What Every Ramsey Should Know about the Great Ideas Tour

Reflections and advice from those who have been there for the one who’s about to go!
Compiled Fall 1998 by Jan Duvall

The Great Ideas Tour is a self-directed trip through Europe for recipients of the John Fraser Ramsey Award aided and abetted by the Ramsey Irregulars, who are scattered in key locations in the U.S., the U.K. and across the Continent. At this writing in Spring 1999, four Ramsey recipients have taken the official (for which read: travel-expense-paid) Great Ideas Tour, while two Ramseys have enjoyed unofficial visits. This publication gathers their reflections on the Tour for the benefit of Kit Perrien, the newest member of the Ramsey Family, as she plans her Tour. Comments by Josh Moore were added April, 2002.

The Tourists speaking here are

  1. DM-Darren Mowry, Ramsey ’95
  2. MAHR-Mallory Ann Hayes Rottinghaus, Ramsey ’94
  3. SD-Scott Dickerson, Ramsey ’97, traveled in ’98
  4. SMcG-Stan McGee, Ramsey ’91
  5. WB-Will Bearden, Ramsey ’93
  6. jam-Josh Moore, Ramsey ’01
  7. RK-Ryan King ’00

Was the Great Ideas Tour your first visit to Europe? Will it be your last?

WB – Yes, it was my first trip, and hopefully will not be my last. I look forward to seeing Spain and Portugal as well as more of Austria and Italy.

MAHR -It was my first trip to Europe.

DM – The Great Ideas Tour was not my first trip to Europe, nor will it be my last. It was however, my first trip alone and by far the most exciting yet scary trip to this point.

SD – I’d been to Europe before, but this was my first trip by myself. It was a great break, and it taught me things that I want to do before I go again. Although this will be hard, I want to learn German or French. The whole point of learning the language is to be able to go around to little towns and stay for a week or so and get to know some of the people. I’ll go back to Europe – but I want to go to India first!

SMcG – When I received the Ramsey Award in 1991, I had already spent a year in Aix-en-Provence, France on a Rotary Fellowship. Little did I know at that time that I would spend an additional three years at Oxford, England as a Rhodes Scholar. In fact, before beginning at Harvard Law School in 1995, I had spent an equal amount of time at the University of Alabama and in school in Europe (four years each, or eight years total). As a result, although the Great Ideas Tour had not been implemented when I was awarded the Ramsey, I was an enthusiastic supporter of the Tour (I even wrote a letter to the Ramsey trustees when it was proposed) and believe that I have had similar experiences to those subsequent Ramsey Award recipients who have been afforded the opportunity to travel in Europe thanks to the Tour.

(jam) No. Before I took my tour, I had spent one year abroad in Germany and traveled to Europe two other times, once for two weeks in Spain and once for four weeks in the German-speaking countries. My previous experiences, however, took nothing away from my trip. Europe-like any other destination-always has new things one can discover if you’re open to them. And another trip is always possible.

RK – The tour was not my first trip to Europe, for I am fortunate enough to have family that lives there. So, I had been to Austria twice, Belgium once for a class, Italy for a high school trip, England to visit my dad, and Jordan (even though it’s not Europe) to visit family. I have been to Europe since the trip, and I plan to visit again.

What was your main objective for the Tour?

MAHR- My main objective for the Tour was to explore the actual places and landscapes which were an integral part of my historical and literary studies in college. I knew I could never see everything in depth, so I tried to get an overview of the most important sites to Western civilization with the hope of exploring more in depth on return visits.

WB- I wanted an authentic experience off of the tourist track, so I tried to spend a lot of my time in smaller towns. People are amazingly open in a relaxed setting. I incorporated a rotation with an ophthalmologist (this is my future specialty) into my trip. I was gone for a total of eight weeks, three of which were spent in and around Vienna. Three or four of the weeks I was travelling solo

DM – My main objective for the Tour was to see some of the most exciting and beautiful places on Earth, to take in as much of the non-tourist sites and sounds as possible, and meet as many people that I could. I accomplished all of these objectives, but would have to say that the last (meeting incredible people) turned out to be the source of my best memories and most exciting times. Standing in incredible cathedrals, listening to beautiful music from a pipe organ that was older than our country was a regular occurrence on the trip, but my time drinking wine and discussing politics with an incredible couple who lived outside of Brussels competes with the cathedrals for memories.

(jam) I had four. I wanted to visit old friends in Germany; meet a few new ones in Vienna-John, Susanne, and Mango; participate in Zen Buddhist retreat near Bordeaux, France; and hug trees in Sweden. I successfully met all of them.

RK – My main objective, for better or for worse, was to try to see as many countries as I could, specifically ones that I hadn’t seen before.

What difference have your experiences on the Tour made in your life?

MAHR – The Great Ideas tour had a profound impact on aspects of my life that I never would have imagined before going. Obviously, it expanded my knowledge of geography and the places which have shaped our collective history. More unexpectedly, the tour enriched my faith life and my connection to the history of my religion. As I traveled alone for most of the four weeks, the Tour also gave me confidence in my ability to survive in foreign and sometimes stressful circumstances.

WB – My trip made me realize the true extent of my wanderlust and has opened a Pandora’s box of travelling for the future. Also, during the segment of the trip that I was travelling solo, I gained a sense of self -sufficiency that I don’t think can be achieved any other way.

DM – The Tour allowed me to see places and people that I would normally never have seen. It is too easy in college to become focused on the campus and the many activities that define your day-to-day life, never really paying much attention to the outside world. The Great Ideas Tour removed me from my comfort zone and forced me to learn and take care of myself. It broadened my view of the world and the perspectives of others. Philosophical discussions were a regular part of each stop, and I had the pleasure of learning from many interesting and dynamic people.

What would you say to the Ramsey Board about the importance of this trip?

SD – You’re opening up a whole new continent to people. Students are really busy – I think people forget how busy students are – and the Ramseys are people who are so involved on campus that they are swamped in what they’re going, what’s going on in their lives at the University of Alabama, right now, that their world’s really small. And that trip, especially at that time in student’s lives, reminds them that there’s so much more to the world than just The University of Alabama, just student involvement, and so they can relax a little. It broadens there perspective. It’s not as crucial that they win next year’s award, because there are other things in the world. It’s kind of ironic that to get the award you have to be really involved and really immersed in student life here, and this award kind of takes you out of this. It’s a breather for people. Even now, I’ve kind of gotten immersed in Engineering, and just talking about the trip is a reminder to stop and breathe. We’re not the kind of people who would take a breather on our own. We’re the kind of people who somebody has to hit and say “you gotten stop and re-examine.”

(jam) I think the Tour (and the brilliant minds that developed it) have hit upon something wonderful. If anything, I feel a bit guilty that I took the trip when others who have never traveled abroad may have benefited from it more. Nevertheless, the Tour is furthering the ideals of Dr. Ramsey, and I think that is something very unique and encouraging from a University award. The only suggestion I would make is to expand the possibilities: let students travel the whole globe as long as they stay within budget. The idea as I see it is to provide experience and enrichment. Let’s push that to the limits.

What difference has being a Ramsey winner made in your life?

MAHR – The Ramsey dinner gives me an event around which to plan my annual visits back to campus. Being a Ramsey winner allows me to meet and spend time with some amazing people, both the other winners and the faculty and friends of Dr. Ramsey.

WB – It’s a very unique honor and has allowed me to meet a very interesting and eclectic family of people.

DM – Winning the Ramsey Award was one of the most exciting parts of my college career. I had no idea about the family I was joining and the incredible opportunities that it would lend. I truly believe that the focus of the Ramsey Award is on the “people” behind it. First and foremost, John Ramsey, the inspiration behind the award and dynamic piece of many people’s lives at Alabama. Secondly, the close-knit group of winners and supporter who stay in touch years down the road to ensure that the quality and prestige of the award are maintained. Thirdly, the new Great Ideas Tour, which allows the fortunate winner to carry that sense of “family” anywhere in the world and add even more incredible people to the list of Ramsey family members.

(jam) On my trip, I fell in love. Eve accompanied me on three of my four objectives (I went to the monastery alone). While writing this, I’m back in Germany dog-sitting with her. It would have been difficult for the Tour to have had a larger impact on my life.

What was the best moment on your tour? (defining best as you prefer: most positive memorable, most touching, most fun. . .)

MAHR – There were two most powerful experiences of my tour. The first took place as I stood on the Culloden battlefield in northern Scotland. I had just taken Dr. Hill’s Gaelic History course, and standing on that almost deserted moor, I said to myself, “This is where it happened. Right here a people and a way of life were wiped out.” I had that same powerful moment of emotion and similar thoughts thousands of miles and 200 years in historical time later standing at Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany. These two moments were not the most pleasant of my tour, but they are the ones that stay with me because until I had actually stood in those places, it was difficult to truly imagine the horror and reality of it all.

WB – I had a birthday dinner on the Italian coast with friends from home that had flown in from two different continents to travel together.

DM – The best moment on the tour was meeting and spending time with John Harris, a longtime supporter of the award and now a lifelong friend. Our first meal was at a restaurant in Vienna that John said “reminded him of the University Club in Tuscaloosa” and he was right. He made every effort to make my trip through Europe as dynamic as possible, including making it possible to meet and spend time with some of the most interesting people I have ever met, including having drinks and lunch at the Oxford and the Cambridge Gentleman’s Club in London, touring chateaus and castles in Belgium, wandering through the Imperial Gardens in Vienna, and tasting Polish Vodka for the first time. And that is just the beginning.

SMcG – I think the Tour is a particularly nice fit given both the purposes of the award and its namesake. Doc Ramsey’s academic interests were primarily focused on Western Europe, and the award’s purpose is to reward “scholarship, leadership and broad humanistic interests.” In addition, the Ramsey trustees have always considered the Ramsey Award unique and different from other student awards at the University. I can think of no better way to do this than to provide Ramsey award recipients with the opportunity to travel in Europe. While in Oxford, I took several vacation breaks in Vienna, Austria, staying with Ramsey trustee John Harris. I enjoyed his hospitality immensely and consider his friendship (we keep in touch even today) one of my greatest benefits of the Award. I suspect that those Ramsey recipients who have traveled on the Tour have similar experiences.

SD – I had a whole lot of fun when Ethan and I and John took the Bentley and just drove around. It’s such a boyish dream to be in the James Bond car. And it was so much more free – there was kind of a safety net because he was watching out for us, and suddenly we could relax. That was the only thing about traveling alone-there were times you never got to turn it off. You never got to turn off “Where am I gonna go, how am I gonna get there, how am I gonna find it?” So, when I finally got with someone who was being the mother hen, I could say “Ah! I’ll just kick back in the Bentley! And wherever he drives me is where I’m going today.” It was really a nice break.

SD – I was in Barcelona when Brazil won the game. I was out in the middle of Barcelona with some friends I’d met that day, and they did a samba down Las Ramblas. All these Brazil fans had drums and we were in the middle of it. It was wonderful. That was one of my funniest memories. The girls I was with were dancing the samba, and I was in the back looking really white and uncoordinated, bopping around like, “I know I can’t dance the samba, but I want to celebrate, too.” We were swept up in this wave of Brazilians. It was hilarious.

(jam) Eve and I have tried to come up with what the best moment was. There was our sleeping quasi-in the elevator (or at least in front of it) on the ferry to Trelleborg, Sweden. There was the time we finally got rid of the Pfadfinder (German Boy & Girl Scouts) and had at last had Lake Nässjasjön to ourselves. There was the tub of soy ice cream overlooking Ingatorp and the little train. In general, though, the best moments were our time hiking in Sweden. You can’t really separate out any particular one.

RK – There were so many amazing parts of my trip, so I’ll breifly touch on them. Seeing all of the people I know (Joe Brown in Belfast/Glasgow; my dad in England; Adam Harbin, Holley Johnson, Mollye Yates, and Morgan Blankenship in Greece; Kit and John in Vienna; my family, unexpectedly, in Vienna; Josh Moore in Mannheim; Eric Hayden, Shane Timlin, Harris Moore, and Troy Reisner in London), Belgium vs Italy in Brussels, Florence, unexpectedly beautiful cities like Edinburgh and Budapest, 4th of July with Kit and John eating European BBQ, drinking and eating ice cream with Kit in Prague while living in a “shambolic” hostel, seeing my cousin at 15 for the first time since he was 7, Greece, Josh in Heidelberg, Josh allowing me to listen to punk music and surf the net, all of Spain, leaving Paris (see below), pubs in England….

Was there a place that you’d always wanted to see that you visited on this trip?

(jam) Sweden. Definitely, Sweden. To be honest, I’m not much of a tourist. For starters, I’m the type of person that as soon as I get somewhere, I make myself at home and experience life there rather than constantly heading somewhere else. Added to that, palaces, castles, cathedrals and the rest of tourist-dom are just not my style. I’m much more interested in sustainable alternatives to all of that. Europe has some amazing natural areas, each of which is an example of how people have come to live in balance with nature over centuries. And Sweden is one of the best examples I can think of. The paint on the houses has evolved to be safe, durable, and cheap. The Swedes don’t seem to mind that almost every house is the same color, Falun red, because it’s a solution that works. So it was amazing to backpack through Sweden. (I bought the backpack specifically for the trip-open to possibilities, right?) Thought the taxes are crazy, life is incredibly pleasant there. Highly recommended.

RK – I saw Spain for the first time, and that was something I ALWAYS have wanted to do. It didn’t disappoint…my favorite landmark of the whole trip was the Alhambra in Grenada. Furthermore, the Eastern European areas I went to (Budapest, Greece, and Prague) were absolutely amazing.

What was the worst moment on your tour? (defining worst as you prefer: most overwhelming, most embarrassing, most frightening, most tiring. . .)

MAHR – The worst moment of my tour was when I was locked out overnight in Vienna. I wandered around and slept on stone steps. On the other hand, I saw a side of life in the city that night that I never would have chosen to experience if not for the mishap, and I had a new understanding of homelessness! A close second was when I was mistaken for a terrorist in Brussels airport, patted down, interrogated in French, taken to the basement, and searched right down to taking the batteries out of my camera. It must have been that suspicious Ireland sweatshirt I was wearing.

WB – Waiting to board my return flight in Dublin and realizing that I really did have to go home.

DM – The scariest point of the trip was running to catch a train from Belgium to Vienna and realizing, after seated in my compartment, that my wallet, including all my cash, passport, and ID, were gone. I grabbed my backpack and ran to the terminal where I searched diligently for what seemed like hours. Just before the train pulled away from the station, a little old lady walked right up to me with an outstretched hand. There was my wallet. I thanked her with a smile and jumped on the train. Not a thing was missing or even opened in the wallet. She had seen the passport photo and had been looking for me too…

SD – I know my worst moment – it was the first lesson I learned about backpacking. I was in Madrid at eight in the morning-I thought that would be enough time to find a place to stay. I had to go all over Madrid with my backpack, which was heavy, before I could find a hostel that wasn’t completely booked. It was my second day in Europe. I had flown into Amsterdam and then spent twelve hours on a train, arriving in . . .Madrid is incredibly daunting as a city, if you don’t know your way around- it’s huge, compared to most of the other cities I’d been in. There are no navigable street signs, big roads, like car roads not meant for pedestrians and the Metros are hard to find. I wandered around in a circle in the Puerto del Sol for an hour and a half before I figured out what was going on. It was really kind of disorienting. That’s my worst moment. Then I arrived in Vienna before John Harris and before John Harris’s key, so I played the same game in Vienna. But by that point I’d come to grips with ambiguity. I could tell myself, “I’ll find a hostel. I’ll figure out a way.” And by then I had backup plans. I knew that if worse came to worse, you hop on a train, spend the night on it, go somewhere else, whereas in Madrid I was freaking out!

(jam) Probably the rats. No, no. Definitely the rats. While in the Buddhist monastery, I slept on the floor with eight other gentlemen in a larger room with a grass-mat floor. The first night the little bit of food that I had for the train ride was consumed by rats. I heard them but didn’t really know what to do. I pulled the sleeping bag up over my ears (who knows?!) and slept on. The next morning I disposed of all open goods and washed out my belongings and had no trouble for several days. Then one night, the came back. There were several of them (far, far too many), and I know that at least one of them was on my pillow. They were after, I soon found out, a sealed bar of chocolate. I knew when I heard a “plump” as it fell down their hole and smelled the quickly melting chocolate in their tiny little mouths. A cat then came, drawn to the commotion, and they scattered. The next morning I found a rat part outside the door to my sleeping quarters. On mentioning this to my Thây (teacher-monk), I was told to “have positive energy for the rats,” then he walked away. In the end, it wasn’t a half-bad lesson. I put a broom over the rats hole (finding ways to live in harmony with animals) and I gave my food away (minimizing possessions). We lived together happily ever after.

RK – Paris, by far. After leaving Josh Moore in Mannheim, I went to Spain through Paris. Unfortunately, I got there the Thursday before Bastille Day, which meant that everyone in Paris was trying to leave. Therefore, I had a miserable time trying to get a train South. One good thing is that I met a guy in the train station who was going to Spain, too…poor guy, he had just gotten off the plane, and I’ve never seen anyone who looked as bewildered as he did…anyway, we ended up hopping a train (legally, but we had to sit in the area between cars) heading South, beginning a 24hr odyssey to make it to Barcelona. Paris-part II. On the way back, I went to Paris to catch the Chunnel train to go to England to meet my dad and eventually catch my flight back. Well, my pre-purchased ticket (the same one accepted in London a month and a half earlier) was refused, forcing me to buy another one for almost $100 after arguing for almost an hour. Then, after that experience, I was rudely and embarrassingly searched every which way imaginable by a sneid attendant (who couldn’t have been older than me) before being allowed to board the train. Paris better hope that I don’t ever get control of the red button.

What advice would you give new Ramsey winners as they are deciding whether to take the tour?

MAHR – To future Ramsey winners, I would say “Do it, do it, do it.” Even if you use some of your own money like I did, the tour is still worth it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

WB – First of all, there shouldn’t even be a decision at to whether to go or not! Secondly, I would advise going with an adventurous spirit and seeking out conversation with those around you, no matter how limited you are in that language. You’ll be amazed how welcoming people can be. Lastly, people were much more hospitable if I respected their language by at least trying to speak it, no matter how little I knew.

DM – The best advice I could give future winners of the Ramsey Award is the following: Do whatever possible to learn about John Ramsey and the legacy he has left behind . . . it is the foundation of the Award and the reason why so many people give so much. Understand the investment that is being made for you, in time, in money, in support. It is rare to find such genuine contributions being made. Take every opportunity to know the Ramsey family and stay as active as you can. Make the most of the Great Ideas Tour, whatever cities and countries you choose. The Tour IS a great idea, but also will allow you to grow in ways you can’t imagine. Again, the Great Ideas Tour has a lot to offer as far as exploration of places and things, but the roots of the Tour are the people and friends you make along the way. The friends will stay with you for a long time.

SMcG – My advice to Ramsey winners as they are deciding whether to take the Tour is that it is an opportunity that cannot be passed up – it has the potential of promoting intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth unmatched by any classroom experiences. For those who are undecided, I offer the following story: when I was debating whether to spend a third year at Oxford on the Rhodes, I was concerned that I might have spent too much time in Europe and that I should go ahead and start law school. Having spent an additional year in Oxford, I have absolutely no regrets and realize that similar opportunities for travel once one is saddled with a job and other responsibilities are unfortunately all too few and far between. On a more general point, one might think that travel in Europe would be most useful in helping students to learn more about foreign cultures (this is the rationale behind many junior year abroad programs). My own experience is that, as a result of such travel, one is likely to learn more about oneself and the United States (seeing it through the eyes of someone else). It helps you both to appreciate better the many advantages of being from the United States as well as to be more critical of some aspects that you had always taken for granted.

SD – Of course take the trip, for goodness sake.

MAHR – This may not be very useful, but I would say, remember that talking to yourself after 4 weeks of traveling alone is not a sign of madness! Seriously though, always, always carry your passport on you and learn how to say “No” in every language you might encounter.

DM – My tip for the tour is to plan more time than what you expect you will need. Don’t make the tour a city-to-city sight seeing trip. Make the Great Ideas Tour a focus on a smaller number of places, over a longer period of time, with the main focus on the personalities that make the Tour so special. SD – Two things: Make sure you travel a little bit by yourself, and a little bit with other people. When you’re with other people, you have a chance to reflect your experiences off of them, without doing it to a journal, but a lot of times you need peace, and you’ll notice that. If you’re traveling with other people, you’ll realize “I’m tired of traveling with other people” because you have to deal with that compromise all the time. Which is, “where are we going to go eat?” And if you’re with four or five other people, it’s really hard to decide where you’re going to go eat, because everybody wants to go somewhere different. After while you get to the point that you want to be alone. And, you get to the point that you can tell whether the people in your hostel will be good people to travel with, or you’ll know “In this city, I’m on my own.” And take a journal. Man, they’re great! I didn’t write very much, but when I looked back at my journal, just seeing a few notes brought it all back. I think that knowing the languages of the countries you’re traveling in would give you a lot more freedom, and also would give you the opportunity to get closer to the people. Too often in hostels, the Americans and Aussies and Brits team up to go do things just because we can understand each other’s language so easily, and then you don’t learn as much about different languages and people.

SD – I came from a totally different point of view regarding planning and preparation. I was riding the train into Madrid reading the guide to the city, and that style really bit me a couple of times. Even if you’re a newbie, set up a place in the center for four or five days so you can explore the city but also have a place to come home to.

(jam) I can imagine two possible problems in deciding to go on the trip or not. First, some may worry that it won’t be good enough and ask, “Will I enjoy it?” There is most certainly something that you will suit you somewhere in Europe. Small, quaint villages and tidy pastures. Big cities and hot dance clubs. Forests and hiking trails. You just have to find it. In the end, the worth of your trip relies completely on you.

Second, some may worry that the trip will be too overwhelming and ask, “Can I handle it?” Perhaps. The most amazing and the most terrifying things can happen to you while on the Tour-falling in love, reaching enlightenment, being forced to sleep on the street, not being able to communicate with anyone (all in no particular order, of course). But wonderful and terrifying things can happen to you anywhere. Overcome your fear.

RK – I don’t know if this question was phrased properly, so I’ll answer it two ways. First, don’t even think about it — take the trip!! As for advice, I guess it all depends on the person. Get your plane ticket early so that you don’t get strapped by exorbitant costs and limited availability. I just had a loose sketch of what I wanted to do in my mind, kind of knowing general areas of Europe that I needed/wanted to be on certain dates. Some folks like a little more structure, which, I will admit, takes away some of the headaches. I like the flexibility of fluid plans, though, for it gave me the opportunity to try to do some pretty spontaneous things, like include Brussels on my trip in an effort to obtain a ticket to a Euro Cup 2000 soccer match. Lastly, if you can do some traveling in May, you can beat the crowds associated with late June, July, and August (heck, if there’s any way you can travel in the spring or fall, you’ll avoid the tourism crush and hiked-up summer costs).

Bring three sets of clothes, max…hey many Europeans wear the same thing for days and they’re not traipsing around the country. Caveat…just pack lightly altogether, and bring a big bag plus a smaller one so that you can keep the big one at your hostel and take the smaller one around with you during the day. Don’t be afraid of night trains, for they’re a great way to make up some miles while you’re sleeping. I would suggest doing too many night trains in a row — I did three in a row one stretch, and I was a stinky, groggy mess on that fourth day (best shower and sleep I ever had, though). Lastly, I would spend a few days in each area. One day isn’t enough, but more than three or four days gets kind of pointless unless you’re staying the whole summer in one place.