In a fine drizzle at dawn, after two weeks at sea, the Ryndam slowed and the French coast emerged, a sprawl of warehouses and docks at LeHavre. We stood along the rail staring down at French stevedores, dressed in dark pants and jackets, caps jauntily on their heads, staring back.
The gangplank lowered from mid decks. First class passengers first, then steerage. We carried our bags through an army of porters, stumbling as our sea legs adjusted to a stable surface after the roll of the North Atlantic. Beyond the sheds and across the tracks, we followed other passengers and boarded the boat train to Paris.
Sitting in a small 2nd class compartment, Doug and I looked at each other. We had been swallowed up by Europe in a way that no one can be swallowed up in 2015, in the age of the Internet. We were completely out of touch with American culture. There were no transistor radios and Walkmans carrying American tunes, no old syndicated American television programs and advertising campaigns, no outposts of American fast food. We sent out and received letters from home at American Express offices in major cities, but it took weeks for an exchange to make take place. Our only other contact with America was the staid, very European, International Edition of the Herald Tribune.
The train rattled toward Paris. I found myself relaxing, as if I were on familiar psychological territory, on a train full of people who looked even more “beat” than I felt. All of Europe was “Beat” after the war, its horrors only a decade old. Humanity’s dark side was still vivid. Europe was poor. Beggars were everywhere. Europeans were in touch with the most basic forces of survival … food, warmth, love, and curiosity. We discovered a keen pessimism about grand designs.
Doug’s sister worked for the American military near Frankfurt, and we bought a Morris Minor car at a very cheap price in the middle of winter, from an American GI on his way home. We kept the US Army license plates that allowed us to buy gasoline at army bases then spread all over Europe at a fraction of the going European price.
We followed a used, Guide Blue, reprinted just after the war. It faithfully recorded every church and village that had existed at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Then it noted, in precise detail, the church or village’s demise. “Destroyed April 17, 1917” or 1918 or 1942 or 1945. The destruction was stunning. In two wars Europe had been beaten to a pulp. In Cologne, Germany, the great city on the Rhine River, its cathedral rose above rubble, its main street like an American Western town with false fronts hiding Quonset huts. Noon break at factories in Germany brought out women and girls eating thick slices of dark bread spread with thick layers of lard. There were no men.
Americans soldiers were treated like royalty. They had power. Their soldier’s pay and cheap goods at the PX’s gave them an edge to get girls and special perks. What a contrast to the reality thirty years later when I did a television show for ABC News on The All Volunteer Army: A Shocking State of Readiness. By then GI’s were poor compared to most Germans, and tolerated contemptuously rather than lionized. Young American soldiers lined up in front of whorehouses outside of military bases on payday, instead of selecting their dates from the eager German girls I’d seen in 1955 when chocolate bars and nylon stockings were still currency.
We headed out of Germany into the Austrian Alps for skiing. In the villages near the ski slopes local residents posted signs offering room and board at extremely cheap prices. We stayed with Austrian families who assured us that they were not German. We did not point out that Hitler was Austrian. The skiing was spectacular, long runs on beautiful mountains, deep powder, empty hills. At night we went to village bars where the local men arrived at 9:00 pm sharp, drink huge steins of beer, voices rising, maybe a song or two, and at 10:00 pm drifted away.