Thumbing it from Paris to Cairo, 1950s-style

An article about a 1950 passport found last year at a Parisian flea market has inspired Betty Werther — the passport’s owner, an American expatriate and ’49 Cal alumna — to write about her youthful adventures in New York, Berkeley, Paris and the Middle East. Here are biographical excerpts from emails that Werther has sent to friends and reporters since the story of her lost passport was published on Feb. 6

A dramatic start

Betty Werther recalls her amazing travels through Europe and the Middle East in the 1950s

I was born in Dobbs Ferry, New York. My father, Robert M. Hatfield, who kept pushing himself because of precarious health, was apparently so overjoyed by my arrival that, after swimming in a nearby quarry, he drove home, still dripping wet, on his Harley Davidson motorcycle, with which he had crossed the U.S. from Berkeley. He caught pneumonia and died at age 25 when I was barely two weeks old.

My California grandparents rushed back from a trip to Europe and insisted that my mother, however grief-stricken, should bring me to Berkeley.  My grandfather had joined the faculty of UC Berkeley, where he became dean of the College of Commerce, then dean of Faculties.

My mother and I lived with my German immigrant grandparents in a big house in Ardsley, New York. Growing up in Ardsley was wonderful – early morning breakfast hikes up in the then-wilderness of the Beacon Hill area, roller skating in a rink in Scarsdale, ice-skating on the lake in Woodlands, often with a big bonfire and hot chocolate, wonderful teachers, wonderful friends…and boyfriends,  thrilling basketball games. I was a cheerleader.

After high school, I headed for Berkeley, a giant transition, from a community of 500 souls to a university with,  at the time, some 30,000 students. However, my family was perfectly integrated.  I had one cousin, Sally, my age and two younger ones. We did lots of extra-curricular activities, excursions to the Petrified Forest, Carmel, vivid moments in family cabins on Echo Lake in the High Sierra.

Berkeley sorority or trip to Europe?

Betty Werther (4th from left) with her relatives in Berkeley

My grandmother early on gave me the choice of joining a sorority or taking a European trip at the end of my studies – a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1949.   I chose the European trip and, with a college friend, Harriet, crossed the Atlantic on one of the great French ocean liners. We met young men with connections who had us taking tea with the captain on the first class deck, dancing in second class, returning occasionally to our tourist/economy quarters where one evening we invented a birthday for Harriet (or me) which brought out a flaming baked Alaska after all the lights were turned out in the dining room.

After a stint in England, Harriet and I headed for Paris where we enrolled in a course on French Civilization at the Sorbonne. We lived in the “United States Pavilion” in the Cité Universitaire on Boulevard Jourdan. A few days after our arrival, I was standing in line for supper in the Cité’s International House cafeteria. A young man behind me offered to help with my very insufficient French. He was Gilbert Azancot, a medical student whom I later married.

He was interning in a big suburban hospital so lent me his very romantic, very Bohemian flat smack in Paris’ Latin Quarter, down from St. Germain des Près and near the Seine across from the Louvre.  He provided a great introduction to French food, concerts, ballet, theatre in the city still struggling with postwar restrictions and recovery.

Learning the hitchhiking ropes

Betty Werther's 1950 passport, lost and found in a Paris flea market last year

I never truly planned to remain permanently in France. My poor mother was, after all, home alone. My obsession was leaving the Eurasian land mass.  In those days, half the youth in Europe was/were hitchhiking on the highways. Youth hostels were booming but not everywhere. My first try at that was a run down to the south of France and across to Venice with two friends.

Gradually I learned the ropes. Hitchhiking is an art not to be improvised. We picked our cars, knew where to position ourselves on the highways, and for nights chose long distance trucks with bunks.  Often, our sleeping bags ended up on the floors of embassies or in the homes of local school teachers, or with the many friends we made along the way.

My first big trip was with a Swedish friend down to Spain and across to Tangiers. But after a few weeks, I had an overwhelming urge to get back to Gilbert, with whom I was deeply in love.  Nonetheless, soon maps would begin covering the floor.  My second big trip with a French friend took us up through the low countries to Germany including East Berlin before the Wall, and almost as far north as the Arctic Circle.

Cold War Europe and the Middle East

Werther and Jackie Gleason in Paris in 1962

After our Scandinavian trip in the fall of 1950, a French friend, Marie-Louise,  and I started preparing for the Middle East. The goal was Egypt where Marie-Louise had contacts through her work in a big Paris hotel with the aunt of King Farouk, then still on the throne. Gilbert and his cousins drove us as far as the Mt. Cenis pass into Italy and from there on in we thumbed it to Trieste and painfully down through what was then Yugoslavia. The country had just broken off with the USSR and had not yet formed relations with the West.  We were constantly followed by police. Then down through Greece (we were virtually alone on the Acropolis) and over to Turkey, sleeping in the French Embassy garden in Istanbul and the cellar of the American Embassy in Ankara.

In Damascus, Syria, we spent time in a police station after I had photographed Druze priests, which is strictly forbidden. Then to Lebanon and, sort of, stowing away on a ship, to Alexandria, Egypt. On the road to Cairo, we hitched a ride with military officers. The Zulficar family, related to King Farouk, hosted us on their luxurious converted Nile steamer.

Bethlehem for Christmas

Again, we were almost alone on the pyramids. After we took a train down to Luxor and Aswan, a cousin flew us in a small 5-passenger plane over the Sinai to Amman, Jordan. With documents identifying us as pilgrims we moved under a white flag from the old city of  Jerusalem (before the 1967 war) to the Israeli side and, besides a nice few days on a kibbutz, made it in time to spend  part of Christmas in Bethlehem.

Editor’s note: Werther went on to marry and settle down in Paris, where she worked for the International Herald Tribune, TIME magazine and UNESCO. She has two children and four grandchildren, all living in France.