When you’re young, travel has a romantic appeal. The realities of transit sort of get ignored. Maybe the problems and discomforts even have a certain appeal– for the first few times, anyway. By the time you’re my age, though, the logistics just are part of the planning, and often require patience and endurance. My budget doesn’t stretch to first-class, or even business-class. Though I would love to indulge in that, when it comes time to pay for a ticket, I just think how many more tickets I could get if I continue to fly economy, so I do. Anyway, I figure that my immigrant ancestors probably came steerage, so I’m simply honoring them. I do dream about a first-class experience at some time, though.
In the meantime, I endure the ups and downs of tight layovers and transfers to other flights. I measure my bags and weigh them, careful to meet the guidelines of individual airlines. And usually I pay for a second bag when I travel to Greece since I buy linens and things for the apartment and can get better quality for less in the U.S. I arrange for taxi pickups and transfers. I arrange my travel myself. It’s do-it-yourself travel, at least as much as possible.
There’s not much left for me with the romanticism of travel, not with the actual getting there and getting back. That’s just necessary. The joys of backpacking are still with me, but now I want to sleep in a nice bed, in a room with a private toilet, and with some amenities. Not on a train overnight or in an airport lounge, not if I can help it.
But being someplace and getting around? That still has its original appeal, even after (hard to believe) nearly 40 years of traveling internationally. But now for me travel is more than tourist sites to be checked off a list. Now, I visit a site or two, but I spend time walking, looking, shopping and observing people. When I want to, I find a coffee shop and sit for a drink, watching what goes on. I take out my journal. I write. I take photos. I don’t feel the need to rush from site to site. I savor the whole experience. I am a traveler rather than a tourist.
For example, when I went to London in May, I was only there for a long weekend. One of my objectives was to see the special Pompeii exhibit at the British Museum; I got my ticket for the day before I left London, and that left me two and a half other days. I went to Covent Garden and to Neil’s Yard, shopping and watching the buskers around Covent Garden’s Apple Market. I bought cheese and bread for my room for eating dinner. I usually ate lunch while I was out and about. I wandered on the Tube a few stations away from my hotel for that. I wandered only one stop away for Saturday’s Portobello Market. Once more, I walked and shopped, took photos, sat and had a pint of cider, wandered more, bought some prints, sat and had a glass of wine after eating. I listened to street musicians.
One evening I met a friend for drinks and caught up with her at a pub I knew. I hadn’t seen her in far too long, and that was so nice. Her late brother was a dear friend, and it was great to be able to share memories and catch up on the news about her two children, who have grown up. My last night, another friend met me at the hotel bar for some wine and good conversation.
While I wandered around Kensington, and in Covent Garden, and in Bayswater, I found myself fantasizing about living in London, at least temporarily. One day, I promised myself, I would do so — I would find a short-term let and stay in London for a month or so. And so I plan to do, maybe in the next year.
Even for such a short trip, the realities of transit get tedious. By the time I made it back to my place in Athens, all I wanted to do was take a hot shower and clean up. There was a clear sense of relief at returning, even from a short trip. I was home.
Living out of a suitcase in a hotel isn’t so much fun as being someplace, but I put up with it. It’s a necessary element.
A second trip in June took me to Istanbul and once more I just liked being there. I was traveling with someone who’d never been there before, so I did more tourist-sightseeing than I might have, in a quick two days. Next year (or whenever I return), I might well stay in the same little hotel, near the Blue Mosque, and just wander more. I want to return to the Spice Market and get lost wandering around. I want to go to the small bazaar near the Blue Mosque. More time to sit and watch, that’s what I want.
Once more returning to Athens, getting back to the apartment was being home.
I love being in my “other” life, as I’ve come to think of it. Since I am not really a tourist, I don’t do a lot of sightseeing unless I have company, and I had three visitors in three months. Generally I putter around the apartment, do domestic things, and read a lot. There are days when I do nothing except read murder mysteries or biographies or science fiction. Sometimes I re-read through an entire series over a week. Certainly I grocery shop, I pay bills, and I sit in favorite coffee shops. I meet friends for coffee or dinner. I write. I surf the internet.
Quite simply, the apartment is home. When I first arrive and open the building door and first see my apartment door, I feel such relief, and then when I actually open the apartment door and enter, there’s almost no way to describe that feeling except the body itself seems to sigh and I feel “I’m home.” And I relax completely. I turn on the water heater for the bathroom (“boiler,” as it’s labeled in my switch box), grab a couple of shopping bags, and walk half a block and across the street to the supermarket, the “Bazaar.” I load up, walk up the incline to the building, and let myself in. I put up groceries and staples. I shower and change. I get online to email my sister and friends that I’ve arrived safely and am comfortable. Then I cook something to eat, wash dishes, and head to bed with a book, ready to collapse. After all, at that point, I’ve probably been up for something like 30 hours. Only the next day will I unpack suitcases, and it will take another couple of days to sort out what I need from storage cabinets.
As much as it’s home, there always comes a point during a 3-month stretch that I find myself homesick for my other home. Or homes. I’m homesick for my car, for being able to drive somewhere, anywhere. For my pets. For my family and friends. For American conveniences. For Southern / Texan/Cajun cultures to envelop me. For the quiet of my home as well. The pull of responsibilities kicks in, too.
Emerson was right about travel: You can’t escape your problems when you travel; you simply take them with you. At times I know that I have traveled for temporary escape (and probably will do so again, frankly), for the time and space to sort out something and return ready to deal with it. I know better than to believe that running away means you can leave troubles behind. I know that I will not escape anything, that such traveling is “a fool’s paradise,” as Emerson says in “Self-Reliance.”
Travel is also to enrich, to learn. No matter how many times I go to London, there’s always more to discover, as there is in Greece or Istanbul or Italy. There’s always another country I haven’t been to yet, another culture to explore.
But travel can also be a respite, a kind of recuperative time for contemplation. If anything, I come to value my American home and to weigh its pros and cons. I know that I will, at some point, be homesick.
And when that homesickness comes, it’s usually at the time when I’m winding down, packing up the things that stay in the storage cabinets in the apartment, packing the suitcase(s) that will return with me. That is a kind of limbo time. I tell friends that there is a sort of “click” that goes off in my head and that I’m already transitioning for the return and re-immersion into my American life. That usually is the last week of my time in Greece.
When I finally get back to my house in Lake Charles, there is a similar physical relaxation, a sigh of “I’m home again.” I close the door and check that my world is still in place, waiting for me.
And then there’s that word: home. Home is where I am. Home is here, in Lake Charles, in the house I’ve owned since 1986 or so. In Egan, in the house I’ve known since I was 16. In Texas, at the family farm or at the beach house my sister and I rebuilt. Home is my family, my friends, my pets. It’s not the physical places, as comfortable and known as those places are.
No, it’s a state of mind, of being. It’s that moment of sighing into a return. That moment of recognition, of total comfort, of release.
So now I’m home. Again. And rediscovering the joys of here, wherever here happens to be. Time away gives me time to reassess, to renew, and when I return, I return with a new vision and appreciation, ready to tackle things, ready to go.
Tomorrow I’ll have been home here for a week. It feels right.