As an Encore Tour Manager, it is sometimes easy to forget our tag-line, which appears on all of our merchandising. When one is waiting for the late delivery of a thousand bags, or is fighting one’s way through a particularly disgruntled group of people in a queue, or one is sitting on a stranded train in Britain surrounded by flood water, the last thing that slips into one’s mind is “Travel Changes Lives”.
However, every so often, at least twice a trip if truth be told, something happens that not only brings it back to mind but sings it from the proverbial rooftops with a fanfare of which every Encore orchestra would be proud—something which reinforces it and makes one realize that as with all the best tag-lines, its simplicity is what makes it so true and so powerful.
It can be in the smallest of things: tasting gelato in Italy for the first time (“Wow, this is really great!”), seeing a man in a kilt in Scotland (“They really do wear them!”) or realizing for the first time that snails are a delicacy in France (“Really?”). Or it can be in the bigger stuff: the amazement at seeing the church in which ‘Stille Nacht’ was first sung and played, the realization that Shakespeare walked on the same bit of grass upon which one is speaking his verse or singing Saint-Saëns in Saint Sulpice. Whenever it happens, one smiles inwardly and thanks the god of employment that one gets the chance to do this job.
I have witnessed it so often that it would be churlish to single out moments when you see it happen to students, but there are a few that have a special place in my memory. There was the moment in Sicily when the third-generation granddaughter of a Sicilian immigrant saw a particularly friendly, but at the same time lively, exchange on the streets in Syracuse and said: “I used to think my grandpa was mad -now I understand he’s just Sicilian,” or the moment in a ceilidh (a social event with Scottish or Irish folk music, singing, dancing and storytelling) in Scotland when a show choir from Minnesota taught the piper and fiddler the chords to Don’t Stop Believin’, and many others.
Perhaps the most special moment, however, is when it happened to me. I was on a trip which included visiting the American War Cemetery and Omaha Beach in Normandy on the 6th of June—the anniversary of D-Day itself. I was very ‘Tour Manager’ about it—will it be too busy? Where will we be able to park? Will my passengers see anything at all? I called the museum and they assured me that as it was not an anniversary year with a -0 or a -5 at the end, that it would be very manageable and very pleasant. However, they warned, if you want to see the ceremony, then you will need to be at the cemetery by 9:00 AM. This meant a 6:00 AM departure from our hotel; fortunately, this was welcomed by the group, and so we went.
It was wonderful. Possibly the most moving, educational and wonderful day in my career as a tour manager. There were a few dozen veterans there—Americans, Canadians, French and Germans—and their families; there were families of people who had died on that day in 1944, and there were many people from the local area, all of whom were making their own personal pilgrimages.
The students were welcomed with open arms and everyone was delighted to see them there; the veterans were very generous with their time and information, and I spent an hour talking to a captain who had been stationed in my home-town in Wales (Swansea) and remembered Swansea very very fondly indeed. My grandfather had died at the Battle of Dunkirk, and my grandmother had brought up two children (my father being one of them) on her own all the way through the bombing and the rationing. When the Americans arrived in Swansea it was, for her and many other women in Britain, the brightest moment in the war.
To hear a veteran talking in such wonderful terms about my home town was moving and brought floods of tears to my eyes. I felt that I had to pull myself together before I got back on the coach; the students couldn’t see me like this…but I failed. My group asked me to tell them what was wrong, and I shared my story with them. It transpired that the whole group had had similarly moving and inspirational experiences and by the time we reached Bayeux, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house—in a really good way.
On that day, in oh-so-many ways, we all realized that for everyone on that beach on that day, and decades before, travel really had changed our lives.