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Our European Vacation

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Alan Conway is a simultaneous interpreter who lives in Hull, Quebec with his wife Monique and dog guide, Perkins

When most people think of far-away places, it's often because they would really enjoy visiting them and may not ever get there. Fortunately, that isn't always the case and some wonderful friends joined forces to provide my wife Monique and I with an unforgettable European experience that we would like to share with you.

Planning such a trip isn't without its worries. Communication can be difficult at best when you don't speak a language fluently, as was the case in Italy and then there's the matter of how well a guide dog might be accepted in spite of anything you've already been told. No matter. There's no point in worrying about such things if you want to enjoy life, so we went.

I had never taken any of my guide dogs on such a long trip, but I needn't have worried. Perkins came through the trip fine and when we arrived in Parma, he was as playful and silly as ever.

Our friends organized a very full schedule for us. Among other things, we went on an interesting guided tour of Parma, including a tour of the local cathedral. You can't help but be impressed with the sense of history that the local people so willingly share. When Maria-Luisa of Austria ruled the area, she worked hard to encourage many cultural activities. Even to this day, local people still bring flowers to her grave.

Friends of our hosts also took us for a drive across the Apennines to the Mediterranean, where a dip in the ocean was a welcome relief from the heat and humidity. We also had a chance to visit one of Italy's two guide dog schools, located at Scandicci, near Florence. It's approximately the same age as The Seeing Eye, but classes are much smaller. There is really very little difference regarding training, but Students are taught to prepare a kind of soup to feed their dogs, probably because commercial dog food tends to be rather expensive. The school neuters its male dogs before they start training but does not spay the females. A student who wishes to have the procedure done assumes that cost on his own when he/she graduates

No discussion of a trip to Parma would be complete without reference to the regions culinary specialties. Parmesan cheese is of course served with everything and the salami and ham that come from the area have given it an international reputation.The wines we sampled were sparkling and dry, with a very low alcohol content. In Parma, the pasta that accompanies your meal will most likely be served to you first, with the main course to follow. Breakfast generally consisted of Italian cookies, juice, and fruit. We didn't eat often in restaurants, because prices were somewhat expensive, but the culinary experience was certainly as much fun as the rest of the trip.

On July 12, we left Parma to visit former neighbours who live in the French village of Feternes near the Swiss boarder. We experienced a few anxious moments when the train we were supposed to take from Parma to Milan arrived half an hour late and we missed our connection to Lausanne, but we made it all the same. The thing you notice most when you arrive is the change in climate. We went from sunny and hot to cloudy and cool, which we really appreciated.

Our friends, whom we hadn't seen in six years, were waiting for us with an impressive itinerary of activities. We spent Saturday walking around historic sites in the area and Sunday, we drove to Montreux Switzerland and enjoyed listening to some live music performed in conjunction with the local jazz festival.

On Monday, we spent the day in Lausanne. This time, we took the boat that 700 French workers use to cross Lake Lemans every day. Tour operators generally offer cruises on the lake during the summer, but conditions during the winter are much more Spartan. At that time of year, the comfortable seats we had give way to hard metal benches and the coffee we were offered during the crossing would not have been available. We visited an old church that had formerly been catholic, but later became Protestant following the reformation. We also paid a short visit to the Olympic museum. Among other things, the shot put that was thrown when the last world record was set is on display. You can even walk the distance yourself to get an idea of how far it actually traveled.

One thing you can't help but notice when you go to Switzerland is concern about cleanliness. I really appreciated the fact that it was easy to clean up after my dog because litter baskets also came equipped with receptacles containing any bags I would need.

On Tuesday, we went to Geneva. While there, we visited the Palais des Nations, which houses the head offices of the United Nations. The facility reflects the opulence found in downtown Geneva. I don't think I've ever seen a meeting room where people were seated so comfortably. Interestingly enough, when we paid our admission, we were unable to do so in Euros. Switzerland is not a member of the European Economic Community, but many merchants will accept the Euro without question. Not so at the Palais des nations. We certainly could have expected otherwise, since the location is a U.N. facility, but we ended up having to pay in Swiss francs.

The highlight of this particular visit was a visit to a garden especially designed to be accessible to people who are blind. It's part of the Geneva Botanical Garden and all the plants have either unique textures or smells. Braille plaques identified each plant and explained where they were originally from and at what time of the year they bloom. The project involved several Swiss organizations of people who had low vision or none at all .

On Wednesday, we were greeted by some rather threatening weather, so our friends decided to suggest a visit to Gruyere Switzerland to see it's world-famous cheese factory. We could sample the various kinds of cheese they made and we later went into a restaurant and had some of the most delicious meringues with cream I have ever tasted

Thursday was probably the only day when the weather was unpleasant for an extended period of time. That didn't stop us from going to Evian to visit the bottling plant where six million bottles of mineral water are bottled and exported around the world every day. It was there that I encountered the only access problem I experienced in the entire two weeks. When we went to pay for our admission, I was told that absolutely no animals were allowed in the building. Since I didn't want to disrupt anything, I agreed to leave my guide dog with our friend's Labrador, especially since they got along so well. We discovered, however, when we got to the bottling plant, that the lady at the ticket office had lied to us and the guide told us we would certainly have been welcome to bring my dog, since no-one actually enters the plant as such. The guide explained that this particular employee had caused them difficulties in the past. Fortunately, my guide dog took my absence with good grace, but we certainly weren't going to let the matter drop. In fact, if we had not been leaving so early the next morning, we would have taken the time to register a complaint.

The food we ate in France also deserves some discussion. The region of Haute Savoy produces an enormous variety of cheeses and the variety of bread that is available is nothing short of surprising. None of the bread is sold frozen and people go early in the morning to buy it fresh every day. Our friends made us an absolutely delicious fondue while we were there, as well as another dish called "tartiflette", which tastes a bit like scalloped potatoes, but contains a small amount of pork, a bit of cream and goat cheese. The wine our friends served us was dry, but very tasty.

Friday July 19 marked our return home. We brought back our share of souvenirs, but we will also carry with us many fond memories of interesting visits and time spent with wonderful friends, who went out of their way to make us feel at home. Any worries we might have had were swept away by memories we will cherish for a lifetime.