Call me a technophobe, but I’ve always worried about all the photos people take and have on their phones, or PC hard drives, or stored in the cloud or wherever. We take more photos than ever before, but where, exactly, are they? When someone during a conversation wants to show me a photo, I wait patiently for them to scroll through their phone, hundreds of snapshots flying by the screen while they search. We take a lot of pictures.
I feel a nostalgic twang when I think about the times when I’d crawl up into my parents’ attic to get something, then find myself distracted by a box of old photos that I just couldn’t pass up, and I’d sit on the splintery wooden floorboards and go through them, my back growing sore, my body getting cold (if it was winter) or stifling hot (in the summer). But I couldn’t stop, each photo, whether a Disney trip in the 1970s or my grandparents in the 1940s, sucking me right in. And I wonder where all our photos today on our phones and laptops and clouds will end up.
So when my wife and I return from travel, I spend time organizing the hundreds of photos I’ve brought back. Yes, I share them to Facebook for my family to see, and I choose a few to post to Instragram, but then I really get to work.
Every year, for my wife’s October birthday, I give her a photo book of our year in travel. This will often include a one-week spring trip and then our more ambitious summer travels. As a teacher, I have the luxury to travel during the summer, and I will use the tail-end of the summer to work: I edit the photos, crop them, adjust the color, select which ones will make it into the photo book, which ones won’t, and then I’ll spend a couple of late-night hours each night laying out the pages of the book. I use Mixbook (mixbook.com) for its easy-to-use interface and options.
My wife keeps a journal when we travel, and she writes in it each night before bed and often a little more in the morning while sitting at a café or out on our hotel patio. It’s a practice she’d learned from her grandmother, who herself had kept travel journals and has even handed them down to Christine, the book covers worn, the spines coming loose, the pages yellowed with age, dry and delicate. Inside is the day-to-day musings of a young woman’s jaunt across Rome and Florence, through Germany, or wherever this particular journal took her.
Christine’s adopted this tradition, and I’m glad she has. When I’m putting together the photo book, I’ll sneak her journal out and take excerpts from it to pair with a particular page’s spread of photos. She laments my use of her writing, claiming that it’s not polished writing and that she’s just jotting down the who, when, when, and where of each day, but I appreciate that we have these notes to use with the photos, to give context to the images and help recreate the trip. I’ll add a few well-regarded travel quotes that I’ll find online, filling in any spaces that seem too bare.
I’ve given her one of these each year, starting back in 2013. “Same as last year,” I’ll say while she’s pulling the wrapping paper off the book. “Hope you don’t mind.”
I think of travel as a three-step process: of course, there’s the planning stages—dreaming up ideas of where to go, scrolling through Instagram pics of exotic locales, watching Rick Steves on PBS and Bourdain and now Phil Rosenthal too, mentally cataloguing a wish list of places. Then the more nitty-gritty planning—the dates, the planes, the hotels and airbnbs and trains and passes and tickets. Then, phase two is the actual trip. Then the third, and equally important, piece of the puzzle: taking the time to not just upload photos to Google or Facebook, but to use the photos to create a narrative and breathe life back into a trip that’s now in the past. “We take photos as a return ticket to a moment otherwise lost,” someone once said. But for me, the photos themselves, on a screen, are not enough. I like the idea that each trip still exists in hard-copy, right there on our coffee table and bookcase, something you can open up on your lap and revisit in the quiet moments of your day. I spend a lot of time working on this third piece, probably the same amount of time that I’d spent on the pre-trip planning stages. To me, it’s that important.
But it’s actually more than a three-step process. If I think about, it’s a multi-faceted process that continues throughout the year, then resets and begins again.
In any given summer in Europe, for example, when we inevitably duck into souvenir shops for T-shirts, drink coasters, or any of the other thousand things you see in almost every single souvenir shop in any city in the world, my wife and I look for the aisle that sells Christmas ornaments. Some stores have beautiful, hand-crafted ornaments with the name of the city on them. The Scandinavian cities, for instance, always have beautiful ornaments for sale. In other cities, particularly warm-climate cities, ornaments are harder to find or, when they do carry them, they’re cheaply made, often generic ornaments one can find in multiple cities with different stickers attached to them. In the past, we’ve made do with these lower-quality options; sometimes we even had to call an audible and bought a key chain or something else that we could fashion into an ornament.
These days, our Christmas tree is too nice to key chains. If we don’t find an ornament that strikes us, then we’re okay with ordering a hand-crafted one online, perhaps from Etsy. The important thing isn’t necessarily that the ornament was purchased in the city we visited (since many are mass-produced in China), but that the ornament be attractive and serves as the reminder that it’s supposed to.
So in July we’re thinking about Christmas (this past July I found myself in eighty-degree Strasbourg, France in a Christmas shop, looking at ornaments and listening to Bing Crosby’s “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas”) and at Christmastime we’re thinking about July, as often as a gift I will get my wife a travel guide to next summer’s destination.
It really is, then—in a sense—a year-round circle:
We get serious in our planning usually over the winter and into the spring.
Often, we’ll take a trip over April vacation, and then take a more ambitious and longer trip, sometimes two, during the summer months.
While traveling, we’ll often buy Christmas ornaments commemorating the time we spent in a special place.
In October, my wife receives for her birthday a photo book/journal that I spent much of August assembling, and we spend an hour or so reading the book and reminiscing. The book stays on the coffee table to be perused now and again.
Around this time, we will inevitably begin casually talking about future travel plans, sharing our top-five lists, hypothetical dream scenarios, etc. In the fall, we try to take advantage of all New England autumn has to offer: fall foliage, farm stands, cider doughnuts. And often on these days, during these drives, our conversation will steer toward fantasizing about future trips.
Which brings us to Christmas. Christine’s Christmas tree is not only visually stunning, it is a personal roadmap of our journey together: each ornament a location, a stop on our continuing adventure. I usually will pour myself a bourbon over ice, Christmas music in the background, not too loud, and I’ll watch her unwrap each ornament from its tissue paper, some of these ornaments, like the ones we bought this summer in Vienna and Prague, hand-painted miniature pieces of art. Over the course of a couple hours, we’ll reflect on not just the past year but all the Xs on the map where we’ve managed to plant ourselves. I’m both in-the-moment and in a reflective space at the same time, and it’s pretty special.
Christmas day we’ll exchange gifts. We’d years ago called a truce on expensive gifts, so it’s now a couple token items just to have something to open. I’ll get Christine a couple guide books for places we’re targeting for the upcoming year, and suddenly, just like that, we make the turn from reflection and nostalgia to planning and anticipation, and the cycle begins all over again.