I’ll Take the Road Less Traveled, But Only if There’s Good Food

Traveling is a little scary for me. Not in a debilitating sort of way, more in an anticipatory way. Like when you receive a present from a person who doesn’t know you very well. Presents are great, I love them, when you hand me a wrapped package chances are I am doing some pretty impressive internal acrobatics to stop myself from squealing: A present??? For meeeeeee? Because it could be a terrible present. Something I 100% do not want or need. And I need to temper that possibility by acting very calm and casual when you hand it over to me. That way, if I like it I can say: This is lovely. And if I don’t like it I can also say: This is lovely. And both responses will seem believable.

I don’t ever remember a time when I was told of our plans to travel, only the many times I was lied to.

When I travel I have a lot of expectations of the fun I will no doubt be having and that is thrilling and also stressful. I love exploring new places and looking at architecture and eating a particular place’s food that they’re known for. Traveling takes me outside my natural element which is my house, which is the only place I feel truly safe. You can’t accidentally leave the oven on when you leave the house if you never leave the house. It’s a terrible way of thinking and I know that, which is why I try to travel regularly. But the anticipation of a trip is still a bit scary and exciting.

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Nagoya is known for their chicken wings and they are so popular, this restaurant has two locations directly across the street from one another.

As a kid my enthusiasm for travel was so intense and so extreme, my family would lie to me. All of them, in cahoots, would keep the travel plans from me, the youngest and most excitable of our six person family. If they told me a trip was imminent, there would be a non-stop barrage of questions about when we were leaving, where were going, would there be sun or rain or snow and could I bring each and every one of my stuffed animals? To be clear, I don’t ever remember a time when I was told of our plans to travel, only the many times I was lied to.

I chose a couple of small thin books. A single pair of white socks. After some prompting from my brother, I reluctantly chose a pair of underpants. Underpants are not fun, they are practical.

Here’s how it would go. One sibling would be assigned to hang out with me and play make believe, my favorite game. As the youngest of four children and the most talkative, this was a hardship for each of my siblings, so I can only assume they drew straws to see who would be stuck with me. Once it was established that they were my play date for the afternoon, I would become downright giddy. I had not yet learned to temper my excitement so as to moderate my reactions and consequent disappointments. On one specific occasion I was told by my older brother we were going to pretend to go on a trip! This was a very fun game and we got out my tiny child-sized suitcase and picked out all the things I would want to have with me on the trip, the catch of course being these items needed to fit within a comically tiny suitcase.

I chose one stuffed animal that took up the entire case and decided to choose a much smaller one in order to cram more stuff in the case. I chose an old plastic swirly straw, a slinky, one of those Yes and No invisible ink pen books that required a magical pen to reveal the answers to the trivia questions and stupid jokes, even after we discovered the pen was dried out. I packed it anyway. I chose a couple of small thin books. A single pair of white socks. After some prompting from my brother, I reluctantly chose a pair of underpants. Underpants are not fun, they are practical.

I spent a good portion of my childhood making up card games and then crowning myself World Champion of Couch, a game which involved me placing the cards face down on the floor in a roughly couch shaped pattern and then turning them over to reveal I’d won.

All packed up, we made our way to the garage and the baby blue suburban my mother drove around Prairie Village, Kansas, her 5’3” body happy to be looking down on others for a change. We slid into the back seat and my brother pretended we were on the trip, barreling down the highway, on our way to somewhere fun. When that got boring, we went back inside, he made me a bologna sandwich and abandoned me for his recently acquired box of magic tricks. This was common. I spent a good portion of my childhood making up card games and then crowning myself World Champion of Couch, a game which involved me placing the cards face down on the floor in a roughly couch shaped pattern and then turning them over to reveal I’d won. Handily.

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Ramen in Montreal

 

That night, my dad piled all of us into the suburban. He told us we were all going out for ice cream. I asked several times why we weren’t going to the Baskin Robbins we normally went to and he told me this place was special. Moving cars were and continue to be my kryptonite, I need about 15 minutes of travel before I fall deep asleep. My family knows this about me and used it to their advantage. When I woke up, it was daylight, we were barely out of the state of Kansas. No ice cream? I asked. No. We’re going to New Mexico, you can have ice cream when we get there. I panicked for a minute when I realized I’d probably need more than one pair of underpants if we were going to New Mexico and my mother assured me she’d packed plenty.

As an adult, the anxiety manifests because of a fear of the unknown. I should be clear here that this is a type of anxiety for me that is on the edge of being uncomfortable. It is not so far to the edge that I can’t recognize it as excitement but it is far enough that it gives me the same symptoms as if I were in a full blown fight or flight scenario. Which seems cruel of my brain, but here we are.

We were in Montreal, which feels like France to a person who’s never been to France because the buildings are old and all the people speak French. But it’s also like France with training wheels because those same people typically say: Bonjour Hello, so you know you have options.

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When my husband, then boyfriend, took me out of the country for the first time, our first stop was a grocery store. We were in Montreal, which feels like France to a person who’s never been to France because the buildings are old and all the people speak French. But it’s also like France with training wheels because those same people typically say: Bonjour Hello, so you know you have options.

The grocery store was very similar to a grocery store you might find in a neighboring state which has vastly different liquor laws. I remember taking a friend from Ohio to the mega grocery slash drug store in Iowa City so we could buy cheap tequila to make margaritas and said friend being shocked we didn’t have to go to a state run liquor store. That same friend also asked why we didn’t just go to the drive thru liquor store and I said, that’s an option where you live?

The layout was similar, but the products were slightly different and we walked down each and every aisle inspecting crackers and cookies and strange brown sauces. Eventually we made our way to the candy aisle because my husband was in search of Pez dispensers he couldn’t find in the US. It was a comprehensive candy aisle and I was happy to see not only the British candy I loved buying at the British store in Cambridge, but also clear plastic containers of bulk gummy items.

We spent a while in that aisle, picking up containers and trying to translate the French to English with my paltry memory of high school French. I picked up a tall, quart sized container which looked to contain a thin boring looking cracker. I turned it around in my hand for awhile, trying to figure out what it was before looking at the top of the container where the sticker was. Host. Host. It sounded familiar. Host. I puzzled over it for a minute, trying to recall the advanced French I gave up on after year two when I switched my foreign language to Chinese. Host. Were these crackers called host because it’s what a host might serve you at a party? Suddenly it hit me.

When I arrived in Japan for a work trip late at night, groggy, jet lagged, I walked to the closest grocery store and wandered the aisles looking at the colorful fish and eels and squid wrapped in cellophane.

Host in French means host in English. This was a container of communion wafers. In the candy and fun snack aisle. Horrified, I quickly shoved the container back onto the shelf, grabbed the bag of sour gummy bears I’d crammed under my arm and rushed to the checkout. When she said bonjour, I said bonjour, when she continued the conversation in French, I nodded, gave her the bills, took my change and yelled merci and ran outside so I could succumb to full body laughter. To this day I am still upset with myself for freaking out and not buying the host crackers. They looked like a slightly larger version of those water crackers you’re supposed to eat with fancy cheese because they don’t taste like anything.

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Cellophane wrapped fish in a Nagoya grocery

We’ve taken to going to a grocery store in every place we visit. We made our cab driver stop at one on our way to our bed and breakfast in Bermuda, we made multiple stops to various groceries in London to make sure I had collected the widest variety of chocolate bars. When I arrived in Japan for a work trip late at night, groggy, jet lagged, I walked to the closest grocery store and wandered the aisles looking at the colorful fish and eels and squid wrapped in cellophane. I bought candy and Ritz crackers and peanut butter in order to save my per diem. In Nagoya, I even found a Western grocery store for expats and curious residents where you could buy Cup-a-Soup and bouillon cubes and Hershey bars and Heinz ketchup.

I love the feeling of discovering a tiny bakery down a side alley, or the best tacos I’ve ever had in a tiny taqueria on the back streets of Nagoya.

I’m nervous about the leaving when I travel, but when I arrive I start to relax once I try to pretend I live there. Going to the grocery store helps, so does figuring out public transportation. When we went to Quebec City for a weekend and found ourselves in a French restaurant, our waiter suggested we give him a budget and the chef would surprise us with a 4 course meal of his choosing. We would never do that at home, too afraid of what might wind up on our plates, but we were glad we did and each bite was a delicious adventure.

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Tacos in Nagoya

Traveling stresses me out but it also fuels me. I love the feeling of discovering a tiny bakery down a side alley, or the best tacos I’ve ever had in a tiny taqueria on the back streets of Nagoya. On a trip to Hawaii I’d been mocked for buying a guide book but when I navigated our little group to a smoothie shack on a dirt road where fruit was hacked off the trees out back, all was forgiven. On the way to a place I pore over the map, imagining which roads I will take to get from where we are staying to where we want to go. I like planning for the adventure a little bit and also letting myself get (safely) lost in an unfamiliar place. I like to walk a lot when I’m on vacation because I think the physical act of moving my body to get from point a to point b will help it settle into my memories better.

These days no one lies to me about going on a trip. I usually plan the whole thing from the tickets to the hotel room to figuring out the best noodle place they’ve got. I like planning for the trip, I do, but sometimes I still yearn for a time when someone tricks me into packing a bag just for fun and then says we’re going out for ice cream, only to wind up in a place far from home, with everything I need safely tucked into the back of the car.

When we arrived in Santa Fe, New Mexico after the longest possible drive to get ice cream, I jumped from the car and ran full speed into the adobe cottage we’d rented. I’d never seen an adobe structure in real life and it mesmerized me. It looked like a soft, squishy sponge and I wanted to hug it.

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