As the aluminum was peeled back, steam rose in a seductive, tantalizing spiral from the first burrito we’d had in seven months. We were in San Jose, the staff of the taqueria that had prepared the burrito didn’t speak much English and “Auctyon,” a band from St. Petersburg, Russia was blaring from the radio in Sean’s old Volvo sedan while on the dashboard a tiny bobbing kiwi doll from New Zealand nodded along to the music. Ah…Mexico, Russia, Sweden, New Zealand….yes kids, it’s the big old melting pot in action: welcome back to the United States of America!
Yes, we’re back in the San Francisco bay area for a scant two weeks before heading off to Ireland to start our life together. We’ve been dashing around frantically trying to see as many friends and family as possible while changing names, getting passports re-issued, unpacking from the trip and packing for what will no doubt be a journey just as exciting as the past six months have been.
Now that we’re back, the first question we get asked is…
“So, what was your favorite place?”
Tough one. While both of us definitely had places we enjoyed, top of the list for us would probably have to be Russia. The exotic splendor of the place, the gregarious people, the inexpensive cost of living and certainly we must have been flush with the excitement of a honeymoon just begun, there in the first of our truly “foreign” destinations. Our fond memories of wandering the wide boulevards and canal promenades of St Petersburg, past spectacular examples of architecture and imperial magnificence, blinking signs of Cyrillic shopfront mystery, minarets against the horizon, watching massive bridges lifting their bulk toward the sky by starlight, the gruff-turned-friendly nature of the people and the evenings where the sun didn’t set until midnight will forever shine in our memories.
But then as we reflect, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Spain, Germany, Cambodia and New Zealand could easily swap places with Russia for scenic splendor and wonderful people. Kim loved Russian chocolate bars best, while she can’t decide whether Austria or Russia had the best mug of cocoa. Sean, conceding that Irish Guinness is the best beer in the world, would have to say Germany is otherwise the best place for a pint (or, in Germany’s case, a liter). Cambodia and the Italian coast go head-to-head for most beautiful sunsets while Germany wins hands down for spectacular, intact castles with Ireland getting an honorable mention for having a castle view from practically every mile of west coast roadway. Cambodia wins the prize for ruins, New Zealand for wildlife and Sydney for the best modern city (sorry Singapore, as clean and high tech as you are, you’re just too muggy for our taste). Spain and Thailand have very different cuisines, but these were definitely the places we gained the most weight because we just couldn’t stop eating. Cheapest places: Vietnam for souvenirs ($4 for a hand-painted porcelain teacup), Thailand for lodging ($5/night), and Russia for cost of living ($1 for a 3-course restaurant meal). Most expensive places: Venice ($5/candy bar), Paris ($7/pint of Guinness!), and Switzerland (everything!).
People have been asking whether we disliked any place in particular. Short answer: no. Long answer: with what we know now, we probably would have spent more time in SE Asia and eastern Europe (ah, to see Poland and Laos!). However, discovering this required a visit to the places we THOUGHT we’d like best, so… who’s to say whether we would have changed a thing?
People also ask us about the opinion of U.S. citizens abroad. Yes, in general, the peoples of the world tend to resent the U.S. for various reasons (how about the arrogance of holding a “world series” competition where only U.S. teams are invited to compete? But speaking of arrogance, wouldn’t we just tromp any foreign-mounted attempt to beat us at our own game of baseball? Hey, anyone remember “the dream team” and Olympic basketball?), and occasionally we did find ourselves the target of some pointed remarks or prejudice for being U.S. citizens. In places like Vietnam, where the “War of American Aggression” still looms large in their memory, this was rather pronounced.
However, being from the States also sparked some of our most interesting experiences. Some of the places we traveled just didn’t see many U.S. citizens passing through and we delighted in the opportunity to shatter some typical U.S. stereotypes (no, we’re not all blond and blue-eyed, the Hawaiian shirt is not our official travel uniform, some of us know how to speak in a quiet tone of voice, have actually eaten with chopsticks before and have never met David Hasselhoff). Many was the time we found ourselves spending hours in intriguing conversation with locals and other travellers, who were surprised to find a pair of Yanks so far afield, especially in places like Russia and Cambodia (the whole, “What are YOU doing here?” factor, *grin*).
There were so many things that didn’t make it into our travelogue. Sometimes it was in the interests of brevity, other times it just didn’t occur to us while we were writing. For example, as we traveled, we would explain at various airline ticket counters that it was our honeymoon, would they consider upgrading our tickets from economy class? Every single time the clerk at the counter would turn us down. In the case of Canada Air they even went so far as to seat us separately…in the middle seat of different rows (those dastardly Canadian Airline people!). It seemed the Hollywood story of the friendly airline that seats the poor honeymooning couple in first class seats existed only in the movies. That is, until our Thai Airways flight from Athens to Bangkok. The lady at check-in smiled, congratulated us and told us that she would certainly ask her manager on our behalf, to check again at the gate. We still figured there was probably little hope, the nice clerk was just being polite until the intercom rang out,
“Mr. and Mrs. Lightholder…please report to gate 50.”
Oh, flying first class is very nice. You get plush, almost fully reclining seats and hot hors d’vours. The attendant is happy to mix you up a martini, your napkins are linen and your utensils are all real silver. Yes indeed, we love Thai Airways.
Kim’s favorite memory of the trip was one of two things; either standing among the ancient stone ruins of Cambodia while water ran in rivulets across ancient carvings and hanging vines danced with the impact of raindrops…or…
…standing at the banks of the Nevsky River in St. Petersburg as the sun set at midnight, watching the bridges rise against the darkening sky with her husband.
Sean’s favorite memory of the trip was in Cinque Terra. We had clambered onto a rocky outcropping of the Italian coast with piping hot bruchetta and a bottle of local wine. Just as the meal ended, his wife began to sing. As her rich, incomparable voice rose and fell above the sound of the crashing waves below, a golden sunset blurred before his eyes.
We’ll miss many of the places and certainly a great number of people we’ve met. Truly, we aren’t “tired” of traveling, just very excited about finally investing our time in something that will provide us a place we can call our own. Maybe someday, once we’re settled, we’ll see you – traveling through our neck of the woods.