I want to learn from women who traveled before my millenial generation took the social media world by storm. Women traveled before people announced their engagements on facebook statuses and used selfie sticks to prove where they’ve been. What were their fears? How did they discover the world and themselves?
Here is fellow Wellesley Alum Susie Billings‘ story.
1. Where are you and your family from originally? Where have they been and why?
My dad only ever “lived abroad” when he was stationed in England during WWII. He never got his three day pass to London, as his plane was shot down, and then he was a prisoner of war in Germany. He passed through the Paris rail yards on his return home. When I was 11, we made a trip to London and later to Paris as he wanted to see the places he didn’t get to see. They took me when I was young, as I traveled on a child’s fare on the airplane, and they hoped I would be old enough to remember.
My dad’s family traces its history to the Mayflower and I qualify through his side to be a “daughter of the American Revolution”. My mum was 5th generation Australian – originally from Britain but post convict era. My mum had a major tragedy just before she was 17- her father was murdered and the guy tried to get my mum and her mum too, but was unsuccessful.
I believe this was her major impetus to “get away”.
When she was 20, she had moved to the opposite side of the country, to West Australia (she is from Melbourne), but she came home to celebrate her 21st birthday. A couple years later she and a friend (who is now my mother in law) went to work in New Zealand. A few years after that she moved to London and worked there to find travels around Europe. I know a few of her friends did similar things. It was very common for Australians to travel to the UK and then travel around Europe before returning home to marry and have families. All Australians travelled on British passports until 1967, I think.
2. Did Wellesley College influence you to travel at all? What was it like going there for you?
Wellesley didn’t influence me to travel as I already had the travel bug. I had grown up in California so the climate of Boston was a big shock, needed a new wardrobe and did call come pretty regularly but really wanted to get away from where I grew up. I had always said I appreciated where I grew up, but it wasn’t somewhere I wanted to live.
3. What did your loved ones think about your mom traveling? What did they think about you traveling?
I know my mum’s sister moved around Australia due to her husband’s job and my mum was overseas so I know my mum’s mum was sad she was away. I think it was understood that she wasn’t settled anywhere – she didn’t meet my dad or get married until she was 33. She had me at 36.
My parents always encouraged me to travel and they were able to help fund it when I was younger. However, none of my friends traveled, and we were considered very unusual. In fact, we often didn’t say much about our travels as there was some jealously about us traveling. On the other hand, other people had fancy cars and bought bigger houses, fancy TVs, and sound systems. We had second hand cars and stayed in the same subdivision house as our funds went towards travel.
4. What was it like staying in touch with loved ones thousands of miles away?
Calls home to my mum’s family when I was a kid were for three minutes at Christmas. The line used to beep so you knew your three minutes were up. Otherwise, we called only for emergencies or major news. Sometimes cassettes would be recorded and sent in the post.
We would get a half hour news reel of what is going on in our loved ones’ lives.
We sent the annual Christmas letter to everyone “back home” so they would know what was going on in our lives. We filled every square inch of airletters – really fine paper that folded over so there was no envelope to make the airmail postage as inexpensive as possible. And we always did gifts and Christmas letters early so they could do the international portion by sea mail. That way, it was much, much cheaper!
My now husband and I have a stack of letters we wrote to each other over 18 months of our long distance relationship. We sometimes wrote four page letters as we knew it would be several weeks between exchanges of letters.
I recently ran across a letter from my mum’s mum to my mum berating her for not keeping up her correspondence!
5. Some people say that people traveled as much back then as they do now. We just make a bigger deal about it now with social media. How do you think social media has framed how we view travel today?
I don’t think people travelled as much at all. We would save for years and years to travel to Australia for special occasions. Dad would bank his holiday time and we would have to travel with lots and lots of stopovers. We lived in the Sacramento area and we would have to fly first to LA, then to Hawaii, then to Fiji, then to Sydney, and then to Melbourne. It was very time consuming and costly.
Today you can fly non- stop from San Francisco to Sydney in under 14 hours – the same journey used to take closer to 24. Also, with the advent of much more competition with international flights, frequent flyer programmes, and budget airlines, relative prices are so much cheaper.
In fact, overseas travel was so uncommon that people would hold slide nights at their homes to share their experiences with their friends!
There weren’t web sites to google- only some picture books at a store or library. I have an ongoing project of going through both my parents and grandparents slides. They are labeled in cartridges and I remember pulling down slide projection screens mounted in some people’s homes.
6. Do you remember your first flight? How did you feel?
I don’t remember my first flight, as I was two. My mum took me to Australia for the first time to meet her family. To save money, my dad didn’t come. My mum was so proud I was “potty trained,” but then when I had to use the airplane bathroom (which makes a VERY loud sucking sound when you flush), apparently all that training went out the window- much to her dismay.
7. Traveling has become pretty normal for you. I’m the first in my immigrant Mexican family to move and live abroad by choice and not necessity. Did you face pushback for leaving home?
Not from my family, since my mother had already done it herself. But, I still have family friends in California asking when will I move back home, even though I left in 1986!
8. How and why were you able to travel so much?
Initially support from family until I was 20 – for family trips and a religious camp and school trips, then I prioritised savings and lived fairly minimally so could continue to travel. Also, worked for an international company so I took advantage of lots of business travel. Other than my initial self-funded move to Australia after graduation, the rest of the moves have been on a company’s dime. I have stayed in a lot of youth hostels – even now in my late 40’s, I have been known to stay in a hostel from time to time and have a favorite one star hotel in Paris that we have stayed in when we took the Eurostar from London. I believe more in traveling for the experience, than for the luxury. I’ve also developed a broad network of people who host us.
9. Where are you now? What’s next?
I am kind of in two places at the moment. I have lived with my husband and two kids in Qatar for over 8 years. He has a great job and they are in a good school, but I was treading water. I am now in London for an academic year doing another masters and visiting “home in Qatar” when possible. I also use Skype/FaceTime iMessage to stay in touch with my family’s daily life. We have a bank of air miles (my husband travels a lot for work) so I am hoping to go home once a month. We may be in Qatar for another six years to get our kids through high school, but we never know for sure.We also don’t know for sure where we will end up or where we will go next.
We got one of Hotmail’s first “free” email addresses back in 1996. In those days, you had to have subscriptions with a service provider like AOL. That way, we kept in touch with family and friends while we backpacked around the world for about 9 months in 1997. There were no cell phones to travel with then, and we would drop into Internet cafés every couple of weeks and send a long note to let people know we were still alive.
Given how I hover over my own kids now, and how I want them to text me back immediately, I am amazed at how relaxed my parents were about me traveling like that.
Lastly, I remember in my first job out of college in Melbourne, Australia, where I met colleagues who were originally from England, who had migrated to Australia, and had never returned. Airline travel was really a major expense and families from Melbourne would road trip 16 hours up to Queensland for their holidays with packed lunches. My husband, who is from Australia, didn’t travel on an airplane until he was in his late teens. Most Australians “did Europe” once in their early twenties and then maybe traveled overseas when they retired. Now with cheap airfares tons go to Bali or Hong Kong. Sometimes now it is still cheaper to travel overseas from Australia than to fly within Australia!
Thanks for sharing your story with us, Susie!
Want to read more “Travel Before Facebook” stories? Check out my Wanderful column! I interview Barbara Bergin, whose grandmother traveled the world on freighters.