I love to travel. As an Air Force brat, I can honestly say it is in my blood. I moved every couple of years in my childhood. Although in my early years there was always the thrill of where we would be stationed next, I was more along for the ride than following a desire to experience the world. As an adult I have perfected how to get the most out of my travels. Perhaps it was attending boarding school in Switzerland for two of my high school years, where travel was a major part of our curriculum. On second thought, no. During my high school years I was too much into taking a train somewhere - anywhere - with a group of my best friends and no chaperone. It was more about the freedom.
I think it was traveling with my own children that really taught me how to travel. As a parent, I took my role as educator seriously. My two sons, bright and inquisitive, made it fun for me to provide never-ending nourishment for their curiosities. The library became one of our favorite haunts. When they were seven and nine, we had the opportunity to move to Germany for my husband’s job. I longed to show them the Europe I had fallen in love with during high school and teach them to appreciate the diversity of the planet we lived on.
Their first experience in a foreign country was not what I wanted it to be. We were having dinner with friends in a biergarten. Biergartens are such a wonderful microcosm of German life. People come together to sit outdoors under the chestnut trees, enjoy live music, eat some würst and drink some bier, and socialize while the kids play together nearby. Only my children clung to my side. “We don’t speak German,” they whined. “We can’t play with those kids.” What? When had my inability to communicate ever stopped me from exploring a new place? I had roamed our neighborhood in Bangkok at their age with only the ability to count to ten in Thai. They needed to get off the bench and get into the game. Or was it too late? Had they missed out by not being launched into the global playground from birth? Ridiculous! We could do this, and it was my job as parent to make sure it happened.
I stumbled across the path to success shortly after the biergarten incident. Before leaving on a trip to Florence, a friend recommended I read The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone. It so immersed me in Michelangelo’s Florence that I was moved to read a passage to my family as we sat in front of his statue of the biblical David in the Accademia Gallery. It was a masterful telling of how the citizens of Florence, beaten down by the perennial onslaught of the Catholic church, hostile neighboring city-states, and the powerful Medici family, responded to Michelangelo’s powerful symbol of defiance. As I looked up from my reading, I saw tears rolling down my husband’s cheeks, my kids were clamoring to know what happened next, and a small crowd had gathered round me surreptitiously listening to me read. I had discovered the key to getting the most out of traveling - good literature. Without Irving Stone, David would have been just another statue.
Twenty years later I continue my quest for good literature set in places I want to visit. A couple of months ago, I read Cannery Row aloud to my husband as we drove from Reno, Nevada, to Monterey, California. Because of Steinbeck’s engaging characters, we were not disappointed by the run-down buildings and vacant lots on the real Cannery Row. The real thing, once you got away from the schlocky tourist shops and luxury spas, was just as I pictured it from the book. I could just see Mack and the boys sitting on the front steps of the flophouse passing around the jug of “leftovers” Eddie collected from his bar-tending job and hear the strains of classical music from Doc’s laboratory over the pounding of the waves. Great literature makes good travel even better.