On the Road

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The Checkup

I’m writing this from Madrid. I last visited this beautiful city during a 1970s year off from college; my boyfriend and I were on a long trip through Europe, the kind with backpacks, a tent and battered paperback books that you traded with other travelers when you finished reading them. Franco had died fairly recently, and Spain was in the midst of its first elections in decades. We had taken slow, unmodernized trains from Barcelona down south to Granada, then on to Seville and Cordoba. And when we got to Madrid, the first thing we did, of course, was head to American Express, where we exchanged our carefully stashed traveler’s checks and picked up our mail.

Those air letters from home tracked us across Europe; as we figured out our route and our plans, we would let our parents and our friends know which American Express office they should write to next, begging for letters to be sent in care of the famous Paris depot at 11 Rue Scribe, or the Venice office, or the one in Istanbul. As we traveled, we would think ahead to that next pile of mail accumulating, sitting there, waiting for us. American Express was always the first stop, and the letters could then be ordered by postmark date, each letter read and reread and then tucked into our backpacks.

It took at least a week for an air letter to cross the ocean. Timing the pickups meant allowing for lots of lag: By the time my parents got a postcard from Switzerland, I was headed for Spain. They could read my letters and postcards and think about where I’d been a week earlier; they could address letters to where I hoped to be a week or two further on. They had no idea where I actually was at any given moment.

I assume that I seemed very far away to my parents in New Jersey, as I crawled slowly over the Alps or the Pyrenees. I know that I felt very far away, sometimes very adventurous, but often very anonymous, and even a little lost, when the thought hit me that nobody back home knew exactly where I was or what was happening to me, that I was more or less on my own, out in the great wide world.

Today the world is still just as wide, but it feels smaller. At the same point in her college education, after her sophomore year, our daughter got a summer job in India. After we said goodbye to her at the airport, I started calculating when I could expect an email. It took a little longer than I expected, but as an experienced traveler myself, I didn’t panic. Still, I was immensely relieved to get that email, and catch up on the last 36 hours.

When my younger son worked in Shanghai last summer (after his junior year), we had email, Skype and text messaging to keep us posted. Silly photos he sent of himself in Shanghai would appear in real time on my phone as I walked along the street in Manhattan.

If you’re old enough, you may remember the drill of finding a post office in every new country, buying aerogrammes and stamps for your postcards. But you’re also cheerfully familiar with the instant connections that now let us carry the people we love in our pockets, their voices, their photos, their thoughts, their updates: this is where I am now, how I look, how I sound, what I’m doing.

So how did my parents do it? They had no idea where I was at any particular moment, or what I was doing. The best they had was news from a week ago or more, a postcard with last week’s view, a message with next week’s address.

And very occasionally, of course, I did call home. On Thanksgiving Day, wandering around Iran, I became rather dramatically homesick, and desperate to hear my parents’ voices. There had been an earthquake in eastern Turkey, not so far from where we were traveling, and I was sure they had been worrying; who knew how long the mail was taking to get through with our postcards of Persepolis?

We found a post office, booked an international collect call, and sat down to wait until the call could be placed. I noticed that one of the people waiting with us was wearing an unmistakably American high school ring, which turned out to belong to his fiancée, who had gone to Bronx Science; he was waiting to talk to her. After an hour or two, when the international operator in Tehran was not willing to place my call collect, he insisted on paying for it. Eventually, hours later, my call went through while my family was gathered for Thanksgiving dinner. I stood in the booth and sobbed over the line: I’m here, I’m fine, we weren’t near the earthquake. What earthquake, my parents asked (it hadn’t been such big news in New Jersey). Of course you’re there, wherever you are. Of course you’re fine. Happy Thanksgiving.

Don’t get me wrong: I may be occasionally nostalgic for the joys of writing and receiving letters, and even for the disconnected anonymity of travel in an age when nobody knew exactly where you were, but as a parent, I am deeply grateful to be able to stay in touch with my children as they go off adventuring. I’m happy to provide medical consultations or travel advice, eager to enthuse over the photos of the amazing temple someone saw this morning, or the amazing bowl of noodles bought from a street vendor this afternoon. I’m grateful to have children who are game and adventurous travelers, but also to be able to tag along, in real time, in their pockets, to know where they are and whether all is O.K.

And yet I can’t help thinking about the way my parents were able to live with that necessary time lag, as the aerogrammes flew back and forth across the ocean. They had no choice; they had to accept that the trip had already spooled on past the letter by the time it arrived, that I was somewhere else, and while I’m sure they worried, I wonder whether there was also a kind of necessary calm. I’m here, I’m fine, I would write on a postcard, and I would stick on the foreign stamps and put it in a mailbox, and 10 days later in New Jersey, my parents would read it and think, you’re there, you’re fine, wherever you are.