My husband, JP and I just returned from a long-anticipated, 12 day August vacation to England where we knew no one.
I phrase it that way because taking this trip brought back memories of my father-in-law – let’s call him, NP – who had his own take on the concept of travel.
NP was the ultimate “people person.” More than anything he loved visiting relatives, going to family reunions, hosting big groups for a bbq in their back yard. The sole reason to travel for him was to get together with people he already knew and had not seen for a while – to see family and old friends from the village he and my mother-in-law came to the U.S. from in the Macedonian region in northern Greece when they were in their 20’s.
Every August NP and my mother-in-law would leave their home in Detroit to take an extended trip to see relatives – one year they would visit their old village in Greece; the next August they would travel to the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia, where many of villagers had emigrated and the following August back to the village. They always stayed with relatives. I don’t think my father-in-law had ever been inside a hotel room.
One time years ago when JP and I were in Detroit, we mentioned that we were thinking of taking a trip to Paris (which never happened), NP asked us – “Who do you know in Paris?”
We told him, “No”, we have no friends or family in Paris that we wanted to see. We had separately visited Paris in our college years, and wanted to return as grown-ups to see the sights, to walk the streets, to eat the food, and to wander through museums.
NP shook his head – “Why would you want to go somewhere where you don’t know anyone?”
That was how my father-in-law saw the world – the people in it mattered. The scenery did not.
We visited Detroit one September when our kids were young just after my in-laws had returned from a trip to Melbourne. They shared with us their trip photos – there must have been about 300 of them – and not a single photo showed a vineyard, a beach, a site of historical interest or a city scene. Instead there were 300 photos only of people – older relatives and long-known friends sitting around kitchen tables, reminiscing and catching up with each other.
“And this is cousin Alex with his wife, Dora, next to him is cousin, George and that is Mary. This one is of Nick’s family and his kids, Nick, George and Angelo. And then we stayed with cousin Jim and his family, George, Nick and Peter.”
And so forth.
All people. No scenery.
I asked my father-in-law if they had seen the Melbourne zoo, the market, the cathedral or gone to a nearby winery. He scoffed, why would they do that?
What NP cared about most in his life was family. He never understood why JP and I took vacations with our kids to national parks, to see the Gettysburg battlefield and to walk the Freedom Trail in Boston.
Honestly, I used to laugh at NP’s theory of travel, thinking he was the one who entirely missed the point. Yes, seeing family and old friends was important, but what about seeing the famous world sights, being exposed to unfamiliar ways of doing things – that was a big part of why we wanted to travel.
Now, after coming home from our trip to England, I finally get a glimpse of what my father-in-law meant.
You should know that JP and I are not big world travelers. Prior to this trip to England, the last time we went abroad was in 2005 when we visited our daughter who was then studying in Florence, Italy for her spring semester in college. And yes, we returned with the requisite pictures of the Palazzo Vecchio, the Uffizi Gallery, the Duomo and the vistas of cypress trees up against ancient stone villas.
On this trip to England, we left London after a few days for the countryside in Yorkshire and then drove (very carefully, on very narrow roads, on the left, thank you JP for doing all the driving) around the multi-shire region known as the Cotswolds where we took more pictures of ancient castles, palaces and limestone houses by little rivers in pretty villages.
My husband and I spent an entire 12 days together (the most wonderful part) but on our return, I realized that we had talked to no one else – other than hotel staff, taxi-drivers, waiters at pubs and ticket-takers at museums.
As lovely as small Cotswold villages, with their gardens, their little alleys and their picturesque names – “Moreton-on-Marsh”, “Stow-on-Wold”, “Upper Slaughter” and its sister, “Lower Slaughter” are, they were all filled with people who were strangers to us. We only had that typical exchange of pleasantries as tourists do.
This September it will be 17 years since the death of NP, my father-in-law, the ultimate “people person.”
And I think I have finally come to understand his perspective on travel. There are many beautiful places in this world to see, so much history to appreciate, lovely art museums and rolling hills dotted with sheep.
While I wouldn’t want to travel only to places where I already have friends and family, there is something to be said for remembering that beautiful old buildings are just that – important edifices for sure (Blenheim castle, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, with its vastness and grandeur was amazing) but still just edifices.
The lives that people led in those buildings and the lives that they now lead are what really matter. Thanks, NP for being the “people person” that you were and sharing with me a valuable lesson in the purpose of travel.