurrying into the brush whenever you drive up.  When we were moving out, the housekeeper asked, “Does the house have ghosts?  Weren’t you scared to spend the night by yourself?”  I answered, “I did at first, but the house has a peaceful feeling; it’s like a very nice spirit governs it.”  I had heard that the previous owner took wonderful care of the house, and the house is a bit like the lovely, sweet dog that has been neglected by the present owner, but is still very friendly to anyone who comes by.


*  *  *

The Rembrandt Hotel:  I don’t know if there was a spirit to the place, but there was definitely  character to the place—a character and personality that came out of a combination of the many different people who owned, managed, worked in it and stayed in it, along with the pride and stubbornness of a building that had survived, pretty much intact, from the war.

But it’s main personality was that, as my mother put it, It was very Edwardian, at least Victorian, and I imagine it as some sort of stout, proper, and slightly snobbish butler for an upper middle class family—but with a good sense of humor–trying hard to adapt to the needs of post war tourists and struggling to keep up appearances during difficult financial times.

It was indeed of a Victorian origin, if not necessarily personality.  According to “” the hotel “opened in the late 19th century as luxury accommodation especially for clients visiting Harrods department store.”  Given Anisa’s fondness for Harrod’s, it was definitely a well-chosen spot.  Maria, at least thought so, since she adds that it had the advantage of being “near the monument to Albert” and, hence right at Hyde Park, a place where “we took long walks.”  One particularly famous walk will be the subject of the next blog.

It still exists as a four star hotel—which it probably was then—in Knightsbridge.  It’s quite close to the corner of Old Brompton road and Cromwell road.  As my mother put it: It was a very nice place.  It was near the monument to Albert.  We took huge walks around there. 

 Location of the Rembrandt Hotel in Knightsbridge


Last year, on my way back to the Putney hotel from a wonderful dinner at Zaika—unknowingly I was close to the Rembrandt Hotel (the restaurant is at the corner of Kensington rd. and Kensington High st.), I took an evening walk down Kensington High st., then thought I could walk to the tube station going down King’s Road by simply turning left.  I forgot for a moment that I was neither in Washington D.C. nor New York City, nor Paris.  Instead, I was in London, a city whose roads had been determined by such things as a boulder in the road (road curves away in one direction), an open sewer (road curves the other direction), a rich man’s property (road curves again).  The result is that I found myself going southwest on Cromwell road—a road I had not been familiar with.  Today—and probably then—Cromwell is the tourist hotel road that interrupts the more quiet and elegant streets in Kensington and Knightsbridge.  Cromwell Road is noisy, loud, full of lights, and full of hotels that look just like the Rembrandt Hotel.  Somehow I did find myself back, and snuggled into my room at the Putney Hotel.


It is now time for one of the most famous stories from the Europe trip; it goes something like this.



2011: Leaving Heathrow in Tala’s car, one of the first things Anisa said was: “In London I stayed at the Rembrandt Hotel,” to which I responded, “The hotel with the chamberpot?”  Anissa replied “Oh yes, Joan and the chamberpot.”

1949: Anisa arrives in London shortly after the other travelers arrived.  Emerging from the taxi that took her from Heathrow airport to the Rembrandt Hotel Anisa walked into the room she would be sharing with Joan, and “I saw Joan washing her hand on this old-fashioned …

Terry: “Bowl?  Ewer, I think.

Tala: “Yes


Slight Pause to Introduce Continental Cans



There is a book, published in 1960, that fascinated me as a child.  Called Continental Cans Etc…, A Tourist’s Guide to Continental Plumbing, it sat decorously in one of the many elegant wooden bookshelves in my parents’ den. Along with Charles Addams Cartoons, it was the book I probably turned to most–an illustrated series of cartoons that depicted the many challenges of European plumbing systems along with tongue-in-cheek suggestions for what American tourists could do about them.  One section was on perhaps the most puzzling item for many Americans—the bidet.  Continental Cans suggested all sorts of uses for a bidet, including filling it with ice and sticking champagne bottles in it for guests at a party.

Joan, it appears, thought just like the authors of Continental Cans.  In fact the cover picture kind of looks like her.

*   *   *

One thing is clear.  Joan was taken with all things that were traditionally European and certainly not typically American, including the bustling outdoor food markets and classically European artifacts.   In the Rembrandt Hotel she discovered one such object–the chamber pot.  The Rembrandt Hotel was a very European hotel; in other words, it had not yet fully succumbed to the seductions of American-type plumbing.  Hence the ewer and bowl for washing one’s face and hands in the hotel rooms, as well as the fact that, in most rooms, the bathroom was down the hall.  Well aware of this fact, Mrs. de Zaldo had specifically requested two hotel rooms with toilets, but when the travelers arrived, they discovered that only Joan and Anisa had this set up, while she and Maria had to, as Maria put it, wander  “all the way down the hall.”  For those who didn’t feel able to grope their way to the bathroom at 3:00 a.m., the hotel conveniently provided a chamberpot, discreetly tucked away in the night table.

Anisa, Carmen, and Maria were all very well aware of chamberpots and their uses, but for Joan—brought up in a world of private bathrooms with toilets and modern American plumbing, it was a fascinating relic of Merry Olde England.  The chamber pot connoted ideas like “kitsch” “old world” and “how quaint”.  Clearly, she had stayed in a more luxurious hotel when she had accompanied her father to Europe in 1946.

Here is Maria’s telling of the story:

Joan opened the night table and out comes a chamber pot.

“Carmen!  Look, look!  Oh look, a chamberpot; how quaint.”  Joan thought the chamberpot was hilarious.

(Carmen’s response): “Oh no, it is not quaint at all.  I grew up with chamber pots; they are not quaint.”

Soon after she bought some cherries at the market and presented them to us in a chamber pot.

Carmen: “Joan, do you know what has been in that chamber pot?”

Joan: “I know, but I washed it.”

But all there was in the room was an old-fashioned ewer and basin.

Carmen: “Ay Joan, I cannot eat cherries that are in a chamberpot!”

Joan: “But Mrs. de  Zaldo, I washed it; I washed it clean!”

The result, according to my mother is that “Abuelita refused to eat the cherries.

The good news is that, except for the occasional dependence on chamberpots, the plumbing worked quite well at the Rembrandt Hotel.

The Rembrandt and Food:

Before the chamber pot, there is the food.  As it was with all places that served a traditional English breakfasts, breakfast at The Rembrandt was memorable, especially if you were not English.  Here is Anissa’s account of the breakfast:

We always had a good breakfast in the hotel, which was part of the price that we paid, even if they gave us kippers, which we didn’t like, but the toast was always very good, and food in England was still much better than in ’46 when I went.  No coupons—nothing; it was much easier; everything was more affluent.

I saw many Iraqi friends of ours [in London].  I took Joan, Maria, and Mrs. de Zaldo to see them, and the other Iraqi friends would come to see me while we were having breakfast.  Doctora Amina and Doctor Asghik.  We would be at breakfast—with Joan and Maria–and they would come to visit me.  It was a very nice time.

For my mother the breakfast was equally memorable:

 And then the other thing was that breakfast was included, and mother (Carmen) didn’t get up for breakfast, but Joan and I went down, and it was the smell of the kippers.

Joan, after smelling the kippers: “I’m going to go up and have breakfast with your mother in her room.




London, London, London

This is a very silly start to this blog, but I do get to the 1949 trip later in the blog.

In one of Charles (Prendergast’s) favorite books from his childhood, The Absent-Minded Fellow from Portobello, the eponymous protagonist attempts–in vain–to get from his flat in Portobello to London. While there is no specific date for the events in the book, the illustrations harken back to 40’s and 50’s London.

Based on this book, it’s surprising that our travelers made it to London at all, given the many obstacles that occur to someone just trying to get from Portobello to London.  Our protagonist can’t see at first because he has put his pants on his head, then, misunderstanding a porter’s directions he jumps into a train car that is not actually going any place.  In the middle of the book, the incantatory phrase “London, London, London” appears.  Given the number of times that I read that book out loud to Charles (usually slowly and gently closing his eyes as he listened), I can’t think of London without considering it as three words.

I am not alone.  I Googled “London, London, London” and came up with a song sung by Fergie about London Bridge.  It goes something like this: Oh snap! Oh snap! Oh snap! (Are you ready for this?)  Oh snap!  In-between are the usual naughty–but not too naughty–words by Fergie like “pimp”, then we get to the following:

How come every time you come around

My London London bridge, wanna go down like

London, London, London, wanna go down like

London, London, London, we goin’ down like

I’m not really into Fergie music, but I do like this one.

So London bridge is now a reference to dancing and sex–most likely not the first time a bridge has been used in the latter reference.

The Kinks also write about London hypnotically:

When I think of all the londoners still unsungEast-enders, west-enders, oriental-endersFu manchu, sherlock holmes, jack spock, henry cooper,Thomas a’becket, thomas moore, and don’t forget the kray twinsThere’s a part of me that says get outThen one day I’ll hear somebody shoutSounds to me like you come from london townBut if you’re ever up on highgate hill on a clear day,I’ll be there [I’ll be there]Yes I will be there [there]Through the dark alley-ways and passages of london, londonLondon, london, through the dark alley-ways and passages of london, londonLondon, london, through the dark alley-ways and passages of london, london.

And the hip-hop singer Kano has a song whose only non-explicit verse is:

London, London, London town

You can toughen up or get thrown around.

The point is that there is something marvelous and hypnotic about the idea, and even the sound, of “London”, a place that incantatorily draws people to it, even as it maintains its reputation for sootiness, thuggishness, and strange things around the corner.  After all, people are drawn to London as much because of Jack the Ripper and its (no longer existing) pea soup fog as they are to its royal family, high tea, and Harrod’s. And, anyway, the phrase “London, London, London” also shapes a nice trochaic trimeter that fits the short, insistent beat of hip hop particularly well.

I’ll stop here, I promise, because it is time to talk about Harrod’s.

*   *   *

In 1949, London was the place to start for most American tourists–because they could speak the language, and because it was already so familiar to them from books, History classes, and film, and because of the large number (relatively) of flights there.

It’s no surprise, then, that this is where our travelers decided to start.  It’s also probably no coincidence that they stayed in England for slightly less than a month.  According to Joseph Frayman, anyone staying for longer than twenty-eight consecutive days in Britain was required to get a visa (NYT Mar 6 1949).

The London our travelers encountered was, despite the reduction of the pound, a place of optimism.  New York Times articles from 1949 record an upswing in production activity for London film studios and a removal of most rationing. The Treasury’s “Economic Survey for 1949” “showed that Britain had almost achieved an overall balance of trade with the rest of the world” (NYT Mar 20, 1949).  And, despite continued rationing of ham, bacon, cheese, butter, margarine, meat, sugar, and tea, John Strachey, British Minister of Food, “recently made the surprising statement–so surprising that he said most people wouldn’t believe it–that Britain’s current average daily ration is only ten calories below that of the pre-war days–2,990 calories as against 3,000” (NYT Mar 29, 1949).

And for Anisa, London seems to have been about Harrod’s.

For some reason, the only thing my mother really remembers about Harrod’s is that Anisa bought some shoes there; here is her rendition of the results of that shopping expedition:

Anissa:  “Look at the shoes I got at Harrod’s! Because I’m a foreigner, I don’t need a ration card to buy shoes.

Carmen: “Maybe we could buy things for other people because we don’t need ration cards.”  Maria’s added comment: “Mother right away found the loophole for things.”

What London did not Have

London did not have good food, or, at least, the good food was not easy to find, except for the lovely fruits and vegetables one kept coming across at the market.  The Rembrandt Hotel did have a nice breakfast, if one could take the smell of kippers, and a good breakfast there sustained the travelers for most of the day.  But what to do about dinner time?

It was late in the trip, after many unsuccessful attempts at a decent dinner that they discovered the Indian restaurants, which had the best food in India.  That, and a memorably deliciously restaurant splurge at the Barclay Hotel, “on that street across from Fortnum and Mason.”

Arriving at a city eager for American dollars, the travelers embraced tourism enthusiastically–thanks, in part, to an apparently restful stay at the Rembrandt Hotel–the subject of my next blog.






How Anisa Saadoun Got to Europe

TWA Stewardesses, 1949

In December 1979 I was preparing to return from Paris to Potomac for a Christmas visit when a Portuguese classmate from the Institut Catholique de Paris asked, “How are you getting home?”  His friend said, “She’s flying, stupid–what do you think, she’s going to take a boat, so she can arrive there then have to turn immediately back around?”  Unfazed, our temporarily disoriented Portuguese friend replied, “She could drive!”  At which point he was immediately put down and corrected by five of his closest friends.

Yes, there are only two ways to get to Europe.  Carmen, Maria, and Joan took the leisurely route; Anisa got there the fast way.

Here is how Anisa remembers the preparations for heading to Europe, as she came in on one of what must have been fifty conversations between Carmen, Maria, and Joan about the upcoming trip; at this rate of excitement, they must have been interrupting each other every three words:

They said, “Oh, Anisa, why don’t you come with us?”

I thought that it didn’t sound very practical, because I was supposed to go to Columbia in the autumn to do my M.A., and I would be going to Europe–halfway to home–and returning to America.  It was not very logical; it was too difficult.

Anyway, I wrote to my parents.  They were so nice; they said, “Well, this is a very good idea, why don’t you go with them?” Really, my parents were wonderful.

I just want to pause here to note how excellent Anisa’s memory is–she has my grandmother’s speech patterns down perfectly.  Just hearing her say “Oh, Anisa” the first time conjured up an image of my grandmother’s wavy hair, lively expression, and slightly forwarded tilting posture that came with expressions of enthusiasm.

This is also, by the way, what I’m enjoying most about this project–the way that everyone shares the same memories of events, yet each one highlights different elements.  Anisa, of the group, has the best memory for specific names of places, companies, and people–as we have already seen–because she likes to highlight facts, events, important moments.  Maria is interested in character and slice of life, so she gives me the colorful details.

Anyway, I wrote to my parents ; they were so nice, they said, “Well, this is a very good idea, why don’t you go with them?” Really, my parents were wonderful.

Immediately I called the agent and asked him to please try to find a place for me with them on the InterFrance.

He said: “It is all booked up.  I cannot find any place for you.”

And of course the idea was that if I went to Europe, my father would try to pay the trip through Thomas Cook’s or he would take a ticket from Baghdad.  It was easier for me because we were in the sterling area.  Bristead Manning advised me that it would book me in an airplane, in case there is no opening for me in InterFrance, I would take an airplane, and actually they managed it; and the day I arrived in London Maria, Carmen, and Joan had just arrived that afternoon at the hotel.

My father did not like the idea of the plane; he preferred me to go by boat, but he said, “if you are forced to go by plane, go, but do try in the last minute to get a boat.”  But I couldn’t get a boat. 

I remain awed by the pluckiness of Anisa–traveling alone from the States to England during a period when such travel was not only difficult but quite rare for a young woman to undertake.  But then the difficulties of this trip were nothing like the odyssey of traveling, in 1946, from Iraq, through England, to the States, during a period when military men, diplomats, and other related workers had first crack at any transportation from England to the States.

I don’t know what specific flight Anisa took to London, but it was a TWA airplane–at that time called “Transcontinental and Western Air.”  The airline had exotic connotations, given that its majority owner was the dashing pilot,  film director, and infamous womanizer, Howard Hughes. In fact, according to (an online aviation magazine), much of the popularity of TWA came from its associations with Howard Hughes.  Up until 1946, Pan Am had dominated flights to Europe, but TWA, at this point, moved into competition with Pan Am. As Endy notes, the Roosevelt government pushed its policy of “open skies” by allowing TWA and American Airlines to share international flight space with Pan Am.  According to the source of all basic knowledge, Wikipedia, its main airplanes were the DC-4 and the Lockheed Constellation, the latter, launched in 1946, soon    became “synonymous with the TWA style of elegance and cutting-edge technology” (Wikipedia).

TWA 1949 ad


I’m going to digress a moment to note that just saying the words “Lockheed Constellation” conjures up images of Daddy, who could have written at least 5,000 words about the Lockheed Constellation.  If he had been writing this blog, you would have found out a lot about the pistons in the airplane, the dominant oil used to lubricate the planes, and the names of all the designers of the plane. If you had any interest in the mechanics of airplanes you would have been riveted. If you have anything like my personality, about halfway through the blog you would have started thinking about which friends you need to call and whether or not your room needs cleaning.   In those days, hearing such disquisitions from Daddy were a form of emotional torture; now it brings a pang to my heart and conjures up that handsome face, earnest expression, and eyes that never quite met yours as he moved into technical details.

Daddy–Robert B. Meyer Jr.–in fact is one of the absent-presences of this trip.  He and my mother had been dating seriously, but were not engaged.  What was he doing or thinking while she was gone?  Did Maria miss him, or was she just too exhilirated at the trip to Europe to miss anyone? To what extent was Carmen already plotting to ensure that Robbie married Maria Teresa?

Digression ended; back to TWA

Flights were generally lovely in those days–few delays because there was usually a backup plane at the airport; flights were rarely full; and stewardesses had time to chat with travelers.  Anisa did have one little bump in her trip, which otherwise went smoothly:

As a matter of fact, as I was sitting in the plane, they said, “we are delayed” because there was a problem with the plane.

Both Charles Endy and the Public Broadcasting Service page on its special about the history of air travel–“Chasing the Sun,” note that Pan Am took the entrance of TWA into the international carrier scene very badly, so that the 1940s was a period of intense competition and hostility between Pan Am, which had previously had a virtual monopoly on international flights from the States, and the upstart TWA.  This competition was itself a product of the encouragement of tourism in Europe shaped by the Marshall Plan.  Marshall Plan organizers, at the time, were promoting middle-class travel, a concept that Pan Am took up enthusiastically, while TWA did not.  The opening up of middle class travel by lowering air fares was not as easy as it sounds.  The IATA (International Air Transport Association)–“a self-enforcing organization of international airlines formed in 1944” had to ok changes in airline fares (Endy 50).  Pan Am began lobbying for this change in 1948, but was immediately blocked by smaller airlines like TWA, who feared that Pan Am would reduce their business.  They were blocked as well by the Civil Aeronautics Board “for fear of upsetting foreign airlines” (50).

1949 TWA ad


I remember once, in 1963–so I must have been seven years old–being taken to see my parents off at the new Dulles International airport as they went off to Europe for several weeks, flying TWA.  If I had any thoughts of missing my parents, they were immediately erased by wonder at the gleaming marble building, shaped like it was ready to take flight.  But even more entrancing was seeing my parents enter the Dulles transport system, watch the automatic doors close, and the transportation move off to the airplane, as if powered by magic.  Alas Dulles has lost that aura; it’s just too crowded now-a-days. I wonder if that’s how most people felt, in the 1940s, arriving in the international terminal of an airport.

By then, however, Anisa was a seasoned traveler, probably less awed than a seven-year-old would be.  And somehow I don’t think that Anisa gave one thought to hostilities between Pan Am and TWA, as her flight was probably selected for her by the Bristead-Manning Travel Agency. Fares and service did not go down until 1952, so I assume that Anisa still experienced somewhat of the wonderful luxurious service that one only gets in first-class this day, and–with plenty of leg room–arrived jet-lagged but in a pretty good mood in London.

At least it appears that the actual air trip, however, was without incident, because the next thing I heard from Anisa was that she was soon in the Rembrandt Hotel, hugging her friends.



How it all Began–Vassar, 1946

Vassar: Main Dorm, 2012


Vassar is, of course, responsible for this trip–the place that nurtured these women’s ideas and interest in Europe, the place where they met, and the place where they planned the trip.

The idea for the trip emerged from a series of conversations between Joan and Maria throughout the academic year of 1948-1949.  They began in a deliciously warm and sunny fall, the leaves lingering, hesitating to fall in this balmy weather, as Joan chatted about her previous trip to Europe, accompanying her father on a business trip.  The conversations developed as Poughkeepsie finally turned into Poughkeepsie in mid-November, its Gothic buildings mournful  in fog and drizzle, and the short walk from Davison to Main requing a ridiculous piling on of layers.  Leafing through the Blue Guide to Europe sustained the students through winter exams and a nasty damp winter and spring that invades all layers of clothing, leaving students shivering and miserable (evening temperatures that March reached as low as -1 degrees fahrenheit, or -18 celsius).  When April finally broke through with glorious, crisp spring weather, the plans were almost set.

Davison Dorm, 2012


Interestingly, one motivation for the trip is pretty much the opposite of what Americans now think about going to Europe.  As Maria put it, “The dollar was king y podíamos vivir más facilmente en Europa que en los Estados Unidos” (we could live more easily in Europe than in the United States), although she adds emphatically that “that wasn’t the main motive” for the trip.

Since Vassar shaped the trip, it’s time to pause and bit to look at Vassar, and even before:

1.  How Maria Teresa Juana de Arco de la Caridad de Zaldo y de la Guardia got to Vassar:

St George's School Havana

St. George’s School, Havana


When my mother was something like twelve-years old (?), she transferred from the Sacred Heart School (the source, I gather, of her excellent French) to St. George’s School.  This last school, was, if I recall correctly, run by two British expatriates who seem to have embodied every Cuban’s idea of what a British schoolmistress should look like.  I imagine them as stern-looking women of a certain age, somewhat pudgy (one tall and one short), but with excellent posture; they would be clad in wire-rimmed glasses and vaguely frumpy dresses (too warm for tweed in Cuba).  Their students were, I believe, mainly Cubans, which meant they would have to deal with the irrepressibly mischievous streak of students who come from a culture in which parents, after the third child, have pretty much allowed their children to run free, as long as they behave themselves at dinnertime when guests come to visit.  This is also the period of the earliest known (to me) instance of mother’s famous Latin temper.  According to Bilín–a friend of my mother’s to whom my mother may or may not be related (hence Rob Meyer’s reference to Cuba as a place of “glorified incest”), my mother, in a fit of rage, grabbed an inkwell and dashed it against the wall.  That she was not the only student who acted up at St. George’s  is attested to by the fact that she was not suspended from school for this incident. (This makes one wonder about the real origins of the song from the Sound of Music “How do you Solve a Problem like Maria?”, particularly given my mother’s own inclinations to become a nun.)  Bilín himself was no innocent, as he suggested that he spent much of his study time trying to see if he could dip the braid of the student in front of him into his inkwell.

(How do boys occupy their time in the classroom now that there are no inkwells?  I like to think that they daydream that they are dipping girls’ braids in inkwells, but it’s more likely that they are planning their next moves on a computer game that involves killing as many enemies as possible with magical light sabers, golden arrows, and winged sandals.)

And this is how my mother got to Vassar, sort of.  The very proper teachers at St. George’s determined that, despite her Latin temper, my mother would make an excellent candidate for a Vassar education.  Much  evidence, charm, and British rhetoric were marshaled to persuade my grandfather Charlie Zaldo.  Charlie, at least, had gone to Harvard, so he took pride in an elite American education; he was just a bit reluctant to think of a woman sharing in this education.  It took even more evidence, charm, and probably marshaling of patriarchal privilege and authority on the part of Charlie to persuade my grandmother, given that almost all the young college-bound girls she knew from the correct families had either gone to university in Cuba or had gone to a Catholic, nun-run college in the States. Charlie prevailed and Vassar let Maria in on condition that she go to Ethel Walker school for a year, first, to get used to the college environment.

 it's in Latin

From Anne Cleveland and Jean Anderson’s cartoons about Vassar in her 1940’s collection, Vassar: A Second Glance. Sources for all the cartoons in this blog:


2. How Anisa got to Vassar

For Anisa and her family, the move to Vassar probably started with a question like, “if you’re an intellectual woman in a country without a strong tradition of educating women at the university level, and if you’re interested in Political Science, where would you want to go to college?”  At first, the answer was definitely not Vassar College.  Anisa, like Mahaut, had never even heard of Vassar. And Poughkeepsie probably sounded like something from a naughty Irish limerick.

Anisa got good advice on where to go to college but bad advice on how to get there.  The result was the kind of long, meandering, torturous experience of travel, bureaucracy, and British queues that could itself be the subject of a book.  So I’ll be detailing these incidents  in a separate post.

I’ll be adding, later, the details that Anisa and Mahaut gave me about their friendships at Vassar, but it is important to note how crucial Vassar seems to have been for this trip.  That my mother would eventually go to Europe is a given–growing up with a German governess (who, I was told, was fired after my grandfather heard my 7-year-old mother spouting fascistic slogans in German), then going to a school run by a French order of nuns, then to one run by British women.  By the time my mother was fifteen, she was already familiar with and fluent in three Western European languages.  That Anisa would also go to Europe is also a given, considering the international perspective of her family along with the many relatives and acquaintances she had in England and France.


3. How Mahaut got to Vassar:

Mahaut’s decision to go to Vassar came in a somewhat circuitous way, so this narrative will be somewhat circuitous. As Mahaut characterizes this, “Yes, all of this, in the end was because my mother worked with the French Resistance; her group worked with Americans out of Switzerland and so she got to know some Americans. So, when the International Conference of Women was being organized for 1946 in the Catskills, we went.”

(Translations throughout are mine. Let me know if you want me to add the French original to the blogs.)

Mahaut’s transatlantic experience might be termed an anti-cruise. Travel after the war was above all about moving of troops, diplomats, and human rights groups across the ocean. That priority, coupled with the relative paucity of ships available after the war (think Pearl Harbor and U-Boats), meant that travel was definitely not oriented to young female travelers from aristocratic backgrounds. Instead, when Mahaut “traveled on a boat that was organized for transporting troops, with eight people sharing rooms built for two. The weather was dreadful; we were sick as dogs.”

In fact, Mahaut was essentially hounded by cramped quarters and bad weather throughout her voyage through the Catskills, California, Chicago, and New York. On the plus side, this was probably good preparation for dorm life.

As Mahaut notes, the plan was for Mahaut to attend the International Assembly of Women with her mother, then go to an American college, while Madame de la Noue did a fundraising tour of the States. The conference, organized at the estate of Alice T. Mclean in October, 1946, was significant enough to inspire a commentary by Eleanor Roosevelt, who herself attended the Assembly: “I have been sent a little leaflet about the plan for the international assembly of women which is to be held in October at the home of Mrs. Alice T. McLean in South Kortright, New York. The leaders of women’s organizations in this and other countries throughout the world will come together to discuss four main topics:

(1) “What kind of political world are we living in?”
(2) “What kind of economic world are we living in?”
(3) “What kind of social order should we strive to achieve?”
(4) “How can we apply the ideas exchanged at this conference for the benefit of our communities, our nations and the world?”

This is an educational conference and it will last ten days. The subjects under discussion are so all-encompassing that one could go on discussing them day in and day out for many years to come. That, I think, is exactly what the sponsoring organizations hope will come about.”[i]


It was at the Assembly that Mahaut’s next few years were set, although Mahaut would not know that for a few months, for it was at the Assembly that she “met Dean Thompson from Vassar College. To me, Vassar meant nothing—I was definitely not interested and decided instead to travel with some Swiss friends who lived in California.”

However, fate, mother, and Dean Thompson intervened, so a detour to Dean Thompson seems to be called for. Dean C. Mildred Thompson appears to have been a formidable academic and activist woman with a strong streak of creativity, the “C.” being a fake initial that she added to her name. A Vassar graduate, Thompson was first hired by the History Department at Vassar in 1908, her particular historical interest lying in the Reconstruction era in the post Civil war South. She became the second ever Dean of Vassar College in 1923 and remained Dean through 1948. She was most known for being active in the women’s rights movements throughout her life, starting from 1911, when she marched in the second suffrage parade in New York City. After the war she wasthe only female representative invited to an education reconstruction committee Conference of Allied Ministers of Education in London. [ii] But, more significant for Mahaut, it was Dean Thompson who implemented the brief three-year (trimester) degree at Vassar during the World War Two period. Still in operation in 1946, Mahaut commented that “I wrote to my parents, ‘The Americans do things very quickly. Even their trimesters.” Between the trimesters and the academic specialization typical of high schools in France, Mahaut had graduated from Vassar by the end of Spring, 1948.

But this was in the future. In October 1946, the de la Noues were experiencing the typical parent-child tensions over how, when, where, and whether to go to college. There is little doubt who would win this one; after all, Madame de la Noue had secretly worked for the Resistance and evaded capture by Nazis, and she was working with the formidable Dean Thompson. Madame de la Noue went to see the French ambassador because he had a cousin who had been ambassador… in Washington. While conversing with the ambassador, she mentioned Dean Thompson’s invitation to Mahaut to go to Vassar. The ambassador’s response was “there is no better place for her to go than Vassar.”

So, Mahaut added, “I receive a telegram from my mother stating, ‘Get to Vassar by such and such a date.’ I still didn’t know where Vassar was, and I couldn’t take a plane. It was snowing like crazy, and my friends were afraid that the flight would get stranded in the mountains, so they immediately packed me into a train for Poughkeepsie.”

More bad weather and lodging for the soon-to-be bewildered, befuddled, and exhausted Mahaut. “So, I took the train, and it was an old train, which stopped all the time. We arrived late into Chicago for the connection that would take me to Vassar.” At first everything only got worse: “The weather outside was threatening; they had forgotten to add cars to the train, so there were two people per sleeper car bunk. I still didn’t know where Vassar was.”

But her timing was good. “The train was filled with students returning to their different universities,” students who were friendly and interested in the fact that she was French, headed for Vassar, and filled with questions: “Where is Vassar? How does one get from the train station to the college? Is the station far from the college? “

Finally, one of those nice, young, intrepid college men (I’m thinking blue blazer, varsity sweater, and slicked back hair) said, “Ok; listen, there are certainly Vassar students on this train; I’ll find one.” So he set out in search and came back with a certified Vassar student who, despite her lack of French, took care of Mahaut, telling her a bit about Vassar, grabbing a taxi for the two of them, and traipsing through the snow to find her dorm.

[i] Eleanor Roosevelt, My Day. August 31, 1946. 28 May, 2014. Web.

[ii] “C. Mildred Thompson.” Vassar Encyclopedia. 27 May 2014. Web.

 4.  Carmen and Vassar:

Carmen did not, of course, attend Vassar, but she did attend Poughkeepsie.  Even then Poughkeepsie was not a tourist destination (except for Vassar), but it was far more prosperous and bustling than it is now. When her husband died in 1948, she got a job in Childrens’ Hospital in Poughkeepsie and moved into the home of a “widow by the name of Mrs. Crocker”–certainly close enough to participate in the conversations about the trip to Europe.

5.  Vassar and the trip to Europe:

 Vassar seems to have shaped and consolidated the possibility for this trip in two ways.

First, of course, is the fact, that it provided for an intellectual, international community.  Again, I’m relying on memory here, not the transcripts of the tapes, so feel free to correct me on any of this.   Their close friendship with someone from France, which included an excursion that Anisa, Bedia, and Mahaut made to Jones Beach, could only have made it more likely that at least one of them would go on to visit Mahaut in France.  Photos of that trip are more blurred than Anisa’s memory of it.  They show four (I can’t remember who the fourth person is) slim attractive women looking happy and relaxed, and simply enjoying each other’s company.

A second inspiration for the trip is, I’m thinking,  the courses that were taught at Vassar.  If they are anything like the typical curriculum of competitive colleges of the period, they were heavily slanted towards Western Europe, with classes like the History of Western Civilization, Masterworks of Western Literature, and The History of Art through the Baroque period–a course which would focus on ancient Greek and Roman art, pause a bit at French, Italian, and British medieval art, then dwell lovingly and lingeringly on Italian Renaissance art for much of the rest of the semester. With classes like these, the next, almost inevitable, result of this education would be to visit Europe itself.

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This concept and these courses may seem “old hat”, even dated, to us now, but they were part of a radical rethinking of American colleges and universities that seems almost inevitably to have accompanied the postwar period. Vassar had essentially reinvented itself after the war by bringing in its first woman president, Sarah Gibson Blanning, a woman who doubled the number of male professors at Vassar, hence turning upside down a structure that had been dominated by male administrators and female professors. This shift was symbolic of other changes brought about by the war. Vassar added some new courses, including cryptography, a secret class taken by a few select students. [i] The G.I. bill bought male students to Vassar—something simply unthinkable before the war (although their degrees would be from SUNY, given that Vassar’s charter did not allow degrees granted to men).These young soldiers would help change the structure of traditional classes at Vassar. Professors contemplating how best to teach students who had not been drenched in prep school classes on European history and culture turned increasingly to the radical theories of “New Criticism,” which proclaimed that great literary works could be understood outside of their immediate historical and cultural contexts, given their timeless, universal nature, an idea that seems elitist now but was radically liberal in its espousal that any attentive student could read into a major literary work’s nuances, form, complexities.

What is also interesting here is one important ideal behind the emphasis on European culture and literature just at the moment when the destructive, and often self-destructive, trajectories of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century should have led to the larger question of how and why Europe should be a model for civilization and culture.  The persistence, in the United States, of a Eurocentric curriculum was shaped by European intellectuals exiled in the United States, exiles who had experienced the horrors of war through the bombing of their homes, death of relatives, imprisonment, or death threats.  These scholars looked back to early European writings, seeing in them a larger, transcendent and universal, idea and ideal of humanity that, they believed, readers could turn to to renew their hope in democratic, unified Europe and turn a new generation away from the seductions of fascism and totalitarian thought.

One of these scholars was Ernst Robert Curtius. Raised in Alsace–that strip of Europe claimed alternatively and violently by France and Germany.  Wounded in World War I, he spent much of his career in Nazi Germany at the University of Bonn, emphasizing a Humanist perspective that would counteract totalitarian thinking.  In his magisterial study, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, published in 1953 after years of research, Curtius links the crisis of European culture after World War I with a tendency for cultures to deplete themselves by turning to war; he adds that it is our tendency to forget  common patterns in European History that leads to a renewal of war and totalitarian thought in Europe and of what he calls “dullness and narrowness of consciousness, to which anti-social feelings of very kind contribute” (3).  Against this pattern of thought he calls for “a narrative” of common themes in European literature and history combined with “analytical methods” of thought (8,15) along with awareness of transcendent, universal, and humanistic themes in European literature and culture.

This larger idea of Europe was disseminated not just in ivy-covered campuses but also by travel writers, who, as Christopher Endy puts it, often stressed “a shared Western civilization” which “encouraged Americans to imagine themselves as part of an Atlantic Community” (31)

It is this idea of Europe as perhaps less of a geographic location and more of a larger ideal of human enterprise, thought, and unity, that, I think, our four travelers took with them to Europe.  Without traveling into the past or traveling to Greece, these travelers nonetheless encountered Socrates in pot-hole strewn roads, the Venus de Milo in musty restaurants (and in the Louvre), and Dante in hotels with creaky beds.

[i]“A Look Back: For School, For Country.” Vassar: The Alumni Quarterly. Winter 2011 Volume 107 Issue 1. Web. 5-27-2014.











Runaway Romances with Europe?

I’m reading a book called Runaway Romances: Hollywood’s Postwar Tour of Europe, a book about the popularity of Hollywood films in the 50’s and early 60’s which revolve around young women traveling to Europe; these movies include Roman Holiday, September Affair, Indiscretion of an American Wife, Summertime, and Interlude.

The author of Runaway Romances, Robert Shandley, has made a list of traits that are typical in these movies, so I was curious to see to what extent our four travelers fit into this fictional model.  Here’s what I’ve come up with, based on Shandley’s list. 

Shandley’s points are in bold.  And in my responses to Shandley, I’ve moved from  his term “Americans,” to the more all-encompassing “travelers.”

1.  The Credit Sequence: A nondiegetic travelogue alerts the viewers that the film is set in contemporary times in Europe.

I wonder what the travelers saw from the boat or airplane as they were arriving—what their first visual impressions of Europe were.  Note: If any of you has details on this, let me know.


2.  The Arrival Scene: The main character, usually an American, frequently female, is seen arriving in the European city.

What our four travelers seem to remember is not so much the arrival per se, as the encounter of all of them at the Rembrandt Hotel in London.  Note to self:  must find out what I can about this hotel.


3. The Travelogue: The film uses her arrival to offer another travel sequence, this time more diegetically bound, as the traveler makes her way to her lodgings….  The travelogue highlights the sorts of monuments and landscapes one would see in a travel guide.

Again, all I heard about is arriving at the Rembrandt Hotel.  My guess is that the trip from the boat or train to the hotel did not pass significant landmarks, or that the travelers were too jet-lagged to notice.  The one comment I did get is that my mother found the English countryside disappointing.


4.  The Rationale: The film will need to offer the American’s presence in Europe….  A wish for self-discovery, reinvention, or renewal is explicitly mentioned.

Ok, so what struck me is the need to have a rationale to go to Europe.  Now a days, it seems that going to Europe is the automatic thing to do if you’ve gone to a decent college, although such ideas are changing–with a more global (non-Western) emphasis in the post-college trip.  In terms of our travelers, it seems that the European tour was also “the thing to do” if one went to Vassar.  I’m guessing that the Western culture oriented curriculum, along with the opening up of tourism after the war led to this; however, I find our four protagonists to be particularly plucky here–going to Europe when pretty much the majority of tourists were military men or business men.


5.  Local Rituals: The American partakes in some sort of local ritual, … that allows her to mix with the local people … and highlights her difference from home.

Again–must find out more about this.  I seem to hear mainly about food–about only being able to eat sausage and kartoffel in Austria and Germany.   Although I guess the fancy lunch at Madame de la Noue’s in Paris comes the closest to a local tradition.  But I think that, essentially, they didn’t need this experience per se, as they already had friends and contacts in Europe.


6.  Class Mobility: The American moves freely and sometimes obliviously among the old and fixed European families, mixing with aristocratic families and street urchins with equal ease.

I would give this a qualified “yes.”  Definitely true about the aristocracy, given tea with the Queen of Iraq and lunch with the de la Noues’; however, I did not hear anything about street urchins.


7.  The Locals: Regardless of socioeconomic status, the local population is deferent to the Americans.  The locals are often presented as children, regardless of their age.

Ok, so not true of our travelers in terms of thinking of the Europeans as childlike.  However, there were moments of deference.  Maria saw this more with the Germans and Austrian border officials and similar people, who had been brought low at the end of the war and so were a bit wary and shy about how tourists would respond to them.


8.  The Romantic Relationship:  A romantic relationship is quickly established between characters of the Old World and those of the New World.

Well, haven’t heard much about this, but it’s likely that some were created eventually, although not “quickly”.  I did hear that Carmen had at least one proposal of marriage during this trip, and that there was an “adventure” with her and another man in Europe after the trip (details remain vague), as there was, after the trip with Maria.  So, perhaps “toujours l’amour”.  And it is now time for me to confess that my first romantic kiss was in Anzere Switzerland from a very cute Swiss guy named Gilbert in 1972, when I was 16.  The de la Noues’ (my hosts) were not happy, since he was the son of their cleaning woman.  My mother sent me to Europe to learn to be more sophisticated and cultivated–maybe that worked, but I also came back with my first experiences with whiskey, cigarettes, and kisses experiences.


9. The Declaration of Difference:  The American character realizes, and often says or has said to her, that what is happening now could not have happened at home…  that the folks back home would not longer recognize her.  This moment may be celebratory, or alienating, or both in turn.

Well, I would definitely like to know if our travelers had this experience!


10.  The Decision: The American is forced to choose between romantic relationships or not, or to choose between lovers.  The decision is almost always framed, at least in part, as a decision between returning home or staying in Europe, or between American values and European values.  The main character chooses the path associated with American.

Factoring out the romantic part, and, of course, the fact that three of them were not Americans, it’s interesting that these women essentially chose both or neither.  Carmen went back to Cuba, but kept returning to Europe, Maria Teresa stayed in Europe for a while to run a refugee camp, but eventually married an American; Anisa continued her education in America, but went back to Iraq; however, more recently she settled in London.  Only Joan–the only American–seems to have unequivocally chosen to return to the States.  It does make me think about my mother’s one articulated concern about my one-year trip to France in 1979-80 to study at the Institut Catholique de Paris—the concern that I might fall in love, marry, and end up living a continent away.  But no runaway romance for me that year–just some great friendships.


11. The Transformation: The American has been transformed by these events, almost invariably becoming stronger, wiser, and more independent.

 I’d love to hear about this as well.  What I can say is that these women were already pretty strong and independent before they went to Europe, and smart as well; whether that constitutes “wise,” I don’t know, and whether they became wiser in Europe, I don’t know as well.


12.  The Departure: The film almost always ends with a departure scene or a scene in which departure is decided upon.  The tour of the Old World will come to an end, and the American will return home.

Well, it’s true, but only sort of, of this group, given the spotty and liesurely way that they went back to their old homes.  Ironically, the only one who fits, at least for a while, is the least American (the Cubans at least lived 90 miles from the United States), Anisa, who left the trip first to get her Master’s in Political Science at Columbia University.  Then, Joan returned, while Carmen and Maria stayed on and one with clearly no immediate interest in returning to the American continent.

Overall: with a bit more romance, this would make a great movie!