Relishing every moment

‘Travel, if it’s possible, can be simply a pleasurable experience or a profound life-altering event. For me, it was both, and I view it as a great blessing.’

BRATTLEBORO — All my life I have disagreed with Henry David Thoreau: Unlike him, I think it is "worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar." That's why inveterate travelers find the return to post-pandemic travel an exhilarating experience.

This spring, my husband and I were excited to resurrect an aborted trip abroad that was planned almost four years ago. We were so excited, you might have thought it was something we'd never done before. The truth is, travel is in our DNA, so having to stay close to home for so long was hard.

* * *

The joy of travel began when I was a child, and the high point of summer would be a family trip to Toronto to visit my father's relatives.

On the eve of the journey, my sister and I would lay out new shorts, T-shirts, and sandals to be ready when the alarm would ring at 6 a.m. Teeth brushed and hair combed, we'd skip to the back of the black Buick and wouldn't argue with our brother for the window seat. We would be too busy savoring breakfast at Howard Johnson's, part of the annual ritual that always began our trip to another country.

Every year we would take a different route to enjoy the scenery. In this pre-interstate and Holiday Inn era, we would drive through Pennsylvania Dutch country or New England or New York state, where we visited Ithaca's gorges, the Thousand Islands, and of course, Niagara Falls.

Every night, we'd look for AAA-approved cabins in which to sleep, with their worn linoleum floors, chenille bedspreads, and inevitable spiders. We thought it was pure heaven (except for the spiders).

Crossing the border was like going to a forbidden country. We had to answer questions about where we were going, why, and for how long, and we'd reassure customs officials that we had nothing illegal with us. Once cleared to proceed, we headed to the Falls to ride in the Maid of the Mist boat that went behind the Falls spraying us with water.

In Toronto, we'd check into the Royal York Hotel, where a little man in a maroon uniform roamed the lobby every day calling out, "Call for Mr. Smith! Call for Mr. Jones!"

The next morning, before heading to my grandfather's cottage, we'd eat breakfast in The Honey Dew Restaurant. Only then would we be ready for the obligatory visits that would lie ahead.

* * *

Later, in my early 20s, I took my first solo trip to Europe. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven as I experienced Amsterdam, London, Paris, Rome, and the Swiss landscape, relying on travel books that promised that you could do this kind of thing economically.

Relishing every moment and every conversation with fellow travelers from different cultures, I thought I'd go mad with the pleasure of it all. I marveled at the sight of Michelangelo's David, wept in San Marco Square, thrilled at the pageantry of the Changing of the Guard, sat in cafés on the Champs-Élysées and smiled back at Mona Lisa.

I even fell in love twice. More importantly, I knew that my life had changed and that I would never stop traveling.

* * *

Luckily, I married a Brit who loves traveling as much as I do and with whom I was able to travel internationally because of his work, then mine.

We even lived for a year in Thailand when I got a teaching gig there. We scurried around Southeast Asia, discovering new foods, new art and music, new friends, beautiful rituals, and other ways of living.

Travel also offers a diverse and sometimes dramatic education. History, art, literature, religious beliefs all come alive as we are exposed to other cultures, rituals, and norms. We become more curious, learn new ways of thinking or expressing ourselves, and we grow in ways we never imagined.

Traveling also offers challenges.

Before there was a single currency in Europe, I had to learn how to convert currencies. I had to communicate without a common language and know the difference between the Alps and the Pyrenees. It was instructive and fun.

I also had to develop bargaining skills and to know how to deal with dangerous situations. Luckily, in my experience, there is always someone to help.

Travel, if it's possible, can be simply a pleasurable experience or a profound life-altering event. For me, it was both, and I view it as a great blessing.

That's why I continue to agree with Mark Twain, who claimed that travel is enticing, not least because it is "fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness." Like Twain, whose account of one trip gave us Innocents Abroad, I think "it would be well if such an excursion could be gotten up every year and the system regularly inaugurated."

Traveling may have seemed a thing of the past during the pandemic. Now we may find ourselves changing venues because of the climate crisis or different opportunities. We may prefer more café crawls and fewer cathedral and museum visits, along with more chatting with the locals.

But I am among those travelers who are not ready to let a passport expire, because I never know when I might have a fierce urge to weep again in Venice, to learn something new, to make new friends, or to count cats in Zanzibar.

Elayne Clift (elayne-clift.com) has written about women, politics, and social issues from the earliest days of this newspaper.

This Voices Column was submitted to The Commons.

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