The first day of every trip sucks, I reminded the kids, and ultimately myself. They whined, their eyes half-shut as they threatened to melt into a puddle of limbs onto the dirty ground. I tried not to get too mad at them. I’ve traveled with adults who have been whinier, and they are, after all, just children.
It was a 15 hour plane ride to Rome, counting our brief stop in Dallas. The loading and unloading, waiting, fussing over documents and lugging personal items with a 35 lb toddler strapped to your back can wear a person down. Usually I only do direct flights these days, but sometimes I make an exception if the price is right. It was probably a rookie mistake, but I figured we’d survive…somehow.
We arrived in Rome at 6:45AM and it felt as if an entire day of our lives disappeared with nothing to show for it. Airports are ugly; there was nothing magical about our adventure so far. In fact, there was nothing but nerves bouncing around inside of me as I worried about travel arrangements we needed to make in order to get to our final destination: Venice, a 4+ hour train ride away. I existed in a haze of sleep deprivation. We took the Leonardo Express to Termini, Rome’s largest train station. There we waited for 2 hours for our train. It was the only option with seats available. We were exhausted. I wondered if I could really muster the energy to continue, but I didn’t say that out loud. The trip was all my idea. I was the one who was here for the fourth time, the seasoned traveler in the group.
Let’s rally, I told the kids, my favorite mantra for when things feel tough.
They didn’t even worry for one second. They trusted with every fiber of their being that I would make everything happen the way it was supposed to happen. I guess that’s a compliment, albeit a lot of pressure. It’s different now. I don’t have my husband to catch me when I want to fall. It’s all on my shoulders.
It had been 11 years since the last time I was in Rome. I hadn’t thought of Termini Station in over a decade, the details tucked away in parts of my brain like an unopened junk drawer with forgotten items crammed inside. But once we arrived, it all came back to me with familiarity.
“There’s a McDonalds over there,” I said, remembering the last time I ordered a hash brown and it came with chunks of onion. I refused to eat it, back in my youthful days of extreme pickiness. My palate has matured…slightly.
I remembered the grocery store downstairs, where we purchased pesto (my first experience with it) with a woman from Seattle who we met at our hostel. We carried everything back under the moonlit sky and cooked dinner together in the hostel’s kitchen like we were all old friends. That was back in the day when I didn’t flinch to share a room with strangers and share a bathroom with an entire floor of people. Now I’m still sharing a room, but this time there’s three other people in my bed, limbs intertwined, and probably a couple of Legos and some stuffed animals.
We went to the McDonalds across the street from Termini, where we hoped to pass as much of the wait as possible since there was extremely limited seating at the station (basically, nowhere to sit) and we had time to burn. Our choice was sage; trusty McDonald’s with its globalized banality and dependable French fries. It was clean, there was food, and we could spread out and still be able to keep our eyes on the beggars who kept approaching us with their unsavory agendas pooling in their cloudy eyes.
At this point I wondered why I was still traveling. I wasn’t quite sure how I thought it was a good idea. I wondered if it was one of those things that seemed better on paper, or better in the idea stage. But then I wondered why I kept doing it if it sucked. There had to be a compelling reason. I tried not to decide at that moment. Surely I was on the edge of hallucinating from not sleeping in two days. I could reserve that decision for later.
I still wasn’t convinced any of it was a good idea 4 hours later when we got off our train at the Santa Lucia train station in Venice. I still wasn’t sure when we stepped out of the station and descended the ramp with our heavy luggage in pursuit of an easy route to the apartment we were renting.
And then we found ourselves facing the Grand Canal, watching boats float by against a backdrop of exactly the kind of gorgeous buildings you would expect to see in Italy.
Holy crap, I thought to myself. The city looked like the Venetian in Vegas. Except…it was real. We boarded a water bus toward the “tail” (Venice is shaped like a fish) and adrenaline pumped throughout my body. My fatigue disappeared. The kids were fully awake too, grinning widely, trying to stick their heads out the window so the wind would blow into their faces. They were ready to take on this new adventure. It felt like we stepped into a watercolor painting with lots of colors and people dressed in stripes and beautiful skirts and dresses and perfectly placed canals and bridges and churches. The water helped: it was everywhere. Surely any place with water can put a person at ease. It felt like we were caught in a dream.
In that moment all of the hassle of traveling felt worth it. It was a good idea. I got to see “this” with my own eyes. 15 hours of plane travel, 6 hours in train stations and on a train, and 40 minutes on a water bus. It’s the same feeling you have when you are backpacking. Your body is tired and your muscles are sore, you’ve lost track of how many mosquito bites you have, you’d give anything for a Coke and fast food, but when you’re on top of that waterfall, looking down a picturesque valley, or watching deer galloping across a meadow when the sun has just barely peaked over the eastern horizon and the air is dewy, then you know why you went through the hassle. Good things take effort. It is a universal truth.
Traveling is such an incredible experience. It opens minds. Traveling takes you through doors of civilization. It connects us to the billions of other people on this planet. It makes you realize that you are part of something bigger than the microscopic speck on the planet which you call home. Sometimes it’s as small as discovering a unique wine cork that helps you preserve your leftover wine, something you’ve never seen in stores back home, to make you realize that you and your country don’t have all of the answers, and your way isn’t the only way of living, and there is still so much to absorb in life. I think that’s a beautiful thing.
The rest of the world has simpler tastes, it seems. I am always reminded that we have too much in the United States, from the toys in our kids’ rooms, to the cars in our driveway, to our furniture and clothes and kitchen pantries bursting at the seams with junk that we eat and don’t need. If I hadn’t traveled, I wouldn’t have been able to think reflectively about how I live. That is an added bonus when you travel: copious amounts of time to reflect. I bring a journal and write. I don’t have to worry about the regular laundry list of tasks that keep me stitched inside of the daily grind. I feel free, and the beauty of everything fills my proverbial creative cup until it is overflowing, and the only thing I have to worry about is how I will carry it all back home with me and what will I do with it.
I noticed the way people prepare food differently. I noticed the importance of fresh ingredients. I get to walk when I travel. We don’t walk in the U.S. Not as much as we should. I walk up three flights of stairs to our apartment. Elevators are a luxury and not frequently found in these old buildings. I tried to picture what the people might have looked like in this building built in the 1500s. I hung wet laundry on lines attached from one building to the next. There are no driers. Other countries have amazing public transportation. When I travel, I get to experience the possibility of a world in which we can share resources and in turn, share a healthier planet.
Sometimes traveling helps me realize what it is I love about my home, opening up a well of gratitude for the randomness of the universe that allowed me to live where I live. My driveway. My backyard. The garden beds I can have. A bedroom for each person. My career. Our convenient grocery stores filled with many varieties of products to choose from. Sometimes the gratitude comes with the guilt of knowing how excessive it all is. We have so much. As ugly as the concrete jungle of my home is and how devoid of culture and history it may be, in so many ways I am reminded that I have won some kind of cosmic lottery.
I am convinced that there is a magical place I can call my second home one day, and I find myself in pursuit of this dream wherever I go. Only I can’t really decide, and I’m still partial to my roots no matter how much I love to hear different languages and learn new history. I love walking around amidst the layers of history, seeing 700 year old fountains with my own eyes, pondering artwork older than the founding fathers of my own country. I find myself enamored with many things, but for now, the dream of living abroad is a flicker inside of me begging to be nurtured until the conditions are right.
There are three stages of travel: planning, the actual trip, and reflecting.
The planning allows me to dream, strategize, gives me something to look forward to, occupies my mind, challenges me.
The actual trip is about survival, pleasure, challenge, fun, fear, learning.
When I am home, the reflection is a rosy-colored pair of spectacles that turn everything experienced into something to fondly remember. The stressful train rides are something to smile about. Missed connections, no big deal. There is no recollection of tired legs and cranky attitudes. I forget all of the moments when I asked myself what exactly I liked about traveling. The good and the blends into a reservoir of pleasant nostalgia that I keep returning to when the desire to see something new returns and I do it all again.
I know a lot of people who don’t travel, and it sort of boggles my mind. I mean, I guess I don’t like sports, and that probably seems weird to others.
The common reasons cited for not traveling: money, kids, can’t decide, careers that don’t give enough time off, inexperience in planning, or maybe they don’t like airplanes. It all ends up being excuses at the end of the day. We get married, have children, and buy things we don’t need, all of which cost lots of money and take up a lot of our time, and all of which require that we put effort into learning.
At the end of the day, it boils down to whether or not it is a priority. I remember feeling sticker shock about the price of a train ticket we had to purchase. It simmered inside of me. I felt myself questioning whether this was a good idea. And then I thought: this train ticket for my entire group to see an amazing city has cost me about 1.5 Costco trips. When I put it in those terms, it was easy to let go of the annoyance.
And like all things, if you can get past this learning curve of traveling with good humor and an open mind, you will reap the benefits of the experience. An experience isn’t the same feeling you get when you open a new package or purchase something tangible. Those purchases are a fleeting form of excitement, doomed to wear off and leave you hungry for more.
Unlike buying goods, an experience is something that stays inside of you and becomes part of who you are–forever.
There’s a reason I travel with three children like a mad woman. I love to travel. I’ve never been able to stop traveling, and I’m not the type of mother who is comfortable leaving my kids out of the experience I value so much. More importantly, I want to raise children who have been exposed to the world. I want it to be part of their foundation. I want it to be as familiar to them as their childhood home. I want them to always see a world of possibility. I also want them to accept all human beings as their neighbors, and that despite language, what our homes look like, the food we eat, the money we have, or any other difference, that we are all human beings with the same basic needs and wants. So when I’m tired from carrying Peter around all day, when Eloise has spilled her glass of water at dinner for the 284728657th time, when Ethan decides to start skipping around in a medieval church after I told him to deactivate his robot-mode, or when a cranky old lady shushes Peter’s noises and shames me with her impatience, I will still persevere. I won’t stay home. I can’t keep my wanderlust cocooned in the bubble of my tiny speck of the world. I have to roam. I live for the adventure.
I often hear people talking about their plan to travel “someday.” That someday might be retirement. It might be when their kids grow up. It might be when they save enough money.
To all of that I say: you just don’t know what your “someday” looks like.
I think I’ve always had a sense of urgency, a consciousness that I have a finite amount of time and a heck of a lot of things I wanted to do. But as I am traveling now, I am always aware that my husband is missing out on life. He studied Roman history and could be giving us historical information instead of us relying on Google. He put off traveling to Italy for “someday.” He thought he had all the time in the world. He never thought that one day he’d wake up and die, before he could retire, before his children were out of diapers, before he could finish his life’s bucket list. Just gone.
I thought about him the other day. Not just a passing thought that often happens, like how he liked this or that, or a reference with the kids. It was one of those thoughts I have when I suddenly feel struck by the outrageousness of life, and his lack of life. I don’t often have those thoughts anymore, but it happened while I was traveling on a train to Rome. I tried to remember his face. I even searched through my phone, looking for reminders. He has become a distant memory, intricately woven into the fabric of our lives, but also nonexistent in so many ways. It doesn’t hurt the way it did last year when it was fresh and raw and I didn’t know what to do with myself as a single woman with three young children, but there is a feeling of emptiness you can’t really ever shake out of your system. It feels like you are in a car on a journey with an empty passenger seat. You want to turn and talk to the passenger, or ask them what music they want to listen to or when they want to stop or where they want to go and maybe let them take over the driving sometimes, but there is nothing but empty space. Your car won’t stop. It will continue on, with this journey, and many more, and you get used to the feeling that something is missing. But it’s never going to feel like an ideal plot twist in your life.
When I hear excuses about why people don’t travel, I hear people who are afraid to make the leap into the unknown. I see people who are too attached to the comfort of familiarity. I see people who haven’t yet embraced their mortality.
For those people, I encourage them to make that leap into the unknown and to live as if today is your last. Tomorrow comes with no promises, and sometimes it never comes.