by Katie Frederick with Vicky Prahin
I began studying French in high school and quickly fell in love with the language. I continued to study it in college and decided to make it my minor. Early on I knew I wanted to visit a French-speaking country; it was just a matter of when.
One day in May 2015, Vicky forwarded to me an email from Mind’s Eye Travel about a river cruise in France. Mind’s Eye Travel is a company owned by Sue Bramhall, a visually impaired woman, who started her company in order to provide tour opportunities for blind and visually impaired travelers. She finds trips and cruises, advertises, and makes arrangements for those who need a sighted guide. We published an article about Mind’s Eye Travel and the Viking River Cruise in the fall 2015 issue of the Ohio Connection. Vicky and I decided to make the most of our experience and added the three-day, pre-cruise package.
Prior to departing, we had to organize paperwork for ourselves and our guide dogs. Obtaining passports was a speedy process; filling out the forms for the dogs’ access took more time, however. We needed to obtain USDA certification assuring French Customs that our dogs are certified by a reputable school, that all vaccinations are up to date, and that the dogs have a registered chip. We also made sure to have with us our school ID with picture and date of acquisition.
We flew from Columbus to Dulles and from there to Paris. Our flights were uneventful, and transferring in D.C. — while an adventure requiring trips in more than ten elevators, a moving walkway, and a train — was OK thanks to the assistance we received. After landing in France, two young people met us and ushered us through a very deserted Charles de Gaulle Airport. We were not even aware of when we passed through Customs. Thanks to our wonderful assistants, collecting our luggage and securing a taxi to our hotel in Paris went without a hitch.
My French-speaking skills were put to the test right away, giving the taxi driver our hotel’s address and talking to hotel staff upon our arrival. After checking into our European-sized hotel room (think small and then smaller), we had lunch with a couple who were introduced to us by a mutual friend. After lunch, we took a tour of the Fragonard Perfume Museum then had dinner with our tour group Thursday night.
Friday morning we boarded a 15-passenger van to begin our Paris tour. The day’s tour highlights included visits to the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame of Paris cathedral. It’s amazing to walk on marble floors worn by thousands of feet over hundreds of years! Saturday provided more sightseeing in Paris, ending with the Arc De Triomphe.
Sunday we boarded the Viking River Rolf to begin the cruise. We spent part of the day learning the layout of the ship — simple and practical, nice right angles. Monday we walked through Marais, the Jewish quarter, a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood; most streets are closed to cars and trucks. After lunch at a typical café, our program director treated us to a sampling of éclairs. As we slept Monday night, the ship sailed to the town of Vernon. I had no clue the ship was moving, gliding through the water with barely a bounce.
Tuesday morning we drove from Vernon to Giverny and toured the gardens and house of Claude Monet. In the afternoon, a walking tour around the charming town of Vernon, population 25,000, provided an opportunity to experience small town French life and culture. After the guided tour, we explored on our own. Vicky and I, along with Staszek, our sighted guide, walked around a church whose construction started in the 1100s and took 600 years to complete due to various wars. The buildings in Vernon are a mix of old and modern because of destruction during World War II. We stopped at a little cafe to indulge in a real French treat: crepes. One simply cannot spend time in France without crepes.
Wednesday morning was a leisurely sail along the Seine to Rouen, the city where Joan of Arc stood trial and was burned at the stake. During the afternoon we strolled the cobbled streets of the city. I recall thinking as I walked along, “I wonder who walked these same paths centuries before?”
Thursday we took a two-hour bus ride to the beaches of Normandy. In addition to visiting Omaha Beach and the American Military Cemetery, we watched a brief film about the construction of the man-made harbor for the Battle of D-Day. It’s incredible to think about the engineering challenges and accomplishments that made the D-Day landing possible. The American Cemetery contains 9,387 graves, four of which are women: three postal workers and a nurse. A wall containing the names of 1,557 missing unknown soldiers is located in the visitors’ center. A brief ceremony on the grounds honored the soldiers who gave their lives in France more than 70 years ago. There are few experiences in my life where seeing isn’t necessary to fully appreciate them; visiting the American Cemetery was one such experience. As we walked past rows and rows of graves, birds sang and we could hear the sea in the distance. It’s a truly peaceful resting place for those who so valiantly gave their lives for our country during World War II.
Friday morning we cruised to the village of Les Andelys. The afternoon travels took us on a walking tour of this small French river town, where some of our group shopped, and some of us visited another old church.
My first trip to France was an unforgettable experience; visiting sites, hearing sounds, and learning about cultures of northern France are memories I’ll keep with me for a lifetime. My French came back to me as I used it on the ship, in shops, and on the street. The meals I enjoyed were out of this world. If only I could cook such flavorful dishes as the chef onboard!