Birth of a Travel Bug

We all have different origin stories of our travel addictions. Mine blossomed when the Iron Curtain fell and I ventured out on my own. Travel turned my world right-side up.

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The Egg

Travel bug

My first taste of an international adventure came in a form of a long train journey to Hungary with my family when I was 7. We stayed in a charming white holiday house with a sprawling veranda. Across the road stood a Waterpark. Warm pool, cold pool, wave pool, slides… from dawn to dusk we’d splash and play, the carefree bliss of neverending summer days. The travel bug egg was laid.

In the evenings, the small TV with two Hungarian channels could keep one’s attention only so long, since we didn’t understand the language. Instead, we amused ourselves by playing games and sowing tiny clothes for my tiny dolls. We also watched our dad catch flies with the clap of his meaty hands and feed them to the resident spider.

As the last day of our vacation arrived, my heart sank. The only consolation was the darling snow-white dress with a big, red heart on the chest that my mom had bought for me the day prior. Dad, as always, offered words of wisdom: “It’s illegal to smuggle little girls’ dresses across the border and it will be less conspicuous if you wear yours. But put on clean underwear in case they ask for it back or, worse, throw you in jail.” His “just act natural” as we were approaching the border did not ease my nauseating fear. A few hours later, safely back home, uncaught, unjailed, Dad confessed that he was pulling my leg. And somewhere in Hungary, there might still be a befuddled border guard wondering about that trembling little girl.

“Stuff your eyes with wonder. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.”

– Ray Bradbury

Travel Bug – Larva

My next taste of travel came with my first taste of seawater at the ripe age of 11. I walked across the hot golden sand towards the Black Sea contemplating its misleading name. When the cool waves reached my knees, I scooped a handful of seawater and carried it towards my mouth expecting the saltiness of a weak broth. Instead, I was stunned by the furious assault on my taste buds.

Sputtering into the incoming wave, I also discovered the buoyancy of seawater. I could finally swim with my head above water as I floated, rolled, dove, plopped, and somersaulted in this newly charted territory of the dense, saltwater world. Everything was new to me. In Bulgaria, they nodded their heads for “No” and shook for “Yes”. They sold pink yogurt in cute glass jars. The peaches were the size of a baby’s head and so juicy you were guaranteed to be sticky down to your knees when you finished one. There was a dark wood-paneled fish restaurant with nets and hooks and fish heads nailed to the wall. I had never seen anything like it before. It was both scary and thrilling.

We befriended a one-legged man and his young, wife Bambi. She and I collected live critters from the sea and tried to recreate their natural habitat in a plastic bag with some sand and seaweed. We scrutinized our makeshift aquarium in the evenings, gathered around the dining room table of the vacation home we shared, and released the creatures back into the Black Sea the next morning.

We did have a few squabbles, the Black Sea and I. It tried to steal my swimsuit bottoms, it swept me in a big wave and I, confused, swam down instead of up. It stung the mosquito bites that I had scratched raw the previous night. But the happy memories prevailed and the scary ones were quickly forgotten.

Travel Bug – Pupa

The travel bug grew ever stronger in my late teens when the opportunity to go to Germany and play a real-life Snow White fell into my lap. My boyfriend and a few other guys scored an off-the-books construction gig in Leipzig and I would go to look after them.

In the morning, I cooked breakfast as the men were waking up. I had lunch ready for their noon break. I served dinner when they returned. Men worked, and I fed them. I called them Dwarfs, they called me Snow White.

5 weeks later, the local authorities put an abrupt end to our fairy-tale escapade and we departed in a hurry. Just like the Hungarian dress smuggling debacle, this crime too went unpunished.

The Travel Bug is born

It was England that lured me on my first solo trip. I was 23, I spent a year and it cost me less than $100 even though it is not known as an inexpensive place to travel. I was hooked. The pupa morphed into a full-fledged travel bug.

Travel in England

Setting my language-learning standards high, I was waiting for the hoards of native English speakers to flood Slovakia after the Iron Curtain came crashing down. Sure enough, the first proper language school opened in my town. My first teacher was called Marsha, a cute and witty girl who danced like nobody’s watching.  She had the daunting task of turning a classroom of hand-gesturing youngsters into coherent English speakers in less than a year; a feat that she somehow managed to accomplish.

I had a few other teachers. Michael, a young Englishman, thought it a good idea to read War of The Worlds to us. We understood about 5% of the text, but I still vividly remember having learned the word “scrutiny”, which appeared twice in the very first sentence. And then there was a small, gray-haired hippie who claimed that all he ever needed in this world was a small suitcase of clothes and a bit of weed. He had happily traveled teaching English most of his life.

Travel in England

Armed with language skills and having tasted the friendliness of the natives, I set my eyes on England. With the borders wide open for the first time, Eastern European youth started venturing out, into families eager to have an inexpensive and hard-working Slovak au-pair, Russian nanny, or Polish caregiver. With a resume in hand, I walked into an Au-Pair agency that popped up in my hometown, thinking I couldn’t lose anything by just having a chat. This small step was the equivalent of hopping onto a moving roller-coaster an inch before the drop-off.

Two weeks later I was sitting on a bus heading for the land of tea and crumpets. I was incredibly lucky with my host family. They lived in a beautiful house on a big piece of land, with an indoor swimming pool, and an extra car just for me. The chubby-cheeked, giggly little girl I was to look after had just turned 3 months. It was love at first sight. She was delightful. Her parents were kind, patient, and fun. They also had a feisty 3-year-old son who spent most of his days in kindergarten. He and I found common ground in swimming, digging, and building little houses out of old bricks in the yard. And if it were not for him I’d never have known the Power Rangers.

They even took me to their summer house in Spain. That trip was full of revelations: my first airplane flight, my first taste of shrimp and avocado, my first paella, and seeing tropical plants growing in the wild. I loved it all. The way back to England felt like going from one vacation to another and I was getting paid for both.

I got to know other au-pairs in the area. This is how I found my tribe. Shy extroverts, codependent individualists, awake dreamers, and trepidatious adventurers. These were my people, and until then I didn’t even know they existed. I fell head over heels in love with travelers. There was more to that year than walking through bluebell-covered forests eating blackberries right off the bush with a giggling baby on my back, road trips with amazing friends, and the best weather England had had in 200 years, but these are the memories that stand out. I was drowning in tears for a week after got back home.

Travel with friends

Little did I know that I didn’t just luck out, that my trip to England wasn’t a one-off, just an adventure before the reality of the mundane life hits. Luckily, this was just the beginning. There are lovely people all over the world and I didn’t really say goodbye. Some of the people I had met on my travels would become dear, life-long friends.

The metamorphosis was complete. The Travel Bug was born. Travel became an integral part of my life and the trips that cost the least were usually the most enriching. Ever since my long trip to England, I have lived in 5 other countries, traveled to over 30, became an American citizen, and married a foreigner. Not quite in that order.

THE END

To read another travel story, check out how I volunteered in Laos on a water buffalo farm.

If you’re wondering how one becomes an Au-Pair, here’s a good article.

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a delightful monthly email with tips, tricks and stories on wellness, affordable travel and everything else I get excited about 

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