Even before I boarded that ancient Student Ship and sailed to France in 1964, I knew I’d love being far away. The trip took nine stormy days. Even the crew was seasick. They couldn’t turn off the air conditioners so everyone was both nauseous and coughing and sneezing from bad colds. Not your luxury liner experience, but an experience.
While we plowed through all that ocean, I practiced my French with a Parisian, equally chaste, named Laurent. We met on deck one night where he was trying to get reception on the short wave radio he’d bought in New York. Do romantic meetings get cuter than that? At one point we heard some fishermen chatting back and forth off the coast of England.
It was the August before my Junior Year Abroad. After landing in Le Havre, I found my way to Grenoble at the foot of the Alps to work on my French before classes started in Paris. It was thrilling to be so far away, and to feel like a different person, which happens when you speak another language. But there was a price to pay: loneliness. I coped by buying a bicycle and making a friend, a woman from India.
Then I was in Paris, in a tiny room in a high-rise apartment in a part of town I’d never seen in movies. I’d agreed to work as an au pair for Monsieur and Madame V. to pay for part of my rent. The parents treated me like a servant, and so did their daughters, 2 and 4. I’d feed the girls, then cook my own dinner on a hot plate in my room. I’d expected the opposite, but that year in the City of Light was definitely full of sorrow. I learned a lot, of course, but I was mostly alone. I was in France to speak French, so I avoided Americans. Aside from my weekly hour with Mademoiselle Sordet, my delightful, 90-year-old French tutor, I hardly spoke at all. But I listened to a lot of French lectures about Gothic architecture and Proust and even understood some of the wisdom.
I figured out early on that fun isn’t the point of traveling. Being far away asks something of you, throws you unanticipated challenges. The reward for all the confusion and displacement is that things happen to you. Things which could never happen anywhere else than where you are.
I traveled as much as I could in my 20s and my 30s, then slowed down to raise my son. Sometimes I left him with his dad for a few weeks and took off for the Caribbean or California to tune up my wanderlust. Last spring I went to Asia and by the end of the trip, I was right back up to adventure speed. I started out in Bhutan, in the Himalayas, where the king measures the Gross National Happiness of his people. You have to travel with a guide in Bhutan, so I shared one with a couple from Alaska who were pleasant enough. But after all those days in one another’s constant presence — we even slept in the same room during our home stay in a farmhouse— I was ready for some solo time.
I landed in Bangkok with no plans for three weeks of Unknown except to fly immediately to Chang Mai where the New Year’s Water festival was in high gear. Walking in town involved putting my camera in a waterproof bag and expecting to get drenched by everything from water pistols to fire hoses. It was the Thai version of spring break and not where I wanted to be. After a few weeks in Thailand, I spent two long days on a very slow Long Boat down the mostly dried-out but somewhat scenic Mekong River.
Under my fifty-pound backpack-rolling-suitcase-combo, I almost wiped out getting off the boat as it lurched away from the dock. If someone hadn’t reached out his hand to counterbalance me, I’d have knocked out some teeth or dropped my stuff into the muddy Mekong. Too proud to pay for help, I hauled my pack up a steep, rocky hill. My reward was the first hotel I checked out, where I felt immediately happy. I had my friends from the Long Boat to hang out with in my newest favorite place in the world, Luang Prabang. At breakfast I met two couples from Brazil who invited me on an excursion to a cave of ancient Buddhas.
Lost one day on the outskirts of town, I accepted a lift on a stranger’s motorcycle which left me even further away from civilization, but a very long walk in that tropical climate eventually ended at my hotel. And all along the way there was fabulous street food. Grilled pork and Satay chicken and an ambrosial apple lemon fruit shake. There were highs: the massage in the middle of a garden, and lows: feeling ripped off at a touristy “cultural performance” way out of town. And bored.
But the thrill of being away has nothing to do with expectations and everything to do with expanding one’s pleasures. It’s about dancing with the unknown, which asks you to be quick on your feet and even quicker in spirit. I was proud of myself for getting through each day, and grateful for every memorable chance encounter. One afternoon I ended up drinking Thai beer at a Brit bar with a few Irishmen who laughed at my jokes and admired my moxie.
The snotty family in Paris didn’t matter in the end because all those miserable indignities happened to my alter ego, in French. Many trips ago, I figured out that predictable pleasures leave a lot to be desired. The thrill is figuring out how to get through the day or the night in confusing circumstances. Where am I? How long should I stay? What should I do? Where should I sleep? What will I eat and drink? Who will I talk to? Where will I go next?
It can’t have been all that bad during that solitary year in Paris because I remember how those noodles with butter and melted gruyere tasted: the best meals I’ve ever eaten.