Long ago, while traveling in Rome on five dollars a day, we found ourselves short of lunch money and very near a marble fountain. (If people are silly enough to throw coins in a fountain, I should be forgiven for scooping out a few. My inner child can be a bit of a crook.)
Until recently we traveled on our own. We were good at finding our way. When we screwed up big-time, we could laugh at ourselves. When we tried to find a hotel in Greece, we failed to take the Greek alphabet into account. We knew how to say the words for pensión or hotel in France and Italy where the Romance languages prevail, but once we crossed into Greece all the signage was, well, Greek to us.
We cruised around Athens searching for a building that looked like a hotel. We thought we’d found one, but the receptionist at the front desk was wearing a stethoscope. We were young enough at the time to laugh off disaster and sleep in our car.
But after a few decades of traveling by ourselves the details of traveling–-determining our itinerary, booking flights, and hotels, renting cars, and lugging luggage–-were no longer part of the anticipatory fun. Plus, the prospect of driving long distances, folding and unfolding maps, getting lost, and yelling at one another was discouraging. The last time I was put in charge of navigating, we ended up in a cornfield in France. The farmer chased us with a rake. We began to feel ourselves yielding to the desire for ease while traveling.
Traveling by plane had also become less and less appealing–-the security lines, the shoe removals, the delays, the cancellations, and the final indignity, baggage claim. And this was all pre-Covid.
And maybe because we were by then in our mid-seventies, we began to find the vocabulary of flight—words like “terminal,” “departure lounge,” and even “final destination”—subliminally off-putting.
Meanwhile, those two little words-–“cruise” and “tour”–-once unthinkable, became inviting. Why not pay up front and let someone else figure out where we’re going and how to get there?
For all these reasons and many yet untold, we were happy to be done traveling on our own. However, our perpetual inner child was not.
The summer after the cornfield incident we signed up for a 10-day bus tour in the Canadian Rockies. It rained all or part of every day but one.
Under these dismal conditions, being taken care of, as tours so famously do, made even more sense. We congratulated ourselves for knowing when to give over vacation control. Our luxury bus with its department-store-sized windows gave us a much better vantage point than we would have had if we’d been on our own in a car, peering through the streaky arc of slapping windshield wipers. And since we were sitting high up, we had a much better, wider view of the magnificent mountains.
Little by little we started to make friends with our tour companions, who seemed older than we were but probably weren’t. We swapped photos of grandchildren and, through rainy rivulets, took advantage of the occasional roadside black bear photo ops. At prearranged stops, we’d file off the bus together, unfurl our umbrellas, and visit the dual-purpose, prostate-cum-gift-shop rest stops.
But since most of our time was spent seated front to back, listening to our guide and hoping to spot a bear, there wasn’t much opportunity to develop meaningful friendships. We grew restless.
Then, for one blessed day at a lodge in Alberta, the sun shone bright and our tour guide declared a day of leisure. We raced through the elder businesses of waking up, removing our bite plates, staggering out of bed, vying for the bathroom, taking our pills, and getting dressed and caffeinated.
We’d been told there was a gorgeous small lake nearby. We both love to swim, and it was only about a two-mile walk down the road. A painted wooden hiking-path sign pointed the way through the woods.
As we approached the lake, we noticed we were not alone. In the far distance we spotted two people enjoying a picnic. Sitting closer, at the water’s edge, a couple people our age call “nice-looking kids”—probably in their late twenties–-were silently admiring the view. We took our places next to them and gazed across at two glaciers that were perfectly reflected in the lake’s glassy-smooth, turquoise surface. It was difficult to tell up from down.
We introduced ourselves; he’s John, she’s Jan. We chatted happily and without inhibitions for a long time, as if we were passengers on a plane. We liked them and they liked us. I especially liked them because they liked us even though we must have seemed “old” to them.
We stopped talking and once again stared silently at the lake. After a few moments, Larry spoke. “Tempting, isn’t it?”
My inner child popped out.
With hardly a pause, John said, “So how should we do this? Strip to our underwear?”
We stripped. I had to do it fast—the way I rip off bandages—or I wouldn’t have done it at all. I deeply regretted my drip-castle body and my underwear–-a black bra and shabby white underpants. The perfectly formed, pretty young Jan whose body looked as if it were turned on a lathe, was wearing a navy-blue bra and matching panties that might as well have been a bikini swimsuit.
“Oh, get over it,” I said to myself, as I frequently have to do these days. Tossing aside even more inhibitions, we laid hands on whatever body parts required support to help one another over the steep banks and then down the collar of slippery, smooth boulders that lay just below the water’s surface.
The water temperature was glacial. Of course it was. We had failed to take into account that this was a glacial lake.
Once we were standing knee deep on the sandy bottom, we did the old “one-two-three go,” and plunged in. After a split second of burning cold, we made a hasty, clumsy, yelping retreat to the shore, where we stood dripping, laughing, and elated.
Having witnessed our mad daring, and drawn by our shrieks and splashes, the picnicking couple from afar hastened toward us to celebrate our impropriety, applaud our feat, and share our glee. They insisted upon taking a group photo, so there we stood in our wet underwear, arms around shoulders, hands around waists, grinning like celebrities. John gave his camera to the photographer, so he’d have a photo of his own, and promised to send us one by email.
Then it was time to part. We put on our clothes.
“You are two crazy old people,” John said, and for one shining, briefly transformative moment of sheer abandon we were young again.
“Be sure to send us the photo,” said Larry.
“But not on Facebook,” I added.
Our inner children had had their day. By the next morning, we were back to our old selves, and once again cheerfully climbed back on the bus.