If I Could Do It Again

It’s good to be home. We make popcorn, huge bowlsful. We sleep as we like it—windows open and a fan moving air across our bay-window bed. I have ice in my drinks and drawers for my clothes and bubbles for my bath. And I hold in my mind the ringing of cow bells, the dampness of dungeons, and the faces of people who look like they’d show up at my family reunion.

Traveling, I found, isn’t always pretty or comfortable or even safe. Pilgrimage hurts. And it heals. It brings nightmare and wonder. It transforms, and it teaches.

I’ve learned a few things on this trip. And if I could do it again, here’s what I’d do:

I’d talk with more people. Reluctant to make mistakes, I avoided using my Duolingo German. Until Langendorf. As we walked through the sleepy village of my long-ago family, I saw two women sitting on a stone wall. They looked to be my age. Suddenly, I was willing to play the fool.

With the help of Google translate, we cobbled together some understanding, these German women and I.

“Daniel Bender?” they said. “The Amish?”

Yes, they knew where his house had stood. They knew he had migrated to America. One woman’s great-something grandparents had lived in the house right beside Daniel Bender. She served us sparkling water on her patio while we waited for her daughter to bike twenty minutes into the village to translate. Before we left town that day, we had toured the village church house, eaten chocolate on yet another patio, and been invited to a party.

And I almost hadn’t had the courage to begin a conversation.

I’d pack even lighter. We’ve long been carry-on travelers. And our airlines had more stringent size requirements than most. So I knew I couldn’t take much. I packed my suitcase and thinned out my clothes . . . twice. Even so, I had a hard time keeping up in long walks from train stations to our lodgings.

“Grandma,” I heard a hundred times, “I’ll trade you luggage.”

And I’d pull their light bags while they hauled my heavy one.

I didn’t need those white jeans, I’d think, or that acrostic book or that history timeline.

I’d travel with greater savvy. For one thing, I’ll never again trust my memory to activate a Eurail pass. That mistake was costly and gave us 12 anxious hours. Next time, I’ll find a way to jog my memory—snooze an email, ask my grandchildren to help me remember . . . something.

And then there was the return-to-the-US Covid test email we didn’t think to download. The testing center wouldn’t give us results on paper, but we made sure our phones were charged. We showed our negative results on email as we left the Amsterdam airport and as we entered the airport in Lisbon. But as we tried to board for our last leg home, the internet icon spun and spun and spun. Part of the email loaded, but not far enough.

“We can’t let you board,” they told us. “Until we see the word negative.”

Three techy airline people tried to help. No one could make it work. And they closed the gate.

That’s when the youngest of the three, still holding the phone, yelled, “I got it! I see negative.”

It seemed too late. But they called the pilot who told them to open the door.

In Shakespeare’s famous “All the World’s a Stage” soliloquy, he describes an old man.

The world is too wide, Shakespeare says, for his shrunk shank.

Nothing is wrong with my leg, but I know exactly what Shakespeare means—for someone old, the world is too big, too fast, too full of changing technology. At that moment, I had a shrinking brain, for sure.

So, yes, I’m looking forward to my own bed again tonight.

But you know what? I’d do it again.

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