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Hapless Rover

On being bad at traveling.

A sequence of small calamities last weekend, none of which bear repeating here, prompted my wife to say frankly but not unkindly that I am bad at planning travel. I could hardly disagree. While I had meticulously packed my own impedimenta—undershirts and cigars and a too-optimistic volume of light reading—and had even kept the presence of mind to put them in the car with the rest of the family’s kit, the trip’s timing and execution was, in its details, fairly raggedy.

Still, this verdict was a bit of a blow to the self-image. Like most middle-aged men, I think I was quite the traveler in my youth, pounding up the pavements in bazaars and suks the world over with nothing but a toothbrush and a dog-eared copy of A Shropshire Lad. We cheerfully direct tableaux of the past from a long distance, looking through the well-polished, rosy lenses of the present: the rememberer, in memory a jot or two better dressed than he was in reality, high in the Western Ghats under a gentle rain, looking up through the forest toward an ancient temple of Shiva; the rememberer bushwhacking across the Anatolian highlands, conversing with shepherds and farmers; the rememberer reciting Pindar at the monument of Philopappos.

These fond fictions deserve to be exploded. I never much liked Pindar, and my Turkish peregrinations were mostly conducted on highly civilized coach buses. I looked down on the temple from a parking lot, and it was pouring, and my feet were soaked because the soles of my boots were broken, and the damned pile had been built only in the sixteenth century, anyhow. Afterward, already delayed by the storms and a local elephant running amok, our chartered bus’s gearbox failed, and we had to push that vessel of wrath at speed for it to clutch into first. We did not make it back to the city until after midnight, by which time all the restaurants, groceries, and liquor stores were closed. That was a damp, hungry, thirsty homecoming.

This is not to say that traveling is all buncombe; I wouldn’t trade for almost anything my memory of meeting a German backpacker on the Areopagus, drinking yerba maté next to the small marble block marking where the Apostle to the Gentiles delivered the great classical oration of the early Church. Questioning disclosed that he did not know that he was sitting on the Areopagus, nor that St. Paul had delivered a speech there. (By some standard, I guess he was worse at traveling than I am.) But for every unforgettable episode—creeping into the great barrow of Midas, watching the sun set behind the tomb of Katzantzakis, listening to a Brahmin chant the Samaveda in a hidden courtyard—there are five missed transit connections, cheating cabbies, or misread museum schedules. The bare facts show that I was a pretty hapless rover. There was just less to it when it was myself and my toothbrush—and, even in those happy days of packing light, I regularly forgot things like extra shirts and phone chargers. But when I did, there was no one else to notice.

Things changed. A month after getting married, I had to travel to Atlanta for a combination business–wedding trip. Being a cheap bastard, I dragged my feet on booking lodging, and got an AirBnB at nearly the last possible minute. This, it turned out, was a bad mistake. Instead of booking an apartment, I booked a room inside someone else’s apartment; the someone else was a polite West African giant named Victor, whose living room was decorated like a tequila bar. The wife was not pleased, but made the visible decision to make the best of it. She took it less well when we discovered, thanks to Victor’s exasperated exhortations to remove our luggage, that I had scheduled us a night short of the full trip; yet that paled in comparison to her reaction to the replacement hotel I checked us into in a panic. Our room had visible fleas and roaches. In the end, I shelled out two hundred dollars for a night at the Atlanta Omni and saved my marriage.

I was more careful after that. Circumstances conspired to help me—first the COVID-era restrictions on travel, then the arrival of children and the concomitant lowering of expectations for the parents. (Nobody expects you at a wedding in the mountains of Oregon when you have a six-month-old.) Even so, small but significant details like check-in times tend to get away from me—low stakes when you are footloose and fancy-free to wander around the neighborhood while you wait for the room, but somewhat more urgent with three tired, ornery tykes in tow. I’m afraid the wife’s assessment, as usual, is right. I’m bad at traveling. It’s a good thing that I am fairly brilliant at staying home.