Travel As a Self-Revelatory Experience

November 2014

Sicily and Rome_89

The Piazza Navona in Rome

Several years ago my husband and I traveled to Sicily and stayed at a villa we rented with several friends. Our flight from Washington D.C. made a stop in Rome, where we changed planes. Our next plane started taxiing out from the Rome airport, but then it stopped and we were all told to get off. There was some reason I don’t remember, but it cost us a couple of hours, so by the time we arrived at the airport in Sicily it was starting to get dark.

We had planned our travel specifically so that it would still be daylight when we arrived in Sicily, because we were renting a car there and we thought the drive in a new place and up a mountainside to a villa we’d never been to before in a non-English-speaking country would be so much easier in daylight than at night. And I’m sure it would have been. As it was, we found the mountain, but we couldn’t find our way up it in the dark, since it was hard to see the obscure signs at the various forks in the mountain road that our directions told us to watch for. We ended up calling our friends, who were already at the villa, and one of them drove down the mountainside so he could lead us back up to the villa.

Perhaps because of the stress of trying to find the place, I didn’t sleep well that night. When I mentioned this to one of our friends the next morning, she told me to take one of her melatonin pills that was supposed to “reset your internal clock.” You’ll sleep great, she assured me. I went to bed that night armed with the melatonin in me. I didn’t sleep a wink – literally not one wink. It turns out that melatonin has the exact opposite effect from usual on some people.

Whether it was the lack of sleep or something else, I was on edge the rest of that day. It didn’t help that, while eating a delicious Italian dinner at the villa, I suddenly felt something hard in my mouth. A crown had come off a tooth, leaving the tooth exposed. I was thousands of miles away from home and from my dentist. This didn’t bode well.

I’m sure there are folks who would simply take all this in stride, who would just not be bothered by any of it. And as I write this it is clear to me that the mishaps I’ve described are relatively minor in the big scheme of travel. Our flight got delayed; everyone’s flights get delayed nowadays. I had some bad sleep (to be specific, no sleep); lots of people have trouble sleeping, especially when they’re away from home. A crown came off a tooth while I was thousands of miles away from my dentist in a country where I didn’t speak the language; lots of people … actually, I don’t think that happens to lots of people.

A few days into our stay we all decided to drive from our villa, near the seaside town of Cefalù, to the lovely little fourteenth century town of Castelbuono, where we parked our cars along one of the many winding cobblestone streets. As we walked away from our cars towards a warren of winding cobblestone streets, I began to wonder how we would find our way back to our cars. It would be difficult to ask people for directions, since the people there didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Italian. What if we couldn’t find our way back?, I wondered. I imagined us wandering around the town endlessly turning corners that didn’t look familiar as the daylight turned to dusk and then to night. And as I imagined this, the words “panic attack” floated into my head. It took all my powers of self-control to not let show that, inside, I was indeed panicking. It was especially important to me not to let this show because the feelings I was hiding were completely incongruous with our external environment – we were, after all, in an absolutely lovely, picturesque town that wasn’t that big, eating a delicious meal in a wonderful restaurant. I knew I didn’t like getting lost; I found out on that trip that I apparently have a phobia about getting lost.

We had no trouble finding our way back to our car, of course, and I apparently succeeded in hiding my panic, which gradually faded away as we drove back to our villa. But I wasn’t really enjoying the vacation on beautiful Sicily with wonderful friends and my super-wonderful husband (to whom I was able to confide my bizarre feelings and know that he would still love and accept me, which he did).

Happily, things got better after that. I relaxed about the tooth, and reassured myself that nothing bad would happen to it before I got back to the States and my dentist. And my sleep improved (there was nowhere to go but up on that score.) We took a train one day from Cefalù to Palermo, the capital city of Sicily, which was beautiful. We walked around the city, and I paid careful attention to the streets we walked and the street signs so I wouldn’t panic about getting lost – and I didn’t. The train rides to Palermo and back were completely enjoyable.

There were other delightful things in Sicily – Cefalù was charming, and the villa where we stayed was lovely, with a spectacular view. We ate fantastic pizza at an outdoor table in a little plaza in front of the Cathedral-Basilica of Cefalù, a Roman Catholic church built in the twelfth century. And on our last evening there, we dined at a fabulous restaurant on the sea. All in all, a good trip by any standard.

But my trip to Sicily was marred by the negative self-image it gave me. Who is this person, I thought, who is scared to venture out without a rope back to the car? Who is this person who is the opposite of adventurous, the opposite of carefree—the opposite of everything she thinks a traveler should be – who worries about losing her way and walking endlessly to oblivion; on whom the mishaps of travel leave little scars rather than rolling right off? Turns out it’s me. Ironically, the one fear that many travellers do have – fear of flying – I don’t have. I am serenely calm in a plane.

But not necessarily in an airport. Our Sicily trip was capped off with a truly aggravating change of planes in Frankfurt on our way back home – if you’re ever planning a trip where you have to change planes at the Frankfort airport, don’t. I won’t bore you with all the gory details – just picture my husband and me literally running through the airport, our bags rolling behind us; suffice it to say we ended up spending five long hours waiting at the Frankfurt airport, because we missed our connecting flight through no fault of our own.

As you might have guessed by now, I’m not a good traveler. The thrill I felt many years ago when flying was new to me is long gone. In its place is a low-grade anxiety, a simmering impatience, and a regrettable timidity. Did I pack the right clothes for the weather? Have they overbooked the flight? Will we be bumped? My it’s a long walk from the terminal to baggage claim! I don’t have even half the patience necessary to deal with the aggravations of modern travel – the delayed flights; the cancelled flights; the lost baggage – that have become so frequent in recent years. And then, of course, there’s the pleasure of going through security – taking off your jacket and your shoes and … it’s a good thing the terrorists didn’t try to hide their bombs in their underwear! Oh, wait …

I have all the wrong attitudes to be a good traveler/vacationer – starting with the planning. I hate planning vacations (something most people love). Partly this is because I get stuck at the very beginning: Where should we go? Instead of saying, “There are lots of wonderful places we could go! Let’s pick one!” I say, “There are lots of wonderful places we could go! What if I pick the wrong one?” Huh?

Economists talk about utility functions and regret functions – people make choices so as to maximize their utility (i.e., their “general satisfaction”) or they make choices so as to minimize their regret (i.e., regretting that they didn’t make a better choice). I seem to have developed a rather powerful regret function. I don’t know when or how this happened, but I remember that, when I was working and I had a finite number of vacation days, I really, really didn’t want to waste any of them on a disappointing vacation.

At some point I went from “What if I don’t like my vacation in X?” to “What if I would have liked a vacation in Y better?” So it wasn’t about just avoiding a vacation spot I would end up not liking; it was about failing to pick the best vacation spot.” This is crazy; I know.

My husband and I are both retired now; we don’t have to worry about “wasting” vacation days. If we’re frugal and don’t travel too often, we can afford to go pretty much anywhere. And we still have our health. We are incredibly fortunate. So perhaps we should go to Prague; I’ve heard Prague is beautiful! But … what about Spain? I’ve heard Spain is wonderful! Or … perhaps we should go to China … Which one of those is the best choice? And I’ve completely left out all sorts of other possibilities! Arghhhhh!!

And once we settle on a destination, there are the other aspects of planning a trip. What hotel should we stay at? Or perhaps we should try to find a Bed & Breakfast. Will I feel too extravagant if I spend too much on lodging? Will I feel like a tightwad if I don’t spend enough and it turns out to be a lousy hotel? Do we need to book way in advance to make sure we get a room? How far in advance? A month? Half a year? A year? I can’t make decisions that far ahead! I can barely make decisions about tomorrow! Arghhhhh!!

And about decisions … Perhaps we should just go on a tour, where other people make all the decisions for us. But I’d hate that … I hate the idea of moving along in a group, being told where we’re going and for how long. I want to really experience a foreign country, really get to know the people, to not just be a tourist! – this from a woman who gets nervous about finding her way back to the car, who hates how ignorant she feels when she can’t speak the language, and who’s shy about venturing up to strangers to ask a question, even when they speak English.

And even English can be a challenge. I was in London several decades ago, and I stopped a stranger on the street to ask directions. He had a thick Cockney accent – so thick that I actually couldn’t make out what he was saying. I thanked him and randomly picked a direction to walk, wondering if he was puzzled that I hadn’t taken his advice (whatever it was) – unless, of course, my random pick happened to match what he’d said.

There have been other minor language embarrassments – like the time I left a shop in Paris one evening saying “Good black” to the proprietor, realizing my mistake only a minute later. And then there was the feeling of utter stupidity in not being able to say anything beyond the few phrases I’d memorized from my French language manual. After five days of saying nothing beyond such things as “Thank you” and “two coach tickets, please” (plus one bumbling – but ultimately successful! – effort to make restaurant reservations in French by phone), I felt like an idiot. I wanted to be able to wax philosophical (or, at a minimum, tell the snooty waiter at a restaurant in Paris just what he could do with his Parisian French).

And then, of course, there are the other assorted issues with travel – I have a limited tolerance for living out of a suitcase; I worry about the carbon footprint of long-distance flying; I miss the comfort and familiarity of home.

And yet …

Traveling does have its plus side. Some of the most exquisite beauty I’ve ever seen was far away from home – often thousands of miles away. Big Sur on the coast of California (across the country from where I live) is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. And the coast drive north from there – flanked by the Pacific Ocean to the west and wild flower-dotted hillsides to the east – left me speechless (which is not easy to do).

And speaking of California … about an hour and a half north of Los Angeles are the Antelope Valley Poppy Fields. We were there at peak season, and the fields were covered with brilliant yellow-orange California poppies as far as the eye could see. It was truly a vision to behold.

I’ve been to other beautiful and charming places too – Santa Fe, New Mexico, with its reddish and turquoise countryside; the Cotswolds in south central England, with its gently rolling hills and thatched roof houses; Cape Cod in Massachusetts, looking out to the Atlantic from “this side of the pond”; Cornwall, in southwestern England, viewing the Atlantic from “across the pond”; the lovely Irish countryside; the Hawaiian island of Maui, looking out onto the Pacific Ocean; the mixed hardwood forests of the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York, aglow in brilliant reds and yellows and oranges and browns at the height of autumn. All of these fell somewhere on the scale from “incredibly wonderful” to “breathtaking.” I have happy memories of them all.

And I haven’t even yet mentioned the cities. I loved Paris (despite the one snooty waiter), when I was there decades ago; it was a veritable banquet of man-made beauty and charm – and food! London, Amsterdam, and Dublin were wonderful too. I’ve really only seen a small handful of foreign cities; I think I mentioned them all – except one.

On our trip home from Sicily, our plane was scheduled to stop in Rome. Neither my husband nor I had ever been to Rome, so we decided to book a room in a hotel for a couple of nights and see as much of the city as we could in about a day and a half before flying home. Despite my dislike of vacation planning, I found a moderate-priced hotel online in a fabulous location – basically within easy walking distance of everything. And walk we did – to the Pantheon, to the Colosseum, to the Roman Forum, to the Trevi Fountain, to the Palatine Hill, to the Vatican, and to the Campo de Fiori, close by our hotel – as well as in and around one breathtakingly beautiful piazza after another.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more beautiful city than Rome. I can still picture the Piazza Navona as the late afternoon sun lit up the surrounding buildings of siennas, mustards, and burnt oranges. I had the same sense about Rome as I had had about Big Sur – you could turn 360 degrees, and everywhere you looked there was stunning beauty; it was natural beauty at Big Sur, and man-made beauty in Rome, but at each place a level of beauty that just washes over you and infuses you with joy.

It turns out that I absolutely love looking at beautiful scenes, both natural and man-made – another self-revelation! And eating fabulous food at incredible restaurants isn’t half bad either. (Did I mention the restaurant where I had one of the best meals of my life by the Russian River in Northern California? Or the anniversary meal we had at an outdoor table of a fantastic restaurant on Maui, only yards from the Pacific Ocean?) I’m running out of superlatives.

Not to sound too trite, but traveling might be thought of as a metaphor for the “journey of life.” Okay, maybe that is too trite – but the larger point is not. Like life in general, travel is filled with aggravations and discomfort, and yet people want to do it because there is also incredible beauty and joy to be had, and experiences that you just can’t get if you never venture out.

Of course, there are some experiences that I could really do without – I will probably never visit the Son Doong Cave in Vietnam, reputedly the biggest cave in the world, or attempt to climb Mount Everest. I guess the trick is to find a nice balance between seeking beauty and new experiences, on the one hand, and reasonably accommodating one’s personality (flawed though it may be), on the other hand.

It’s a shame that traveling isn’t all easy and wonderful. Perhaps more to the point, it’s a shame that I am the way I am about these things. I would be lying if I said that, because of the clear plusses of traveling, I will boldly forge ahead, resolutely breaking the bonds of my “issues” with travel. No; knowing myself, I think it would be more accurate to say that I will nudge myself to get beyond my “issues.” Instead of “jumping into travel head first,” I will probably do it the way old ladies enter a swimming pool – first putting in an exploratory toe to see if the water temperature is acceptable … Perhaps next time I’ll take some breadcrumbs so I can leave a trail from the car as I venture forth in a new land seeking glorious beauty and “adventure” …

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3 comments on “Travel As a Self-Revelatory Experience

  1. Jan Stohlman says:

    Ellen, loved this essay! Could totally relate to your experience and feelings!

  2. […] wrote elsewhere (see here) about how “decisionally challenged” I am when it comes to […]

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