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The Webmaster has travelled to France so often that it is second nature to him.  Yet to many readers, who have never left the United States and who do not speak a second language, the thought of travelling overseas can be quite daunting.  Consider this recent email exchange with the Webmaster:

“One thing that helped make a trip by me to France more possible…  Two years ago, my oldest son, who is at the U.S. Naval Academy now, did a three month Rotary exchange to France.  His host sister then came and stayed with us for three months the following school year.  Because  of all this, I now have a wonderful family in France that is more than willing to help me get around and see where my grandfather went while he was in France.  I don’t speak any French and have never been there before.  Without them, I think I would be much too intimidated to go.”

This post will look at some of the specific fears and suggest specific strategies to overcome them; in the hopes that more Americans will take the trip to visit foreign battlefields.

Fear of Terrorism / Being in the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time

  • When you read news accounts keep in mind the absolute numbers:  A handful of events occur in any year, but France has a population of roughly 65.2 million and Paris a population of 2.2 million.  France is just a bit smaller than Texas.  Thus, the chance of being in the wrong place at the wrong time is very tiny indeed!
  • The regions where the battlefields are located are rural and very sparsely populated.  In that regard, the area of highest risk is likely the time spent at the airport or in other large cities.
  • A 2015 New York Times article sited data from Euromonitor International indicating that France was the 4th most popular tourist destination for Americans (behind Mexico, Canada and Britain) with 2.5 million projected visits in 2015.  That’s a very large number!  The number wouldn’t be that large if there were not millions of positive travel experiences!

Fear of the Language Barrier

  • Take a French for travelers class or French 101 at you local community college, if one is close enough to you.
  • Work with someone who speaks French or use Google Translate to write a letter of introduction, and keep that on your person while travelling.
    • Be sure to state that you don’t speak French, but that you are visiting France to visit the American battlefields of the war.
    • You can add that you would like permission to walk on their property to view remains of the past.
    • The Webmaster used to do this regularly before his language lessons.
  • Make sure you stay in a hotel / B&B where some level of English is spoken.  The links page on this website lists several places in the Meuse-Argonne.

Fears of Cultural Missteps / Differences

  • Start by watching / reading “A Year in Provence:”  It’s a fun way to think about cultural differences.
  • Purchase and read a book that talks about cultural differences.
    • The Webmaster continues to like the somewhat dated “Savoir Flair:  211 Tips for Enjoying France and the French,” but there are other ones available too.
  • Look at the “MA Travel Tips” on this website.
  • Talk to people who have made the pilgrimage.  In today’s world of social media (the Meuse-Argonne Facebook Group, for example) there is no reason to not seek guidance from others.
  • Make friends “over there” before travelling:  Approximately 25% of the members of the Meuse-Argonne Facebook Group are European and many of them speak English.

Fears of Driving Overseas

  • Remember that most of your battlefield tour will be in rural, sparsely-populated areas; where five or more cars is a traffic jam.
    • The most stressful part of the trip will likely be on the AutoRoute leaving CDG–and the toll booths (Peage) on the AutoRoute.
  • Most cars today have satnav systems, and you can set the language to English.
    • However, the Webmaster will say that the Renault Kangoo he rented in 2017 had a satnav that did not re-calculate quickly.  Google Maps is a lot better in that regard; but that requires data usage.
  • There is lots of information on driving overseas available on the internet.
  • The Webmaster will give this warning:  European roads are much narrower and windier than American roads.  If you do not have a good feel for where your vehicle is on the road, you probably should not drive in Europe.
    • “Inches to spare” is often the reality of driving in Europe.

Fears of Eating / Ordering Overseas

  • Get a French phrasebook and learn at least a few basic words:  Poulet = Chicken.  Jambon = Ham.

Fears of Health Issues Overseas

  • Purchase travelers insurance that provides coverage for treatment locally and that includes an emergency evacuation, if necessary.
  • Make sure to bring / list all of your medications.
  • For older clients, the webmaster found walking poles extremely useful for getting onto the battlefield!
  • Go to the local Pharmacy if you are having health issues.
    • Pharmacies in France are different than in the U.S.  The pharmacist has the power to write prescriptions.  Often, they will try homeopathic remedies before jumping to a prescription drug.
    • Usually, the pharmacist speaks English!
  • France is not a third-world country when it comes to medicine.
    • The Webmaster has told this story numerous times:  On a 2005 battlefield tour one of the participants developed a urinary tract infection and her condition worsened during the trip. Laurent and Patricia Labrosse of the Hotel du Commerce in Aubreville called a doctor, who made a house call on Friday night and only charged about 25 Euros.  They also called the pharmacy two towns over, and it opened up so that we could get the prescription filled that night.  This does not happen in the U.S.

Fears of Something Happening to Loved Ones Back in the States

  • This is perhaps the hardest fear to overcome because of the cost / hassle involved in cutting a trip short to rush home in an emergency.
  • Make sure you have someone dependable who can look after loved ones back home.
  • Modern communications also make it easy to stay in touch.
    • Make sure your B&B / hotel has good wifi. That way you won’t be spending big $$ using data to communicate via email or Skype.
    • Look into data plans with your cell phone provider; although that will definitely be more expensive than using email or Skype via wifi.

A Strategy to Overcome all These Fears:  Find a travel partner; especially one who has been there before.

  • The writer of the paragraph above was able to overcome his fears by finding a French connection through the rotary.  Not many people have that option.
  • However, the Webmaster found travelling partners for his second battlefield tour by placing a personal ad in “Over the Front,” the Journal of the League of WW1 Aviation Historians.

Hopefully, these comments will help readers to overcome their fears of traveling abroad.  It has never been easier to gather information and seek the advice of experienced travelers before heading off to France. Most WW1 doughboys never left their county or state before their big adventure!

Photo courtesy of Darius Sankowski, via Unsplash.

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