Why (and how) to travel while you're young

January 14, 2020

I travelled a lot when I was a kid, a little in college, and really a lot in the last decade or so. And as I travel more, and have all sorts of moments and interactions and revelations and clarifications, I’ve started to notice that the ones I had during that brief middle period between childhood and adulthood stand out most starkly.

I remember — so clearly — buying a peacock paper journal at Giulio Giannini & Figlio in Florence with my friend John Sapp in my fourth and his third year of university, and sitting on sand-dusty steps writing as I looked out over the Piazza dei Signori, sinking softly but completely into my big thoughts on these big men I’d always known about but had only just started to read.

I remember crossing a bridge like one I’d seen Dante cross in a Pre-Raphaelite painting and feeling so close to him. He was, under the centuries of patina, a guy who walked here, where I am, through this city, thinking thoughts, feeling feels, like me. Until that moment, writers like these seemed like demigods; from that moment, they seemed like people who wrote well, and probably worked hard. It’s a basic realization, but a vital one, and I had it because I travelled to that place at that time.

I’d bought a postcard of the painting on a recent trip to Liverpool, showing Dante lightly placing his hand on his heart as he sees Beatrice pretending to ignore him, on this very bridge (maybe!), everything I thought I knew about love at first sight pouring into him (and me!), changing him (and me!), sending him off to write (me too, with my notebook!) his deathless sonnets (my boyfriend back in Hamilton was the sonneteer in the family, but I could write trenchant aperçus!).

The energy was a rush, like sitting braced in whitewater. It was also permanent; I dip back into it whenever I think about that bright afternoon. I have other moments like that — the early afternoon light sparkling off the water’s stucco chop while crossing the river in Liverpool, playing pétoncle in Lyon with a Dutch boy named Gert, sunbathing on a rock while men in heavy sweaters hauled fish from trawlers on a late December afternoon in Siracusa — all from the half dozen trips I took over a five-year period in my early twenties.

As I continued to travel beyond my early twenties, I slowly realized that those trips I’d taken because there was a seat sale or I had an unexpected week between temp jobs were having effects not only on my later trips, but my whole life. If I’d known, I might have made different choices, gone other places, gone to more places, taken more notes.

But here I am, and if you’re 18–30, there you are. Consider this a wordy postcard from your sage, old, well-travelled future self:

Pictures are good; notes are better

I could make an argument that seeing your trips through the screen on your phone or the back of a camera puts a distance between you and your experience that can hamper it, or at least throw it into retrospect before it’s even done. But you’re going to be taking pictures, and you’re going to be taking lots of them, and so am I. So what I’ll say is that you should also take notes. I started taking them on paper; that peacock paper journal was my first, and I eventually partly filled 40 or so, ending with a Leuchtturm I lost somewhere in Croatia that convinced me to switch formats. I started with Evernote, went to Google Keep when Evernote got laggy without a connection, then went back to Evernote when Keep lost several days of notes when I tried to sync it with my laptop, and now use both pretty indiscriminately. They’re both cloud apps, so no more losing stuff (except for that laptop-sync incident). Evernote is way bigger, and the premium version has the best business-card reader I’ve ever used. But the free version lets you put pictures in the middle of notes, turning them into little journal entries. You can do loads more with it that I never do. Keep is a more basic notes app.

But the thing is, take the notes. You can sit in a maquis on a dusty road in Yopougon and get your words just right, if that’s how you like to travel (it’s how I like to travel), or you can just jot down things you notice, what made you notice them, things you overhear, how things taste, smell, feel.

On one of those same half dozen trips, this one to Geneva, I remember having my notebook open in my hand — I think it was still the peacock one — as I was about to get on a boat to take a cruise on Lac Léman (a.k.a. Lake Geneva). I wrote something about seeing a swan, and then imagined myself capturing the moment at which I went from never have been on this lake, to being on it, by sandwiching it between two notes, like I was Sylvester trying to catch Tweety Bird between two slices of bread. So I wrote something else once the boat launched into what I remember as late morning mist of the sort I imagined Mary Shelley looking out over this same lake after having stayed up all night writing Frankenstein. Like most of what I thought (and did) on these trips, it was silly, naïve, and 100% true and right. I still have that moment captured between those two notes, not in aspic or amber but still wriggling around.

Go somewhere that means the world to you

I was reading Dante for the first time when I went to Florence, and it was huge for me. I’ve gone back to the Inferno, Purgatorio, and tried to get past the blinding virtues of Paradiso a couple of times since then, and it's just occurred to me know that I’ve actually never been back to Florence. Weird. Anyway, it’s not about going somewhere that’s permanently meaningful to you, or worthy of being permanently meaningful to you, it’s about something that’s meaningful to you when you make the trip. If Greta Thunberg has moved you, and that picture of her sitting alone with her messy sign leaning against the wall of the Riksdagshuset in Stockholm, then go there, see the place that made her, try to find that bit of wall and sit against it yourself. The thing is to foreshorten the space between you and the world, where things happen, where you can happen.

Go somewhere you know nothing about

I wrote about this at length, but it applies doubly to travelling when young. There are things you know about the world and the things that have happened in them, and there are things you don’t. When I was in college, I knew about Europe; Western Europe, specifically — mainland Western Europe to get even more precise. So when I closed my eyes and pointed to a town in the southeast corner of Sicily and decided to go there, it was no Addis Ababa or Kathmandu, but it opened up a part of the world I didn’t know anything about; when I caught the ferry I hadn’t known was there and spent a night walking around Valetta, seeing all the Christmas decorations still up, their messages written in the transliterated creolized Arabic people speak in Malta began a lifelong process of learning how little I know about things.

Take at least one trip with a friend

I went to Florence with a friend, and I went to Rome and Venice with another friend. Friends take you places you wouldn’t otherwise go. The compromises you make, not only on the big itinerary that involves plane tickets and tour reservations, but the little daily decisions to go up that street and not this one, to stop into this cafe, or that kebab kiosk. Travel is about leaving old comfort zones and finding new ones, and other people will make sure to keep you on track.

Take at least one trip alone

I was often the only person I knew who could or wanted to travel when I did, and though people in their teens and twenties — just like people in their sixties and seventies — tend to be social travellers, going with friends, groups, on tours, be sure to take at least one solo trip so you can be as annoying and boring and obsessive and reckless and lazy and yourself as you want to be. You cultivate experience differently when you’re alone than when you’re seeing it both through their eyes and yours. Talking, rehashing, making stories, and sharing your wonder can be great, but it’s also good to think and to brood, to swish something around in your mouth a bit — whether it’s cafe au lait or your thoughts on Italian women’s startlingly strong shoe game — to get closer to what you think about it. I was in Paris alone once, and saw a woman pull down her baby’s underwear, hold her over a gutter at shoulder height, and let it relieve itself. If I’d been with someone, there would have been vocal expressions of disgust, followed inevitably by jokes.

Since I was alone, I walked with it a bit, wondered about it, remembered something I’d learned in an English history class about women in big hoop skirts using them as ambulatory privy blinds, positioning themselves over gutters when the need arose, and no one passing able to tell a thing. I thought about how much diapers cost. I thought about the dogs and the cats and the drunk men at 3am, and a few minutes later decided that yeah, it was a little gross, but so were a lot of things. The image of that baby and its mother has stayed with me because it was the first time I confronted something like with any maturity, or sense that my first reaction might not be my final reaction. Time, as I’ve mentioned here before, is a great resource when you’re travelling. Don’t rush through these places and experiences. Lounge around in them. Which brings me to my last bit of postcard-from-your-future advice...

Assume you’ll be back

Trying to wring everything you can out of a trip is a natural instinct. You’re in Berlin, and you’d be foolish — not to mention a bad Instagrammer — if you didn’t get to Checkpoint Charlie and the Wall Memorial and Bowie’s apartment and the Reichstag and Unter den Linden and the Brandenburg Gate and the Fernsehturm and Prenzlauerberg and the Olympic stadium...

But what if you assumed you’d be back? What if you decided this was just the beginning of your world travels, you’ve got decades ahead of you, and that you’ll probably return in a couple of years to catch whatever you missed? Then maybe you could linger a bit on Under den Linden, sit on a bench on the boulevard in the middle, or at a cafe on either side, maybe even until the sun goes down and all those lights on the linden trees go on. Whether you’re alone or with people, sitting and meandering can pump a little oxygen back into your trip, leaving you feel energized by it rather than exhausted. It’s not how I travelled then, but it is now, and even when I’m near certain I won’t be going back, I’ve never regretted it.

Getting there

So you’re thinking of adventuring around the world? Good call. Sure, there’s no right way to do it. But there is “your way.” Click here to learn more about our 18-to-Thirtysomething collection of tours — it's adventure on your terms.

Previous Article
A cinematic tour of Turkey
A cinematic tour of Turkey

From Istanbul to Gallipoli, Turkey has long been a star of the silver screen

Next Article
24 hours in… San José
24 hours in… San José

Discover the growing arts and culinary scene in Costa Rica’s capital

Sign Up for our Newsletter

Sign Up Here