The other day I was looking for a website for my wife to practice her reading in Spanish. We found an amusing site which showed us how much travel has changed over the years. The site, called the Cortina method, dates back to the early 1880s!. I was reading the edition from the early 1950s.
The introductory lessons were about an American businessman traveling with his wife to South America. “Señor Miller” was on a buying trip in several countries including Venezuela, Colombia and Argentina.
My favorite lesson described an excursion to a department store to buy clothes for a formal dinner. He was searching for a suit, handkerchiefs and drawers and his wife was looking for a girdle, long gloves and a face veil.
I was fascinated by how they traveled. After flying from New York to Miami, they took a steamboat to Caracas, followed by an airplane from Venezuela to Bogotá, Colombia and then from Colombia to Buenos Aires, Argentina with stops en route in Lima, Peru and La Paz, Bolivia.
They brought many suitcases including ones specifically for their hats.
Their reservations had been made by their travel agencies which involved sending the requests by cable or teletype. A uniformed delivery person such as Western Union delivered their confirmations to their hotel.
While they were traveling, they sent home “picture post cards” to their children who remained in the United States. Can you remember those mail chutes that were always located next to the elevators in the large hotels?
These stories made me reminisce about the first time that I went to Europe in the late 60s while I was in college. By that time, jet travel had introduced an eager American middle class to many European countries previously visited only by the rich. Hordes of bargain travelers descended upon England, Ireland, France, Spain, Germany and Italy giving rise to the term “Ugly American.” Many Americans complained that the people they interacted with were unfriendly and they couldn’t find any American food!
When I was only 18, I spent the whole summer working in a paper mill in a small town in SW France where no one spoke English. My family at home sent me letters by way of an aerogram.
This was a piece of light paper which would be folded into the shape of an envelope. It was priced less than regular postage but you weren’t allowed to enclose anything. My grandmother would write to me every day. In the tiniest print written with a fountain pen, she would fill every square inch of the paper, sometimes even spilling onto the back of the envelope. In large cities, you could have your mail sent to the local American Express or Thomas Cook offices, but in smaller towns where I was staying, you would use the “Poste Restante” system where your letters were held until you arrived.
If I had ever had to make a telephone call, I would have had to make a reservation for a “cabine” in the local post office.
Not only was it expensive, but the quality of the transmission was usually poor. I remember these calls being a minimum of three minutes during which most people would be constantly asking “Can you hear me?” There were two rates, “station to station,” where you would speak to whoever answered, and “person to person,” the higher rate which was charged if you wanted to speak to a specific person.
Can you remember what it was like when you traveled across borders from one country to another? For many Americans, it was their first international experience. Obviously, in Europe going between countries was much more complicated both because of language differences and the individual national currencies. Before the Euro was introduced, you either had to use a money-changer on the street, in the train station or at the airport, or at a bank where you would be lucky to find someone with whom you could communicate. Back then, you would use traveler’s cheques (spelled the British way) or American dollars and the transaction was very formal with lots of written receipts stamped in a very official way.
Think about how things have changed in the 50 years! Men are usually not wearing formal hats or carrying handkerchiefs, 2and women aren’t wearing girdles and face veils. If we don’t receive an email, text or photo instantly, we complain about our cellphone company’s poor service. And imagine if we couldn’t use our credit cards for our purchases or find an ATM for immediate cash from our accounts back home.
I can still remember carrying a “Europe on $5 a day” book and being quite satisfied with what I was able to get for that amount.
My wife and I still enjoy seeking out the bargains while traveling but it is no longer necessary to bring the actual book along. By searching the internet, you can instantly find suggestions for places to visit or restaurants where you can eat the best food in your exact location.
In almost any travel destination, it is fun to think of how much easier we have it now. Google Maps can tell you exactly when the next public bus will arrive in many cities around the world.
If you get lost, you can ask Siri or Alexa to find you the best route back to your Airbnb. And you can say something in English into your phone and receive an instant spoken translation if you would have to communicate with an actual stranger.
What an amazing difference 70 years has made!