Sunday, May 20, 2018

Why We Like to Travel

The Seine

This week, while giving Sam and Lucy a ride home from school, Sam asked, "Grandma, why do you and Grandpa like to travel?"  I thought for a moment, then responded, "Because the world is full of different people and places and food, and we like to see what they're like."  A good six-year old's answer, but hardly the full story.  It made me think about myself at six, when I hadn't traveled at all, and probably preferred the familiar to the strange.  However, my parents gave me the gift of a first plane ride at age 7, from Oakland airport to Santa Rosa, where my grandparents lived at the time.  I remember being very excited and loving the thrill of flying, even then.

My family did not have the means to travel with a family of six, so our vacations were more of the driving and camping variety.  My next plane ride came when I was 24, when my (then) husband had an internship with IBM, and we flew from San Francisco to New York on one of the brand new 747s. So new that one of the crew accidentally activated the emergency chute before we took off, so we sat in the sun for several hours because nobody knew how to fold it up, and we had to wait for a new one.  My memory is that the flights that summer felt like a getaway for me.  I got to take a leave from my less than thrilling job (I was junior management in a department store), see places that I'd read about (New York City, Washington, D.C., Boston) and that I had longed to see.  We went to museums, ate varied and interesting food, and met new friends, so it felt like an extended vacation.  I was struck by the differences in architecture, the constant background noise level of cities, not to mention the absence of beautiful, fresh California produce.

My next adventure came about 3 years later, when my ex had the opportunity to do some work in Rotterdam.  We decided to take Michael, aged 18 months, and started in London, on to Rotterdam, then Paris, then Brugges, and then home.  Memories include the 14 hour flight from Los Angeles to London, where Michael was high as a kite on the Benadryl that was supposed to sedate him, and some very challenging hotel room situations with a small child, but mostly I was just thrilled to be in Europe, seeing the places I'd only read about in books.  We went to the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, Kensington Garden, Harrod's, the British Museum, went on a canal cruise in Amsterdam, the Eiffel Tower, Luxembourg Gardens, Versailles, another canal ride in Brugges, and so many other things I no longer remember.  My travel skills were still pretty rudimentary, so I brought way too much luggage, we were severely challenged in our map skills so got lost frequently, but our umbrella stroller saved our lives, and in all, it was again, a wonderful break in routine.

When Steve and I got married, travel became an integral part of our life, in part because his family is in Chicago, but once we moved to State College, my family was still back in California.  In fact, our honeymoon was a three week trip to China in 1981, right after they opened the country to the West, a fascinating (and delicious) journey.  Once in State College we initially relied on a jolly travel agent named "Brandy," but as the internet evolved, we became adept at finding our own itineraries.  Plus, Steve had several meetings a year in various parts of the country, and in time, all over the world.  He has definitely logged many more thousands of miles than I have (most of them to Sweden), I tagged along whenever I could.  We've made good friends all over the world, and will be visiting several of them in a few weeks in England and France.

The other thing that has been a driving force behind our travel has been my interest in cooking, and particularly in foreign cuisines.  When I was a child in the Bay Area, my parents would regularly take us to Chinatown in San Francisco, largely because my always frugal father would order for us at Nam Yuen, and be able to feed all six of us for under $20.  They also took us to Mexican restaurants in Oakland and Alameda, where the gold standard was to see someone hand-making tortillas in the kitchen.  Over the years, the restaurant scene has undergone many transformations, but the most obvious one is that there are a wide variety of very authentic ethnic restaurants in every city in the U.S.  When we moved to State College, there were not many ethnic restaurants, and certainly not the quality of food that we had enjoyed in Los Angeles.  So I started learning how to cook our favorite dishes.  That led to learning about ingredients, techniques, and equipment, and eventually to travel for cooking classes.  I've learned that food never tastes the same in the U.S. as it does in the country it originated from, where the ingredients and techniques have evolved over centuries.  So now, wherever we go we sample local specialties, we collect the ingredients we can take home, and then figure out how to source them if we can't find them in the U.S.

I would say that we are much better travelers now, but it has taken years.  We're better at dealing with jet-lag, better at not over-packing, better at having resources at hand so we don't get too lost, and better at selecting routes to travel.  What remains the same is the excitement that comes a few weeks before a trip.  We both love airports (although we will complain about the amenities at times), the excitement of getting on an airplane and leaving our regular life behind for a while, and then landing somewhere new or exciting.  Now we have places we like to visit in cities we've been to frequently (London, Paris, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Hong Kong, Florence, etc.) but I'm always collecting names of new food purveyors and restaurants to try as well.  When we get home, Steve will compile a photo book of the trip to remind us of what we saw and experienced.  And we come home with fresh eyes to look at our life at home, where the familiar can tend to fade into the background and not be appreciated.

So, Sam, that's the long answer to why we love to travel.  And we'll miss you terribly while we're away, but will be ever so excited to see you when we get back.

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