A small painting of the colorful wooden houses in Bergen, Norway, has been sitting on my bedside table for years. It’s become such an inherent part of the room, I must have passed it dozens of times a day without even registering it in my mind.
Last April, though — a few weeks into stay-at-home orders due to COVID-19 — I sat in bed, wondering when I would be able to travel again, and I caught a glimpse of the painting. And it registered.
I picked it up, dusted it off, and was immediately transported back to Norway. I had fallen in love with the country on a number of work trips and spent hours visiting the studios and galleries in the hidden passages behind the iconic Bryggen wooden houses. I bought the line painting in its little wooden frame after a great conversation with the artist so I would always remember this special place and the connections I felt to its people and setting.
This memory set off what became an almost spiritual practice for me during the pandemic. I used the rare time at home to explore my house, which was filled with travel mementos that had faded into the background over time because I was away so often. I was mortified that I had let these items that were so meaningful to me become dust-catchers. I vowed right then to give these objects the respect they deserved — and I realized I needed to do that with travel, itself.
As I wrapped myself in a handwoven blanket my husband and I had brought home from Ireland, I thought about the man who escorted us to the shop when we asked him for directions, entertaining us with stories the whole way there. Picking up a miniature, steel-hammered cottage that we had brought back from Jamaica, I could hear the voice of the artist who made it. In fact, so many of my keepsakes feature houses, a motif that both surprised me and caused me to reflect on my habits, given that, prior to 2020, I routinely spent maybe four months of the year at home.
What did it mean that I was traveling around the world and staying in top hotels, only to gravitate to local artisans’ depictions of houses? Painted, ceramic, metal, wooden houses. While I was busy considering the world my home, was the Universe conspiring to prepare me for the time my home would literally become my world?
Although I never take for granted the privilege of being a travel writer, and of traveling in general, I admit that I have rushed through too many places so I could just check them off my bucket list. In a quest to see as much as possible — there’s so much to see! — it’s easy to lose what I believe is one of the greatest benefits of traveling: to open your eyes to other cultures and other ways of living. And as grateful as I am to have seen some of the world’s most magnificent sights, none of them beat the experience of having an intimate conversation with someone whose life is so distinct from my own, and finding common ground.
Over the past year, I’ve spent a lot of time with the items that serve as reminders of the places I’ve been and people I’ve been fortunate to meet. I’ve scrolled through thousands of photos, made physical and digital albums, and shared the best with my travel companions. Reliving those moments inspired me to reach out to people I’ve met along the way — and more often than not, we strengthened our bond and wound up talking about so much more than travel. I’ve also thought a lot about what travel means to me and how it will be different when I feel comfortable enough to get back out there. I know the whole experience will have changed but the biggest surprise is how much I have, too.
I’m thankful for the experiences I’ve had and the meaningful items that represent them. They’ve made my life and my home richer, and the memories they inspire remind me of the best parts of travel and what I have to look forward to. They’re also physical reminders of the lessons I’ve learned through travel — including patience, empathy, flexibility, and confidence.
When I do get out there again, I plan to go more slowly. I will take in and appreciate the details instead of letting them blend into the scenery, just like I’m doing with my mementos. I want to be a responsible traveler, choosing carefully where to visit without disruption, and spending more quality time in fewer places.
What I’ve learned, above all, is there’s no place like home — especially when it’s filled with the memorabilia of a life well-traveled.