Last time, I talked about the confidence I gleaned from strong female characters like Cara Black’s Aimee Leduc. Another factor that draws me to Black’s novels is that the action is set in Paris. I’ve never been to Paris, but the maps, landmarks, and landscapes that Black portrays call to me, begging me to visit. This brings me to another thing I love about books: being introduced to new places and feeling compelled to travel.
Other than trips to see relatives, my family never traveled. When I was sixteen, I read James Michener’s book, The Drifters. I hadn’t thought about it for years until I started writing this blog, but I realize it was one of the few books in my life that really got under my skin and stayed with me. It tapped into a part of me that wanted to leave home and see more of the world. The idea of traveling to Spain, Portugal, France and beyond was exhilarating. But fear, and my father, would never have let me do that.
So, I pushed aside ideas of travel until college when I accepted an invitation from a friend to spend the summer with her family in Northern California. That summer profoundly changed my life’s direction. I returned to school in love with San Francisco and determined to move there. Anticipating my father’s disapproval, I changed my major to nursing, a very marketable profession. I knew he would cut me off financially and I needed to be able to support myself. And then I boldly moved across the county a week after graduation.
Boldly might seem hyperbolic, but you need to understand; I was a shy and fearful child who grew into an anxious but determined adult. I didn’t want fear to hold me back. I wanted to “feel the fear and do it anyway.” After my move to California I continued to dream of foreign travel, but life intervened: work, limited vacation time, financial constraints, marriage and children. Travel receded into the background.
Then I found myself in my fifties, a divorced empty nester, and other than one trip to Mexico and several to Canada, I had never traveled outside of the United States. I’d never even had a passport. When my son decided to spend a semester abroad in Tanzania and needed a passport, I applied for one myself. The seed for travel that had been planted in my teens started to blossom. I’d raised my sons, was financially secure and had plenty of vacation time. What was my excuse?
I didn’t really need to ask the question; fear of traveling alone was the obvious answer. Then in the summer of 2014, my son, who by then had a passport full of stamps from nearly a dozen different countries, took me to London for my birthday. I was overwhelmed. It was a big city and the Underground was intimidating. But my son wasn’t fazed. His experiences had made him a confident and adept traveler. And I took note. By the end of our trip, I felt like a pro and was thirsty for more.
But the fear of going completely solo was still there. As much as some other countries were higher on my “bucket list,” I decided to go to Switzerland to visit a friend. I would be on my own during the days, but I would have a home base to return to each night. So, after a successful relationship with Rick Steve’s in London, I got his Switzerland guide and started planning.
Concerned about language, I reviewed my basic French and how to say I didn’t speak German, but I needn’t have worried. English was widely spoken and people were friendly and helpful. I even had some wonderful conversations with fellow travelers. I shared a table at a lakeside café in Geneva with a woman whose English was about as good as my French, but we muddled along. And then there was the couple from Argentina on a train where Spanish was our only shared language.
I walked the narrow streets of old towns, visited modern museums and medieval castles, sampled chocolate at Maison Cailler, indulged in Gruyere cheese and took a boat ride on Lake Geneva. And I rode the trains, which more than lived up to my romantic expectations. The countryside was beautiful, the ride comfortable and the drone relaxing. There was something nostalgic about the trains and the stations and I found myself imagining earlier times when they were the primary means of travel.
Switzerland is a beautiful country and I enjoyed my time there. I now dream of Spain and Italy. Will I go solo? I might. Sharing the experience is still my preference. But I now know I can also go it alone, meet people along the way and have a different kind of fun than I would traveling with someone. And, after all, wasn’t that some of the appeal of Michener’s novel so many years ago?
Has a book’s setting ever made you want to travel there? Did you go?
*Author note: An edited version of this blog appeared as a column in the Marin Independent Journal on June 27, 2017.