Painterly bird’s-eye view of a streetscape in Paris. The viewer’s attention is drawn to a man leaning out the slightly opened back door of a taxicab, his head down, apparently sick.
BACK: “Guess I don’t have a stomach for this fancy French food. Meet me at the airport with a cheeseburger.”
FRONT: A small tour van in Guatemala returning from the Tikal ruins is stuck knee-deep in mud, its wheels spinning thick wet globs into the faces of the passengers, who, at 45-degree angles, are pushing the back of the van in a torrential downpour.
BACK: “The second guy on the left? The one with mud all in his face? The one with the 103-degree fever and a brain-splitting sinus infection? That’s right: me. Wish you were here, not me.”
FRONT: GPS-device-like rendering of a car on a narrow road amid a vast field, no apparent destination in sight.
BACK: “Where the heck are we? I have no idea. She said, ‘I think we turn left up here.’ I said, ‘You sure?’ She said, ‘I think so.’ I think we’re no longer in Chicago.”
IF MY TRAVEL MEMORIES were postcards, they’d come with a warning: Caution: Things in your rearview mirror may be something other than what you expected.
Take our autumn honeymoon in New England, for instance. We had looked forward to a romantic stay in Vermont at a quaint B&B where the owners were genteel, the decorations Victorian, and the food grandmotherly. Instead, we happened upon one run by a hugely fat, T-shirt-wearing, bewhiskered man who all but trapped us in his kitchen and forced us to listen to stories of the mangled bodies in Boston’s “combat zone,” where he had recently worked as a driver for an emergency medical vehicle. Then he menacingly demanded that we stay and “party” with his girlfriend, who ultimately showed up tableside fresh from a shower in nothing more than a towel.
Managing, against his protestations, to inch our way to the door, we all but ran down the idyllic Vermont hill. We sat inside our car, hearts pounding with vague fears, mine involving a scene in a dank basement and an earlier New England tradition: stocks.
“Do you feel like we just escaped something?” I asked my new bride.
“Yes” was all she could muster.
I turned the key and we drove into the New England fall.
In the syrupy mid-1970s movie The Way We Were, the famous words to its tear-jerking love song went something like: “Memories. Misty watercolor memories … of the way we were.”
Watercolor? Travel memories, to me, are more like glinting shards of broken glass. They are made of the stuff you don’t expect, the stuff you probably wouldn’t want, but the stuff you come across and fashion into your own.
When bad travel happens to good people, the result is oftentimes the best stories.
PUKING IN PARIS, vamoosing from Vermont — before embarking on those trips, these were not the sort of mental postcards I imagined I would keep.
But I realize I like it that way.
Picture-perfect travel? Bor-ing. Who wants to sit through the PowerPoint presentation of unruffled waters and blue skies? Show me the part about the dropped paddle and the waterfall ahead.
In her famous collection of poems Questions of Travel, Elizabeth Bishop asks, “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?”
Answer: of course not.
A friend of mine told me the story of the three things she had intended to do in Paris, which she’d saved, for maximum effect, for the last day of her trip. However, it turned out that her last day fell on an obscure national holiday. Everything was closed, even the restaurant bar on top of the department store she longed to visit. She thought, Well, we can at least go to the Eiffel Tower. But when she and her friends arrived, it started raining. So they couldn’t even do that. The photo in her mind that she recalls is of the group of them dancing on the plaza in front of the Eiffel Tower in the rain, embracing everything that went wrong and having a story to tell about it.
Sometimes the worst experiences are also the most memorable.
If past is prologue, then I want to be in the postcards they don’t make — the ones where the skies are rainy, the water rough, the traffic clogged.
FRONT: Drawing of a parent on the steps of the Naples train station throwing his arms up to the heavens in exasperation as his three-year-old son watches. The winter coat the child refuses to wear despite bone-chilling temperatures is at his feet.
BACK: “What is it with kids and coats? I don’t get it. Building communication, one argument at a time. By the way, the Santa Clauses over here all smoke cigarettes. And we love the pizza. Bella Italia!”