dinner by the rhine

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He had a difficult time getting a word in between the roar of passing trains (about 3-400 a day he said) and the near-equal roar of the men talking at the table nearby. It was obvious which one annoyed him more.
We had sat down to a late dinner in our last town of the European tour—Bacharach, Germany. Next to us was a lone German man enjoying his beer and, seemingly, the atmosphere, though the train tracks not three feet away didn’t feel terribly atmospheric. He started to talk to us, and as time went by, we struck up a conversation that lasted the rest of the evening, until I realized we absolutely had to start our trek up the hillside to our hostel in the gathering dark.
He had worked in several industries, including tourism, had taken and taught classes in other countries, and all in all truly enjoyed sitting around meeting people from other countries. In the middle of the conversation, he paid my daughters and me the best compliment I think we got all vacation. “You see,” he told us, nodding at the four people sitting nearby, “There is the difference between travelers and tourists. Tourists go places. They take pictures. They meet other tourists, talk to people from their own country, then go home and tell people about the places in their pictures and tick them off in a book to say they’ve been there.
Travelers learn about where they are. Travelers want to know about the people, the politics, the history—travelers talk to the people who live there, and eat with them, and shop with them. They”—he looked at the four Americans who had just met at the restaurant but were already laughing loudly and swapping stories–“are tourists. You are travelers.”
Well, that’s enough to give someone a bit of a swelled head. But it felt so good, knowing, really, that all the hard work of research, learning, and listening had paid off. Knowing that our teenagers had acquitted themselves as individuals with inquiring minds that wanted to know rather than spoiled American girls with permanently twitching texting thumbs. Sometimes, one does have hope for them. Knowing we had learned quite a lot beyond how to get to the riverboat dock and train station.
Is there anything wrong with being a tourist? Not particularly. People have different reasons for going where they want to go. If I start looking down my nose at a tourist, well, I can’t learn anything from him, can I? But I know that, years from now, even as the pictures in our scrapbook may be of castles in Bacharach, the best memories will be of dinner and our new friend, learning about the German government system, health care, and education, punctuated by trains, three or four hundred a day, running down the Rhine River.

on comings and goings

And now, having returned from our five-week odyssey, here are:

Jill’s Top Ten things I missed from home (besides my husband):

10–Air conditioning. Yep. Spoiled.

9–A washer and dryer any time I want them. With instructions in English. You haven’t truly had fun until you’ve tried to figure out how to wash your clothes in Italian. The buttons on the machine are not at all self-explanatory.

8–My big computer screen and internet service. Now, I can see my vacation pictures without having to scroll down the screen for each one. Most of my friends have seen my pictures on Facebook before I actually have. Besides, netbooks were not made for eyes of a certain age, which cannot read that tiny print very well. Hence all the typos I made.

7–Free public restrooms in abundance. When you’ve gotta go, it’s either fifty cents or go to a restaurant and buy a drink to use their bathroom. Which kind of defeats the purpose. Maybe it’s a conspiracy.

6–Being able to read whether I’m buying shampoo or depilatory in the grocery store. It does really matter.

5–My bed! Not a hard hostel bed buy my soft, gently waving water bed. I love you.

4–Water, out of my fridge, for free, anytime. With ice. I cannot believe I’ve taken water for granted.

3–My kitties and dog. Even if I just had to clean more hair off the furniture than should come off a pride of lions in five weeks, let alone three cats and a dog. I missed them.

2–My clothes. Any clothes other than the four outfits I have been wearing for five weeks. I’m talking the extra-large T-shirts I usually reserve for painting in are looking good right now.

1–No smoking in public!! Oh, thank you for US smoking laws! I am ever so grateful. Really. It is so different when that is what you’re used to.

But not to be forgotten–Jill’s Top Ten List of things she will miss from Europe:

10–All the British schoolchildren in trains who gave her a terrible urge to go home and watch Harry Potter.

9–Being able to take a five-minute ride to another country, just to take a picture and say you’ve been there.

8–Easy and clean pubic transportation. Except during Italian transport strikes. We are so far behind in this aspect.

7–The sense of and appreciation for history. They have paintings older than our entire country.

6–The sense, in Southern Europe at least, that we are not controlled by the clock but vice versa.

5–Flower stalls on the street. It makes your day happier just to see them.

4–Fruit stands on the street as well. You get to talk to the people involved in producing your food. Plus, there is no excuse for not having fresh fruit.

3–The attitude in most of Europe that, if you do something stupid, you probably shouldn’t have been doing it. Contrasted with the American attitude that, if you get hurt or inconvenienced, someone else is to blame and must be sued. It was rather refreshing.

2–Having people be surprised I’m an American. Sorry to say, but that was generally a compliment. The stereotypical loud American tourist, in volume and in dress, is alive and well.

1–Meeting people on trains, in restaurants, yes, even in campgrounds who want to talk to strangers and share stories. Americans want to be isolated. Why is that? Some of our best moments were had talking to complete strangers at the next table or sharing photo albums with the funny French couple we met on a walk. I don’t do that at home. Maybe I should look for it more often?

More on some of these next time . . . it’s good to go, and it’s good to come home. I think that’s the way it should be.

i think i can?

Forty-something women with kidney transplants and several pounds too many on their never-athletic frames should not believe they can scramble up the side of a mountain after three able-bodied teenagers. Wearing a skirt.

Yet there I was last week, high in the Bavarian Alps, on a top secret mission from middle child, clinging to an old wire fence and truly pulling myself up a vertical ascent over tree roots and rocks, trusting that said fence could reliably bear my extra pounds and not uproot itself and send me tumbling to my demise. In a skirt.

When we realized that middle child’s GPS was leading us not along a horizontal path but straight up the mountain (and who said north is not up??), I nearly took a pass. I almost said, “Just too hard. I cannot do this. We’ve got to go back down down and forget about it.” I simply could not imagine how I was going to have the stamina for that climb, particularly not being quite certain we’d even find what she sought.

But I didn’t. I could not disappoint her and her quest. Which is how I ended up on the fence. In a skirt. Partway up we noticed a young man climbing behind us. I’m pretty sure he saw way more of my middle aged booty than he ever bargained for. Not only that, but the poor guy was only taking that insane route because he thought we were in search of the perfect photo, and he wanted it too. When he found us all gathered around middle child’s treasure at the top instead, going nuts over a box of google eyes, paper clips, and other odd items, he got very confused. Right now, there are probably stories circulating somewhere in Asia about four women doing occult rituals on top of the Alps in Germany. It will probably create a new tourist destination.

I think I can. Climbing, I felt less like the optimistic little engine that could and more like the stubborn mule that would, no matter whether it was a good idea or not. In the end, however, it doesn’t rally matter, does it? Either one gets you to the top. Sometimes, optimism fails you, and sheer tenacity is all there is to cling to. And it will get you to the top, if you hang on to the fence for dear life and just keep going. By the way, the view from there is beyond spectacular.


I did not expect one of the more spiritually moving moments of my life to take place in St. Peter’s Basilica. Yes, I am aware that it is a church, after all, and the largest church in the world, apparently. And I am a pastor, so churches are supposed to be somewhat moving, I suppose. But I am not Catholic, and so it was not moving for the reasons it is for so many Catholic people who venture there. I expected to be more moved by the beauty and awesomeness of God’s creation in the Mediterranean and the Alps, and I was in the former and expect to be in the latter.

But it was standing before Michelangelo’s Pieta that blew me away. I felt first the pain in Mary’s face, past the shock of the death of her son into the empty resignation stage. I wondered how a man could possibly have grasped that look that every mother would know instinctively. I actually had tears.

Then there was the perfect form of every sinew of Christ’s feet, arms, and ribs. I almost felt as if I was looking at the real thing, and seeing again that love that had endured this horrible thing for me.

Meanwhile, so many people were taking their flash photos and moving on, so they could put it in an album and say, “Yup, I saw that famous statue there in Rome.” And I could barely walk away. I just wonder how many people traveled around the world to see this, then completely missed what it was there for.

Another important quality for writers and travelers, whether in life or in the world—a sense of wonder and a willingness to be surprised.

leaps of faith

My idea of adventure has typically been switching laundry detergents, so it may surprise some people to learn that I would, as previously mentioned, point to a dot on a foreign map and declare that my family would go there in two days. But certainly, writers and travelers must also possess a sense of adventure.

Now, that does not have to mean a willingness to jump out of planes or volunteer for a knife-throwing class. We all know where our own personal sense of adventure threshold is. One of mine, for instance, was reached swimming in the Cinque Terre, when our daughters decided to join the cliff jumpers. Now, you have to know, none of us swims particularly well. But, this beach (using the term loosely; the “beach” was a group of large slate rocks) was quite sheltered, and the rocks from which people jumped faced inland, not out to sea. Still, they were high, by my standards.

Middle child was the first to go, and in her usual straightforward manner, she walked up to the mid-height cliff, sized it up, and jumped before she could worry about it too much. Then ventured oldest child, who hesitated long and much. She liked not the look of the rocks beneath. So, in her typical fashion, she quite logically went up to the highest outcrop, about thirty feet, and leapt from there instead. She was the only girl willing to do so that day. It is not the first time in her life; she will as a rule climb up or jump off of walls that only guys will tackle. I could handle this only because I watched through the lens of a camera. Somehow, this distanced me from the actual events, and I did not have to cope with the fact that my offspring were hurling themselves into the Mediterranean from heights greater than our rooftop.

A sense of adventure led us last evening to possibly our only peaceful moment in Rome. Against middle child’s protests that we were going in a ramp that stated “Exit only,” we walked, rambling into the Roman Forum area after hours and nearing sunset. Which is why we found the top of a hill, overlooking the city, with only two young families to share the moment of a perfect sunset over matching pink buildings and glowing marble. Without a willingness to scout out the road less traveled, we would have missed that glorious moment.

I don’t want to get home and say I saw the Colosseum, the Eiffel Tower, and the Mona Lisa. I want to say I saw a perfect sunset over Rome, I found a church in a tiny plaza that had a stunning painting (we did), and I watched my kids try something new and didn’t hold them back. That’s not just what travel and writing are about. It’s what life is about.

we’ll be in another universe this evening

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One of the first articles I may write upon returning home is The Truth about Riding Eurail. (Working title, obviously.) Travel guides make it sound so painless. Streamlined websites appeal to the vacationer who assumes the rail travel must be equally streamlined. And it is, to a point. But there is so much they don’t tell you.
Bringing me to the third quality it is good to possess as both a traveler and a writer—flexibility. Previous blog posts from Europe have discussed maintaining a sense of humor and being observant. Now, flexibility.
Originally, plans had us hopping a train from Barcelona to Geneva for a few days in Switzerland before Italy. Originally, until the guy at the ticket counter in Paris looked up from his ever-clicking computer and said, “non.” What do you mean, “Non”? We have Eurail passes. Good anywhere, anytime, right? That’s what the posters say. The posters neglect to mention that those American passholders still have to make reservations, and sometimes making them several days in advance is clearly not enough. Attempting practically every city between the two as a way stop availed us nothing; the answer was still a firm, “Non.” No reservations possible. All trains full. Well, only one train going, so the one train was full. What to do?
Cancel inn reservations, point to a dot on the map in France between Spain and Italy, and say, “There. We’re going there for two days instead.” And so we did. We found a little hotel that promised on the website it decorated its rooms and floors “like the five continents, so your stay will be in another universe.” Their décor was cute, if their geography woeful, and the price was definitely right. It wasn’t what we had planed, but it was its own good experience, if we were willing to embrace it.
This we did, and a day in a hotel room doing absolutely nothing after the pace of Paris and Barcelona, then a day at the beach, proved a very needed blessing. Montreaux, Switzerland, another day. This, day, flexibility.