It was more than 20 years ago when my parents called my brother and I into the living room. At the time I was 10 or 11 and I vaguely remember being more than a little confused. We were going to go on an adventure. In my previous post, Reflecting On Two Years of Travelschooling – 20 Years Later, I shared my reflections on the trip. But, part of what I think makes this story special is the opportunity to also contrast those recollections with those of my parents, Ed and Jo, alongside my brother, David.
As part of the prep for my post, I asked each of them to write down their own recollections and reflections on our trips. Focusing on the 1995 trip to Europe, but also elaborating where inclined about our 97 trip through the US. I asked them to write down their musings independently, without talking to each other and without reading my more in-depth piece. In this two-part post, I compile their thoughts and share them with you un-edited and in their own voice. Due to the extended nature of David’s response, I’ve made the decision to post it as a stand alone. View my mother and father’s responses here. You can also view David’s fantastic blog here.
BROTHER – David Berger
I wasn’t sure what was happening. I didn’t quite understand. We’d been talking as a family about a great adventure, about exploring the world and seeing new countries, but I wasn’t sure what it meant. I knew I’d need my favorite toys. We talked a lot about what to pack, what to do. I remember having to pack up my room, we were renting out the house… someone else was going to come and live in our house in Sedona. Someone else would stay in my room. I understood that I would not see my friends for a while, but I didn’t think about it much. It was all too exciting.
I was excited, new clothes, new backpacks, thinking about what I needed to take with me. We got our packs, and I remember watching Jo and Ed packing their big Osprey Packs, Dad’s highlander carrying the most important gear, the kitchen, and the necessities for travel. Mom’s strategically stuffed with the extra toys I knew I’d need. We started walking around the block, getting used to the heft of our packs. I remember thinking mine was big, but I was strong, I could carry it. There was a lot of encouragement from my brother and parents. We were going to do great, it was heavy, but we’d get used to it! We only walked around the block a couple of times. We’d learn the error of our ways later on.
We talked about Europe, we talked about our first destination. I remember talking about the trip, about what it would be like, as we walked around our neighborhood. The smell of the red earth, the dry Sedona air, and juniper pinions. I wanted to go and play, the pack was heavy, but it wasn’t too bad. Ma and Pa took a lot of our weight in their own bags, so we weren’t overburdened… Then it was time. We packed up and we headed out to Denver and then to Europe!
While thinking of these memories I have flashbacks to the Osprey store in Colorado, of being fitted for the packs, making our decisions, being surrounded by friends and playing while my parents discussed trip ideas and details with their adult friends. It was a great adventure. I was not so focused on what was happening. It was happening around me, to me, but I was not an active participant yet.
For those first few months after the decision was made, I don’t really remember thinking about it much. It wasn’t until I had to say goodbye to my friends, pack my bag, and leave the house on the way Denver and the airport that it sank in. I remember singing Pennsylvania 6-500 and some other Glen Miller songs in the car with my maternal grandmother. We got to the airport, I was nervous. The bags seemed heavy, but we were on our way.
We talked about the airport (the roofing); I don’t remember much of the plane ride. But, I remember being very excited. Landing in Amsterdam, September 13th 1995. Exhausted. We checked into the hotel, but we couldn’t go to sleep. We had to stay awake; we had to beat jet lag. So we checked into a tiny room in a hotel – barely enough space on the sides of the beds to stand, but I had my GI Joes, and I was tired and excited. We dropped our bags, and then we headed out to explore the city. I remember insisting that we go on a canal tour, even though we could barely stay awake. I do not remember much of that, except some horseplay with my brother, kicking each other to stay awake as we saw the city. We continued on, exploring the city, and the next day, after a good night’s sleep we were back out, to see the canals, architecture, and to enjoy the markets. The city was completely different, totally alien, different stone, different, structure. It wasn’t like anything else I had seen.
We left Amsterdam, boarding the trains, and starting our adventure in earnest. I remember watching the countryside slip by, playing in the corridors, and being surprised and fascinated by the lavatories on the trains. Watching the tracks race by under the train. The countryside was different, the buildings old, and barns different structure. It wasn’t like Colorado or Arizona. It was old, built by different people, with different sensibilities. Like visiting an Alien world.
The next few days we narrowed down what we had brought with us. I remember having to make some hard choices and sending things home in a big box. We stripped down a lot of our weight. We had brought way too much stuff. We started to fall into a rhythm. We would wake up, eat breakfast, go out and explore, and maybe catch a train to a new place, or stay around for a few days and see the city and surrounding country. We had Eurail passes, so it felt like we had a golden ticket; we could get on any train, and go anywhere we wanted. Free to adventure.
Mont-Saint Michele stands out in my mind, we were visiting museums, and Ma provided us with lessons on different art styles, architectural peculiarities, while Pa offered historical background. We found places to play, and playgrounds – but really, the cities themselves became our playground. As we approached Mont-Saint Michele the magical castle on the island, standing out in the tidal zone, it looked like a place out of myth. We got into the city, through the narrow winding streets, and then found our way up to the tallest walls, overlooking the tidal pools.
We didn’t get to play in the tidal areas at M. Saint Michele, but a few days later in Saint-Malo. We got to spend an entire afternoon exploring the tidal pools and the coast. I think this memory is clear for me because it resonated with something familiar. Even though it was different, the ocean itself has an interesting quality. It is soothing, and deep, throughout my childhood, from my earliest memories I recall the beaches and tidal pools of Puerto Penasco. Curiosity, adventure, learning, fantasy, and joy all connected to the ocean and the tidal regions. Being able to play in those tidal pools, exploring with my brother, finding new sea creatures was something familiar, in an environment that had thus far been very new, and alien.
I do not want to present this as being a negative, the alien nature of Europe was something exciting, fun, and an adventure. It was not a bad thing, and I had my family around me, the familiarity to explore from a safe foundation. To see new places, to find new and unexplored (to me) places and share it with those I love the most. This formative experience in these years strongly affected the way I view and understand travel.
Coming back from Brittany, we headed toward Paris, and on we made a rush to the Eiffel tower to celebrate my birthday. We headed up the Eiffel tower, and then spent the day looking out across the city of Paris. I remember cold wind, pigeons, and the size of the city. Looking out at the urban expanse, the beautiful buildings, and the changing light as the evening came to an end. Then the sun set and the lights came on. The tower with all its machinery and complex iron lattice lit up. It was a fantastic day.
A few days later, we moved from Versailles to Chartres, a city we enjoyed more than Paris. Beautiful, small, but packed with history. We enjoyed our time in the city, as we started to move toward the center of France. My strongest memories of this time are from Chartres, and climbing the cathedral, overlooking the city. La Rochelle with the aquarium, then I remember rushing back north to Paris to meet my aunt. We figured out how to do laundry, when to wash our socks, and the joy of exploring together.
We kept journals, tallied the day’s expenses, and had active learning lessons, where we participated in our learning, exploring each new city with its history, museums, galleries, and beaches. As we moved through Spain, we passed through Basque country, and witnessed firsthand clashes between the Basque and the Spanish police forces. It was a good civics lesson. We made it through to Portugal, catching fishermen where we could, staying near the coasts.
Every city had new cathedrals, new markets to explore. Every day was an adventure.
Some day’s we had especially startling experiences. Visiting the Tower of Heracles near La Coruna, on a misty day, we discovered a wrecked ship, and a three-masted schooner appearing from the fog and disappearing back into it. The steady drone of the foghorn, warning ships and sailors alike of the danger giving the tower and surrounding area an eerie vibe. Travel was becoming time travel as well. These moments where we felt transported back thousands of years, to different worlds, inhabited by strange peoples speaking unknown tongues.
In Tui, I remember having Portuguese food, each time we got to a new country; we had to have something traditionally specific. This was the first experience I remember with blood sausage, and some strange traditional foods that reminded us of white grubs.
We continued on, through Portugal, returning to Spain, and then racing north back to Paris to meet my Aunt, I remember the beautiful tiles in Portugal, and the differences in the cathedrals and architecture of Spanish versus French churches.
As we met up with my aunt, in France, it was mid-November. The first couple of months of our trip were under our belt. I remember meeting her in the evening, huddled around a hot rotisserie chicken, and looking up at the city of Paris. It was great to see her, to reconnect with familiarity of home. She had come following her dreams, to explore and find a city she had never visited, but somehow knew. I remember being awed, inspired by her dream and her finally coming to seek it out.
We traveled together for a while more, made it into Italy, where I remember more ruins, hiking the Cinque Terra (I still love this place, one of my favorites), and then heading further south as winter descended across Europe. I loved Italy, and both time that we passed through her, in the winter and in the spring, she showed us a different side of her beauty. The mountains, beaches, and the sunsets. The Mediterranean calling out to us. We were set in our rhythm now; we had our patterns worked out. Arrive in the city, head to the nearest set of hotels, and seek out a decent fare. Always, always check the room. Negotiate, drop our bags, and then explore! Spend the whole day or evening running around the city. See new places, museums and meet other children, or play between my brother and I. Then sneak back to the hotel, a baguette in one sleeve, groceries tucked into a backpack. Set up the home stove, Pa would cook as Alex and I journaled, did laundry, washed our socks in the sink, or played. Then night would come, and mom would read to us from The Lord of The Rings, working her way through the volumes as we worked our way across the European continent.
Winter had arrived; it was getting cold, pushing us south. We made the jump to Sicily and hiked to the erupting Mount Etna, we saw Pompeii (though it was not very developed at that time). Then we caught the ferry across to Greece. Landing in Corfu, then across again into the mainland, to Athens the pulsing heart and playing in the bazaars and the Acropolis. As we adventured south through Italy, Alex and I found a new distraction. Collecting Phone Cards, they were printed then with gorgeous photos and art, monuments and history preserved for anyone making a call. We collected them from phone booths, trash bins, anywhere we could find them. Trying to find unique and rare cards.
In Greece we met a kind man in the Athenian Bazaar, and he traded phone cards, when we left he gave us a rare card, each. It went into our collection, prized.
We moved further south as the cold followed us, to Crete, and there we spent the early spring. I don’t remember where we spent Christmas, but I remember Greek Independence Day, Alex’s birthday and a special fish, cooked by the hotel matron, just for him. I remember having food poisoning there too. Agios Nikolaos, I remember finding fishermen everywhere we went, every country, every town, if there was water we were fishing. We learned to tie hooks on the flattened eye, and we learned to use throw nets to fish in the shallows. It was a time of adventure, safety, and play. We were not afraid, we didn’t need to be. People looked after us, we could wander, and run, we could go down to the docks and port and not worry. The fishermen would teach us, show us how to fish, what to do, and how to mend the nets. Crete hosted some of my favorite memories from the trip, from dancing on bar tops with our Sicilian friend Sal, to eating crepes with Nutella, fishing and catching Eel, watching crabs, and cuttlefish in the bay.
Spring came, and we found ourselves with a car, we snuck it back across the border, tucked into a ferry, and then through the queue at the port. We were back in Italy, along the south coast, the heel of the boot, and some of the most stunning beach’s I had ever seen. I still remember that dark volcanic sand, the light catching the bubbles in the surf as the sun set. Jewels glittering across the water. The arches of the rock reaching down. I did not know that much about our financial limits, but we kept track of our expenses, and I knew that we were taking advantage of the low season. Now with the car we could do even more, finding bungalows and staying within our budgets. Getting to experience a part of travel and luxury, we had not known before.
As we drove back north headed toward the final months of our trip, we discovered northern Europe in the summer.
I will leave the end of the trip in this way, and transition to a different kind of reflection.
What do I remember? How did the trip affect me? What was the result of being away from home and the United States for over eleven months at the age of eight?
These are the questions that are most often asked when I tell people that I spent a year backpacking with my family through Western Europe in 1995 and 1996. Weren’t you scared? What did you parents do? How could you afford such a trip? The follow up questions are pretty usual. The answers to them are not as easy as you might hope.
I have told a little bit, about what I remember, although I have truncated the memories after wintering in southern Greece, including the memories of Germany, but I have not talked as much about how the trip affected me. It is not as easy of an answer. Recollection in and of itself is difficult after twenty years, but understanding the formative effect the trip around Europe and through the United States a year later had on who I am today, the decisions I’ve made and the path I’ve chosen to taken is a bit more complicated.
Our childhood was magical. I don’t know any other way to describe it. As children, my brother and I were free, exploring the world, enjoying the wilderness, surrounded by love, security, and culture. We were constantly exposed to new people, different languages, different places, and allowed to have our pure boyish energy expressed without limit. It wasn’t wild, but it was freedom. When I think of being free, being happy, I think of my childhood. It helped that both of our parents are experiential teachers, who had years of working with youth and adults in hands on tangible learning, before having us.
There is something to be said for that, for allowing children to be completely at home and comfortable and express themselves in nature. Something more to be said about fostering an environment of self-discovery, development, and mastery. We used our environment to teach ourselves, or so we thought. Carefully guided by our parents. Fishing, playing on the beaches in Mexico, the forest and mountains in Colorado, the deserts and red rocks of Sedona. There’s a deep connection between us and the land as a result of growing up in this way, and there’s a deeper connection we share, a bond between our family that is deep within our hearts. Our travel together strengthened these connections, as we shared the world, and our perceptions of it, growing, evolving, and learning together. It was natural that the connection would continue to grow and expand as we traveled and explored the new continent of Europe together. Both my mother and father had been there before. Having studied and traveled through Western Europe in the 60s and 70s. However, it was different as a family, a new experience.
As a result of those trips, and the environment we were raised in, I am a kinesthetic learner, hands on, I long for the tangible. A topic isn’t real for me until I’ve met it face to face, touched it, as we did in each new city we revealed during our trips. I am more comfortable being independent, and I am reliant on a series of close bonds, more so than more casual or light bonds. However, I am able to mix and interact within a variety of cultures, and I feel like I am better able to express emotional empathy. Having been exposed to so many different cultures, perspectives, and methodologies in my childhood has provided me with a base to understand the world, and the circumstances of others.
I have a passion for working and pursuing intercultural environments, open and relatively unstructured. As a result, I have ended up not only studying abroad during my bachelors, but also joining Peace Corps, living in Sub-Saharan Africa for three years, and now I am a student at a Master’s program, which is split between Poland and Denmark. I can’t say that I wouldn’t have followed a similar path without our years of travel, but I don’t know that I’d be as comfortable with traveling, exploring, and being out of my comfort zone.
I think the biggest take away from our trips and childhood, is that family and support are vital to success and socialization. I know I wouldn’t be anything like the man I am today without my family, or the time we spent relying on each other in such a challenging environment. Positive parental tapes of reasoning, understanding, acculturation, and behavior were instilled into my brother and I that allow us to move forward and seize our dreams. The idea that we have a communal pot of resources, we are all in it together for our mutual success. We all contribute without hesitation or question to help us each succeed in our turn. We rely on each other to be a proper steward of the family trust. As I travel the world, I realize how rare that is and how lucky we are. It was evident before our big trips, but it really cemented when it was just the four of us, surrounded by alien culture, language, and environs.
My mother and father are special human beings. They have evolved through life into caring, aware, spectacular people. Their philosophy in our upbringing was natural. There was a time for scheduled restricted learning, and there was a time for unbridled play. Hours upon hours of just being boys, of playing in the surf, I have come back to that point, because it is a core memory. The recognition of a child’s basic right to explore, develop, and play. Not punished for curiosity or called ‘boisterous and disruptive’, but accepted as boys. Cherished for that natural male energy. I am sure if they had had a daughter they would have focused on her natural female energy and embraced her as a whole being as well.
Our Europe and later our U.S. trip were a wonderful series of moments that shaped, and continues to shape, the man I am today. That is why I say there is nothing more important than family, or the bond we share. Negative or positive they are the framework- the skeleton- we build our lives upon.
Just joining? Jump to Part I in which I share my reflections or to Part II where my mother and father, Jo and Ed, share their thoughts, reflections and memories. Have your own personal experiences or questions? Don’t hesitate to post them in a comment!