A Child’s-Eye View of Europe (Part 1)

Daddy never let a single day of his thirty-day annual leave go to waste. He kept a running list of all the places he wanted to visit, planning and scheming to fit them into the allotted time slots and within budget. No matter where we lived, next to his chair in the living room reposed a stack of maps and guidebooks, torn paper bookmarks sticking out at all angles, and a black loose-leaf binder containing potential itineraries and scribbled notes, separated by country or region. With the operatic strains of his favorites —Carmen or Die Fledermaus or La Bohème—playing in the background, Daddy would puff on his pipe and spend hours happily mapping out our next adventure. That picture remains sharp in my mind.

I’d be fibbing if I claimed to have a clear, detailed recollection of each trip we took, or when we took them. I don’t. Daddy was an amateur photographer, though, and always traveled with several cameras. He never tired of taking pictures of the cathedrals, castles, and spectacular landscapes of Europe. Sometimes he even included family. Later, after he’d developed the negatives and made prints, he usually scribbled dates and places in pencil on the backs, so I have these to jog my memory.

First, of course, we explored Berlin: the Brandenburg Gate; the ruins of the Reichstag building that housed the German Parliament up until 1933, when it was torched by arsonists; and the Tiergarten, the formal central park of Berlin that had once been home to the world-famous Berlin Zoo, reduced to rubble in the war. Sometimes we ventured into Grunewald Forest, a vast natural preserve a few blocks west of our home on Im Dol Strasse, where broad paths circled a half dozen lakes, connected to each other by canals. A cemetery there held the bodies of Russian soldiers killed during the Battle of Berlin in the final days of World War II.

Daddy took this photo of Eleanor and me near the Russian Sector of Berlin toward the end of 1947. I think he probably found the signage fascinating—so many different languages—and the stark background a vivid reminder of the devastation of war, something to which we never quite grew accustomed.

One of our first road trips included Holland. I remember the windmills dotting the countryside and the huge dikes that kept the sea at bay. Eleanor and I had read the story of Hans Brinker, the boy who allegedly saved Holland by plugging a leak in a dike with his thumb. It was a fiction book written by an American author back in the 1800s, but the Dutch had adopted the legend and featured it in their guidebooks.

I don’t remember a single one of the Vermeers, Van Goghs, Rembrandts, and other Dutch Masters that filled the museums we visited.

The children looked very much like we did except for their colorful aprons and dresses, embroidered white bonnets, and hand-carved, painted wooden shoes. Though we couldn’t carry on a conversation, we did share sticks of chewing gum when these girls smiled friendly greetings, anxious to have their picture taken with an American.

On that same trip we visited Brussels, Belgium. The only memory I have is of the Manneken Pis, a two-foot-tall bronze statue of a little boy perched on a decorative concrete base, relieving himself into a shell-shaped pool below. I thought it a fascinating subject for a fountain! The guidebook said that among various legends, the most commonly accepted story was that the child, son of a 17th century nobleman, had gotten lost on the streets of Brussels. The frantic father had enlisted half the city’s population to search for him. When someone finally found him peeing in the gutter on this particular corner, naked as a jaybird, the father was so grateful that he had the fountain erected to commemorate his son’s safe return.

Over the years, the statue became the city’s most celebrated tourist attraction. The locals began dressing the little boy in costume to celebrate holidays. Eventually, his wardrobe consisted of more than 900 unique outfits, everything from Santa to Saint Patrick to the Devil to Saint Valentine. On certain holidays, they even hooked the fountain up to kegs of beer, and the Manneken Pis filled the paper cups of passing revelers. We didn’t get any beer, but Mommy and Daddy did buy a brass ashtray model of the little boy as a souvenir.

Another time, we took a whirlwind trip to the Scandinavian countries. In Oslo, Norway, what I remember best—indeed, the only thing I really remember—is the day we spent at the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History, a very old tourist attraction featuring ancient, hand-hewn wooden structures that had been dismantled and brought in from all over the country to illustrate how the Norwegian people had lived in past centuries.

Deeply carved door and window trim and fanciful scrolled roof supports decorated the buildings. The most elaborate and most photographed was a multi-tiered, Asian-inspired church, but my favorite was a granary dating from the 1300s that rose from the ground like a mushroom, each level extending out farther from the one below, dwarfing the thatched-roof family residence next door. I dreamed of living in a home just like that one, next door to its granary, elevated to protect the family’s vital harvest from rats! In my dream, frisky goats grazed on the grass that grew on the roof.

Kronborg Castle, Elsinore, Denmark

Next came Sweden. I know we spent several days in Stockholm, and we probably trekked through a few palaces and museums, but the only photograph I have is one of Eleanor and me standing by a pointy kiosk next to a rough brick wall. Daddy’s notation on the back says “Elsinore.” I speculate it was taken when we drove north to see Kronborg Castle in that city, the same castle that inspired the setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Our last destination was Copenhagen, Denmark.

We also knew the story of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, who on her fifteenth birthday was allowed to swim from her watery home on the ocean floor to the surface for a single day to glimpse the human world before returning to the deep. But Ariel became smitten with a young prince on the shore. So love-struck was the little mermaid that she negotiated with the evil sea witch Ursula, a rotten bargain that granted Ariel a human soul for three days but, in return, required her to give up her voice and any chance to tell the prince of her feelings.

Daddy had promised we would visit the life-size statue of The Little Mermaid pictured in the guidebook. He wasted no time keeping that promise and also snapped our picture so we’d always remember.

While we loved Ariel, my most vivid memory, by far, of the entire Scandinavian trip was visiting Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens, built in the mid-1800s, at that time the second-oldest operating amusement park in the world. Daddy’s schedule called for us having breakfast there, at a traditional Danish buffet touted by the guidebook, and enough time for each of us to choose one ride. After all, there were castles and museums and cathedrals to explore, and Daddy wasn’t about to waste a whole day at an amusement park! I remember that breakfast: fresh fruit, rich pastries stuffed with custard and whipped cream, hardboiled eggs, scrambled eggs, and several varieties of little fish, fried crisp like bacon. I loaded my plate. I’d never tasted sardines before. They were so delicious that I went back for seconds.

After our meal, it was time for our one ride. I don’t remember what Eleanor chose, but I wanted to go on the Ferris wheel, a fairly recent addition built in 1943, right in the middle of World War II. Daddy paid for my ticket, and when I reached the head of the line, I was assigned a partner in the two-man gondola, a blond teenage boy who nodded and smiled but didn’t speak a word of English. The attendant strapped us in, I clutched the bar with both hands, and we began the slow climb to the top. I released the bar momentarily, just long enough to wave at my family far below.

You may recall from past stories that I sometimes got carsick. Well, the Ferris wheel proved worse than any car. As soon as it picked up speed, I began to feel queasy. By the third revolution, my mouth filled with saliva and I knew what was coming. I let go of the bar and clapped both hands over my mouth, but it was no use. I threw up on my skirt and gondola partner and sprayed globs of partially digested custard, scrambled eggs, and bits of smelly sardine over the bar in front! The boy wiped his arm on his trousers, grimacing in disgust. People below first looked skyward, then hollered and threw up their arms to shield their faces. I was so mortified that I shut my eyes tight and began to cry.

The rest of the ride was a nightmare—round and round and round for what seemed an eternity, until finally we slowed and eased back onto the starting platform. Only then did I open my eyes, but I kept my head down. Didn’t look at the boy even once. The moment the attendant unfastened my seatbelt, I jumped out and raced over to where Mommy, Daddy, and Eleanor were waiting. We beat a hasty retreat back to our hotel so I could brush my teeth and change out of my red plaid skirt.

Needless to say, I remember nothing of the museums and cathedrals of Copenhagen.