Like most “independent” travelers, Tom prizes his freedom above all else. He can’t stand to be confined–to be a prisoner to a tour bus, held hostage by a guide, or bamboozled by a driver (“We stop on the way and I take you to nice shop where you buy much beautiful jewelry.”). He wants to find everything on his own time and experience it in his own way. This means whenever possible we rent our own car or moped, walk instead of taking a cab, and avoid anything resembling a packaged tour.
We became committed to our status as independents on our first international trip together in 1997. On a mad dash through Italy (so much to see, so little time to see it), we allotted ourselves the better part of a day and a half to take in the wonders of Florence. Three words wiil suffice for the seasoned traveler: Florence in July. Think Disneyland on Thanksgiving (we learned that in ’97 as well) or Panama City during spring break. It was nuts. We arrived at the Uffizi first thing in the morning, hours before it opened, just in time to beat out the legions of tour groups that descended like locusts from every direction. The plaza surrounding the Duomo was so packed with tourists that we often got separated while trying to circle the spectacular structure. Finally, Tom adopted a gesture which has since become a trademark on our travels and a source of many fond memories. At 6’2″ he stands taller than most, so when he raised his arm, I could spot his uplifted hand across a crowd. This doesn’t seem a particularly creative solution, and in fact, was exactly the opposite. He was mimicking the seemingly innumerable tour guides who herded their lemming-like groups by hoisting car antennas (where’d they get those?) or umbrellas with brightly colored scarves attached. Now, even when we’re on a deserted beach or city street, Tom will raise his arm, spin on his heel, and march forward in the direction of our next attraction. I laugh every time.
After having said all this, I have to qualify our independence. Even then, in the infancy of our travel lives, we fully understood that sometimes it makes sense to join a tour. If you have limited time or access to safe transportation, a tour may be the only opportunity for visiting a place. This was the case for us in Greece, when we wanted to travel to Delphi. We didn’t want the hassle of renting a car from Athens for a day trip and had heard horror stories about navigating the Greek streets and highways. We signed up for a tour through a neighboring hotel, plunked down $50 a piece, and considered ourselves lucky to be making the trip. We were not disappointed. Our guide was an elderly schoolmarm, whose narrative resembled a scolding more than an informative discourse. She lectured us on the deplorable state of Athens’ roads and infrastructure, the corruptness of its leaders, and the pride of its people. She had little faith the city could succeed in a bid for the Olympics since every construction project it undertook was, according to her, overbudget and years late. (Nine years later and they’re finally ready…we hope.) What she REALLY couldn’t believe, however, was that Tom and I had not opted to take the “lunch included” option for $10 more. We hadn’t even considered dining with the group, since lunch for 60 at a tourist restaurant would almost definitely be lackluster, and Delphi was certain to have other restaurants. Apparently we were the only ones on the whole bus to decline, and this was highly distressing to our guide. She tried to convince us to join the group (maybe she sensed my propensity for ditching out on tours which I’ll discuss below), but to no avail. We proceeded to find a quaint hillside tavern where we enjoyed a delicious meal of Greek spaghetti and dolmathes. The scenery was spectacular, the ambience perfect, the air magical and serene. Our tourmates meanwhile were sequestered in the bowels of a charmless inner-city building, fed bland. overcooked fare, and subject to the continuous, hair-raising screeches of our guide. For the rest of the day, we were identified as “the ones who didn’t have the lunch” and lost any hope of becoming the teacher’s pets. Delphi was spectacular and we shuffled along just far enough behind the group to experience it out of earshot of our guide.
I like to pin our need for independence on Tom, but I’ve never liked to do things the institutional way either. During a high school summer exchange program to Germany, my best friend and I took to peeling off from the group at every opportunity. We weren’t dumb; we always made sure we caught up with the crowd before the bus took off. Even so, we got caught multiple times and our chaperones were not amused. They tolerated our insolence for the first few weeks, but after we ditched out on a cruise and toured the town while our classmates circled the harbor, they sat us down in the back of the bus and threatened to send us home. We knew, relatively speaking, that our offenses were minor and it was unlikely they’d go to the time, expense, and embarrassment of booting us. After all, these were the parental surrogates who had taken a group of 40 15- and 16-year olds to the Hofbrauhaus in Munich and let them drink gallon-sized steins of lager until they could no longer sit without falling or stand without vomiting. That night I was a designated handholder and guided my friend through the streets as he wailed about lost love, Goethe, and the evils of Heineken. We stayed, the mayor (he’s the guy with the necklace) gave us the key to the city, and we continued to defy authority (including the lady on the right) whenever possible.
An interesting twist on all this, which no doubt has the astute reader chuckling, is the possibility that our children have inherited this spirited independence. What happens if they decide they don’t want to see another museum, hike another trail, or spend one more hour in the car, on the train, or in a plane with their siblings? Fortunately, they’re not reading this, and if you know them, you’d better not give them any ideas. We anticipate periodic bouts of boredom and insubordination and are prepared to battle them the only way we know how–by giving them a say. Each will have a chance to choose activities, restaurants, and possibly, if we’re brave, accommodations. If the little people can’t walk another step, we’ll stop and sit. If the big ones cannot bear the thought of fine cuisine, we’ll get McDonald’s. Flexibility is a luxury we appreciate, and with no clock or calendar to control us, one we can afford. Do not for a moment think that this means we will let a grumpy teenager or a demanding preschooler call the shots. After 13 years of parenthood, we come equipped with finely-tuned manipulation detectors. We will not be bullied, but we will try to remember that this trip is about freedom…for all of us.