Quand j’étais en Europe!

In 1963 a voyage to Europe was considered far-reaching and chic. Granted the normal limit of the compass was London, Paris, Zürich and Rome. The allure of the Black Sea was yet unheard of. The Baltic Sea was only occasionally pronounced. Almost sixty years later it is not uncommon to hear of people venturing to the South Pacific, the South China Sea, the Gulf of Thailand, the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. In the time between these two polarities people in North America tuned into short but indulgent jaunts to the Caribbean, the Mayan Riviera, Costa Rica, Panama and South America.

Travel hadn’t always the inevitability it now occupies. For one thing it was a far more formal undertaking. I recall being in Sanremo on the Italian riviera in about 1964 having to dress in order to pass through the lobby of the hotel to the beach – where there were cabanas in which to undress to put on one’s seaside costume.

A year earlier we had traveled First Class in the SS Arcadia from Montréal to Le Havre, France. It was a seven-day voyage. Our family were the only ones traveling First Class apart from a middle-aged Irish priest whom my mother befriended and who regularly joined us in the evening at the trough. My sister and I shared a state room separate from our parents. After dinner we visited the First Class lounge overlooking the upper bow. Each evening the stewards felt compelled to make tiny sandwiches and sweets which they ornamented on a revolving stand and then delivered to the lounge. My mother tried in vain to discourage them from doing so because we hadn’t the appetite for it after our large meals of lobster and rich sauces but they persisted. I reckon the staff ended consuming the left-overs.

There is a quip, “There are two ways to travel, first class and with kids!” In 1967 my parents ended their 3-year tour with the Canadian embassy in Stockholm, Sweden by returning to Canada by aircraft. It was a government plane outfitted with lounges not seats. The previous summer we had been in Florence, Italy. My father chanced to meet a colleague of his. The gentleman asked whether we were free for lunch. We ended flying on the chap’s rugged military-style plane (canvass seats and parachute-like safety belts) to Cagliari, Sardegna. It was many years later in 2013 that we, my erstwhile physician and his lady rented a 5-bedroom villa atop a mountain overlooking Porto Rafael and nearby Isola Maddalena south of Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea.

The frequency and shortness of travel naturally propelled the decline of Ocean ventures. The liners were progressively converted to cruise ships before being scrapped.

After my parents or the Canadian government stopped paying the cost, my travel took an exponential nose dive. It would be years before I reinvigorated the longing. It was however an incremental advance starting with a week on Cape Cod surrounding Labour Day weekend when the urgency of my law practice settled for a while as families prepared their children for back to school. Traveling grew to similar holiday respites such as Christmas.

The brevity of travel while I was working corresponded commensurately with luxury ventures. We strategically chose fine hotels in which we made a point of lingering instead of going beyond the cavity for superfluous exploration on such short hauls. In New York City for example the stops were the Waldorf-Astoria, the Pierre, the Plaza and the Carlyle. In Toronto, the Royal York. In Montréal, le Reine Élizabeth (home of the famed Beaver Club), the Four Seasons and the Ritz-Carleton. In Key West, the Waldorf-Astoria. In Boca Raton, the “Pink” hotel or its luxury off-shoot the Boca Raton Beach Club.

The Beaver Club was a gentleman’s dining club founded in 1785 by the predominantly English-speaking men who had gained control of the fur trade of Montréal. According to the club’s rules, the object of their meeting was “to bring together, at stated periods during the winter season, a set of men highly respectable in society, who had passed their best days in a savage country and had encountered the difficulties and dangers incident to a pursuit of the fur trade of Canada. Only fragmentary records remain of their meetings, but from these it is clear that the Beaver Club was “an animated expression of the esprit de corps of the North West Company.”

Oddly the average price of these hotel rooms or suites remain about the same whether you’re in Canada, United States, Mexico, the Caribbean or Ethiopia (where for example the average annual income is $750 – about the same cost as a hotel room per night).

The exposure one endures for exotic travel goes beyond a mere case of diarrhea. The adventurous spirit which animates eating food from street vendors in Bangkok is not without its risk. Many of the exceedingly remote places are without roads, water or electricity. While it may be a prescription for expiation of one’s guilt as a Westerner I am not convinced of the utility or persuasion of the cause. Nor am I sold upon the true value of what many proclaim as the cheapness to vacation there. Tapping into the underlying seam is far too robust for these lavender fingertips and precious fingernails. As a consequence we limit our perambulations to North America – preferring seaside venues predominantly; which is to say the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. As long as I am able to drive an automobile I am anxious to remain within driving distance of wherever we choose to go.

The business of travel assumes a completely different stamp when translated to residency instead of vacation. The accommodation is no longer a suite or room but a condominium or house though even yet the transition is not total. At the Resort at Longboat Key Club for example we have stayed in a two-bedroom condominium which was undoubtedly part of what resorts are now calling residential hotels. This is normally for a stay of limited duration such as one or two weeks. When changing to longer periods the tact becomes one of comfort not speed.