Yesterday we went to Najac, a town I love most of all for its cartography. On the map I recognized its contours and turned our rental car in its vague direction.
Five years ago, more or less, I visited the town with a man I loved and who was mostly a wonderful travel companion. Yesterday I went to the same castle, drove over some of the same little roads, but with my 13 year old son who I have been raising on my own since his first year.
We travel to find ourselves or to leave ourselves but we also travel with others.
I remembered the town, a sliver of fortified stone history, but as we drove up the road, following a convoy of grey vans, I was at first confused because it wasn’t the town I remembered. My son and I walked through a central square that I had never seen before, surrounded by small medieval houses on wobbly stone pillars. I was going back to Najac but it didn´t look like the place I had been.
I was born abroad and we moved many times before I was old enough for school and so I have traveled often. But the adventures I remember the best were all alone. When I was 12, I flew with my cousins and brother to Germany. I was the oldest of the bunch and we had to change planes in Heathrow which was very exciting because of all the people from all over the world. I remember those flights and that layover so much more vividly than most of the flights I went on with my mother. Then, when I was 18, I went to Greece by myself for the summer. I didn’t speak Greek or know anyone but I went and came back with some of my best life stories. I moved to France alone when I was barely 20 and to Geneva alone before I turned 30 and to Philadelphia where I knew not a soul nor anything about the East Coast.
Traveling alone is crystal clear, a bubble of self-thought, sometimes maudlin and lonely when everyone else is drinking and eating late at night, but intense. I will never forget the feeling of careening through Buenos Aires late at night on buses through very dark neighborhoods, hoping to hop off near a milonga. All alone but not really because everyone takes the bus there. The first time I went to Bilbao, I went alone and I remember how the beans stewed in tomatoes tasted because I ate them in a white tablecloth restaurant where the only other people eating alone were very, very old and happy for the soft food in the restaurant decorated with massive stuffed bull heads. This summer I drove through a large part of Colorado, alone, out of cell range, and I stared hard at those mountains and ridges, I snuck a bit of them into my sense of my own self. When I travel alone I feel like the sights, smells, tastes are sharper, that they flow into my consciousness because my awareness of my self is so muted, I feel slightly invisible and completely unknown.
But most of the people I know would rather travel en amoureux. Rumpled sheets in the morning, lingering conversations in cafes, sweet appreciation of artwork together are how all those travel ads entice us. I am lucky to have traveled often in love but those trips seem to impact me only half as much. I am too busy being the person with the person to escape into long, long, thready thoughts. Walking along the causeway of Puerto Vallarta entangled with a handsome man can lead to a sort of gloating, look at us, I know you see us, aren’t we lovely lovers? It’s so comfortable to go abroad with one’s other half, but is it really traveling if you bring your same conversations, your same couple worries, your same sleep habits, your old complaints on the plane with you? Sometimes I remember the person I was with so much more than the places we visited.
As a single mother, I have the great privilege of traveling with a child, or sometimes two or more because I love my nephews and they make my son happy. Traveling with a child (and no other adult) is extremely comfortable and often annoying. I can spend hours in my own thoughts as I drive or wait for sleepyheads or sit on the bank of a rock-filled river. However, I also have to constantly find boring food, enforce hygiene and sleeping and abandon most schedules. Life on the road with children is pared down to its most basic necessities. Wear whatever you want and eat a lot of starchy food. But it is also glorious in its intense focus on the real joys of our world which include climbing rocks, throwing sticks, riding bikes in circles, and catching lizards. The first time I went to Paris with my son (then three) we spent an entire afternoon slowly walking along the Seine and picking up sticks. It had been years since I had been so present in that city.
My son was grumpy and out of sorts yesterday in Najac. He is worried about school and coming down with a little cold and yet, blasphemy perhaps to coupledom, I think I enjoyed our visit more than my years ago love trip to the same village. My son and I ran through the main square and up to the castle, past the huffing older tourists. Traveling with children is always permission to run, to jump, to do handstands, we decided the castle looked too renovated to visit, so lay on a stone wall in front of it instead, and we spent a lot of time looking at and talking about cats, not Cathar history. People love to talk with and about children and so conversations are easy and I always learn something new.
Go to Najac if you have the chance, eat a strawberry tart instead of a proper lunch, and I dare you to sprint up the hill but not so fast that you scare the cats.