No one ever read that book to me when I was little, but I just bought a shiny pretty colorful copy of it for my 8 week old nephew and his older brother, who’s four, and much more likely to appreciate it at the present moment. I don’t know if it will mean anything to them now, in ten years, or twenty, but I find myself thinking, lately, about how powerful those few early years are in founding our self image. Perhaps no one read that particular book to me when I was young, small, and utterly and completely impressionable, but they DID let me know that I could do whatever I wanted, be whatever I wanted, and go wherever I wanted in life. This was all the more spectacular because my family was a poor one. Not a scrabbling in the dirt trying to grow the food that would keep us alive kind of poor – but barely a few years, not generations but years, removed from it. They consider(ed) themselves hard working, simple people. And yet, when I pronounced at four and the five and then every year after that, when my nose could be pried from a book, anyhow, that I was going to college they encouraged me in the best way they knew how. Which was to say I hope so, and go on about their business.
I made it to college, with scholarships, and used one of those to escape the surly bonds of earth. Quite literally, I studied abroad in England. I thought that was a once in a lifetime experience, and when I left, I feared I would never again see Big Ben, or the Tower of London. But then came a trip to Spain. And then I stood on top of pyramids and dove deep in the waters of underground springs in Mexico. I got hot for stone when I viewed The David in Florence. I went abroad. And then again, and again, and again, until one day, a friend mentioned a trip at the drop of a hat to Aruba, and before anyone could drop a hat I was on a plane to Aruba, seated in first class, sipping dry champagne. Now don’t go imagining things, I had a friend whose dad was a pilot, and the trip was a special fare I paid pennies for. Well, ok, in all honesty I paid a lot of pennies for it. But still a lot less than a normal fare would have been.
I learned that traveling to new places, or even different but soon familiar places, is all a matter of priority. And somewhere along the way, I got really good at it.
I learned, partially from my airline friends, that being polite to ticket counters and gate agents gets you better seats, service, and good old fashioned smiles. I learned (the hard way) that sometimes your luggage doesn’t show up on time, or for weeks at a time, but so much the better for discovering local lingerie shops in alleyways on tree lined streets with the smell of freshly baking bread wafting into the dressing room. I learned that wearing decent clothing and adhering to dress codes can get a girl upgraded to first class (see also, eyelash batting). I basically learned to go with the flow, and to love every aspect of travel, even the getting to and the going from,a s its all part of the process.
And then 2001 happened. But that was ok. Like I said. I am patient and polite.
But then the liquid rules changed. And now I can’t even take my own hand lotion on the plane with out the rigmarole of plastic bags that rip all too easily. But that was ok, because I could check my toiletries and still have the luxury of not smelling like a sweaty grumpy traveler when I land wherever my heart’s desire takes me. But now even that has been taken away.
Still, whenever I want to complain about travelling to Europe or Asia or anywhere far away, these days, I remember that even fifty years ago I would not be able to do that. It would have involved a slow boat, a cramped cabin if I was lucky, and weeks of sea sickness as I lolled about a boat sailing for parts unknown, to say nothing of the cost. And as a woman on her own? Forget it. You may as well stamp an Acme target on your midsection and wait for Yosemite Sam to come along, guns blazing. Things have changed. But the old axim about the more things change, the more they stay the same floats in my mind as well. Think of the thousands of people trapped below decks in “steerage” as the Titanic went down, or the millions of people trapped below decks on the thousands of ships that sailed that didn’t go down. People who were exposed to diseases, theft, hunger, and unsanitary conditions (yes, that’s right, I mean bad or no bathroom situations). Going somewhere, then, meant you not only had to want it, you had to be desperate enough that weeks of misery would make anything you faced worth it. Including the utter unknown once you arrived.
Today I sit here, seven hours into a day of travel that should have, max, taken four. I am content sipping a glass of wine and watching the people run around, furiously trying to get to their gates, where they will undoubtedly wait again until their “zone” or class of passage is called. And while I don’t travel to the places I travel desperately seeking food, work, or a better way of life – I travel because I love it. Whenever I tell people where I’m going this summer (because I haven’t spent a 4th of July stateside in a decade or more now) I get lots of reactions that are really all different versions of “must be nice. Wish I could afford that.” As if I have a secret purse of money, or a genie I call upon to grant my Trevi Fountain Dreams. I do not. Neither do I have children. Or a fancy new car. Or a house of my own. Or Manolo Blahnik heels. I spend my summers travelling because that is my priority. Because I want to. It is my will. And where I have a will to wander the Champs Elysses, I will find a way. Period. The end.
I make it happen because I believe it CAN happen. And you can too. The only magic involved is the magic of discovering a new place. And it isn’t a sole proprietor magic. Like a child discovering and dreaming Dr. Seuss’s book, so to can you discover Tibet, or Siberia. When I first went abroad, my father, a former Navy man, said, “Welcome back to the rest of the world.” There’s truth in that. Its all too easy to forget that their are flesh and blood people living lives of vitality, joy, harmony and crushing poverty in the world. Its easy to forget there are other languages, languages older than our own, flourishing. It is easy for us, despite, or perhaps because of, our hyper connectivity in this day and age, to forget that we are part of a WORLD. Not just a city, county, or country. But a world. And I fear forgetting that will have dangerous consequences. So I sally forth. And I encourage others to sally forth.
This means you.