When I was eighteen and spending several years backpacking through South America and Europe, having a parent come to visit meant two things: hot showers and all the food I could eat. Having left to travel abroad straight from my parent’s house, I had little to no concept of what real world costs were: should a loaf of bread cost one dollar or five? Was twenty bucks a reasonable price for a bunk in a hostel with bed bugs (all the better to combat the loneliness with, my dear!) and moldy showers? Was it worth it to buy the $100 train ticket, or was it a far better value to hitch rides for free? I combatted these questions by spending next to no money at all, so that, when my dad came to visit me in Italy, I’d lost five pounds and, although I’d been through the bulk of Eastern Europe, I’d been to zero museums, palaces, or any other cultural (read = costly) attractions. My dad fed me. He paid for hotels that had fluffy beds and towels (towels!). When he left, he made sure I had a train ticket to my next destination, and a clean, safe hostel booked for when I arrived. My mother, when she came to visit me in Greece several months later, did the exact same thing. They weren’t my fellow travelers, merely versions of the same roles they filled back home. The environment had changed, but the relationship had not.
I recently went back to Italy, with my mother this time. The trip started as an act of parental grace: I was lonely and sick of the constant drizzle of England, and she offered to take a trip with me to bolster my spirits. After we met at the airport though, the roles shifted. Now twenty-five, with years of not only traveling but life under my belt, I found myself figuring out train routes. I scoured the internet for the best hotels for our purposes; I directed us to the thinnest, richest pizza in Naples. The change in roles, though, was most evident on the trains, in the hotels, at the restaurant over the pizza: that is, in the conversations we had. No longer adult to child, we spoke about online dating, about Israel and Palestine, about sex and cholesterol and Renaissance art. In short, we spoke about life.
This relationship transition can, of course, happen anywhere. Often referenced when talking about traveling with a significant other, though, being in a foreign country tends to magnify relationships, showing their boons and their flaws and mostly their shape, as a whole, crystalized and highlighted in a way that’s impossible for either party to ignore. This was the longest amount of time I’ve spent alone with my mother since I was thirteen years old. It was the most time we had to talk, to work through decisions, to deal with things going awry, and simply, just to be. I found out more about who I am, who my mother is, and who we are together. My mother is a woman who has a wicked sense of humor. She’s a woman who snores, and who shares my (lack of) interest in the multitude of religious art that papers every Italian surface (As we walked under a giant Jesus in the Pitti Palace: “Alright, alright. We get it already!”). She’s skilled at bringing smiles to the faces of strangers and equally skilled at devouring an entire pizza.
In your twenties, it’s hard to redefine your relationship with your parents, the people who wiped poop from your bare bum and taught you how to read and write. And while everyone’s relationship ends up in a different place---I have one friend who goes prowling for hot guys with her mom, and another who can’t even disclose that she drinks---traveling can help figure out where to start. And that’s worth more than any hot shower.