Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - June 26, 2003

Trip of a lifetime

Our recent whirlwind vacation included eight countries in four weeks. We usually travel more slowly, but with Mariya graduating next year, we decided to make this year's trip a big one. We racked up more than 2,800 miles driving in Europe and 1,200 miles on the left side of Great Britain's streets and highways. The sights, sounds, tastes and smells put my brain into over-drive, and I'm still trying to sort it out.

We began hearing mainly British English, which takes some getting used to. "Lorries" are trucks. "Biscuits" are cookies. "Crikey" is an exclamation much like our "Holy cow!" But London is also filled with Japanese, Arabic and many other languages as well. In Wales, all official signs are in both English and Welsh. We even shopped in Bala, the town that shares its name with the little settlement northwest of Riley. "Croeso in Cymru/Welcome to Wales."

In Belgium, we heard Flemish; in France, French, Hindi, Spanish and others; in Switzerland, German, French, Italian and Romansh; and in Germany, German, Polish and Russian. I took some German and French in college, but not enough to converse. Most of the time, I just whipped out my French or German dictionaries - especially when I needed to translate menus.

The foods we ate ranged from the ridiculous - a greasy hotdog and equally greasy French fries - to the sublime - a nearly $100 lunch at a street-side café in Paris. We saw McDonald's Golden Arches everywhere - with Burger King, Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken not far behind. Not exactly what I had expected.

We saw well-known tourist attractions - Big Ben, the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, Stonehenge, the Eiffel Tower, Louis XIV's Versailles Palace, Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur churches in Paris, Westminster Abbey in London, and the Louvre, with its Mona Lisa painting by Leonardo da Vinci and the famous Venus de Milo sculpture.

We saw picturesque scenes. On country roads there were onion-domed churches, red-tiled roofs, window boxes with pansies, roses and geraniums spilling out of them, sheep and cows in green pastures sprinkled with red-orange poppies, and cascading waterfalls in the Swiss Alps. On the streets and subways of Paris and London, street musicians provided entertaining moments.

Some things were not so picturesque - a drunk asleep on a cathedral's steps; trash on the streets in Paris and London; too many vehicles, resulting in traffic jams on the motor ways; the smell of urine in some subway stations; gang graffiti; and paying $4-5 for a gallon of fuel.

Still others were incredibly sad. The "In Flanders Fields Museum" in Ypres, Belgium had displays of weapons, uniforms, letters, photos and quotes from World War I. The town is literally surrounded by cemeteries. Many graves are simply marked "A Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God." Some were identified, such as: "Private J. Wheeldon, Duke of Wellington's Regiment, 4th January 1918, Age 19, Sleep on dear son, Thy warfare's o'er, Thy hands shall battle, Here no more."

The Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, originally set up as a work camp, had more than 200,000 prisoners from 1933 until it was liberated in 1945. More than 43,000 people died there. On an original entrance gate, the words, "Arbeit macht frei" - work makes you free - are a chilling reminder of the men who became free only by being worked to death.

We also experienced simple things - hearing cuckoos from our patio, watching yellow moonflowers open petal by petal as the day eased into night, having easy conversations with friends over tea or coffee.

And there were situations that we weren't expecting but maybe were among the most memorable.

In Paris, we were resting under the Eiffel Tower as we watched the gendarmes - policemen - arrest street peddlers who sold mini-Eiffel tower key rings, blobs that looked like Silly Putty and bottled water. We didn't know what the vendors' offenses were, but Katie got such a kick out of it that she took a picture of the police hauling one guy off in handcuffs. She listed that as the highlight of the day.

In Chartres, where we checked out the huge cathedral, we ended up in the middle of a pilgrimage of what we presumed to be Hindi-speaking people. Since none of us knew French, let alone Hindi, we couldn't ask why there were hundreds of people from South Asia filling the massive cathedral for a 5 p.m. mass and milling on the streets outside. I told the girls I found it utterly and completely fascinating.

"Mom, you find everything utterly and completely fascinating," Mariya said.

In Grüssow, a village smaller than Keats in what used to be East Germany, Art visited the church where his great-grandfather Karl Herrmann married Friederike Schroeder. While there, we ran into 13-year-old Melanie and her brother 16-year-old Marian. The teenagers had never seen Americans in person before, and they were intent on asking us - half in English, half in German - as many questions as they could.

"How old are your daughters? How many cars do you have? Do you have a computer? Does Mariya have a boyfriend? Do you have pets? Is that bubble gum you're chewing?"

When they unwrapped the pieces we gave them, Marian looked at the wrapper and said in German to his sister, "Look. It's in English!"

Before we began this trip I was a bit apprehensive after seeing television news accounts of anti-American protests, particularly in France and Germany. But the worst incident of our trip was minor and had nothing to do with us being Americans.

As we were strolling with a friend in Wales, we hadn't moved off the road fast enough for a certain driver. He rolled down his window and yelled, "This is a public highway, not a 'blinking' park!" Our friend commented that he must have had one drink too many.

It was the trip of a lifetime for our family. We got to know each other better, although sometimes we drove each other nuts. The girls will probably remember their Dad singing, "The last time I saw Paris" every time we mentioned that city's name, they'll remember me struggling and sometimes succeeding with the languages, and they'll remember how easily amused their folks were.

Perhaps more than anything, they'll realize how big and at the same time how small the world is, how different life can be in other countries and yet how certain similarities apply to us all and bring us together.

Mariya and Katie in front of Paris' Eiffel Tower, left, and at Stonehenge in southern England.

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