Sunday, February 26, 2012

Is it Travel or Travail?

There’s no money we’ve spent, other than the dollars that paved the way for our children to go to college, which has provided more pleasure and imparted more wisdom than what we’ve devoted to travel. And the value returned by every dollar, euro, franc, drachma, deutsche mark, lira, pound, peseta, guilder and dirham exhausted is priceless. Some have questioned why I allocate so much of my earnings to seeing the world when the only tangible result is an overstuffed scrapbook. I have no answer other than, "I’m afflicted with a bad case of wanderlust and travel is the only effective antidote." How do I adequately explain that so much of what I reap from our travel is invisible to the eye: a deep connection to my partner, shared exploits, a sense of adventure, an enhanced understanding of the world, a link with those beyond our shores, a keener appreciation of home and tastes, smells, vistas and memories that will forever be with me.

As you might guess, trip planning and travel imagining are two of my favorite pastimes; even before we make it home from one journey, Joe and I are listing possibilities for where we’ll venture next. We’ve even found ourselves suggesting over the past months: Let’s do this, or let’s do that, on our next Gap Year, which likely won’t be until our working years are behind us. Yes, a rudimentary Gap Year Two list is already underway, should the need or opportunity arise. I know some who plot what they’ll do with their time off just a month or even weeks before they go, claiming they’re spontaneous and never quite know what vacation mood will hit them until their bags are practically packed. This travel approach would never work for me since so much of my pleasure derives from the planning, the research, the discussion, the anticipation of our next trip.

All that said, there have been days on this journey when I wish all the minutiae and logistical details would miraculously evaporate – that they would simply disappear overnight and take care of themselves. There's a reason the word "travel" is derived from the French travail, (work); travel, or perhaps I should say, extended travel, can take an awful lot of effort sometimes. I’ve never characterized our year away as a vacation, from the Latin vacare (to empty), because there’s a fundamental difference between vacationing and traveling; vacations involve getting away from it all and travel entails delving into a place that’s not home. The former is meant to be easy and the latter can be surprisingly hard.

We anchored our year and gave it some rudimentary form with a handful of key destinations tied to specific dates (Paris in September, skiing in northern Italy with the kids in mid-December, New Year’s at the Cavalieri in Rome, the Paris Marathon April 15 and the nine-day Tour du Mont Blanc hike at the end of June). The rest of our itinerary we’ve tackled in six-week slices, filling in the calendar as we go along. But while the flexibility can be liberating, allowing us to follow opportunities that arise (let’s grab that cheap fare and go to London for Christmas), gratify whims that won’t go away (I really must see Morocco) and as our travel moods prescribe (let’s go to Capri -- we’ve been amidst the grime of cities for too long), coloring in the details takes an extraordinary amount of time. Planning for our year would have been a very different effort without the miracle of the Internet. While determining the cheapest, fastest, best means to get where we want to go can take hours, the comparison-shopping capacity of Google is without rival. We often end up sliding down a rabbit hole of online research with little hope of escape, however, as we explore travel sites and chat rooms galore, each with its own advice of what is best. To what little town shall we venture; on what side of the town square are the killer views; in which albergo shall we stay or shall we rent an apartment; how should we get there -- rent a car take a bus or hop on the train; where are the best places to eat -- those where the locals eat; what shall we see and can we fit it all in? We do our best to heed our own advice to avoid travel misadventures. As we stressed with our children before they headed off on a month-long European backpacking trip to celebrate Chris’s college graduation, "Be sure to determine how you’ll leave a place the minute you arrive." Too many times on past travels, we found that the train/bus/ferry wasn’t running the day we’d envisioned departing, thereby requiring an immediate scramble to change our itinerary and adjust plans. Much better to know sooner rather than later as you stand forlorn and waiting on the departure platform, bags packed and arrangements awry.

We’ve Googled away many a day in Wi-Fi powered hotel lobbies, from breakfast until dinner, clarifying where we’ll go and what we’ll do for an imminent, yet still indistinct, six-week chunk of time. In most instances we enjoy such days, relaxing while we jump from site to site, sharing what we find and putting shape to upcoming days. I would certainly never characterize it as work, but it’s one thing to plan a two-week annual getaway and another to continuously plan moving around Europe as modern-day nomads for a year. And then there is our limited supply of warm-weather clothing... There are days when I yet again pull on my worn green REI hiking pants and dingy white long-sleeved tee and I have an almost uncontrollable urge to toss the all-too-familiar garments off the balcony into the dreary winter garden below. I yearn to, at least for a day, have a bella figura, dressed to the nines like the beautiful Italian women in oversized sunglasses, sporty woolen jackets, muted silk scarves and heeled leather boots. The gentle spring sun cannot come soon enough, not only because the warmth will be therapeutic, but the higher temperatures will allow me to dig into the other half of my suitcase -- the one with the sundresses and sandals and pastel chemises that I haven’t worn since last October’s balmy Dordogne sun.

We’re set with travel logistics through the 18th of March when we leave Italy for a jaunt through central Europe. Planning all the details for Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Berlin and Amsterdam will come soon enough. But for now, we’ll simply enjoy the plans already in place and keep our fingers crossed for a warm southern sun and the commensurate change into the breezier clothes on the other side of the suitcase. No travel travail for now; we’re in southern Italy after all, land of relaxation and la bella vita. I’ll save the work for domani.

Pictures of our adventures:

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