Ah, the desire to travel to interesting places, to stand where emperors and kings stood, to explore the art and architecture and sample the flavors of exotic places … so much a traveler’s dream … particularly after being at home for a year. What a seductive concept, for others, not me.
It wasn’t always that way. I dreamt of being the quintessential sophisticated world traveler, able to converse in several languages, with the ability to pack all that I would need for a month’s sojourn in one carry-on bag. In that fantasy life, I needed no guides, no guide books (ok maybe an old, very old, leather covered Beadeker just for show.) I instinctively knew where to stay at which tiny, out-of-the-way B&B or intimate family-run hotel where the best of local food was served. Whether in sturdy boots or a glittering evening gown, my dreamed experiences were effortless.
Then I traveled abroad. Arriving in Montreal, Canada, with a group of local Rotarians, I had to modify my travel dreams substantially, but I did use my two years of college French to ask the desk clerk: “J’ai besoin de changer d’argent?” I thought that I had asked to change some of my American to Canadian money. And, looking that up again in my handy Google translator, that is what I asked, however, it quickly became clear that my French was definitely limited to asking questions because I had no idea what the reply was even as the woman slowed down her answer as if she were talking to a three-year-old. And there was the time on a corner in Hull, just outside of Ottowa, when a gentleman asked for directions in French and, since I had no real idea what he was saying, I used what I had learned from the movies, and shrugged my shoulders, in French, of course.
When I went to Italy for the first time, so excited to be able to visit sites that I’d read about for years, to inspect places that held a more-than-romantic attachment to history. I was going to walk in the Roman Forum where the Caesars walked, inspect the remnants of a luxurious lifestyle in the ruins of Pompei, wander the back streets of Florence, the city where the Renaissance was born, visit the Vatican and eat food that was beyond delicious. That was the plan. But my knees didn’t get the memo and there is a lot of walking involved in visiting a country where walking is de rigueur or the Italian version thereof. My language ability was limited to a badly pronounce grazie and a few words remembered from some old Dean Martin songs, so asking for pharmaceutical help would have to depend on the tour director, who was mostly busy placating some of our less-cosmopolitan tourists. That poor gal had her hands full with tourists who wanted to go home because – and this is almost unbelievable – they spoke a foreign language in Italy or, equally incredible, they did not care for the food. The food, ah, the food and the wine … that exceeded my expectations. Prego!
I have been to Italy twice and enjoyed most of what I was able to see. I qualified that statement because sometimes there were so many tourists that you couldn’t get near the place that you had come to visit. I could only see the Trevi Fountain from one of the zillion souvenir shops about a block away from the fountain. I still have the penny that I intended to toss into its waters, like the characters in the movie, “Three Coins in the Fountain.” Unlike the movie, too, there was no Louis Jordan, no Rossano Brazzi, only the bus driver, a 20-something guy named Igor, and the faint memory of the “Four Aces” song.
I’ve been to Colombia three times. On two of my trips, I became deathly ill. Well, I didn’t die, but at the time death seemed like a good option. Flu-like symptoms plagued me for more than a week on each of these visits, and my spouse, who never gets sick, just dragged me along in an effort to have me “walk it off.” If it wasn’t for a Brooklyn-born cab driver while we were in Ecuador, who bought me some medicine and a lot of Kaopectate, I might have never made it home. There were no professional guides on these trips. I depended on my husband’s experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer and his ability to speak Spanish. It was his linguistic ability that attracted a sort of desperate European posse that latched onto us because none of them could even come close to pronouncing the names of places in Spanish. You can’t imagine how they pronounced the Colombian towns of Barrancabermeja or Medellin. That was a plus because they were interesting and unexpected parts of our trip. Now I do have some Spanish, mostly nouns and a few present tense verbs. This can get you into a lot of trouble. So therefore I mostly didn’t speak while in south America. I should add that the most we spend per night on lodging was $2.50 and that included three meals … do you get the undercurrent here?
In all of my expeditions outside of the States, save those made to Canada, one thing was certain. Not one of those countries knows what a real pillow is. The pillows in Italy, Colombian and Ecuador are so thin that you would need four to make half an ordinary American pillow. You just can’t get a good night’s sleep on one of those babies. Did I miss much because of sleep deprivation? Maybe.
Knowing this about the pillows, and adding in my advancing infirmity, notably my bad hip and accompanying joint discomfort, with remembrances of those two weeks of unremitting nausea and worse, I have forgone many overseas and in-country trips with family and friends, preferring to read about the adventures of others and going to restaurants that feature food from other cultures, the preparation of which is supervised by the health department.
I do believe that travel is wonderful for those who are fit and able to survive those flat pillows and lack of language fluency. If I could relive those early escapades that were stand-ins for my travel dreams, I guess I would do them over. There were many wonderful things to see and memorable positive moments. I do remember a group of Polish students standing near the obelisk in St. Peter’s square whose voices filled that place with song in praise of God. It made me shiver with understanding. I remember eating a full course dinner prepared by a lovely young Italian woman in her own home and another where we learned how to cook a similar meal under the direction of a chef while we looked out over the city of Montecatini … or the bull fights in Cali and playing Bingo in the coastal town of Santa Marta.
There are places that haunt my imaginings, places like Lichtenstein and Andorra and tiny islands off the coasts of Ireland and Scotland or, tops on my dream list would be a tour of the archaeological sites in the British Isles. Would I go even now? Maybe, but with a lot more ibuprofen and my own pillow and my language translator app in my phone.