Travel has always been a big part of my life, starting as a child when my family and I would take 14-hour flights from Washington D.C. and spend sweltering summers in South Korea, visiting an endless parade of relatives. Unless I’ve miscounted, I have 35 first cousins and a bagazillion more distant ones.
My mother would dutifully shuttle us from house to house, some in the middle of the hectic metropolis, a few by the sea, and one or two in the countryside. These rural visits traumatized me, as the houses we went to were inevitably surrounded by well-fertilized fields, and at least one of them had no flushing toilet. (My older sister’s got a great story about an unfortunate mix-up between a bowl of noodles and a chamber pot.)
As a kid, I never appreciated these trips. It felt tedious and exhausting to see aunt after great-aunt after great-great uncle after great-great-great grandfather (we visited some of their graves in the mountains; to this day the sight of twisted Asian pine trees and magpies fills me with dread). One year, after a particularly long, hot day of endless family and culture clashes, I had had enough of the heat and the comments from aunties about my weight, and I told my mother I was never visiting Korea again.
Of course, I went back a couple of years later, but this time only with my younger sister. We had no clue what we were doing, so our itinerary was greatly simplified. Instead of trying to see every single person in the family, we managed to keep it to maybe four different houses. With no real parental supervision, my sister and I had a relatively decent time, eating icy desserts, drinking banana milk, and laughing at the way they censored racy song titles on album covers. You remember Right Said Fred’s hit, “I’m Too Happy”, don’t you?
Eventually, I finally went alone. It was the first time I fully enjoyed myself there. I went to restaurants, shopped, spent time with my cool cousins, skipped the ones I didn’t know that well, and realized that the country I’d previously found unappealing was actually quite the opposite.
Before that trip, traveling seemed like a burden. All I wanted was to stay home for a whole summer with nothing expected of me. After that trip, I finally understood that I, too, could travel for vacation, not just obligation. I simply needed to travel alone.
Fast-forward to now. Hubby and I have been married for a while, we’ve traveled together, taken solo trips, gone on vacation with his family, had kids and taken them places, and visited my parents both in Korea and DC. If we’re lucky, we’ll keep doing this until they tell us we can’t.
Traveling with Hubby and the kids is great, don’t get me wrong. I know we’re incredibly blessed to be able to take the trips that we do and show Thing 1 and 2 different parts of the world. But I definitely feel an exhilarating sense of freedom when I travel alone. I do what I want. I am responsible for no one. I accommodate no one. No one stresses me out with their last-minute bathroom emergencies right before boarding on a discount airline that never waits.
Until yesterday, I was counting the days to this child-free, husband-free vacation, anxiously waiting until I could sit in this airport wine bar and have a glass of white to inaugurate my holiday.
But then last night, we had an impromptu family dance party before dinner. After dinner, Thing 2 practiced piano without complaining. Thing 1 read to his brother without objection. Hubby and I laughed long and hard about nothing in particular. For an evening, my little family was perfect, and I felt such pangs of regret at the idea of leaving them for so long.
Fortunately, I had the foresight of taking a video of each child at his whiniest, so if I really miss them while I’m gone, I’ll have a great reminder on my phone of why I’m taking this trip in the first place. I’m grateful for this vacation, for my husband who let me leave for so long, for my parents whose generosity at my birthday paid for the ticket, for my friends whom I’ll visit across the pond (oh, yeah, I’m not going to Korea), and for the opportunity to come back home with my batteries recharged.