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February 19, 2008

Ramble on (and now's the time, the time is now)

One summer, my dad and mom took me and my brother Guy on a trip to California to visit my grandparents. I was seven years old, and we flew from Texas to Los Angeles on the biggest plane I'd ever seen, and when we arrived I saw palm trees and brown air and blue sky. I saw more cars and people and buildings on that trip than I had seen in the collective seven years I had spent on earth.

We went to a Dodgers game and we went to the now-nonexistent Marineland and swam with the sharks, and my brother and I fussed because we hated each other and often tried to kill one another under cover of darkness. We behaved ourselves long enough for a trip to Universal Studios and more time at the beach and I fell in love with all of it, the whole city. My favorite part of that whole summer was when we went to Chinatown and ate dinner at a restaurant called Hop Louie's. I remember sitting around a table seated snugly between my dad and my grandpa, my two favorite human beings on the earth. They ordered things I had never even heard of: paper-wrapped chicken and something sweet and spicy with cashews in it. Crunchy noodles and a mustard that wasn't like French's yellow, it made your whole nose clear out and your eyes burn.

I remember drinking tea from those small rounded cups and warming my hands around the little tealights. During dinner I watched everyone in the restaurant and tried to commit to memory what the waitress looked like, how the food smelled and tasted, it was all so foreign and I loved it. During that dinner I turned to my dad and I said, "Daddy, I'm going to live here one day. I'm going to move to Los Angeles and be like these people and eat here all the time."

And my dad looked me right in the eye and said, "Ok, then. You can be anything you want to be."

That was the whole conversation. I opened the fortune cookie and read it for knowledge, but I didn't eat it ... instead I ate the almond cookies and they were amazing, I'd never had almond cookies before. I thought Los Angeles was the most exciting, glamorous, dangerous, interesting place EVER and I wanted to live there more than anything else in the world.

When I was twenty-two years old I moved west. The first year was complete culture shock and I threatened to pack up and go home every twelve minutes. Eventually, the city grew on me and I grew into it and I loved it. I love it here. I still can't think of a single place I'd rather be most of the time, except Paris. Or maybe Santa Barbara. This city makes me crazy and makes me happy and I love its weird quirks and bad traffic and amazing diversity. I even love the brown air.

Later I got married, of course. The person I married had traveled a lot before he met me and even lived abroad for a while. I had never been off the continent unless you count driving out to Galveston Island as "being off the continent" which I kind of think doesn't count. I had desperately wanted to travel my whole life but never had the money or the know-how or the confidence to just go somewhere on my own. Hooking up with a man who was a travel veteran was such a bonus, and shortly after we were married we started planning our first ever trip together to Europe. That vacation took us to Belgium and France and we got there on a budget airline called "CityBird" (which I think went out of business shortly thereafter) and our rockstar low-cost trip to Europe involved sitting on the tarmac for six hours and layovers in various places such as Armpit, and Other Armpit, and by the time we arrived I was so exhausted and hungry and grumpy that I just wanted alcohol poured down my mouth followed by some french fries. We rented a car and couldn't find anyplace to park and drove around Brussels that first night in circles until we gave up, parked on a sidewalk like the other cars, and hauled luggage across a vast dark city to our creaky, ancient hotel. I was not loving the traveling much at that point.

But after being there for a few hours (and drinking and eating and sleeping) I woke up before dawn and went into the tiny bathroom of our tiny hotel room and I opened the window to see what was out there. The window looked out across the red-tiled rooftops of Belgium and I thought it was the most magical, perfect thing I had ever seen in my life. And I was hooked. We drove to France and stayed in Paris and I was more in love with travel than anything before or since. And we were good travel partners. We traveled a lot together over the years that followed and saw a lot of amazing things and a lot of the world.

In this way I have been really blessed. I've been to places I never even knew existed (Karlovy Vary ... I'm looking at you) and travel has been at the top of the list of best things in my life.

During my divorce, I remember one night hanging out with Jennifer and crying, because it was all soon to be over and finalized and so I said it out loud, this one awful thing that kept popping up in my mind, disturbing any uneasy peace I'd come to with the dissolution -- I had lost my travel partner. I'd lost the one person I saw the world with. And I was so in debt at the time and facing huge legal bills and I saw no way possible to ever go anywhere more glamorous than Van Nuys. Or maybe Burbank.

That was when we decided, possibly after wine, that we were going somewhere, anywhere, but dammit we were going to travel! And we did. Two years ago we went to Paris on a girls' trip. Paris is easily one of my favorite places and I've been there enough times to feel like I know it fairly well, and she had never been and the flight was crazy cheap and it seemed like a good idea. Then some other friends joined us and before we knew it, we were in the City Of Love & Riots. Enough time has finally passed since we got on a big plane and headed off to Paris to be able to speak of that vacation fondly. I can assure you there were good times and laughs on that vacation, but all parties involved will agree that it was hands-down the Most EVERYTHING GO WRONG VACATION any of us girls have ever had. OH MY GOD.

(Ah, yes. You're saying to yourself, "But I thought you had a great time! What...?" Well, we did have a great time ... in retrospect. I do think sometimes the most memorable vacations are the ones that go really off-kilter. And knowing that one day we'd look back on it all and laugh, I only focused on the highlights of that trip which included me bludgeoning a guy in a street with my umbrella. If you think about it, that is not really the sort of Best Happiest Moments you hope for on vacation.)

So when we got back from Paris we promised to never speak of it again. Much. Then time passed and we four girls started laughing about Our Crazyass Trip To France. When I was writing my book I realized that trip was pivotal for me, because travel is good for the soul and makes you get outside your life and see the world new again and consider the unusual. Even if it is Crazyass Psycho Croissant Riot Travel.

And after my book tour, traveling by myself (which once seemed scary and crazy and impossible) no longer felt so terrifying. In Seattle I finally did something I had been scared of my whole life: eating dinner in a very nice restaurant by myself. I did it, I brought a book, and it was in fact quite nice. No one pointed, a few folks looked twice at me, but I had a great meal and excellent wine and left feeling quite satisfied with myself. Not so scary after all.

That's when the idea of traveling by myself -- not just for work but for a real vacation -- started to take root in my head and I would think about it every time I sat waiting for a plane or checking in to a hotel, and later when I got home and got back to the daily grind I would think of it (dream of it) daily. I needed a vacation, a real vacation. Two years is a long time to go without relaxing, and it's been a nose-to-the-grindstone two years. At night I would sit on the bus and look out the window and hope for 2008 to arrive so I would have vacation days again, time to spend on myself. I'd think to myself, "Why work so hard and not take time off to enjoy the world?"

Imagine being able to stay wherever I want, eat whatever I want, linger in a museum as long as I want with no one else to consider but me, no one else's tastes and itinerary to accomodate.... was that selfish to even consider? Maybe. But oh, it sounded decadent and pleasurable to me. Maybe selfish is a woefully misunderstood concept.

Late last year I was staring at a calendar and realized I was coming up on a whole year of not smoking. I calculated how much money I had saved in one year from not buying cigarettes. I re-calculated because COULD THAT BE TRUE? And I felt very much like I SHOULD BUY MYSELF SOMETHING PRETTY WITH THAT BONUS MONEY. Because not smoking isn't really fun, ya'll, though it has saved me some money. And what is the point of doing hard things such as no smoking, no fun if you aren't patting yourself on the back? Buying yourself a little treat? REALLY NOW.

And I clicked and surfed and looked and found it, one single perfect ticket and I bought it without any forethought, without any planning, without any consultation or pro/con lists or anything at all but impulse and that same old desire, to see something new, smell something new, taste something new. Someplace I had never gone before with no memories of my past to follow me, someplace with ridiculously cheap airfare, someplace with wine. And I left last week and I just got back and it was everything I imagined and more.

me-in-rome.jpg

The wine was great. The men were gorgeous. The pasta was amazing. Maybe that's why they say all roads lead there.

Posted by laurie at February 19, 2008 12:23 PM