In Defense of Baby Steps

Apparently, there is a Right Way to travel.

We should travel light, seek out authentic experiences, eschew other tourists while looking for the unbeaten path, throw away our guidebooks, and argue about whether we are tourists or travelers.* Most importantly, we should sneer at those who make other choices.

The Whisky Experience

The Whisky Experience, photo by Jessica Spengler (2006), available under a Creative Commons license.

Friends, I’ve done it all, lived on both sides of the travel coin. I’ve bummed around Europe with just a backpack and dragged around a suitcase that came up to my ribcage. I’ve celebrated a solar eclipse while dancing through the streets of Badu, Ghana in West Africa, but I’ve also paid to ride a whisky barrel through posed tableaux of moonshiners while tasting mediocre Scotch on Edinburgh’s touristy Royal Mile. I’ve buried my nose so deeply into Rick Steve’s guidebooks that I can practically smell his shampoo, but I’ve also thrown away my map in Venice, chasing stray cats through interconnected alleys until dusk fell and I was quite lost.

And I’ve sneered. Trust me, I’ve sneered, turning up my pert little nose at parents who take their kids to Disneyworld year after year. I’ve rolled my eyes at our very dear friends whose first and only trip overseas was an organized bus tour to the British Isles. (Why would you need a bus tour to someplace that speaks English?) I’ve mocked relatives whose restaurant recommendations for a city I’ve never visited include The Cheesecake Factory or PF Chang’s.

You know what? Being a travel snob is not charming. It’s not going to win anyone over, and I’m really sorry for it.

In my circle of friends, it is hip to bash chains. No one admits to buying books at Barnes & Noble or renting movies from Blockbuster. Let’s not even mention Wal-Mart. My friend Ann, a smart, thoughtful poet from a small town in Michigan, grew more and more annoyed with this, finally saying, You know what? I like chains. I’m grateful to chains. Without Barnes & Noble, we wouldn’t have a bookstore in my home town. Without Blockbuster, we wouldn’t be able to rent a movie. For many, chains are the entryway into a larger world–baby steps.

On our last night in Paris, the Cap’n and I found ourselves a cozy little restaurant in the Rue Cler neighborhood. As we opened the front door, an orange cat followed us in and spent the meal twining around our ankles. From our table in the window, we could see the Eiffel Tower. An old woman rode by on a clanking metal bicycle. The window boxes were full of flowers. It was a perfect spring night.

The Cap’n, who is fluent in French, shared a joke or two with the owner, who brought us bread and wine, made a few recommendations, introduced us to the cat. The owner said, It’s a good thing you ordered wine. Tonight we have a shortage of Coca-Cola, and he gestured to where, a few tables away, a group of American high school students were eating.

The kids, two boys and three girls, looked like they might have gone to my high school in Cleveland. They all had accents I recognized as my own. They weren’t loud—just giggly—and were dressed appropriately, as if their mothers had opinions about what clothes they packed. They seemed like what one might call “nice kids”.

The Cap’n and I were feeling romantic. We were wrapping up several weeks in France here, in this perfect little restaurant, with a perfect view of the perfect emblem of the country. We held hands and savored our sweet and crisp little bites of foie gras. We petted the cat and eavesdropped.

It was clearly the kids’ first night in Paris, likely their first night in Europe. They spoke of exhaustion, of excitement. They did their best to be worldly, comparing countries they’d been with their families, mostly Canada. They talked about things their relatives back home said they simply must see in France, each time prefacing with, Well, my aunt said… or My dad always

Their food arrived. Each ordered steak and fries, medium, and squealed over the pink juice when they cut into their meat. When the waiter returned, they asked in English for more sodas. We’re out, he said. They didn’t understand him. We’re out. You had the last one, he said, gesturing all gone.  They asked again, he turned to the Cap’n, who translated. They asked for ketchup.

The owner threw his hands up in the air, puffed a little, and went to get it. As he turned, he made eye contact with us and winked. We smiled, touched fingers, and looked out the window, awfully pleased with ourselves.

All we know of those kids was that one hour in a Parisian restaurant. We don’t know if they enjoyed their trip—or even their dinner. We don’t know if they ate squid in Collioure or hit every McDonald’s within l’hexagon. We don’t know if they threw their guidebooks away or if they spent the rest of their trip on buses, being shepherded from one famous landmark to the next.

What we do know is that these five kids were dining out in a tiny Parisian restaurant. They weren’t with the rest of their group; they weren’t with their parents. They had traveled a long way to be there. They had found food and, presumably, a place to sleep. They were getting by.

Eiffel Tower light show

Eiffel Tower light show, photo by LunaMoth116 (2010), available under a Creative Commons license.

The light show on the Eiffel Tower began to sparkle, causing all of us to oooh and squeal and run out into the street. The owner came and stood behind us in the doorway, hands on his hips, looking up. Pedestrians stopped to watch. We were together in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, staring up at one of the most famous landmarks, lights flashing on our faces like fireworks, and we were all children then.

*And no, you didn’t ask, but what works for us is to travel light (a relative term, given our family), to seek out strange and quirky experiences, to greet every stray cat that crosses our path (beaten or not), to read a bazillion guidebooks but travel with only one, and argue about who gets to hold the map.

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3 Responses to In Defense of Baby Steps

  1. bayinghound says:

    I feel this push and pull when even deciding where to travel. Exotic is great, but so is knowing every cove of a small town on Buzzard’s Bay in Massachusetts. I think the best trips, near or far, are when you notice things with new eyes, taking you out of your everyday experience.

  2. Margie Sage says:

    I had a friend that loved to eat at Denny’s, and wherever he’d travel, Joe would find Denny’s. I used to take pictures of local Denny’s when I’d travel, and gift them to him as souvenirs. As far as I know, there are no “Hard Rock Cafe (substitute Denny’s) Columbus” t-shirts. Maybe it’s like chocolate ice cream, the comfort of knowing just what you’re getting.

  3. Joanne says:

    I love this post. I have been that person too – the one who sneered at all-inclusive travel, for example. Now I blame that sneering on a lack of experience, on immaturity. We love to pretend we’re smarter/better/more adventurous/more worldly than the next person, but behaviour like this is not sophisticated; it’s petty. I’m sorry for it too. The older I get, the less judgmental I become and I hope I’m becoming a better person. As long as a person is travelling with her eyes and heart open – without arrogance, without judgment – than the travelling is worthwhile. Thanks for the reminder. x

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