Remembering Great Vacations

Remember before March 2020 how sometimes people would voluntarily go to some place that wasn’t their home? They would literally take time off of work just to go somewhere that isn’t their home and do stuff that maybe isn’t available in their hometowns? And sometimes the places they would go had different languages and/or social customs? Remember that? A “vacation,” they called it. You didn’t need to wear a mask. You didn’t have to self-quarantine. You didn’t need to take a shower in Germ-X. All you had to do was show up somewhere, preferably with some of the local currency, and exist in a less familiar place?

Well, crazy as it seems, people used to actually do that. In fact, I’ve even done it myself several times. I’ve had the great fortune to do a study abroad in college (which, if we’re honest, is about 85% vacation, 10% school, and 5% having nightmares about Liam Neeson’s daughter in Taken). Aside from that European trip in college, I’ve been across the Atlantic two other times. I’ve been to (read: spent at least one night in) Germany, France, Switzerland, Czechia, Austria, Italy, and Ireland. I’ve also spent layovers in Amsterdam and London, but I wouldn’t say I’ve been to those places, ya know?

Anyhow, the purpose of all this build up is to offer some advice. My travels in Europe are some of my favorite memories. There was the food, the beer, the people (except for in France), the history, the beer, the different social customs, the old churches, and even the beer. Additionally, each trip was with wonderful friends, so there are shared experiences that made the trips even better. But the reason these memories are so wonderful and so crystal clear is because I journaled during the trips.

Now, I may know what you’re thinking. You might be thinking that journaling is for middle schoolers to write down their secret crushes or for playing MASH with their friends. And normally I would be on your side. I don’t think most people lead lives that are worth documenting in such great detail, if for no other reason than it would be redundant and time-consuming. I mean, how many different times would one really need to write “Dear diary, I spent 45 minutes in traffic because there was a wreck on I-35 again”? But when you’re doing something as rare and exciting as travel, journaling is a worthwhile exercise.

If I want to, I can open a notebook I have and see exactly what I was doing on a given day of any of my international travels. When reading, my memories become clearer and I get sensory callbacks; I can smell the odd mix of cooking oil, beer, cigarette smoke, and the water off the Rhine as I recall sitting in a biergarten in Bonn, watching the consolation game of the 2010 World Cup. Similarly, when reading about my time in Italy, I can smell the musk of a medieval church, I can feel the warm sunrays on my face as I walk across the Ponte Vecchio, and I can taste the chianti with which I washed down my carbonara. It’s very pleasant. If nothing else, it can be your own little secret.

But one of the best things about keeping records of your travels like this is sharing those memories with your travel companions (or anyone bored enough to listen to you drone on about how Europe “changed your life”). For instance, I can still talk to people I traveled with about our shared experiences, and more often than not I will mention something and my conversation partner will say, “oh wow, I forgot all about that.” And it’s like, yeah, I know, man, that’s why I’ve been trying to convince you to write it down.

I’m not going to pretend I’m Rick Steves or Anthony Bourdain or some other famous traveler. If you want advice on where to go in Europe, consult the Internet and your own feelings. I don’t know you, so I can’t tell you where to go. But if you ask about the places I’ve been, I can recall that in great detail because I wrote it all down. So put aside whatever inhibitions you have about journaling and do it. I promise that when reminiscing on your travels you will be thankful you wrote things down.

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