On my first trip to Europe in 1978, I landed a job driving a cheese delivery truck in London. I was too young and enthusiastic to be afraid of a right-hand drive minivan with no visibility or negotiating the "other side" of the road while deciphering the phonebook-sized "A-to-Z" map of London streets to locate stores awaiting chunks of cheddar and rounds of Roquefort. After six weeks, I moved on.
It was one of those jobs I've never known if I should include on my resumé to illustrate gumption and nerve, or never mention for its irrelevance. I submit it here as evidence of my behind-the-wheel experience and competence, and also the lack of clear direction in life.
I've often taken the "next road" because it appeared, rather than plotting and staying a course. I like to think this has made for an "adventuresome" life, which I must value or else negate the roads I've taken. It's a journey that has often required me to debunk a sense of security as "illusion," although that illusion can be mighty sweet and comforting, deserving of appreciation for as long as it lasts.
I admire those born with a sense of purpose and a clear path to satisfying lifelong careers and relationships. But I've discovered they are the exception. Most of us bumble from interest to opportunity, taking wrong turns, getting lost in detours, and sometimes spending years on roads that lead to disappointment in dead ends.
I have learned to accept that life, for me, is not a clearly marked thoroughfare but a mix of toll roads where I speed along thinking I'm getting somewhere fast and not counting the cost, freeways where the landscape of time rushes past from the comfort of my driver's seat, winding country roads that meander and demand patience, and even bumpy tracks where I'm forced to get out and consider if I have the clearance and will to press on, or good sense to know when to change course.
The metaphors of driving – control, responsibility, decision making – were obvious as I settled in behind the wheel of a compact rental car in the eastern France town of Avallon. The challenges were equally clear: I had not driven in three years (due to living in Mexico where I didn't own or need a car), I was in a country where I didn't speak the language and required a "cheat sheet" to understand signage, and I didn't have a destination!
Since arriving in Europe nearly three months before, determined to follow my dream of making a home "somewhere" on this continent, I'd planned each sequential stay based on invitations and enjoyed taking trains to my destinations in Spain and France. Now, before visiting another friend in Switzerland, I had an unplanned week in which to go, do and see whatever I wanted.
Nervously, I edged into traffic and was, within a few minutes of breath-holding, relieved by the minor miracle of finding a free parking space in front of a cafe. I sat down with my iPhone to map a plan for the week.
In search of sun and warmth, my idea was to head for the Mediterranean beaches but was told it would be very crowded in July, and the distance seemed too far – 8 hours on expensive autoroutes. So I convinced myself to keep it simple on the first day and headed to Beaune, the "wine capital of Burgundy," less than two hours away by toll road.
I missed the turn and found myself on a two-lane that wound through idyllic hillsides dotted with vineyards and hay fields, cows and sheep, through woodlands, over streams, slowing from 90km/hour to 50 as I passed one quaint stone village after another. Four hours later I arrived in Beaune, a jam-packed Disneyland-like tourist haven of gelato shops, souvenir stores, boutiques and galleries, and a few famous sites with long lines and high entrance fees I opted to avoid. I felt uncomfortable in my aimlessness and lack of interest in sightseeing. And that was just Day One.
The next day I drove east into the Rhone Alps, marveling as each long tunnel yielded surprising new vistas. My destination was the über-charming town of Annecy. Unprepared for the traffic and impossibility of narrow one-way streets that ended at pedestrian-only passageways, I honed in on tourist information, circled to find a parking space, stood in line to buy a pre-pay parking ticket, and walked into the office feeling I'd fought a battle and barely survived. A long wait and finally I was at the desk seeking a room for two nights. With one room left for less than 100 euros (parking extra), I booked it. Armed with a local map to the hotel, I felt confident. An hour later – in what would have been a 5-minute walk – I felt defeated.
I should have left, but I'd prepaid the room and was sure I could enjoy the beauty of the ancient town bordering Lake Annecy. For two days I elbowed through throngs of ambling tourists and merchandizing hawkers, dodging bikes, scooters, skateboarders and frustrated motorists. I even ventured out along the lake in my car on Sunday morning, thinking I'd find a peaceful beach, but the traffic jams were endless. I was happy to leave and the weather report corroborated by forecasting rain.
I wanted sun. The forecast looked good for Aix-en-Provence, just four hours south. I booked online for four days in a house just outside the city and drove along alpine lakes, past snowy jagged peaks, past Grenoble (site of the 1968 Winter Olympics... was it really that long ago?) and on toward Marseille. Wait a minute, Marseille on the Mediterranean? That's when I realized I should have followed my first desire and gone directly to the coast.
Yes, France is a large country by European standards, but if I'd driven straight from Avallon to Marsaille, I would have already enjoyed three days at the beach. Any crowd aggravation could not have been worse than what I'd experienced, which brings me to another driving metaphor: you must know when to shift gears, step on the brakes and accelerate. Rationalizing practicalities to keep us from doing what we want is like putting the car in neutral and expecting it to go. "Too far, too expensive, too crowded, too whatever"... you will pay a price for not following your dreams.
I went to Provence rather than continuing to the coast, again because I had prepaid and would lose it all if I cancelled at the last minute. It was another lesson in allowing for The Unknown, which is often where the magic resides.
Aix was a tourist-nightmare repeat of Beaune and Annecy, but my hostess and I became friends and drove into the countryside to lavender fields in full bloom, the scent of which filled the air and delighted my heart. As I stood within the Van Gogh and Cezanne paintings of these purple fields, I decided that having fulfilled this one long-held dream made all the aggravations worth it.
Instead of taking the autoroute four hours to drop off the car in Dijon, I meandered for eight hours on back roads, waving at each vineyard, laughing at each sunflower field, and vowing that next time I would do what I wanted in the first place. There are times when getting directly to a destination is important, but often what matters most is savoring the journey.
Aysha Griffin writes, edits, presents workshops and provides online marketing services to businesses while traveling – with a toy monkey named "IggyMo" who has his own Facebook page – in a quest for "home." She can be reached via www.InhabitYourDreams.com and www.AyshaGriffin.com.
photo credits: Lead image by decar66 via Flickr.com. All other images by Ayshas Griffin.