In honor of my mother’s birthday, I’m taking today to talk about one of our shared passions (beside books – books are definitely at the top of the list, and chocolate is a relatively close third), travel. I’ve loved and pursued the love of exploring the world for many years now, placing the ability to get up and go above many other material pleasures (most notably, owning a house, and for many years, a car). When I was in junior high and high school, my mother and I would go on a little trip together every year – something separate from the car trips we would take with my brother and dad once a summer – usually connected to an event she had to lead in another part of the country. This typically meant we would go a few days early and stay in a cheap motel or at the house of a friend who was out-of-town, do some exploring, and then I would fly home alone while she went to work.
When I was in high school, I opted to go on my first international trips with the Junior World Council and the Biology Club, a decision to this day that I’m grateful for. I had a glass jar each year that I filled with money from babysitting jobs or summer work that would then go toward plane tickets and expenses. This meant that by the time I graduated, I had been to Belize, Italy, and the UK, and I was thoroughly hooked. It also meant that I found the most valuable time in college was spent during my semester abroad, where I was able to use the Netherlands as a jumping off point to visit twelve other countries. While I’m sure I also learned something from the classes I was taking at the time, none of those lessons stand out as clearly as the ones I learned in places where I had little money, no access to a shower, and couldn’t understand a word around me.
During that semester, I was enrolled in a class on travel writing taught by a wonderful Dutch professor who understood that while we might want to learn from her, our attention spans were limited by the ever sneaking possibility of new places. She used this to motivate us to write deeply about the experiences we had over our three or four-day weekends, forcing us to carry our notebooks everywhere to try to capture more than a cursory perspective on where we had been. Mine had a permanent home in a backpack that otherwise carried only the most basic necessities – change of underwear and tee shirt, an extra sweater, a passport, my Discman with a few CDs, and any printed instructions we could glean from what was a very different internet than the one I use to travel now. To this day, I still have that notebook and cherish it, as corny as some of the reflections are. I was clearly in a much more, shall we say dramatic frame of mind that I am today, but it still informs my decisions when it comes to planning new trips.
Since those early days of exploring, I’ve read a lot of amazing travelogues and memoirs from people far smarter and more adventurous than I am, but it’s rare to find a book like this one, written by a friend of a friend in Memphis, from the perspective of a newbie international traveller. Leibovich is a comedian, an attorney, and, I dare say, a historian (he at least retains a lot more data than I do about the art and architecture he saw on his first trip abroad) who is completely open about his own blunders in the pursuit of an expanded horizon. He makes some mistakes that to me, at first, seemed impossible in this day and age, but upon further reflection were not obviously avoidable without experience (although I maintain that trying to see three countries in one week is a goal only of the truly insane or clinically optimistic). In later chapters, I envied his ability to easily connect with people he meets on his travels, as I’ve always struggled to feel comfortable with strangers in my own language, much less in another.
The best thing though, was getting to read about his experiences visiting places I already love (the British Museum, the Louvre, a little restaurant that makes unbelievable soufflés). I found myself daydreaming of my own adventures and remembering both the transcendent and the frustrating aspects of succumbing to the travel bug. My mother and I sadly don’t get to travel much together these days, but reading this reminded me of what a gift she gave me by instilling the value of what the wide world had to offer me when I was young and eager to accept it.