(Gregory Millman, "Homeschooling," about a family vacation to Disney World:)
"[The children] learned what they never would have believed, that there are people who pay steeply to go where everything that happens will happen on schedule, where no experience will have rough surfaces or sharp edges, where nothing will be too hot or too cold even for a moment, where even the exotic food won't taste too different from what you're used to, where you can't get lost even if you want to because someone is looking out for you, where there won't be any detours or surprises, and where there will never be the slightest risk. There may be fireworks and parades, but they'll happen right on time and exactly where everyone knows they'll happen. Everything will be in perfect order, even the simulacrum of adventure in Frontierland, a land of no stray bullets, no stray dogs, no horseflies, no horse manure, no sweat, no dirt, no splinters, no frowns, and no hard words or hard feelings, where everyone smiles all the time and even the outlaws are polite and helpful if you ask them a question. It was all so strange."
I would consider myself moderately traveled. I haven't been able to do much as an adult, but my dad's career in the airline industry meant that even on the one-income budget we were able to see different places around the world.
My favourite trip, by far, was my second trip to Paris. I specify the second trip, because my first was a three-day whirlwind when I was 17, during which a friend and I saw nearly every tourist stop in the city. You can't go to Paris and not see the Eiffel Tower, L'arc de Triomphe, etc. They are each magnificent in their own sphere, and an important part of the history of that great French capital.
My second trip I took on my own. It was a last minute plan during spring break in university. Flying stand-by necessitates spontaneity. It took two days to even get a spot on the plane. I landed at the airport, took the train to the city and then consulted a scrap of paper on which I had scribbled the name and phone numbers of some hostels. With luck the first had a room, but it wasn't near where I was. So I descended into the zoo that is the Paris Metro. It was surely designed by people who simply said "I want to go from ____ to ____" and then built a subway line in that direction. No circles or straight lines or elegant curves. Just a mess that is actually the fastest and most direct transit system I've ever traveled on.
It happened to also be spring break in Japan. I was the only English/French speaking guest in the hostel. I had thought to find a friend to travel a day or two with, but alas, I found myself alone. I spent the next 5 days meandering through the city streets and wandering through art galleries. I had taken both an Art History course (taught by a highly-decorated professor who specialized in French art) and a Modern Art History course (in which I was currently enrolled). I sped by the Mona Lisa, remarking that, indeed, it was quite small, and that the line of people waiting to see one tiny portrait was insanely long and a complete waste of time. Instead I stood for a full ten minutes in front of "Liberty leading the people" as I contemplated both the book and the musical "Les Miserables," pondering on the history captured in this giant mural and the plight of those who fought. I also had a good chuckle as I stood in front of an Yves Klein Blue painting, amazed that my professor had been correct in saying that you've truly never seen this unique shade of blue (patented IKB). The painting was 10 feet tall, 3 feet wide, and stood at the end of a hallway that joined two major gallery rooms. I could hear people pass behind me, heard them stop and watch me staring so intently, whisper to each other "is that something important?" and flip through a booklet to see if it was "worth seeing."
I also walked through parks and down the river Seine, watched artists painting and selling their creations, flipped through books written in a French I couldn't understand, ate street food (baguettes and cheese, usually) and ducked into cute little cafes to rest my feet.
Later on in the week I did meet up with two friends from university back home who were also planning on a few days in Paris (they started in London). We split the cost of a car rental and made the drive out through Normandy to the beaches famous for the blood that flowed their rather than the waters. The late hour of our arrival meant I was outnumbered to see the American cemetery and beach over the Canadian ones. I stood in awe of the uniform white crosses and for the first time understood the number of lives lost in that battle. My insistence of seeing the Canadian cemetery and beach (I went in alone while they waited in the car) meant that I was able to see the starkest contrast of Canadians to Americans I've ever seen. The Canadian cemetery held the usual round headstones, each one personally engraved with a message, marked as a beloved son, or father, or brother, loved by a mother, wife, father, child left behind. The coolness and conformity of the American cemetery against the intimate, sporadic gathering of Canadian graves. The American beach boasted a large centre that displayed the history of the battle. The Canadian beach had a lone Canadian flag, and that slightly tattered. (I left the site a little incensed, and filled with passion to spur our government to do a little better. I never had the chance to lead my crusade, for later that year I came across a handful of veterans in a Wal-Mart raising money for the newly planned centre on the Juno Beach.) The most powerful moment of all was when I stood on the beach. In an unspoken mutual agreement, my two friends and I had drifted apart so that we each might spend a moment alone in such a somber location. As I stood and gazed out on the grey waters, a large, old plane flew in overhead, quite low above us, its motors growling loudly. For a moment it seemed as if I had been transported back 55 years to that fateful day when planes such as this would have roared overhead of the soldiers desperately trying to claim victory on this cold and outstretched beach.
I have many memories of that trip (including the hotel elevator so small that my two friends and I stood with our backs pressed against the rear as the doors nearly closed on our noses, and the bed that we slept on horizontally so that we could sleep three to a double bed). You can see how the above passage from the book I'm reading speaks to me, leaving a chuckle in the air and a grin on my face. While I do see some advantage to advance planning and set tours, I will always maintain that to see the world one must see it twice, for it isn't until you get all the "must-sees" out of the way that one can truly see a place for what it is.