Marcotte, Mabel F.: 1952 – 1958

As I write, the headlines in today’s NEW YORK TIMES are no different from those that have captured our attention for many months about the battles in Yugoslavia. Yet when I think of the Yugoslavia of 1957, my recollection is of two verbal disputes. One confrontation was with a border guard and the second with a trio of Communist officials in Niska Banja about obtaining lodging. Oh yes, there was also a tussle with bedbugs.

There was no conflict in my mind about wanting to teach overseas. I just needed a little shove. During my first two years of teaching third grade in North Plainfield, New Jersey, I eagerly corresponded with a friend who went to Japan. The following two years I taught in Clearwater, Florida and met another teacher who had taught in the Panama Canal Zone. She gave me the encouragement I needed to send in my application. Nine months later I was aboard an Army transport, the Darby, bound for Europe.

Cruise ship it wasn’t. Twelve of us in double decker bunks were scolded every day for laundering undies” in the sink and draping them in our cabin. Dependents had first crack at the laundry room and that was before Pampers. But who was complaining? We had delicious meals, German lessons, dances, and perfect weather. Our destination was Bremerhaven, Germany, with one stop at Casablanca, North Africa. At Casablanca, we anxiously awaited our half-day pass as we gazed down at the departing wives and children and many passionate reunions on the deck. Next stop, Germany, where I learned the night before disembarking that I’d be teaching in the Böblingen American School. Böblingen was a small town near Stuttgart and the Black Forest.

As we boarded the trains for our destinations, we were told our trunks would reach us in a few days. Someone had a great sense of humor. They didn’t arrive for several months. Whenever a trunk did arrive, we had an “Opening Event”. As the first lucky gal opened hers, a dead silence fell over the group, while her face flushed in embarrassment. The clothes, thrown in helter skelter, were filthy. Of course, she’d receive the wrong trunk. What a blow!

While waiting, we lived out of the two suitcases we had been allowed to carry and became acquainted with our surroundings. The Post, a Panzer Kaserne, located on a hill above pretty little Böblingen had been Rommel’s headquarters. How strange it was passing armed soldiers each morning as we walked onto the post, and in the classroom peering through barred schoolroom windows. Other differences we experienced were larger class sizes than back home and we also ate lunch with our students from mess trays filled with G.I meals. One thing I found difficult was a higher student turnover than I was accustomed to in the States. Some of the children found it difficult too. Supplies were requisitioned from an Army Sergeant. But the curriculum was familiar, and the children were American, so we adjusted quickly. Living with the other teachers in a two-story dorm helped. We made friends easily and enjoyed having German maid service for only $12.00 a month.

I adjusted more quickly than I had expected to the military scrip and Deutsche Marks. The latter were the size and the shape of American quarters and were approximately four to the dollar. Everything was so reasonable! What an added bonus we had in having our purchases shipped home free when we left Europe. I paid only $200 for a set of George Jensen silverware. Beautiful little wood carvings and Christmas ornaments cost next to nothing. I’m still using the German stainless silverware today after almost 40 years.

Life was exhilarating and full. We carried out our teaching duties, plus the many hours of extra work and meetings, to pile up compensatory time for trips on weekends and holidays. Some of the school activities involved field trips to the Stuttgart Zoo and a local airport. During my second year, our beautiful new gymnasium-auditorium was opened. We held a huge art fair and invited German teachers to visit. And we still had time to go to the Service Club!

We had a series of square dances every week for a while at the Service Club. We attended German classes, and in the second year, my autumn was spent practicing with two other teachers and GIs for the play ” My Three Angels.” We competed in the Stuttgart sub-area and won, but lost in SACOM (Southern Area Command). In addition, we went to parties at the Officers’ Club where we also had many of our meals.

But travel was my purpose for being in Europe, and travel I did – to 16 countries. The most memorable trips being to Greece via Yugoslavia, north to find Lapps and reindeer in the Scandinavian countries and six weeks in a cottage on the Mediterranean in Spain.

I was in Germany at the time of the Hungarian Uprising and I recall that my father was extremely worried about my travels in that area. However, we were young and unconcerned. I recall discussing the situation with one officer and wondering whether we teachers would be sent home in case of spreading hostilities. He surprised me by saying “No! Stay and work with the Red Cross”. I was silent. I didn’t want to admit that I lacked the courage to face the possible dangers of wartime circumstances. It was fascinating to meet some Hungarian refugees the following year at a fellow teacher’s apartment in the Frankfurt area. How happy they were to be fleeing.

We toured Denmark and Stockholm, continuing north to Jokkmokk after crossing the Arctic Circle, eager to find Lapps. Evidently, we didn’t go far enough north, for we only found one man in traditional dress outside a small frame house. However, we did surprise a herd of reindeer one afternoon and wildly pursued them trying to get pictures, while simultaneously being attacked by swarms of voracious black flies.

The Lapps weren’t our only search mission. In Spain we were looking for the three rings to which Columbus had tied his ships before his historic voyage. We had read about the rings in the travel book, A STRANGER IN SPAIN. We searched for an hour or more in sleepy old Palos, unwillingly assisted by a mob of Spanish children who descended like flies on our Opel. We never found the rings.

We took many such side trips from our charming Mediterranean cottage, visiting Gibraltar, Tangiers, North Africa, Granada and Ronda. Yet most days we were content in our beach-front summer home. Except for the ubiquitous flies (the cottage had no screens) and the fact that electricity was turned off from 2 to 8 P.M. many days for conservation, we felt we were in paradise. Rosita, our 40 year old maid (who looked 65), cleaned, ironed and entertained us with her chatter, charging us only 3 pesetas (6 cents) an hour.

There were fisherman living down the beach from our cottage. They cast nets once a day hauling in hundreds of tiny, slimy, wriggling sardines. Gypsies were another attraction. I had had such romantic notions about these Romany travelers until they came knocking at our door. The women appeared at our half-open Dutch door, usually with a baby in their arms, begging for bread and pesetas. We learned to run and grab everything off our clothes lines if we saw gypsies coming down the road.

A little old lady brought us our eggs and strawberries and a young bicyclist came laden with vegetables and fruits. We only had a 2-burner, low-power hot plate. When we entertained our French neighbors (who taught in North Africa) on July 4th, the garbanzo bean casserole was still so hard, even after cooking all day, it was a challenge to eat. The French couple politely chewed – and chewed – and no doubt suffered as we did during the night. We were neighbors for a month and often shared teaching experiences. We were shocked to learn that their students often brought hashish cakes in their lunch sacks.

Happily most of the meals we had in Europe were a delicious variety of European specialties. For someone who had been raised on meat and potatoes, the paellas, schnitzels, sauces, gaspachos, and pastries were an education in themselves. Yugoslavia had the worst food that I can remember. The Cold War was on, but because Yugoslavia, though Communist, was non-aligned (and a bit out of the Iron Curtain) we were allowed to travel there. Not only was the food bad, but the roads became worse and worse as we journeyed south to Greece. At one point, the road just petered out and we were driving in fields.

The night following our departure from Belgrade found us in Niska Banja trying to convince a three-man committee that we needed rooms. There was a spa for workers, but due to Christmas vacation, no staff was available. We experimented with fractured phrases of various languages, trying to explain who we were and why we were there. We dickered over the cost of the rooms and finally, after a couple tense, sweaty hours, were sent to the spa in spite of the lack of services. My roommate, Marilyn and I were lucky, Alice and Betty battled the bedbugs!

With beautiful, sunny Greece beckoning, we headed towards the border, only to enter a war of words with the Yugoslavian border guard. It was the law, he claimed, that we leave a great deal of our money inside Yugoslavia, to be collected on our way back. We talked and argued, but to no avail. We were so happy and relieved to get into Greece that night, we gave cigarettes to everyone in the first little restaurant we found.

When we arrived back at the border a week later, we got all our money back, but not without first being ordered to walk through a basin of disinfectant and then drive the VW through a larger basin so that neither women nor machine would bring any hoof and mouth disease into Yugoslavia.

How we dreaded that long drive back to Germany, so much so that we made a poor decision to drive through Belgrade. Taking turns all day and night at hourly intervals was exhausting. It was around midnight when I had a stint. About half way through my turn, I skidded on an icy patch on the curve of a hill. The VW hit a guard post, flipped over, sailing into a gully, the roof bouncing once on the ground and landing right side up. No one was hurt, but the car was badly damaged. We all stood there, shaken, wondering what we could do. After not seeing a car or truck all day or night, suddenly the two headlights of a truck brightened the darkness and lifted our hopes. The truck drivers pulled the car out of the ditch and delivered us to the Metropolis Hotel in Belgrade. They wouldn’t give us their names nor take any money. I’ve always felt they were guardian angels.

I’ve never encountered any more angels in my life, but we met so many warm, welcoming people who opened their hearts and homes to us. From a poor Spanish family operating their primitive rope-making operation, the Portuguese Senhor who took us shopping and sightseeing, to the Scandinavian minister who proudly showed us all of his pastoral robes, we were given a gift of touching memories. Four American lady teachers were such a novelty in so many of the remote spots we visited that they almost made us believe we were special.

I’ve never been back to Europe, but I’ve read the novelty has worn off. A catch phrase in my time there was that “We’re on the Gravy Train.” Food, lodging, cars, china and antiques were unbelievable bargains. But the best bargain was the experience itself. A bargain that can never be lost or depreciated as long as I have the vivid memories and slides of my students, friends and travels.

I still remember the last names of some of my pupils, now in middle-age. What effect did the years in Germany have on their lives? They were an interesting, individualistic group of children, remarkably adaptable and some of them amazingly mature for their ages. I hope their European memories are as happy and lasting as mine.

Copyright 2004 American Overseas Schools Historical Society

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