All my life I have disagreed with David Henry Thoreau: Unlike him, I definitely think it is “worthwhile to go around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.”
The joy of travel has been in my blood since I was a young child when the high point of summer was the family trip to Toronto to visit my father’s relatives. On the eve of the journey my sister and I would lay out our new shorts, halter tops, and primary color sandals in order to be ready when the alarm sounded at 6:00 a.m. Teeth brushed and hair combed, we ran to our big, black Buick and did not argue with our brother for the window seat. We were too busy savoring breakfast at Howard Johnson’s, part of the annual ritual that would begin our trip to another country!
Every year we took a different route in order to “enjoy the scenery.” Pre-interstate highway days, we drove through Pennsylvania Dutch country, New England or New York State, where we visited Ithaca’s gorges, the 1,000 islands, and of course, Niagara Falls. Every night we looked for AAA-approved motels in which to sleep, with their worn linoleum floors, chenille bedspreads, and inevitable spiders. We thought it was great fun (except for the spiders.)
Once in Toronto we checked into the Royal York Hotel where a little man who looked just like the Phillip Morris icon roamed the lobby calling out, “Call for Mr. Smith!” or “Call for Mr. Jones!” The next morning, before heading to my grandfather’s house, we ate breakfast in The Honeydew Restaurant and stopped at Simpson’s or Eaton’s so that my mother could add another bone china tea cup and saucer to her collection. Only then were we ready for the obligatory visits where our cheeks would be pinched as this aunt or that said, “Look how you’ve grown!”
In 1964 I traveled solo to Europe for the first time. I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven as I experienced Amsterdam, London, Paris, Rome, and the Swiss Alps. Relishing every moment of my Eurorail Pass train rides, every conversation with fellow travelers from different cultures, every museum and cathedral, I thought I’d go mad with the excitement of it all. I stopped breathing at the sight of Michelangelo’s David, wept in San Marco Square, thrilled at the sound of Big Ben and the pageantry of the Changing of the Guard, ate prix fixe three-course meals on the Left Bank, and smiled back at Mona Lisa. I even fell in love, but that is a story for another time. In short, I knew that my life had changed and that as part of my metamorphosis, I would never stop traveling.
And I haven’t. I returned two more times to Europe on my own, married a Brit who loves traveling as much as I do and with whom I was able to circle the globe because of his work, then found work myself that took me to countries in Africa, Asia, and Central America. Together we have been to more than 90 countries (and all 50 states) for work and/or pleasure. I even managed a teaching gig in Thailand for a year.
While in Thailand and then after retirement we traveled like mad cockroaches, scurrying from Southeast Asia to South America with a few European and Middle Eastern countries thrown in.
Then we had a hiatus and something very strange started to happen. We began to realize that we no longer wished to be in big, busy cities. We didn’t want to “do” cathedrals and museums and ruins. The thought of double-digit hours in flight grew increasingly off-putting. Renting apartments and eating dinner “at home” became more appealing than staying in hotels. Three weeks away seemed like an awfully long time.
I knew I was in trouble when I penned an essay called “Paris Blues” in which I wrote:
There is something ludicrous about standing on the Pont Neuf asking yourself why you’re there. Most people would give anything to stand on that iconic bridge overlooking the Seine. But on a recent trip I felt like a jilted lover. I asked myself terrible questions: Why did I come back? What am I supposed to do here, now, this time? I asked myself an even more ominous question: Is it possible for an inveterate traveler to lose the thrill of reprise? Is there such a thing as traveler’s ennui? Do I need larger fixes and only new places to feel again the thrill of people and place? I would feel utterly deprived not to see Paris again. But the fact is I stood on a bridge in Paris and wondered what I was doing there.
Shortly after writing that, I found myself telling friends that I seem to be more into “purposeful” travel these days, wanting to go places where I can better understand the culture. (Not long ago I spent two weeks volunteering at a hospital in Somaliland.) And that I’d like to revisit some of my favorite places, like England’s Lake District, or places that have changed a lot since I was there, like the Balkans. Sometimes I can’t believe how much my travel tastes have changed.
The British author Penelope Lively, now eighty, writes about her diminished desire for travel in her new memoir, Dancing Fish and Amonites. “There are things I no longer want, things I no longer do,” she notes, travel being among them. She also surprises herself. “What? No further desire? You who crossed the Atlantic twice a year or so? Who was happy to hop off pretty well anywhere….who went on holidays?” Lively never wants to see another airport, she says, never wants to “brave Terminal Four” or “sit squashed in a metal canister with hundreds of others for hours on end. … I don’t want to do it anymore.”
Attempting to explain the change in her attitude toward travel the much-loved writer ponders whether “there is some benign mechanism that aligns diminished capacity with diminished desire.” I’m not ready to go there yet – thankfully my capacity is not yet diminished and I still look forward to traveling – but her interpretation does begin to make a certain sense in the matter.
For now, my somewhat altered travel tastes notwithstanding, I continue to agree with Mark Twain: Travel is still enticing, not least because it is “fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” Like Mr. Twain, whose account of one trip gave us Innocents Abroad, I think “it would be well if such an excursion could be got up every year and the system regularly inaugurated.”
Extended annual trips may not be the thing anymore. And I may find myself changing priorities, venues, schedules, and accommodations a bit – more café crawls, less cathedral gaping, for example; fewer sightseeing excursions, more chatting with the local shopkeepers. But I am definitely not ready to let my passport expire. After all, I never know when I might have a fierce urge to weep once more in Venice, to visit Mongolia, or to count cats in Zanzibar.