Column: The Rewards of Travel

For the Valley News
Saturday, August 12, 2017

For all their love of home, people in the Upper Valley have an insatiable thirst for new and different places. Ponder: How many small communities in the world boast residents as well-traveled as this agglomeration of small Northern New England towns? Around here, it seems, professors, camp counselors, baristas, retired teachers, deli counter workers and doctors are always going somewhere: Colorado, the Long Trail, Jamaica, Brittany, Africa, Budapest. All go for different reasons, all seek different things, but, whether they articulate it or not, everyone is searching for Routine’s Kryptonite: a change of pace.

When I lived in Burgundy, France, I learned a delightful little phrase for travel: “On va se changer les idées,” people would say, before going to the Alps or on a cruise. Technically, it means to take your mind off things, or clear your head. But I like the literal: “We’re going to switch up our ideas a bit.”

Overall, my travel attitude (travel-tude?) is that jet lag, questionable street food and Turkish toilets make you stronger. While I may not be the world’s biggest adventurer — I love going back to the same places over and over again, and the tonic of the day trip is one of the best therapies I know — I am always grateful for a change of scenery, like a splash of Old Spice for my soul.

 When it comes to writing about travel, I won’t waste your time here trying to better Theroux (much less Thoreau). Nor will I pretend to have a keener eye than Hemingway. And, Lord, I know that Eugene Fodor, Rick Steves, Karl Baedeker, Arthur Frommer and The Frugal Traveler have all captured the glory and excitement of travel in manners far superior to what I can muster here.

 Nevertheless, I feel compelled to write about it today because, over the past few months, I’ve been fortunate to travel a fair bit. I cannot seem to shake my experiences; they linger, clinging to me like a cobweb.

 On a recent weekend in New York City with three male friends, on the advice of one friend’s partner’s sister’s real Korean friend, we crushed a meal of Korean barbecue in Koreatown, ably guided by gastronomic chauffeurs named Dragon and Gabriel. In between bites of rib eye cooked in front of us on a gas stove and slurps of kimchee soup, we just laughed. More than once, someone murmured, “Can’t find this at home.”

On a Saturday morning, I rallied the troops to go 40 blocks south to Chinatown for authentic dim sum. We were the only white people in a giant, windowless room with enormous screens showing Chinese actors in what looked like a cross between a soap opera and an infomercial. We sat at a communal circular table, where two Chinese women were sucking their teeth in between sips of tea, watching us closely. Thanks to my father’s fascination with China, I have a few critical words of Mandarin: ni hăo (hello), xiè xie (thank you) and the ultimate ice breaker péngyǒu (friend).

A flood of unknowable food started crowding our table. The ladies pushing the steaming carts barked one-word explanations at us: “Shrimp,” we thought one said, and we were eating gelatinous spheres of ingredients no one could name. They were bites of heaven. “Pork,” we thought another woman intoned. “Two orders of the pork,” a friend said, pointing. Alas, we were less lucky here, as we found ourselves confronted with a plate that we later joked was probably someone else’s dirty dishes that the staff pawned off on the unsuspecting New Englanders: all bone and gristle in a sad little sauce.

 We soldiered on, our senses alert and, frankly, a bit under assault. To my friends’ great amusement, I swallowed down a slippery, delicious dish of bean curd, looked the women right in the eye, and uttered: Mei wenti! No problem.

 They beamed.

 As we got ready to leave, a man wearing a Vietnam Veteran baseball cap walked towards us. His lips were tightly drawn across his face in a sort of pre-smile. We locked eyes, and I thought, “Maybe he is the one Chinese person in here who speaks English; perhaps he wants to say hello.” My tablemates were transfixed by his approach. I rehearsed a quick “Thank you for your service” type of opening. Suddenly, his face opened into an enormous grin, his eyes dancing. Where a couple of rows of pearly whites once resided, there was but one snaggly outcrop, a lone incisor, weathered and browned with age. In one of those “I can’t explain why, but I know I am right” instinctual instants, I discarded all thoughts of English with this gentleman, and I just smiled back at him. He continued on his way, shuffling past with his big grin, his head nodding to a rhythm only he heard.

 A friend commented later, “That was like being in another world, yet we were right in the middle of New York.”

 Doesn’t everyone enjoy attempting to “go local” when they travel? During a recent week on Cape Cod, I pretended I knew how to read the tides, that I understood the meteorology behind a thick layer of marine mist, and the difference between a cherry stone, quahog, steamer and little neck. My efforts, though absurd and slightly pathetic, were a lot of harmless fun.

 I have done a lot of that pretending in my decades. My meanderings this season are hardly novel, but they did make me think about how much travel has formed me. Whether ice fishing on Lake Baikal with vodka-swilling Russians, ice skating with my family at an outdoor rink in January in Montreal, wondering how much to tip a cab driver in Marrakech, finding free parking in Dijon, locating the secret gelato in Tuscany, learning the key to chicken wings in Upstate New York (order them extra crispy, a native’s son taught me), or mastering the art of calling an hour and a half late “punctual” in Argentina, travel magnifies and celebrates the power of the mundane.

 Of course, travel is also an intensely personal experience. Some people need it to be structured. Others just let the wind push them. Somehow, though, humans need travel in the same way we need physical contact, water and intellectual stimulation. The magic of travel is that it has a breathtaking ability to make us appreciate our day-to-day lives more. In the end, after all the curve balls, adventures, obstacles and curiosities of other places, for many of us the best part of travel is when we walk back in our own front doors and find ourselves enveloped by the warm embrace of home.

 As your head hits your own pillow after a time away, you let out a big breath, your life just a bit better than before you went away, and you say to yourself, “Well, that happened.”

Mark Lilienthal lives in Norwich. He can be reached at mlilient@gmail.com.