Sunday, 26th May, 2013: Back Home, in Europe.

Home! Cats. Husband. Whoops. Change that. Husband. Cats. My own bed. My own kitchen. My own job. Well, not til Tuesday. It’s a bank holiday weekend.

After almost one full month traveling around Europe—France, Germany, France again, Belgium, The Netherlands, the UK, Ireland, the UK again—by train, car and ship, how ya doin’ Europe?

Seems to be okay. People are going out, eating in restaurants, drinking wine. No one is being bombed.

But some are really ‘pissed off.’ They’re not happy with what their elected politicians are doing. Germans aren’t happy that they are going to have to bail out the other countries in the Eurozone. And the other countries in the Eurozone aren’t happy about the Germans being the ones to save them. And because the UK isn’t in the Eurozone they’re not happy about everything else they have to do to be in the European Union. So they may leave.

One of my fellow Americans, Tim Dowling, who writes for my favourite British newspaper, The Guardian, said that, living in the UK, you read the papers and think that all hell is breaking loose outside. Then you look out the window and a dog is walking down the street. And basically everything is okay.

Just before we docked in Dover, the incredibly efficient Institute for Shipboard Education machine went into disembark mode. We put our suitcases outside the cabin door the night before and by morning they had miraculously disappeared. BFF Marie and I made our way through to the terminal and I easily picked Buddy out of the crowd of waiting luggage. An incredibly efficient hunky young Brit put Buddy on a trolley and followed me to the taxi rank [no tipping!]. Marie was in a British black cab before I had a chance to say goodbye, so I banged on the window and we had a BFF hug.

On my way to the train station, the taxi driver warned me that it would be crawling with Germans. The European Champions League [Don’t ask—I don’t know either] football final was being held at Wembley stadium that night, and, for the first time in forever, TWO German teams were playing [So Germany won]. The ferry was bringing thousands of fans over to take the train through London and on to Wembley, if they had tickets. Or even if they didn’t.

As I gave the taxi driver an American tip, and got a Semester at Sea receipt, I said ‘Don’t mention the war!’ reprising a British favourite line from John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers TV show.

Sure enough, throughout the small train station, and on the train, and into London Waterloo station—thousands of Germans. A lot of beer cans for 9 am, but basically well behaved.

Another German invasion. But a big improvement over the Nazi blitz of England in the 1940s.

So. Maybe Europe is working after all.

Keep reading. I’ll be back.

Wednesday, 22nd May, 2013: Who Is Europe?

We’re back in Dublin, my second hometown after Pittsburgh. No Super Bowl rings, but great pubs. Even in crap weather.

Before we docked I did the ‘Cultural Pre-Port’ for my assembled fellow Semester at Sea participants, to alert them to the best places to eat and drink and just hang out during our two days in port. BFF Marie and I head for one of my lunch recommendations, Gallagher’s Boxty House in the funky Temple Bar area. On the way I pull her into one of my favourite old Dublin pubs, the Palace Bar, to show her the snug, one of the last remaining in the country.

I first went to Gallagher’s Boxty House just a few years ago, because my mother was a Gallagher. Good food, hearty chowders with crusty bread, beers, cider, friendly waiters. Best lunch in town, if you ask me.

So Marie and I settle in to a corner table, just as it starts to rain. Go figure. And I pose my question to her, Is Europe working?

I am interested in Marie’s opinions, not just because she is ‘Hey Marie! Let’s go back on Semester at Sea!’ but also because she is Dr. Marie Hooper, chair of the History Department at Oklahoma City University, whose research topics are modern European history, identity formation, mobilization and nationalism. How perfect is that?!

So, Dr. Hooper, er…BFF Marie, Is Europe working?

‘It might. I have hopes. I’m a bit disappointed to see that national identities still aren’t breaking down. This undermines the whole idea of having a “European identity.”’

How do you balance the two?

‘If they don’t merge into a common European identity, they seem to become more chauvinistic. When times are good they all want to be Europeans. But when times turn down, like now–Look at the National Front in France, the neo-Nazis in Germany, the popularity of Silvio Berlosconi in Italy. The Greeks are calling the Germans “Nazis” and saying “Heil Angela” to the German chancellor,’ she said. ‘Even the academics tend to see Europe in nationalistic terms.’

‘But,’ I point out, ‘at the academic conference I attended in Frankfurt, there seemed to be a feeling of European identity. Most were there because of funding from the Erasmus program, and were looking for more partnerships with other European universities.’

‘But they were all from business schools, right?’ she asks.

‘True. Business sees it as one big market. Bigger than the US,’ I say.

‘And politicians respond to the business community more often than not,’ Marie added. ‘But they still emphasize their own national identity. Identities are evolving things; but instead of evolving into a larger European identity, the current trend is to emphasize national differences.’

So, do you think it is working?, I ask Dr. Hooper.

‘I think the euro is a wonderful idea. Greece might have to drop out if the politicians follow the bankers; and then there will have to be a change in the basic understanding of the European Union. This is a particularly bad time to be re-negotiating all those treaties because the nationalists of all stripes will try to write protectionist stuff into them.’

‘We were both here in Dublin on Semester at Sea in 2002,’ I remind her. ‘The euro had just been introduced. What changes do you see in Ireland in the past 11 years?’

‘It’s certainly been revitalized. The area on the River Liffey is a great example–that development has been amazing. The new bridge and convention center are stunning.

‘Our tour guide on the bus yesterday was interesting. He said that the country needs the Catholic church “for values.” Hard to imagine what values the Catholic church is imparting, given their track record. It might be generational; he was in his late 50s, and was obviously nostalgic for a stable past. Even if that stability is largely fictional in terms of historical fact, it was real to him. His “good old days” were the pre-scandal 1990s, the boom times. It seemed that, in his mind, the abuses of the clergy didn’t count as long as “we” didn’t know about them. And he completely dismissed the tragedies of the Magdalen laundries [See my blog, http://suchfriends.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/the-magdalene-women]. That was sad.

‘When we were in France a few weeks ago, the French didn’t seem to be as phobic about the Germans. But the French National Front has passed into new leadership with a much more nuanced and clever anti-immigrant platform. The German government isn’t adequately addressing the popular hostility to helping the community within the Union. The Europeans need to think of the current situation as a European economic bailout, not a “German bailout” of Greece and the others.

‘The biggest problem right now in all of these countries is unemployment, and most of the politicians are making it worse. People are basically pissed off. They all need to get past their “us against the world” thinking and focus on Europe, within the larger world.’

So, the big question: Would you live here?

‘In a minute.’

Permanently?

‘In a minute.’

Keep reading.

Sunday, 19th May, 2013: In or Out

When planning this month-long trip around Europe, I confirmed that my calling plan would work in every country, told my credit card provider about my travels, and brought along a supply of euros.

It never occurred to me that once we docked here in Edinburgh—and for the next two days until we leave Belfast—I would be home! Back in the UK!

I am now in the same time zone as My Irish Husband Tony and the cats back in Birmingham, not one hour ahead like I was on the continent. Here it is British ‘Summer’ Time [BST], as they laughingly call it. While shivering in sweaters.

Also, I can use the pounds I stashed away when we got on the Eurostar. And my smart phone is picking up e-mails again. I’m no longer roaming.

And BBC! In the early hours of this morning, sailing closer to Scotland, the signal for Radio 4 grew stronger. Desert Island Discs! PM with Eddie Mair! Women’s Hour! How I’ve missed your voices.

Today I can go to the fabulous Waverley train station in the middle of Edinburgh and buy my train ticket to get home when we dock in Dover. And use my 1/3 off Senior Railcard! One of the few advantages to growing old.

Unfortunately, my euphoria doesn’t extend to my senior bus pass, which only means free travel in England and Wales. Oh well, £3.50 to ride around Edinburgh all day isn’t bad.

BFF Marie and I get off the bus on Prince’s Street, bundled up against the May cold, find a good old wooden pub and have a great, big fish ‘n chips and Tenants lager. This is terrific—like being a tourist in my own hometown. On Tuesday, in Belfast, I can even go to my bank.

But on Wednesday, when we’re in Dublin, it will be back to euros and roaming fees.

When we relocated to the UK eight years ago, we noticed that the Brits refer to ‘Europe’ as someplace else. I commented to my students that my husband and I thought that we had moved to ‘Europe.’ ‘You moved to England,’ one pointedly told me. In my university there are even posters urging our students to ‘Study in Europe.’ You ARE in Europe!

Not to the Brits. They will NEVER give up the pound for the euro, a stance that has, to them, been vindicated by the woes of Greece, Cyprus, and even Ireland. The Conservative government has promised that, if re-elected in 2015, they will hold a vote on whether the UK should pull out of the European Union altogether. The Scottish government has already scheduled a referendum for next year on whether they should declare independence from the UK.

The Scottish National Party maintains that they want to be a separate country, but would probably keep the pound. And would want the UK defence forces to protect them, of course. And would stay in the EU. It’s like breaking up with a lover but keeping the joint bank account and telling them you’d still like to have sex pretty regularly.

The European Union now has 26 member states. Croatia is on schedule to join next year and is already included in the Erasmus program that I wrote about last time. Hey, Croatia—I’m winkin’ at you…

The Eurozone, however, includes only 17 of those countries, and Germany is thinking that Greece might be better off on its own. They’re not real happy with Cyprus either. All those drachmas kept in shoeboxes in attics as memories to show the grandchildren may come in handy after all.

Last night the Eurovision song contest was held in Sweden, because they won last year. A guilty pleasure of mine since we’ve lived here, but there was no way to watch it on the ship. Each year, the central European countries gang up on Britain and routinely vote them ‘nul points,’ ranking them at or near the bottom. The Brits even had Andrew Lloyd Webber write the song a couple of years ago, and they still lost. This year, the UK’s entry was Bonnie A Total Eclipse of the Heart Tyler singing Believe in Me. They didn’t. Came in 19th. And the Irish! Like the Pittsburgh Steelers’ with their Super Bowl rings, they have six wins, more than any other country. But this year—last place! Ireland must have pissed someone off with that IMF bailout.

The question is, how do countries like Russia, Azerbaijan and Israel—all recent winners—get into the Eurovision Song Contest? Has anyone looked at a map?! The contest, which has given us ABBA and Riverdance, is sponsored by the European Broadcasting Union [EBU], which, Wikipedia tells me, is an organization of public service broadcasters. The ‘active members’ from those in the European Broadcasting Area, such as BBC, can submit entries. And it is unrelated to the EU. Go figure.

So, are we in or out? Will Scotland vote to cut itself off at Hadrian’s Wall? Will the UK float away from the EU? [Legendary British headline: ‘Heavy fog in Channel. Continent cut off.’] And will countries start dropping out of Eurovision, afraid that they will win and then have the expense of putting on the show the next year?

In ‘Such Friends,’ the series of talks I am giving on board this Semester at Sea Enrichment Voyage, I talk about the groups of early 20th century writers whom I’ve studied—those who started Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, Virginia Woolf and her friends in Bloomsbury. My research showed that there were specific roles common to these groups of creative friends. One role is The Observer; the person in your circle of friends who is definitely part of the group, but stays a bit outside. He hangs out with other friends, develops relationships outside the group, and holds back a bit, mostly observing what the others are doing, not always joining in.

In the early 60s, former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson said that Britain had ‘lost an empire but not yet found a role.’ Maybe the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will play the Observer in the European group of the 21st century?

Keep reading…

Wednesday, 15th May, 2013: Erasmus Lives!

Erasmus was one of the great thinkers of the 16th century. Known as ‘the first European,’ he was born in Rotterdam, and studied and worked throughout what is now a big chunk of the European Union. He is credited with laying the groundwork for the later reformation of the Catholic Church.

So the great thinkers at the EU HQ in Belgium came up with the idea of having students and teachers at European universities study and work throughout the member countries and called it the Erasmus program. Which stands for EuRopean Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students. Which Wikipedia [okay, I cheated] tells me is a ‘bacronym.’

When I taught in Dublin while working on my Ph.D., we had Erasmus students from Northern Ireland [yes, it’s a different country] and Germany. Where I teach now in Birmingham, UK, we get quite a few, usually quite good. They come with strong preparation and go straight into our more advanced classes in the Business School.

However, not enough of our British students take advantage of the opportunity to study at another university for a semester, even though we assure them that the classes will be taught in English.

Because I had gleefully used the Erasmus program for faculty to teach one week in Cyprus [yes, it’s in the EU], our associate dean has put me in charge of the program in the Business School. I confess I haven’t done much yet—mostly told the newcomers how to get buses into Birmingham and where the bathrooms are—but I’m planning some changes for the upcoming year.

So, when I was at the conference in Frankfurt last week, I decided to sidle up to academics from other European business schools to see if we could get to know each other a bit better.

Bertol the Belgian was particularly alluring, being from one of my favourite cities, Ghent. We made a date to get together when I docked in nearby Antwerp, our first port after Paris.

So yesterday BFF Marie and I strolled from the ship up to the fabulous Antwerp train station, figured out how to buy tickets in euros, and hopped on the train to Bruges.

Yes, that Bruges. If you haven’t seen the movie In Bruges with Colin Farrell, I highly recommend it. The rain stopped long enough for us to stroll down from the fabulous train station into the town, and have a lovely lunch outside on the square, luckily on a heated porch.

Back home in England isn’t the only part of Europe that is freezing cold this May.

Then Marie and I strolled back up to the fabulous station and hopped on a train to Ghent. Using Bertol’s directions, we rode a tram into the city centre. He had suggested walking around to visit the beautiful cathedral, taking in the gorgeous architecture. As it was pissin’ rain, windy and cold, instead we shoved our umbrellas into the wind and tried to find the Opera House where Bertol said we should meet.

There he was! Dripping wet, in jacket and tie, standing with his bicycle. How attractive. How Belgian. Bertol and I walked off to have a drink in a secluded café, while BFF Marie figured out how to see lovely Ghent without drowning.

I waited for the right moment and then proposed to Bertol:  Would any of your students be interested in coming to us in the UK? Yes, definitely. Having even part of your business degree in English from a British university is seen as a real plus. Do you have any partners in the UK now? How serious is the relationship? He whipped out his iPhone and checked his university’s website to find that they have an agreement with only one British university. They’ve been seeing each other for a while, but it’s nothing serious. He’d definitely be open to hooking up with someone else.

Feeling encouraged, I continued to probe:  What classes in English could our students take if they came here? Lots, it turns out. They would have choices, and could easily find a place to live in the city, walking or taking the tram to class.

Time to move in and pop the question:  So, my dear Bertol. What would you say to having a certain red-headed marketing professor with an American accent coming over to teach some of your classes for a week? For you, cheap. All expenses paid by good old Erasmus. Hmmm, Bertol?  I can make you real happy. Whaddya think?

Bertol readily agreed. And he, or some of his colleagues, would be interested in coming to Birmingham to do the same for us.

Sold. What’s the next step? Bertol and I decided that it is now, as the British say, ‘beyond our remit.’ Meaning that we both need to report back to those above us and push them to get in touch and work out a relationship.

Leaving Bertol behind, Marie and I meet up, take the tram to the train, have fabulous moules et frites and a Leffe inside a cozy restaurant in Antwerp, and then walk back to the ship, docked right in the center of town.

When we arrive in Amsterdam [also in the pissin’ rain] tomorrow, I am off to meet with another academic at another university to propose another deal.

I am officially an Erasmus slut.

Keep reading…

Sunday, 12th May, 2013: Americans in Paris

After the first world war, Americans invaded Paris in record numbers. Soldiers who had been stationed there found that they couldn’t even get a drink, let alone a job, back in Prohibition-era America, so they returned to the city of lights where everything was cheap and they could, in the words of composer Virgil Thomson, ‘starve where the food was good.’

And Americans still come, although  no longer because of low prices. We live in a global economy, so if you are looking for a job, or a holiday, why not do what I did and look in Europe?

BFF ML and I spend our first night on the Left Bank with a Pittsburgh friend who lives in Paris now. She and her French husband  rent an apartment as well as office space in the city for their business, and have just bought a small home out in the countryside near friends. They met in America at a business conference five years ago, and she lived here with him for a few years before their marriage last April. Her mom, who died recently,  was a good friend and traveling companion of ours, so we toast her with chardonnay-with-a-bit-of-ice-and-a- twist-of- lemon, before moving on to taste wonderful crepes on the rue de Montparnasse.

The next day, Friday, ML and I meet up with my new BFF, Marie, who will join me on the next two weeks of my travels. She came to Paris from the States a few days early to stay with another ex-pat, her long-time friend Linda, who has lived here since the 1980s, teaching at an English-language university for most of that time.

After a lovely lunch in a café, I take ML, Marie and Linda on an informal version of my walking tour of the places where the Americans in the Paris in the 1920s lived, drank and hung out. We start nearby at Café Deux Magots, one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorites. It’s across from Brasserie Lipp, whose potato salad he praised in his memoir A Moveable Feast.

With Linda’s help—always befriend a local—we make our way over to the rue de l’Odeon where Sylvia Beach had her English-language bookshop, Shakespeare & Co, across the street from her friend’s French-language bookshop, La Maison des Amis des Livres. A plaque commemorates the fact that Beach, a minister’s daughter from New Jersey, published James Joyce’s ground-breaking Ulysses in 1922 from this location.

Crossing the Luxembourg Gardens we stop at the homes of the San Franciscan Stein family, renowned in the city before WWI as art collectors. After the war, Gertrude—another ex-pat born in Pittsburgh!—became more well known for the writers she hosted in her salon at 27 rue de Fleurus, surrounded by the Matisses, Picassos and Cezannes she had bought dirt cheap.

We finish up at Closerie de Lilas, where I had sat and read Charmed Circle, an excellent book about Stein’s group of ‘such friends,’ when I was just starting my research for my Ph.D. Linda points ML and I in the direction of the steps where Owen Wilson was sitting when he was whisked away to the 1920s in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. It is surrounded by American tourists, like us, snapping pictures.

On our last day together as traveling companions, after a visit to the Pompidou Centre, a lunch of baguette and ice cream, and a boat trip down the Seine, I interview BFF ML about her American impressions of Europe this time around.

‘Distressing,’ she says. ‘It’s very homogenized now. I confess I am a dinosaur and globalization bothers me, but open borders are the future. A fait accompli.’ She decries the fact that we could find just about every brand that we can get back in Pittsburgh here in Paris.

And does Europe work?, I ask her. ‘Even though it is socialized, I still see the poverty. There were some people sleeping in the streets with their dogs, in Paris and in Birmingham.’

What did feel different was the architecture, both here and back in the UK. ML volunteers with Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, and gives tours of our hometown. Walking around my adopted city, she noticed all the buildings that shout ‘EMPIRE!’ from Victorian Birmingham, along with the new ones in now diverse and modern Birmingham.

So, ML, would you recommend that Americans visit? ‘Oh, definitely. It’s a worthwhile trip, even though it is so similar to what we have back home. There are cultural differences—language can still be a barrier.’

ML’s German definitely improved when she stayed with her cousins in Germany for three days. ‘They like where they are; Cousin Gerdi has her kids and grandchildren near her. She did say that she doesn’t like Germany’s role as Europe’s banker. Why should they pay for the sins of Greece, Spain and Ireland?

‘The Germans appear to work hard, particularly on their homes and gardens, just like myself and my family back in the US. The French seem more laid back, less productive. But Paris has to deal with these hordes of tourists all the time; New York City is a bit dirtier, but it has more energy. It moves faster.’

The ultimate question: Would you come live here, like the Americans almost 100 years ago?

‘For a period. For the experience.’ But certainly not because it’s cheap.

Keep reading…

Wednesday, 8th May, 2013: Multicultural Communications

During my lecture on Multicultural Communications to the marketing class at the university in Frankfurt I ask the students, What makes up ‘culture’? They toss out the first things they think of: Food. Dress. Religion. Traditions.

The bright blond German student in the back says, ‘Skin?’

‘Not necessarily,’ I caution him.

When we’ve compiled a complete list on the whiteboard, I explain that what all of these have in common is that they are learned. You aren’t born with them, as you are with ‘skin.’ You start learning your culture the moment you emerge from the womb, because different cultures even have different ways of handling childbirth, and infants. Babies of well to do moms used to be instantly handed to a wet nurse, which communicated, ‘Forget it, kid. Your place is over here…’

Someone born of a particular race, but raised in a different culture, would absorb everything about that culture, while retaining whatever race, and in some cases nationality, he or she was born with.

When I give the students a verbal quiz on the facts in ‘If the world were a village of 1.000 people [http://www.gdrc.org/uem/1000-village.html],’ they know a lot of the correct statistics about population [the EU, the US, etc.]. When I ask, ‘If the world were reduced to 1,000 people, how many would be Muslims?’ I see two male students in the back mouth ‘Too many!’ to each other and then giggle.

As an academic in this three-day ‘International Week’ conference, my name tag buys me free meals in the cafeteria. Schnitzel one day. Schnitzel the next.

Rather than carry my wobbling tray up the steps to eat in the room set aside for us academics, I opt for a seat in the regular cafeteria, facing out the window to the wonderful sunshine, which we haven’t seen back in Birmingham UK in a L O N G time.  I overhear the English conversation of two male and one female student sitting next to me, while I pretend to be more interested in my Guardian newspaper.

The guys are Turkish and seem to have just met the young woman from Frankfurt who also studies here. ‘Those other students, they just want to get the mark,’ one of the males says. ‘Not like us. We want to learn things. You have to have a goal in life.’

Admirable, I think.

‘So we don’t need to go to the classes. We are going to be body builders and then start a business together to make a lot of money. That’s our goal. We do not like those other students.’

‘I go to all my classes,’ the Frankfurt woman says. ‘I wouldn’t miss one. I want to get everything I can while I’m here.’

So, not so different from home, I think.

During the three days, our hosts at the university take us to visit the German stock exchange, to a welcome reception with the deputy mayor, and on ‘the apple trolley’ for a tour of the Frankfurt streets, ending with a lovely dinner of…schnitzel!

Watching a performance of Indian dancers on a stage set up on campus, I chat with one of the university administrators about how Europe is working. I ask her if the Germans are worried, as the British are, about being flooded with immigrants next January when the Bulgarians become legal to work anywhere in the EU.

‘No, I don’t think so,’ she says. ‘I haven’t heard anyone worrying about it.’

‘The British are panicking,’ I tell her. ‘The conservative newspapers are convinced that everyone wants to come to Britain. But reporters and politicians have gone to Bulgaria to interview people and almost all say, ‘No. Not England. Your weather is bad and you’re not friendly. We might go to Italy.’

She laughs and says, ‘I don’t blame them. Italy is lovely.’

But she goes on to ask me, ‘I don’t understand why someone can’t have two passports. I am German, but my grandson is half Turkish. He has been told he can’t have both Turkish and German passports, that he has to give one up. Why? He is both.’

‘Each country makes its own rules,’ I say. ‘In Germany you are a citizen by blood, not by soil. In America, it is both blood and soil—either you are born to American parents and/or born in America. I am American but also Irish because I married an Irishman—there has to be some benefit!’

Today, at our last meeting together, all 22 professors, from America, Japan, India and an assortment of European countries, are asked for feedback on the conference and suggestions for next time. It soon turns into an academic Tower of Babel, with 22 different versions of English—from Madison, Wisconsin to Tokyo to Calcutta to Amsterdam—competing for attention.

Typically, the Belgian steps in to offer a compromise and calm everyone down.

I race out early to catch a bus back to the Hahn US Air Force base, to meet up with BFF ML. I join her at Cousin Gerde’s, who feeds us wurst, potatoes, good strong brown bread and red wine. [I had warned ML ahead of time—no schnitzel.] As we chat about families and countries and cultures, ML finds herself talking to Gerde in English and me in German. I remind her—I’m from Pittsburgh. Stick with the English.

Tomorrow—off to Paris!

Keep reading…

Sunday, 5th May, 2013: Foreign Exchanges

As my BFF ML and I strolled down London’s Euston Road, from the Travelodge  conveniently located next to Euston Station where we had arrived the night before, to St. Pancras station, where we were about to roll onto the Eurostar to Lille, France, we discussed high finance.

ML wouldn’t be coming back to the UK, but I live here! So I have more use for pounds than she will. I agreed to buy her pounds back with my euros. And I gave her a great rate, by the way. I have pounds for our port stops in Edinburgh and Belfast and my return home at the end of the month, and she has euros for our upcoming sojourn through France and Germany. Without having to go to an ATM and pay bank fees. Take that, global financial system!

After lunch in Lille, and a quick change of trains to get to Strasbourg, including lugging my overweight but extremely necessary suitcase—now named ‘Buddy’—we were able to walk to our hotel in Strasbourg from the train station, proving that there is truth in advertising.

Strasbourg is a lovely old European town, but the next morning we picked up our rental car and promptly headed out, on a mission: To visit the three Alsace villages that ML’s relatives had left behind to immigrate to America.

Armed with maps, family histories, rusty French and a Diet Coke, ML was driver, I was navigator. Let’s just say driver did better than navigator, but at least we didn’t get caught in the bus lane we drove through when we tried to get back in to town that evening. Lessons learned, the second day went better.

The towns that had been ravished by Napoleon, and traded back and forth between France and Germany over the centuries, evidenced by  the German names with French pronunciations, have turned into comfortable bedroom communities for middle-class Europeans who probably commute to professional jobs in Strasbourg and other larger cities. No train stations in these towns, but really nice cars parked in most driveways. Of course, Mercedes-Benz isn’t a pricey import here.

Where were the people? Every town was empty. On Friday afternoon—okay, they were probably at work—but also on Saturday. And the businesses were closed! Turned out we had hit the lunch ‘hour,’ which runs from noon until two pm, and everyone was at the local WalMart-style store we stopped at to get directions.

Our last stop was Riedseltz.  ML’s research had revealed that her ancestors had left there in the early 19th century, ‘victims of wretched misfortune’  as the local priest wrote. No such victims now. Riedseltz is doing well. We started to walk around the church, where ML’s great, great, whatevers had worshipped , when a small car pulled up and two couples and one Older Guy in Charge got out and asked us if we would like to see the church. In French. And a bit of German. As we were able to sputter the nature of our quest in my un peu francais and ML’s ein bischen Deutsch, the Older Guy in Charge took ML’s family history print out and went away to call his feeble mother who might remember stories about that family who left for the US. Turned out, she didn’t. But he had pieced together enough info from her to indicate that the house had been one block away from the church.

The couples from the car spoke in a mixture of French and German, and our contribution didn’t make anything any clearer. But they were extremely helpful, and I gave the Older Guy in Charge my card so he could e-mail me with more info to pass onto ML. And then they all crawled back in the car and took off. Not sure why they were there in the first place except to help the two Americans they saw wandering around their church.

Today, Sunday, ML and I checked out, secure in our knowledge of how to drive out of town, back onto the highway, and into Germany. Three hours later—no stops—we pulled up in front of the house of her Cousin Gerdi in another comfortable small town. Gerdi gave us a warm welcome and cake.

Cousin Gerdi’s English has improved since she recently visited her sister in Texas. Her kids have all grown, started families and secured good jobs but still live in nearby suburbs or towns. ML and Gerdi put me on a bus that runs from the US AF base, where Cousin Gerdi’s late husband used to work, directly into Frankfurt train station.

My friendly very German-looking taxi driver had excellent English so I decided to ask him about how Europe is working today. He is planning to vote for the new anti-Euro political party. He pointedly asked me what percentage of the UK population are emigrants. ‘Like me?’ I said. ‘Not as high a percentage as the Daily Mail would like people to think.’

We agreed that Frankfurt looks as tho it is doing well, with lots of skyscrapers, great public transportation, and bustling universities like the one I will be visiting for the next few days.

Keep reading…