In 1937 Australians didn’t take ‘gap years’ – least of all girls. So it was a big deal when my grandmother, June Gray, deferred her first year of university to travel Asia, the US, Canada and Europe. While I didn’t find out about this until a decade after her death, the journal she kept of that time turning up in the midst of my uncle moving house, I believe my grandmother’s attitude to life influenced me in taking three ‘gap years.’ She was an independent, confident woman who had held many responsible positions. She’d also given me a toy dump-truck as a little girl, and souvenirs from trips she’d taken to Egypt, London, and Hong Kong. Fittingly too, it was the proceeds of her will that funded my very first gap year.
Discovering she’d been on this atypical adventure, I felt an even stronger connection with her. Sure our trips had their differences – I traveled solo while she traveled in a group (as were the differing norms for females within our respective generations), and she witnessed a part of history that I’d only read about in museums – but the huge impact that visiting other countries had had on my life made me fairly confident that her life would’ve been similarly affected. I certainly couldn’t wait to find out!
Excerpts from the Travel Journal of June Gray’s Gap Year (1937)
June takes the train through Germany that runs parallel with an autobahn. People drive alongside smiling and waving at them and the other passengers.
“Several gave us an informal race and a couple of young ‘brown shirts’ [Nazis] on motor cycles gave us a thrilling spin until the pace became too hot. Afterwards we discovered we had an artistic arrangement of Swastika and Nazi flags on the engine, so perhaps they were under the impression we were Hitler’s bodyguard or something equally crazy.”
Next, walking through a park, she realizes the group of girls she sees in white blouses and black skirts and scarves are, in fact, members of the Hitler Youth.
Even more confronting is learning that Hitler paid a surprise visit to Dresden the night she was there. Passengers in their train carriage reported he was staying at the same hotel as them and “all evening there had been quite a crowd outside waiting to see him. He went out to see them once or twice.”
Leaving Dresden that morning, June “could not help noticing all the red swastika flags hung out in his honor.”
Similarly, at Germany’s first university (one of the first places I ever visited overseas, my photos are almost identical to hers!), June finds:
“The old university life of Heidelberg has now disappeared, so they say, and instead the students are all concerned with learning as much as possible and being in as many athletic teams as possible, and with doing much for Hitler and the Fatherland. To correspond with this change of attitude towards university life, a new building has been put up, which is the last word in educational buildings. Features include wide staircases and passages, large lecture halls, and most striking of all, a large Nazi hall, very liberally decorated with swastikas and other Nazi emblems and banners. I suppose this change in atmosphere in the old university town is typical of the change all through Germany.”
It’s especially the case in Munich:
“When being driven through the town, you were all the time conscious that this was the place where the Nazi movement had started. We were shown the tavern in which Hitler held his first meetings, the ‘Brown’ House, and Hitler’s apartment or rather the building in which it was situated. They say that Hitler always likes Bavaria better than any other part of Germany, and that he tries to be in Munich as much as possible.”
I also did a Nazi tour of Munich – the difference being that I did mine after WWII and the Holocaust.
June mentions that discrimination against Jews prevented them from “fully owning property” (Jews were required to register all properties with the State. The following year, these were confiscated).
It’s in Munich that members of June’s travel party experiences fascism firsthand:
“None of them had any knowledge of German, so when a German started to talk to them they just said ‘Yes’ to everything he said to try and keep the peace. In the middle of the conversation they were arrested and taken off to the nearest police station, or whatever it might be in Germany. They found out eventually that they were under arrest for running down Hitler and his regime. It appears that the German had been running the gentlemen down, and the Englishmen were unconsciously agreeing. They got out of the scrape fairly soon after profuse explanation and apologies, but I dread to think what must have happened to the German. That struck us all as a rather typical incident with which to leave Germany, although last year we were more inclined to think good of her than we are this.”
Traveling also changes her view of neighboring Vienna:
“Buildings that were once (pre-WWI) the homes of the aristocracy of Europe are now second-class hotels, offices, shops or even warehouses. The people look preoccupied and poor, and the impression you gather is that there is not much future at all for the city.”
June fears this will allow Hitler to seize control — which is precisely what he did in March 1938.
Fortunately, the other Austrian city they visit, in the Alps, leaves her far more optimistic:
“It’s sad to have to realize that most peasant costumes in Europe now are put on solely for the benefit of the tourist, but this is not the case in Innsbruck! Innsbruck swarms with men in leather pants, and women in peasant blouses and wide skirted frocks.”
“Thomas Cook’s Nightlife Tours” takes them to Europe’s best cafes, cabarets, night clubs and amusement parks — but the standout is a cafe in Budapest. There they enjoy a ‘gypsy’ orchestra:
“made up entirely of young boys…in fact one of them was so small he could hardly keep awake. They really had to be seen to be believed — and gave us a wonderful picture of the atmosphere of this city. You felt that here there was life, gaiety and romance, if nowhere else in the world.”
George VI becomes King — and June is there to witness the occasion!
“Everywhere one went talk was of the Coronation. The view to Buckingham Palace was amazing, with banners hanging from high poles on each side of the road, backed by gaily decorated stands. Selfridges Department Store was the most outstanding, covered in huge plaster casts representing and showing the growth of the Empire. But the decorations on the poor streets of the ‘East End’ were the most touching. They had saved for months to buy their little flags and it meant a real sacrifice for the people to be able to hang them out.”
The coronation ceremony commences with the National Anthem and a parade of musicians and troops from Britain and its colonies. Lacking a radio, June and her traveling companions go to the cinema to listen to the King’s speech, and that night they join the crowd outside Buckingham Palace shouting “We want the King!” They have a wonderful view when the King and Queen emerge on the balcony.
London is also where June encounters her first television — and predicts, correctly, it would be many years before she saw one in Australia!
New York, USA
“It looks very hard, and so do the people. The women are all smart and wear quite a lot of makeup, and practically all of them, even the school girls of about ten years of age, have their hair waved — horrid and artificial.”
Finding the subway dirty and full of homeless men, she boasts “I believe nobody really travels in them; it is one of the few things that are not done in New York, but it was certainly worth doing once!”
The excitement continues way up on the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building (built just six years prior) where, by chance, a radio recording is going on:
“They asked if there was anyone present not from ‘The States.’ I foolishly murmured something about being from Australia and was overheard and pushed to the front. They asked me where I lived and then various silly questions about Australia, which showed that they thought we were all Aborigines or something like that. They asked me something or other about the habits of kangaroos, so I said that I had never actually seen a kangaroo except in a zoo or some such place, and you should have seen the expressions of the people in the crowd — they were absolutely horrified. I think they have an idea that kangaroos bound gaily up and down the main street!”
There is, however, something she’s very impressed by in New York: the exclusive boutiques on Fifth Avenue, all of which have decorated their windows to celebrate the King’s Coronation.
China & Japan
June owed her big adventure to her family’s wealth and father’s Rotary Club, which organized the world trip for 64 people on the back of its project to establish friendships with Rotary Clubs in China and Japan.
Her first impressions are that Shanghai is a very international city. At the dinner the Rotary Club holds for the Australians, its nineteen nationalities perform everything from the Highland Fling, to Russian and Swedish folk songs, to a pageant of Chinese costumes.
June doesn’t type up her journal until returning to Australia. In the intervening months China is invaded:
“It makes one very sad to write of Shanghai now after the war. Most of the places we saw there are almost irreparably ruined. The Chinese quarter we visited near the Willow Pattern Tea Room is now a neutral area for the Chinese refugees, and I do not know what has happened to the civic center (which she describes as a “happy combination of ancient and modern Chinese art with a Pagoda Roof in round green tiles”). It is also terrible to think of what may have happened to all the people we met there. One can well imagine what a terrible effect a bomb would have in those crowded streets.”
“It also makes one sad to think that it is the Japanese who are doing all this — we certainly had no suspicion of it while we were in Japan, but that it is not at all surprising.” Japan had even hosted the ‘Pan-Pacific Peace Exhibition, which they’d attended.
Struck by Tokyo’s modernity, June rates Emperor Meiji’s Shrine the most interesting of its attractions, with worshippers flocking to pay their respects to the man that opened Japan up to western ideas and international trade.
Still, Japan was not the tourist destination it is today. In the city of Nagoya, shop assistants at a Department Store are so pleased to see Australians that they pour them a green tea, and a group of rural schoolgirls stare at them as they may be “the first ‘white’ people they had ever seen.” Furthermore, after attending a Rotary Club dinner that includes performances of Japanese dance, orchestra, spinning tops and juggling, June concludes: “That is one notable thing about this trip — we have seen many forms of Japanese entertainment which otherwise would have been quite out of our reach.”
Two years later…
The world is at war, with Germany. Three years into the war, my grandmother is working in the Special Intelligence Unit of the Australian Navy, deciphering the codes used by the war’s other main aggressor, Japan. The country she consciously befriended was now the enemy.
My Reflections on her Gap Year
My grandmother’s journal made me wish I’d been interested in travel while she was alive. Maybe then she would’ve regaled me with a story or two, reinterpreting her extraordinary experiences with the benefit of hindsight. I realized though, that it was her encouragement of my own independence that influenced my solo travels, coincidentally to many of the places she visited so long ago. Thank goodness we each documented our adventures along the way!
Written by: Angela Lapham
Angela is a Melbourne-based librarian and history graduate fascinated with Eastern Europe and different cultures and histories in general. Every few years it’s time to take off to Europe for another lengthy adventure!
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