Thursday, May 23, 2024

Trip Advised Her

Mom in the garden of Baghdad's Zia Hotel in 1957.
Just from her posture and facial expression, you can tell how hot it was for this girl from Maine!

Are you well-traveled?  

And by well-traveled, I'm thinking of people who do more than just travel a lot. 

Although I don't like to travel, I know most people do.  Some of them simply enjoy being able to brag about where they've been and what they've seen.  Others of them, however, truly consider the world to be their oyster, as the saying goes.  

These are people whose passports read like encyclopedias.  People for whom travel isn't a hobby, but a gateway to cultural exploration.  They seem to be at home no matter what country they're in.  They delight in the unassuming ways humanity, however diverse, tends to share common traits, like the happiness of a smile, or the satisfaction of a well-cooked meal. 

Like me, my mother is not well-traveled.  But she's traveled farther than I have.  Considering her sedentary, domestic lifestyle, one might be surprised to learn that Mom's past nevertheless includes one pretty incredible global trek.  It took place in the 1950's, long before international travel was as economically and logistically attainable as it is today.  And her destination was Baghdad, Iraq, of all places!  A city in a country that still remains resolutely removed from most touristy agendas.

She took an ocean liner over there, across the Atlantic and Mediterranean.  Their crossing was inordinately rough and many passengers became sick, but although it was her first and only trans-Atlantic voyage, Mom didn't.  They stopped in Barcelona, Spain, where Mom took a day trip into its mountainous countryside.  They also stayed in Beirut, Lebanon, for a couple of weeks.  She flew back via Frankfurt, Germany, and Paris, France.  She never went abroad again, except to Canada, and never even bothered to update her passport.  But as she recalls that adventurous spring and summer of 1957, she marvels at what she experienced as a poor country girl from coastal Maine.

After graduating from high school, Mom had gotten a job working as a nanny for the Howards*, a wealthy New York family with a country home on Blue Hill Bay.  That family's patriarch was an esteemed medical doctor who worked for the Rockefeller Foundation.  His job was to evaluate medical needs in emerging countries and help local governments establish best-practice protocols for their public health services.

You see, during the years following World War Two, America found itself as our planet's primary purveyor of beneficence.  Our country had not suffered the physical ravages of two successive wars in Europe or Asia, so we weren't spending our post-war economy literally rebuilding, either socially or physically.  And our industrial might had generated many philanthropists who wanted to extend economic advantages and humanitarian assistance around the globe.  For the Howard family, that meant living abroad for 20 years, in Brazil, Iran, Mexico, Iraq, Switzerland, and Colombia.

When they left Maine for the Middle East, the Howards had five children.  A sixth would come later.  Mom had been working almost a year for them, and was getting ready to go to college in the fall of 1957 when the Rockefeller Foundation intervened.  The Howards asked her to accompany them to Baghdad to maintain a semblance of continuity for the children, at least until Mom began her freshman collegiate term.  So she was abroad from March until August.

On the day they arrived in Baghdad, a fierce sand storm enveloped the city with insidious grit.  What a welcome, right?  She did the children's laundry every morning in a bathtub, hung the diapers (cloth, of course) and other clothing on the porch, and within half an hour, they were completely dry!  The Howards joined a British social club and an Iraqi country club so Mom could take the kids swimming often in their pools.  At one of the clubs, an employee discreetly approached Mom and quietly asked if she needed him to hire for her a nanny to help look after her children!  Mom wondered how old (or young) he must have thought she was to have five kids, with the eldest being 10 at the time.  

Until their family's rented house was ready, they stayed in Baghdad's legendary Zia Hotel.  The Zia was a grand old-world edifice with faded luxury and a verdant garden overlooking Iraq's prehistoric Tigris River.  In 1928, Agatha Christie stayed there and based one of her mystery novels in it, so that tells you something of the property's gravitas.  Mom thoroughly enjoyed her own stay at the Zia, and especially their kitchen's greengage plum compote, which is a stewed and sweetened Middle Eastern treat.

Aside from Iraq's heat and dust, the major readjustment Mom recalls was having to ignore the little lizards that would constantly be climbing the walls inside the Howard's rented house.  It was a fairly gracious abode, inside a walled compound, with a garden featuring trees, shrubs, and grass.  The Howards employed a cook, Sami, who was from India, and prepared mostly an American diet, including a delicious apple pie!  There was a cook's helper, a chauffeur, an older married houseboy named Hassan, and a dishwasher who Mom recalls didn't like using soap.  At least they didn't have to boil the water; it was safe to drink from the faucets.  Mrs. Howard shopped for fruits and vegetables at local bazaars, and Mom would wash, dry, and peel all of the fruit since, unlike vegetables, they would be eaten raw.

On the Fourth of July, the Howards were invited to Baghdad's American consulate for an Independence Day party.  Mom recalls seeing its American flag - the first one she'd seen since departing America in March - and almost bursting into tears.  She hadn't realized how much she missed something most of us take for granted.

As she prepared to enter college, Mom returned to America on a trip Dr. Howard had personally arranged and funded.  The airline was Lufthansa, and the first leg of her journey was from Baghdad to Frankfurt, where she was scheduled to stay overnight.  For that, she had to take a bus from the airport to the hotel, a ride for which clerks at Lufthansa tried to make her pay on the spot.  However, before she'd left Baghdad, Dr. Howard had made clear to Mom that she wouldn't have to pay for one single thing out of her own pocket.  And unlike Mom, he was wise to the ways of international travel, and he knew she was a prime target for scam artists.  So while Mom doesn't remember why Lufthansa said she had to pay, Dr. Howard's parting words rang in her ear, and she recited them to anybody who would listen:  "Dr. Howard said I didn't have to pay for anything."  

Even though nobody in Frankfurt had any clue who "Dr. Howard" was, or why he mattered!

And sure enough, Mom didn't end up paying anything extra.  Well, not in Frankfurt, anyway.  And actually, she did purchase something for which nobody had planned.  Although it was late summer, and she'd been born and raised in New England, Mom discovered she was literally freezing in Germany, after spending half the year in the Middle East!  The previous day, when she'd left Baghdad, it had been 120 degrees in the shade.  So before she went back to the airport the next morning, she found a shop with early opening hours, and purchased a tan, thick, wool cardigan sweater in an effort to warm up.  She remembers being so unnerved being on her own in a foreign country, she didn't dare cross any street to find a clothing store - she just walked around her hotel's block until she found one that was open!

Mom got to Paris just fine, but once again, Lufthansa clerks raised an obstacle.  They claimed she had to check something on her ticket, and even though there probably was a ticket office at the Paris airport, nobody told her that.  Instead, they instructed her that she had to leave the airport and go to a ticket office in the city.  Remember, Mom was hardly savvy about anything regarding international travel.  So she took a cab from the airport into Paris, and paid for it herself.  

What "Dr. Howard said" meant even less in Paris than it did in Frankfurt!

Mom's flight to the United States didn't leave until evening, so she had some free time.  And her unexpected detour placed her right in the middle of one of the world's most glamorous cities, which for anybody else would have been a wonderful diversion.  But not for Mom.  Anxious and probably reeling from some culture shock, she fell apart in the ticket office, confused over why she had to have her ticket checked, why she had to leave the airport, and not knowing how she'd find a city cab - with her limited high school French - to take her back to the airport. 

The Parisian clerk who processed Mom's ticket couldn't help but notice her distress.  She took pity on Mom and calmed her down.  Her shift was about to end, and she had an American boyfriend, a soldier posted in Paris as part of NATO (this was right before France began transitioning from that post-war military alliance).  He owned a car and the three of them could go back to the airport and take in some sights along the way. 

As you can imagine, Mom suddenly felt incredible relief!  And when she met the clerk's boyfriend, he was as accommodating and sympathetic to Mom's plight as his girlfriend was.  They went out and got something to eat, and the boyfriend indeed drove them around so Mom could see the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe.  Since by then it was dusk, and Mom was dazzled with all the city's glitter and lights, they probably took her by other tourist spots, but she was too overwhelmed to appreciate each one.

They got her back to the airport in plenty of time for Mom to make her flight.  The clerk even went into the terminal with her and made sure she encountered no other problems, accompanying Mom up until the final boarding gate.  While Mom was in college, the two of them became pen pals, as the clerk and her boyfriend eventually married, had children, and moved to the United States.  After that, they lost contact.

Years later, I was privileged to meet Dr. and Mrs. Howard in Maine.  They were both incredibly charming and still appreciative of Mom and how she'd contributed to their family.  Their remodeled and expanded farmhouse represented a miniature museum of their life abroad, filled with furniture and art collected from the various countries in which they'd lived.  As Mrs. Howard gave me a tour, I couldn't help but realize how much she seemed like a museum docent, pointing out various artifacts from their cross-cultural history.

The Howards obviously were more than just well-traveled.  Mrs. Howard was an accomplished artist and philanthropist in her own right who occasionally sent Mom postcard copies of paintings she'd created and donated for fundraisers across the world.  Most of their children ended up living abroad after they were grown, becoming a truly international family.  When Mrs. Howard passed away several years ago, her kids made sure Mom knew the funeral details.  Even they have fond memories of Mom, as she does of them.

Mom also remembers that Parisian clerk with considerable affection.  She and her boyfriend went above and beyond, graciously extending some global compassion to somebody whom other Lufthansa employees considered just another naive passenger.

Indeed, human kindness can literally go a long way, no matter our journey.

Nigerian Madonna, a watercolor by Mrs. Howard in 1987
benefiting UNICEF and a children's home in Nigeria


* Out of respect for the family, Mom asked that I not use their real name.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your feedback!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.