Better Late Than Never

I’ve just come back from seeing off a group of local Senior Citizens who are headed for the New York City piers. They are Caribbean bound in search of pleasant temperatures, warmer waters and a respite from the challenging winter we’ve been experiencing. My father is part of that group, and it’s not his first cruise. It’s not even his second. However, my father wasn’t always a traveler and he definitely wasn’t a cruiser. As a matter of fact he spent most of his vacation time working around the house. For a man who never ventured beyond his backyard during vacations, he seems to be making up for lost time. Good for him! Better late than never, I say. It’s a familiar phrase that we all use without really giving much thought to what it really means. Chaucer is credited with being the first author to use it in one of his better known pieces called “The Yeoman’s Prologue, Canterbury Tales” and it has now become part of our daily lexicon.The phrase can be used either wistfully or sarcastically, but I choose to look at it from a positive perspective because I do believe that even if you come late to the party at least you made it to the party. The same is true of travelling. We see so many different people with different circumstances that bring them in to our travel agency office to plan a trip. In happy times it’s a family vacation to Walt Disney World or a couple’s getaway to the Caribbean for a little bit of warm weather. It could be a life changing event such as an upcoming wedding that will bring couples through our front door to plan a honeymoon. Sometimes it’s a family ready to take a vacation. I wish that every visit was prompted by a happy occasion but, unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Sometimes peoples seek our help in an attempt to fulfill a dream. This usually follows receiving some sort of bad diagnosis. Of all the trips we plan, working with someone who has a terminal illness is the hardest and probably the most fulfilling. When they finally realize that tomorrow might not be guaranteed, they come in to our office to plan the big trip that they’ve always meant to take. Suddenly “someday” becomes an urgent race to fulfill that dream. My office pulls together to do whatever we can to make that trip happen. Personally, I get emotionally invested and tend to champion their efforts. I’m keenly aware that we could be orchestrating what could be the last happy gathering of a family or an intimate opportunity for a couple to create happy new memories before it’s too late and the two of them eventually become one. In my adult life, I’ve been very fortunate to have many opportunities to travel. As a child, I grew up in the city but we did not take family vacations. The few day trips I experienced were courtesy of the New York City school system. My teachers introduced me to Broadway plays and museums and the historical sites of the Hudson Valley. Upon retirement, my grandparents started renting an efficiency apartment in Florida for a couple of weeks each winter. When they invited us to join them, my mother and I gladly jumped into the backseat of their car and drove south to spend some time in the sun. I remember sitting by motel pools having to endure daily homework assignments that my mother had arranged for with my school. Somehow I always came back a little ahead of my classmates, not only in schoolwork but in experiencing meeting people from other countries. Eventually, our apartment building went co-op and my parents were faced with a decision to either purchase our apartment located in an area that was starting to become questionable or they could move. The decision was made to relocate to the Hudson Valley. which created an opportunity for my father to achieve his goal of owning his own home. He continued to work in the city and usually worked evening hours and sometimes double shifts after which he endured the tedious daily drive, back and forth, from the city to Dutchess County. My father worked for the Transit Authority and this meant that he spent a good portion of his waking hours under ground in the NYC Subway tunnels. During his free time, his focus was on our house and vacations were spent tending to chores and yard work. An aboveground pool became a substitute for a tropical family vacation. Eventually, I evolved into being the traveler in our family.I was the first to get on an airplane and my first solo journey was to visit my grandparents in Miami. I discovered freedom at being up in the air and travelling by myself and I was drawn to the ocean in Miami as if I were reconnecting with an old friend. If I were to pick a starting point for my love of travel, that first trip would probably be it. That might also be why I became a Travel Agent. It allows me to share with other people, the excitement of discovering new places, even if I couldn’t share that with my own family. Since then, I’ve been championing the joys of travel for over 30 years. My father may have been a bit late in discovering his own joy of travel, but it’s good that he did. He may never visit as many of the countries that I’ve been privileged to visit or have even a fraction of the experiences I have had but he will have his own experiences and after all, isn’t that what really matters? He may have come late to the party but at least he came and as they say – better late than never.

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We are all Paris!

This is not the article I originally intended to write for this week’s post. Indeed, I had planned a tribute to Thanksgiving rituals and Harvest Moon celebrations around the world. However, the news coming from Paris has hit me like a ton of bricks. France, a country I’ve recently visited and fallen in love with was subjected to a horrific attack leaving 129 people dead and more than 300 wounded. Unfortunately, those numbers may very well have changed by the time you read this. While presumed to be the actions of a certain political group, whom I will not name, as of this writing, there are no concrete answers, only questions. Similar to the rest of the world, I have had a very strong emotional reaction to this tragedy, mostly because of the inhumanity but also on a personal level. I have airline reservations to fly to Tucson Arizona in a few days to visit my mother and her husband, and I admit I am nervous. Business logic tells me that as a Travel Agent, this isn’t an issue I should confess openly. It tells me I should put on a brave face as a representative of the travel industry and publicly state that this was most likely an isolated incident, and so on. Yet, I am afraid and I feel compelled to admit my fear so that I may face my fear. Logic also tells me that Paris was specifically targeted, most likely in retaliation for a previous incident that also involved acts of terror committed at the headquarters of the Charlie Hebdo publication. However, I also recognize that logic is seldom involved when you’re dealing with the level of hate that prompts this type of violence. But, why am I frightened about an event that took place over 3600 miles away? In part it’s the randomness of the attacks and the reminder that it could happen to anyone, anywhere and indeed, has happened on our own home soil. I am at a total loss as to what causes such complete and utter hate that has evolved into psychological warfare paralyzing citizens and economies. The travel industry is often targeted because tourism is one the world’s top revenue producers with the latest figures posted by the United Nations World Tourism Organization estimating that number to be over 900 billion dollars annually. According to their website, “The objectives of the UNWTO are to promote and develop sustainable tourism so as to contribute to economic development, international understanding, peace, prosperity and universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.” Lofty goals, but, terror groups operate as the absolute antithesis of everything the UNWTO is trying to achieve. These issues remind me of how thankful I am to live in a free country. Sure, we argue a lot; Republicans vs. Democrats, Liberals vs. Conservatives, heck we even argue over baseball teams. But that is one of our fundamental rights and we exercise that right quite often. We also protest a lot; Wall Street, Immigration issues, campaign reform, but at the end of the day, even if it’s not the end of the argument, we are all Americans. I’ve always been a bit of an optimist with enough positive thoughts that allow me to believe that travel could lead to world peace. As Americans, we’re used to freedom. We’re born into freedom, raised to expect freedom and we demand freedom and want it for others. That lust for freedom is what gave birth to this nation and still defines us as one of the greatest nations. We may have stumbled after the 9/11 attacks but freedom is what allowed us to stand tall in the aftermath. Today, we stand tall with the Parisians confident that they too will be able to move forward in a world that has changed for them. Similarly, my trust in our nation’s ability to keep our airports safe will allow me to move forward with my holiday travel plans. I expect that I’ll face heightened security and I will welcome that. The security lines will be a bit longer and will move a lot slower and I will wait patiently. I will gladly measure my liquids and gels and store them in a see through zip lock bag if it will keep me and my fellow travelers safe. John F. Kennedy once said “Ich bin ein Berliner” his version of I am a Berliner in reference to the separation of West and East Berlin by the Berlin Wall. As you give thanks before starting your holiday meal, I ask you to take a minute to remember all the lives that have been taken by terror and today in addition to being proud Americans I would also ask you to honor the most recent victims by remembering Je Suis Paris, we are all Paris.

Fish Tales

Did you hear the one about the really big fish? It all starts with my first solo trip to Tampa as a young-ish adult. Too old for Spring break but young enough that it was a novel experience filled with some surprises.  At some point in time, almost everyone makes the pilgrimage to our sunniest state, Florida. Many do it as a family to visit the Mouse or the Wizard or perhaps to spend time with their grandparents. The warm weather and beaches are definitely enticing. For college students, it’s often the first solo trip they take as a young adult or as a rite of passage into becoming an adult. As a school child and then later in my teens I would spend time in Miami with my grandparents. I became enamored of the big moon hanging over the ocean, the warm evening breezes and even the balmy after dinner round of miniature golf. As many times as you see the reflection of the sun or the moon sparkling off the waves of the water, it’s always a sight that evokes emotion. These were things that I couldn’t or didn’t experience in New York and seemed exotic, even freeing, temporarily released from the constraints of parental law. I believe that’s when I first fell in love with travel. So it would come to pass that I would eventually return to Florida as an adult. This time I had friends in Tampa and they were friends who had a condo with extra bedrooms. I travelled South with a beau and an additional female friend with the plan that she would spend a day or two in Tampa with us and then move on to the East Coast while I remained on the West coast with my friends. Not wanting to be a burden but also craving a bit of independence, I rented a car. Not just a car, a convertible. It was Florida after all and what’s the point of having all those sunny days if you can’t throw down the top and let the sunshine in. I quickly became a fan of Tampa. It had a more laid back and comfortable vibe than Miami. Always a fan of Mantees, also known as Sea Cows, I really appreciated the conservation effort being made locally to preserve not only their habitat, but the creatures themselves. Tampa also has as a Riverwalk district. The project was started in the 1970’s and the progress was slow moving when I first visited in the early eighties. The Riverwalk was quaint and a bit Bohemian back then. Most of the shops sold witty tee shirts or anything and everything made with shells and/or sand. All the vendors knew each other and many of the locals were regular visitors who came to watch the tourists.  Roller skating had become very popular and it was common to see young men in tight gym shorts hoisting a boom box upon their shoulder and rolling through the pedestrians. My friends were former antique dealers in Dutchess County and I guess retailing was still in their blood. They were considering opening their own souvenir/t-shirt shop and they decided that our opinion might be worth something. We strolled along the water front, greeting other locals, stopping to examine the competing merchandise, but in truth, I think local gossip was more the order of the day.  After chatting and noshing our way through the stalls I was eager to see a beach. After all, that is one of the primary reasons for coming to Florida.  Unfortunately, Tampa is not overly endowed with beautiful beaches. The prettier beaches are found in Clearwater and St. Petersburg, but my friends complied and we drove my rented convertible over to the Ben T Davis Beach. I don’t know who Ben T. Davis was and he might have wished for a nicer beach to bear his name, but it was close by and it was convenient and in the middle of winter, it looked pretty good to me. We stood shielding our eyes watching the sunlight sparkle off the tips of the waves. That’s when we saw the dorsal fin. I felt a chill in the warm air and we watched as it dipped under the water not yet sure that we could confirm the fin sighting. Until it appeared again and again. First we were fascinated, then curious until eventually we became agitated. I’m not sure who yelled “shark!” first but we didn’t know what else to do, other than yell “shark!” because that’s what they do in the movies. Sure, we caused a stir and we definitely attracted a small crowd of curious bystanders. Our collective panic began to rise wondering who should be notified. Should we call the police, the local news station, Sea World? Was anyone in danger, was it a single shark or perhaps worse, was it a pack? Our worst fears were realized as we saw another dorsal fin and then another.  Facts indicate that you are more likely to being killed by being hit by a tornado or a bolt of lightning or even from a bee sting than being killed by a shark. Yet, anyone who has seen the movie “Jaws” might have had the same reaction that we did and that was to start yelling “Shark!!” If we had known anything about sharks we might have noticed that this creature had only 3 fins, when sharks have 6. We also failed to recognize that the tail fin was horizontal, when sharks have vertical tail fins. Details, details. In a moment of panic, really, who has time to think rationally? It took several sane people and one police officer to convince us that the monsters from the deep were actually friendly, local dolphins. Chagrined, we got into our rented convertible and made a hasty retreat. I’m sure there’s some sort of human nature kind of lesson in this tale. Perhaps something about not judging by first appearances or not making assumptions or that you can lose credibility by crying “wolf,” or in this case ‘shark.’ Lesson definitely learned, however, it sure makes a good story that I enjoy sharing. But, just like any other fish tale this story just keeps getting bigger and better and perhaps, even more dramatic with each telling!

Pen Pals

My grandparents were alike in many ways. Perhaps that’s how they made it all the way to their 50th wedding anniversary. However, their similarities definitely diverged when it came to travel. My Grandmother wanted to travel and my Grandfather didn’t, at least not to any place that involved a plane flight. The only travel experience they had consisted mainly of visiting relatives in New Jersey or going to Florida to escape the cold of the New York Winter. All of these journeys were by motor vehicle with my grandfather always in the driver’s seat. My grandmother never learned to drive. It really wasn’t necessary as living in New York City provided many options for public transportation. By the time we all migrated north to Dutchess County, where cars were the only way to get around, she and her family had long given up hope of her ever learning to drive. She was content to be a permanent passenger. Some of us were even relieved that she chose to forfeit her right to drive and believe that the roads were all the safer due to that decision. Shortly after they both retired my Grandfather developed a case of wanderlust and during the summer of ’69 decided to travel out west to see what all the fuss was about. He packed up their car and with my Grandmother in the passenger seat they headed out for a two month journey.  One of their most memorable stops was to visit the Grand Canyon. I’m still surprised that they saddled up and rode on mules to the base of the canyon and then back up again. Their saddle sores lasted for days but they were proud and we have the picture to prove it. They eventually journeyed on until they finally reached the western shores of California and paid a visit to my paternal Grandfather, a man I had never met. He was only a voice on an occasional phone call and it was certainly a surprise when I received a call from both Grandfathers at the same time. Grandma and Grandpa returned to New York in time for the annual fall trek down to Miami Beach where seasonal friendships were fairly common in the extended stay motels. Often the same folks came back year after year and many retirees would develop a second set of friends. Collectively they were referred to as “snow birds.”   My Grandfather wasn’t easy to impress. You might even describe him as skeptical, yet over the years he formed a nice relationship with a retired Professor from Japan who also chose to spend his winter in the sunshine. My Grandfather appreciated the Professor’s intelligence, his sense of humor and held him in such high regard that when speaking of his friend he only ever referred to him as “The Professor”. To this day I do not know The Professor’s given name. In time, for whatever reasons, the Professor never returned to Florida. The friendship continued via the postal service, both sending cards and letters for many years. It was sort of a personal cultural exchange program. My grandfather became enamored of Japan and his pen pal invited him to visit. My Grandmother and I joined in, encouraging him to take advantage of an incredible opportunity.  He had flown only once in his life and it was a fairly short hop. I remember that the quick domestic flight caused him a great deal of anxiety. As he seriously considered making the journey my Grandmother informed him that she had no interest in going along for this particular ride. In the spirit of sharing the joys of travel, I offered to go with him. I wanted to make sure he would be safe and unlike my Grandmother, I did want to visit Japan.  I thought that it would be amazing to help fulfill someone’s dream and recognized the tremendous opportunity to be able to experience Japan on a local level with my Grandfather’s friend assuming the role of host. I immediately began roughing out a budget and itinerary. The itinerary was easy but the budget was challenging. My Grandfather stalled perhaps due to finances but more likely from fear of the unknown. My Grandfather died before we could make the journey and I live with that regret. I don’t know what was more disappointing; that my Grandfather never got to visit Japan or that the two pen pals never got to see each other again. My Grandmother received word a few years later that the Professor had also passed. His family, aware of the friendship, was kind enough to notify us.  I was left with the disappointment of the unfulfilled dream and was reminded of a quote by John Greenleaf Whittier. “ For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, it might have been.” I often remind myself that for some, even an unfulfilled dream is better than no dream at all. Perhaps, just the possibility of visiting Japan was enough for my Grandfather.