Armchair Travels: A Journey Through a Grandmother’s Travel Diaries

Featured Image: Berlin Central Hotel. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.

A Creative Way to Take a Trip Without Leaving Your Home

By Amanda Burgess, Editor, JourneyWoman

Seasoned solo traveller Marillee Carroll hasn’t travelled since the start of the pandemic, but she has indulged in an armchair travel session or two. A recent JourneyWoman Circle call inspired Marillee to dig out her grandmother’s travel diaries. She spent a weekend time travelling on the words, impressions and emotions scrawled by her grandmother’s hand in the summer of 1939 – just ahead of the September 1 start of WWII when Hitler invaded Poland.

On June 18, 1939, Marillee’s grandparents, Val Edgar Nearpass and Pearl Lucretia Fox Nearpass, took their children – Marillee’s mother Marilyn (18), and aunt Jayne (22) – on a summer trip to Europe. They travelled from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Montreal, where they boarded the SS Aurania bound for Plymouth, England as part of a group of 37 travellers. 

The trip’s itinerary reads like a grand tour of the most storied cities and countries of Europe, the Middle East and Africa:

  • London, England
  • Bergen, Norway
  • Stockholm, Sweden
  • Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Berlin, Dresden, and Munich – Germany
  • Lucerne, Switzerland
  • Heidelberg and Bruggen – Germany
  • Paris, France
  • Vienna, Austria
  • Budapest, Hungary
  • Odessa, Russia (now Ukraine)
  • Istanbul, Turkey
  • Athens, Greece
  • Israel
  • Sidon and Beyrouth, Syria
  • Jerusalem (then part of Palestine and under British control)
  • Alexandria and Cairo, Egypt
Black and white photo of Marillee's family dressed for dinner

Marillee’s mother (centre) with her parents / Photo provided by Marillee C. 

“I marvel at my grandmother’s independence, strength, love of travel and adventure, and cherish all her beautifully written words, interjecting a few poems as well,” says Marillee. “Even though she was traveling with a group of people, she spent some time on her own – considered quite risqué for women at that time. I’d like to think I take after her independent wanderlust spirit!” Marillee has spent the better part of a decade delving into the history of WWII, notably taking several Context Travel seminars on the subject. That knowledge made her perusal of her grandmother’s travel diary even more intriguing. Her family was in Europe at a pivotal time in world history – that last breath of peace before another global conflict. There is an innocence to the below travel diary entries – a simple enjoyment of a trip that was, at certain junctures, filled with Nazi propaganda. Like much of the world, Marillee’s family were unconscious of what was coming. The signs were there, but subtle – their friend and guide, a Jewish man, was barred from entering Germany for having made negative remarks regarding the German treatment of his people. Knowing what we all know, reading between the lines is chilling.

July 18 & 19, 1939 – excerpts from the travel diary of Pearl Lucretia Fox Nearpass

Left Copenhagen in evening for Berlin. Again, we found our sleepers clean and comfortable. Arrived Berlin on the morning of the 19th of July.

Hotel Central was a busy place. Hundreds of soldiers were headquartering here for what was called the Berliner Sommerfestspiele 1939. Our rooms were large, spacious; our beds filled with fluffy feather quilts and large pillows. Dined in a garden here. Went for an early evening walk. Did some window shopping. Neckties were excellent in material and reasonable in price. Leather goods were very good also.

Our sightseeing tour told the story of a large, well-organized city. Under the Linden, street has been widened to one hundred feet or more – great statues everywhere. Passed fine looking apartment house sections for the working class. Only families with children could apply and live here for fifty marks a month. One-fourth of earnings is paid for rent. Skilled labor receives 100 marks a week.

Photo of a posed ballerina figurine

Souvenir Dresden figurine / Photo provided by Marillee C.

Passed a great stadium which holds 60,000; also open-air theatre where music festivals are held. Gates to stadium allow four to pass at a time, so that Herr Hitler may view all who pass. We were told that there were still about 200,000 Jews in Berlin. They are allowed to work but cannot be in business for themselves.

Saw the summer home of Frederick the Great, “Sanssouci.” Here he lived forty years. The splendour of these rooms displayed French and Swedish design in architecture; paintings and portraits by great artists, tapestries and rich porcelains and hand-carved furnishings. Left Potsdam for New Palace in Berlin, completed during Kaiser Bill’s reign. The large reception room made ornate with a wall covering of seashells was most unique. It is now closed to visitors. One must look through a door.

Spent the most of two hours going from one beautiful hall to another. Saw many sculptures by Voltaire and French artists going back to 1700. Saw much of Swedish architecture and influence in rooms, also much of French. The ceilings were always a study in the art of painting and color, and a study in Habsburg history.

I hope that I shall remember the little theatre with its exquisite red plush and gold-framed seats. Here, many artists entertained the Kaiser. 

July 20, 1939 – excerpt from the travel diary of Pearl Lucretia Fox Nearpass

Stopped at a German labour camp for boys on our way to Wittenberg. All boys and girls between ages 17 to 25 must go to the labour camp for one year and volunteer. Boys must have one year of labor camp and two years’ army life. Girls of all classes must do one year of housework and six months’ labor service.

Town fugitives means girls or boys must go to the country to work for one year to learn the ways of labour of the farmer. Country fugitive is vice a versa. 65% of boys from labor camp are taken away to help in the fields; the rest are taken for road building. One hour of political training, one hour of history and military training. Learning special courses in their free time, mending clothes in evening. One evening a week is set aside for amusement. 

image of a handwritten travel journal
Second image of hand written travel journal

Photographed pages from Marillee’s grandmother’s travel journal / Photo provided by Marillee C.

“It’s amazing to me how little they seemed concerned, at least for most of their trip, not knowing what would later evolve. There were many restrictions already in place – the girls and boys in labour camps, the Jews unable to own businesses, the Gestapo breaking into my mother and aunt’s hotel room in Berlin,” she says. “I was truly hypnotized as I read with a magnifying glass all weekend, remaining in my jammies all day. It was all-consuming – better than reading the juiciest of novels.”

Marillee’s grandfather, mother and aunt left in early August to head back to the US, with the shadow of war already cast. Her independent, strong-willed grandmother wished to continue travelling and stayed with the group to visit the Holy Land, Cairo and the pyramids. With the responsibilities of husband and children shed, the adventurer in Pearl was awakened, and her diary entries took on a decidedly more poetic tone.

August 14, 1939 – excerpt from the diary of Pearl Lucretia Fox Nearpass

Left in private motor cars from Haifa, Israel, on our first journey through the Holy Land. I was with a few others in the guide car, a leather upholstered car, quite new. This luxury and comfort did not last long, for we changed cars at the French border.

Again, we were asked to ride with our Arab guide. I had no French Visa, a mistake of the office in Paris, and I gave the tour leader and our guide a great deal of concern on the Syrian border. I was smuggled through and I shall not forget the place in which I had to hide for at least an hour. All were relieved when I was ushered to my car.

Our first stop was at Sidon, Syria – a small cocoa-colored town hugged between the sea and foothills, strewn with 1 million gray boulders. Here we watched the changing blues of the Mediterranean. As we drove on along the seashore, on our way to the Beirut, we saw shepherds tending their flocks of black goats and sheep. The ancient shepherd dressed exactly as he dressed when Christ walked upon these hills. Trains of heavily loaded camels were padding softly in the dust.

As we climbed steadily into the southern slopes of the Lebanon mountains leading to Damascus, we were amazed with changing soft colors of rocky surfaces and the vegetation and flowers of the more fertile spots. Soon we were looking over the highest spot in Lebanon.

Pearl’s last entry in the journal ends abruptly, on August 24, 1939:

“Left Cairo for Alexandria where we immediately boarded the Egyptian…”

Imagine sailing across the Mediterranean Sea from Egypt to Southern France with all lights purposely turned off, crossing in total darkness. Imagine the confusion. The sharp edge of fear. The bubble of excitement.

“What a gutsy, feisty, bold woman she was. She took the last ship out of France bound for New York, at the end of August. At that point a dangerous journey, with WWII beginning September 1, 1939!” says Marillee. “Worried, my grandfather left for New York to meet her. He became even more worried when she wasn’t on the ship he first met and had to wait for the next ship’s arrival.”

Marillee was close to her grandmother growing up, spending one-on-one time with her at her lake cabin every summer. She taught Marillee to swim, to be brave, to harness fortitude, and inspired her to become a voracious reader.

“Her fictional storytelling was magical, as well as her stories of growing up on a farm and riding a horse to school each day. Our own history together is an incredible treasure, as is my newfound appreciation for her travel diary,” Marillee says. “I find I’ve inherited her spirit of adventure and independence. She embodied female empowerment way ahead of her time – did I mention she held a Master’s degree and was a gifted piano player, artist and writer? I am grateful for this diary and the reflection and journey it took me on in a rollercoaster of a weekend!”

Do you have an armchair travel story to share? A family travel diary full of stories waiting to be retold? Tell us about it in the comments below!

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Amanda Burgess

Amanda Burgess is a Toronto-based writer and creative strategist whose bags are always packed for her next adventure; co-founder of the Sharyn Mandel School in Gobele, Ethiopia; and Acting Editor of Journeywoman. Follow her and her adventures on Instagram @unshakeable.me.

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4 Comments

  1. Katherine Nelson

    Marillee, amazing family history! Thank you for sharing. What lessons your Mother and Grandmother learned at an early age.

    Reply
  2. Avatar

    Fantastic reading & a great inspiration from the diary of Pearl Lucretia Fox Nearpass. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Marillee Carroll

      Thanks, Margaret! This is truly a treasure, thanks to Amanda❣️

      Reply

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