Thursday, April 5, 2012

The world traveler

I've been around the world in a plane. I've settled revolutions in Spain. I've listened to Ella Fitzgerald a little too much.

But that's not the point of this blog.

A whole new world, a dazzling place I never knew. But when I'm way up here, it's crystal clear that I've watched Aladdin more times than I can count.

But that's not the point of this blog.

The point of this blog is London Calling. It's Paris, je t'aime. It's New York, New York. It's Tokyo that doesn't have any well-known quotable song or movie titles I can use to remind my audience that I'm socially relevant.

I've been a traveler all my life - albeit not a great one, but a traveler nonetheless. And I love it even when I'm the worst at it.

Little me, Mommy and Disney.
My first travel experience was when I was a year old. Maybe even less than a year. I was traveling to Orlando with my grandma and my mom to experience Disney World for the first - and second to last - time. I have always been a Disney kid. Living a 15 minute drive from the Disneyland Resort, it was part of natural Orange County childhood protocol to ask your friends what their favorite rides were at the park. In elementary school we were limited to the carousel and other Fantasyland rides.

And at one year old I was limited to pushing my own stroller and jumping around in the pool as my diaper filled with water and fell to my knees. We stayed at one of the resort hotels, went to several of the parks including a Typhoon Lagoon. It was excellent. And I remember none of it.

I have this problem with children going on extravagant vacations. While my mother had the best intentions of giving me a grand childhood memory, I absolutely have no recollection of going to Disney World until I returned back once I was nine. It makes me sad because it had been such a thoroughly well-planned and enjoyable vacation - or that's what I've been told.

The unmemorable vacations continued on through my young childhood. At three I went to Hawaii for the first and only time of my life. Of that entire vacation, equipped with hulu dancers, fire breathers endless afternoons on the beach and the beginning of the chicken pox that would lead to the two scars on my forehead, I only have one memory. It's about a two-second playout in my head. I'm walking past a bunch of picnic tables and nothing happens. Nothing happens. A couple of weeks in Hawaii and all I remember is walking.

To me this is tragic.

Since three I've been to quite a few other places, to different continents even, but the idea that the first and only time I've ever been to Hawaii is encapsulated by a stupid little mental image of me walking around by the beach near tables makes me incredibly sad.

I think the right age to start traveling is around five to seven years old. Before then you're - or at least I was - absolutely incoherent half the time. What's the point of going anywhere when all you remember is a few seconds of walking around?

My first grand vacation was to Paris when I was seven. The trip was in the planning stages for a few months. When it finally came to fruition, I had memorized a few key phrases in French (i.e. "bonjour," "merci," "je m'appelle Rachel," and "où est la toilette?"). I went to Paris with my mother who had studied the language in high school and my grandmother who was good at pretending she was a regal French woman. The whole thing went swimmingly.

Except I was still a nuisance to travel with.

Each night of my trip to Paris, I could not get over my jet lag. My mom and my grandma switched me off between them, as I would choose to keep up whomever I was sleeping next to at least half the night. When we traveled around, I was a snarky little kid who would grab the video camera away from my mom and tug at my grandma's pant leg.

I have so many fond memories of Paris - going to the top of the Eiffel Tower, eating at a fast food joint called Quick, eating at McDonald's and getting a Snoopy (the character from Peanuts) toy with my happy meal. It wasn't just my meals that were happy - I was happy too.

But I don't doubt I was the worst person to travel with. I don't know what possessed my family to even take me - they should have left me at the airport with Lily Tomlin (whom I met at LAX before the trip to Paris - it was then that I learned that she voiced Miss Frizzle and subsequently had her sign my Pokémon chapter book, oh childhood).

I didn't go to Europe again until I was 14 and managed to convince my dad that it was worth all the trouble of planning an entire vacation to London scheduled around the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix premiere. At the time I was so enamored with HP culture that I was able to figure out a two week span in which the premiere would have to take place at the Odeon in Leicester Square. I became a master creep that year. And, it turns out, an okay traveler.

My dad is the best person to go on any vacation with. While he is definitely an unabashedly ridiculous map-toting tourist, he is also very laid back and willing to do absolutely anything. And in doing so, he becomes the best tour guide and the most willing chauffeur.

If I hadn't gone to London with my dad, I would not have had such a great time. I would not have learned what I did about the city. I would not have wanted to go back - like four times (hello, inside joke). I would not have figured out where I want to be for the rest of my life.

I would have still been a terrible traveler who feared seeing the world simply because I'd never felt I was really in it.

London for me was a place built from the ground up. Not literally, of course, but in how I conducted my own visit. My dad and I planned our trip for about a year. We looked through travel sites and Wikipedia, finding information on everywhere we'd ever possibly want to visit. We booked day trips and got underground passes. We planned everything to a tee. And it was an amazing vacation filled with all that a vacation should have.

So when I went to Japan a few years later with my grandma, I was well aware of what it was I loved about traveling. But I didn't quite get what I'd bargained for.

We visited family, landmarks and shopped like it was going out of style. In theory the vacation sounds like a blast, but it was accompanied by disagreements left and right. At one point we were standing in front of a train station talking about whether or not we should take a tour of the city of Kyoto. My grandma had already sat through one long English-speaking tour of Tokyo. She hated it. Despite living in America for 60 years, she still only speaks moderately good English and with the tour guide's affected accent, she could barely understand a word.

In Kyoto we had the choice of either an English or Japanese-speaking tour guide. With only a few years of Japanese under my belt - and half of that knowledge gone - I explained to her why I couldn't go on a Japanese tour. We argued and eventually she gave in. But for the remainder of our stay in Kyoto she was angry about how we had gotten into an argument in a public place - and perhaps even more about how she hadn't gotten her way.

Though I love my grandma, I realized during that trip that I just can't go anywhere with her. We butt heads so much that the vacation becomes less fun and more of a burden.

After Japan, I learned that traveling is only partially about where you go and what you do. The other, more important part, is who you're going with. I know very well that as a child I was a terrible travel partner. I made going out difficult, I terrorized my family who just wanted a full night's rest, I couldn't even remember half of what I'd seen.

I also know that because I have such a firm understanding of what it is that makes the perfect travel partner, I've learned to fill my ideal role. I've started to study maps, learn about places I'm going, scope out events and activities that go under the radar of traditional tourists.

And I've learned to minimize drama. I may have been an overzealous little kid who hadn't wrapped my head around the phrase Ugly American quite yet, but in a few years I figured out through personal experience how traveling can be made absolutely wonderful.

So I guess I have been around the world in a plane. And I have learned how to discover whole new worlds. Experience does a better traveler make.

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