I was meant to be giving a writing workshop today, in my childhood hometown of Coaldale, Alberta. Yet here I am, cocooned in my office… at home where most of us now find ourselves in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic.
When it was announced recently that I had been awarded the Community Artist of the Year Award from the town I left when I was only eighteen, I gladly offered to give my Joy of Writing Workshop. I was also looking forward to reconnections, to spending a weekend with my parents, and to the honour of receiving recognition for my work from the place that conjures so many memories.
I’ll write soon on this alarming and incredibly sad situation now gripping the world, but for now I present this ode to travelling… a pleasure now largely on hold for people the world over. Most especially, this blog pays homage to Italy, a country and people I adore… people who are suffering tragic losses. It is perhaps also a message of hope. Despite the present crisis, those passions and dreams that we harbour will hopefully still be realised.
I had planned to speak about this in my workshop today, of how our dreams are like a seed, planted within us, rooted, sometimes latent, waiting until the time is right to act upon them. And I would have spoken of how our passions, whatever shape they take, are a part of who we are and give our life meaning. My passion has ever been to travel, to journey, to revel in the sheer experience of our world.
I took my first flight at the age of 17, a high school trip on Easter break to Italy. My parents remind me still that it almost didn’t happen. I’m thankful that it did, and for the wanderlust that ever since has filled my soul… I can only blame it on Michelangelo!
It was the beginning of grade 12 when I came home with news for my parents about an early grad trip to Italy. Although it sounded interesting, I didn’t think I’d go. I was busy as the President of the Student’s Council, a cheerleader and softball player. My school grades were fine but I never really excelled, except perhaps in English and History; in retrospect my love for it was always there. I hung onto every lesson and vividly recall our history teacher depicting Mao’s so-called Great Leap Forward on the classroom’s vast chalkboard. I couldn’t know that nine years later I would find myself escaping from China during the Tiananmen Square massacre.
During those school years, I would often go home and verify historical facts from our World Book Encyclopaedia volumes. For a tantalising period, one book would arrive every month, an interminable wait when one is hoping to read up on Wales or Yemen! There were always a couple of books perched on my bedroom desk, their faux leather binding a contrast to my vivid purple walls. With matching purple-flowery curtains and bedspread from the Sears catalogue, it was a dreamy space to read up on my favourite historical periods. I find it surprising that to this day I have a deep dislike for the colour purple, considering the many hours spent in that mauvy oasis.
“What do you mean you’re not going to Italy? It’s right up your alley,” my Dad remonstrated with me one evening. I was reclined on my bed trying to concentrate on my homework as a Cheap Trick album spun on my turntable. He looked at me as if I’d lost my mind, then over to my mother who was leaning against the doorway, arms folded, ready to back him up.
“But I’m busy,” I said with emphasis, “and you do remember I have a serious boyfriend!”
My parents looked at each other knowingly. “All the more reason you’re going,” my mom retorted. “And if you fly through Amsterdam you’re going to meet some of your Dutch relatives. It might snap you out of this relationship you think is the be all and end all!” And with that, it was decided. I would be going to Europe for the first time in my life.
Four months later in Florence, I stood in front of Michelangelo’s marble sculpture of David. The statue in Piazza della Signoria is only a replica, imposing and evocative enough in its grand surrounding – but to be completely mesmerised you must gaze upon the true David at the Galleria dell’Accademia.
I have visited Florence often since then, but with absolute certainty, that first time David awakened something in my soul. I could feel the glory and enlightenment of the Renaissance, of history captured in storied stone. As I gazed up at Michelangelo’s chiseled marble, it represented not only this most beautiful age of art, one that would shape the course of history, but it embodied the promise of travel and the wonders that the world held in store. That first trip had a profound impact on how my life unfolded.
Six years later, David would surface again. I had moved to Calgary after graduating from college where my first real job, as a Personal Assistant, awaited me. Next, I would manage a health spa. I then settled into advertising. During that time I again traveled to Europe, to Asia, and by degrees I started plotting. How might I leave Calgary and live in Europe? Perhaps I could go live with my Dutch relatives whom I had gotten to know. Might I become an au pair in France? These were the days before internet and I would pour over newspapers and travel brochures for ‘possibilities’, ever hopeful that an ad would present itself and I would happily traipse off to that new life.
Of course, it couldn’t happen that easily. I kept working to save money. Earning money to travel is what really mattered to me. Oh the joy back then of taking your savings book to the bank and watching that total grow! In between jobs, I went on a six week Contiki Tour – touring nine countries with young people from around the world. We met in a designated hotel in London and as the bus journeyed us through European capitals, to castles perched on improbable hilltops, to a ferry that would sail us to the sandy shores of Corfu, the thrill of it all was intoxicating. I confess that there might have been a bit of partying, but ‘geeky me’ was equally enraptured with the history and the architecture. I plied our Australian tour guide with questions and took ample notes – still today I am a compulsive about note-taker. Not surprisingly when I returned to Calgary after that Contiki tour, I became even more obsessed with leaving Canada.
My wanderlust would become a detriment to relationships as I daydreamed of where I would travel and live. Sundays were the worst. The strains of Bach and Ravel would accompany me as I studied my oversized Atlas (another gift from my parents) laid out on a newly purchased glass-topped dining table. It was on monthly instalments, part of a furniture purchase made with my live-in boyfriend. I was 25, had a well paying job in advertising, and furniture that represented what I didn’t yet want… stability and commitment.
Besides my full time job, I often cocktail waitressed a few nights a week to boost my travel fund for that not-so-secret ‘world wide trip’. That’s when David again ‘appeared.’
I finally thought that I had found a way to work in Europe and applied for a job as a tour guide. Some months later, there I stood in London before a hiring panel, for none other than Contiki Tours.
“My presentation today is about David, Michelangelo’s magnificent Renaissance masterpiece…” With that introduction, the job interview began. Surely it would be the perfect marriage of learning and presenting history while traveling. Yet I would almost all but forget that I had applied.
By the end of that year, having saved for three years, I bought a one-way ticket to Asia. I quit my jobs, gave up my apartment and stored my sports car at my parents… a little insurance just in case I came back! And serendipity had interceded. He came in the form of a handsome Scotsman who had somehow landed in Calgary after a stint of working in Africa.
“Can I travel with you for a few months?” Bruce asked after we had dated for a short period. I agreed to just a few months. After Asia, I was set to meet a good friend in Australia, yet I wouldn’t know that my future was about to change course. Bruce has been my travel companion ever since; come this June, my husband of thirty years.
I had put my hopes and dreams into a 55 litre backpack and jetted off to Bangkok. Lounging poolside before backpacking started, I learned that I had been offered that job by Contitki after all. It seems life had other plans… I was already meandering down a different path.
Still today, I blame it all – respectfully, adoringly, most definitely on Michelangelo!
Pont Vecchio in the distance. A bridge over the Arno, Florence
I dig out my albums from those first trips that were so pivotal in my early days of traveling. I find a group photo of us high-schoolers posing in Rome… the days of big hair, tube socks and traveller’s cheques. Still taped into the back of the album is a typed copy of the itinerary. Particularly novel is the message to parents; “If you wish to contact your children in case of emergency, you should call the CETA office in Montreal. The representatives will contact us through their Rome office.” And the helpful message to be, ‘sure to pack the copy of your traveller’s cheque numbers in your suitcase, don’t keep it on your person with the cheques, your ticket and your passport!”
I also examine the group photo from that Contiki trip in 1984. We were travellers from around the world… especially Canada, the US, Mexico, South Africa, Australia and the UK. All within the age group of 18 to 30, we formed fast friendships on that six week journey. It was simply brilliant and still today I can feel the sheer joy of the experiences captured in the photos, etched on my traveller’s soul.
For nothing could be truer; we are the sum total of our experiences and dreams – both realised and not. And still in this uncertain time, we can draw on those memories, recall the pleasure of experiences with the hope that at the end of this crisis, we will look upon the world and its myriad people again with fresh eyes and new optimism.
And as this day was intended as a Workshop, I gently encourage you to write about a trip that is etched on your soul. And I’d so love to hear them – firstname.lastname@example.org