Descent into Dachau: Why I Visited a Concentration Camp

On April 29, 1945, American troops liberated the survivors of Dachau concentration camp in Nazi Germany. This anniversary is much on my mind lately because one of the characters in my novel-in-progress is 18 years old when his unit discovers one of Dachau’s Kaufering subcamps, where emaciated prisoners lived underground.

Entering the gate into the historic site of the WWII-era Dachau Concentration Camp. The words “Arbeit Macht Frei” are ironic. They translate to “Work will make you free.” ©Laurel Kallenbach

I’ve studied and written about the Holocaust since I was young, but I didn’t visit a Nazi concentration camp until a trip to Germany in 2017. I was spending several days in the beautiful city of Munich, where I was enjoying the food, the opera, and museums. There were so many enjoyable options in the city—and then there was Dachau, the original prison camp/concentration camp that Hitler opened in 1933 to detain political prisoners.

Though it’s built 19 miles outside Munich near the village of Dachau, this hellish camp casts a long shadow. It was the dark side of Munich, a city best known for its jubilant Oktoberfest celebration, overflowing with Bavarian beer, pretzels, and sausages.

I see-sawed: Yes, I would go to Dachau. But no—why drag myself into the horrors of history when I could enjoy far more lighthearted pastimes in Munich?

A guard tower and barbed wire at Dachau Memorial Site. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Gates of Dachau

Ultimately, I took the S-2 train from Munich and caught a bus to the Dachau Memorial Site. I have never regretted it. Admission is free, although there was a charge for the guided tour in English.

First I watched a film that covered some of the history of Nazi Germany, including the intense nationalism and anti-Semitism whipped up by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. It explained that the camp was for men only, and that at first most of those incarcerated there were political prisoners—anyone who opposed Hitler—including Catholic priests, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma (gypsies), and conscientious objectors. After Kristallnacht (a pogrom in 1938), more and more Jews were arrested and sent to Dachau, where they did slave labor, often working on armaments.

The tour in English, led by a wonderful interpreter named Rafaela, was so wonderful, especially since I was traveling alone. First, Rafaela emphasized that Dachau is now a memorial site where we come to honor those who suffered and died there. Like any sanctified place, there is no eating or smoking on the grounds, and appropriate attire and a quiet demeanor are requested.

The grounds of the enclosed camp are vast. They were once filled with barracks except for an open area where prisoners lined up for roll call twice a day. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Dachau served as a model for all later Nazi concentration camps. Essentially, it was a school of brutality and fanaticism for member of the SS who ran it. During its twelve years of existence, more than 200,000 men from all over Europe were imprisoned here and in its numerous subsidiary camps in the outlying area. Though Dachau was not a mechanized “death camp” like Auschwitz in Poland, 41,500 were murdered there.

Rafaela led us through the concentration camp’s notorious iron gate which says in German, Arbeit Macht Frei (“Work will make you free.”). Passing through that gate made me swallow hard, because the only “freedom” Dachau offered was death, and men were literally worked to death.

Survivors of Dachau called it “The lie on the gate.” The reality was that Dachau marked the beginning of genocide, planned by Nazi leaders and carried out on a massive, industrialized scale.

Survivors in Dachau packed into overcrowded sleeping quarters, where seven men had to share two small beds. The bunks were three-tiered, and anywhere from 350 to 800 men slept in a single room crowded with 120 beds. Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park

Inside the camp, we had a history lesson about how Germany went from being a democracy to a dictatorship in just months. As Hitler and the Nazi Party took power, the nation’s constitution was abolished. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to a fair trial were revoked. It reminded me that the freedoms afforded to us by democracy are not to be taken for granted or lost because of apathy.

History and the Politics of Hate

The grounds of the enclosed Dachau camp are vast. They were once filled with prisoner barracks (all destroyed except for historic recreations so that visitors can witness the cramped conditions), and an open area where the imprisoned men were lined up for roll call twice a day—morning and evening.

Large signs at Dachau show WWII-era photos. In this one, Dachau prisoners are lined up for roll call. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Rafaela described how roll call sometimes lasted for hours if the number of prisoners present didn’t match the number on the roster. Sometimes dead corpses had to be dragged out for the endless counts. If someone was missing, everyone stood motionless outside until the person was found. Sometimes roll call lasted all night, and people often died from exposure to the elements.

My tour group stood on the gravel-paved site of the roll calls. It was early February and semi-overcast with a slight breeze, and I was cold even though I was wearing a down parka, a wool hat, and gloves. I can’t imagine how the men felt with their bare heads shaved, wearing only thin shirts and trousers and clogs made of canvas. Survivors reported they got cramps in their toes from trying to keep the loose shoes on their feet while they were running.

The Dachau Museum included extensive information regarding the lives of the men imprisoned there, including everything from music in the camp (including choirs and an illegal orchestra) to medical experiments performed on live inmates. ©Laurel Kallenbach

We also toured the “bunker,” the euphemism for the prison, which also acted as the center for torture and detention. Our small group walked in silence down the Bunker corridor, and our shoes on the cement echoed, sounding like harsh SS jackboots in the hall of cruelty. We passed various types of cells, including hunger cells, total-darkness cells, and a vertical “coffin” cell too small to sit or lie down in. There were even cells for SS men who had discipline problems or were too lenient on the prisoners.

One of the more famous prisoners held in Dachau’s prison was Georg Elser, who tried to blow up Adolf Hitler, Göring, and Goebbels in 1939. He was kept alive so that Hitler could mock him after he won the war, but when it was apparent to the Germans that they were losing the war, he was executed in Dachau just 20 days before liberation.

The crematoria were built in summer of 1940, after prisoners from countries other than Germany were arriving at Dachau and the camp’s mortality rate increased. About 11,000 bodies were cremated here. ©Laurel Kallenbach

If Dachau’s prison and the torture center (in the large and gripping museum) weren’t enough to sober me up, Rafaela led the group to the area where we saw the camp’s crematoria—so familiar looking if you’ve seen any Holocaust-era photographs or documentaries. They epitomize the evil of extermination camps—which Dachau was not—although with our guide’s help, I realized that any concentration camp has massive fatalities due to starvation, overwork, murder, and rampant dysentery and disease.

Next, I was shocked to learn that Dachau had a gas chamber. Rafaela did not lead the group into the building with the gas chamber, but she gave us what little information there is about it while we stood outside. The gas chamber is disguised to look like a shower room and some accounts claim that it was never used to kill anyone, just that it was for training SS officers who would later be posted to extermination camps in the East. Other scholars think the gas chamber was used just once; still others say two or three times. Regardless, not viewing the gas chamber is always an option. Indeed, only a handful of people on our tour, including me, walked into this ultimate tool of evil. It was sterile, and did appear like a shower room. There were holes in the ceiling, where there once were mock showerheads—but instead of water they flowed with prussic acid poison gas, called Zyklon B.

I did not take a photo of the gas chamber. I did not linger. Perhaps some people could feel the dead. I could not, though I could feel my own anger and fear at the disastrous consequences of state-sanctioned hatred, hyper-militarism, and racism.

The first memorial at Dachau was this sculpture, known as the “The Unknown Prisoner,” a bronze by Fritz Koelle. It was erected on April 29, 1950 (the fifth anniversary of the camp’s liberation) north of the old crematorium. ©Laurel Kallenbach

During the Nazi regime, Dachau was termed a “protective custody” camp. Meaning, I suppose, that it protected those of the so-called “Aryan race” from those who believed in peace not war, from those who spoke out against tyranny, from homosexuals, from those of Jewish or Slavic or Roma or African cultures.

Why subject myself to the pain of witnessing the relics of inhumanity? When I was 16 year old, I wrote a lengthy research paper for my Honors English class about the literature of the Holocaust. I remember having a dream while I was writing it: an image of a single flower poking up its slim shoot from the trampled-down soil in a Nazi concentration camp. I knew the next morning that the title of my paper was meant to be “A Flower Grows in Auschwitz.”

The flower is a symbol of hope amidst hopelessness, of a sliver of love against an empire of hate. I’m not nearly so idealistic as I was at 16, but I do cling to the idea that nothing good comes from suppressing the vicious, ugly side of human nature. Yet, if we acknowledge that we have the capacity for extreme evil, we also possess the capacity of unshakeable love.

Near the crematoria, which is in the back of the Dachau site, are several churches where people of faith can seek solace. Our tour guide pointed out the Jewish Memorial, the Mortal Agony of Christ Chapel, the Protestant Church of Reconciliation, and the Russian Orthodox Chapel as places individuals could visit after the tour. Then our somber group ambled back toward the camp’s entrance to the  International Monument, the place where people have created art to express the lesson that something like this should never happen again. “Never again” is the reason we need to be vigilant about human rights abuses—large or small—around the world, including in US prisons and detention centers. None of these should be allowed to get even close to reaching the epic proportions of the Shoah.

Art and Remembrance

Except for the crematoria, most structures on the stark grounds of the former Dachau concentration camp appear fairly mundane at first glance. Birds swoop from the trees; cars drive by on roads at a distance. But Dachau’s artwork shatters any sense of normalcy. At the end of the tour, Rafaela led us to Dachau’s International Monument, a place of art, where people come to pray, meditate, and remember. “Never Again” is the place’s mantra.

The visceral bronze sculpture by Holocaust survivor Nandor Glid ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Monument is dominated by a huge bronze sculpture of skeletons caught in barbed wire, designed in 1967 by Yugoslav artist Nandor Glid, a Holocaust survivor. Though a solemn quiet reigns over the Dachau Memorial Site, Glid’s sculpture screams of the horror of this place. Visceral, it’s impossible to deny, and it epitomizes the horror of this place.

I gulped back tears and walked from end to end of the massive sculpture. The closer you stand to it, the less you can see of anything but those skeletons looming against the sky. I zoomed in on smaller details of the memorial art through my camera lens: empty eye sockets, finger bones that look like barbed wire.

There’s also an art installation showing the various prisoner badges that imprisoned people were forced to wear. The triangular cloth insignias, worn on the shirt, labeled each man according to his so-called “crime.” (People could be arrested for something as minor as graffiti or saying something against the Nazi regime.)

In the Dachau Monument is a piece of art recalling the triangle badges that marked every prisoner after 1937. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Red was for political prisoners, yellow was for Jews. Blue marked immigrants and purple labeled pacifists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Black was the badge for “asocials” including Roma people (Gypsy), hobos, and prostitutes. Green marked “professional” criminals. Pink was worn by homosexuals. A dot below the triangle meant that the prisoner was to receive extra punishment in the form of hard labor.

Rafaela pointed out that the art installation does not depict the green, black, or pink triangles because the monument was created in 1968 by the International Prisoner Committee that represented former political prisoners. It honored only the categories of prisoners from “recognized” persecuted groups at the time, which were only those who were persecuted for political, racial, or religious reasons.

I also paused to contemplate at the “Never Again” memorial, where those words are carved in five different languages. Ashes taken from the Dachau crematorium on Liberation Day were ensconced in the memorial.

The “Never Again” memorial. Those words are carved in five different languages. Ashes taken from the Dachau crematorium on Liberation Day were ensconced in the memorial. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Liberation of Dachau

The first Nazi concentration camp was also one of the last that was liberated—on April 29, 1945. Nine days later, on May 8, 1945, Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally and the war in Europe was over.

According to Rafaela, when U.S. troops arrived in the area, the first thing they noticed was a putrid stench coming from a train full of dead bodies. Prisoners from other areas of Germany had been locked in the cars for 21 days without food or water. The Americans were also appalled by stacks of naked corpses, stripped because their clothes were needed for the constant influx of prisoners evacuated from other concentration camps. Enraged American soldiers executed several of the remaining SS guards, some of whom were 14 or 15 years old. By this stage of the war, the only German males left to conscript into the army were boys.

The soldiers brought civilians of the village of Dachau to the garish site. Rafaela told us of accounts that those villagers and families of the SS officers, who must have turned a blind eye. When they saw the emaciated corpses, they knew that their home town would forever be reviled for its link as a place of evil.

Preparing for a Visit to Dachau

I doubt there is a way to prepare yourself for a descent into an emotional pit like that of Dachau, but I promised myself that I could leave at any time if I felt overcome by emotion. I was armed by general knowledge about the place, but even so, there were surprises—facts or emotional reactions I hadn’t anticipated.

A number of times while I was walking through the place, especially in the museum, I felt myself hiding behind the detached mask of intellectualism or behind the façade of “neutral” journalist. Somehow it was easier if I used “researching my novel” to shield me from emotional breakdown.

Dachau Concentration camp opened in 1933 and was liberated by American soldiers in 1945 ©Laurel Kallenbach

I believe it requires a detached mindset to visit Dachau, or any “dark tourism” site such as the 9/11 Memorial Site, Wounded Knee in South Dakota, the Manzanar War Relocation Center (California), or the Memorial for Peace & Justice and the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration (Montgomery, Alabama)

I do believe it’s important to pay attention to your body and emotions—and to know when enough is enough. Dachau will always carry the residue of horror and violence, of torture and sadism. Going there confronts us with emotions we prefer not to acknowledge in ourselves: revulsion, fascination, disbelief, hatred, fear of people who are “different.”

There’s also the danger of succumbing to much grief and sadness. The Visitor Center film pointed out that people survived because of “brotherly love.” Prisoners worked 14-hour days on a scant ration of thin soup. Under those conditions, it was hope that kept people alive.

It was those tales of humanity that were more emotional for me. I anticipated the inhumane treatment and the torture, but I wasn’t prepared for the acts of compassion. Reading about people who sacrificed themselves to save others opened the cracks in my emotional armor. Those stories were the things that made me cry.

But it’s also possible that stories of heroism and kindness can be overshadowed by the enormity of the cruelty and depravity in Dachau. The history of Nazi concentration camps is proof that humans have an unlimited capacity to inflict suffering. So, it’s important to be conscious of when you’ve had enough of visiting Dachau. Enough is truly enough. I see no virtue in enduring beyond what your own nervous system can cope with.

However, those who can bear to confront difficult emotions while standing in the exact location of hell on earth become witnesses for truth. We cannot hide from history—or from the fact that our species is capable of unspeakable evil—but we can walk into a place like Dachau knowing that there is some cupful of good, even in the midst of an ocean of evil.

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

Barbed wire at the Dachau Memorial ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ascending to Parnassus Books, the Literary Heart of Nashville

APRIL 2020 UPDATE: In the times of COVID-19, we are  unable to travel to places of literary note, but we can support independent bookstores. Instead of ordering from Amazon, call your local bookstore and buy it from them! This can even work for self-published books! I recently asked the Boulder Bookstore to order a copy of my friend Amy Drayer’s exciting mystery novel, Revelation, the first in the Makah Island Mystery series. They did, and five days later delivered it to my porch step. I’m supporting authors and locally owned, independent bookstores.

(Originally published in November 2013)

Making a literary pilgrimage while traveling is always a grand thing. If you love to read, I highly recommend touring an author’s house—like I did at Voltaire’s manor house in Ferney-Voltaire, France.

Parnassus Books in Nashville is a must-visit for anyone who loves to read. Author Ann Patchett highlights her favorite titles on this shelf. ©Laurel Kallenbach

It’s also fun and meaningful to take a trip to a place you read about in a book. For instance, Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun inspired me to visit Tuscany and to spend four days in her village of Cortona.

While I was in Nashville, I had to make a literary pilgrimage … to a very special independent bookstore. Parnassus Books is named for a mountain in central Greece where the Muses lived—and it’s known as the mythological home of music and poetry, so you know it’s got to be good.

Parnassus isn’t just any bookstore, it’s one that’s owned by one of my favorite authors, Ann Patchett, who opened it in 2011 right when independent bookstores—and even bookstore chains—were dropping like flies.

Ann Patchett’s books at Parnassus. I wanted to buy one of her titles, but I own them all. In retrospect, I should have bought an autographed copy of “Bel Canto” and given away my old copy, but I was overcome by the riches in the store and couldn’t think straight. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ann is probably best known for her incredibly gripping Bel Canto and her most recent bestseller, The Dutch House. (Yes, I think of her as “Ann,” a friend and kindred, bookloving spirit—even though I’ve never met her).

By becoming a bookseller, Ann wanted to prove that people still love to read—and love to buy books in a place where they can interact with other book lovers and authors. She was concerned by how many good books were going out of print and wanted to start a store featuring the books she cherishes. It didn’t hurt that she’s incredibly well-connected with boatloads of fantastic authors.

Between the Covers

Located in one of Nashville’s more classy strip malls along Hillsboro Pike, Parnassus isn’t large, but it’s thrilling! I was so excited walking up to its display windows filled with new titles that I could barely contain myself. (I suspect more than a few visitors display this giddiness as they walk through the door. Are you one of them?)

The Greek temple is a fun entry into the whimsical children’s section at Parnassus. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Inside, the walls are lined almost to the high ceiling with wooden bookshelves. I felt wonderment, felt like a kid in a candy shop. I felt at home.

I browsed for a while, drawn especially to titles that Ann recommends on her blog. There’s also a special “Ann Recommends” shelf that displays her current favorites.

A cheerful bookseller asked me if I had questions, and before I could say “Kurt Vonnegut,” she was bubbling over about the books she loves most, and offered a few of her own suggestions and other titles popular with Parnassus regulars.

How would I describe Parnassus Books? A clean, well-lighted place (to coin a phrase from a Hemingway book). ©Laurel Kallenbach

With five books in my arms, I sat down in a leather chair and read a few pages of each, just to get a sense of them.

I wanted to buy them all—but alas, I would have exceeded the 50-pound checked-suitcase weight limit had I done so. So I pledged to go home to the Boulder Bookstore (another fabulous independent shop) and buy them there instead.

I did purchase one light volume: the hilarious Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. I definitely wanted to do my bit to support Parnassus—and to take home a piece of its literary magic. Long live Parnassus Books!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

P.S. If you’re visiting Nashville, you should know that Parnassus Books is just up the street from Bluebird Café, another not-to-be-missed site for music lovers and songwriters. Read about my unique experience at the Bluebird: “Guitars in the Parking Lot.” 

Read an inspiring piece about coronavirus and Parnassus Books, written by Ann Patchett for The Guardian newspaper.

 

Meditate with Monterey Bay Aquarium

It’s no secret that meditating reduces anxiety and depression and improves immunity—and during the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to bolster our physical and emotional health. Research has also shown a strong connection between time spent in nature and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression, according to Harvard Health.

A southern sea otter named Abby in the Sea Otter Exhibit. ©Monterey Bay Aquarium

So I was thrilled when I opened an e-newsletter from the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California informing me that during the time that the aquarium is closed to the public for the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re hosting video meditations (they call them “medit-oceans”) featuring a soothing, 10-minute guided meditation you can do while gazing at some relaxing ocean imagery. (You can join the medit-ocean live at 9:00 a.m. Pacific Time, Monday–Friday. You can also find the meditations on YouTube or the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Facebook page at any time that you need some nature-based relaxation.)

“This is a stressful time, but connecting with one another digitally and sharing our love of the ocean centers us when so much feels uncertain. We hope you, too, will find some relief and community online with us.”  

                                               —Monterey Bay Aquarium

Glorious “Relax-ocean”

Two young visitors admire the aquarium’s Kelp Forest exhibit. ©Monterey Bay Aquarium

This morning, my husband and I participated in the first of a series of live, online “medit-ocean”: a 10-minute video treat gazing at Pacific sea nettles, a type of jellyfish that stings. (You can see a photo of the Pacific sea nettles at the bottom of this post.)

A very calm woman’s voice instructed us in deep breathing, muscle relaxation, and visualizations. I especially liked the part where she instructed us that every time a thought—or a worry or a fear—pops up, just to visualize attaching that thought to one of the undulating sea nettles and then watch it float away.

After 10 minutes I felt refreshed—plus I had an appreciation for and fascination with the Pacific sea nettles after having watched the animals’ graceful tentacles—some long and thin, others flutey and lacy. There will be different animals featured for different meditations, so I’m eager to get to get better acquainted with the sea life!

Be There Now with Live Webcams

If medit-ocean isn’t your thing, there are other great online ways to explore the Monterey Bay Aquarium, whether you’re in a Manhattan skyscraper, on the Arizona desert, or in the snowy Rocky Mountains. Via webcams and videos found on the Aquarium website  and their Facebook page, you can literally experience the wonders of the ocean no matter where you are.

Monterey Bay Aquarium has ten live web cameras to choose from, including:

Penguin Cam: Resting, preening, or swimming, these inquisitive African penguins are hoot! They’re fed to make sure they get their daily vitamin, and sometimes by tossing food into the water to stimulate foraging behavior. Watch for underwater acrobatics as the penguins dart and dive to catch their fish.

African penguins on exhibit in the Splash Zone. ©Monterey Bay Aquarium

Sea Otter Cam: Be delighted by the antics of our sea otters or mellow out to the hypnotic drifting of our jellies. including playful sea otters (humor is good for your health)

Kelp Forest Cam: Watch fish and small sharks glide through the swaying kelp forest

Sea Jelly Cams: There’s one live camera for the underwater dances of the reddish sea nettles and another for the hypnotic moon jellies that drift like slow-motion dancers.

A flamboyant cuttlefish in the Tentacles exhibit. ©Monterey Bay Aquarium

Shark Cam: You’ll spot sharks, rays, and other fishes as they cruise through the rocky reef. Among the types you’ll see are Sevengill sharks, leopard sharks, spiny dogfish and the elusive Pacific angel shark. The Aquarium’s 90-foot-long hourglass shape gives big sharks plenty of room to glide and turn. Watch carefully and you might see big skates and bat rays pass by the window!

Coral Reef Cam: This Baja coral-reef community teems with colorful tropical fish, including the Cortez wrasse, scrawled filefish, and Cortez angelfish. In the wild, coral reefs are among the most diverse and valuable ecosystems on Earth.

A cluster of strawberry anemones. ©Monterey Bay Aquarium

This is how I’m getting my infusion of the miraculous animals and sea plants in the oceanic ecosystems until I can travel again. When it’s safe after the pandemic, Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the first places I hope to head.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my travels to California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium: Monterey Bay Aquarium: Saving Oceans One Fish at a Time 

Though sea nettles are jellyfish with a sting, their flowy motions are perfect for a tranquil meditation. ©Monterey Bay Aquarium

Have Book, Will Travel

While cruising Maine’s Penobscot Bay on a schooner, this girl was immersed in a Harry Potter book. She could have been me at age eight.   ©Laurel Kallenbach

You can tell a lot about a person by their books: at home and on the road.

I have shelves of uncategorized fiction, including books I’ve read and those I haven’t. There’s a small, poetry-sized shelf for volumes of poems. There’s a delicious space for cookbooks in the kitchen. The sustainable living books are on my loftiest shelf.

And—of course!—I have devoted several rambling shelves to travel guides and travel memoirs and travel histories. All the destinations are mixed up: Egypt beside Ireland beside Singapore beside Belize. I’ve remapped the world.

Going Places

Whether or not a book is specifically about travel, it takes me on a journey—figuratively and literally. Many times, when I look at photos from past vacations, I’ve noticed that the book I’m reading made it into a picture or two.

Antigua’s Carlisle Bay beach was lovely, but my mind was in 17th-century Holland: I was reading Tracy Chevalier’s “The Girl with the Pearl Earring.” ©Laurel Kallenbach

In fact, I often remember the books I read during specific trips, either because they helped pass long hours on the airplane or because I was so mesmerized by the book that it distracted me from the actual destination.

For instance, I read The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan in Fiji. I had plenty of time toward the end of the trip for reading because a hurricane was moving through that part of the Pacific. Although the hurricane remained 500 miles from the Fijian islands, the water got so murky that snorkeling was bad. By afternoon on the remote island of Kadavu, it started to rain buckets. We were staying in a solar-lit, thatched bure; when ours got damp and dark, we huddled in the dining building, which had a metal roof and hurricane lamps. I was happy to disappear into Tan’s magical mother-daughter saga. The next day, we flew back to the main island and stayed at a hotel near the airport. There, Ken and I sat on the bed and gazed out at horizontal rain and wind as they denuded the palm trees. Escaping again into the book, I could almost forget the howling outside.

“The Traveller’s Guide to Sacred Ireland” by Cary Meehan took me to amazing standing stones, like Kilclooney Dolmen in County Donegal. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I read Jurassic Park during my honeymoon on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Ken read it on the flight east—and during our unexpected sleepover in Atlanta due to cancelled flights. Then I read it on the beach and during the flight home. (To help us travel light, we pack books that both of us are interested in. That way we swap books halfway through the trip.)

In Scotland, I read a second-hand Amelia Peabody mystery—one of a series of charming archaeological whodunits set in Egypt during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When I was finished, I donated this one to a retreat-center library on the island of Cumbrae. (That’s another secret to traveling light: leave it behind for someone else to read.)

In England, I read Pride and Prejudice for two reasons: a) because I never had, and b) because it felt right to be reading Jane Austen while visiting the very manor houses, villages and gardens where the P&P movies were filmed.

Dove è la Toilette? (Where’s the bathroom?)

Where would we be without guidebooks and phrasebooks? Lost, I imagine. In the days before e-readers, I photocopied the pertinent pages before I traveled and then discarded the pages as I moved from place to place.

True confession: I still do this because a) I prefer not to lug expensive electronics around the globe, and b) batteries choose to die and wireless tends to disappear the instant I arrive in way-off-the-beaten-path places.

The Temple of Apollo at Stourhead estate in England, was the setting of a love scene in the 2005 movie “Pride and Prejudice.” I read the book while I was in the region. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Rick Steves’ Italy was my lifeline 15 years ago when I traveled alone for a month in the Lake District and Tuscany. I carried photocopied pages (a Rick Steves–sanctioned method), and everywhere I went—restaurants, cafés, museums, hill towns, lakes—Americans pored over the same book. The Rick Steves guide was an excellent ice-breaker: after all, you know the reader speaks (or at least can read) English. Many times I’d lean over to the adjacent table at a trattoria and start a Rick-related conversation:

“I see you’re traveling with the Rick Steves guide. Are you staying in Varenna or Menaggio here on Lake Como?”

“We got into that cute little mom-and-pop hotel in Varenna. You?”

“Varenna. That hotel was booked, so I’m staying at a nice place on the outskirts. A little pricier, but there’s a lovely garden and a fresco in the breakfast room! How are Rick’s suggestions for restaurants here in town?”

“Outstanding! We’ve been to all of them. ‘Stick with Rick’ is our motto.”

Stick with Rick became my mantra for that trip—half of it anyway. I mostly agreed with his recommendations for pretty medieval villages to visit, and I appreciated his historical background. In May, when tourism was light, seeing others with Rick Steves’ Italy was a novelty. By June, as crowds increased, the thrill had worn off and I had to get off the Rick grid for a little solitude.

For better or worse, at home or abroad, books unite us.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted July 2013

What books have transported you most? Does a certain type of book work for you when you travel? And how do you read: eBook or paper? Leave a reply below, if you like…

I used the titles of books to create a little “book haiku” about traveling. ©Laurel Kallenbach