Passing the Torch

article & photos by Jack Olson


wind effects near Dutch windmill
Melinda (L) & Amy (R) experiencing wind effects in Holland

What is even better than returning to a place you love? Returning with your wonderful, extraordinary, fun nieces. We did it, we really did it. In 1988 I traveled to Europe with Amy (age 21) and Melinda (age 18). Amy had one more year in college to finish; Melinda had just graduated from high school and was moving on to college. It was a perfect time to undertake our “trip of a lifetime”. I think we all know there are many trips of a lifetime, but this was their first one.

We began planning about three years before. Rather than just ask where they’d like to go I started by asking them to think of the kinds of experiences they’d want in Europe. Then we went from there. It turned out we had many common preferences. They wanted to hike, ride bikes, play with different languages, and meet some of my friends. They were interested in cultural sites like castles and cathedrals. They wanted to be in the mountains and along the coast. They were excited to try different food specialties. We had six weeks.

haystacks in Swiss meadow
Hiking along a Swiss valley where haystacks grace the meadow

We started in Denmark. My friend, Jette, lived in a hundred-year-old farmhouse not far from the North Sea coast. We drove up the lane to the house and there, stuck in the bushes, were Danish and American flags. What a welcome. Jette’s daughter, Sofia, is between the ages of Amy and Melinda. Amy was later to name her daughter Sofia. One night the girls went into town and did those things that are too cool for us oldsters.

More friends awaited in Holland. I had attended college there in 1958-59 (how is it possible it could have been that long ago?). We visited my friends in a small town outside Amsterdam and another family in Rotterdam. At the latter, Amy became smitten by a boy her age, something that lasted until she returned to the U.S. and met the man who would become her husband. We took a 30-mile bike ride through the Dutch countryside and stopped by the castle where I had gone to school.

Then we began a whirl through Belgium, France, Luxembourg, and West Germany (a year before the Wall fell). Each of these was outstanding but I can’t keep writing about everything. We were anxious to hike as high as we could and that was spelled Switzerland. The Berner Oberland features the Eiger, the Jungfrau and more Alps than you can shake a walking stick at. We hiked and hiked, miles through meadows with the sounds of cowbells, and to the base of the Eiger.

Matterhorn above Zermatt
The Matterhorn emerging from the fog

We threaded through high passes to the south and began hiking out of Zermatt. It was totally socked in with fog as we climbed, trying to locate a small settlement I’d found in the past. Finally, a crude wooden sign pointed the way to the village and we came upon a small shop where we each bought a bottle of pop. As we sat there at a rough picnic table, the fog began to clear and then, looming far above us appeared—the Matterhorn. Oh sigh.

I mentioned that the girls wanted to play with languages. They’re good at that. I was in charge of Dutch and German. OK in Dutch, not so much in German. Why did they keep those miserable linguistic complexities that the Dutch dumped over a century ago? Amy chose French. We only got on one wrong Paris Metro and had a big argument with a cashier over something in a museum. Not bad. And Melinda took her excellent Spanish and desperately tried to make it sound Italian. All in all we just whizzed through Europe.

Enough about places; there were Italy and Austria ahead, and more West Germany. But what have remained are memories from 27 years ago. Whenever we get together, which is usually only once a year, the girls and I relive our adventures. Laughing is a big part of our memories. Swiss fondue, pastry, maybe a little beer or wine. Fun with friends. Hiking and more hiking. There’s a closeness we’ll feel the rest of our lives. There is nothing like sharing with the next generation.