Every now and then we get a nice letter from a longtime subscriber who, because of advancing age, will no longer travel to Europe. Reading these letters I feel a little sad. The prospect of life without European trips is not something I want to contemplate for very long. No more Muesli with a mountain view, no more country drives, no more country walks, no more city walks, no more beers in cozy, wood-beamed pubs, no more wandering for hours through an old but brand-new-to-us town, no more late nights at the Fraundorfer, no more Weiner Schnitzel in a neighborhood Vienna Beisl, and no more Kalbsleber mit Rösti at the Bahnhof Hotel in Saanen. No more of these and other simple pleasures is a flat-out bummer.

When I get such letters I'm sad for a minute or two but then I begin to think that the ability of some older people to continue to travel is a state-of-mind. I also think about my Aunt Maybelle, my mother's sister. I'd like to tell you about her.

This is my Aunt Maybelle who in the last couple of years has made a trip to Italy and another to England. This is my Aunt Maybelle who is 90 years-old, virtually blind, and who travels with a group or with grandchildren who generously invite her along. This is my Aunt Maybelle who still lives alone and cooks her own meals. This is my Aunt Maybelle who sits quietly at our loud family functions taking it all in. Since she doesn't hear so well, and doesn't see, there is a tendency to assume she's a little out of it and not following the "action." A few months ago I was disabused of this foolish assumption when, at the height of some raucous hilarity or other, it became apparent she wanted the floor. The room, of course quieted immediately. In her thin, piping voice she began to tell a slightly off-color story that related to the point of our discussion. True to her Irish heritage and the family tradition, she set it up beautifully and nailed the punch line. We all fell on the floor laughing. Nobody was being polite, it was very funny.

I was ashamed of myself for forgetting what a witty, clever lady she is. (After all, this is my Aunt Maybelle who knows more about the companies whose common stock she owns than some of the vice presidents of those companies.) The other night at another dinner, I sat next to her and asked to hear the joke again so I could use it in this column. "Was it the one about the.....?," she said and then launched into a story that wasn't the one I was looking for but very funny anyhow. She went through another three or four before we decided neither of us could recall the one I was looking for.

About now you're thinking "I didn't pay good money to hear this guy talk about his Aunt Maybelle." Well, of course not. So how about my Mom and Dad? That would be Bob and Lois Bestor. He's 84, she's 79 and they just got back from another trip to Europe, something like their 10th since their first one in 1980 (as you can see, they didn't make their first European sojourn until they were in their 60s). My mother keeps a diary. With it she settles a lot of arguments of the "I was there on the 25th" "no you weren't, it was the 30th" variety. The trips go in there, too. Here are some of her musings on their recent "Rhine Journey."

• We boarded the Dutch ship "Esmerelda" at Strasbourg, France. It's a small ship, carrying only 130 passengers and had been chartered by the Grand Circle Travel agency which handled our tour. Crew members were all friendly and helpful. The purser, Wilhelm (pronounced Villim) was a great wit and entertained us throughout the voyage. The food was good. We had the standard European breakfast, featuring cold meats, cheeses (the Dutch cheeses were excellent), plus hard rolls, toast, croissants, scrambled eggs, sausages, canned fruit, etc. We miss the fresh fruits on these trips. The ship had oranges and bananas, but I want melons, grapefruit, peaches, all the fruits we in California are accustomed to. Europeans do tend to overcook the vegetables, but in the main, the food was acceptable and the service very good. They have a custom of serving coffee at the very end of the meal, after dessert. I tried to get coffee earlier, but to no avail.

The cabins on the ship were very comfortable. Small, but everything was there. The beds were fine and the crew made them up every day with fresh linens.

Sunday was a beautiful day in Speyer (Germany). We had a walking tour at 10 a.m., and that gave Bob and me a chance to go to Mass at the Cathedral. We called this the ABC tour Another Bloody Cathedral. Mass was in German, but we could follow. The organ was marvelous, and the service about 45 minutes, so we were on time for the walking tour.

We sailed to Mannheim that evening. This town is located at the confluence of the Rhine and Neckar Rivers and beautifully situated. Mannheim has the largest Baroque palace in Germany and wonderful displays of the Frankenthal porcelain in the Reiss Municipal Museum. This beautiful porcelain is manufactured locally.

On Monday, we disembarked and loaded on to the ever-present tour buses. Ours were good; most had restrooms. Today was Heidelberg with its glorious castle high above the city with magnificent views of the bridges across the Neckar and all the red roofs of the city. Bob and I had been through the castle five times before, but went again anyway.

Lunch was at the Zum Roter Ochsen (Red Ox Inn) which has lots of memorabilia of the Student Prince, autographs, photos, etc. It was good (German Ravioli) and quickly served. We rejoined the ship at Mainz which has so many things to see. The town is on the banks of the Rhine at the meeting point of the Main River. Several blocks of the business district are built on the old riverbed. When they were excavating for the Hilton Hotel (I think), they found the wreckage of several antique Roman ships dating from 376 AD.

We saw the reconstructed bronze statue of Jupiter which was found buried and in 2,000 pieces. It had been erected in 59 AD and now again stands proudly in a square near the center of town. The statue of "The Happy Wine Drinker" was also fairly close by. The guide told us that many years ago the water was so bad that everyone had to drink wine. That doesn't sound too bad, does it?

An interesting church is the Church of St. Stephen which has NINE, count 'em, nine windows by Marc Chagall. Outstandingly gorgeous.

The Gutenberg Museum is located right downtown in Mainz. Most interesting. A little animated movie was shown at the beginning of the tour, narrating Gutenberg's problems getting his bible off the ground. He printed 150 of that first edition. What a chore. One of the originals is in the museum along with countless old, old books, hand printed and any color had to be hand-painted.

We left Mainz at noon promptly - as always - and arrived at Rudesheim at 1:30 p.m. Now there is a spot!! I think the term "tourist trap" originated in Rudesheim. An entire town of souvenir shops. But there is a worthwhile exhibit called the Siegfried Mechanisches Musikkabinett. Old, self-playing musical instruments; early-day jukeboxes. All in beautiful condition. One machine that played four violins at the same time, plus a little pianoforte (I think). It was fascinating. They had a Welte-Mignon player piano there which was identical to one Bob and I had back in the 1940s. The records it played were recordings by Rubenstein and other great artists. It was a truly marvelous thing. We had boxes of those Welte-Mignon rolls which were valuable even then. However, we could not move them to Oregon and I stored them at Aunt Julias and I don't know what happened to them. Today? What a treasure! The museum had only about 12 or 15.

Thursday the ship stopped north of the ruins of the Bridge at Remagen. There is a museum there with a lot of heartbreaking pictures. It was sad for many of us older ones who remembered the war vividly. I think my brother Tommy was at that assault. So we took pictures and went back to the ship and had a cold beer to make us feel better.

Friday morning on a bus tour of Cologne we stopped at the Cathedral. This is a BIG one. There is a gold shrine there containing the bones of the Three Wise Men. How do they know that?

We sailed on past Düsseldorf and many smaller villages. Had our farewell dinner on the ship tonight. They served the baked Alaska with flaming brandy over it, had the procession and the Radetsky March and it was quite spectacular and delicious.

I understand, of course, that my parents and my aunt are fortunate to be in good health and some of the older people who have written to us are not. For those I feel truly sorry. The rest of us should keep a valid passport. RHB

September 1997