Travel Lessons

Once again, this summer, I’m recovering from jet lag. I’ve done a lot of traveling . . .

This time, I traveled with my daughter to Los Angeles and San Francisco to visit family. Travel is always a disruption, no matter how good you are at it, and I pride myself on being pretty good. I can sleep in airports if I need to . . . But it’s also always worth it, and I particularly wanted to travel with my daughter, so we could learn together the sorts of things that travel teaches you.

I wanted to go out there in part to see an old friend of mine: the Pacific Ocean. Years ago, during a particularly tumultuous period in my life, I had gone out to Los Angeles to take care of my grandmother, who was living in a house by the beach. Every day, I would walk down to the ocean, and we would have a talk, the ocean and I. It’s a very soothing sort of ocean, more so than the Atlantic, although I’m not sure why. Perhaps because it’s larger, and calmer, and seems older. It’s a very sensible ocean, and puts your problems into perspective.

So of course the first thing I did when I woke up, my first morning in Los Angeles, was go down to see the Pacific.

Dora at Pacific 2


The sensation of salt water on your feet never gets old, does it? And then, of course, I introduced my daughter to an ocean she had never met before: Ophelia, meet the Pacific Ocean. Pacific, meet my daughter Ophelia. They both bowed politely . . .

So what sorts of lessons can one learn from traveling, anyway?

1. Changing your location can change your perspective.

Being on a different coast, beside a different ocean, can change the way you see the world or your own life, your self. I don’t know who said “Wherever you go, there you are,” but it’s not quite true: the self there may not be the same as the self here. Traveling places changes us. The self is not such a solid, constant, reliable thing that it’s unchanged by location, distance.

I think that’s a wonderful thing, really. If we can see things differently and anew, that means we can change. And we can change our circumstances as well. We are not stuck in one place. Travel involves a kind of optimism: going someplace will be worthwhile, perhaps because it will be interesting or beautiful, perhaps simply because it will be different.

In Los Angeles, we went to the Getty Villa, which has a collection of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities. My daughter had read the Rick Riordan books, so she knew all the old gods and goddesses, both by their Greek and Roman names. It was lovely to see a ten-year-old wandering around a museum where she felt completely at home, although she did ask me at one point, somewhat exasperated, if we would ever get to the end of the naked people. No, I told her, because the Greeks and Romans thought the human body was beautiful. Which was met with a typical ten-year-old eye-roll.

The nice thing about the Getty is that the villa is built like a Roman house, with inner courtyards. It’s lovely to wander around under a blue sky, in the cool coastal air.

Getty 1

Getty 2

2. You must see what you can, when you can see it. In other words, carpe diem, because you’re only passing through.

We weren’t in Los Angeles for that long, so we had to decide what we wanted to see. The Getty Villa of course, and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, which has a wonderful collection of dinosaur fossils. I wish we could have gone to the Huntington Botanical Gardens, but there simply wasn’t time. And then we were on to San Francisco, where we went to an exhibit of skulls at the California Academy of Sciences and had tea at the Japanese Garden. The skulls were for Ophelia, the tea and garden were for me.

Garden 3

Garden 12

Again, there simply wasn’t enough time to see everything we wanted to in San Francisco. But we did the most important things, which were spend time with my brother, who introduced Ophelia to Speed Racer, and get a sense for one of the great cities of the world. I hope we can go back . . .

Life is like traveling, of course. (You knew this was a metaphor, right?) You’re passing through, and you don’t know how long you’re going to be here, so see what you can while you have the time. And do what you can, which brings me to the third lesson:

3. Experiences are more important than things.

There’s something refreshing about living out of a suitcase. You realize how little you actually need . . . We traveled with one suitcase between us, with our clothes and toiletries, and a carry-on bag each for our laptops, books, whatever we would need on planes. Whatever we could not replace or do without. Don’t get me wrong, I love my closet full of clothes, but I know that I don’t need them. And although I would not give up my pretty china, I can live very well, comfortably and even elegantly, with a mug, bowl, and plate, as I did for a month in Hungary.

Doing is more important than having. In California, we walked on the beach, watching the sandpipers running back and forth. We ate inordinate amounts of ice cream. We ate crickets. (No, really, we ate crickets. They were sold in packets at the Natural History Museum, and Ophelia wanted to try them, and then of course I had to try as well. Because I couldn’t let her be the only one to eat crickets, could I? I would never live that down.) Back in Los Angeles after our trip to San Francisco, we got henna tattoos to commemorate our trip: a butterfly for me, a dragon for her. Our last day in Los Angeles, we wrote our names on the sand, knowing they would disappear, as the henna tattoos will in a couple of weeks (although right now they are still there, brown designs on our arms.)

It’s the things we do that we remember the most.

Henna Tattoos

Name on Sand 2

4. It’s good to come home.

Home isn’t a place you have. It’s a place you make. It’s good to make a home, and then travel away from it, and then come back to it. I write this sitting at the desk in my bedroom, which still needs work: shelves I need to buy and refinish, bed curtains that need to be put up. I moved into this apartment two months ago, and I’m not done decorating. But already it’s starting to feel like home, like a place I can wrap around myself on winter nights. It’s bright and cozy, and it makes me happy to be back.

So my advice to all you travelers, because you are all travelers, on this planet that is itself traveling through space, is: create a home, and then travel away from it so you can change and return, change and return. That’s what the waves do, and that’s what we have to do, because all life moves in cycles, and so should we. As though we were dancing . . .

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9 Responses to Travel Lessons

  1. Barry Allen says:

    Did you go for a swim? Would have been a good opportunity to don a bikini πŸ™‚

  2. ah–I who travel little due to constraints of the cash kind, just loved this beautifully crafted piece…every inch and image of it. Delicious, delightful, efficient, expansive, wise, kind, touching and really refreshing. What a lovely read to start September with Theadora. It occurs to me that your ten year old Ophelia might just love this series (at seventy one I am loving it)–the 11 year old narrator is a wonder of intelligence – Well you decide for yourselves—1. Alan Bradley–The utterly delightful first of the
    Flavia De Luce Series–

  3. I am a terrible traveler, getting so nervous before and during. Well, that’s travel by plane. Road trips are a whole other matter. I love those! But I also love reading blog posts like this written by people who are good at it and who visit places I may never see. Then I can travel vicariously and ponder the possibility of going there too. That maybe a bit of fear and uncertainty of being out of my element and having to deal with car rental and hotels and unfamiliar roads is part of the draw.

  4. “Home isn’t a place you have. It’s a place you make.”

    I’ve been having similar thoughts too, but felt it wasn’t right somehow. So once again, you’ve written a blog post after my own heart. Thank you!

  5. So glad you and Ophelia came to San Francisco. Living here is endless joy. I will
    never see every street or amazing surprise. I used to live close to Golden Gate Park
    when my three children were, well, children. We invaded the old museums which
    were free then. We saw puppet shows and both planned and unplanned concerts.
    We have excellent thrift stores and poetry readings and you never know what you
    will find on the endless paths and steps. Wish I could go to Sutro Park, and look at
    the ocean more. A lot of history I have here, now. My second best place to go now
    is Manhattan!

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