Settling back into a singular address, sleeping in the same bed with the same pillow, establishing the school bus morning ritual, learning the quirks of our apartment: it was fun at first. It had been a long time since we had played the part of responsible, upstanding permanent residents. We met our new neighbors. We bought full-sized tubes of toothpaste. The newspaper arrived at our doorstep every Sunday. We unpacked our travel bags and stuffed them way, way back in the closet. Our clothes were now distinguishable as clean or dirty, instead of dirty or “God, please don’t wear that.” We owned hangers and sometimes hung clothes on them. We were planted. Small roots began to sprout from my feet.
Soon after, memories of our 15-month travel adventure began to get fuzzy. Conversations about where we had been became vague and were uttered in a caveman language. Copenhagen, a destination we truly enjoyed as a family, was boiled down to “street hot dogs.” Cairo, a city that would take decades to explore, was recalled as the city with bad traffic. An entire month traveling across Ecuador was summarized with, “We saw whales.” Or sometimes the memories were incredibly specific, but not the kind of thing you’d want taking up valuable brain space. “Remember how long the wi-fi password was at that place?” my son said. Or, “That was the country with the really good potato chips.”
Sometimes I’d scroll through the 18,000 images on my phone and think, “Are those really our photos?” My mind played evil tricks; I began to convince myself I wasn’t brave enough to have dragged our family across the nooks and crannies of the Earth. I must have purchased fake backdrops and forced the kids to pose in the safety of our living room. I must have spent hours digitally creating these images, not hours coordinating travel logistics that make normal people go googly eyed. I must have imagined that the world was welcoming, and people are people. In real life, the world must be cruel and cold and the only thing that could be found outside a 5-mile radius of our home was danger. Or trouble. Or both.
Had our memories morphed over time, turning into an imaginary amalgamation of things we had only heard and read about in travel books? What was real? What was imagined?
It was time to rediscover the truth. We didn’t have much to work with, but we did have time and flexibility. And amazing friends who let us storm their houses. We had 70 days of summer break; long enough to wander and explore. Long enough to avoid tour buses and all-inclusive resorts that are the norm when there’s only one week of vacation. Seventy days was long enough to shake a few of those roots off my feet.
We rented our apartment and dug into the back of the closet for our old bags. Given that we’d only been off the road for nine months, one might assume that our packing skills could beat Rick Steves or Lonely Planet. But our packing skills seemed to have faded just as quickly as our other travel memories. We didn’t check the weather for all destinations, we packed based on the weather we saw out the window. We failed to bring the essentials that even a beginner traveler would have nailed (travel adapter, anyone?) but we did a great job of packing what we shouldn’t have. My son’s backpack weighs more than him and includes at least five different forms of electronics that lack the necessary cords, and airport security kindly took away that full tube of toothpaste.
What we forgot in packing skills, we made up for in our ability to quickly recover from our blunders. This is a highly underrated survival skill. Travel mishaps and mistakes are inevitable and bound to frazzle even the most patient soul. The secret is too put limits on the amount of damage a mistake can have and fake out your mind to believe that the blunder was always in the plan.
A piece of unplanned work travel cropped up and cut time from one of our destinations, but the hiccup gave us the opportunity to visit a country we had never been to and enjoy a long road trip with incredible views and lunch orders made by pointing and smiling a lot. Huffing our bags around when the logistics aren’t smooth qualifies as an aerobic workout. Killing time during unexpected delays or errors are often the times that I have the best conversations with my kids.
We are 18 days in to our abbreviated adventure, and we have traveled through the city and proper countryside of England, made a day trip through tiny Andorra, spent a whirlwind 12 hours in always-awake Barcelona, and are now hunkered down in a beautiful small village in the French Pyrenees mountains. Sure, there have been days when I wish I was home and knew how to work a wonky oven, or know which blocks of time I have to work and write, or know were to find the closest ATM. And then there are the moments like today, where I had the simple joy of hanging laundry on an outside clothes line, with the warm summer sun on my face, the clothes smelling of a French detergent that reminded me of my grandmother’s house, the breeze from the Pyrenees mountains blowing the clothes. Or coming upon a Wizard-of-Oz-like rock formation about an hour outside Barcelona. Or that the kids remember how to make friends anywhere, and that they most love activities that involve sugar, water or dirt. Or remembering that sometimes your closest friends are the ones that are farthest away.
I’ve remembered that our travel was never picture-perfect like a marketing brochure. There were just as many epic landscapes as there were epic meltdowns. Regular life still happened, but it was gloriously interspersed with the tiny miracles that we’d discover in every new place.
The memories are all coming back, even while new ones are being made. And they are as real and as colorful as ever. It is our real life, lived in motion.
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