Don Williams
Photo by Justin Williams

Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, blogger, fiction writer, sometime TV commentator, and is the founder and editor emeritus of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a Golden Presscard Award from Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists, a best Commentary Award from SDC, Best Feature Writing from the Associated Press Tennessee Managing Editors, the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize from the Associated Press, Best Non-Deadline Reporting from the United Press International, Best Novel Excerpt from the Knoxville Writers Guild, a Peacemaker Award from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, five Writer of the Month Awards from the Scripps Howard Newspaper chain, and many others. In 2011 he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. His 2005 book of journalism, Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes is under revision for a second printing, and he is at work on a novel and a book of journalism. His columns appear at and have been featured at many other well-known websites. To run his column, gratis, at your website, post this link to a dedicated spot: Need a speaker, panelist, tv commentator or teacher for your group or to lead a writing workshop, in your town? Email

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Recent European travels cannot be summed up in a word
(Copyright by Don Williams, All rights reserved   07/26/2002)

So how was it? is one of those idiomatic American questions that can baffle a foreigner. When you've recently returned from a trip abroad with extended family, it's a tough one for an old Tennessee boy to answer in a way that enlightens. "Wonderful" doesn't quite do, and, "Let me show you my pictures," is almost as lame.

Let's see, Dear, was this the cathedral at Salisbury or the one at Bath? Was this the castle King Henry VIII established at Rye or the one William the Conqueror built at Hastings? Ah, here are the white cliffs of Dover. Honey, how did we feel when we saw those? Memories fade, though copious notes help.

So how was it? Hmmm, it was ten thousand impressions, moods, awakenings and hassles, reduced in the telling to a few phrases. You try not to repeat cliches like, "Everything is so OLD there," or "Someone really should teach the British how to cook," or "It's true, the French are rude."

I try to do better as I attempt summations.

"The holy hush of ancient sacrifice," in Wallace Stevens' words, hints at some quality of quiet I experienced in cathedrals and abbeys of Salisbury, St. Paul, Westminster and Notre Dame--monuments that resonate even when quiet. Allowed to resound with instruments and voices they not only inspire, they thrill.

Notre Dame was roaring and ringing with near-psychedelic bravado as we arrived in time for the ordination of 16 new priests. Loudspeakers broadcast chants and Bach and bells, bells, bells, as if Quasimodo himself had been resurrected for one last ride on the ropes in belfries both delicate and monumental.

Similar serendipity placed us at Stonehenge for outrageous Summer Solstice celebrations. What I didn't mention in a recent column on the subject was the relief of finding a ride out as we wandered, rain-soaked and sleep-deprived, from the crowded stones after a false dawn. I told Jeanne, "Hey, if we finish this walk to the end of the parking area we're in trouble." That's because taxis that had taken us to Stonehenge from the Salisbury train station the night before were nowhere in sight as walkers defected to cars in bordering fields. Frantically we turned and displayed 10-pound notes and sang out "Salisbury" over and over to the sleepwalking and dead-at-the-wheel drivers. At last, two young men in a small white car stopped for us. Next thing I know we're in the backseat clawing for our seatbelts as the driver zips down the left side (natch, it's England) of a two-lane road, rounding curves and taking hills at high rates of speed in time to some high-volume jazz-fusion riff on the car stereo. He and his mate deposit us at the train station in Salisbury, declining our money, and we're back in London by nine a.m..

Such serendipity or synchronicity can make or break a vacation.

We met a man named John at a disco in Norbury and he told us his favorite place in coastal England was Rye. A couple days later my family and my sister Kathleen's family boarded a train for that town on the English Channel. A one-hour layover in Hastings provided adventure, as we spotted ruins atop a cliff and made a beeline for them. A 10-passenger Victorian rail and cablecar hoisted us from the coastline up through a 50-yard shaft chiseled through the chalky bluff. Atop the promontory we stood among sprawling stone ruins containing Norman arches and doorways in walls of a castle William the Conqueror had built ten centuries earlier. Sea breezes whispered of ancient triumphs and calamities.

There's no time or space to tell it all. The storybook walk through pastures of pale green spangled with lambs and ewes clear to the horizon where an abandoned castle grew ever larger as we approached on a public footpath in Rye. The grandeur of Mont Saint Michel and the walled city of Saint Malo on the north coast of France. The simple pleasures of puzzling out how to do the laundry in a French Laundromat or order dinner for 10 or negotiate a French haircut for my teenaged son, Travis. The tavern where a gypsy band played one more set on guitars and upright bass. The relief when a freelance taxi bearing the most vulnerable among us finally arrived 30 minutes late at our hotel. The endless white expanse of Paris turning to gold as evening fell on the steps of Sacre Coeur.

The view of summer foliage from my front porch after a once-in-a-lifetime journey.