Friday, December 24, 2010

No Explanations

I spent the year after college graduation (1978-79) living abroad, in Tours, France, in the heart of the Loire Valley. Finances hadn’t allowed for junior year abroad (and I was not the least bit resentful – why, certainly not I!), but I was lucky enough to receive a Rotary Fellowship that paved the way for 10 months of graduate study in Europe. In addition to tuition, I was given a stipend for living expenses to spend as I pleased. I opted for renting a room in a retired woman’s lovely old townhome in the city center, rather than go the much more expensive route of living with a family and being fed three daily squares. I managed to eat on just a few dollars a day, saving all the rest for traveling. And travel I did.

It was shoestring trekking at its best and I simply wanted to go everywhere. I had lists of places to see – those I’d heard or read about over the years and those that were unknown to me but recommended by my landlady. Almost every weekend, I headed out of town by train and I stretched my travel dollars as far as they would go, sleeping on trains and station benches and in cheap guestrooms. I always managed to treat myself to one proper sit-down dinner on each of my journeys – usually at one of the “best-buy,” prix-fixe restaurants I’d found in Let’s Go – where I would have a salad, entrĂ©e, dessert and a carafe of wine, all for about $10. At these dinners, I took lots of time to people-watch and usually wrote my weekly batch of postcards to friends and family back home.

While I enjoyed the familiar routine of keeping in touch, long before the advent of the Internet, email and cell phones, I had an incredibly difficult time adequately writing about the places I’d visited and conveying the sense of adventures (there’s that word again!) I was experiencing. How was I to describe the awe of seeing Mont St. Michel as it rose ominously out of the gloomy English Channel for the first time or the briny smell of the fresh seafood proudly displayed along the narrow streets of St. Malo? What words could possibly express the fear of suddenly being stranded in an unexpected and fierce late-December snowstorm, slipping, sliding and falling in my flimsy white sneakers in the walled fortress town of Carcassonne on a Sunday night when all the hostels and the hotels I could afford were full? Or the subsequent relief of finally being taken in by an elderly nun (with more creases in her face than I’d ever seen in my life) in full black and white habit after knocking with the huge brass knocker on the medieval timbered gate of an unheated convent for the night? I did my best to describe my travels and the places I experienced for those back home, but the words and the pictures were just never quite adequate. I’m certain that my writing never did justice to the poignant, sad story of the grandparents and their grandson I met in Lourdes. The older couple had spent their life savings to travel all the way from Iowa to bring the teenager afflicted with a serious case of cystic acne to the springs of Lourdes, hoping for a miraculous cure. To this day, I’m overcome with melancholy and uneasiness when I think back on my time in Lourdes and the hundreds of people I passed in wheelchairs, on crutches and being carried on their pilgrimage to the holy waters.

Most of my travels that year were solo, although occasionally another student or two joined me. Apparently, few of my peers shared my lust for regularly leaving town. At times I was pleased to be out by myself, determining my own itinerary, but there were many bouts of loneliness, wishing I could be sharing my exploits with someone. It was during the months I spent studying abroad that my now husband and I solidified our relationship – he sailing on merchant ships and I gallivanting around Europe – and I promised myself that one day we would come back to explore Europe at length and create our very own travelogue together. I’d had enough of my unaccompanied jaunts and unsuccessfully trying to describe them to others. We’ve been back to France and Europe many times since my solo year, but only for a week or two at a time – hardly enough time for genuine and thorough exploration.

So here we are, anticipating our gap year in Europe, ready to begin discovering new places and revisiting familiar haunts. Together. We'll share our exploits. Together. No explanations needed.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Luggage Lust

I went to the local mall last week to get a new watch battery and what should have been a 10-minute errand turned into and hour and a half visit. I took a new route to the watch kiosk and discovered a luggage store -- one of those "luggage and travel" retailers that reel me in and in which I could get lost for days. It carried backpacks, duffel bags, suitcases of all sizes and shapes, fanny packs, passport holders, currency converters, language pocket guides, maps, compasses, travel underwear, electrical adapters and so much more. (Who knew you could travel for months with just one pair of lightweight, dry-in-minutes underwear, according to the shelf-talker...?) The promise of future travel always lures me into these stores and I have to admit that I really am afflicted with luggage lust. Some suffer shoe and boot fetishes, others love kitchen gear or scarves but I’m definitely nuts for luggage. Mind you, you’d never guess it by the looks of the raggedy discount variety I haul on and off planes these days. That’s because what I have now is just for day-in, day-out business and routine travel. But when it comes to planning a special trip, or a once-in-a-lifetime getaway like our gap year, that’s when I get serious. When we got married, my husband and I bought a perfect matching set of green and tan bags for our honeymoon and used them lovingly until the handles split and the suitcase-on-wheels variety made them obsolete. 

So into retail travel nirvana I went, not only to browse all the cool gadgets, but to do some serious research on what we'll need next year. I've already sold all the backpacks we'd used for previous European trips on Craig's List because I know we're beyond wanting to (or more accurately, beyond being able to without serious, lasting muscle pulls) strap everything on our backs at this point. But we do want to travel relatively lightly and compactly and a full set of Samsonite just won't cut it. So, we've settled on each getting as large a duffel as possible, without being ridiculous, and of course, they'll have to be on wheels! We figure this'll allow us to carry a good amount of stuff but will also help label us as young-at-heart adventurers, and not stuffy, middle-aged travelers. There were far fewer duffel choices than I’d hoped, but there were several to consider. The pink paisley was definitely not me (in fact, I can't imagine that any luggage in a print would be me!) and I refuse to buy another ubiquitous black travel bag. The luggage store visit whet my appetite for doing more searching for the perfect bag, and as always happens with me and travel gear, I’m sure it’ll be love at first sight when I find my perfect match.  

Monday, October 18, 2010

It's Catching On

The New York Times published an article this weekend about what the writer called taking "a career break" for a year. Sounds like the idea is catching on! I'm not so sure about the budget the article references, however: $1,500 a month?  I suspect we'll be spending that much just on food and wine!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Reading over my last post, it hit me that the most important word I wrote is adventure. When we’re young and curious, almost everything we do is an adventure -- it’s all brand new because much of what we do is for the very first time. As we get older and our risk-averse genes take over, it gets harder and harder to keep adventure in our lives. In fact, there are so many adults who go to great lengths to eliminate even the concept of adventure from their worlds. They want their days scheduled and their nights predictable and would never think about embarking on something unless they knew the outcome. While I’m a huge fan of schedules, organization and checklists, I also crave adventure and perhaps that’s why I love to travel so much, especially to places I’ve never been. If more adults embraced adventure in their lives and -- God forbid -- actively sought it, maybe they’d be happier, feel younger and be open to embracing more possibilities.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Only Other Fear

Can you go back? Can you really go back? My first time to Europe was in the summer of 1977 after my junior year in college. Like so many American young people, my college roommate, two of her friends I’d never met and I embarked on our coming of age adventure, armed with Let’s Go Europe as our bible. We applied for our passports, booked the cheapest charter flight available (British Caledonian), bought our Eurail passes and headed off for London. We were on serious budgets but managed to visit ten countries in six weeks (England, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Germany, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, France and Spain). Our flights were $425, the Eurail pass cost $240, I went with $900 in travelers checks in my fanny pack (no ATMs back then) and returned home with the $200 I needed for my senior year spending money. Sound familiar?

That first trip to Europe, that inaugural experience of a world outside my own – of unfamiliar and extraordinary art and architecture and language and food and drink and smells and people and landscapes – can never be recreated. That genuine, jaw-dropping awe that filled me throughout the trip will not be repeated. It was the wonder of Christmas Day every day and while I know that I may never again tingle with those exact same feelings, I do expect to be seized by the sheer exhilaration and freedom of living abroad for a full 365 days as an unemployed adult.

I’m determined to go back -- to go fully back with my eyes and ears and mind open to as many adventures as we can find. While some may fall in our path, I know there will be others we’ll have to seek out. And while nothing may ever be as raw and new and surprising as it was when I was 21, I plan to embrace this dream made reality with open arms and a racing heart. By acknowledging that this time will be different (and who knows?  -- maybe better), I think I can indeed go back. Just as I truly had no idea what would happen when I headed to Europe in 1977, I really don’t know what awaits us when we leave next year.  I just know that I’m really going back.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Fears -- Number One

People often ask me when I tell them our plans, do you have any fears? Trepidations? Uncertainties? Well sure, I tell them. And the first of those involves our son and daughter. Anyone with children knows that going off and leaving them behind is always difficult -- even if they're young adults and are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. At 26 and 23, they've been away from home and on their own on the west coast for several years now. But somehow, being in a foreign country with an ocean between us will feel so much farther than being on opposite sides of our own country. Yes, the children will absolutely make it over to visit us -- if we're lucky, more than once -- but still...  Maybe the fact that we can actually go to Europe and leave them behind marks a separation milestone of sorts, and a bittersweet one at that. We've always tried to raise our children to be independent but can we be independent of them? We're two of that lucky breed of parent whose adult children are the two people we like best in the world. They've become our closest friends/companions/ partners-in-crime and with whom we cherish spending every minute possible. Yes, indeed, I do fear leaving them behind. I fear how much we will miss them.

But as our children always do, they're cheering us on. Excited for our adventure. Our biggest advocates.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Itinerary

We'll have a full 12 months in Europe, and the question is: where shall we go? What started as a clear, straightforward picture (one month in Paris, 3 months in the corners of la belle France profonde, 2 months in Spain, 3 months in Italy and 3 months in Greece), has become a bit muddled. After watching Casablanca late one night, we say, let's take a quick ferry from Spain over to Paul Bowles' Morocco for a week. We're not particularly interested in Germany but have always wanted to visit Berlin, so let's add it to the list -- and while we're at it, why not see Prague, Budapest and Vienna? Dubrovnik is one of the world's up and coming travel destinations and we have a state department friend in Croatia, so let's stay there for a week on our way down to Greece. The itinerary is getting somewhat more fractured because my insatiable wanderlust is in a tug of war with our desire to settle down and actually live in select different places for months at a time. How do we balance these natural adversaries yet satisfy them both?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Countdown Begins!

Labor Day 2010 has finally passed and the countdown can begin! Our departure for Europe and the gap year we’ve been planning for over 10 years will be right after Labor Day 2011 and is at long last less than a year away. My anticipation has been building on an almost daily basis until I can hardly stand it anymore. I told myself that I wouldn't plan in earnest until there was less than a year to go, so let the serious planning begin!