Making Discovery, Not Distance, Travel’s Point

On a morning in mid-May after three months in lockdown, Bruno, my French spouse, and I made our escape from Paris.

The day before, French President Emmanuel Macron had announced a staggered lifting of the national lockdown. We would be allowed to travel for urgent reasons, a vague category that prescribed serious medical reasons, caring for an older relative and a few other possibilities, including “legal necessity.” Beyond that, we were still forbidden to go further than 20 miles from home.

Four hundred and 50 miles away, in Blauzac, a village in the Languedoc region, a mason and several other contractors who had not worked in three months were waiting for us to the sign contracts that would let them start on the next round of renovations on the very old stone house we own there.

We decided putting people back to work was reason enough to move our quarantine bubble of two to the countryside.

In Blauzac, we were deeply grateful for the space, sunshine, the season’s last local asparagus and the scarlet patches of poppies in the surrounding fields of bearded jade-green wheat. Then a constant carousel of Covid-tested visitors began, which meant nonstop shopping, cooking and cleaning. By the time different configurations of my French in-laws had been with us for over a month, I knew I needed a break, even if I couldn’t go far, because we were still confined to our own departements, or administrative districts.

What I craved was the stimulation of my curiosity that travel provokes and feeds. I also wanted salt air, the sea and an endless horizon. So like so many other people in the age of Covid, I decided to embrace the trend that has become known as “small travel” and make a very local trip.

On a hot July morning, I bought a one-euro train ticket and took a seat in the two-car train from Nimes to Le Grau-du-Roi, the fishing port and beach resort on the French Mediterranean coast 45 miles away from my home. When the train started thrumming and the doors closed, I became as excited about traveling as I had been the first time I had taken a train a very long time ago.

A love of ‘just going’

As a 6 year old, my desire to go somewhere had been stoked by my grandmother’s postcards. Looking at them in the dead of a New England winter, her brief missives provided a welcome gust of the exotic, especially one with magenta and violet stamps, with Arabic script on one side and a grainy image of my grandmother warily perched on the back of a camel on the other.

“Someday you must visit Egypt! Love, Bamma,” she wrote, sowing dreams — because if this gentle, shy, fine-boned old woman whom I adored could travel the world so boldly and often alone, maybe I could, too. So for my birthday, I asked for a trip on a train, because I’d never been on one and my curiosity had me yearning to move beyond the neatly trimmed privet hedge that surrounded the yard of our farmhouse in Westport, Conn. When the New York City-bound New Haven train pulled into the small, ox-blood-red clapboard station in Greens Farms, my father hoisted me up the perforated steel steps and we took our seats in the nicotine acridness of a smoking car, me squirming with excitement until he told me to sit still.

Viewed from the train, the familiar landscapes looked intriguingly different. During the 15-minute trip, we made metal-burring ear-cringing stops in Westport, East Norwalk and South Norwalk, and then my mother was waiting for us in the station parking lot in Rowayton. Her blonde hair shining in the sunlight made her easy to spot, and when she saw me, she started waving. “How was your trip?” she asked after giving me a hug. “Not long enough,” I said, and she laughed. “Doesn’t it feel wonderful to just go,” she said. It did.

My tiny trip to Le Grau-du-Roi was already better than the one to Rowayton for being 45 minutes longer, but they were similarly exhilarating. Heading south, the vast rolling vineyards of the famous Costieres de Nimes wine region gave way to rice fields, which rippled on either side of the train. Then we passengers had a teasing glimpse of the formidable medieval stone ramparts of Aigues-Mortes, and were shocked by the magenta hue of the salt pans of the Salins du Midi (the color is caused by microscopic shrimp), before finally pulling into the pretty little station in Le Grau-du-Roi, where there was laughter as people day-tripping to the beach gathered their folding chairs, umbrellas and coolers.

In the heat of the day, I was thrilled to once again be doing the fascinating work of puzzling out a place I didn’t know, and it was also a relief to be alone and unknown. The three-star Hotel Miramar overlooked a tidy scallop of sand, along a waterfront planted with stout shaggy palm trees and pink or white flowering oleander. It was simple but stylish, comfortable, fairly priced and impeccably clean — everything I want from a seaside hotel. After a long swim and a nap, I loved becoming part of the happy holiday crowds who were strolling the waterfront with dripping ice cream cones or sitting on cafe terraces with condensation-streaked carafes of rosé and dishes of olives.

Several French friends had warned me off Le Grau-du-Roi as being “populaire” or common, but that’s exactly why I liked it. From the Jersey Shore to Blackpool on the Irish Sea and Sopot in Poland, I’ve always loved affordable seaside places that make the locals happy, because the long-awaited pleasure of a vacation is usually contagious and often shared through smiles and casual conversation.

By the end of the day, when I sat down at a terrace table at Le Vivier, a very popular and reasonably priced restaurant specializing in local seafood, I was gently elated. For the first time in months, my curiosity was spry again, and I was learning so much about a place I’d never been before. A delicious meal of Camargue oysters, grilled squid with summer vegetables and a cold carafe of local white wine only underlined the pleasure of traveling.

Traveling a city

The two days I spent in Le Grau-du-Roi were as fascinating as they were relaxing, and they also reminded me of long-ago summer weekends when I lived in New York City and worked as a penuriously paid editorial assistant at a publishing company. Often I didn’t have the money to go to Jones Beach by train. So instead on weekends I’d randomly take a 50-cent subway ride to a part of the city I didn’t know and see what I found when I came above ground.

On my first trip, I took the A train to Rockaway Park Beach and was thrilled to discover such a beautiful beach for the price of a subway token and impetuously went swimming in my boxer shorts. I didn’t mind the two long rides either, because the train was air-conditioned and all I had at home was a wispy little fan. On another summer weekend, Coney Island was a better show than any of those on Broadway that I could never afford, and Brighton Beach few weeks later sent me home happily sated by the huge plate of the Russian dumplings called pelemi slathered with sour cream and eaten in a clamorous cafeteria where all of the signs were in Cyrillic.

As I came above ground at Tremont Avenue in the Bronx on an Indian summer afternoon, an old woman warily walking a dachshund stopped me as I strolled along the Grand Concourse.

“What are you doing here?” she said. “Are you lost?”

“No, thanks. I’m just going for a walk.”

She told me to go home and that I was likely to get mugged, but I felt no menace as I walked down this broad avenue intermittently lined with beautiful art-deco apartment buildings that spoke of another era. And the crowd in the Cuban restaurant where I stopped for a plate of ropa vieja — flank steak braised with tomatoes, red bell peppers, onions and garlic in white wine and vinegar with heaping sides of white rice and black beans — was incredibly friendly, including the waitress who insisted I have a flan for dessert after assuring me it was on the house.

This was how I learned New York City, and these trips made me love it even more as I went beyond the bright filament of Manhattan.

This kind of small-brush-stroke travel is intimately valuable, too, because it teaches us where we live and who we are. During the last few decades, the glamour of the exotic and far-flung has often prevailed as the grail of travel, when the truth is that it can be just as interesting to hop on a train to New Haven from New York City for a day trip as it is to go to Thailand.

Intimate history

When I was in third grade in a Connecticut elementary school, we spent the whole year learning our diminutive state’s history. This was fascinating in terms of understanding America’s emergence as an industrial power, because Connecticut inventors came up with everything from the cotton gin (Eli Whitney) and the can opener (Ezra Warner) to the typewriter (George Blickensderfer) and the helicopter (Igor Sikorsky). In those days, almost every Connecticut city was famous for a product or two — Bridgeport, sewing machines; Norwalk, locks; Hartford, handguns; Windsor, clocks; Waterbury, brass; Wallingford, silverware. Knowing this meant we inhabited our local landscape with knowledge, pride and curiosity. As all of those factories closed, so too did an intimate knowledge of local history fade. This has happened almost everywhere in the United States, too, which is why I love the small, odd purposeful trips I regularly make when I visit the country where I was born from my home in France.

Showing European friends around New Haven, as I have often done, completely changes the way they see the U.S.; their caricature of the country is replaced by a more nuanced and informed version. It’s not just the campus of Yale University, but also the city’s town green, which was part of its original city plan in 1638 and is a perfect setting in which to explain New Haven’s colonial history,and its famous pizza restaurants, which are the legacy of the Italian immigration that once populated the work benches at the Arrow Shirt Company or the Armstrong Tire Company.

In this same vein, one of the most beautiful trips I have made during the last few years was an hourlong train ride in Massachusetts with my rail-buff friend John, from Springfield to Pittsfield on a snowy winter day. Mutually fascinated by art and history, and respectful of one another’s other obsessions (food for me and railroads for him), we have been making small trips together over the course of our 40-year friendship. The idea of these trips is that we get to spend some time together and share a discovery or two without going too far afield.

Traveling from New York City, it was John’s idea that we go to Springfield, where we had an excellent lunch at the fancifully named Student Prince restaurant downtown after visiting the Museum of Fine Arts to see its collection of Currier and Ives lithographs. Then we walked through the snowy streets of the city to catch a train to Pittsfield, where John’s brother Bill would pick us up and bring us back to their family’s home in Hudson, N.Y.

Settling in over a cup of tea in the cafe car, John explained to me that the rail trace we were on had originally been built between 1834 and 1841 as part of the Albany-Boston line and so was one of the oldest stretches of rail track in the United States. Looking out the window at New England in the snow made me think of Edith Wharton’s novel “Ethan Frome,” and on the occasional curve in the track that made them visible, I was fascinated by the elegance of the handsome stone bridges that spanned streams and valleys.

“It’s lovelier than I might ever have hoped,” said an older man with a thick Australian accent who was sitting alone at a table across the aisle from us. It turned out that he was a rail bug from Adelaide, who’d always dreamed of seeing what is apparently regarded as one of the most beautiful stretches of rail track in the world.

“How lucky you boys are that this was just a little trip for you,” he said, “because it must be just as beautiful in the spring, summer and autumn as it is in the winter, but different of course.” We said goodbye to him in Pittsfield; he was going through to Buffalo. I couldn’t help but thinking that he too knew little trips and small travel are often the best.

What the Covid years have taught me again is that any journey, no matter how brief or local, is a success if it provokes and feeds my curiosity, and that yes, for me it will always be wonderful to just go, anywhere.

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