A Travelogue of the Interior

faith questions

On travel

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A strategically placed olive oil bottle, Greek restaurant, Holland.

I used to travel regularly for work, back in the day when my job involved launch plans and budget spreadsheets and international marketing entities.

Then I had kids and my job involved launch plans of a different sort. Budgets went out the window and my wanderlust was confined to the 5 mile circuit of school-soccer field- grocery store-home. Nothing at all wrong there — in fact, I wouldn’t trade this past decade for anything on earth.

But finally we are out on the open road — this road happens to be in Europe. Amsterdam > Paris > London to be exact. And while friends and family make great use of our homestead and pool, I am remembering why I loved Europe so much generally and travel in particular.

1. Step outside the bubble of Silicon Valley and you are confronted head on with the reality that people work to live, not the other way around. There is such a thing as “quitting time” and it usually involves a cafe and friends and relaxed conversation. It is not at all unusual to watch as people wander by on foot, catch sight of old friends, and pull up a chair. I have no idea where any of those folks were headed, but wherever it was, it was not as important in that moment as a coffee and smoke with an old friend.

2. Which brings me to smoking. Gasp. Cough. It does not appear to have lessened in the 15 years since I have been here. Not At All. My kids can now pick up the smell of pot 2 streets away (eeww they say!) and are getting a full picture of just how dull life is as a pothead. #howtoinnoculateyourkidsagainstdrugs

3. It is amazing what you will eat when you can’t read a menu. You do your best, handwaving and interpretive dance, and in the end you eat whatever it was you ordered because A) you paid for it and B) its all you are getting and C) for some miraculous reason risk comes naturally on a travel adventure. The kids are trying all sorts of things they’ve never eaten — some of it gets devoured, some politely rejected, all of it tried.

4. The entire world is not glued to a smartphone. Sure, folks are packing, no doubt. The thing is, if you are trying to do email on your morning commute you might actually die, as in get run over by a tram, a bicyclist, a taxi. At the very least you are going to be bumping the myriad people sharing the sidewalks with you, so it behooves you to look up.

5. Then there’s the walking. My kids are already loving it. At home I can barely bribe them to walk to Peets for a Saturday morning Cinnamon roll — a mere third of a mile. Here, they’re on their feet for hours at a time, and have energy to spare such that when we arrive at one of those wonderful European parks the soccer balls come out and juggling and keep-away ensue. David and I can’t get enough either. There is just something so wonderful about perambulating, then on a whim tucking into a side street to see what’s down there. Walking on century’s old cobblestone doesn’t hurt.

As strange as it sounds, in the end, I love the sense of being slightly out of control that foreign travel affords. Of having to struggle to figure out the train schedule. Of ordering off a menu you can’t read. Of reading a map to get somewhere. Of that first moment when you realize you are beginning to hear actual words in all those foreign morphemes. All of these small tasks conspire to slow me down, engage the present moment. I can’t churn over some existential problem (real or imagined) when the basics take full concentration. I appreciate help from strangers and friends in ways I rarely do at home, where mostly I eschew help as if I am too good for it, as if pride dictates I go it alone, all Marlboro Man-ish. My girls hold my hand everywhere we go, a little nervous at the strangeness but definitely captivated but a world much larger than the one they knew until today.

And like all great excursions, when we have a few minutes of downtime, we are already planning our next trip.

What about you? Any favorite things about traveling?

Author: karen d

Thinker, Dreamer, Traveler. Recovering Pharisee.

9 thoughts on “On travel

  1. Your numbered list sounds exactly like I remember it from when I was living in England Karen. Good memories for me. And now you’re building good memories with your kids!

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  2. I was alone, lying on the ground in Erden Zhu, Mongolia, in the second place I had been where no one spoke English (the first was the year before in Preah, Thailand) and the town so small I had no hope of even finding anyone remotely–by that I mean physically since cell phones had just come out that year or before so any other definition of that word was not really in existence yet. I had come on a bus that broke down every 10 miles or so and both the young woman and young man would get out and tweak something to fix it (Karen, Mongolia is one of the most labor-egalitarian countries I have ever been too–and hence, one of the most egalitarian countries I have ever been to). If I missed one leg of my trip from Ulan Bataar to Erden Zhu then back again and on to Beijing to catch my flight back to Japan I would miss every subsequent leg back and I would not get to work on time–for a long time. So I held my breath every time that bus conked out. Funny how minutes meant hours and days at the same time. When I arrived–at 5 PM– at the famous last monastery that had withstood Stalin’s complete decimation of religious institutions, it was already closed but the wooden gate surrounding it was broken and I snuck in, looked around, saw what I wanted to, then lay down next to the famous stone turtle in the field outside. I played with grass and looked at the sun, that was up until 10 at night or so. Then I wandered back, was nearly attacked by a drunk Mongolian wrestler who thought I was Russian (a very, very bad thing to be in Mongolia, at least two decades ago.), ate a very light dinner, and slept, needing to be up at 5:00 the next morning to catch a 6:00 am bus back. When I awoke, it was PITCH black, the kind we don’t often see here in the U.S. You can see the Milky Way in Mongolia at night. I literally felt my way to the street (dumb me, no flashlight) and waited. The bus came, though it wasn’t the one I was had arranged to take, but I was so worried I would get no bus at all that I took that one. I had to hold the window open the whole time (those side-opening kind) because it wouldn’t stay open and I felt pity for the other passengers. It all worked out and I got back to my air-conditioned office in Japan intact and very happy. And I sat there that first day back in the biggest workaholic country in the world, and stared at all the faces and began to plan my next lesson. We have been back in the States five years and I have never been so stationary in all my life–literally. I am used to traveling every year and find I am a very good traveler and that skill does not translate into much in the US. I often feel peripatetic and stare at the wall-size world map by the copy machine and dream of one day visiting the Middle East.

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  3. Ohhhhh! I am so jealous – in the best sense of jealousy, if there is such a thing. I, too, used to travel the world for work. I too, used to explore small side streets, new foods, used taxis like I never do in the States, just hold out coins and let the vender take what I owe, figure out you can eat french fries every day and not gain weight, jump up and down when I found something familiar to eat (like Pringles!), sit wondering about all the people who’ve walked this same street for centuries before me, wish I had a bicycle to blend in, feel my stomach churn at the sight of an actual meat market instead of our “meat market” (called the gym),collecting sand from each beach, trying out the local sweets (NO ONE does sweet like America!), finding Chinese food in EVERY COUNTRY OF THE WORLD! Am I talking about food a lot?? 🙂 Feeling both glad and sad to be an American, wondering if I could ever retire to that place (as in, I love it!), all the moments of the unknown and the unpredictable (wandering through Rome and stumbling across a free, outdoor classical music concert – amazing!), looking through the slit window in the harem buildings in Istanbul’s former Sultan’s palace at the Bosphorus like those women did for centuries – imagining their lives and seeing their view, still warm raspberry bismarks in Austria, never seeing a flatter landscape than Holland, swimming in the North Sea (brrrrrr!), the beauty, the filth, the riches, the extreme, heart-breaking poverty…Sounds like you’re having a blast!!! So happy for you, David and the girls!!

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    • yes i understand the best sense of jealous … i feel it all the time! new foods, new sights, i totally get it, plus the familiar things too – Pringles! OMG, there’s a store in amsterdam that sells “British and US food” –thats the store placard, and its all the grossest stuff from the us — lucky charms and pringles and that sort of thing. Hilarious!

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  4. I share that love for “the sense of being slightly out of control” with you. I, too, love the challenge of figuring out how things work. At least up to a certain point – it can get exhausting, too. It’s been a long time since I travelled somewhere I didn’t understand the language at all, though.

    We love walking, too. And when I go abroad, I love to go to ordinary grocery shops. It’s one of those “let’s figure out how things work here” things. 🙂 (And I still think fondly of London’s £3 packed lunch deals. We’re thrifty travellers…)

    And one more thing I look for wherever I go: second-hand shops. Not the fancy antiques-etc. kind of places, but charity shops, thrift stores (like Oxfam in the U.K., maybe Goodwill in USA?). It’s like a little window into people’s homes. (So this is the sort of stuff people have had in their homes and feel others might still like to use?) At the very least, we always browse the book sections…

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    • yes, ordinary shops are great! we took an extended trip to italy in 2004 and after spending 2 hours in the grocery story (you had to bag and weigh all produce and we didn’t know that so got our groceries, went through to checkout, and got sent back 🙂 then finally made it back to check out and didn’t know we had to have our own bags! a few years later they became standard in california (bringing your bags from jhom) but we still laugh about that. OOOH and book stores … yes!

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