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Ten years ago, I watched a Japanese film called After Life , the idea of which has forever stayed with me.

In the movie, the recently departed are told to pick the one memory from their life that they will take into eternity.  Given the critical nature of the decision, counselors are on hand to help them choose.  After all, this memory will be recreated and filmed and they will watch this single scene replayed over and over and over again.

In the decade since I saw After Life, I have often thought about what memory I would select, and I have rarely narrowed it down to less than two or three.  Like a menu at a good seafood restaurant, it feels unfair to choose just one.  King crab legs or lobster?  Steamed or stuffed with crabmeat?  That said, most of my finalists come from–where else?— my travels.

There are worse ways to spend eternity than remembering the gentle rocking of the gondola in Venice–Ken beside me, our hands clasped together, staring up at laundry blowing in the wind, at the sky beyond it!  Our gondolier had steered us into a passageway so utterly quiet, we held our breath lest we disturb the silence.  The single sound:  the sensual lapping of the lagoon’s water against the side of the boat.  The beauty, the serenity of that moment defies any words I could slap down here.

Or I might choose the afternoon I spent at the Musee Rodin in Paris on my first trip to the city, my first ever to Europe.  It had been unseasonably cold for May, the sun a stranger, but on that afternoon all was forgiven.  In the shadow of The Thinker, of the Burghers of Calais, the sun reached out, asking forgiveness by warming my shoulders and pinking my nose.  Fortified with fromages and vin rouge from the outdoor cafeteria, I stretched out on Rodin’s manicured lawn among the entwined lovers and I thought, la vie est belle.

If I were going for transcendental, it would have to be a particular pre-dawn morning in the Galapagos Islands.  Five a.m., without benefit of coffee, I clutched the railing at the bow of the ship, scanning the ocean for signs of whales.  (If whales were to be spotted on this trip, this would be the place.)   I was bleary-eyed, having stayed up too late drinking rum with the naturalists, but still I couldn’t fail to appreciate the scene before me. 

We were approaching the next island on our itinerary, sailing toward a volcano, the giant sun rising from behind it.  As if that weren’t spectacular enough, seemingly out of nowhere, a school of dolphins materialized in front of the ship, swimming as if they were pulling our chariot.  We early risers, we hopeful whale-spotters gasped as one.  There were dozens of them, their slick silver backs arcing in and out of the water with a grace and synchronicity I’d never before seen.

There was something not just magical, but mythological about the whole scene.  I’m a city girl, born and bred in the urban jungle.  I’d seen dolphins before, but only on TV (Flipper) and at water theme parks.  All these years later, there is still no way to articulate the floaty sensation I felt in my heart in those moments–suffice it to say, I was mesmerized.

I like to think my afterlife is still quite a ways off, so I don’t feel too much pressure to choose yet, though the longer I live and the more I travel, the choice will only grow more complicated.  For now, I test-drive these memories in the less eternal space of meditation.

I’m lousy at meditation, by the way–I can never quite free my mind up enough to achieve a “quiet mind”–yet on a day like today, when New York is chilly and dreary, when all I’ve heard today has been disappointing, I try my best.

 I close my eyes and summon up a memory from any of the dozens of trips I’ve made.  I bring it all back, reconstruct the details:  the smell of the Mediterranean Sea or of the damas de la noche or of the garlic in my moules et frites; the nighttime lull of waves caressing the shore in Positano or of the church bells ringing in Quito or of the blast of the ferry horn in Sydney Harbor; the burn of the silverware on a sunny day at the cafe in Nice or of the rain-clotted sand crumbly between my toes while slow dancing with Ken in Boracay; the velvet of foie gras in Paris, the delightful kick of cacio e pepe in Rome, the sweetness of olives on the Amalfi Coast.

Fortunately, in the here and now, we have no limit to our database of memories.  We can shake them out and prance them around at will.  Though why is it, I wonder, that so many of my most significant memories emanate from my travels?

I think it’s because, taken out of our usual surroundings, experiencing the new and different, we become more ourselves.  If, as I believe, home is in our hearts, travel does not take us farther from home, but rather brings us closer.

I don’t know about you, but I plan to travel as much as possible, collect as many prospective memories as possible before I meet up with the After Life counselor.

And I’m interested–what is your best travel memory?

Oldies but Goodies

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