Sometimes the kids and I hop on a bus just to see where it goes.
I learned recently that most folks don’t do this.
Maybe it’s from a lifetime of ill-planning.
Maybe it’s because we have lived in so many places.
Maybe it’s because I am a discombobulated traveler.
But I am baffled by train schedules and bus routes, especially in foreign countries. And I have no patience for waiting at a stop while perfectly good vehicles unload and load, especially when my son is so enamored of things that Go! Go! Go!
Friends have pointed out that they prefer to know where their transport is heading before they climb aboard. They have concerns for my family’s hobo approach.
“What if you need a bathroom?”
We look for one.
“What if it takes you way out of town?”
It usually doesn’t.
“But what if it does?”
We hop off, cross the street, and wait for some form of conveyance heading back in the opposite direction.
What if? What if? What if?
In college, I spent a summer semester in London. Except for a school trip to Canada, it was the first time I had ever left America, the first time I had ever lived in a foreign country or even a big city, the first time I had ever navigated public transportation on my own.
I was a student on a budget. I ate a lot of cereal that summer and ramen noodles. But I had a metro card for unlimited travel during the month of July. So I used it. After morning classes, I would often head to the nearest Underground station.
The London tube is pretty straightforward. Not complicated with numbers, letters, colors and the dreaded express vs. local decision demanded of subway travelers in New York City or Paris. In London, you just pick a colored train route and go. Sometimes, I would take the escalator to a line I had never ridden—the Jubilee or maybe Bakerloo—and ride it to a stop with a name that sounded just as interesting—Elephant and Castle, Piccadilly Circus, West Ham. Sometimes, I popped up in a flea market or in front of a theater. I browsed postcards or splurged on a ticket to a musical or play. Usually, I disembarked in a neighborhood. I walked along row houses with iron fences, or peered through hedges sheltering secret gardens. I crossed unfamiliar streets and made believe that they were mine.
I am not afraid to be lost. No matter where I go, somebody—most people, in fact—know exactly where we are. I just summon courage and ask. Or live in the not knowing. Which is another kind of gift.
Are we on the left bank of the river or the right? Are we heading towards town or away from it? There is something quite freeing about wandering a city and taking it all in. In Toronto, we found a restaurant serving homemade cinnamon rolls. In Paris, we discovered a jungle gym with a merry-go-round. In Germany, we stopped to feed goats.
I am a lousy tourist. If there is a long line at a major attraction or some tower to ascend, I would much rather linger in a café or stroll to a bakery and buy bread. When I travel, I want to feel what it is like to live in a place, not just visit for an hour or a day.
We caught a bus on my birthday that took over an hour to reach our destination. A subway train would have been faster, more direct. But we saw Oxford Street illuminated for the holidays and watched commuters scurrying beneath umbrellas. It was a dark and rainy night in London. And, accidentally on purpose, we breathed it all in.