Mother’s Day is a good time for me to reflect on my travels with Mom. My mother taught me how to get the most from travel. From Mom's travel lessons I learned how to savor travel, how to revel in it, how to learn from it. While my life as a military brat provided the opportunities to observe foreign lands and peoples, Mom's travel lessons were focused on the experiential side of travel.
Our family was stationed in Naples, Italy, for four years when I was 4 to 8 years old. We returned again for my high school years from the ages of 15-18. My travel bug was in full gear from then on. I had amazing opportunities and our family took advantage of our chance to discover Europe every chance we had. These memories provide a unique view of Mom and my developing love of travel.
The wisdom of travel and gathering experiences
Mom's travel lessons included:
Travel whenever you have the chance. Your golden years aren't so golden.
Planning a trip is the most important and educational part of taking it.
The beauty of Venice grew from desperation.
True art only comes with perspiration and preparation.
Don't wrinkle your nose — the only way you know what it tastes like and feels like in your mouth is by taking a bite. Then you can complain.
Someday, you will pay a lot of money for mushrooms.
Eventually, through the years, I have realized that every one of her platitudes is true.
The Eiffel Tower — "Just seeing sights isn't enough. Learn its history and learn from it."
For Mom, seeing the Eiffel Tower wasn't enough. My brothers and I always had to suffer through readings about the history of this iron structure. We learned about the World's Fair, for which the tower served as the symbol and entrance. She read to us some of the controversies about its construction. She was proud of the Otis Elevators that carried sightseers. I remember that the restaurants in the tower were all too expensive for us to be allowed to eat there.
By listening to this history, I learned not only about the tower itself, but why it was built. I also learned that its construction came only after debate within the city and the top French artists and architects. The final vision came from a group of artists, engineers, and architects, not only from Eiffel. I learned about US exports being used in the most French of structures. And, I experienced my first sticker shock via my Dad. And, even in 1985, the elevators were expensive. However, Mom insisted that we ascend. And, ascend we did.
Camping through Europe — "To hell with reverse. We are going forward."
[xyz-ihs snippet="Lead-Ad-2"]When I was 15, 16, and 17 years old, our family used to take off for a couple of months during the summer and camp through Europe. Yes, my Dad worked. He was a Colonel in the Air Force. He took a two-week vacation to travel with Mom and the rest of the family. Afterward, he would fly back home and we would continue on our way. We camped outside of Copenhagen, Salzberg, Piza, Paris, Amsterdam, and more great cities. We would rent bicycles and cruise through the cities or get transportation passes and move using buses, trams, and metros. It was a blast.
I learned Mom's travel lessons about organization and getting a family to work together. Whenever we pulled into a campsite, there was a routine. My brother and I set up the tent. We blew up air mattresses. Mom got the cooking table organized. We visited the campsite offices to get the lay of the land. What were the best ways to get into town? Did we have to take a bus or drive part way and then link with the public transport system? Where was the nearest supermarket? Were there bike rentals? We met new neighbors and then either ate and went to sleep or headed into town. Organization was crucial.
Who needs reverse? We are going forward.
One day after the starter in the car stopped working, Mom didn't want to take the time to get it repaired. Reverse gear in the car stopped working as well. My brothers and I were already pushing the VW van to get it started every day. Now we had to make sure to park on a hill or in a parking lot where Mom didn't have to back up. When I suggested that we should get the reverse gear working, she said, "Heck kids, we aren't going backward. We are moving forward. Who needs reverse?"
And she was right. I can't remember any time that we couldn't all get out of the car and push it back a couple of feet and allow Mom to maneuver the van around whatever was in our way.
Paestum and Pompeii — "Climbing through history is the best experience and leads to more."
My earliest memories of travel were from time spent climbing through the ruins of Pompeii and Paestum in Italy. I was probably about 5 years old. I always remember the giant Greek columns from the ruins of Paestum and the body casts that were displayed in the baths of Pompeii. It was about a decade later when I returned to Naples and eventually visited these ruins that I put place names together with my toddler memories. This was my first realization that Mom's travel lessons were indeed important.
Reflecting on those images today, I realize the impact and importance of experiencing travel and being exposed to photos and stories about history. These travels made later studies about Greek and Roman gods come to life. The chariot racecourses and amphitheater added a different dimension to movies like Ben Hur and Sparticus.
Take public transportation and visit markets — "The only way to enjoy a city is to mix with the people. Observing isn't enough for understanding."
Uber and Lyft, together with taxi cabs, are bad for travelers who want to savor the flavor of any destination. So are most hotel bars. The transportation travelers take and the sights they visit color their experience. Travelers need to become participants in a city's everyday life. That's what makes a true traveler. Those who only travel with tour groups in buses, take taxis and other private transportation, and who drive by markets and sights to see, are missing the joy and real destination experience of travel.
Learn the local culture
This adage comes with more than simply discovering enjoyment. A trip to the shoe market in Naples, Italy, can teach one about real communications and understanding. Here is an example of one of Mom's travel lessons.
Friends of mine once went to shoe alley with me in Naples, Italy. The giant market had every kind of shoe stacked along the street. There were hundreds of shoe vendors. This was a market that was based on bargaining. My friends spied a pair of Ferragamo shoes sitting on the top of a stack of boxes. I asked the vendor if they had the size shoe for my friends. He pulled out the exact pair; my friend tried on the shoes and was pleased with them. Then came the bargaining and purchasing parts of the deal.
The vendor and I went back and forth about the price of the shoes. My friends impatiently asked how much the guy wanted. I told them. So they threw the money on the stack of boxes and walked off with their shoes. The vendor looked at me and said, "I've known you for a long time. Your friends...," and he made a spitting action, "They insulted me."
Later, when I caught up with my friends, they thought just the opposite about the interaction with the shoe salesman. To them, the vendor got the price he asked for and he didn't have to spend time bargaining. The vendor, on the other hand, felt that my friends were condescending by throwing their money at him and by refusing to engage with him.
Communicating is far more than only talking. It is also respect
I have seen this kind of difference in communications repeat itself in markets across Europe where bargaining is a way of life and where Americans find it distasteful. I have also seen it when government representatives negotiate treaties with other nations. Not understanding the way that locals think can often mean offending them and doing the exact opposite of what we as a nation wanted to do.
Instead of gratitude, you will create disgust. This is one of the most important lessons I have learned — understanding a culture is far different from simply visiting it.
Thanks, Mom. I'm doing what I can to make the world of travel a better place and to share your travel lessons.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past 12 years with Congress, the Department of Transportation, and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the first consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018.