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Traveling With…


Story and photos by Nancy Merz Nordstrom, M. Ed.

Sitting in Terminal E at Logan International Airport in Boston surrounded by strangers, I found myself wondering how, at age fifty-one, I was about to travel to Europe, my very first passport clutched tightly in my hand. Talk about stepping outside my comfort zone! Except for short trips to Canada and Bermuda with my family, all my travel had been within the U.S. Yet here I was, waiting to board a SwissAir flight to Zurich. To say conflicting thoughts were swirling about was putting it mildly.

Tragedy Brings Change

After twenty-nine years of marriage, four children, and work as a secretary, the unexpected death of my husband at age forty-eight had thrown my life into limbo. Even three years later, I was still floundering. Being a single woman was not a comfortable role for me in many different ways.

Travel was one of those ways. I kept noticing how our society seemed fixated on “Couple-hood,” especially when it came to vacations. I was interested in traveling, but I soon realized that traveling solo was going to be a real challenge – a challenge made even more difficult by that ubiquitous “single supplement,” a practice by hotels that penalizes single travelers.

So it was with great interest that I read an article earlier in the year about Interhostel, at the time an educational travel provider for adults over the age of fifty, based at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. (The university disbanded the organization in 2005.)

The article talked about how their programs were perfect for solo travelers. It went on to say that traveling with Interhostel groups was fun, educational and safe for singles, especially single women. An added bonus was that many of the programs did not have that infamous single supplement.

So here I was five months later, about to leave for Innsbruck, Austria and the Northern Tirolean section of Italy. As a child I loved the story of “Heidi,” so a trip to the Austrian and Italian Alps seemed like a good fit. An added plus was that program participants would be staying in single dorm rooms, with private baths, at the University of Innsbruck – all without that extra charge.

In the weeks prior to departure I received a wealth of information about our program. I read everything thoroughly, including books from the suggested reading list. We were told about our accommodations, what to pack, and our day-to-day itineraries were clearly spelled out. I felt well prepared for what I thought would be a one-time fun vacation.

Little did I know that the next three weeks were about to change my life. How does that expression go? Life is what happens when you’re making other plans. Well, life had certainly done that to me three years previously, and it was about to do it again.

The Journey Begins

Nordstrom-View-from-RoomThe view from my room.

My fellow travelers all seemed friendly as we introduced ourselves – a nice mix of couples and single women, with a few single men. There were several “fifty-somethings” in the group, the rest in their sixties and seventies. I was promptly christened “the baby” since I was only fifty-one.

In my research on travel for older adults I had recently learned about Elderhostel, an even larger educational travel provider. (The non-profit educational travel organization changed its name on October 1, 2009 to Exploritas.) Their minimum age at the time, however, was 55, and I did not want to wait four more years for this first travel experience.

So, five hours after leaving Boston we landed in Zurich. We regrouped, found our Munich-bound plane, and one-hour later were on the ground in Germany. We were then joined by an Austrian guide who spoke flawless English and stayed with us throughout the entire program.

Check-in at the Studentenhaus (University of Innsbruck dorms) was quick and easy – pick up the key and go. No time-consuming forms to fill out. We each had our own room – spartan but utilitarian and very clean. The view from my window showcased the River Inn and old-world buildings on the opposite bank. I was awe-struck.


Lectures, Field Trips and the Local Scene

The next morning our program began in earnest after breakfast. While in Innsbruck our breakfasts would all be taken in the student cafeteria in our building. Most of our lunches would be in the downtown student cafeteria called a “Mensa,” (Latin for table). The food was hearty and quite good.

Once breakfast was over, we found our classroom at the University for our first lecture on the history of Austria. The professor spoke perfect, but accented English, and gave a thoroughly enjoyable talk that really helped set the program in perspective.

There was a lot of give and take between him and other participants, especially those who were old enough to have lived through World War II. No one hesitated to speak their mind about the thorny issues of that war, but he retained his good humor through it all.

In the afternoon we traveled to Schlos Ambros, a magnificent castle just outside Innsbruck, home to one of the largest European ruling families, the Hapsburgs. What an incredible place – beautiful grounds, great collections and medieval armor everywhere. Again, the sheer age of the castle, in comparison to buildings in the U.S., took my breath away.

picturesque dining...…picturesque dining…

That evening we walked over to a local Beer Garden for dinner where we were wined and dined in typical Austrian style. Free time after dinner gave us the opportunity to walk back to the Old City, find an outdoor café and settle in for a musical evening of Tirolean entertainment, complete with costumed singers and dancers.

Our days settled into a familiar routine: lectures on Austrian music, history, art, culture, industry, and politics, with field trips to reinforce what we learned. Our evenings were spent at wonderful restaurants and cafés soaking up the local scene, talking to the locals, most of whom spoke excellent English, and music, always lots of music.

and colorful costumes. …and colorful costumes.

During one of our excursions, while we were sitting at a café in downtown Innsbruck, we heard people chanting and were very surprised to see a large human-rights demonstration coming down Maria Theresian Strasse, the main street of Innsbruck. They were Turkish patriots and sympathizers, carrying signs, banners and coffins protesting the death of one of their leaders.

Now, that street – Maria Theresian Strasse – is the very same street that I had seen in a film the day before as part of a lecture on the history of Austria. In that film, the street was again the scene of a large march, not of human rights activists, however, but of Nazis during World War II. The film showed us the occupation of Innsbruck by Hitler and his troops.

It was a sobering, eerie experience to sit there and watch this modern-day demonstration since in my mind’s eye I saw the Nazis instead. This was a real life history lesson for me, learning at its very best.

All of our lectures and field trips were designed as real life history lessons. How different these classes were from those of my youth. I found myself thinking over and over how I wished school could have been this stimulating, this challenging, this entertaining. I loved sitting in the auditorium at the University of Innsbruck soaking up all the professors had to impart to me.

Not Quite Journey’s End

By day, a 1,000 year-old Roman ampitheater in Verona. By day, a 1,000 year-old Roman ampitheater in Verona.
By night, the perfect setting for a performance of Aida. By night, the perfect setting for a performance of Aida.

Three weeks flew by. The tour took us through Verona, Italy to see a performance of Aida which we saw in an outdoor, one thousand year-old Roman amphitheater, then through the Italian Alps and the Tirol region. We walked the ancient streets of medieval walled towns, visited Brunnenburg, the castle home of the late poet, Ezra Pound and then back to Innsbruck to visit castles, wonderful churches and cathedrals, art museums, and even met an actual descendant of the Hapsburgs.

The last day of our program found us listening to a lecture on Austrian industry. We then visited the oldest bell foundry in Europe, built in 1599, and run by the same family for fourteen generations.

That evening our delicious farewell dinner was held at the oldest inn in Innsbruck, the Goldener Adler. Our souvenir menus told us we were having warm duck breast salad, steak with vegetables, unlimited wine and sacher torte for dessert. We had a great time recapping the many interesting things we learned, the incredible places we visited, and all the highpoints of the program.

There were stories, laughter, picture-taking, and even a lengthy limerick by one of the more poetically inclined members of our group. Musical entertainment was provided by a Tirolean zither player. The evening was a fitting finale to an outstanding program that did more for me than I had ever expected.

The author at the farewell dinner. The author at the farewell dinner.

In fact, what I took home from this trip was much better, and far more long-lasting, than any souvenir. I took home a kind of action plan for the next step in my new life. For me, being back in a classroom after more than twenty-five years was invigorating. Thanks to this educational travel program I realized that, in an effort to help remake my life, I wanted to return to school.

So, taking another step outside my comfort zone, that fall I entered a special program for working adults at Cambridge College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. No eighteen-year-olds in these classes; just hard-working men and women who came to school in the evenings and on weekends. Six semesters later I emerged with a Masters of Education degree, having focused on adult education. I saw all around me how education changed the lives of my classmates as well as myself, and I wanted to be part of something that powerful.

A year after leaving school I found my perfect job, a combination of learning and travel, with Elderhostel, Inc., the nation’s first and largest educational travel provider for older adults. For the next five years, from their headquarters in Boston, I directed the Elderhostel Institute Network (EIN).

Different from Elderhostel’s regular type of educational travel programming, EIN helps start new lifelong learning institutes or learning in retirement programs, for older learners at local colleges, universities, retirement communities and other venues.

We also provide resources to all these programs, help organize regional conferences, and promote communication between all the programs. Today we have almost four hundred programs affiliated with EIN. It is a stimulating and enriching job that feeds my soul, a far cry from my secretarial days.

In 2004 my new husband (I remarried at age 55), and I left Boston and moved to New Hampshire, where I have continued the same work with Elderhostel, not as an employee, but as a consultant, working for myself.

It’s been thirteen years since I took that educational travel program to Austria and Italy. That trip was a watershed moment for me, a real personal achievement, and a journey of self-discovery. What I found was that, with or without a husband, I had the ability to make a fulfilling life for myself, and for a woman raised to think of herself only as a wife and mother, that was a huge epiphany.

Elderhostel says that the world is your classroom! What are you waiting for?

Nancy Merz Nordstrom, M. Ed. Is the author of Learning Later, Living Greater: The Secret for Making the Most of Your After-50 Years, published by Sentient Publications. Read her 10 Ways Educational Travel is Better Than Your Average Vacation on the Where2Now blog. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and blogs and writes columns about life-long learning for the over fifty crowd and loves every minute of it. You can contact Nancy at learninglater@comcast.net.

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