By JEFF ROUBAL
Martinez News-Gazette Columnist
Vivian and I are long-time members of the Martinez Senior Center. Our April newsletter, announced that there would be a presentation on Friday, April 26th at 10:00 am. Travel experts from Premier World Discovery will discuss upcoming 2019-2020 trips to locations around the world.
This brought back memories of the time when we lived in Southern Germany about seventeen kilometers from Ramstein Air Base. The small town of Lambsborn was a farming community of about 500. Many of our relatives came to visit us during the three years we lived in a three-bedroom, third-floor walk-up flat.
It was a super deal for them. The exchange rate for German marks was excellent. Vivian and I provided all meals, lodging, and tours. I bought a used 9-passenger Mitsubishi van to carry everyone. The van was slow but economical on gas and reliable transportation.
Then, as now, gasoline was much more expensive in Europe. Today, gasoline in Germany costs 1.40 Euro per liter ($5.97 per gallon), about the same as when we lived there. If we were traveling someplace far away, the bus tours arranged by our Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) office on base were a good alternative. Tour prices were very reasonable. The overnight trips were scheduled on weekends to be convenient for young airmen like me who worked Monday through Friday.
Travel in Europe was much easier in the early 1980s. There were no border guards or security checkpoints. One of our tours for visiting relatives started with a hop to France for breakfast. Metz was a one-hour drive from our house. Visitors were awestruck on seeing the gothic Metz Cathedral, world-famous for its massive stained glass windows.
After a short visit, all would would pile back into the van for a beautiful one-hour drive to Belgium. Arlon has the best archeological museum of ancient artifacts from the Roman occupation. Before lunch, we saw Roman defensive walls that were built in the 3rd century.
After lunch, we would drive 30 minutes to Luxembourg for more sightseeing and dinner. The Luxembourg American Cemetery is the final resting place for 5,073 American soldiers who died in WWII. From there, it was a one hour drive back to our home in Germany.
We could see four countries in one day and be in bed by 9 pm. No wonder Vivian and I had a lot of houseguests from America!
My mother came to visit for a whole month in 1985. One of the trips I took with her was a weekend MWR bus tour to Paris. We departed Friday night around midnight and slept on the bus (I told you these tours were cheap).
First thing in the morning, we woke to visit Notre Dame Cathedral, the Paris Opera House, and the Père Lachaise Cemetery complete with tombs of Chopin, Rossini, and Jim Morrison. We arrived at our hotel at three o’clock on Saturday, with two hours to change clothes before the full evening activities; more sightseeing, an authentic Parisian four-course dinner and the late show at Moulin Rouge. It was a long, exciting day for Mom and me.
We checked out of the hotel early on Sunday after a simple breakfast of toast, cold cuts, cheese, jam, Nutella, and strong coffee or tea (all complementary). By 8am, Mom and I were standing on the sidewalk with other passengers waiting for our tour bus to come.
It was a beautiful morning. The neighborhood was quiet. Paris is a city that likes to stay up late at night and sleep in the morning. There were piles of garbage in front of every nightclub and restaurant, remnants of the night before. Sanitation workers were washing the sidewalks and cobblestone streets with fire hoses. As they passed, everything sparkled like new.
The mood was subdued. Our little tour had been at the Moulin Rouge until 2 a.m. We were looking forward to an exciting day visiting the Louvre Museum, the Seine River and the Isle de la Cité, the Champs Elysées, Arc de Triomphe, and the Eiffel Tower. Mom and I would return home with lots of stories about some of the most famous places on Earth. Our favorite story would not be about a landmark however, but about something that happened on that sidewalk outside our hotel.
As the forty of us waited in small groups, a stranger walking by asked Mom for directions to the subway. Paris Métro is one of the finest transit systems in the world. It is clean, inexpensive, punctual, and efficient (Vivian and I love the Barcelona and Copenhagen subways but that is a different story). The frustrated man had a tourist map but was plainly lost. Mom and I helped him as best we could. He thanked us and walked on, still pretty much lost.
A few minutes after he left, Mom discovered that her bag was missing. We had been robbed! I searched for a few minutes but the bus soon arrived and we were on our way. Mom had been carrying a small suitcase and a nylon shopping bag made from rainbow fabric. The suitcase was fine. Only the rainbow bag was missing.
As our bus pulled up to the Louvre, Mom started chuckling. When I asked her why, she said, “The only things in that bag were dirty laundry and two exposed rolls of film I took yesterday.” I started laughing too with a mental image of the thieves’ surprise when opening their prize package on the subway. The only thing Mom lamented was loss of her favorite shopping bag. She had been carrying it for years.
Everything after that went as planned. We waved to the Venus de Milo and puzzled at the ever-smiling Mona Lisa. The busy tour schedule did not leave much time to worry about our misfortune. Our third tour stop was at the world-famous Parisian flea market — Les Puces de Saint-Ouen. Wandering through 2,500 vendors of antiques, fresh produce, books, and art, my eye fell on a table of nylon shopping bags.
In the middle of the table was a brand-new bag made from rainbow fabric just like the one Mom lost. What are the odds? For thirty francs, we bought the bag and continued happily on our way. That was a great deal because, at the time, we were getting more than nine francs to the dollar. Mom’s replacement bag cost less than the original and was better made. She still travels with it 35 years later.
Our bus pulled in around 11pm on Sunday night. Vivian was waiting when Mom and I arrived home. We regaled her with stories about the glories of Paris: the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, the Moulin Rouge…and the rainbow bag.
Mom had a great time on her European vacation. In addition to sightseeing, she went clothes shopping in German department stores. At the end her visit, Mom returned home with new memories, new clothes and no dirty laundry!