A Viking inheritance as sure as my blue eyes, wanderlust courses through my veins. I’ve purchased less expensive houses and driven old cars to have more money for travel. Any dog I adopt and any child I birth quickly learns to enjoy road-tripping.
When he was 6 months old, I conked Hugo's head on the stone ceiling of an underground cavern in Tennessee. Bending over to step through a narrow passageway, I forgot the head of my baby, who was strapped onto my back, stuck out further than my body. He was fine and, along with 3-year-old Claude, I spent several days hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains with Hugo on my back.
The notion of a capstone trip was born in 2007 at the Grand Canyon North Rim. Like me, 10-year-old Hugo wanted to return, stay in one of the park’s cabins and hike the Kaibab Trail to the canyon's bottom.
“How about the summer after you graduate from high school, we come back, just you and me?” I asked Hugo.
Hugo is now a senior in college and we’ve yet to return to the Grand Canyon. Like his brother before him, after graduation, Hugo worked full time to help pay for college.
Instead, and perhaps better, I’ve traveled alone with each of my two eldest sons after they studied abroad. Four years ago, Claude went to Granada, Spain. When his program finished, we met up at the Madrid Airport and spent two weeks falling in love with the people, food and multiple cultures across the Iberian Peninsula.
This past summer, Hugo studied in Graz, Austria. A fine program with top-notch teachers, many of whom perform in Europe’s big opera houses, it is also private. That meant Hugo could not expect study abroad grants or loans from his college.
Instead, he gave recitals, received a scholarship from the Friends of Eastman Opera and simply worked, both during school years and summers.
Nearly two years after he auditioned and was accepted, Hugo made his final payment.
Meanwhile, I, too, squirreled away money, figuring I needed $2,000 plus the price of my airline ticket. When I returned to the States, my credit card dedicated to the trip had a balance of $2,100.
Like Claude four years earlier, Hugo met me at the airport. The next day, we traveled by bus from Vienna to Prague and two days later to Berlin. Three days before leaving Europe, we flew back to Vienna.
We always travel on the cheap in part because it's what we can afford, but also what I prefer. If you stay at Hilton hotels in other countries, your experience will be different than if you stay with locals. In Spain, Claude and I averaged about $50 a night at modest local hotels.
In the time since my trip with Claude, a new kid has arrived on the accommodations block: Airbnb. Average cost: $30 per night. Heaven for Holly is staying in the homes of locals and learning about their lives. Our last host, a delightful 24-year-old named Heribert, studies art history. His large apartment in Vienna is about $1,300 a month and as an Austrian citizen not only is his tuition free, but he also receives a stipend for living expenses.
For my children and me, the unexpected is where adventure awaits. That’s why we travel on our own and not in organized tour groups. Mishaps are inevitable. And in the response to both delightful and stressful situations lies a traveler's character.
Hugo always loved maps. Our time at the Grand Canyon was part of a cross-country road trip in our 5-speed Toyota Matrix. In 2007, GPS systems were around, but not ubiquitous. We used a road atlas and, as I was the only driver, Hugo was my navigator.
In Europe, Hugo took navigating to the next level. In each city, he figured out public transit and Google-mapped walking directions. He also found and booked our Airbnb reservations and travel tickets to each city.
On our last day in Vienna, we left with enough time to have lunch at the airport before boarding. Twenty minutes into the ride, we realized we’d taken the right train, but in the wrong direction. We got off in a sleepy alpine village and waited half an hour for a train heading toward the airport.
Hugo repeatedly apologized, telling me how stupid he felt. Going the wrong direction on a train, particularly in a foreign country, is not only an easy mistake to make, everyone has done it (if someone says otherwise, they’re lying).
“So long as we catch our flight, it’s all good,” I told him. “But if we miss our flight, we’ll just book a new one, possibly without having to pay more.”
We caught our flight but not lunch. Hunger makes the best sauce, and hours later at Heathrow Airport, we made quick work of two large plates of fish and chips.
Traveling far from home with each of my young adult children crystallizes two decades of work. Yes, work, along with love, humor and the growth of both child and parent. Together every minute, seeing amazing things for the first time while also figuring out unfamiliar languages and ways of living (a toilet paper dispenser in a bathroom stall in Prague left me feeling more ignorant than any human ever has), a person who started as a collection of cells in my uterus becomes mostly my equal.
Perhaps because I trained them to travel like me — have a plan, but keep it loose in order to take advantage of unexpected delights — some of the best days of my life have been trekking in foreign places with my adult sons. That they, too, treasure this time together is more dear to me than any gift.
Contact Holly Christensen at firstname.lastname@example.org.