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An American Hitches Through Europe in the 1950s

Tales from a daring, adventurous journey through Germany, Sweden, Denmark, France and across Europe in the 1950s.

[Editor's Note: This is chapter 23 of Teddy Milne's recently released book, "Thumbs Up!," describing her three years living, working, and traveling around Europe with almost no money in 1952-55. The book can be ordered by check or money order from Pittenbruach Press, PO Box 553, Hadley, MA 01035 USA for $16.95 plus $2.50 US shipping or $9.00 Global Priority Mail to other countries (Massachusetts residents please add 85 cents tax)]

Traveling light (I sent my rucksack to Copenhagen by bus), I left Paris about 2:30 and got a Porsche to Brussels. The driver went 160 km an hour sometimes. We hitchhikers certainly put our lives in these drivers' hands. On to the hostel at Amsterdam, and Pat was there. A very nice surprise.

Next day I was walking down the street in Amsterdam when I saw a guitar in a shop and impulsively bought it (I still have it). No wonder I never had any money! But I had been hanging around people with guitars for months now, learning a chord here, a tune there -- I really wanted my own guitar.

Going through Germany I got a ride with Helmut of the apelsaft factory. He gave me three bottles of it from his truck. He took me to Bremen hostel, but it was closed, and when I banged on the door the warden opened an upstairs window and told me to go away. Helmut had waited to see if I could get in, and I went back to his truck to look at his map. Next to us was a VW beetle with curtains in the windows, and suddenly it began to shake as if about to hatch. There was a muffled "Niet, niet," from inside, and then a man half-fell, half-jumped out the door, waking up from his nightmare in mid-jump. The sheet in which he was wrapped, ripped, and he goggled at us, hair going every which way, trying to hide behind the door. Helmut and I began to laugh uncontrollably.

Then I remembered the Mission where I had stayed once before, and Helmut drove me over there. They not only said I could stay, they wouldn't let me pay.

The Frau gave me breakfast and I started for the American consulate. I stopped to ask directions and the man, thinking I was German, said it was a "komische haus mit komische venstrer" (a comic house with comic windows). When I said I was American, he looked guilty and hopped across the street.

I spent the whole morning there, trying to find out about getting to Berlin. It didn't sound easy to get there, perhaps I'd have to fly. I gave up eventually and went on to Hamburg and on toward Denmark and the hostel at Kolding.

The man who gave me a ride to Copenhagen the next day also picked up a New Zealander, and he took us to his sister's house on the sea for a swim, followed by cherry brandy and cookies.

We got to the hostel at 5 and got in. Pat and her friend Simone came later on and there was no room, so they had to go on to Hellerup. I walked over to Pers' house and he again said I'd be very welcome to stay, so I happily agreed to. It was a lovely modern apartment in a large block of flats. I went back to the hostel for supper and to collect my things.

There was a New Zealander Bill at the hostel who had sailed from NZ to Boston on a sailboat, the Miru. Coincidentally there was a letter waiting there from Daniel, asking me to go over to southern Sweden and take a look at his boat where he had abandoned it -- if it was in good enough condition, I could sail it back to France and he'd pay me for the trip. Or I could just use it, or sell it for him. I asked Bill if he'd go with me to look the boat over, and we took the ferry to Malmö the next day.

The boat had been abandoned at Hällevik, and since it was Sunday and there was little traffic, it took a long time to get there. But we got a nice driver who took us right to the house where the boat was, went looking for the owner, who was not at home, and translated into Swedish a note to leave for him saying we'd been there.

We looked over the boat, and there was a lot of work to be done on it, possibly a lot of money, and even then Bill said it probably wouldn't be too sound. There was quite a large hole in it. Daniel hadn't mentioned that!

We went to nearby Sölvesborg to the hostel, but we couldn't find any place to change our Danish money into Swedish so we could buy some food. Finally, in desperation, we pooled our collection of foreign coins and found some that would work in a vending machine. Then a policeman whom we'd asked earlier about changing money came and told us to follow him. He had found a newspaper editor who would buy one of my dollars! By that time all the shops were shut, but there was a hot dog stand and at least we didn't go to bed hungry.

We were back in Copenhagen by mid afternoon the next day. It was too bad, it would have been lovely to have a boat to live on for a while. Pers showed me the room he was going to move into. It seemed awfully small and bare. He said to get an apartment in Denmark you have to be married, and we discussed for a while, jokingly, getting married so he could get an apartment. His parents had got a divorce so they wouldn't have to pay so many taxes! At least, so he said.

I slept on the couch, and in the morning when Pers went to work I practiced the guitar and played with Farouk, the cat. In the afternoon I went job hunting. When Pers got back from work, we went over to paint his new room.

Pers was going back to Paris briefly, but his mother didn't mind my staying on, which was a big help financially. I did get a job, working in a laundry for two weeks while the regulars were on vacation. The owner had come to the hostel looking for help, and a number of us signed up, an Italian, a German, two Danes and me. We had to wait furtively on a street corner and slip unobtrusively into an unmarked van, as it was illegal for us foreigners to work.

I was put to work pushing sheets through a big mangle to iron them. After a couple of days of that, I woke up one night on Pers' couch, trying to put my own sheet up the back of the couch!

We weren't to be paid until the two weeks were up -- I think the boss was afraid we would quit on him -- but the German boy asked for an advance and the boss agreed, so we all asked for one.

We kidded around a lot and had a pretty good time there, though it was hard work, hot and steamy most of the time. A couple of other guys came to work, a French boy and another Italian who only spoke Italian. He was a doctor, and very funny. I called him Pagliaccio.

One of the Danish girls, Lise, was flirting with Pagliaccio and didn't like me. One day the mangle started squeaking, and the oil can we usually oiled it with was plugged up. I cleaned it out with a match stick and began oiling the mangle, but Lise grabbed the can and pushed me aside. I think she had plugged it up herself, to make trouble. We almost came to blows.

Our very last day, the boss came to one of the Danes and me -- I think he considered us ringleaders -- and rather hesitantly asked for a favor. A cruise ship had docked and wanted 500 sheets laundered by tomorrow noon. Would we stay on, at higher pay, and work through the night to do the job?

I said no, I was too tired and had been looking forward to the end of the job. But the Dane said yes, and I didn't want him to be all alone, so I changed my mind and said yes, too. The Dane put his arm around me and said "You are a nice girl. I love you for that." The rest of the gang fell in behind us and we all stayed on. All for one and one for all!

It's true what they say about getting second wind. We got it, and it didn't seem all that bad to work all night. We did get a little silly! The boss had sent out for some food, and we breezed through that huge pile of sheets, getting done just in time.

When we lined up for our pay, the first in line got the entire amount -- the boss had forgotten to deduct the advance! I opened my mouth, but got kicked in the ankle from both sides before I could say anything. "Shut up," everyone hissed at me, so I did. I didn't want to spoil it for them. Besides, perhaps the boss looked at it as a deserved bonus. Except we had gotten unequal advances -- I wished I had asked for more!

I went back to the hostel to see some friends, and was told that there was someone looking for an English housemaid, both for house cleaning and for speaking English, so I went out to see the man.

He was in his 60s but had a gleam in his eye, and his apartment was a sight to behold. He explained that his relatives kept dying and leaving him their furniture, and it was piled up higgledy-piggledy all over the place. There were several rugs on the floor, stacked-up chairs, and several sets of dishes in the sink -- he obviously didn't bother washing up until he'd run out of clean plates. He also wasn't good at throwing things away -- there were calendars on the walls going back several years. He showed me yet another letter from a lawyer, and said he was afraid to open it for fear there was more furniture coming.

A funny man. He curtsies when he talks and keeps excusing himself for being nervous. I did the dishes and made the bed and then he started me cleaning the chandelier, as if that were the most pressing job! While I was up on the ladder, he patted my bottom. But I was much bigger than he was and figured I could handle him.

He had good ideas, though. He couldn't afford to go away on vacation, so he figured out where he would like to go and had one at home. He had recently had a "Russian vacation," going to a Russian restaurant, reading books by Russian authors, and taking a Russian ballet dancer out to dinner!

Now he was on his English vacation, and had maps of England out, was reading the Forsythe Saga, had made a couple of English recipes, and I was supposed to round it out. He was very disappointed that I was only American, and in fact had a pretty low opinion of us. He thought we were all gangsters, and checked my pockets before leaving, to see if I had taken the silver! How much of that was baloney, I'm not sure.

But in spite of his fear of Americans, he kept me on for several days, until I was utterly stymied by the mess and had no idea how to proceed, since he wouldn't throw anything out. The furniture tended to be large and heavy, and hard to move about, so aside from scrubbing the kitchen and tidying up his bedroom, there wasn't a lot I could do. We came to a mutual parting of the ways. But he was an interesting man. When I left he was starting on his Spanish vacation, picking up Spaniards all around Copenhagen and listening to Spanish language records.

I had a third job in Copenhagen -- translating a silent movie from Czechoslovakian into Danish, for the Danish Film Institute. The manager had come to the hostel looking for someone who spoke Czech, and I was the closest thing to it. I warned him I didn't speak much, but he said it was worth a try. He took me out to the film institute and showed me the film, but the only things I was able to translate were "Good evening" and "Come quickly, your mother is dying."

We compromised on "pay:" he said he'd show me and my friends some Charlie Chaplin movies, so I took some people from the hostel. It was nice of him to do something for me when I had been so useless.

I had gotten a letter from Bosse asking me to come to Stockholm. I knew it was no use, but decided to go anyway -- even knowing I couldn't afford it. Well, if I stopped doing things because I couldn't afford it, I might as well go home.

The Af Chapman was full, so I went up to the Södra Latin Skole for the night, and to Bosse's house in the morning.

His mother was there. Last time we hadn't been able to talk, but now she spoke more English and I spoke more Scandinavian (I tended to mix the languages up some) so we managed to converse. We phoned Bosse at work and he said he'd be home for lunch in an hour. "When he came in he kept looking at me as if he hoped he could love me, but I played it cool," was what I wrote in my journal. "I was relieved to see he wasn't so terribly good-looking."

We went out to Skansen with Bokke and two other girls, but it started to rain and we went back to Bosse's, where his mother had fixed up a bed for me. I met Ru, my former roommate at Pa Sogn, and also Jimmy the Dutch guy who had been Gerard's roommate there and whom I'd tried to find in Nürnberg.

Ru and I went to see Millesgarden, with sculptures by Milles, which was pleasant but didn't attract me as much as Frogner Park in Oslo. Ru was still with Alex, but she kept telling me all the awful things Alex said to her, and I was thinking that Alex wasn't good for her. But then when I saw them together I saw that she provoked him into it, and he was actually very kind and generous, at least in front of me.

There were five Russian ships in the harbor, and lots of Russian sailors on the streets. Alex and Ru took me on their motorcycle looking for Jimmy, and as we passed the sailors we'd yell "Zdrasstie" and they'd wave like mad. They gave a show with music and dancing down at Kungtresgård Park, and I think everyone in Stockholm was there.

We were also all on the "Amiral Ushakov" the next day when the ship was open to the public. It was beautiful weather for once. We had to check our cameras, darn, but everyone was very friendly and wanted to swap badges again. Those non- capitalists did a brisk business in red stars from their caps and kopeck coins, and even gave us Leningrad postcards in exchange for our addresses. Bosse was at work, but I met another Yank, a student at Harvard Law School, and we went through the ship together, looking at the neat bunk rooms, the officers' rooms with pictures on the desk, the swank officers mess, the sick bay operating room, the kitchen, where we had some rice. We found a cadet who spoke English and had a nice conversation with him. He showed us his scrapbook with photos of his family and girl friends. The officers stayed clear of the tourists and watched us with granite eyes from the upper decks.

When we left, almost everybody on the boats was wearing a red star. A man stood up and led a rousing Swedish cheer for the Russian navy, and they cheered for us, too.

I finally had a note from Jimmy arranging to meet me at the place he was working. He had grown a beard and looked good. He has decided to emigrate to Canada.

Later, when we had picked up Bosse, another Dutchman came by, talking too much, and said he had been "married in the Swedish way." Bosse said, "I, too." When I asked him about that later, he said he had been in love last winter and thought he was over it but he guessed now that he wasn't.

Oh well, it was time to go anyway. I left the next morning, hitchhiking out of beautiful Stockholm in the rain and arriving in Copenhagen after midnight. I went to Pers house, but didn't want to wake anyone, so I went up to the attic of their building, where there was an open verandah, and I slept quite comfort-ably.

I spent several days looking for another job, but the only thing available was a live-in babysitting job and I didn't think I could handle the children. I sat around practicing the guitar, mostly, and getting better at it. I also wrote an article on ramassage in Paris and took it to a newspaper, and got 30 kronor for it. I was very pleased with myself! A ride was being offered to Hamburg for 20 kronor, and I told him I'd go if I could pay only 10. At first he said no, he had found someone else, but I was down at the hostel when an announcement came over the loudspeaker -- it was the same guy, but his passengers hadn't turned up. So he took me around town for me to leave the bike I had borrowed from Pers, and pick up my stuff, and we were off. It was a French guy, Jean-Marie. We stopped in Odense to visit some friends of his, and stopped again in Hamburg for more friends, who invited both of us to stay overnight. It was a large house and an intelligent and cultured family. We had raspberry saft and champagne. Hamburg was on strike, so the hot water and street lights were all off. I was a little sorry to be the reason we all spoke English, because Jean-Marie doesn't speak it all that well. If I hadn't been there, they would have spoken French. I tried to bring French in now and then, but our hosts spoke better English and it always went back.

We stayed there an extra day, going sightseeing around Hamburg, having a boat trip around the harbor, seeing Blankensee, the Rieperbahn and the Michel, buying sausages at a carnival and ending up in a jazz club, the "Handtuch," which was decorated in black and white and a little alarming.

Next morning our hosts were going hunting in the right direction to put me on the road, and took me 40 kilometers toward Frankfort. Most of the rest of that overnight ride was on a very uncomfortable truck. I went over to Darmstadt and Wiesbaden looking for jobs with the US military, but as usual I couldn't be hired on the spot -- they said it would take 3 to 5 months for a security check. So I wrote a story about the bull fight in Casablanca to take over to the Stars and Stripes. I phoned the managing editor, Art Zumwald, and he said he was interested and would send a car to pick me up.

He wanted photos to go with it, and I didn't have them with me (I often left things in Paris to be picked up later). Then he said he'd buy an article on "fourth class" travel in Europe, so they gave me a typewriter and I sat down and rattled it off.

His secretary was June Mayer, whose husband and son had the same name as I did, Teddy Mayer, and she invited me home for supper, bed and breakfast. But first Red Grandy, a photographer, took me down to the autobahn to get a photo of me with my thumb out. They'll pay me $20 for the story. That was a fortune for me in those days!

June's youngest speaks only German. The oldest speaks both fluently, and the one in the middle is better with German than with English.

I phoned Laurie in Darmstadt and she invited me to stay with her at her hotel, so the Stars and Stripes driver took me over there. It was like being dropped into the USA, and so suddenly it was a little disconcerting. Bacon and eggs for breakfast? Wow.

There were two journalists in the hotel who had started a press agency, and they seemed quite happy to make out a press card for me. I thought it might help in my new career of freelance journalist, but it turned out that I seldom used the card. One reason was that the two journalists decided it would be a great story if they became spies, so they went to the Russians and also to the CIA, offering to be double agents. They very soon were in hot water, and I was afraid to be associated with them!

There was a nice Hungaria Keller next to Amerika Haus with lovely Slavic music, where we went for dinner.

I had gotten a letter from old family friends, the parents of a schoolmate of mine when we were 10. They were like second parents to me, and I called them Mother B and Uncle John. They said they were going to be in Strasbourg on August 20. Since I didn't know how long they planned to stay there, I thought if I wanted to see them I'd better be there on the 20th.

At the French border I met an Aussie named Peter, and he went with me to the consulate in Strasbourg to ask if they knew where my friends were, because I had no address for them. But while we were waiting for someone to talk to us, I looked out the window and there went Uncle John striding by!

I ran out and caught him and he was very surprised indeed! They had a room just around the corner, to which he took me (and also Peter, who had come up to us by then). Mother B opened the door and said "I'm not surprised!" She had just been looking at a map to see how far it was from Frankfort to Strasbourg. They would be in Strasbourg until January. But she was still on crutches from a broken foot.

We talked and talked and had supper and then talked some more, and then Peter and I left for the hostel. We saw two English boys with rucksacks who had decided it was too late for the hostel, but we said to come along, and the père aub let us all in no problem, at 11:30 p.m. Some were more agreeable than others.

I spent the next day with Mother B and Uncle John, visiting the Cathedral and walking around town. I was impressed with how attractive the city of Strasbourg is. I had only been through it in passing. I moved to a closer hostel, the Foyer des Etudiants Catholiques, where I was the only guest on the top floor save for a thread-bare countess, and my friends and I visited some museums and I saw their daughter's wedding photos -- there was a romantic story. Debbie had been engaged to someone else, when just before graduation a college classmate decided it was his last chance and asked her out. They had immediately "clicked" and after some soul searching she had broken off her engagement and married Dave.

Uncle John had another story to tell. In their trip across France they had stayed at one hotel in which a large fly had kept them awake. He had gone to the owner to request that said fly be removed, and had said, "Il y a un mouchoir dans la chambre." Since mouchoir means handkerchief, she had only looked puzzled. "Moustique?" he had ventured, but she shook her head. Then he made a buzzing sound and moved his hand around, ending on his cheek.

"Ah," she said, the light dawning at last. "Rasoir électrique!" I would come back again, but meantime there seemed to be more work advantages around Frankfort, so I went back. There was a letter from Jean-Marie, the driver who had taken me from Copenhagen to Hamburg. He had been returning to Paris and was almost home when a six-year-old boy had run into the road. Jean-Marie jammed on the brakes and swerved into a tree, but the kid was hit and killed. Jean-Marie was very broken up about it. I knew he wanted my sympathy, but I found it hard not to sympathize more with the kid and his poor parents. I knew how fast he normally drove. But I did write to him.


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