I got my first passport when I was 12. I was headed to France with other students from San Diego on a trip organized by our public school district. That passport and its successors have allowed me to travel the globe. But it was my parents, who I don’t think had passports themselves when I got mine, who opened the world to me.
For France, my parents outfitted me with a giant leather suitcase. Its tiny wheels were no match for cobbled streets. I’ve since learned to travel lighter. And my parents got passports to visit me when I lived in South Africa, India, Egypt and the UK as an Associated Press correspondent.
Where ever I go, I find friends in like-minded lovers of literature and travel. And why travel if you don’t meet new people? In the lovely university town of San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, I sat amid the tomes in many languages in Garrison & Garrison. There, I vicariously lived the dream of moving to another country and opening a bookstore.
I can stretch myself among books. Why travel if you don’t grow? I’d been studying Spanish for only a year or so when I visited Havana in 2015. I picked up a copy of “El Viejo y El Mar” from a stall at the Plaza de Armas. It looked homemade: cheap paper between stiff cardboard covers, no hints as to publisher or publication date. I’d read Hemingway’s original and figured his punchy style would not be a challenge in translation. I plunged in, only to find myself entangled in incomprehensible fishing vocabulary. It took me months to read the little book.
On a whim, I’d also bought a paperback of G. Cabrera Infante’s “La Habana Para un Infante Difunto” at the Plaza de Armas. Once I finished with Senor Hemingway I was exhilarated to find myself engaged in the movie-obsessed Infante’s memoir. Infante’s prose opened the doors of dilapidated Havana apartment buildings and drew me into conversations with the people of the city. But I’m still not through all 500 pages.
I can feel like a local in a bookshop. Why travel if not to take on a new persona every once in a while? I’m more fluent in French than in Spanish. I never miss a chance to visit a Fnac when in France. My husband and daughter are happy to check out the electronics and music while I head to the shelves. I try to glean from the prize-winning books what the French think are the crucial issues of their time and place. In my imagination, I sit with my neighbors in a café, debating who should have won the Prix Goncourt.
Don’t forget the libraries. A small branch in the cathedral town of Salisbury was architecturally uninteresting, as only 1970s government buildings anywhere can be. But it offered respite one sunny day when my husband, daughter and I were tired from our tour of nearby Stonehenge. My daughter, then about four years old, had spent the morning pretending to be a knight errant. In the cool of the library, she was delighted to find the children’s librarian had put together a tiny display on Pippi Longstocking and author Astrid Lindgren. Then I had to explain to my daughter that our local library card was no good in southern England.
We hadn’t gone looking for Pippi. Why travel if you won’t let yourself be led by chance and serendipity? With them as guides and a willingness to be surprised and to take the time to pay attention, we’ve found every destination engaging. Shuffling through my travel memories to choose a favorite is the least interesting of games. It would be like choosing a favorite book, when so many have given me so much.
My parents were not globe trotters. But they went further than I will ever go. I marvel at those two black Southerners who crossed the Mason-Dixon Line in search of opportunity -- and who were always happy to take me to a book store or a library.
When my sister and I were in elementary school my parents organized epic summer road trips. The day before departure my mother would bake a meat loaf. She would be up early the next morning to slice the meat for sandwiches and fry a chicken. The sandwiches and chicken would be packed in a cooler with bread and soft drinks. My father, who had been consulting TripTiks from Triple A while my mom was baking meatloaf, would put down the two rows of passenger seats and spread a futon in the back of our station wagon – we had the model with the woodie sides. My sister and I could lounge while dad and mom traded time at the wheel.
My sister and I thought that the roadside picnics were a treat and that the futon was exotic. It’s only as an adult that I realized my parents’ were making sure we had something to eat even if they could not find a restaurant that would serve us, and a place to sleep if we were turned away by a hotel. This was in the late 1960s and early 1970s, after The Negro Motorist Green-Book had stopped publishing and the Civil Rights Act had outlawed racial discrimination in public accommodation. But my parents knew there could be resistance, and they took precautions.
My parents never let on that they were anxious on our trips from southern Colorado to Florida or Georgia to see grandparents or to the Grand Canyon or Washington DC to see the sites. My sister and I were raised to think we would be welcome anywhere we went.
I did everything “wrong” on my first overseas trip, from the too-big suitcase to the bus tours of the Loire Valley chateaux. But I learned and grew and kept traveling. With so much talk in the news pages of nationalism and suspicion about the outside world, Americans may not realize they will find welcome wherever they go. We just have to have enough confidence to be humble, and to keep our eyes, ears and minds open. We will find we can be part of something larger.