Hazlett: In praise of travel and canteen conversations

hazlett:-in-praise-of-travel-and-canteen-conversations

On the bookshelf are scrapbooks filled with photos and souvenir pieces from places I’ve visited. Pages decorated with ticket stubs, gift shop receipts and an occasional dinner menu tell the story of some fantastic trips.

After happily reminiscing with the books, I advise my friends to travel now, while they can. See the world! If you hesitate, you may regret it.

These days, with my mom being ill, I stick closer to home. My husband is naturally supportive of this plan. He’s a believer in the philosophy, “Never go anyplace where you can’t walk home.” Having spent decades of his career traveling around the globe, he is content to be in the backyard and water tomato plants.

I’m OK with being a homebody, but occasionally I long for the amazing food, ancient history and beauty of the Tuscan hills.

My parents and I used to visit Europe together; they were generous in allowing me to tag along as a single adult. I was a third wheel, but we always had fun.

Many times we took bus tours. Say what you will about those big buses filled with camera-toting tourists, but that mode of travel can be a great introduction to foreign lands. Tour companies know the routes and their customers’ habits, and have a system down pat.

Typically, our motor coach would roll into the hotel driveway just before dinnertime. Exhausted from the day’s ride, most tourists trudged into the air-conditioned hotel and went straight to their rooms to lie down. Meanwhile, the poor driver unloaded 50 or so heavy pieces of luggage. The lobby was packed with rows of suitcases and scurrying staff.

Mom wanted to rest, but my stepfather Harlan and I did not. So, while she went upstairs, we headed to the hotel bar. That may sound like we were eager for a drink, but that wasn’t the case.

Susan Hazlett

Hazlett

It became our tradition to escape the noisy lobby and find a seat at the bar. Usually we chatted with an interesting bartender or fellow guest who told us more about the area.

Tourists, Americans in particular, seem to easily converse with strangers. Nine times out of 10 Harlan would strike up a conversation with someone familiar with Central Illinois or his employer, Caterpillar. It wasn’t surprising to find common connections. I can’t tell you how many times — it didn’t matter where, Portobello Road Market in London or in front of Cinderella’s Castle in Disney World — Harlan ran into old friends or classmates. It seems graduates of Bloomington High School are everywhere.

During our pre-dinner social hour, we met a man who helped develop caller ID, a doctor who specialized in treating hair disorders (and ended up eating dinner with us), a 90-year-old man who climbed mountains and an Italian guide whose dream vacation was to drive Route 66.

Candidly, I confess I wrinkled my nose at the bar’s unfamiliar local brews, and thought it was daring to order a Kronenbourg 1664 (French lager). But it wasn’t the drink that mattered; it was the experience of being someplace new and absorbing local culture.

The hotel canteens ranged from modern art deco to cozy cafes, depending where we were. My favorites were authentic to the city or village, not the anonymous flashy steel and shiny settings. Sometimes we sat outside on patio chairs and gazed at amazing vistas of vineyards or river valleys while waiting for Mom.

Eventually she’d join us, fresh from a shower and dressed for dinner. Then the three of us would enjoy the view, and talk over what Harlan and I had learned.

Those days of our trio travels are over now, but that’s how life goes. Once in a while just for fun, I’ll say to Harlan, “Let’s have a beer in the backyard and pretend we’re in Munich. Or on that balcony overlooking Perugia. Or sitting at that picnic table on the hillside outside Florence.”

I’m so glad we went.

If you can’t afford to travel outside of the US here are some charming cities you should visit if you want to feel like you’re in Europe.

Contact Susan Hazlett at susanrhazlett@yahoo.com or write to her in care of The Pantagraph, 205 N. Main St., Bloomington, IL 61702-2907.

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Hazlett: In praise of travel and canteen conversations

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