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Try to Remember – But Keep a Travel Diary in Case You Forget

by on June 13, 2018 5:00 AM


On the eve of my departure for Italy and Greece, a tattered notebook crammed with my familiar scrawl reminds me that I was wandering around the same two countries at this season 40 years ago. Here is an entry recounting my arrival in Greece after an all-night ferry trip from Brindisi, on the heel of the Italian boot:

“When we got off the ship, the first news that greeted us was train strike. It was 7:30 p.m., no train ‘til 11 the next morning. All the backpackers were in the same situation so we marched off in a horde with myself leading the way for I was the only one who spoke any Greek. I got us the train information we needed, got us to a restaurant and was getting us to a campground when we decided to camp in an open field on the side of the road.

“We passed the night with a bottle of wine and the rest of the troupe decided to catch a bus at 6:30 rather than wait ‘til 11. The waiting was all right with me so I woke up alone and went for breakfast. This made me thrice happy – I got milk, which I’ve drunk but rarely in Europe, I got hot just-baked bread and when I went to the green grocer to pick out an apple he handed me two huge ones and said, ‘Here, go.’ Gratis.”

Several things about this passage surprise me. First is that I assumed a leadership role, which would be out of character for me to do even now, to say nothing of when I was 40 years younger. (As for my Greek, it’s not as impressive as it sounds. I took a class at a community college before I left, figuring even the most rudimentary Greek would be better than none at all. I was right.)

The second surprise is that I didn’t go with the “horde” when everyone got up to catch that early bus, but was willing to remain by myself in a field where it may not even have been legal to camp. I don’t remember being that brave.

But the biggest and most disturbing surprise of all is that I have almost no memory of this entire series of events. I say almost because the tale of the two free apples rings a bell. About the “horde,” leading the expedition into the field, passing the wine bottle and sleeping under the stars, I remember nothing whatsoever, even when jogged by own words.

The journal excerpt is tantalizing: such a vivid little experience, yet so few details. How many of us were there? Where was everyone from? What did we talk about?

The trip I’m about to embark on will include six flights and an unknown number of car, bus and train rides. It’s entirely possible that somewhere along the way we’ll decide we must have been mad when we planned it -- which raises the question, why do we do it? Why spend the money, forsake the comforts of home and put ourselves in situations where we don’t speak the language and don’t know how to behave – especially when there’s a chance we won’t remember any of it anyway?

The answer, I suppose, is that one doesn’t have to remember an experience to be indelibly marked by it. Consider most of the stuff that happens to us during the first few years of life. Or, consider the stuff that happened to my kids during the first few years of life – experiences that they don’t remember, but that I do.

Like his sisters before him, my son Ethan was born in California. During the first year-plus of his life we hoisted him into a baby backpack and took him hiking in the high Sierra. I’m sure he doesn’t remember a thing about it. But on the same day I’m flying across the Atlantic he’s flying across the country to lead high school kids on backpacking trips in the mountains of Wyoming and Montana.

Did those early experiences peering out of his baby carrier at the granite peaks of the Sierra prefigure the experiences he’s drawn to now? I’ve got to believe yes.

There’s often a pleasing symmetry between my son and me. Ethan just turned 24. The year I turned 24 was the year I traveled in Greece and Italy. Now, 40 years later, I’m going back. I’m in what I refer to as “if-not-now-when?” mode, meaning that there may not be too many more years when I’m hale and hardy enough for this sort of thing, if indeed I’m hale and hardy enough now. Carpe diem, dude – even if I’ll forget it all in short order.

That’s where journal-keeping come in. I plan to make mine a detailed one, that records the color of the apples.



A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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