Years passed, and the exciting trip to Mexico became only a distant, wonderful memory. That changed in 1974, with a trip that led—over the next thirty-five years—to travel to and within forty countries in Europe, Asia and Africa.
After Mexico, marriage, children and teaching filled the years and the only travel was from Missouri to Illinois to visit family. Finally, twenty-seven years after that first foreign venture, my fifteen-year-old daughter, Kelly, and I drove to Colorado to visit my sister and my passion for travel, now shared by Kelly, was reignited.
Because only the summer of 1974 remained before Kelly would be off to college, we agreed this might be our last chance for a great trip. I was thinking, maybe to Boston and other parts of New England as our budget allowed. Finally, I asked, “Where do you want to go?”
Kelly thought a moment before saying, “I would really like to go to Europe.”
I had not allowed myself to dream so extravagantly and was momentarily speechless. Finally, I said, “I have no idea how much travel to Europe would cost, or if it is possible. But we will find out.”
While visiting family in Illinois, I talked to an aunt who had made numerous overseas trips in the previous two decades. She suggested that we rent a car for greater flexibility and reduce our food costs by using an immersion heater for hot drinks and soups. Travel books advertised Europe on $10 a Day so it seemed the major cost would be crossing the ocean.
I learned that the cheapest air fare was on Icelandic, which we could board in Chicago. After a brief stop in Iceland, we would land in Luxembourg. This fare required a stay of 22 to 45 days, and on this point Kelly and I disagreed. She thought three weeks would be long enough, and I thought I could not do all I hoped to do in such a short time.
The Ossuary (bone repository) at Verdun
Kelly was adamant that she did not want to visit only the uninteresting historical places I might choose, and we agreed that we would each make a priority list of places to go. I listed Verdun, the bloody battlefield of World War I, and Venice and Rome in Italy. Paris was at the top of Kelly’s list, and we agreed on Dachau. Since the Cold War was a major part of my Contemporary Issues class, I very much wanted to visit the Soviet Union. Kelly insisted that did not sound like a place anyone would enjoy.
When I could not persuade her, I asked my son, Pat, if he would go to the Soviet Union with me. He quickly agreed.
A visa to the Soviet Union required that we submit our complete travel itinerary for approval and that all lodging and other fixed costs be pre-paid. We were also required to complete an information sheet listing the countries of origin of our ancestors, and my work background. The local travel agency had never dealt with Intourist, the Soviet agency, and we had not allowed enough time for the visa request to be studied and approved. No problem, Intourist said. We could pick up the visas in Vienna.
With Passports and International Driver’s Licenses in hand, we sat down with a map to fit together a route: from Luxembourg to Verdun to Paris, then turning south and crossing Switzerland into Italy.
We stopped briefly in Iceland and arrived in Luxembourg in mid-afternoon. After I picked up our rental car, which turned out to be a white Renault, I had my first moment of panic when I wondered if I could read the signs and find the right road. A man noticed my hesitation and asked if he could help. I said I wanted the road to Paris, and he told me to drive into Luxembourg City and look for the sign to Paris. It’s that easy.
In the first few days we survived many small crises, while Kelly and I reminded each other that one of our purposes was to learn how to travel in Europe. We began ignorant as babes and in those early days, we learned: (a) the French speak French and almost nothing else, (b) roads in France are two lane, narrow, winding and go through villages with a right turn every block, (c) the French countryside is beautiful, and (d) the place to find inexpensive hotels in small towns is by the railroad station. French hotels are officially classed by stars, and we found that one star hotels cost from $6 to $9 and included a washbasin and bidet, but no bath or shower. For two dollars more, we received the key to open the locked shower.
Near Fort Douaumont, Battle of Verdun
After resting from the lost night in flight, we drove to Verdun. This battlefield on which 700,000 French and German men died is a meditation on the folly of war. The ground was pocked with round depressions, some 10 to 15 feet wide, left from shells that exploded nearly sixty years earlier. The Ossuary is a long, solemn memorial with walls listing names of French soldiers who died here while the lower level holds the bones, German and French, picked up after the battle was over. Fort Douaumont , which was fought over for ten months, survives as a ruin. We climbed over what remains of the outside shell and picked our way through the dark interior almost feeling the presence of those, both French and German, who died there.