“The pernicious charm of Italy worked on her, and, instead of acquiring information, she began to be happy.” Lucy Honeychurch in E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel, A Room with a View, was on a grand tour of Europe, acquiring an informal education expected for her time and social class.
I wasn’t looking to be educated, but like Lucy Honeychurch, I serendipitously found happiness through travel to Europe. But in this column, I hope to address the intersect between inner travel from home, and boots on the ground travel. If your destination is happiness, they’re the same.
I expected to love Italy and her gregarious people and awesome food. Can you say Parmesan and Asiago? But the countryside was meh.
Equally, I was prepared to abhor France with what I thought would be snooty people, runny cheeses and sauce-saturated food. I even expected to feel frumpy in the presence of French women.
But not so much. I mostly got away with properly enunciating the French niceties I had memorized, even after my failed attempt at college-French. And the French women didn’t take a second look.
There are all kinds of travelers. I think most people travel with a plan – at most, they have an agenda or itinerary, and at least, a guidebook.
Other people, there are probably fewer of us, travel not so much with a plan, but an outline that usually ends up buried at the bottom of our bags and we just drive, stopping where we feel like stopping. More often than not, the places that strike us at the moment, end up being our most eventful experiences. Sometimes, not; but those are the fabric of travel tales.
I’ve said it before, “the best things in life just happen.” This is one of those things I’ve observed again and again to be true and unshakable, a concept that could not be better experienced than in my travels.
Years ago, my husband and I visited a number of U.S. cities, and several restaurants in them. We had some truly memorable dining experiences at places that we happened upon. Only later were some of them enshrined by means of media such as the New York Times. We thought we discovered them – Christopher Columbus, were we.
The best steak I’ve ever consumed was at the Pecan Street Café in Austin, Texas. The best steak and cheese sandwich was in the convention center in Columbus, Ohio (sorry Philadelphia). The best seafood-ish platter, including my first frog’s legs, way too obviously the real thing, on a plate, was in New Orleans at Mulates the Original Cajun Restaurant. Lastly, in this slew of bests was the best bagel I’ve ever eaten, from a storefront in Albany, New York.
My unusual point here is that the first unplanned, magical dining moment when we discovered a place, could not be repeated. Celebration by the media deteriorated the restaurants and diminished the allure of our returning more than once.
Back to Europe, I was surprisingly warm to rural France as well as the Paris neighborhood where we stayed a few days. The round-abouts grew familiar and less scary to navigate the countryside. I marveled at lace curtains in otherwise, humble stone garages through village after village.
One highlight of our trip was Arles, France, the site of a favorite movie, Ronan. The old, worn cobbled streets around the ancient Roman coliseum, and the ruins themselves, made me feel fulfilled in the way described by Oliver Goldsmith in his 1764 poem, The Traveler: “Dear is that shed to which his soul conforms.” In France, go figure.
Also, in Arles, my husband and I sat at a table in a courtyard just under some dying jasmine still strikingly fragrant. A lizard crawled casually around the stone-encased, arched doorway leading to our hotel room. Below a Juliet balcony, we hadn’t planned to eavesdrop on the faint voices of the guests inside the open window.
A couple of exceptions to my preference for France after having visited the continent, were in Italy. In Lucca, we rode bikes – a skill I hadn’t exercised since childhood, all around the walled city. We weaved through a street performance of a Puccini aria in celebration of his birth in the city, dodging the smell of freshly cured ham potently streaming from a shop. Our bike route took us along a canal near our hotel, to a nearby botanical garden where we delighted in turtles and trees.
My husband lived for a number of years in Verona. We visited the apartment building where he lived, and saw the shopkeepers window he accidentally broke. I couldn’t believe the streets, home to Hermes, Louboutin, Versace, Givenchy…, just off the square at the famed coliseum, were constructed of huge street-sized slabs of marble tied together in a parquet pattern – the street, mind you.
Before leaving for that trip, I said, “no churches filled with brutal Renaissance art.” However, several churches, and a couple of castles we visited, made me want to go back ASAP. I also delighted in every piece of art we happened upon. So much for “best-laid plans” and “famous last words.”
A line from Elizabeth Bishop’s 1956 poem, Questions of Travel, speaks to an important query; “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” Actually, I had stayed at home and thought of Europe, pondering if my ancestral homeland was somehow “home.”
For decades before traveling there, I watched movies, documentaries and travel shows set in Europe, studied European culture, cooked European food, and pictured myself wandering Europe. Then, I went. The compulsion to go back doesn’t leave me while I continue to read, and think of “there.”
I read somewhere a paradox that we can simultaneously be both a masterpiece and a work in progress. Maybe one day, home and travel will converge. “Let it go. Let it out. Let it all unravel. Let it free and it can be. A path on which to travel.” -Michael Leunig