It was September 24, 1964, as I stepped onto the gangway of the Queen Elizabeth to begin my journey to Wagner College's campus in Bregenz, Austria. I was ambivalent about going. No one I knew well had applied to the program, and I didn't want to leave my boyfriend; plus, I was nagged by the knowledge that my Jewish friends from high school wouldn't go anywhere near Germany — or Austria.
Like me, the world was in turmoil that year. The American South was exploding over civil rights, Vietnam was on the verge of disintegrating into a bloody quagmire, we were locked in a Cold War with the Soviets, and Castro had a firm grip on Cuba. So, as I boarded the ship, I vowed to come home in a few weeks if this turned out to be a mistake.
But, like my fellow students, I was immediately intrigued. After the lifeboat drill, we raced around the ship. On our first night at sea, we ran into a storm that packed a wallop. Around 2 a.m., as the ship pitched and rolled, a china cabinet down the hall from our stateroom tipped over and crashed. At breakfast, my roommate and I were among the few to appear — amazingly, we weren't seasick. Around the empty dining room, waiters doused the tablecloths with pitchers of water to keep the dishes and silverware from sliding off.
Four days later, the ship sailed into Cherbourg. After two nights in Paris, we headed on to Bregenz. Motoring past snow-capped mountains and soaring emerald hillsides where billy goats magically clung to the earth at 45-degree angles, I was enthralled. Bregenz is a picture-postcard town, nestled between the Alps and the Bodensee, one of world's largest lakes. The old part of town dates back to the 14th century. Like all of Europe, Bregenz had endured hardships during World War II, so residents were used to doing without central heating, or using shredded newspaper when toilet paper ran out. People called me “die Schwarze” — “the black girl” — but not unkindly. Old ladies shook their heads disgustedly at the knee socks we wore with our skirts — not warm enough.
My world and its worries receded as I opened my eyes on a new world. I traveled all over Europe, often hitchhiking. I went to Fasching (Mardi Gras) parties on Pfander Mountain; skied at St. Moritz, staying in a youth hostel; and hung out in Biergärten.
Before going abroad, I remember telling my Wagner music professor that the readings in his class complemented my world history text. He responded, “You're seeing the interconnections of an education; you'll make those associations again and again.”
What he said came true during my year abroad. I stood two feet from the Mona Lisa, saw where Michelangelo painted, and was encircled by pigeons on St. Mark's Square, an inspiration for Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. What was there not to like about Bregenz? I happily stayed the year. And as for that boyfriend I didn't want to leave — today I couldn't even tell you his name.
Terry Baker Mulligan '66 is the author of a memoir, Sugar Hill: Where the Sun Rose Over Harlem (Impulse Press, 2012). She lives in St. Louis, Missouri.