Junior year abroad has become such a commonality now for college students whose parents have the money to send them, usually to Europe, for some sort of international study and, in an unspoken way, to “finish” them in the same way that wealthy American families used to take their young adult children on The Grand Tour to Europe with trunks, servants, and privileged accommodations, that now thousands of college students make the trip every year.
Most of those thousands of students write a kind of journal in the form of letters to send home to their families, (a sort of “What-I-Did-On-My-Summer-Vacation” set of homemade photographic slides) which is what Judy Woodall did during her 1956-57 year in France, courtesy of Tulane University’s Newcomb College. But thankfully, most of those young adults never try to publish their notes and ramblings, as they are not memorable to anyone but immediate family. Woodall should have followed suit, not allowing this unremarkable diary to see the light of day in public. She was studying music in Paris, took art history classes at the Sorbonne and studied privately with voice teachers and eventually went on to have a career in singing and teaching music. She was not an English major and, most obvious to any reader of her book, was not a writer either.
Granted, she was only 20 when she wrote home to Mummy and Daddy, but to describe a street in Europe as “the most precious adorable street” and a lunch of “such darling sandwiches” is an embarrassment to travelers, writers, historians and English majors everywhere. She went to every tourist attraction around Paris, Italy, Spain, Germany and a few more countries, and described the Cathedral St. Michel as “just huge. . . It’s so huge! There are two huge gorgeous organs.” In a small town she visited while in Germany and Switzerland “all the little houses were so medieval.”
While this is a time capsule of that innocent decade before the Sixties, the Pill, LSD, free love, and co-ed shacking up in hostels or tents while traveling Europe, the period has been covered much better by a plethora of good travel writers. Woodall obviously came from privilege. She hung out with “the right crowd,” i.e. her fellow female students from Tulane, who were connected with VIP’s in Europe who could show them a good, upper-class time. The concert they attended at the American Embassy, for example, was “a very exclusive affair. Lots of people important and intriguing were there.” At another party, “the people were so nice and cocktail-ish,” and another party she attended “was a good old party-ish party.” Her February vacation in Spain was marred by some Americans from Louisiana described by Woodall as “hicks.” On another occasion, “there were two American girls — of the worse kind.”
She met plenty of young European men on her year abroad — supposedly “the right kind” — drank and danced until 3 and 4 a.m. with some of them but always came home eventually to her own apartment in a private home. She attended scores of concerts and plays, presumably in the course of her musical studies abroad. Most of her activities, however, are described as a college, or high school student at home would talk about her days: She sleeps until noon then meets her friends at a cafe for hot chocolate, then walks along the Seine, then goes to get stickers for her luggage, then walks to the Place Darcy, then goes to class, then goes to her voice lesson, then catches a bad cold, and on and on with the hyperbolic drivel that fills the average student diary anywhere in the world but does not presume to get published. A Hemingway description of Paris this is not. Great for Mom and Dad to keep for family posterity, but not worthy of selling to the unsuspecting public for $25.99 by entitling it “extraordinary.”
The only thing extraordinary about “An Extraordinary Year,” published by Tate Publishing, an Oklahoma company that has been criticized for charging its authors too much money for promoting them and not following through on the promise, is the prices that Woodall paid back in the fifties for taxicabs in Spain –10 cents to go all over Madrid — and meals in Paris — $1.20 for a steak dinner.