Moving On, Part 1

The Thomas family 1955 passport photo

Carol’s story

This is the first part of a memoir on living abroad and in the United States. It deals with my life from 1949 to 1960.

It all started in 1949 when I was seven and my brothers were five and two. My father had received a Fulbright fellowship to do research abroad, so my parents rented out the house, packed the five of us in their new Ford—which they had to sell in order to pay for our passage over—and drove to my grandparents’ farm in Upstate New York. In an attempt to shield her grandchildren from postwar deprivation, my grandmother begged my mother to leave us behind with her. At least the baby. I overheard and expected to find the Europeans, particularly Germans, so poor they were living in caves, cold and barefoot.

We sailed from New York in an ocean liner converted from a battleship, the first of our six transatlantic crossings we were to make as a family. It was luxury: white linen tablecloths and attentive waiters, seven-course meals, orchestras playing in the lounges, a library, card and shuffleboard tournaments. In those days Europe was further away than it is now, as evidenced for example by the fact that, months after the end of the World Series, my father still didn’t know who’d won.  The New York Times didn’t carry sports.

The Thomases with Madame and Roger Lepage

In 1949 the Duchy of Luxembourg had not yet become an international financial and corporate center. There was no expat community. Only two or three other Americans lived there, and I don’t think I ever met them. The city was a thriving metropolis with tourist attractions like the Roman ruins. For the first six months we were in the city, living and taking our meals a family-run hotel called the Hotel Lepage. Monsieur was a pot-bellied, good-humored man, an accomplished chef who took his work seriously. We children were told not to ask for ketchup for our French fries. Monsieur could barely tolerate putting salt shakers on the table because the cook was the one who knew how much salt the dish needed. The Lepages and my parents became lifelong friends.

I was put into second grade in the girl’s side of a large school which was probably public-supported, but with Catholic religion classes I was allowed to skip. My classmates were thinner than I was and wore cotton pinafores over their hand-knitted wool clothes. My chubby cheeks, curled hair and foreignness made me an instant hit. One of my friends told me later that when I was introduced to my classmates they’d whispered among themselves, “Ooh, let’s teach her Luxembourgish.” It was a time of great nationalistic feeling, but Luxembourgish was considered a dialect, not a language, and our classes were taught in German.

I got along well with my classmates. During recess we played marbles in the schoolyard. During class I was included in whatever cutting up was happening, and once I had to stand behind the roll-out blackboard. I made reasonable progress, though the math class was far more advanced than the arithmetic classes I’d had in the United States. I couldn’t handle the dip pens we were supposed to load with ink from the bottles on our desks. The two halves of the nib kept spreading apart, leaving big blotches on my copybook.

Within a short time I could speak German and Luxembourgish. We had French classes at school. In the evening I could practice with the Frenchman who came to the hotel regularly for his glass of wine. I was very proud when asked to translate from Luxembourgish for my mother and my language-professor father. Once I added that my mother was so stupid she couldn’t even speak Luxembourgish. She wanted to swat me.

During the daytime my brothers went to a crèche which the state had set up so the children’s parents could both work. My two-year old brother soon became the spoiled favorite. Mother said that once when she showed up early he was banging on the kitchen door demanding a treat. When the Duchess of Luxembourg came to visit, Ricky was the one selected to present her the bouquet of flowers.

After about six months, we moved from the big city to a small, picturesque farming village with gabled houses and piles of straw and manure in the yards in front of the houses. One side of our house was a stable for animals—so people and animals could keep each other warm—but now empty. My parents hired a local girl to clean. The laundry she boiled in a big pot in the back yard, lifting each piece from the pot with a stick and flinging it on the wooden table, where she scrubbed it with great vigor. Instead of attending a big city school where I had to do long sums and communicate in four languages, I went to a two-room village schoolhouse where I learned to knit and tried to draw straight lines without a ruler. At lunchtime it was my job to fetch a loaf of bread from the bakery, which meant getting past the nasty gander across the street without getting bitten.

My parents bought a black 1929 Chevrolet. Getting it started was a two-person job, with my father turning the crank in front and my mother pumping the gas, afraid that the engine would start up with a jolt and break my father’s arm. The car stood high off the road and would swerve a bit in high winds. Groups of kids used to spot us, then race us down the cobblestone streets on their bicycles. If we were going downhill, they would win. Sometimes when my dad asked directions, the traffic policeman would hop on the dashboard and take us there, just like in the movies. The car came along on the ferry when we went to Britain to look at poets’ cottages.

At a fair in Brussels we came across a horse ring, which my parents assumed was a pony ride for kids. There were no customers yet. Dad got me a ticket and put me on a horse. Arriving customers were all adults. When the starting gun was fired, all the horses started up galloping. I’d never been on a horse before and didn’t know to pull the reins back. I kept yelling “whao,” but the horse ignored me. As it ran toward the starting ramp, my dad leapt on the back of the horse behind me and pulled on the reins. Everyone applauded the American cowboy who’d saved the little girl in distress—just like in the movies.

Those were happy times, but with two incidents which made me think. Once when my brothers and I were out in the fields where the maid’s family was harvesting the hay, her grandfather asked me, “When are the Americans going to bomb Luxembourg?” As if I knew and were partly responsible. When I asked my mother about it she only said he was senile and didn’t realize the war was over. The other incident occurred when we took a trip on the Rhine and landed at a German town which had been badly bombed—this only happened once because my parents usually checked out the various destinations before they brought us along. Most of the buildings in this town had lost their second stories, and what remained was barely upright rubble. In one of the houses a radiator was flying aloft like a white flag from what had been the second floor, attached to a piece of pipe. The children were poorly dressed and barefoot. I had on a pair of black patent-leather dress-up shoes which were too scuffed up for party shoes, so I had to wear them for every day—I didn’t want to. The children spotted them, and they followed us, yelling and pointing at my wonderful shoes.

Eventually we had to go home. In the parlor of my grandparents’ house one of the relatives picked up my little brother, now three, set him on the piano and said, “Ricky, say something to us in Luxembourgish.” That little boy looked around the room at all these people who didn’t speak his language and then refused to speak for six months until he learned English. I translated for my mother, although I don’t know how often.

I was not happy back in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where the popular kids all came from families whose lives centered around the country club. The only thing I felt I had going for me was my trip to Europe, and none of them wanted to hear about it. I tried to make friends with the poor kids from outside of town—I was curious—but they dropped out of school after the third grade. My world was just too small. It had no sooner opened up for me than I was stuffed back into a small box and the lid closed. In third grade I flunked math. At night I worried about having spilled ink on the cover of my math book, which was orange and had a big three in the upper left-hand corner.

McCarthyism had taken hold of the country. Once my dad asked me what exactly my teacher said in class when we did the pledge of alliance. I said she didn’t comment on it, but the question told me my father held different views than he suspected my teachers did.

My life was uneventful. I was a somewhat above average student. I played violin in the youth orchestra at the university. At twelve, I was 5’3” and uncomfortably aware of being one of the tallest kids in school, but then in 1954 I moved on to junior high school, where there were enough tall boys that I was now a lot shorter comparatively. On the first day of school, three months after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court, the Fayetteville schools were quietly desegregated. Our homeroom teacher made a little speech about how the black grade-schoolers would no longer be attending their own school and the high school students wouldn’t have a long bus ride down to Fort Smith. It would mean less hardship for them, and the school district would save money. Socially, the races didn’t mix.

The following year my dad took a leave of absence in order to teach at Hamburg University. Hamburg was a revelation to me. Everything but a few blocks in the old city had been flattened by American bombs during the war. In the ten intervening years the city was rebuilt into a vast landscape of gleaming, five-story apartment blocks and other buildings—above five stories, the buildings had to have an elevator. In the middle of the city was a lake, with canals stretching out from it like spokes in a wheel. For me the best was public transportation: subway-elevated trains, streetcars, buses, ferries, taxis. I could pay a fare and spend hours riding around looking at a wonderful new world. I loved the city.

The W.O. Curshmanstrasse

I attended what I later learned was the perhaps the most demanding scientific school for girls in West Germany, the Wissenschaftliche Oberschule der Curschmannstraße für Mädchen. It was tough. We had fourteen subjects, nine of them academic classes which met five or six days a week and five non-academic subjects, like drawing and gymnastics, which met only once every two weeks. Some evenings my Dad translated my science lessons into English—orally. He read them once and I had to remember. I had a tutor for mathematics and Latin, so one foreign language learned through another foreign language which I now had to relearn.  I still remember the gist of the Latin rule for the use of the subjunctive.

Our homeroom teacher taught us Latin, biology and physics. Since the academic subjects were stretched out over several years, we lingered over the details, such as the skeletal differences among birds, cats and humans which accounted for the differences in the ways their bodies moved. We flew paper airplanes from the balcony of the auditorium to watch them glide in circles to the ground and drew detailed pictures of skeletons. It was not at all like my one year of biology the following year in the United States with the hasty memorizing of genus and species names for plants and animals, which I forgot directly after the test.

Before we’d left the United States, I’d been to a boys and girls party where there was a lot of smooching and groping going in the dark. At thirteen I was not ready for that. The dress I’d worn was dark blue with pink and white puffed sleeves and a bow at the neck, a party dress probably purchased for a youth orchestra concert. I felt so out of place that in Hamburg being in a girls’ school was an enormous relief. I could run around in baggy sweaters and grey wool pants and just be 13 or 14. I did have one date with a very cute boy in the neighborhood, but it was supervised and so formal it could have come directly from the pages of Henry James. The best time I had that year was camping on the grounds of a rural palace with a troop of German girl scouts.

In the early summer, my class spent two weeks in the island of Sylt in the North Sea. Our class consisted of maybe 25 to 30 girls, all Germans except for a British girl who’d lived in Germany a long time and two Americans from a corporate, decidedly affluent class. I got along with everyone. By this time I’d grown used to the sweeping generalizations my classmates made—Americans are good in drawing but bad in gymnastics. On Sylt we ate real German peasant food, including black bread that was nothing like the moist, foil-wrapped variety from our Hamburg delicatessen. This bread did not crumble deliciously in your mouth. It was dry and coarse and needed lots of soft toppings and liquids to get it down. My compatriots ate it the way they ate bread at home, munching out the center of each slice and leaving the crusts on their plates.

One afternoon the class was examining a ground cover and learning that it was made up of tiny evergreens which the wind had prevented from growing more than a few inches off the ground.  The other Americans weren’t there. The teacher said, “Tell me why they don’t eat all of their bread. Your classmates are upset at this waste of food.” I said, “In American some kids do that, but I was not raised that way.” One of my classmates said, “No, she’s exactly like us in every way—exactly like us.” The others agreed. Their approval felt like an embrace.

The three of us on an Austrian sailboat

So by the time I was fourteen I’d learned some lessons really well: the United States doesn’t have all the answers, in fact some things—like social programs, education and transportation—are done much better abroad; whether it’s fair or not or trivial or not, people will hold you accountable based on your country of origin, and you need to determine how you will react to that; coed schools are harder to adjust to; growing up feeling that you’re entitled to more than others because of your nationality or race or social class doesn’t mean you are entitled; and finally, it’s possible to be happy and to fit in outside your own country, in fact, being a foreigner makes the differences between you and others easier to explain.

I’d learned another lesson during my first two weeks at Curschmannstraße when the Latin teacher told me, wryly, that the German teacher was offended because I hadn’t greeted her on the streetcar that morning. A German student would have put one foot behind the other, bent her knees in a swift curtsey while saying, “Guten Morgen, Frau…” whatever-your-name-is.  To me this meant two things: first, if you live abroad other people are at least ten times more likely to recognize you, the foreigner, than you are them; second, if Germans don’t like what you’re doing they’ll tell you.

Back in the States, on the first day of school my brother Laurie had to wear his German leather pants to school–nothing else was clean–and thus started a school-wide rumor that a Swiss boy had showed up who spoke no English. I thought it was cute, but Laurie refused to wear the pants again.

My family had returned to a country which did things we did not believe in. In 1958 the state legislature passed its own version of McCarthyism, called Act 10, which required each state employees to sign a document listing the organizations she or he belonged to. The legislators said they were after communists, but in fact they were after those liberals at the university who supported organizations like the NAACP. My father fretted over what to do. His friends were moving up north. He had little money, a mortgage, a wife and three children. He signed. For years I felt he shouldn’t have. In the summer of 1958 I went to camp with girls from Little Rock who’d sat out a year of school because the governor of Arkansas had closed the city’s public schools rather than allow them to be desegregated.

1959 Senior Scout Roundup. I’m in the front row, second from the right.

My social life consisted of camping with Senior Girl Scouts, playing with the high school band–I’d given up the violin which I played fairly well for the tenor sax which I played very badly–and dates with a good-natured guy named Charlie. Charlie drove a 1956 Chevy, which he loved to talk about. That was fine with me. In the South those days, girls were not supposed to be know-at-alls, and I knew talking about cars was safe topic because I knew nothing about them. I still don’t. Not until college did I began to see that being well-adjusted to small-town high schools in the 1950s was no guarantee of future success.

My classes were so uninspiring that between August 1956 and August 1960 I read novels and slept until we returned to Europe.