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What We Don’t Photograph: the Other Half of Travel

We canceled Iceland this week. Postponed it, I keep telling myself. Just postponed. Regardless, this summer’s trip is off. With a lot of time on my hands, I’ve been thumbing through my Instagram feed, which, like a lot of folks’, is lopsided with travel. The familiar shots of places I’ve already been fill me with a cold pang of nostalgia, and the beautiful pics from places I haven’t been create another sense of loss. I’ll close Instagram and pick my head up and look across the room at the damp laundry drying on a rack by the window, and I sigh.


Last year’s travel photo book sits on my coffee table. Above, there are half a dozen others on a bookshelf. Sometimes, when I’m bored of pacing from one room to another, I’ll stop and flip through one. Each journey looks ambitious and fulfilling, colorful and rich with love and laughter, sunsets and gelato, street music and wine.


And I have to remind myself, especially now, that the photobooks, and the Instagram feeds, aren’t telling the whole story.


Travel, I keep telling myself now, especially ambitious international travel, has a price. Literally of course, but I mean an emotional price, a time cost. Every stunning photo in my book came at a cost. The long train ride to get there. The two-mile walk in the wrong direction with heavy backpacks tugging our shoulders. The summer heat baking the square where my wife and I are arguing about the guidebook someone (probably me) forgot to bring. The missed connection. The missing luggage. The fender bender that blocked the narrow road in front of our bus for three hours. Travel, I remind myself, is equal parts joy and struggle. Fun and frustration. Wonder and work.


It’s a fine line between a meandering, hand-in-hand wandering, and hot, hungry and hopelessly lost.


For every unforgettable moment, for every treasured memory, there was a price. The photobook is, quite literally, only telling half the story.


So here is my reminder of what a pain-in-the-ass travel is, in case I start getting too restless this summer…


Sean, remember last summer when you arrived at the train station outside Budapest and you and Christine couldn’t figure out what track your train to Vienna was supposed to arrive at? Remember you stood on the wrong platform for ten minutes, wondering if this was the right one? Then doubting yourself, then trying to ask someone, then getting bad information, and then finally figuring out that it was in fact the wrong platform? Remember when the train finally showed up? Remember it was full and you didn’t have assigned seats? You and Christine had to stand in the entryway between two cars with five or six others, waiting for seats to open up. You walked the length of five or six train cars looking, then returning to Christine to tell her there were no seats. The two of you sat on top of your luggage, knees interlocked you were so close, your shoulder pressing against a stranger’s sweaty back. Hot and claustrophobic, you rested your forehead down on top of your arms, looking at your shoes, trying to will time to speed up. The entire train ride. Hours and hours.


Speaking of trains, remember the train that broke down halfway between Killarney and Dublin, Ireland. You were supposed to arrive in the city at one in the afternoon but didn’t get in until around six, cutting deep into what was already going to be a short visit. People were getting off the train to stretch their legs and smoke, get some fresh air, and so you did too, and tried to get some of the rumors and gossip about what was going on because there was no information coming from the train company. One passenger, in his thick Irish brogue, drank a beer and told you that Irish trains break down all the time.


There was train trouble heading into Vernazza in Italy’s Cinque Terre, too. No two train stations operate the same—that’s a lesson you learned the hard way. At least, no two countries’ train stations work the same. You had to change to a local train to get the rest of the way to the Cinque Terre, and there was confusion as to what kind of ticket you needed and where to get the ticket and then how to get the ticket pre-stamped in order to ride, which you learned was a thing in Italy. When you finally figured out which line was for the tickets you needed, the line was long and the train had already pulled into the station. Time was growing short. We finally got our tickets and were directed by someone to a metal box on the wall to get it stamped. We couldn’t figure it out. There was a slot and I tried inserting the ticket but it was clear that there was no mechanism inside to stamp it. It couldn’t have been the right spot. It felt more like a mail slot. Christine thought I wasn’t inserting it far enough and pushed her ticket into the slot, as far as she could, then let go of it and it fell into the box. Gone.


The train was readying to leave. I looked back at the ticket line and saw it was a dozen people deep. We were both stressed and I was yelling at her and she was yelling back and we were obviously going to miss this train. Christine left her bag with me and rushed off to the line to explain to the people in line, despite the language barrier, what had happened. The man at the front of the line bought her a ticket and we somehow figured it out from there and ended up making the train, silently fuming at one another the entire ride.


We lost our luggage in Venice, remember that? The bags never made the connecting flight. Three days in the same clothes. The hotel gave us little plastic care packages to hold us over. A toothbrush and mini deodorant.


Remember when we couldn’t find a cab in Rome? Heavy backpacks on our backs, tired, cranky, hot. Following our hunches the wrong way. Misreading signs to the taxi stand. After a while I figured we’d just start walking and we’d be able to grab one along the way, but that didn’t happen and we’d walked a long time, getting hotter and more tired, adjusting the backpacks over and over with no relief. Christine talked you finally into going back, all the way back, which we did, eventually figuring out our mistake and finding the taxi stand, an hour or so later than we should have.


We got lost in Colmar, France, too. Just last year. It was a long walk into town, and we made it longer by getting ourselves lost. We had suitcases on wheels this time, not weighty backpacks, so that was good, but we were dragging them over cobblestoned streets and the wheels caught in the nooks and grooves, sometimes tipping over, straining our patience even further. My patience, at least. Remember that nice old man asking us if we needed any help? We’d been wandering past the same neighborhood over and over. He pointed us in a direction but we still had trouble getting our bearings. When we finally stumbled onto the right building, we were tired and slick with sweat and jawing at one another. But the town is so goddamn photogenic, so goddamn cute, that it’s almost impossible to remember that initial struggle. When I think of Colmar, I think: ah, Colmar. A living, breathing fairy tale.


Back in 2006 when I was studying abroad as part of my MFA program, we spent a night in Pamplona, Spain to experience the San Fermin Festival. We stayed up all night, enjoying the street life, drinking Kalimotxo, dancing, laughing, eating yummy food, and integrating ourselves into this unique tradition. After the 8 a.m. Running of the Bulls, we all retreated to our hotel room to catch a nap before our early afternoon train back to Madrid. But it was one room. There was a dozen of us, maybe more. We were tired and buzzed and dirty with sweat and grime and spilled red wine. I was exhausted and felt like I could sleep anywhere. Four or five grabbed a place on the bed, someone else in a chair, others on the floor. Someone took the bathtub. The way I remember it, I’d slept with most of my body, save for my head and shoulders, under the bed. It was the only space still available.


It took me a week to fully recover.


Then there was the time in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. I was there for a month in 2008 as part of a postgraduate workshop after I’d finished my MFA. I was a seasoned traveler by then and had shed that nervous energy that pairs with new cities and new experiences. That first night, after meeting up with classmates and friends for welcoming drinks, I made my way back to my hostel, alone, confident that I knew the way back. But, of course, I didn’t. Soon the heavy tropical rains came. A story for another time, I suppose.


I don’t have photos of any of the above moments. My photos capture something else, something a bit edited, I supposed, sanitized. The greatest hits. So of course, reflecting, reminiscing, it’s easy to forget the other half. The work, the suffering, the fights, the panic, the waves of despair that seep in when things aren’t going right.

I need to remember those moments. Especially now. Especially after canceling this next trip. Remember. Remember everything.


Huh.


Writing this didn’t really work. I still feel that longing. What is it? A homesickness, I guess, a certain homesickness for Europe that I can’t shake.


I guess I’ll re-read this tomorrow. See if that helps.



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