The Gift of Travel

By Susan Birkenshaw

Every year as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day come up and the stores are full of cards to honour mom and pop, I find myself looking back at the many things that my parents taught me as I grew up! Besides fierce independence from my Mom, my Dad would not let me get my driver’s license without knowing how to change my tire, check my oil/fluid levels and in a horrid emergency, how to change my fan belt with my panty hose. Yes, this was a very long and distant time ago!

In reminiscing now, I know without a doubt that the most important gift my parents gave me was a series of lessons about how important it is to be a traveller. I realized from a time very early on that I never would be a tourist in the classic definition. My family always took the local route through the places we travelled: local hostels, local food markets and even local fairs. I look back now and realize that my mom always chose routes and locations to travel that had something local going on and something to teach us, everything from music festivals, farm fairs and even a full-moon in Stonehenge.

I am not sure where my mother’s curiosity came from except to say that her parents were voracious readers and had the most fascinating friends and peers – worldwide travel was not really a thing in the days of my grandparents. I do have a series of postcards that catalogue a ’round the world’ trip that a spinster great-aunt took in 1960. My mother protected those bits of history and exotic travel for her entire life and my sense is that’s where her absolute need to travel was born. Aunt Annie was always a most welcome guest in our home as we were growing up and we spent many hours listening to her adventures that couldn’t be described on the backs of postcards.

This is where my story truly begins. In late 1961, when my Aunt had finally returned from her magical trip, my Mom and Dad started talking about travel. Where should we go first, what would we like to see and who might we know who might know someone who could help us? All questions that kept coming up at the dinner table. Finally, all this wishful thinking and dreaming led my mom to set a variety of plans into place.

First, she began saving in a number of ways that would include each of her kids (three in total). For example, she created a 25-cent box that lurked in the front hall closet. The function of this box was simple – anything she picked up that was not in place hit the box. To get it out: “25 cents, please.” and 50 cents for a pair, all from your pocket or your allowance. There was an accounting at the end of each month. Every now and then, she would announce, “We have enough for 5 tickets to enter the Louvre.”

So, our instructions were to “go off and find out what you can find about that museum.” The result? The kids did the research about a specific place, gallery, castle, war field or king – so as the trip in Mom’s mind started to gel, our interests guided her planning for the route. Little did we know that we also learned how to use a library, how to read the Encyclopedia Britannica, sift through the old dusty National Geographics that were hoarded all through the house and to even ask the elders who hung around our house.

Around that time, the time frame was established simply because in 1962, Max Ward of Wardair established the trans-Atlantic charter market. “Four charter tickets to London, please!” The trip summer would be 1966 – it had to be before the Centennial in 1967 (obviously, we had to travel Canada that year).

Starting in 1962, my mother wrote over 100 air mail letters, on flimsy Aerogrammes, to various pensions, hotels, hotels, ferries, car rentals, euro-rail outlets and restaurants that might be part of our itinerary. At that time, it took at least four weeks for a response – if the letter was responded to immediately. Mom resorted to overseas phone calls only for the very big stuff – a hotel in Paris, a hotel in Venice and a hotel in London. The rest was all done by post! It still stuns me! Our bookings were all made at least a year out with no way to confirm closer to our travel date. I can’t begin to imagine what a leap of faith this process took.

When I think back on that planning time, I realize it actually took a couple of years to research and to plot the hoped-for itinerary, and another year to get most of the reservations and then to finally consider the massive undertaking of packing five people – what on earth did we need for two months of travel?

On July 3, 1996, after almost five years of dreaming, researching, saving and planning and changing plans, the Birkenshaw family took off! After arrival at Gatwick Airport, we met Dad in Hyde Park. He only had one month of vacation, so Mom was going to drive around England with three almost-teens for the second month. At the time, it made sense, and I am sure during the second month it was mostly nuts. Many years later, as we’ve became adults, we all understand just how much this was an act of both craziness and love from Mom and Dad, and we often talk about just how much guts Mom had to survive month two.

Our tour’s first month took us from London and its tower, to Dover and its White Cliffs, across the Channel by ferry, to Paris and to the top of the Eiffel Tower, to Versailles and its Room of Mirrors, through many French wine valleys, Austria, Switzerland and to the top of the Matterhorn, on to Milan and to attend mass being held in the Duomo, to Venice and a ride in the iconic gondolas, to Vienna and through its Opera House, finally through Germany and on to the Netherlands with its dikes, tulips, windmills and fabulous people!

When we arrived in England after a very rough ferry crossing, we were able to relax a bit, say goodbye to Dad and get a different car for our whistle-stop tour throughout England.

Castles, royal jewels, battlefields, bookstalls, theatres and opera houses, formal gardens and not so formal fields, churches and cathedrals – the history throughout Europe and England cannot be easily described in a few words. Each time I return to Europe, the things and places I see for a second time, make me realize how much the ’66 trip meant to my Mom. It was a gift and a university degree all rolled into one!

My brothers and I have talked about this trip many times over the years and I know that none of us would have missed it for anything and that the next generation already knows well the gift of travel. know that my answer to the question … are you a Tourist or a Traveller? … will always be a Traveller! Tourist is the first step to be sure, but if we can turn ourselves towards more, a Traveller will always learn and thrive!

Thanks, Mom and Pop, for the gift of travel!

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