Sunday, April 6, 2008

European Vacation Postscript - Why Do We Travel?

Yesterday I woke up in Rome. Last night, freshly showered and in clean pajamas after a twenty-six hour travel day, I crawled into my own bed with my own pillow and relished the feeling of being home. As I drifted off to sleep, I wondered why we travel when it feels so good to be home. Our trip to Europe was a whirlwind of historical places, museums, world-famous sights and cultural experiences. In the old days, people used to spend months doing “The Grand Tour” – we did it in sixteen days. In the old days, there wasn’t the technology and media coverage we have today; traveling was the only way to actually see sights – we had already seen these big sights in movies, on TV, in high-quality photographs, on the internet. So, why do we travel?

Some of the sights we saw, some of the art, were disappointing. For instance, we went to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. Okay, now I can say I’ve seen the Mona Lisa, but I don’t think one takes a trip like this to be able to say, “I saw that.” I also saw Michelangelo’s Pieta, a sculpture I’ve seen in pictures many times, giving it only a cursory glance. Seeing it in person unexpectedly moved me to tears. I will never again give the Pieta a cursory glance when I see it in a picture; I will gaze at Mary’s left hand, at her face filled with love and I will do that only because I traveled.

When we arrived in London I was anxious to try real English fish ‘n chips – hah! What a disappointment that was. The fish is full of bones! Even at the restaurant that claimed to debone their fish, I still found a plate’s worth of bones. Did I travel for that? No, but in Italy, I ate food that made me stop, close my eyes and savor every bite. Tomatoes, pasta and truffles that tasted like nothing I’d ever eaten before. The Macaroni Grill may be a good place for a family dinner out, but it doesn’t prepare real Italian food – I know that only because I traveled.

I’ve seen pictures of small European streets that look only wide enough for a pedestrian or scooter. We walked on those streets; we felt the uneven cobblestones under our feet, smelled the food as we passed a cafĂ©, and heard the language as a group of people walked by. In fact, we drove on those streets, but not on a scooter, we drove in a small bus/large van – a vehicle big enough to hold our group of eight. My husband at the wheel, me navigating, children in the backseat alternating between giggles and screams – we drove through streets so narrow, the side mirrors rubbed the walls of the buildings we passed. We walked on deserted back alleys off Fleet Street in London that left us with creepy thoughts of Sweeney Todd and Jack the Ripper – real goosebumps from real experiences and only because we traveled.

As I drifted off to sleep last night, I realized that, while it does feel good to be home, it also feels so good to expand our experiences, to really see, hear, feel and taste other languages, other cultures, other sights, other foods. We are who we are because of our experiences – our childhood, our family and friends, our day-to-day lives help shape the people we are and, by traveling, we expand those experiences, expand ourselves – we may find new confidences, new attitudes, new understanding. We can snuggle down into our own beds with our own pillows and drift off to sleep knowing that the bed is softer, the life is sweeter because we traveled.

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