One of my favorite things to do is travel.
Since 1973, when my parents sent me on a trip to Italy, during Holy Week, with two nuns and 10 Catholic school girls, travel bewitched me as I sought adventures outside of my tiny sphere of life. Despite the Rome trip being a total misery, I experienced culture, food, and even a kiss from an Italian waiter, who clearly didn’t understand the taboo of molesting a fourteen year old. But, from that time on, I was bitten by the travel bug and since then, the excitement of planning and executing a journey creates an energy inside me that drives my need for more. It is an adrenaline rush that borders on addiction, albeit a safe one – except for my bank account. My brain houses a catalogue of possibilities and I check off the list as the adventures unfold. The list expands and contracts as destinations are added and ticked, promising never to be exhausted, since the best are visited over and over, and become “home”. Such is the case of Ireland, but despite the urge to visit over and over again, I force myself to venture to new and interesting places.
When I total the number of times I have been to Europe, even I am shocked that the number is well in excess of 20. Granted, most of those trips have been to Ireland and Northern Ireland; however, I have also been to Great Britain five times, leaving mainland Europe to make up the difference. The experience is magical, in every case, with the unexpected and unusual at every turn, and I seek the off the beaten path route to engage in the culture of each destination. In my travels, I uncovered marvelous moments like when I missed getting my ashes on Ash Wednesday and was consecrated by a local on the street in Athlone right in front of Sean’s Bar, allegedly oldest pub in Ireland (there are many). Of course, he had a small parcel of ashes in his pocket, lifted from the church earlier in the day, and he was more than happy to oblige me with a smear on my forehead. Or the time I visited my favorite Dublin restaurant for dinner and was greeted with a soap opera magazine as a gift from the owner, who was well aware of my love of the serial drama, Emmerdale. And then there was the evening in Paris when we met a man from Kazakhstan, who just happened to attend Suffolk University, like me, and we sat in the restaurant with his family, until early morning, drinking champagne for hours while I spoke fluent French (that became more fluent with every glass). These moments illustrate the magic and the allure of travel and adventure, and why I feel the pull acutely.
This year presented a different challenge as we planned our summer European exploits. Health issues, as well as my job change, complicated our strategy and with time, our dream of an extended stay in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark evaporated. Shaken, but not deterred, we regrouped and decided to “see America second…” and stay domestic. Having visited San Francisco in late May with friends, we had swallowed the pill of domestic travel, although I kept asking my friend about local customs “in this country”. She testily would remind me that we were in our own country, and with that declaration, I was shaken back to American reality.
Our vacation destinations revealed themselves rather easily, once we decided to begin the adventure in Austin, Texas, our son’s adopted home. Knowing that his limited time off limited his time with us, we added another leg to the journey, a road trip to New Orleans via Lake Charles, Louisiana, a minor resort with casinos, grand hotels, and beaches. The route, flat and uneventful, smacked of southern culture. Billboards touted the ease of attaining a gun license on line, or the availability of legal services at the end of a repetitive phone number like 444-4444, the ultimate in the KISS method. Pickup trucks were large and plentiful, as were the rows of corn and ranches along the roadside. As Tim drove, I dozed lightly, always ready to offer my two cents in altering direction as prompted by Waze.
The journey now ended, I am overwhelmed with emotion. After visiting three large American cities in the last few months, I consider myself a worthy observer and assessor of our American culture. As Americans, we wave our flag with blind pride. Yet our streets, awash in homelessness and poverty, tell a story that sadly evokes an embarrassment that we have no idea about fixing. Whether in San Francisco, Austin, or New Orleans, the “State of the Union” is evident and we are in trouble. People live on the streets in large number. Mental illness is rife and unaddressed, in one case evidenced by the unfortunate man walking down the street calling out to no one in particular. The streets are littered and pungent. Unfortunately, one doesn’t need to travel to see the images that bombard us daily of mass shootings and unbelievable violence against humankind. We, as a country, have lost the plot. Our Facebook lives belie the sad reality of the unsavory elements of our journeys and experiences. However, that is what remains for me and I am sad. A change is needed in leadership and direction to address the true issues plaguing America. And those issues do not include a “Space Force”. We are in trouble as a society and no amount of flag waving will correct our faults.
Back from vacation, I wax nostalgic for the pre-travel images I projected of my impending experience. Now enriched, yet saddened, I reflect on the role each of us plays in this tragedy. Those of us fortunate to travel freely, lodge in the best of hotels, eat sumptuous meals in the finest of restaurants, and pass by the less fortunate like they do not exist are not the problem, but we have the means and the call to change this condition. Everyone owns the ability to be of a generous spirit in our little worlds, to vote wisely, and to acknowledge that we are not the America that we should be. I dream of my future travels, and of a better day for the U.S.A.