The Purple of Life

She told me to hold on to the purple in my life.

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Location: Chicago, United States

I'm a 37-year-old editor and city dweller, wife and mother, moderately liberal and radically optimistic. I would fill my perfect day with a cup of coffee and the Op Ed section, a flea market and the playground, a run along Lake Michigan, a walk through the neighborhood with my son and my greyhound, a Cuban dinner and a bottle of red with my husband, and an evening flight to some European city. I wouldn't be picky about which one.

February 25, 2003

A big green backpack and a vague set of directions

Originally posted to Diary-X on February 25, 2003

My back has been itching for a pack lately. I probably shouldn’t be subscribing to National Geographic Traveler. This month’s issue features Paris, a place I was never particularly interested in visiting…until now, of course. I read the article on finding the hidden parts of the city, and looked at the photographs of street markets and little public squares and people drinking coffee on their way to work, walking down the old stone streets, and I could almost smell the place. It’s amazing how Anywhere But Here can seem so inviting, simply because it isn’t Here.

Of course, it doesn’t help when people like my oh-so-well-traveled friend Chris send me conniving little emails like this:

i can only say that you two should forget about going back to europe and check out south-east asia. everyone looks at the ticket prices and distance and thinks that it will be too expensive, but i say to you... it might change your life. thailand is one of the easiest places you might ever travel to with beaches, incredible nature, and ancient temples; laos, which is changing quickly, is the most beautiful country i have ever visited (and i have been to ireland); vietnam was easy and amazing; and malaysia which has the most incredible wildlife i've ever seen. each of these countries was easy to travel in, amazingly cheap and clean accommodation, food to tantalize each and every taste bud, and people that will make you laugh and truly believe in human goodness. most days you can eat, sleep, travel, and see amazing things at about the same price as a youth hostel in europe. think about that. just something to think and dream about.


My family didn’t travel too ambitiously when I was young. Every year, we spent a week on the Jersey shore and a week in the Pocono Mountains. (There was a trip to California and a Disney World pilgrimage, but they were the exceptions.) When the hypodermic needles starting washing up on the shore in Wildwood, we moved our beach holidays to Ocean City, Maryland, and Nag’s Head, North Carolina. But we never went to New England, to New York State, to the Deep South, to Arizona or Colorado. We didn’t visit Civil War battlegrounds or big East Coast cities. We had fun on our vacations; they were relaxing, but they were also, for the most part, predictable.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t obsessed with going to Europe. Spending three weeks in Vienna through a college program was probably one of the best gifts my parents ever gave me (they paid for most of it). I took a class in modern Austrian history, explored the city pretty thoroughly, and spent my weekends in Salzburg and Prague. The group of 80 students could be irritating at times—there were the usual ugly Americans, drama queens, and sloppy binge drinkers—but there wasn’t a day that I wasn’t grateful to be there. After three weeks, Vienna felt ever so slightly like a home. If I were to show up there tomorrow, I would, in a basic sense, know my way around.


I didn’t do the true backpacking thing until the following year, 1999. I used my Christmas bonus money to spend two weeks in Italy. My father recommended putting that $1,000 toward my college loans, but my mother said, “Take this chance, now, while you have it.” So I did.

At first, I planned to go to Italy and Greece with my high school boyfriend. We’d remained on good terms since we broke up in college, and we decided to travel together… until three months before we were supposed to leave, when he met a girl, and the girl didn’t like the idea of him gallivanting around Europe with his ex. (I scoffed then, but now I can understand.) He bailed.

I often wonder at how fate works, because there was a chance that maybe, just maybe, we would’ve rekindled something on that trip. We both knew that was a possibility. I was single, a bit lonely, and open to reconnection, especially if that reconnection took place while riding a double-seated scooter along an oceanside cliff in Greece. But obviously that wasn’t meant to be, and I decided to go alone and stick to Italy. And three weeks before I left, I had my first date with John.

I’ll never forget the feeling of stepping off the plane in Rome, walking into the airport, and realizing there was no one there to meet me. No one in that whole city knew I was there. I had a big green backpack and a vague set of directions to the hostel I’d booked, and that was all. There were guards with machine guns standing nearby, and I didn’t speak the language, and the big group of middle-aged American tourists was heading off in the opposite direction, to their chartered bus. I wanted to be purely excited to be there, but I also wanted to get on the chartered bus. My excitement was mixed with fear and a healthy dose of "What the fuck have I done??"

One thing I learned in Italy (besides how to read a map really, really well) is that traveling is easily romanticized, both while you’re planning for it and when you’re recounting your experiences afterward. When describing my two days in the hill town of Assisi, one of my favorite places in Italy, I can talk about the hour I spent perched on a garden wall outside a convent, writing in my journal, with the patchworked green countryside of Umbria spread all around me. I can write about the holiness and hush of the Basilica of St. Francis, and my solo dinner of margherita pizza and red wine in the town square, as the sun set and glistened on the medieval stone walls. I can describe the walk through silent vineyards back to my hostel, and the grocery dinner of bread, tomatoes, cheese, and Peroni beers that I shared with some Australian guys in the hostel, sitting on a wooden deck overlooking a thick expanse of trees. (One of the guys, Tim, had stamps from 89 countries in his passport and had recently been to Cuba. I frothed with jealousy.)

But those poetic descriptions don’t take into account how hard it was to figure out which train to take to Assisi (I spent about 30 panicked minutes thinking I was heading in the opposite direction). They don’t include the afternoon that I took “off,” tired of site-seeing but feeling vaguely guilty about spending three hours reading The Great Gatsby on the steps of a temple. (I did some excellent people-watching that way, though.) When I got home, I never really talked about how nervous those two guys from Australia made me, and how I slept with a whistle around my neck in that hostel, and how I had a nightmare and woke up thinking I was sleeping on a park bench and had utterly no idea where I was. Then there was that painful sunburn on my shoulders, and the sense of never feeling quite clean after a hostel shower…There were times in Italy when I longed for my bed and my car and my food and my language. But when I got home, I longed for my backpack.

I returned to Europe in the fall of 2000 with John. We spent two weeks in Ireland. We were planning our wedding and probably should’ve saved our money for that, but, well, we didn’t. (As John likes to say, “Money always comes back.” He’s an accountant, so I trust him.) The feel of this trip was different—no real language barrier, and we rented a car. But there was still that sense of discovery: every single thing that we saw, every day, was new to us. And there was that stretchy sense of time: two big empty weeks, when it didn’t matter if it was Sunday or Thursday, and we could do whatever we wanted and go wherever we wanted within the boundaries of Sept. 2 and Sept. 16. We could’ve taken the ferry to England or hopped over to Scotland. In Italy, at the Rome train station, I could’ve just as easily boarded a train for Switzerland or Spain. It didn’t matter; I just had to be back at the airport when my plane left. And I think that’s one of the most alluring things about traveling—that sense of freedom that you can never have at home, in your real life.


Now that I’m a tiny bit older, I understand that I’d like to buy a house someday, and I’ve committed myself to the expense of grad school. The money in our savings account isn’t being hoarded solely for overseas travel…but I still dust off Mark Twain’s quote, which I took with me to Italy, every once in awhile: “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do.”

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