I anxiously reviewed incoming Christmas cards this year — as I do every year — hoping to see those from folks I’ve met along life’s way whose obituaries would not appear in the Austin paper, my main source of bad news. I was glad to find one from General Jack Fisk, a supporting player in various legislative dramas in my early days. While he’s not actually a general (an interesting story), everyone I know calls him “the General.” His holiday cards from South Texas usually feature a picture of him with one of his dogs and always his War Veterans pin.
Another Christmas correspondent, New Yorker Rena Bartos, is one of my favorite “veterans” of life. I forget her exact age, even though she wasn’t shy about revealing it. Suffice it to say that she inspired me because she was not slowing down just because her mileage was high. In fact, I met her as she enthusiastically added a few more miles to her odometer on a grueling three-week bus tour through Eastern Europe, Russia, and Scandinavia.
It was on that trip that I got to hear Rena’s life story. As I recall, she was in her mid to late 30s when her husband died, leaving her with a son to support. In 1960, she joined the advertising workforce, and as you Mad Men viewers know, that was not a female-friendly environment. But undaunted, Rena began as a marketing researcher and climbed to become Senior V-P at the J. Walter Thompson Company before forming her own marketing consulting firm, the Rena Bartos Company. As I understand it, she was a pioneer in the field of marketing to women and an advocate for older adult consumers, until she retired in 1998.
While she had been very pleasant during the initial stages of the trip, I think our acquaintanceship took a real turn in a friendlier direction when I said something negative about President George W. You could almost see her relief, as she expressed delight to learn that not all Texans were Bush aficionados. As a liberal Democrat, she had reined herself in so she wouldn’t offend me with some crack about pre-emptive wars, for example. I explained that Texas still harbored enclaves of liberal Democrats, particularly in Austin, who never believed GWB was ready for prime time. Thus, Rena and I became political soulmates while traveling through Belarus and Russia, enjoying our freedom of speech in novel settings for that kind of thing.
Every year since, we have continued our political observations in short spurts written on the inside of Christmas cards. This year I wrote about the other Texan swaggering around on the national stage while she countered with something about the specter of Callista Gingrich as first lady.
Her cards, along with other greetings in emails and on Facebook remind me of the other great folks I’ve met on tours, particularly on my most recent to China. For example, lawyer Howard Stern (yes, he’s been mistaken for the radio personality) provided me with many insights into practicing law in the northeast; while his wife Sandy told of her time working in the Justice Department under Robert F. Kennedy. I felt an immediate kinship with Rosemary, a retired Michigan teacher, now living in Florida. We bought bamboo hats in China and had such fun wearing them. There are the Rapps from Des Moines, and Bunny and Fran from the state of Washington. Meeting these lovely people from my own country is one of the delicious paradoxes and special benefits of my foreign travels.
My friend Mike and I have often discussed my preference for organized tours, which is 180 degrees opposite of his travel style. Accompanied by his wife, Terri, they enjoy the Rick Steves-type of travel, managing their own trip, finding good deals on the internet, and enjoying the adventure of discovering good places to eat on their own.
But not all of us are so adept or have the time to plan. And aside from meeting people you would never encounter on your own, there are other advantages:
1) More bang for the buck. You can see and do more on a tour because they’ve worked out all the kinks, knowing the best travel routes, the closing times, not to mention, the language and the local customs. They also provide you with better accommodations and other features because they are regular customers that can negotiate better deals than individuals.
2) Team spirit. Among other aspects of being in a group, it’s nice to have bathroom buddies from whom you can gather intel about the style of toilets, for example, (Western or squat) and the availability of toilet paper. Someone always has Kleenex or handi-wipes when you’ve run out. And I like having gals to shop with. You may be looking all over for thimbles to bring back to Aunt Edna for her collection. Another team member will be the one to find them for you. And who would you dress up with, folks? And what fun to have a friend go with you to have high tea at the Peninsula when your traveling companion isn’t interested.
3) Less risk. You don’t have to worry about whether the pictures of the hotel on the internet were misleading. Tour companies have reputations to maintain, so they don’t dare park you in a cockroach-infested dump. Also, as noted above, you don’t waste time getting lost, asking for directions in broken Mandarin (if you aren’t Jon Huntsman). While great discoveries can be made while lost in a strange city, it can also be frustrating, tiring, and dispiriting.
4) No need to study. When I book a trip, I sincerely believe I’ll have time to do the trip research. About the time I buy the guidebook and start googling, however, something at the office will blow up and I will have to work like a madwoman up until the day I depart, having barely enough time to grab the guidebook and pack my suitcase. In the end, however, it doesn’t matter: the company has figured it all out for me. I’ll just be a little less informed.
5) Tour directors. As sources of information, these people are better than books because you get to ask questions. Foreign tour directors are professionals: highly educated and very knowledgeable about their material. I’ll never forget motoring through the UK as Peter regaled us with stories of the English kings and queens, speaking as if he had known them (and their bedrooms) personally.
To be fair to Mike, I will admit to the big downside: Days on a tour are fuller and more tiring than the go-alone travel. While on tour, you’re out of bed, breakfasted (usually sumptuously), and seated on a bus by 8:00 or 8:30 a.m. Often, I’ve wished to sleep late or dawdle over morning coffee, but I can do that in Austin. I remind myself that I’m on a mission to see the world, not the sheets.
And there’s nothing sweeter than Rena’s annual holiday card. I’ll remember drinking vodka on a St. Petersburg canal cruise, talking politics in the shadow of the Kremlin, and making a new friend who generously gave me a peek into her interesting world as we explored another one, foreign to us both. I always open her card and muse a bit how this single holiday greeting can make this big world with all its wonders seem a little bit smaller.