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A Memorable Place

Some experiences transcend language


By Richard Wachter

I always thought that when the opportunity to travel to Europe finally arrived, I would not be like the American tourists who expect the rest of the world to talk like us. Instead, I would be ready with grammar books and Berlitz tapes.

Good intentions mean little in the real world, however. And when a friend persuaded me to fly to Paris, I had to cram like a college student. It didn't work, but no matter. The trip was wonderful, and, surprisingly, my inability to speak French actually helped me.

I like to visit Gothic cathedrals, and my friend likes monasteries and bookstores. So our itinerary came easy in and around Paris. In the city we saw the Saint Chappelle with its magnificent stained-glass windows, the royal tombs of St. Denis and -- of course -- Notre Dame.

On the day we planned to visit Reims, my friend fell ill. So I set out solo on what became the most scenic journey of the trip, through wine country, river valleys and picturesque towns.

When I boarded the train in Paris, I chose a compartment in the nonsmoking car. At our first stop, a man boarded and seated himself nearby. I was annoyed that he had entered my space, and I became even more annoyed when he lit a cigarette.

Soon, we were traveling through regions and towns featured in the book I was reading, The Guns of August, which chronicles the first 30 days of World War I. One of these towns was Chateau-Thierry, where the train was scheduled to stop.

When we approached the town, my compartment mate stood up to put his coat on. He seemed to be lingering, as if he wanted to say something. He looked at me with all my cameras and said, "American?"

I nodded.

He came over to the window, and with his finger on the pane, traced the numbers 1-9-1-4 and 1-9-1-8. Then he pointed out the window. There was something he wanted me to see, but he couldn't say it in English. He traced the numbers again, and pointed to a large memorial coming into view on the hilltop.

Because I've read about the battle of Verdun in World War I, I understood that he was pointing out the American memorial to the battle. For whatever reason, it was important to him to show me a sight he thought would be meaningful to an American. It was indeed meaningful, and proved to be the highlight of my trip.

As I got off the train in Reims, I noticed with chagrin that I had accidentally seated myself in a smoking compartment.

Although the cathedral of Reims was magnificent, I spent that day thinking about language and communication -- and how, on this occasion, less was more.

Richard Wachter lives in Baltimore.

My Best Shot

Tom Milleson, Timonium

One cool cat

"On a chilly morning safari in Botswana, we came upon this cheetah warming himself in the sun. You see a lot of animals on safari, but it's rare to see them in such nice light. Usually it's so hot that they are lying in the shade or in tall grass where it's hard to get a picture. Or, by the time you get close enough to them, they've run off. This cheetah posed long enough for me to get this photo, then walked off into the high grass."

Readers Recommend

Victoria Peak, Hong Kong

Helen Dea, Timonium

"This is a view from Victoria Peak, which overlooks Hong Kong, one of the most populous cities in the world. Just 10 years ago, thousands of refugees who fled the mainland lived in shantytowns surrounding the peak. Today, modern skyscrapers built with bamboo scaffolding have replaced these shanties. The view from the peak at night is even more spectacular -- a mosaic of neon lights illuminate the harbor."

Seefeld, Austria

Theresa Egan, Towson

"Last May I was lucky enough to spend a week in Seefeld, Austria, a town in the Tirolean Alps. The town looks as though it belongs in Disney World, with its little parks, Tirolean-style buildings and pedestrian parks that are perfect for strolling. Just outside of town is a lovely lake surrounded by wildflowers. After having spent two weeks in hectic travel, this was the perfect place to end a vacation. I can't wait to return."

Let Us Hear From You

We want to know about your travels, your experiences, your pictures. Here's how to participate in this page:

My Best Shot: Send us a terrific travel photo with a description of when and where you took it. (Cash value: $50.)

A Memorable Place: In 500 words or less, tell us about a travel experience that has changed you; the nostalgia a special place evokes; the power of a favorite beach, the mountains, a city cafe. (Cash value: $150.)

Readers Recommend: Briefly tell us about places you've recently visited that you'd recommend to other readers. (Photos are welcome.)

Readers Respond: Send a brief reply to our current question: Where is your favorite place to see fall foliage? Selected answers may appear in a future issue. (Photos are welcome.)

Because of the volume of submissions, photos and manuscripts cannot be acknowledged or returned.

Send by fax to 410-783-2519, or write to Travel Department, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, MD 21278, or send by e-mail to travel@baltsun.com. Be sure to include your name and phone number.

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