Updated: Feb 25
Last March, when the seriousness of Covid-19 hit home, I found myself wondering when I might be able to travel again. On dark winter days when the desire to get away seemed at its worst, I'd take virtual train trips on my computer and dream of being somewhere in the Swiss Alps or the Scottish Highlands. It was soothing watching snow swirling from the warmth of my imaginary club car while listening to the clack, clack, clack of the wheels on the tracks.
Trains run in my blood. My family on my father's side are all railway children. My grandfather was an engineer, and by virtue of his occupation, all five Wadley boys grew up obsessed with trains. While most people will do everything possible to avoid the inconvenience of waiting at a level crossing, my family would go out of their way to watch a good old Canadian Pacific cargo train go whizzing by. With all the cheering and hollering, you'd think it was a rock concert the way they'd go on. When my cousin, Brian, was born, I remember painting "It's a boy!" on a sign and waiting at a railway crossing for my grandfather to pass. We all clapped as he blew the whistle in an exuberant sign of acknowledgment.
Train travel has always seemed glamourous to me. Airplanes make me anxious. Bus travel is just a cry for help. I travelled across Canada on a Greyhound once and ended up with impetigo. Enough said.
At certain points in our lives, wanderlust claims us, probably more so when told we can't have it. A recent poll by Trivago claimed that 38% of Americans would give up sex for a year to travel again, and it was 40% for Brits. One in five would dump their significant other for a chance to feed their wanderlust, and nearly half of Americans said they'd give up their jobs. What is it about travelling that appeals to human beings so much? What is it about our lives that makes us need to get away? I live in a tourist town, and at a certain point, I cannot for the life of me understand why people would want to cram themselves into whirlpool boats and eat overpriced burgers. Everywhere I look, I see unhappy couples complaining about weather or money or directions. High expectations of a few weeks or even a few days away seem to turn ordinarily nice people into the worst possible versions of themselves. Spending absorbent amounts of hard-earned cash manages to give people the impression that the world must bend to their will. When it doesn't – as I witnessed a few summers ago in Rome and Venice where the locals have quite rightly had enough – the wayfarer becomes petulant and depressed.
"What do you mean I can't sit on the Spanish Steps?" "Why can't I take a photograph of the Sistine Chapel?" "What's so fucking special about Trevi Fountain that I can't park myself on the edge for a little rest and a selfie?" I don't think the French are rude. I think the tourists are, and the French are just reacting to the sense of entitlement almost all tourists have regardless of race, creed or sex.
When I was little, vacations were a normal part of life. The long drive to Florida was an essential part of our family routine, even though I have no idea how we ever afforded it. By the time we set off, the car looked like it belonged to the Joad's in the Grapes of Wrath; the car tires weighted down with everything imaginable- luggage, lawn chairs, fishing gear, hibachi, cameras, maps, books, inflatable donuts. Given the fact that my parents didn't really get along, and my brother and I didn't either, the idea of the four of us inside 100 square feet of tin and steel seems positively insane to me now. Yet, spirits buoyed up by the possibility of adventure, we set forth.
These road trips were not merely a means to an end. Oh, no. In the case of my family, every museum, historical home, plaque, and shrine on the 2,273 Km journey needed to be visited. By the time I was ten, I had the great pleasure of witnessing a good many haunted houses and lost many a night's sleep over portraits of creepy colonialists. Like a National Lampoon movie, things always started out well. We'd play games and sing along to the radio as we coursed down good old 1-95S. But somewhere around North Carolina, familiarity would breed contempt. My Mother, the queen of a good sulk, having been persuaded by my father that the ugly straw hat for sale at the roadside kiosk was a waste of money, now regretted his sense of practicality and stared stone-faced at the ribbon of highway ahead. It wasn't about the hat, per se, but what the hat represented, and my father was surely going to ruin her fun. My father, now determined to just "get there," thought it best to dismiss one of my brother's suggested roadside attractions, which only made him grumble in the seat beside me. And I was too anxious to break the tension by asking if we could stop at the next Stuckey's because I desperately had to pee. Only 1,075 Km to go.
The truth is, I barely remember any of my family vacations, having blocked them from my memory like one who has survived a traumatic event. I have a vague recollection of sitting by pools and walking along beaches. There's a strong image in my head of a glass-bottom boat ride in the Florida Keys, and I think I saw Colonel Saunders at a cafeteria, but when I asked for his autograph, he signed it Colonel Welcome. The only vacation I really remember was a trip to Washington D.C., where walking down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I had an anxiety attack at the age of seven and was convinced I was going to die. Looking back on it now, I'm pretty sure I was overwhelmed by the human brain I'd seen under glass at the Smithsonian. "How can that spaghetti sponge be inside my head?" I asked.
My parents, assuming we could handle everything, never thought to censor us from anything.
"I don't know," my Mother was likely to answer, "Ask God."
It was like discovering all human beings consisted of worms.
As I got older, I found myself going on fewer and fewer vacations. Instead of travelling anywhere, I simply moved. New York, Los Angeles, Vancouver – It was so much easier to set down roots than go on a vacation.
All of this changed when I married my first husband, who was a renowned globetrotter. He swam with pilot whales in the red sea, floated down the Nile on a felucca, and lived with Bedouins in Farafra. "Let's go to the beach!" he'd suggest, and being a good sport, I'd cover myself up from head to toe like a hotdog in a bun. Being Egyptian, he lived for the sun. It never occurred to him that I was built for rainy weather and fog. For some reason, I cannot fathom, he persuaded me to go to Isle St. Madeleine with him one summer in our broken-down old station wagon with a large Labrador retriever. The plan was to save money by sleeping in the car: him, me and the dog. We showered at rest stops and a few trailer parks (one, in particular, felt like it was the movie set for a horror movie) and slept one night in the car parked on a side street in Boston where I was confident we would either be arrested or killed.
"Why can't you go with the flow?" he'd complain as I sat shivering in the front seat. (Did I mention it was September?)
I understand the idea behind vacations. The pull to get away and do something different. The need to go someplace warm when, like me, you live in a frigid climate. And I think that travelling with a loved one is supposed to create memories that last. Memories captured in photographs that eventually make it to a scrapbook. One winter night, while sipping cocoa, you and your partner peruse the pages and muse about that time you went to some cool place and did all those cool things. My music collaborator and his wife, Tringa, seem to have the perfect relationship for travel. In their Facebook and Instagram pictures they look like a perfect couple; rested and coiffed, happy and content. You can practically feel the sun on their faces and the wind in their hair. A photo of my current husband and I travelling would more likely show us six feet apart, a scowl on my face and a grimace on his. My hair would look like a brillo pad, he’d have bags under his eyes and instead of rest and relaxation we’d exude stress and exhaustion.
We have only been on two vacations together (neither of them being the honeymoon we never had). Both times we drove to Nantucket and spent more money than we could afford, wandering through cobblestone streets and dreaming of whales. I've no idea why I love Nantucket. It's actually a lot like the place I live. It's historical and quaint, surrounded by water and overpriced restaurants. I'm swayed by the idea of curling up in an Inn with a good book uninterrupted by my usual daily routine. What I never account for are "other" tourists. The people you have to share your vacation with. The woman who eats breakfast in her bare feet. The minister and his wife who condescend to everyone around them. The two couples who meet in the hallway outside your door every morning to loudly discuss their itinerary. By day three, the holiday starts to lose its lustre and the $17 crab cake, to be honest, tastes a lot like President's Choice.
It's a phenomenon to me that on the two occasions we've travelled, my husband and I have fought like Bobcats. Once I got us so lost trying to find a beach, I ended up with feet too blistered to walk on and he had to piggyback me home.
On our last holiday, I picked a fight over a piece of fruit. Just before we entered the Whaling Museum, I threw a hissy fit.
"I thought we were going to eat after the museum," I said accusingly.
"It's just an apple," He said defensively, throwing the core into a trash receptacle.
"And…?" I asked. "It will still affect your appetite, and then you'll want something small."
"An apple is not a meal," He tried to explain, "Besides, when have you ever known me to be full?"
He had a point, but I was in too deep. The next thing I knew, every flaw was being categorized, and we were hell-bent on getting a divorce. Walking home, it suddenly dawned on me… I'd become my Mother! Oh my God! Mea culpa! I had three days left on our vacation to make amends. If piggybacking him would have made things better, I would have done it. On the last morning, as we stood on the deck of the Ferry headed back to the mainland, we both threw pennies over the side of the boat; legend has it that when you leave Nantucket and 'round Brant Point, this will guarantee your return! Suddenly it was as though we'd had the time of our lives. Everything bad is forgotten, the way you forget about the pain of a broken heart the moment you meet someone new.
Now, more than a year later, as we prepare to board the Glacial Express and an 8-hour virtual train ride from Zermatt to St. Moritz, I sigh, "It feels like we've been stuck inside forever. I miss travelling."
And Kevin is quick to reply "Me too."