You don’t take a trip to an unknown place, hoping to stay in some rat-trap motel that will be “an adventure,” but oddly enough, it was that attitude that cured me of my yearnings for The Perfect Trip. Ever since I was a teen, I’d chased this impossible dream. It started one night during a family vacation, when my parents took my siblings and I to the luxury Hilton hotel to have a look around, and I got the chance to see how the “other half” vacationed. (We ourselves were squeezed into a “budget-friendly” motel miles from the water.) I was instantly seduced by the opulent lobby, the pool that sparkled in the evening light as the splashing waves spat out privileged kids. The profusion of palm trees mesmerized me as they bowed and waved to couples seated at the outdoor bar. My attention was drawn to a couple drinking champagne. An aura hung over them, one of wealth and unquestionable entitlement, that awed me. The woman tossed back her blonde hair and caressed the cheek of her partner, her gold bracelets jangling. The couple toasted each other and began to talk in low, intimate tones, punctuated by sips of champagne and an occasional peal of silvery laughter from the woman.
My heart leapt and I felt a moment of pure longing to stay in that hotel, to become that woman. A voice screamed in my head, “THIS IS WHAT I WANT.” I didn’t want my home-spun lifestyle, where good, honest people work hard and save all their lives for one crummy little trip to Paris. I wanted the excitement of a jet-set life, the euphoria that seemed to accompany the fancy trimmings. I knew it would bring me happiness, that shivery feeling of excitement that turns a black and white scene into a blazing, Technicolor set.
I’ve been chasing that silly illusion for a good part of my life. I’ve come close, but I’ve never had that Perfect Trip. There always seemed to be a few elements missing. I’d find the perfect hotel, but I’d be a visitor, not a guest. I’d be in the perfect hotel, but I’d be lonely over not having a partner. Fun, laughing people would fill my hotel room, but I’d have a headache and feel antisocial. The hotel wouldn’t match my expectations. I’d look at the hotel brochure again once I was in my room, wondering where exactly they took such a nice picture, because it sure wasn’t in my room. It was always something.
One of the times when I came closest to having a Perfect Trip, I was floating in the pool at a luxury hotel in Spain, thinking about where my husband and I should go for dinner (although I was really just craving a hamburger). I stepped out of myself and suddenly saw It All. The pool, the palms, the ocean view room, the champagne, the nice lobby, a loving husband to share it with. I had It All.
The euphoric moment passed quickly, to be replaced by a feeling of timeless sorrow. Was I any happier than I was years ago, observing the people at the fancy hotel bar with longing? With a burst of clarity, I saw what I was doing: chasing euphoria. And euphoria is eternally elusive, like trying to embrace a soap bubble. Once you think you’ve caught it, you open your hands and it’s gone. I swim in the fancy pool, sip the piña colada at the swim-up bar while trying not to shiver, stride through the opulent lobby, and try so hard to experience the feeling that I paid for and rightfully deserve. And when it doesn’t make me happy, I feel cheated.
But have you ever tried to complain about something like that?
“Yes, I want to complain. I just don’t feel….giddy, like I thought I would. Like the people in the hotel brochure. I feel a sense of emptiness, of yearning for something I can’t quite name. Can I maybe try another room?”
I finally recognized that I was approaching travel and happiness from the wrong angle. My husband and I decided that lots of budget travel would be more valuable than one fancy trip per year. I had no more illusions about swim up bars and fancy lobbies. Instead, I got my thrills from testing out places that looked a little off the beaten path. It became a bit of a game to see just how adventuresome and thrifty we could be.
At one memorable budget hotel in Paris, tucked into one of the hidden side streets of the Sixieme arrondissement, we were scolded for not bringing our own towels. “You Americans,” the fat Turkish woman running the hotel huffed. “You think that all these amenities are available for you, even in a one-star hotel. Now the Japanese are much smarter. They always bring their own towels.”
I felt like telling her that the Japanese didn’t trust her dubious sanitary standards and that’s why they brought their own towels, but I smiled broadly with clenched teeth and replied,“Oui, madame. Merci madame. Au revoir, madame.” The hotel turned out to be a fun little place, full of ambiance, even though the walls were thin as paper and we actually could hear the people in the next room fart.
Breakfast was included in the price of the room and was served in a Turkish style lounge loaded with pillows and low tables. Funky Eastern music played from a cassette player in the corner where an employee slouched, dozing. As we sipped cafe au laitout of big colorful bowls and gnawed at hunks of freshly baked bread, we watched Madame rake yet another American over the coals for being so obtuse as to think that all the rooms had a bathroom. “You Americans….” she started up, her jowls quivering with outrage. All of us in the room quietly exchanged grins and snickered. Clearly this was part of the initiation process.
On another occasion, a weekend in a private home in Prague offered us an intimate glimpse into the lives of the locals, for ten dollars a night. From the icy cold entryway of unfinished concrete walls, we approached the flat with trepidation; do you knock at the home where you will be spending three nights, or do you use the key from the tourist office? We exchanged uneasy looks before knocking. A woman answered, greeted us in halting German and showed us to our room.
The room felt decidedly foreign, with its dated, mismatched furniture. A double bed with a thin mattress and several layers of blankets filled the space, along with an orange armchair, a beanbag and a tiny oak desk. On the wall behind the desk hung a bulletin board, crammed with personal photographs and postcards. I examined every one of them, feeling curious but awkward, an inadvertent voyeur. Sharing the one bathroom with the family members was another uncomfortably intimate experience, but it’s hard to feel like a stranger when you know what kind of deodorant your host uses and that they suffer from hemorrhoids. There was no medicine cabinet, so I saw their toothpaste and lotions, as well as the thyroid medication the woman took every morning. I knew what time they got up every morning, that the woman liked a cup of tea around 10:00pm every night and that the son spoke four languages, dreamed of traveling in America and snored.
Those “off the beaten path” experiences provided me with a glimpse of the essence of travel: exploring the unknown and accepting the adventures that naturally presented themselves. Experiences in those places were more unexpected and discoveries were rich. The trips were far from perfect: there were the inevitable days of indigestion, sunburn, blisters, getting lost. But there weren’t so many unachievable illusions to disappoint me.
Ultimately, it’s the memories of a trip that become the best part of the whole event. They mellow, like a fine wine, and improve with age. The fatigue and disappointment evaporate, as the challenging moments morph into cute stories. The good times stretch and expand into days, hordes of good days. It’s a charming thing, our memories. What they give to me, time and time again, are a glimpse of the golden travel experience that I’d always hoped it could be.
This first appeared in Big World Travel magazine in 1998. (It was the Classical Girl’s first published article!)