Happy Fourth of July! Like most Americans, I’m having a subdued, socially distanced celebration at home. For patriotic Americans like me, this is a poignant Fourth as our country faces unprecedented challenges. I’m hopeful that the second half of 2020 will see America making real progress in the fight against both the coronavirus pandemic and racial injustice. I love the USA. And it’s clear that, together, we have a lot of work to do.
On this holiday weekend, I’m also mindful of the EU’s understandable decision to hold off on allowing American travelers to enter Europe for now. I have spent a third of my adult life in Europe, but it’s increasingly clear that I won’t set foot there in 2020. In fact, just this week my tour company cancelled all of our remaining 2020 departures. We are hopeful for a return in 2021.
When I think about what I miss most about Europe in 2020, one thing rises to the top: the people. Wherever I go, I love making connections with Europeans. So many of my friends — whether guides, hoteliers, or restauranteurs — earn their living from tourism. And 2020 is a very tough year for them. I look forward to the day when we will be back stoking their business as they stoke our travel experiences. This post — an excerpt from my new travel memoir, For the Love of Europe, which arrives in bookstores next Tuesday — shares a few examples.
On the Irish island of Inishmore, I stayed at a farmhouse B&B. At breakfast, I told the farmer of my plans to visit the island’s main sight, Dun Aengus. It’s an Iron Age fortress that hangs spectacularly on the edge of a cliff above the ocean. He nodded, saying, “The fort is so popular with visitors that we plan to build another 2,000-year-old fort next year.”
He excused himself to do some farm chores and I asked to join him. Soon, we were working in tandem, putting out the hay. Pointing out that there were no gates on the stone fences that divided his land, he showed me how, when the sheep needed to pass, he’d simply unstack the rocks and then stack them back up. It worked for his father and it works for him. I asked about the weather and he said, “We wouldn’t be putting out the hay if the weather wasn’t going to be good.”
The essence of good travel is connecting with people. If I’m leading a tour or writing a guidebook, the mark of a job well done is how well I connect people with people. If I’m making a TV show and it doesn’t have a local voice, the show will be flat. When I’m enjoying a European vacation, my journal is more interesting when it includes stories of people I met. And yes, in reading through my new book, the essays I like the best are the ones enriched by connections with people.
Developing a knack for sparking such experiences is our challenge as good travelers. I like to take it a step further — to be a keen observer, able to connect experiential dots that may seem random by putting them into cultural and historic context…and then to learn from them. As a travel writer, that’s my challenge. And that’s my mission, whether it’s explaining the rationale behind the Dutch tolerance of marijuana, or celebrating the refreshing transparency of Berlin’s glass dome over its parliament.
While memories of palaces toured and castles climbed fade into a jumble, it’s the people, experiences, and cultural connections that stay vivid for decades…
In a pub in the Czech town of Olomouc, egged on by a local friend, I ordered the country’s infamous stinky cheese, listed on the menu as the “Guttery Breath of the Knight of Lostice.” It was served with a lid, mints, and the offer of a toothbrush. (The fun-loving menu noted they only have one toothbrush, so please leave it.)
At a bar in Brussels, I met Belgians who complained about their Lowland neighbors: “The Dutch have the worst beer, Heineken — but sell it all over the world. We Belgians make far better beer, and it is barely exported. Those Dutch are clever business people — they can sell anything.”
In Italy, people from Siena hold a medieval grudge against the people of Florence, who defeated them centuries ago. Walking with my friend in Siena, I barely missed a dog mess. In a disgusted voice, he playfully showed his Sienese pride saying, “Those Florentines are everywhere these days.”
One time in Austria, I lingered in a tiny village church. It was as quiet as a tomb. Suddenly the dozen or so visitors around me burst into a rich, Slavic hymn filling the sanctuary with life. They were a folk group from Slovakia whose director whispered to me, “We can’t be in a church without singing.”
Each of these moments is a connection, offering new insights into these places and the people who call them home. Gathering moments like these into my new book, I realized the most memorable travel moments aren’t accidents. You create them consciously by being a free-spirited extrovert. Start conversations and then let serendipity lead you astray. (Who knows? You may find yourself drinking homemade limoncello with a Franciscan friar in his abbey overlooking the Italian Riviera.) Let surprises waylay your careful plans.
While some people count the countries they’ve visited, marking them off on a checklist, that number means nothing to me. Count instead the friends you’ve made while far from home. Packing that attitude, you’ll realize the world is a welcoming place…a place filled with joy, love, and wonderful people.
(This story appears in my newest book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore on Tuesday, July 7th. Or you can pre-order For the Love of Europe online.)