A picture book profile.
When I was 23, I met a boy, fell in love, and we almost immediately decided to drop everything and travel together. We both spent the next several months working two and three jobs and banking everything before getting on a plane bound for Fiji, barely knowing each other’s middle names. Four or five months in, we found ourselves on a Thai island near the border of Cambodia, where my boyfriend and his friend were spending their mornings playing frisbee in the water and I would read on the beach or in the hammock in front of our small thatched hut.
One morning these two grown men were joined by another kid, and they were all jumping off an old dock, doing flips to impress each other. A woman then walked down to the waterline and called out to this new boy, an 8-year-old from Belgium. They sat together on the beach next to me and began working out math problems with a stick in the sand. After a half hour or so, he was released to go back in the water and I went over and joined his mother. It seemed they were on a yearlong adventure as a family. They’d been making their way through southeast Asia much the same way we were, but rather than being somewhat footloose and fancy free as we were, they were homeschooling their son and were probably more purposeful in their decision making. But what resonated so soundly inside me was that they were continuing living the dream. They’d grown up, gotten married, had kids, and it hadn’t stopped them from traveling. The boys eventually came out of the water and joined us and I remember her son saying his favorite place so far had been Laos, that he had loved the food and the people. That he worked on his studies throughout the day with his parents, and that he was having the time of his life.
It’s 13 years later, I’ve married the frisbee-playing boyfriend, we’ve traveled quite a bit more, and had two children (and the mortgage and jobs and responsibilities that go along with them). They’ve been out of the country a few times, but nothing like the experience that lucky Belgian boy was having. Thirteen years later, and I can still count that hour I spent talking with his mother among the most inspirational conversations of my life. The whole marriage/family thing doesn’t have to overrule adventure. Look at this family! They’re doing it! My dream of bucket-list-dreams is to plan out a year like that, to pack up the kids and little else, to explore the world and open their eyes. They had a mortgage and jobs and responsibilities, they still made it work. Why can’t we?
My children received a book for Christmas this year that I hope is instilling that same wanderlust in them. Miroslav Sasek, a Czech artist and author, wrote a series of children’s books called “This Is…” between the late ‘50s and the mid ‘70s (the first being “This Is Paris”) that are now being reissued, and more than a dozen of them have been compiled and abridged into this expansive new volume, “This Is the World, A Global Treasury.”
Sasek’s distinctively retro, brightly illustrated geographical guidebook takes us on a whirlwind tour around the world, to Stonehenge, the Edinburgh Castle, the Rockefeller Center, the Jardin du Luxembourg, the Parthenon, Jerusalem, the Sydney Opera House, Capitol Hill, and Oktoberfest among many others. Each holiday location is introduced and described both playfully and factually if not somewhat dated. In fact, there’s even a page of updated facts in the back, because obviously a lot has changed over the last 50 years. For instance, in “This Is Rome,” there’s a lovely drawing of fishermen on the Tiber River and their rather complicated netting system of catching fish. In the updates, we’re told that “Today fishermen are a rare sight; the river is quite polluted.”
It’s a 233-page gorgeous travelogue with a wonderfully vintage vibe that still rings true with this generation. When my kids’ grandparents recently returned from a trip to Italy, the first thing my 6-year-old son did when they came over was to pull out the book and ask them if they saw the 400 bridges that span the 177 Venice canals, if they stuck their hands inside the “mouth of truth” in Rome. I love a book that invites them to page through on their own, that sticks with them so they spew out random facts when they see a familiar landmark in a picture. Now if only that could be because we’re standing in front of a Byzantine Cathedral from the 12th century, having picked up and headed off on a journey criss-crossing the Earth as a family.
If that Belgian family could do it, so could we. Someday.