Thursday, August 21, 2014

Fifteen years ago today

My post last week, about our trip to China, inspired me to look back even further in our traveling history. Only after posting did I realize I had posted on a Thursday, making it a throwback Thursday post. {Ed.'s note: Slaps forehead.} So here's another, and I promise this won't be a recurring trend on the blog.

We spent our hot summer day of 21 August 1999 canoeing down the Dordogne River in France. It was the middle of our honeymoon. We had spent the first few days in Paris, then started a counterclockwise circuit of the country, through Normandy, the Loire Valley, the Dordogne, stops in Albi and Arles and Avignon and others, across to Nice and Monte Carlo, up through the Alps and towns like Chamonix, until finally returning for a final few days in Paris.

The Dordogne River. I think (but I'm not sure) the town in the distance is Beynac, with its castle commanding the hill.
Canoeing on the Dordogne River is probably the easiest possible canoe experience: wide and slow; gorgeous scenery; plenty of sites to tour or picnic; just enough of a current to keep you moving but laughably easy to navigate or even head upstream.
It's really, really easy to canoe if you sit in the back of the boat and let your wife unknowingly do all the rowing.
All told, we spent about three and a half weeks in France, courtesy of my generous parents' wedding gift to us. We planned only part of the trip in advance, making reservations for about half of the nights. The other half of the time we picked a destination before bed, made a call in the morning for a place to sleep, and meandered our way there. It was a wonderful mix of structure and freedom.

View from the 12th century troglodyte fort above the village of La Roque Gageac.
I can draw a few lessons perhaps habits is a better term from our trip to France in 1999. These travel habits hold true for us almost invariably:

1. Kate drives; I navigate. In olden days, before GPS, we had to navigate with paper maps. We still have our thick, spiral-bound Michelin map of France with our entire trip's meandering route highlighted in yellow. I'm generally the trip planner and itinerary setter. Also, I'm the better navigator. Kate is the more patient driver.

Even now, when we do most of our navigating with our phones, Kate drives and I . . . well, I hold the phone and echo the computerized voice when it says turn here.

2. I will choose a significant life experience over a job. I'm one of those people who's worried he'll be 80 years old and have regrets about not seeing this, not traveling there, not visiting that, not experiencing as much as I can. I've spoken with and read about too many elderly people whose biggest regrets in life are working too much or failing to travel. That won't be me, if I can help it.

For our trip to France in 1999, it was only when I threatened to quit my job that my boss relented and allowed me take the time to go. At that point, I was a mid-level staffer on Capitol Hill who had a total of 10 (!) vacation days for the year. Although Kate and I married in July, my boss wouldn't let me go until the Congressional recess in August. Even then, I had to work a few Saturdays and take some days without pay; he threw in a handful of extra vacation days to keep the peace.

Since then, I have negotiated start and end times of jobs to allow for travel, worked weekends and holidays to accumulate extra days, and never been afraid to ask for a chunk of time for a trip. Most significantly, of course, I gave up my job to move to Scotland to follow my wife for her new job.

2.a. Negotiate, hoard, and then use vacation time to its fullest.

3. The longer we can go, the better. I'm happy to take a weekend trip. A week is a lot better. But our favorite trips last even longer. As eager and excited as I am to travel, it nevertheless takes a few days to really settle into a traveling groove, release the job or pre-trip stress, and feel like I have truly left home. More importantly, I want enough time to feel like I've actually experienced the local culture and norms. I don't want to dash in and out of a city, and especially not a country. I want to be immersed. When the new country's quirks and customs start to feel normal, when the new language goes from indecipherable to slightly manageable, when it feels weird to go back home, that's when travel really grips me. Give me two weeks, three, four, or even more.

Am I someone who could handle long-term travel or a round-the-world trip? Absolutely. I may never get the chance to do so, given the practicalities of jobs and a child and all the normal excuses. {Ed.'s note: Watch out for geezer Brian in his retirement, though!} But I daydream about it, wondering if it'll ever happen.

View from the Dordogne River of the medieval Ch√Ęteau de Castelnaud.


  1. We are going to get our passports soon, dammit!

    1. Finally. Scotland is calling... (Or maybe that's just me!)

  2. France in September for two weeks!! I greatly admire you and what you have chosen to do to enjoy every second of your life!