“All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost; the old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost.” — J. R. R. Tolkien
Come wander with me. Indulge a few extra words that meander, and might leave you unsure of where this is all headed. Wherever that is, I can assure you it’s to a place that’s not…here.
See, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t wish I was somewhere else. I spent my childhood wandering my backyard, then my neighborhood — anywhere I could get out of my same-old.
“Plant your feet in the ground,” people told me.
“Stop living in a fantasy world.”
But they didn’t quite get where I was coming from.
It wasn’t that I hated where I was. I grew up at the height of 1980s Cold War decadence in a middle class Chicago suburb. Nothing wrong with that. I had great times in those years, and little reason to complain about my geography.
It was actually who I was with that poked and prodded the restless soul within me. Made my feet itch, my mind wander, and my heart pound with anticipation everytime a map lay unfolded before my wide and wishful eyes.
No one in my family — except for me — was born in the United States. Not only did they not come from the only home I knew, but literally crawled over borders guarded by snipers to escape a barely pronouncable place called Czechoslovakia. All to get to the place I took for granted and was dying to flee.
Czechoslovakia: Exotic-sounding in a weird-foreign-guy meets vampy supermodel kind of way. Due to the Iron Curtain, I had little hope of ever getting a look myself.
I knew it had a lot of old buildings, and that parts of it resembled something out of a fairytale. The kind with evil stepmothers and sorceresses. I knew it smelled of the food my mother served — gulash, rye bread, fruit tarts, dumplings and boiled vegetables. The few pictures we had of the old country were black and white, and the people in them looked contemplative, and had a shabby beauty. Even the kids.
They were nothing like the color photos I found myself in, which documented me and my neighborhood gang launching snowballs at each other in a fenced-in yard or playing alien invasion. There was always some mom providing Swiss Miss hot chocolate, and snapping a picture of the snowman we built, or the series of cardboard boxes we’d duct-taped together to make a spaceship. More often than not, she’d paste them into a neat photo album with a daisy print cover and label them stuff like “The Blizzard of ‘79” or “4th of July Shennanigans.”
Our photos from Czechoslovakia were simply shoved into a drawer, looking as lonely there as the scenes they depicted.
Yet the old country had its allure. What it lacked in dazzle, it made up for in story. Tales of danger accompanied those pictures. The places they depicted had seen a lot: wars, lovers, dictators and spies. It was the stuff of novels and classic films, not Kodak moments.
My life may have been in vivid color, and came with lots of cool swag — Guess jeans, boomboxes, skateboards — but I had been ROBBED of being interesting! Feature film worthy! That, to me, was a tremendous insult.
One I intended to rectify.
As luck would have it, an electrifying synergy of luck and karma came my way. On November 17 in 1989, Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution took the world by storm. In a matter of weeks, my family’s people gently kicked the dreaded communists out the door, and opened their arms wide to the rest of us.
In a whirlwind, I sold my car, quit my job, and hopped on a plane to that country’s capital city. In Prague, a dizzying landscape of coal-stained buildings, castles, Gothic churches and Baroque facades painted the colors of Easter eggs greeted me, proving without a doubt that my almost place of origin had indeed been a place of fairytales, just as I suspected.
I felt like the young provincial milkmaid who discovered that she had in fact been a princess all along.
After installing myself in a gritty, but increasingly hip part of my new city, I proceeded to find work, then made it my business to wander around any and all parts of the Czech lands that were worth a damn.
But I didn’t stop there.
I took planes, trains, automobiles and even rickety old buses to Greece, Hungary, Poland, France, England, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Turkey, Gibraltar, Italy, and I’m sure I’ve missed at least one or two others. In those days, even a modest salary could get you anywhere. Maybe not in high style, but that’s neither here nor there. Staying in humble pensions and eating street food only added to the authenticity of the experience. To the story.
And I racked up some great stories.
At long last, I was the party guest with the big tale of the insane night in the romantic place with the outlandish characters! I was the one who’d survived run-ins with Serbian gangsters, got drunk with war photographers, danced in a cage at a makeshift, traveling nightclub, and spent the night in a real, live castle that was actually someone’s home.
Best of all, better than any of that, is that I also found True Love, just like in all the fantasy tales I’d read when I was a kid. The ones about the unlikely girl meeting a handsome guy in a mysterious place under unusual circumstances.
Yes, that happened. All because I made up my mind to go wandering in search of them.
I met my husband one chilly, foggy night in October, right in the heart of Old Town, Prague. Here was a man who shared my passion for the unknown and unchartered. A shanty-Irish writer who grew up in the St. Louis suburbs, he, too, had his eye on another world, a different life than the one he was expected to live out.
And like me, he didn’t hate where he came from. He just wanted out, wanted more, wanted different, wanted to wander. One of eight children, he was also as eager to dive into the audacious adventure of family life, as he was to hop on a plane and go just about anywhere.
“That, too,” he said. “Is a journey.”
He convinced me that becoming parents was a natural path to take in our wanderings, a new chapter that would freshen our narrative after all of the zany, more self-indulgent things we’d done.
So, that’s exactly what we did.
We envisaged that our babies would travel with us from continent to continent and across the seven seas. We’d inculcate them in the wandering life, giving them a whole bunch of stories of their own from the get-go. The kinds of madcap dramedies we’d had to wait until adulthood to accrue.
“Remember your 8th birthday party in India? I told you not to ride that elephant!”
“Christmas in an igloo in Finland was the worst! But at least we got to see a sled pulled by real-live reindeer. Not that the guy driving it looked anything like Santa Claus.”
Except that once my new husband and I actually had those kids, we learned very quickly that travel with little ones is cumbersome, chaotic, and expensive. Jet lag throws off nap schedules big time, and toddlers don’t care about wandering the streets of an ancient city. They want to go play in a park. Or splash around in a pool. They’re not even that into visiting castles, either. They’d rather build them in the sand.
Or bury each other in the sand.
But we were not to be deterred. Our wanderlust was that strong, that impervious to reason.
“Damn it,” we said to ourselves. “Even if wandering the Earth isn’t quite the family fun we thought it would be, there’s got to be something we can do to escape the doldrums.”
In a feat as daft and clueless as our plan to globe-trot with our kiddos strapped to our backs, we scraped our pennies together and bought an old fixer-upper. I mean like old old. Pre-Civil War old.
With absolutely no handy skills or design experience, we began renovating our new old house bit by bit, tackling each region of the structure like a country to be explored. In a slow-motion frenzy, we hired handymen and contractor friends to help us transform the interior of our place — creating nooks, picking colors. Getting it comically wrong sometimes.
We had walls knocked down and swept out chimneys, making them usable again. Discovered century-old graffiti under a seven layer dip of carpet, vinyl, tiles and handmade brick, plus yellowed newspapers and hand-written letters beneath floorboards, between walls. “I’m not fond of this Martin Luther King fellow,” one of those letters read.
We never bought anything en masse, choosing instead to hunt for our furniture piece by piece.
Because we wanted our home to tell more than the story of our tastes, but of our life together and the family we built. A living, functioning testament to all the places we’d been to, and the crackbrained dreams we’d cooked up along the way. We needed it to be a place a person could wander, even get lost in.
Indeed every room holds at least a dozen stories, from the framed “New York Times” Obituary my husband wrote for our dear departed dog, to a mounted gazelle’s head that sits between “Marcel” and “Claude,” two oil on canvas portraits of 19th century gentlemen with absolutely no sense of humor. We found those in a little antique store in the heart of a tiny French village.
A painted up coffee table lifted from my husband’s college fraternity house sits next to a beautiful and expensive pair of arm chairs that we splurged for. Faded antique rugs lie near newly made ones, and we purposely left the original pine floors pretty much as they were — oil drum stain and all.
Every purchase, whether from a flea market or a fancier outlet provides a view, a marker, something to talk about. Old memories mix with the new, ghosts sit with the living in making them.
What a long, strange trip it’s been.
And now, we can see this journey, too, coming to an end. Not today. Not tomorrow. But if we’re honest with ourselves, the end of our in-home wandering stage is closer to its conclusion than its onset. We’ve racked up a lot of stories here and don’t know how many more we can squeeze out of this place. Already, our oldest has left for college and his sister is close on his heels. Our youngest will be launching her life only a handful of years after that.
Then, perhaps, it will be time to put on our knapsacks again. To open our doors and step out into the world. Or maybe, just maybe, we’ll have quenched our wanderlust and will finally look around us and see there’s nowhere else we’d rather be?
Nah. Who am I kidding?