It was on one of those hectic “if it’s Tuesday this must be Austria” vacations several years ago that I had my Oprah-style “ah ha” moment.
I realized that there are vacations, and there is travel. A vacation is two weeks on the beach in Maui in vegged-out bliss. Travel is a three-week, country-hopping romp across Europe where the unexpected can happen. The beach is easy and renews the body. Travel is tiring, but feeds the soul.
I like them both, but as long as the body and the bank account hold out, we concentrate on the travel part.
My wife and I, both well into Social Security, aim to keep moving independently as long as we can.
She has a natural curiosity about things, an open mind and sense of wanderlust matched by terrific organizational skills. When I was travel editor at The Herald (one of many hats), I itched to do what all those travel writers were doing. Retirement made it possible.
I’m not talking about exotic, camping across Central Asia adventures (although my wife has backpacked in Nepal), but standard-issue travel here and abroad, maybe three trips a year with some easy stuff in between.
I don’t get the “bucket list” approach to travel, the goal being to check off as many places as you can before you kick it. Seems like a waste of time and money. Rather, we plan each trip with care and focus on what we can see and do given the restraints of time, money and how the old joints are feeling.
Even at our most bone-tired moments, we are grateful for our good fortune, knowing that travel has enriched us, made us different people, smarter and more tolerant.
A friend told me that if you quit traveling as you age, you become afraid. She’s right. The day we visited St. Petersburg was the 300th anniversary of the city’s founding. We quickly became engulfed by tens of thousands of people surging through the streets in a huge parade (we’re talking Russian rappers on floats, bands in the square and vodka).
Our group became separated and we were lost in the crowd, but rather than panic (my default mode), I felt exhilaration, swept up in a vast, imperial city and its people.
We have overcome our reluctance to ask for help. In Harlem, Netherlands, we were hopelessly lost and for the umpteenth time unfolded the map and turned it this way and that. A man in a suit and hat saw us fumbling, approached and said, in perfect English, “You can ask. We are not going to beat you.”
We are savvier. My tip for navigating the subway system in a strange city: Stand in front of the ticket machine and look like you are going to cry, or maybe cry. Someone will help.
In central London, it seems we are always the oldest people on the street, and usually the oldest travelers on the Underground.
I am pretty certain that 5 percent of the younger population will take pity on you and offer you a seat, and I count on that. If you need it, take it. My response is, “Thank you so much, but I want to keep doing this as long as I can.”
Travel has made me less judgmental and more open. My first response was always, “I wouldn’t want to live here.”
How dumb. I don’t have to live there, and that’s not the point. I used to be the guy who had made up his mind about everything. Would you like to hear about it? Like anyone cares.
While naturally cautious, I enjoy travel more if I loosen up a bit, leave the judgments at home, stay in the moment and try to learn from every experience.
There’s the good stuff: When we were way short of cash in Copenhagen and embarrassed, the kind restaurant staff made us two lunches for the price of one. And the bad: Stay away from the spinach in Buenos Aires and practice saying “No comprende” to the taxi drivers. Say it loud and often.
We’ve been overwhelmed many times. In Paris in the heat of summer, the crowds and the language so threw us that we ate at McDonalds on the Champs-Elysees. What a waste.
On a bus ride on that trip, we knew a strike had started when the driver turned off the engine in the middle of the street. The driver got off and so did we.
We’ve boarded the wrong train, waited for a bus that never came and a missed a tour we had paid for because we blew it.
That’s why I count on the unexpected.
In Athens at night, we wandered into a restaurant on a dark street where no one spoke English and found ourselves the only non-members of a huge wedding party. Music, food and laughter flowed. They seated us, served a wonderful meal and we lingered, toasting the happy couple. In Greece, they know how to party.
Mike Murray is a former arts and entertainment editor and writer for The Herald, who retired to travel and ride his bike.