Starting in Barcelona, we had flitted across several parts of Spain, to the Basque Country and the Rioja wine region and back again, then on to Bordeaux and Paris by train. We had experienced three distinct cultures and languages and four very different landscapes. We toured seven wineries and at least five cathedrals; we stumbled over our limited French and Spanish; we learned about architecture, art, history and wine; we ate countless tapas, drained dozens of glasses of wine, and moaned over dishes of paella and cups of coffee in Spain and pretty much everything we ate in France. How would we decide on one favorite part?
While Daniel mulled it over, I blurted out, “My favorite part was having the space and time to really be with you. I felt present and connected. And I loved everything else about the trip, but that was by far my favorite.”
He complained that I stole his answer.
And we had stowed bottles of wine wrapped in my sweaters in our luggage, accidentally left a particularly cool sign from a bodega in Spain in our hotel in Bordeaux and loaded up on ridiculously fashionable outfits for the girls from Paris, but this was the souvenir I was most concerned about.
“We can’t always go away. So how do we bring that back?” I wondered aloud.
When we began our twelve-day journey, we were both a little lost. Daniel in stress from work and our upcoming home renovation and I in something of a delayed identity crisis. For months I had felt like nothing was mine, that maybe, slowly, my dingy, grey Chuck Taylors and my messy ponytail and minivan were starting to define me. And it was less about what others saw—of course that’s what they saw—and more about the fact that it was becoming all that I could see. I talked it over with Daniel and close girlfriends, but I hadn’t found any reprieve. To be honest, I still haven’t found the antidote. All I know is I didn’t feel that way for a second while we were away.
And maybe that’s the point? Maybe one of the purposes the distance serves is just to remind us how good we already have it? I’m not sure.
On our trip we learned new things, among them that we are still capable of learning new things. We remembered how many characteristics we might have thought of as American that are actually just part of the human condition, both good and bad. We remembered how much of that condition can transcend language and geography. We watched Spanish fathers dote on their daughters, just like American ones do; we learned about the ego and insecurity that shaped famous paintings at the Louvre, and we gasped, teary-eyed, at the overwhelming beauty inside Saint-Chapelle in Paris. We were reminded of the reasons why we travel—it’s not just the time away— it’s what we gain while we’re there. We talked about bringing the kids next time, so they can see first-hand the intangibles we try to teach them. We remembered that it’s worth the time, the expense, the preparation. Our trip was worth every bit of effort, every penny, every tear. We remembered that we can’t learn about someone else without learning something about ourselves, even if we’re still sorting out what that is.
That night at the café, we talked about how we might preserve that connectedness, that feeling of being present. We talked about turning off our phones, about carving pockets in our day to sit down over coffee and talk, even amidst the chaos. Later that night, our tenth anniversary, we ate dinner at an Italian restaurant (in Paris!) not unlike the one where we had had our first date in Baltimore, and then we bought a bottle of champagne and cheap, souvenir espresso mugs and walked to the Eiffel Tower in the rain. We sat on the lawn with all the other tourists, snapping pictures for people who said gracias, thank you, and grazie and taking a few ourselves, often laughing hysterically. What a life we’ve been blessed with, what a love. “Who’s got it better than us?” Daniel whispered to me, and of course I had no reply.
When we filled out our Customs form on the plane, we disclosed the wine and clothes, but we couldn’t list the souvenirs that mattered most: a profound gratitude for our love, our life together, our children, our family and community, and a renewed desire to be fully present in the midst of them all.
We couldn’t believe the ground we’d covered in twelve days, all that we saw, all that we learned, all that we experienced together. How could we explain it to someone who wasn’t there? How could we sum it up?
“It’s kind of like a secret only we know,” I said to him in Paris. And now that we’re home, everyone asks about the trip.
“It was great,” he says.
“Indescribable,” I agree, and we share a knowing smile and leave it at that.