We had planned to go to Ireland for a week or so, and then Christmas morning we wake up, Colleen takes a pregnancy test as a precaution before cocktails with friends, and bam… two blue lines, one new child, and no 30th birthday overseas.
We ended up giving our son an Irish name and going to Vancouver instead… a four-day trip over Colleen’s birthday weekend meant to serve as one last fix of foreign travel before our own miniature arrival touched down, grounding flights until further notice.
3 things I’ll remember about that trip:
1) The view of the water and the mountains a few blocks from our hotel.
2) Our trip to Chinatown and the street we walked down after lunch.
3) Dinner in Seattle the night before we left with my old roommate, Justin, and his girlfriend.
The view is a piece of home–mountains that are actually mountains instead of the pointy dirt mounds of Phoenix. But here, they are snuggled up against my favorite ocean, all wrapped in a blue sky whose chill I can actually feel through the screen. It may do nothing for others; it’s breathtaking to me. Partly because, for whatever reason, mountains and oceans have been kind of separate in my mind. I always felt like I had to choose one or the other. Seeing them together made me happy.
In Chinatown, it was the duck that I remember– oily, crispy, salty, and sweet– consumed slowly in a cafeteria-style restaurant where English was the second language but we spoke it all the same, expressing gratefulness and wonderment at randomly walking into this particular place, with this duck and this rice and the only person we’d want to share it with sitting right across the table from us.
And then the walk back. It wasn’t just a stroll… it was a peep show past markets with strange fruit and pungent fish, up Hastings Street where we saw drugs clearly being bought and sold, unstable addicts pushing shopping carts, getting into arguments with one another, acting spastically. And further down, the needle exchange, the crowds of pale, bundled up, strung out characters, the silent discomfort we felt finally leading us to bolt across the street to escape the borderline chaos of a seedy underworld turned right side up and somehow on display, in broad daylight, for everyone to see.
This article gives you some sense of it.
At dinner, it was the company and conversation, yes, but also the wine. A Barolo with heft and finesse–no clue about label or year– just the rich swirl of it and the sadness of Colleen having to abstain and the likelihood that these extravagant, hedonistic, cozy nights out with good, young friends would wane like the moon once we welcomed Declan into the world. And after dinner, we walked home, crashing, like 20-year-olds, on sleeping bags in a guest room after first partaking in a night cap that tasted like swallowing a forest shrub after a hard rain. Which is my version of camping.
All of this probably amounted to about four hours of a four-day trip. And while there were other memorable moments–highs and lows– these stand out because they were unique to that place and time, not quite like anything that had come before.
Which brings me to my point, that travel–especially foreign travel– is great preparation for parenthood. Senses are heightened, experiences richer, the oscilloscope of emotion constantly undulating instead of flat-lining. It’s not always fun. It’s not always comfortable. It’s not always convenient. It is, almost always, rewarding.
In ten weeks with Declan, I feel as though I’ve taken a hundred different trips. The joys of holding him, rocking him to sleep, seeing him smile and kick his feet. All of it sounds pedestrian, but feels indescribably different. Like no other satisfaction in the world. And the same with the hard stuff–the times when he won’t stop crying, when he looks scared, when he wakes up in the middle of the night and I’m swaying and shushing and running out of breath and he’s not closing his eyes and I know in just a few hours it’ll be time to go to work. The frustration is unique. The impatience is unique. Connected, but distinct from past feelings of frustration and impatience. Everything feels more acute. Everything matters.
Travel is humbling. You go in expecting one thing and get another. Before all the major trips I’ve taken, I’ve had a picture in my mind of how it would be and why I wanted to go there. For our honeymoon in Belize, it was the jungle and the beach and paradise removed from a resort setting. For Egypt, it was the bustle of a busy souk and the feeling of touching history. For Buenos Aires? Speaking Spanish, drinking wine, walking through the cobblestone streets, and imagining, as I approached 30, that we lived there.
Then the real thing rolls around.
Maybe you walk into a cafe for breakfast, having repeatedly rehearsed your order in Spanish. And then, when the waitress comes over, you blank and stumble and sweat and she looks at you, waiting, raising her eyebrows, and you stumble some more, and finally she just asks “Americano?” and you nod and she brings you eggs and bacon and toast. And you feel like a dumbass-o.
Maybe you schedule an overnight train, thinking it’ll be romantic. But after waiting for hours at the train station, being disgusted by a bathroom with no toilet paper and no stalls, boarding the train and for the 80th time already this trip, watching someone demand a tip for doing basically nothing (and then giving it to them!)…well, maybe you start to lose the mood a bit.
Maybe you row out onto a river, go for a swim, and suddenly your arms stop working, you sink a bit, you panic a bit, you sink some more, and you think, what if this is it? What if this is where I die? And then your fiancée and your guide–a guy you just met for the first time 15 minutes ago– are there, grabbing you by the arms, pulling you through the water, saving you from yourself.
Those are the moments that stand out. The ones you never expected. A lot of them are frustrating or confusing in the moment. But you accept them because the opposite of joy isn’t pain, it’s indifference. And because how else do you end up here, sitting on a piece of history?
I expected fatherhood to be both fun and tiring. I didn’t know how fun and how tiring. I didn’t expect my son to have such a big smile. To be so proud when he sticks out his tongue. To kick with so much abandon. I never anticipated the things I’d do to try to get him to go to sleep, or stay asleep. I didn’t know I’d be so affectionate with him, or so goofy. I didn’t know how proud I’d be of his mom, how much patience and toughness and love and discipline I’d see in her. I didn’t expect to melt quite so easily.
Colleen and I have been to a lot of places together, but none quite so strange and wonderful as the trip we started last Christmas. As pregnancy wore on, we thought a lot about how our lives would change, about the things we would do as a family and the things we might no longer get to do. We thought a lot about travel.
Kerouac describes it well…that feeling of transition, uncertainty, sadness, and hope:
“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
For us, the next crazy venture is here at home.
Our feet have taken us around the world together, and there are still so many more places to go. Turkey, Sri Lanka, Colombia, and Vietnam. London, Paris, Rome, and Jerusalem. Not to mention New York, Portland, Charleston, and Austin. I have a picture in my mind of all these places, and I’m sure when we go, they will be different than I imagine. Richer, more complex, beyond expectation. Someday I hope to show Deck these places and give him a taste of what he’s given me over these past 10 weeks. A trip that opens the eyes, speeds up the pulse, and makes him go, wow, I never knew that could happen.