Sunday, September 19, 2010

19 September 1939, Paris

Dear Frank [Sadler]:

Only a few blue lights are burning in the Gare de Lyon. The windows of the station are painted black. Stacks of sandbags are piled around key pillars in the big building. About fifty feet from the baggage wagon on which I am sitting, a group of nuns are ladling soup for refugees from the outlying districts. Why women and children should be brought into Paris is more than I can guess. There must be a hundred guards in the stations. Stretched out beside our luggage on the platform below me, Rosa is catching up on lost sleep.

This is our fourth day out of Bucharest. Ordinarily the trip to Rotterdam would take about 48 hours, but that would mean a trip through Germany. When we succeeded in getting tickets on the Holland-America line from Rotterdam to New York, we thought it might be possible to go by way of Berlin, but the consul at Bucharest wouldn’t even consider issuing a visa. Consequently we have had to make a detour half way around Europe: through Jugoslavia, Italy and France. By now we agree with Sherman about war. 

Rosa with the bagged up boat, May 1939
When we left England Rosa and I were travelling with exceptionally little baggage. We had our portable typewriter, a duffle bag and a small grip. By the time we were ready to leave Roumania, the situation was different. In the first place there was our boat, the Romur. It was in two big bags, one of which resembled a fat laundry sack and the other an overgrown golf bag. Then we had a cheap but enormous suitcase loaded with souvenirs, camping odds and ends we couldn’t bear to throw away, books, newspapers, napkins, a sun hat, a broken flashlight, and a Roumanian nightgown. Or course we still had the little grip, the duffle bag and the typewriter. The crowning touch, however, was the pottery with the blanket wrapped around it. While we were in Rucar, we saw the peasants making enormous wool blankets. They sheared the sheep, carded the wool, made the thread, wove the blankets, dyed them and combed them. We bought one. In Bucharest we found a little shop where we could buy peasant pottery for ridiculously low prices—so we bought a complete tea set. With the blanket tied around the ceramics for protections, Rosa has coddled that tea set halfway across Europe now. 

Adding to our baggage woes have been our travelling companions. Although half-back Paul, our fellow American, is travelling light, our Australian friend and his wife have fifteen suitcases between them. He has all the goods he accumulated in three years away from home while she, a refugee from Germany, has everything she ever owned. 

We left Bucharest on the fifteenth at 11 a.m. It took two taxis, crammed unbelievably full, to get us and our baggage to the station. European third class couches are divided into compartments designed to seat eight or sixteen. We piled into one for eight, managed to arrange our baggage so that we could find seats afterwards, and then locked the door. We refused to open it until the train was well under way.

Everything went smoothly until about one o’clock the next morning. By that time we were in the middle of Jugoslavia. Then the train stopped at a squalid little station and we were told we had to change trains. Paul opened a window while Howard and I dashed out to the platform. Then he passed the bags out to us. The porters came to help, were refused because we had no extra money for tips, and stayed to admire. It was like one of the old fashioned comedies in which fifteen men got out of an Austin. The poor porters almost dislocated their jaws their mouths fell open so far as bag after bag poured from the window. We had an hour and a half’s wait in a pouring rain before our train puffed into the station. It was impossible to find a compartment to ourselves this time, so after stowing the baggage as well as we could, and finding seats for the girls, Paul and I alternated at pacing the hall until the train pulled into Zagreb at eight in the morning. From then on we had the compartment to ourselves until we reached Trieste at about noon.

We had three hours in Trieste, so we went sightseeing. Down at the waterfront we scandalized the natives by going wading. In several places I tried to cash an American Express Check, but no bank was open during the lunch hours. When we returned to the station we had to fight for seats on the train to Venice, but managed, by wild flailing of the Romur’s paddles and accidental dropping of small bags onto other passengers’ heads, to get a compartment to ourselves.

In Venice we paused long enough to change trains and to catch a glimpse of garbage and gondolas by the Grand Canal. Rosa and Howard gave us a real scare by almost missing the train. There was an awkward wait in Milan—from 1 a.m. to 7 a.m. The benches in the waiting room were crowded so we slept on the floor. Rosa, Howard and I went to see the cathedral at 5 a.m. and almost missed the train.

At Torino there was an especially long way to shift baggage between trains, so we stole a porter’s wagon, loaded the luggage onto it, and started to move. Then the porter saw us. The repercussions were nearly international. All the porters and the station cops gathered around to stick out their chins like little Duces and their hands like any porters. After screaming like wounded eagles for ten minutes we finally settled for 5 lira, telling the porters to apply the rest to Italy’s war debt to us. 

No sooner did we cross the French border than that French secret service grabbed us. We were led into a little room in the station and a gaunt and Gallic man with an enormous nose began to question us. At first we thought our visas, acquired in Roumania after a two day fight with the U.S. and French consular officials, were no good, but it developed that the Intelligence Officer wanted to know if we had noticed anything about troop movements in Italy. We told him all that we knew and in return he waived customs examination for us. 

The trip from the border to Paris should take six hours. We were on the way for nearly two days! There were four changes of trains, four fights with porters, a mad scramble for forgotten baggage, and several interesting talks with a little Scotch lady who was doing refugee work in Poland when the war started.

Adding to our fun has been the fact that we ran out of money in Italy. Actually we are not broke for I have an American Express Check and Howard a Cook’s Traveller Cheque, but nobody is willing to cash them for us. With the last of our Italian money we brought fruit, bread and jam. The fruit and jam are all gone, but we still have a little bread. There is a penalty for mentioning food in our compartment. 

"The morning papers are full of the news of the Russian invasion of Poland. We heard of that for the first time from the French official at the Italian border. None of us can figure it out and we’ve decided to study surrealism rather than international politics. At least surrealism isn’t supposed to make much sense."
We pulled into Paris about five hours ago, and while the Australian and his wife slept, Rosa, Paul and I went for a walk around the darkened city. The streets are not completely dark. Every other light is painted blue and left burning. There are guards on all the bridges and near each important building. Surprisingly few of the buildings have sandbag protection and there are no balloon-barrage sausages floating around. We saw no anti-aircraft guns, but all of the windows in the stores are webbed with tapes, which is supposed to keep them from breaking in case of an explosion nearby.

The morning papers are full of the news of the Russian invasion of Poland. We heard of that for the first time from the French official at the Italian border. None of us can figure it out and we’ve decided to study surrealism rather than international politics. At least surrealism isn’t supposed to make much sense. The people we have talked to are angry and disappointed about the Russian defection, but they still feel that they can and must beat Hitler. The most common statement we have heard is: 

“It will take longer now.”

Our train is supposed to leave at 9 a.m. for Brussels. We hope it won’t be much longer now.

As ever,

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