Contrasted Travelling by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

When our parents went to Europe fifty years ago, it was the event of a lifetime–a tour lovingly mapped out in advance with advice from travelled friends. Passports were procured, books read, wills made, and finally, prayers were offered up in church and solemn leave-taking performed. Once on the other side, descriptive letters were conscientiously written, and eagerly read by friends at home,–in spite of these epistles being on the thinnest of paper and with crossing carried to a fine art, for postage was high in the forties. Above all, a journal was kept.

Such a journal lies before me as I write. Four little volumes in worn morocco covers and faded “Italian” writing, more precious than all my other books combined, their sight recalls that lost time–my youth–when, as a reward, they were unlocked that I might look at the drawings, and the sweetest voice in the world would read to me from them! Happy, vanished days, that are so far away they seem to have been in another existence!

The first volume opens with the voyage across the Atlantic, made in an American clipper (a model unsurpassed the world over), which was accomplished in thirteen days, a feat rarely equalled now, by sail. Genial Captain Nye was in command. The same who later, when a steam propelled vessel was offered him, refused, as unworthy of a seaman, “to boil a kettle across the ocean.”

Life friendships were made in those little cabins, under the swinging lamp the travellers re-read last volumes so as to be prepared to appreciate everything on landing. Ireland, England and Scotland were visited with an enthusiasm born of Scott, the tedium of long coaching journeys being beguiled by the first “numbers” of “Pickwick,” over which the men of the party roared, but which the ladies did not care for, thinking it vulgar, and not to be compared to “Waverley,” “Thaddeus of Warsaw,” or “The Mysteries of Udolpho.”

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A circular letter to our diplomatic agents abroad was presented in each city, a rite invariably followed by an invitation to dine, for which occasions a black satin frock with a low body and a few simple ornaments, including (supreme elegance) a diamond cross, were carried in the trunks. In London a travelling carriage was bought and stocked, the indispensable courier engaged, half guide, half servant, who was expected to explore a city, or wait at table, as occasion required. Four days were passed between Havre and Paris, and the slow progress across Europe was accomplished, Murray in one hand and Byron in the other.

One page used particularly to attract my boyish attention. It was headed by a naive little drawing of the carriage at an Italian inn door, and described how, after the dangers and discomforts of an Alpine pass, they descended by sunny slopes into Lombardy. Oh! the rapture that breathes from those simple pages! The vintage scenes, the mid-day halt for luncheon eaten in the open air, the afternoon start, the front seat of the carriage heaped with purple grapes, used to fire my youthful imagination and now recalls Madame de Stael’s line on perfect happiness: “To be young! to be in love! to be in Italy!”

Do people enjoy Europe as much now? I doubt it! It has become too much a matter of course, a necessary part of the routine of life. Much of the bloom is brushed from foreign scenes by descriptive books and photographs, that St. Mark’s or Mt. Blanc has become as familiar to a child’s eye as the house he lives in, and in consequence the reality now instead of being a revelation is often a disappointment.

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In my youth, it was still an event to cross. I remember my first voyage on the old side-wheeled Scotia, and Captain Judkins in a wheeled chair, and a perpetual bad temper, being pushed about the deck; and our delight, when the inevitable female asking him (three days out) how far we were from land, got the answer “about a mile!”

“Indeed! How interesting! In which direction?”

“In that direction, madam,” shouted the captain, pointing downward as he turned his back to her.

If I remember, we were then thirteen days getting to Liverpool, and made the acquaintance on board of the people with whom we travelled during most of that winter. Imagine anyone now making an acquaintance on board a steamer! In those simple days people depended on the friendships made at summer hotels or boarding-houses for their visiting list. At present, when a girl comes out, her mother presents her to everybody she will be likely to know if she were to live a century. In the seventies, ladies cheerfully shared their state-rooms with women they did not know, and often became friends in consequence; but now, unless a certain deck-suite can be secured, with bath and sitting-room, on one or two particular “steamers,” the great lady is in despair. Yet our mothers were quite as refined as the present generation, only they took life simply, as they found it.

Children are now taken abroad so young, that before they have reached an age to appreciate what they see, Europe has become to them a twice-told tale. So true is this, that a receipt for making children good Americans is to bring them up abroad. Once they get back here it is hard to entice them away again.

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With each improvement in the speed of our steamers, something of the glamour of Europe vanishes. The crowds that yearly rush across see and appreciate less in a lifetime than our parents did in their one tour abroad. A good lady of my acquaintance was complaining recently how much Paris bored her.

“What can you do to pass the time?” she asked. I innocently answered that I knew nothing so entrancing as long mornings passed at the Louvre.

“Oh, yes, I do that too,” she replied, “but I like the ‘Bon Marche’ best!”

A trip abroad has become a purely social function to a large number of wealthy Americans, including “presentation” in London and a winter in Rome or Cairo. And just as a “smart” Englishman is sure to tell you that he has never visited the “Tower,” it has become good form to ignore the sight-seeing side of Europe; hundreds of New Yorkers never seeing anything of Paris beyond the Rue de la Paix and the Bois. They would as soon think of going to Cluny or St. Denis as of visiting the museum in our park!

Such people go to Fontainebleau because they are buying furniture, and they wish to see the best models. They go to Versailles on the coach and “do” the Palace during the half-hour before luncheon. Beyond that, enthusiasm rarely carries them. As soon as they have settled themselves at the Bristol or the Rhin begins the endless treadmill of leaving cards on all the people just seen at home, and whom they will meet again in a couple of months at Newport or Bar Harbor. This duty and the all-entrancing occupation of getting clothes fills up every spare hour. Indeed, clothes seem to pervade the air of Paris in May, the conversation rarely deviating from them. If you meet a lady you know looking ill, and ask the cause, it generally turns out to be “four hours a day standing to be fitted.” Incredible as it may seem, I have been told of one plain maiden lady, who makes a trip across, spring and autumn, with the sole object of getting her two yearly outfits.

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Remembering the hundreds of cultivated people whose dream in life (often unrealized from lack of means) has been to go abroad and visit the scenes their reading has made familiar, and knowing what such a trip would mean to them, and how it would be looked back upon during the rest of an obscure life, I felt it almost a duty to “suppress” a wealthy female (doubtless an American cousin of Lady Midas) when she informed me, the other day, that decidedly she would not go abroad this spring.

“It is not necessary. Worth has my measures!”

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