Travel tales

Author: Robert Schmuhl ’70

Despite the intercontinental incongruity, the tour director’s brogue-sweetened recitation of “Casey at the Bat” made the coach excursion through the West of Ireland all the more memorable. Although the mellifluous guide (Seamus, by name) could liltingly deliver a sizable anthology of Irish verse, he thought U.S. travelers might appreciate a poetic change of pace, a reminder of home.

And we did.

Delight at the unexpected is the hallmark of a successful trip, and each year Notre Dame’s Alumni Travel Program offers several dozen opportunities to create a lasting memory, such as the one to Ireland. Since early this decade, the University has worked to develop a program that not only sends alumni and others to destinations across the globe but also provides a distinctive Notre Dame dimension to the trips.

“We’re always trying to find the most appropriate faculty members to enrich the educational component of our trips,” says Karen Anthony, the program’s director. “For certain offerings, having a priest participate is essential, and daily Mass becomes part of the schedule. It all depends on the type of trip.”

Anthony, who remembers back to 1982 when the University offered just two tours, has led the program since 1984. This year she and the Travel Advisory Committee (composed of 14 professors, priests and administrators) selected 56 excursions, the most ever.

For a faculty member serving as lecturer-host, an alumni trip is a chance to get one’s nose out of books and to visit places related to academic work and interests. It’s also a way to interrupt a mostly sedentary routine to indulge what Mark Twain referred to as the “vagabond instinct.”

Preparing talks for fellow travelers, I’ve found, can lead to even greater understanding of a subject. Last year, for instance, on a trip to Romania and Ukraine, the group was scheduled to stop at Yalta, a resort on the Black Sea, where Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin met in February of 1945 to discuss what Churchill called “World Organization,” especially the make-up of Europe and the establishment of the United Nations following World War II.

The more I dug into the records and assessments of the Yalta conference—Stalin wanted to negotiate on his turf and on his terms—the clearer it became that Roosevelt misjudged the effects of his charisma and charm. He thought he could persuade “Uncle Joe” (his playful nickname for Stalin) to, among other initiatives, promote democracy throughout Eastern Europe.

Replacing Nazism (and its totalitarianism) with Communism (and its Moscow-directed control) was totally different from his objective at Yalta. But Roosevelt’s personal, leader-to-leader diplomacy lacked definite overarching principles or a concern for long-range consequences.

Within a month of his return from this critical summit, Roosevelt realized Stalin couldn’t be trusted. Then, on April 12, FDR suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage—and Harry Truman, who knew virtually nothing about U.S.-Soviet affairs, became president.

In talking about Yalta’s lessons, I tried to point out the serious limitations, if not genuine dangers, of conducting international relations premised on personalities instead of carefully considered precepts. The slogan of the Reagan years vis-à-vis the Soviets—"Trust but verify"—seemed stronger public policy, as it combined human sentiment with scientific certitude. Or so I tried to argue.

Exam-free classes
In most cases, travelers on these alumni trips aren’t shy in offering viewpoints or asking questions. Interestingly, there’s often more give-and-take than I’ve found in some of my undergraduate classrooms, as trip participants bring their own experiences and interpretations to the sessions. And there are no worries, from any party, about exams or assignments.

Assignments and tests, however, are frequently on the minds of Notre Dame students who travel abroad to learn foreign languages and cultures—and today the University’s Office of International Studies offers more than 40 possibilities for overseas study in some 20 countries. Yet, in a mutually rewarding student-alumni link, alumni travelers and current students in certain cities (Dublin, Rome, Santiago, Chile) now get together when it’s possible to share stories and their experiences in these locales.

Besides creating links with University-sponsored study-sites, the travel program has started to put together more adventurous trips to appeal to younger alumni as well as family-oriented itineraries.

“We’re deliberately trying to serve all alumni, regardless of age or interest,” says Anthony, who devotes considerable attention to matching a host’s expertise and experience with each trip that’s offered.

Sometimes, though, an excursion can be completely novel for all concerned, and a lecturer-host finds that such a trip is a chance to visit a place that has existed primarily in one’s imagination. Even then, expectations can dramatically change. On an Amazonian adventure, billed in brochure-prose as “the greatest voyage in natural history,” I found myself much more absorbed in watching the people who lived along the river as they coped with the 21st century.

One day, I vividly recall, we saw rafts piled high with bananas floating to port for sale. Besides the fruit, the men (we were told) would sell the wood from their rafts—and then head up river again on one of the water taxis plying the Peruvian portion of the Amazon.

Besides the people-watching with its own fascination, the reactions of travelers to what happens on a trip can be unforgettable. While in Italy’s Lake District a few years ago on a tour featuring groups from Notre Dame and another university, one non-Domer responded to a talk I gave on America’s standing and role in the world by saying: “You should run for secretary of state.”

To this day I don’t know whether he was joking, or whether he had an imperfect understanding of cabinet appointments made by a president.

Notre Dame memories
Away from the podium and the touring that daily takes place on each trip, the lecturer-host often finds informal discussions focusing on Notre Dame in some way. Some travelers are eager to talk about current activities on campus, while others prefer to reminiscence about collegiate life (and shenanigans) of a different time.

On one trip, an alum from the 1940s kept asking about the contemporary University and new buildings he’d read about in this magazine and elsewhere. When I inquired whether he wanted to come back to northern Indiana for an old-time’s-sake visit, his response was both touching and somewhat startling: “I want to remember my Notre Dame.”

In its way, the Alumni Travel Program combines the new and the old with each offering. The chance to go and learn about places someone’s never been often intersects with a stroll down memory lane.

In selecting trips, Karen Anthony and the Travel Advisory Committee evaluate and rank proposals from Alumni Holidays International, Thomas P. Gohagan & Company, Go Next, Academic Arrangements Abroad and other suppliers specializing in group bookings for universities and colleges. Each trip has to have definite reasons Notre Dame includes it on its roster, which means that fewer than half the suggested possibilities ultimately make the list.

“Notre Dame more often than not has a professor or priest to accompany their programs, which is not common in alumni travel,” notes Thomas P. Bingle ’77, executive vice president of sales at Gohagan. “Most schools accept a program and then go with what the tour operator presents. Notre Dame is different and ahead of the curve in this respect.”

Bingle, who has a graduate degree in African history from the University of California-Berkeley, thinks the participation of faculty and clergy provides Notre Dame travelers with “a deeper look into the lands visited” and (from a sales standpoint) “extra value for the trip” beyond traditional tours advertised more broadly in travel sections of newspapers.

For an academic slouching towards anecdotage, I’ve found the occasional trip is a semi-scholarly cure for a lifelong case of wanderlust. Ralph Waldo Emerson might have viewed 19th-century travel as “a fool’s paradise”—but he never saw Ireland, as we did, by listening closely to the island’s poetry amid landscapes of many shades of green.

Robert Schmuhl is the Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce professor of American studies and journalism at Notre Dame, where he directs the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy. His most recent book is In So Many Words: Arguments and Adventures (Notre Dame Press).