“You name it, it occurs right on the streets today, as it has for centuries. Kids turn a wide spot in the sidewalk into a soccer field. Walls are crusty with posters and death announcements. Both neighborly chit-chat and heated arguments take place curbside.”
Naples & Pompeii (Season 4, Episode 4)
The freeway is wide enough for a pair of soccer fields, but there are no kids to be seen. Because this isn’t Naples. It’s a dusty stretch of the 5, a highway that slides through California like the straw in a Big Gulp.
Golden cow-speckled hills are punctuated with verdant rolling orchards, and curbside arguments take the form of billboards asking if watering crops is wasting water. I’m puzzling through a hand-painted sign that says “congress created dust bowl” when my one-year-old stages her own protest. Hers isn’t about water rights, it’s about pretzels. Mostly that she wants one.
My wife is driving. It doesn’t matter where we’re going, because we’re hours even from the midpoint where we’re stopping for the night. I move a box of car activities to get the pretzels — paper straws in a jar, bamboo spoons in a jar, foam shapes in a jar, other things in other jars that I’m militantly optimistic will occupy our daughter while the car chews asphalt hour after hour.
“Militantly optimistic” is a Rick Steves term. It’s what I’m trying to be on this trip.
We stream an episode of the PBS series Rick Steves’ Europe every day. It’s how we quench our wanderlust now that we have a baby who isn’t keen on international flights (if we could afford them), and because there’s so much about daily life under this president that we’re desperate to escape even if it’s only for 25 minutes. We’ve been doing this for months and now Steves’ voice is always in my head.
“With the setting summer sun the grounds are a delight … and we’re eating like kings. I like that when you’re in a French restaurant, everybody is talking and having a convivial time, but there’s a sort of a quietness — it’s a respect for people’s privacy.”
Paris Side Trips (Season 8, Episode 4)
Our baby has no respect for people’s privacy, especially in restaurants. Her first word was “Hi!” exclaimed like you’ve just returned from a war she was sure would take you from her forever.
We stop for lunch at Harris Ranch, a church of beef and a specifically central California kind of Rancho-Americana. If you need a clean place to warm a bottle and change a diaper, the grounds truly are a delight. And you can eat like a carnivorous king.
I try to picture Rick Steves here, in his light cotton shirt and pants (easy to wash in your hotel sink). What would he say? “Follow the scent of roasted meats through the sliding doors into this classic roadstop. Look around your table and you’re as likely to see a group of Japanese tourists ordering American-sized steaks as an aging hippie scouring the menu for something vegetarian.”
The baby twists and turns her little body inside a sticky wooden highchair. “Hi!” to the hostess and the diners trailing her like ducklings. “Hi!” to the busboys and their clinking bins of glasses. “Hi!” to the teens at the table next to us and when they laugh, she does too.
“Town squares take on different personalities as the day goes on. Early in the evening the stalls are gone and the piazzas become community gathering places. This is the time when, traditionally, students gather to enjoy the ritual of the aperitivo, lubricated by a spritz…or three. This is the perfect opportunity for a traveler to grab a drink, strike up a conversation, and become part of the scene.”
Italy: Verona, Padova and Ravenna (Season 8, Episode 8)
Steves makes it look so easy, with his Aperitivo in one hand and the other waving to strangers. Every time my wife and I plan a trip we promise ourselves we’re going to chat up the locals. We love the stories our less shy friends tell about chance encounters that turn into crazy moments and unforgettable memories. We want that for ourselves, but when the time comes: we freeze.
At least, that’s how it was before. Our baby, who we’ve started calling The Mayor, is all about the town square. She’s on a constant good-will tour, and wherever she is is the most important stop.
“Hi!” to the front desk woman who checks us into a charming Spanish-style hotel room in a town I’ve never heard of: San Juan Bautista. Fields fan out in every direction and cradle a historic mission, like they do where I grew up. And like my hometown, certain vistas are so scenic you could forget for a moment (and just a moment) for how many years your greatest desire was to leave this place and never come back.
There are probably birds chirping in the morning, but it’s “Hi! Hi! Hi!” that wakes us.
The hotel has coffee and breakfast in the common room. In the old days, we’d slink in and out like under-caffeinated Cold War spies. But today we’re barely through the door before a tween in a track sweatshirt says, “you have the cutest baby!” and tugs her dad’s arm, “see!”
The Mayor stretches her arms to him and he takes her.
“Awwwww! My youngest is going to be so jealous. Watch,” he tells us. He spins around and taps another girl on the shoulder. “Look,” he says. The girl’s face turns sour and The Mayor takes advantage of the moment to boop the girl on her wrinkled nose. Laughter all around. “What a doll” a woman shouts from a few tables over and everyone who wasn’t watching us before is now.
I think the hardest thing about parenting so far is something no one warned us about. It’s how a baby pulls you out of anonymity and makes you dance with strangers right there in the town square. It’s like so much of child-rearing: exactly what we wanted and exactly what we fear most.
“His sarcophagus bears two reclining statues, metaphors for birth and death: Dusk, worn out after a long day, slumps his chin on his chest and reflects on the day’s events. Dawn stirs restlessly after a long night as though waking from a dream.”
Florentine Delights & Tuscan Side Trips (Season 7, Episode 5)
Back in the car, it’s nap time, except The Mayor has rejected that premise. She’ll at least rest quietly in her seat as long as I stay perfectly still, my head on a pillow right next to her. A reclining statue.
The fields turn into rows and rows of pine trees. The earth rises and takes us up, up, up. The sky is so blue, and when my wife rolls down her window the car is filled with warm air, sweet with the smell of mountains. I try to breathe it in without moving a muscle, and, like Dusk, I reflect on the day’s events.
I’ve gone such great lengths to avoid the social interactions that seem perfectly natural, even instinctive for our child — those exchanges with fellow humans that Rick Steves says will crack the world open for me in new and exciting ways. But if that’s true, then why does every conversation with a stranger feel like playing with a loaded gun?
“Globetrotting destroys ethnocentricity. It helps you understand and appreciate different cultures. Travel changes people. It broadens perspectives and teaches new ways to measure quality of life. Many travelers toss aside their hometown blinders. Their prized souvenirs are the strands of different cultures they decide to knit into their own character. The world is a cultural yarn shop. Back Door Travelers are weaving the ultimate tapestry.”
Rick’s Travel Philosophy
I want to weave the ultimate tapestry, but I’ve knitted assuming the worst about people into my own character. When I see people trying to piece together how me, my wife and our baby are related, I scour their faces to determine the threat level. Maybe it’s not entirely irrational to assume my Xicana wife is our blond baby’s nanny, but it enrages me when people do. All these people who stop in their tracks to chat up The Mayor, what if they knew her last name ended in “-ez”? Would they think she was suddenly more animal than angel? When The Mayor yells “Hi!” I want to add “HOW DID YOU VOTE ON PROP 8?”
This is not Stevesian of me. But what’s so wrong with wanting to protect my family? What’s so wrong with wanting to maybe keep us out of the world entirely until this era ends, or boils over, or we flee to Canada in the dead of night? Maybe I’m not the kind of person who can be “militantly optimistic.” Maybe this baby needs to stop pulling me into the piazza. I’m tired of town squares.
I sneak a peek to see if The Mayor has drifted off yet. Her lids are heavy, but she’s awake and looking disapprovingly at me with her denim eyes. Can she read my thoughts? She’s staring me down. If I wasn’t strapped into my seat I would be compelled to kneel before her.
Finally, I get it. She’s not doing this to me, she’s doing this for me.
“Hi,” she whispers, and I say it back. We keep on traveling, just like Rick tells us to.🗺️
Edited by Carmen.