When are you leaving for New Zealand?” a friend asked me three weeks after I told him I would go there the next month.
“I’m not,” I replied. “I changed my mind and decided I’d rather see Japan.” I left five days later by myself for Tokyo. On a whim, I’d tossed my New Zealand brochures, quickly researched Japan, bought a cheap ticket, and arranged to sleep the first few nights there on the spare futon of a friend’s family. After that, I wasn’t sure.
I was young, and I traveled by intuition and circumstance. Maybe I had a few contact numbers in my destination country, but mostly I relied on my wits and chance; serendipity was my traveling companion. I slept on couches with host families through international friendship clubs and dropped in at youth hostels. I loved the thrill of the unknown.
Now, “Reservations Please,” is my travel mantra. I book accommodations well in advance at high quality inns. I like chocolates on soft pillowcases, scented soaps and maid service. After all, I can see an unmade bed and towels on the floor back home. You nod your head with recognition: sure, now she earns more and can afford all this.
It’s not just about money. It’s about knowing myself.
My old style of travel was a process of self-discovery. On the road, I relied on my inner resources. My ingenuity and core values were signposts guiding me in any given situation.
My family and degrees held no influence. When being friendly got me invited to dinner with the Cambridge Rugby Team or to spend a week at a family’s farm in Provence, then I had concrete evidence of my impact on the world and a measure of myself.
At a time when I yearned to be my own person, travel also let me cut loose from how my parents and co-workers knew me. I grabbed onto opportunities to stray from my norm.
I had an affair in Martinique with my windsurfing instructor, stayed up all night with street musicians in London, and I went from my youth hostel straight to dinner at the ultra elegant Hotel Crillon in Paris. I wore wrinkled wrinkle-free clothes plucked straight from my backpack, and a sheik sat at an adjacent table. I returned from my trips with a backpack of dirty laundry, a new sense of self and a lifetime of memories.
Now older and seasoned, I know who I am. When I travel, I don’t want to test myself; I want to be nurtured, entertained or educated and return home as a rejuvenated version of the self that left. If some self-knowledge is encountered, great, but it’s not the trip’s goal.
No longer wanting to define myself, I now prefer sharing travel with a companion other than chance. Aging is part of this. Most solo travelers are young and want to measure and discover themselves with new experiences, just as I did.
For them, not knowing with whom they’ll next share a conversation is exciting, but at my middle age, it gives me more anxiety than delight. Today the only thing I might measure on vacation is the calories in a second brioche.
Currently planning a trip to England with a friend, we booked a lovely hotel in the Cotswolds near walking trails, picturesque villages and a famous garden.
“My ex-husband and I traveled through England in our early 20s,” my friend said. “I remember joking about older people who tour the gardens.”
We laughed at this. With time, our tastes have changed. Where once we focused on pubs, now it is on shrubs, and I am fine with it. Serendipity can still turn our daily plans on end and lead us down some unknown path of discovery. It’s just more fun now to experience such moments, knowing I can talk them over with a loved one that evening while enjoying a delicious meal, and dream about it in a warm bed—one I’ve reserved.