One thing I have learned from traveling with my family is that I am really the only one in my family who wants to travel. How it took me twenty years of marriage to finally accept this is beyond me. It’s mainly because I am stubborn as hell. I know what I love, and I relentlessly hope that my loved ones will learn to love the same things.
I am also too afraid, or have been up to this point, to travel alone. Part of it is my general fear in life of being alone. Getting married at such a young age was not just for love—for me, it was the security I needed to face the difficulties of adulthood. I also imagined, naively at the time, that my newlywed husband and I would spend our twenties building our marriage while taking worldwide adventures, but after a few years of me begging him to go places with me and he adamantly refusing, I thought, well, we might as well have children now then.
Somehow (and I’m sure he hoped for this as well) I hoped that having children would make me more of a homebody. But the truth is, I was never much of a homebody. I can’t even wrap my head around people who go to the same lake or beach or mountain house every year as their solitary family vacation; the world is so big and beautiful—how could one stand to revisit the same old place?
Having children made me want to travel more. Wouldn’t they want to learn Spanish and live in Spain for a year? Wouldn’t they want to see where their Italian ancestors came from? Wouldn’t they like to visit all fifty states before adulthood? Wouldn’t they learn to love hiking through the redwoods, the Keys, the Smokies? Wouldn’t they follow in my footsteps and gasp at architectural phenomena so far from our backyard bricks that they would never want to come home?
We spent their early childhood on long road trips sleeping on couches in relatives’ homes. It was all we could afford on a teacher’s salary, and fortunately, I have relatives who live in some pretty exquisite places near mountains, beaches, rivers, and lakes. Midwestern America became our path to a summer’s dream, where we’d beat back Kansas winds and drive through the night to wake the next day under the shadow of the Smokies, the flow of the Hudson, the beating of Newport waves.
My children learned to sleep anywhere: in the backseats of cars, in playpens propped up in strange living rooms, on the floors of cheap motels, in one relative’s house after another, in each other’s arms, beds, couches. They learned how to pack their own bags by the time they were six, and carry them before they were eight, and set up a tent by nine.
But did they learn to love it? Did my husband, who thinks money should be scrimped and saved and put away for emergencies, wish he had spent his twenties traveling the world with me?
Here I am, halfway through my trek through Spain, and I know that all my children want to do, all they have really wanted to do since just a few days in, is get on a plane and head back to cuddle with their kitties, play Minecraft with their friends, and live a lazy, European-free summer at home.
In my attempt to brighten their journey, I planned only one small activity for each day and let them sleep in on almost every occasion. Lots of beach time. Swimming pools. Palaces. Castles. Farms. Funiculars. Museums and towers. Dreamlike archways and fairied forests. Blue-sky, hilly drives. The sun setting on the Atlantic.
I even invited one of their friends who, never a traveler herself, hated the journey more than anyone and made sure everyone knew it.
I am forty years old. I tried to plan the family vacation of my dreams only to realize my dreams are not the same as my family’s.
I took my top off on the beach for the first time the other day, partially because I spent most of my life trying to cover up this awful burn scar and I was tired of doing so, partially becase when I joked with my fifteen-year-old about doing it she said her boyfriend would never allow it just like my husband wouldn’t allow it when we were on our honeymoon in Cancun when I was twenty, and partially because I wanted to be free.
I wanted, for a moment, an hour, to try not to be the someone that my mother told me to be (“Don’t ever wear tank tops; don’t ever expose your scar.”), that my husband told me to be (“I just don’t want you doing that. It makes me uncomfortable.”), that my children told me to be (“You’re just crazy, Mama, everyone here knows you’re an American.”).
I wanted to be alone. I took my top off, I bathed in the sun. All week, I took long hikes through Pais Vasco where no one whined, no one told me it was too hot or too humid or too damn boring. I walked through the city this morning and had conversations in Spanish with passers by, with the cashier at the grocery store, with anyone I fucking wanted to talk to. I drove across Spain while my children occupied themselves on devices rather than drinking in the gorgeous views, and I thought…
This is it. It took me forty years and a whole hell of a lot of stubbornness, but I have finally learned to love what I love—the beach, the architecture, the hike, the view, the tapas, the language, the barra de pan, the motherfuckingly amazing olives—the journey—alone.
I may have been afraid before, but now that I’ve gone topless and everyone in San Sebastián has seen the scars of my youth, I can enter the next stage one bikini top, one hike, one drive, one trip at a time.
And I can do all of the research, read all of the books, type up all the itineraries, and plan every last penny for a solo, free, drink-it-all-up traveler.
I think this realization might be my best birthday present, even better than this trip across Spain.
Almost better than this trip across Spain.