My earliest memory is of something that no longer happens anywhere in the world: I’m playing with discarded cigarette butts I found inside a little flap in the arm of my chair on a plane headed halfway around the world. I’m four years old, huddled on the floor in a hidden spot beneath the bassinet my younger sister is lying asleep in.
My parents are on their first adventure together overseas: my father had a short-term position as a mathematics teacher at a private boys college in Brighton, England. We were to live in a house owned by the school for nine months, and then travel around Europe in an RV. Having two daughters aged 18-month old and 4 years old wasn’t going hold them back from their lifelong dreams of traveling.
That time in England left me with a small collection of scattered memories. These include things like forever losing a toy in the sand of the school’s long jump — the toy no longer remembered either. Or the feeling of heartbreak when discovering someone had smashed up my very first snowman when swinging open the front door the next morning. The memory of a starling which had found its way inside the house and flew around madly for what seemed like hours while we tried to help it. That cold smooth heavy feeling of the billiard balls in the staffroom of my father’s work. A giant brightly colored lollipop. Tripping face-first in Sherwood forest and receiving a mouthful of thick, complexly textured forest floor which took all afternoon to completely rid all trace of. The dirt had made much more of an impression than the trees had, of which I can no longer remember.
The disconnected memories I have from those six weeks touring Europe in an RV with my grandparents who had flown over really do not make much sense either. Why do I remember these things and not others? We’re driving the autobahn in Germany, I have a polystyrene ball nestled in my hand (where from?), picking off tiny piece by piece and letting them fly out the window, seeing them dance in the air and then off into the distance. ‘Litterbug!’ my adult brain sighs at my four-year-old self. I remember being in awe of the brightly colored blue carpet lining the walls of the Eiffel Tower elevator. That made a lasting impression, but there nothing left in my memory from the tower or view itself from that day. Or for that matter, anything else of romantic Paris. There’s a familiar thread in that I can only remember the unevenly spaced and twisted angled incredibly worn steps of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, not what the view from the top looked like or even details of the surrounding buildings. I don’t remember seeing art galleries and museums.
I do remember feeling utter satisfaction from learning to say “bonbon” or whatever other words there were for candy in each country we visited. I recall falling out of my hammock onto my grandparents below most nights, and then spending the rest of the night snuggled warmly between them. I played with little toys and dish-washing liquid bubbles in the RV sink. Looking out the window of the RV one night at dusk, I dreamily asked to go to a circus as we drove the freeway. My parents promised me that if they ever saw one, we could go. I’m sure they thought that there was zero chance of that happening. Minutes later, I could barely believe it: across a field were the unmistakable bright lights of a circus tent. Childhood wishes did come true.
We remember the strangest of details, tiny fragmented moments which become trapped in our memories. They’re the stories we tell others, the ones which become more and solid in the way we tell them over the years. Everything else fades.
I know that these are my own memories – they’re not documented in my parent’s photographs. Their albums show all the things we think are important and are easy to record – the sights, the views, the architecture and the food. I don’t remember any conversations or key moments where I learned something important. Those movie-moment lines simply aren’t there. And my stories are probably not the ones my parents will tell you about their time abroad in 1982 either (endless bonbon requests aside). I only recently learned from my parents that I went to Disneyland on the way there and back from the trip — for whatever reason, the happiest place on earth didn’t stick in my memory.
But I do know that time on the other side of the world shaped me into who I am today. It gave me the undeniable knowledge that travel is meaningful in how I see the world and how I can reflect on what’s important to me in life, and what is excess baggage.
My parents didn’t wait until we were old enough to remember it all (besides, who does remember it all?) and that didn’t matter. The remembering of it all is not what’s important.