A 1968 Nursing Tour Through Europe

It was near the lunch hour when I pulled up a chair at Bonnie Elerding's kitchen table and placed my recorder next to a clear-glass bowl full of sugar. A plethora of cookbooks, travel, and ornithology guidebooks and bills littered the table and hinted of Bonnie's pastimes. I had arrived a half an hour earlier and snapped photographic stills of Bonnie and an entryway relic: a bronze, Arab cavalier sculpted by the Nineteenth-century French artist, Antoine Louis Barye. Through my camera lens, I observed the statue's parallel lines flowing downward and how they gave the impression of movement to the motionless mold of mixed copper and tin.

If I could say I wanted to be like someone when I grow up, I would look to Bonnie. A retired nurse by profession and a wandering nomad at heart, Bonnie has traveled — no, not just traveled — but explored, over fifty countries by boat, train, bus, and walking. She was a young nurse of twenty-six when she ventured on her first tour through Europe. Now, her current calendar years equate to seventy-four. But despite her age, the gallivanting lifestyle she began so long ago remains unaltered. Her globetrotting spirit and adventurous experiences could top a list of most influential travelers, but as she does not maintain a travel blog, you will never see her showcased in a modern-day countdown. The life-altering, postcard moments experienced by Bonnie are pure and unadulterated from multitudinous crowds, like her first trip as a young nurse in the summer of 1968.

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Bonnie plopped down in a kitchen chair next to me and introduced herself for my recorder. “My name is Bonnie Elerding, but I have gone by Bonnie Hall for most of my life.” She paused, brushed back her silver and blonde hair, and waited for me to write down her words. “I had a girlfriend that wanted to do a nursing tour together. We hired a travel company to plan where we would visit in Europe. The trip came to us all preplanned, and by then we had twenty-two nurses signed up. Some of us were older nurses, and some of us were new graduates.”

The nursing tour began in Amsterdam. Bonnie said, “Amsterdam was the first time I had eaten pickled herring, and it was so good, and nobody else liked it.” She interrupted the story of her past. “Would you like to try pickled herring? I have some right now.” I declined, and she adjusted a large, round, watch face on her arm. She continued, “The nurses walked down to the “Red Light District in Amsterdam.” She confessed with a giggle, “You know, I was so naive, and the others were making fun of me because I didn’t know what it was all about.” I imagined the scene--Bonnie in her youth with auburn hair and light-colored eyes, searching--and laughed.

Bonnie said, “The hospital in Amsterdam was brand new, and the staff could not wait to show it to the American Nurses. They wanted to show us their brand new Tomogram X-ray machine.” A photo album sat in front of her, and her fingers played with the edges of it. “At that time, the Tomogram enabled us to take an X-ray from several angles, instead of the flat X-ray pictures we had in 1968. A tomogram gave us multiple photos of different perspectives.” Her hands outlined an elliptical image in the air. “You could tell if a tumor was wide or had density. In those days that was a big deal.” 

I first met Bonnie at a medical presentation. She was attending the presentation with an outgoing friend, who invited my husband and me to dinner. We accepted the invitation and that night I ate yellow curry and listened to Bonnie’s travel stories. She told me of her plans to adopt and of her next trip to Africa, and I told her about my profession in travel media. We shared and reminisced and forgot our differences in age as we shared our ardor for travel.

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Bonnie and her family took a road trip across the United States when she was twelve. As much as she enjoyed the trip, nothing she had seen in the US was similar to the first time she had seen the shining spires of Germany’s Cologne Cathedral. And when the nurses traveled to Lucerne, Switzerland. Bonnie said, “We were served chicken at every meal. At that time, it was thought that Americans liked chicken. It wasn’t until Rome that we got something different. They served us spaghetti.” She laughed and continued, “Also, in Lucerne, they put on a Bi ‘rish, Swiss, mountain dancing program for us.”

“What does Bi ‘rish mean?” I said.

“It refers to the Southern part of Germany.”

Bonnie’s speech slowed as she continued to describe the dance, “They have the big, long horns they blow. And they wore lederhosen (leather slacks), and slapped their feet and legs.” With a sudden movement, she popped out of her chair and demonstrated the dance. I picked up my camera and photographed her. She giggled as she danced and said, “I should go get my lederhosen, but I threw them out.”

Bonnie reached out for a European map which sat on the table in front of her and retraced her 1968 nursing tour with her finger. “We traveled over the Alps down from Switzerland to Italy,” she said. She stopped tracing for a moment and remembered out loud, “That’s what it is, that’s exactly what it is.” She paused. “In those days, we traveled by bus on these massive, switchback roads that the bus could barely corner. There were no freeways. We spent all day looking at the switchbacks we had already gone down and the switchbacks we were going down. It was kinda scary. There was a steep grade on different sections of the mountains. Some of us were just starting our life, and we did not want to die on the side of a mountain in the Alps.”

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The nurses arrived in Venezia and eventually made their way to Florence, then Rome, where they visited a 400-year-old hospital, Fatebenefratelli, on the world’s smallest inhabited island, Isola Tiberina. A few days later, I researched Isola Tiberina. I read on Fodor’s Travel the Romans had sheathed the entire island with marble to make it look like Aesculapius’s (the god of healing) ship.

After Rome, the women traveled to Geneva where they spent a morning with members of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Bonnie gazed out the window and said, “The International Red Cross would ship people and equipment to different places in the world. Some of the challenges they faced were finding individuals who specialized in sterile technique.” The nurses also visited the International Student Nurses Association. The association encouraged the nurses to work in another country besides America.

The nurses gathered on a bus and endured a long ride to a Parisian hospital. Bonnie said, “The Parisian hospital was fascinating because all the nurses wore high heels and no nylons.” She paused and added, “At least some of them did not wear nylons. That was a shock to me.” The American nurses had an opportunity to tour a Parisian nursery located in the hospital.

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She continued. “The nurses wore masks and gloves, and they wrapped the babies to make sure they did not breathe germs. They were very proud of their incubators. At that time we were just starting to use incubators with oxygenation and were discovering that too much exposure to oxygen was not good for baby's eyes. The Parisians were up on that too, just like we were.”

Bonnie described the Parisian method for sterilization, “The Parisian nurses would wrap the things they were going to use for surgery, including their linens, into a big package. The entire package would go into a sterilization machine for a given amount of time until it was totally sterile from high heat and slight moisture. The moisture dissipated in the high heat, and the package would come out the machine and cool. Everything within the outside wrap would be sterile and ready to take into surgery, which was not unlike us at the time.” She paused, then added, “But they had a more modern sterilization machine.”

The nurses flew from Paris to London. Bonnie waved her hand toward me and said, “In London, we had meetings with the people that had started the National Health Service, the socialized medicine that everybody in America was upset about. I don't remember who it was that we met, but they were telling us the problems they had in starting it.”

Her eyes revealed delight as she transitioned from medicine into sightseeing. “We walked over the London Bridge, which is gone now. It was this little, teeny bridge and it had all these curio shops on it with little places with rugs hanging between them. It was pretty much only foot traffic.” As she spoke, I imagined the scene to be like one that was found in an old Hollywood film, and I wished I could have played a part on the big screen.

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The final stop of the nursing tour was Shannon, Ireland. The nurses visited Bunratty Castle. They were given “too much mead” as they listened to a multitude of choir performances and watched dancing. I heard the pride in Bonnie’s voice as she said, “The nurses all flew home from Shannon, and I got on a bus all by myself to Galway Bay for my personal tour.” I applauded her bravery.

I readied my pen and asked, “Why was this nursing trip an epiphany for you?”

An uneven pile of yellowed photo albums, with inked dates and places along the spines, were stacked on a chair behind Bonnie. Maps--some folded, some not--covered the table and floor and surrounded her. She sat amongst the travel stories of her life and said, “By the end of my trip, I realized how exciting the world was and how people from so many different backgrounds are as human and real as we are. They loved the same things as us: kindness, education, interpersonal relationships. We were so different, yet so much the same. That was my epiphany.”