I love, love, love to travel. Many of you on the East Coast, being good, cosmopolitan blue-staters, probably do too, taking advantage of your great fares to Europe (be jealous, America). In the West, Los Angeles and my home city of San Francisco also are privileged with airfares that are probably far lower than anyone should expect, just because there's competition for the routes here.
I first visited Europe when I was five years old, when my parents took the family to live in England for a year. We lived in a tiny village in Essex, with one greengrocer, one butcher, one pub, and one church. We walked to school a few miles away, through a bucolic countryside of rolling, green hills, sometimes with a little dusting of snow. Our little church had great, mossy tombstones, leaning over so far that they might fall over, for Essex men and women of three hundred years ago or more. Our friends there made up ghost stories, with which to scare little five-year-old boys like me.
After that year, since we were already there, we traveled to France for a couple of weeks, then Italy, stopping in Belgium, Switzerland and Germany en route.
As a kid, I was fascinated and delighted by the fact that each country had its own different flag, and its own separate language. This was anchored in my memory by the beautiful, comforting countryside, and all the little hidebound villages with their half-timbered houses, and by the ocean near Ravenna in Italy, and by the hazelnut gelato. To this day, although I really can't stand all this stuff with hazelnut in it, I still love that gelato.
So there were elements in my enjoyment of travel including: 1) delicious gastronomic bits; 2) architecture we'd never see elsewhere; 3) mystical, freeing views of a countryside that seemed a conscious entity; 4) atmosphere, and what the hoteliers love to refer to as Character and Charm.
But most of all, I felt something that I've never quite felt since: Home.
There were other things. Music. In England, I heard the Beatles' Hey Jude for the first time, playing in a little shop on their radio. I remember the young woman behind the counter, grinning as she watched the cute kid going into a trance to the music. The lyrics, "don't make it bad/take a sad song, and make it better," became my motto, in the years that followed. My father bought a new VW camper bus, and drove it across the continent. On the little AM radio that came with the bus, we heard the Moody Blues' Tuesday Afternoon, as we drove across Germany. We drove along wooded highways hearing "the trees are drawing me near/I've got to find out why." Later, when I was grown, it seemed that every trip I took had some piece of music I associated with the trip: a drive through the English countryside again here; or the blue ocean of the south of France; or going to a concert in Berlin, and seeing the Soviet Kitsch-cum-Klezmer Cabaret band of Slavic Berlin transplants known as Rotfront, bringing the house down with their cheerful riot and disorder.
The cuisine continued to be important; a hot chocolate a l'ancienne in Angelina's tearoom in Paris provides two cups of luscious, molten chocolate to mix with cream; I learned from the French how to take just a bit more time, and give more attention, to the scent of the food, to the feel of it, and to the taste of it. The enjoyment of French cuisine is paramount; you get there simply by learning to pay attention to it. Drink it in; scent the food; pay attention to it. In the little hilltop town of Domme, in the region of the Dordogne, I had perhaps the best meal of my entire life. A perfect truffle and cream soup; tender filet mignon; a wine that flowed as smoothly and richly as the hot chocolate in Paris; the dessert, a perfectly spiced cinnamon and vanilla mousse. All during the dinner, a literally gorgeous view of the deep, green valley, far below, with the cows that had given us the cream for the soup enjoying a bit of grass, as what the photographers call the sun's "God Rays" shone over them. By the Popes' Palace in Avignon, I had a meal so good that I ordered two desserts, because I knew they'd be incredible; the chocolate soup (yeah, I know, right? Chocolate Soup?) was so great, that when I came back to Paris and saw chocolate soup on the menu in a restaurant there, I had to order that as one of two desserts there, too.
These were only the second-best memories from those trips, though; the best were the free things, no joke. Going down the block from Angelina's after the hot chocolate, I watched the sun set over the statues in the Place de la Concorde. Touristy? No--my moment. Even in my own hometown of San Francisco, I have for decades gone each week to some of the most heavily touristed areas of town, the Golden Gate Bridge, or Ghirardelli Square. Much as I loathe being herded around in some tour, among people who hardly seem to care about or even notice what the tour guide is ordering them to observe, I will happily go to a tourist site like the Boulevard St.-Michel, near Notre Dame, and did so often, taking in the excitement. After that sunset in the Place de la Concorde, I returned there every day for weeks for the sunset, until the end of my trip. In Berlin, there were different thrills for a different city--in a place with less interesting restaurants, the music was the thing. The Rotfront concert was followed by the best opera I've ever seen, Aida and the Barber of Seville, by the Deutsche Staatsoper on the Unter den Linden. Tickets were ten dollars, for the most transporting opera performances I've ever seen. Hiking through the woods that ring Berlin, and jumping into the lakes as the sunlight played on the water, I felt perfectly at peace.
Sights, sounds, tastes; it's all there. We drink it in. And there are other free things that formed the best memories of the trips, which were, of course, the people. The kind, cheerful people of Domme, directing me to the Esplanade, and welcoming me there with a smile, were just like so many people that I met all over Europe, and in Turkey and Egypt.
The history: Turkey's mosques, by the great architect Sinan, make up some of the world's own patrimony. Their tiles, with their flowers seeming to grow as you look at them, are the subject of intense rivalries between Turkey's main tile producers in Iznik and Kutahya. The Byzantine Empire's ruins are more rarely seen, but remain in the imposing Aya Sofya (Haghia Sophia), and the ancient church of St. Savior in Chora, with its painted frescoes of Jesus's Harrowing of Hell. In Pamukkale, I took another bathe, playing footsie with Roman columns that had fallen there long ago, and walking in the old Roman ruins. In England and France, I saw megaliths put in place in the Stone Age, thousands of years ago, and in Spain, I walked the Pilgrim's Trail, joining an 800-year-old fraternity of walkers seeking spiritual fulfillment and communion, revelations about their relationship with their fellow human beings, or just some introspection.
But why do I travel? Why do you travel? I know somehow that it gives me something that I don't get elsewhere. But I can't explain it. What is that something? It has a lot to do with the peculiarities of the country: you don't find food finer than France's, or views more beautiful than the Italian coasts', or deeper experiences than going through a misty, ancient oak forest in England or Spain, to see some place in which the Celts once held their rituals. It has a lot to do with the people. I need to interact with them, to watch the ways they're different, and to delight in feeling friendship or love for them all the same. It has a lot to do with trying to find that feeling of being Home. But I can't quite explain it. I know I must travel. I know it brings me something.
Why do you travel?