Travelling the world back in 1955...
I wanted to share with you a story of my grand-mother that has inspired me my entire life.
It was back in 1955, when taking a plane was not merely a mode of transport, but an adventure in itself… It’s a story about discovering the unknown and crossing oceans and continents for love. Her name is Monique, she’s now 92 years old, and here’s her story.
“Very shortly after our wedding, during the winter of 1954, my husband was told by his company that he was being sent to Singapore.
And it happened all so quickly. A couple of months later, in February, Pierre flew to South-East Asia, leaving me behind with our 3-month old son, Olivier. We had to wait and see if he felt comfortable enough in his new job before we could join him. At a time when phones and the Internet didn’t exist, the only communication between us was our weekly letters and these two months ended up being the longest ones in my whole life…and I am now 88 years old!
I eventually received a letter from him informing me that he was now on his way to Bangkok where he was urgently needed and that I should meet him there instead… I remember rushing into the living room, my heart pounding, to look-up in the encyclopedia where this town I had never heard of was. And I was so impatient to see Pierre again that, to be honest, I felt no apprehension whatsoever, only curiosity.
The day to embark on this life-changing journey finally arrived. I felt ready for whatever would come my way.
So here I was, Olivier in one arm and my belongings in another, waiting for the Parisian taxi that would take us to the Bourget airport under the pouring rain, to catch a flight to Amsterdam. Indochina was a stop on the route to Djakarta, which was still under the control of Holland back then. Therefore a Dutch Airline would carry out the flight to Bangkok.
And an extraordinary journey began.”
“The plane was a four-engined Constellation, which was the biggest airplane at the time (obviously jets did not exist yet) and the journey was going to last for two full days (today it’s a direct 11-hour flight). I was very lucky to be sitting in first class with a seat for myself and one for Olivier’s carrycot. I don’t remember seeing lots of people on-board except for a few men, probably Deutch officials. The air hostesses were charming, well behaved and elegant, real ‘Femmes du Monde’ as we say in French, but not very efficient! They didn’t even know how to prepare a milk bottle and I had to do it myself.
Lots of stops were planned as there was no service on-board – no meals or drinks, the flight had to land so passengers could eat something and freshen-up. After a quick first stop in Frankfurt in early afternoon when passengers stayed on the plane, we arrived in Rome for dinner.
Fiumicino airport sparkled in the night and the dinner was served right at the bottom of the plane on the landing strip. The night was young and warm. The cold and gray weather in Paris seemed already miles away… I ate delicious Italian pasta for the first time, a dish I had never had in France! It had been presented to me by voluble and whirling garcons and I remember thinking to myself that this trip was going to change my vision of the world.
After a very short night, the next stop was Cairo. Total change of scenery, an absolute mess at the airport and a multicolored crowd. The waiters were very impressive, both in size and figure. They were dressed with djellabas and were wearing a red Fez on their head. Breakfast was served and Olivier was wide awake, a bit overwhelmed with all the hurly-burly.
Then, the take-off towards the Orient facing the rising sun. A scene that was sumptuous and magical.
We flew over the desert of Arabia and Yemen. It felt like I was seeing the Earth at its beginnings and, after a few minutes, there was only the thin line of an oil pipeline crossing the immense landscape. The sky was more and more blue and the sun was shining stronger and stronger, using all the space. I feel dazzled by this memory even today… I had never seen such a magnificent spectacle.
The next stop was Karachi, 2 pm. As I came out of the cabin, right at the top of the stairs, I felt like I was entering an oven! The heat was extremely strong and the sun was burning. Fortunately, a bus was waiting and drove us straight away to a vast guest-house covered with trees.
The big bedrooms offered rudimentary but refreshing bathrooms. I was sharing my room with a woman who spoke English and who advised us to rapidly take our clothes off and put ourselves in the water. It was absolutely delicious and my little baby and I paddled there for a little longer before laying on the bed and gently falling asleep…
We were woken up by an announcement that tea was being served in the lounge. The sofas were deep and the fans were purring in the background. The male staff were all dressed in white, wearing beautiful turbans and walking silently in their slippers. It was like the “Thousand and One Nights” tale but with a delicate English touch that reminded me so much of my childhood. I felt like I was a living character of a Somerset Maugham novel!
We boarded the plane again to fly to Kolkata allowing us to see from afar the Himalayan mountain chain. It was the last stop for me, before I would see my husband again. We were asked to stay on the plane as it was only a pit-stop to get fuel. The plane rapidly took-off again to my final destination: Bangkok. I cannot start to tell you how I felt when I saw Pierre, who was there, on the tarmac, waiting for me…”
Monique Biberson was born on the 6th of October 1929 in a French town called Clermont-Ferrand. Expatriated at a young age with her parents in London, she then traveled the world with her husband. They lived in Geneva, Bangkok, Brussels and Milan before retiring in the Lot-et-Garonne, in France. They had 6 children and a very happy life together.