Wanderlust compelled me to cash in Ruby's burgeoning college fund for two tickets to Europe. That's right. Only two.
Last month, Sam and I left the kid behind with her grandparents wrapped around her finger. Of course, I'm only kidding about spending her life savings; her tuition coffer is intact. But sacrifices were necessary for such an obscene extravagance: I had to give up all thoughts of purchasing any new and badly needed bras in 2008 and—le sigh—I had to forfeit my shoe allowance for the remainder of the decade.
But I'll go barefoot any day of the week if it means I get a front row seat at the worldwide freak show. Being freaks ourselves, we began our trip by sharing a very special brownie not two feet away from the only other passenger on an airport shuttle, a U.S. Homeland Security agent. I'm here to report that I've never felt safer.
Relaxed and stoned from a glorious combination of weed and Ambien, we flew to London, where we waited in a hot, snaking immigration line at Heathrow International Airport. Upon reaching the front of the queue, we immediately had our wrists slapped by a humorless immigration agent for not dotting an “i” on our visitor's card. It was a cold welcome, but immigration agents—like their counterparts in parking enforcement—aren't hired because they're cordial.
We were shoved around, elbowed and swarmed by commuters in the hyper-busy vortex of Paddington station.
Thousands of people seemed to know exactly where they were going and needed to trample us to get there. We were baggage-laden, lost and fumbling with the map, barely able to figure out which direction was forward. I felt insignificant and lost and admit to relief when I spotted the sweet face of my friend who met us at the turnstiles.
We spent a few days with my friend, enjoying the activity along the South Bank and at the Tate Modern and visiting a few spots tourists would never otherwise find. We drank at her local pub where Bam-Bam (“I don't want the locals to know my real name!”), a voluptuous woman with tri-colored hair, crooked teeth and tons of buttery cleavage, served me the best vodka tonic I've ever had.
We ate traditional English pasties in Trafalgar Square, walked the length of Pall Mall (who knew it wasn't just a cigarette?) and took pictures of the implacable soldiers at Prince Charles' back door with other friends—lifelong Londoners—who until then I'd known only in the virtual world. They opened their hearts to us as we discussed love, life and a particularly painful loss. I cried on the platform when the time came to say goodbye.
We left for Paris on the Eurostar, where the waitress insisted in a whispery French accent that we drink champagne and then wine—red, white, rosé?—during our quick ride beneath the English Channel. We navigated the Metro with ease, found our rented flat and then—pfffft!—my confidence dissipated like air from an unknotted balloon as I bungled the language during my first interaction with a restaurant hostess who promptly brushed me off.
Flustered and intimidated, I was frozen with embarrassment and tempted to use only English for the week. But that hostess was no ruder than the staff at a certain popular restaurant in North Park (I won't name it because the food rocks), so I shrugged off my insecurity and kept conjugating verbs. As my favorite travel guru, Rick Steves, advises, “If something is not to your liking, change your liking.” It's an unbeatable coping strategy for travel and, therefore, life.
Sam and I made the most of our time in The City of Light: We stood in the hot sun on the Champs Elysée cheering the blur of cyclists on their last leg of the Tour de France. We lingered in cafés where we watched as old women passed on bicycles and young women pushed strollers, and most of them rocked a panty-line in a manner utterly impossible in the states (It's true: French women can make just about anything look sexy). We engaged with the nicest shopkeepers, baristas, wine sellers and cheese purveyors. I was teased mercilessly by a crepe-maker whose use of three languages left me without my usual escape route of clever retort.
We watched an evening rainstorm from the fourth-story window ledge of our flat. Every day we got lost in winding neighborhoods, several times opting for a park bench as a lunch spot. We walked the length of the Champs de Mars at sunset—around 10 p.m.—surrounded by the bubbling sound of thousands of celebratory evening picnickers. The occasion was Tuesday.
We stood beneath the blue-lit Eiffel tower at midnight on my birthday. We revisited the place where we were married.
I'm a believer in the importance of globetrotting. It's good for the character (I write this at the airport after enduring throngs of line-cutters). Sure, anyone can see Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, view the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, or float down the Seine on a summer afternoon by turning the television to PBS. Basic cable access delivers such sights directly to the living rooms of millions, no passport or security clearance required. And thanks to the Internet, we can forge meaningful friendships with folks from other countries without ever having to decipher their accented vocabulary or make fumbling attempts to speak in their language.
But you can't learn patience by watching people mob the startlingly puny Mona Lisa from the comfort of your couch.
You can't be moved to tears by the layered notes of a street performer's accordion accompanied only by the screeching brakes of a roaring subway car. You can't inhale the distinctive perfume of stylish Parisian women that mixes equally well with unforgiving summer heat or cigarette smoke or sweat or coffee.
Travel tests my stamina, stretches my limits and forces me to consider other ways of being (sort of like parenting but with a better view). It can be cutthroat and frustrating—Sam likes to say there's no sportsmanship in travel—but it's also mind-opening and necessarily humbling. Leaving home never fails to confirm for me the fundamental sameness of the human experience in all of its oddity and loveliness, freakishness and radiance, ugliness and compassion, entitlement and kindness, impatience and vibrancy. I love being reminded that I'm not all that important.
With or without shoes, I'm only another miniscule part of it.