I had never ventured abroad before. Arizona had been at the edge of my travel map; beyond that, ‘here be dragons’. I knew nothing about flying, passports, baggage checks, or customs.
And yet, I found myself sitting in the airport on March 12th, 2014, preparing to fly to London, Paris, Barcelona, and Rome, away from the only culture I had ever known.
London was first. I walked silently through Westminster Abbey, running my fingers over epitaphs written in English so old, it was nearly impossible to read. I gawked like a dumbstruck kid in Poet’s corner, where my favorite authors, thinkers, and musicians were represented… The Bronte sisters, Shakespeare, Dickens, Handel… I lingered briefly at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior, ringed with poppies.
Later that day, I sat sweating in Her Majesty’s Theater, totally enraptured by a performance of The Phantom of the Opera. From the moment the first song thundered across the audience, I had completely forgotten the lack of air conditioning; I only had eyes for the riveting performances and gorgeous staging.
If London eased me into travel, Paris pulled me in headfirst. London felt modern and cosmopolitan; Paris felt old and unchanging. London spoke my language; Paris pretended not to. London absorbed the food, traditions, and color of hundreds of cultures; Paris made others conform to Paris.
What made me fall in love with Paris? Maybe it was the cruise on the River Seine, where we watched the Eiffel Tower explode into glittering white lights. Maybe it was standing on top of said tower, overlooking Paris in all of its nighttime glory. Maybe it was the full moon. Either way, I was done for.
I climbed to the top of Notre Dame and saw the city during the day. I walked along the Love Locked Bridge to the sounds of a saxophone player. I ran through the neon haze of the Latin Quarter in a frantic attempt to find food before our night train to Barcelona.
The next day, I woke up in southern France, surrounded by olive groves and blossoming almond trees. I felt as if I had been transported to another world. A two hour bus ride brought me across the border and into Barcelona, whose fierce, independent spirit and gorgeous Mediterranean climate charmed me immediately. The tropical heat, the colorful architecture, and the rattle of Catalonian up and down the street all endeared me to the city. Espresso in front of the cathedral La Sagrada Familia cemented my desire to return, followed by a visit to a bustling outdoor market and a Mediterranean beach. Barcelona was a warm, hazy dream.
Then came Rome: noisy, dirty, old beyond belief… and absolutely fascinating. I saw the grave of Caesar, the Coliseum, the Vatican… I sat on the balcony outside of my hotel room, inhaling the scent of wisteria and listening to insane Roman traffic… I got lost in the Trevi Fountain area while looking for (of all things) a library. I remember strolling through the Roman Forum, thinking- I’m walking over thousands of years of history. It was the perfect end to a dream of a trip.
I am by no means an expert traveler. In fact, I’m still a bit of an ignoramus when it comes to exchanging money, reading metro maps, and making my way through customs. I’m not scared of it anymore, however. The amount I know about traveling abroad could fill an English teacup, but I’m eager to learn on the job.
My world map still has several blanks to fill in. I’ve been to Paris… but I haven’t seen France. I walked through Rome… but have yet to see Italy. My map still has plenty of ‘here be dragons’.
I’ve caught the bug, however. I regularly compare prices on tickets to Wales, and stare at photos of Iceland with hungry eyes. I want to see Thailand, Easter Island, Peru, Australia, China, Scotland…
I want to conquer dragons. I want to fill the edges of my map.
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