In the year 2016, newly married and yearning for that typical post-wedding trip of a lifetime, my wife and I exchanged large sums of money for what we believed would be a rousing jaunt across the European country of Spain. Once there, we would consume a boundless buffet of mouth-watering tapas, fill our botas to the brim with copious amounts of sangria and wine, and eventually, settle down in a charming little village by the sea to spend the rest of our lives happily ever after.
Yes, we dreamed of trading day jobs, bills, and a culture dominated by work work work for a more refined lifestyle of siestas and cheese samplings, sizzling pans of paella and rousing futbol matches, and, of course, as much flamenco dance as we could possibly endure. Swapping out our nine to fives for cafes con leche and a daily national nap time seemed like a no-brainer.
But first, we would have to get there. And to get there, we needed to do things that required working and planning and most of all ... effort. Having friends that had done this before, who had thoroughly researched, planned, and enjoyed the perfect honeymoon excursion, we knew the sacrifices it would take to painstakingly devise one ourselves. We needed to book flights, hotels, and rental cars. Read pamphlets and map out destinations, must-see sights, and those sneaky little non-touristy spots that make you feel oh-so-cool. We would have to put in the hours, scouring online forums and travel blogs to find those little hole-in-the-wall restaurants brimming with local flavor and experience. And we had to do it soon.
The weeks and months ticked by and still, we had not planned much, or rather, anything at all. Our dream of Spain was settling into just that—a dream. Life had taken hold once again with its routines and work and chores and all that boring stuff that makes it sometimes hard to plan for or even conceive of something out of the ordinary. For two people who really wanted to spend a few weeks in a foreign country, we certainly didn’t act like it. But then one lazy day in June, with the summer months knocking on our doorstep, Amanda announced that she had a very interesting thought to share—a very interesting thought indeed.
I should begin by saying that she’s never been a stranger to peculiar thoughts and perspectives and life ponderings popping up suddenly in her brain—as if it were no big deal at all to think up something strange and interesting. According to my historical records (which I do keep) here are a few examples of random thoughts that she has shared out of the blue and without any warning whatsoever:
“I love when people from Oregon are in Vermont.”
“Sometimes I feel like I want to get a bulldog.”
“I like to drive once a month, for no more than 20 minutes.”
“I dislike all rules and regulations.”
“I think I’m strong, but sometimes things are still heavy.”
“I’m so torn about waffle makers.”
“I feel like my signature is much better than your signature.”
“I’m not going to take a shower, I’m just going to wash my feet.”
“I think this is a limited edition mustard.”
These insightful and delicious one-liners cause all sorts of reactions, from laughter to chuckling to moments of silence dedicated solely to much-needed contemplation. However, this new thought was different. It was a concept we had never spoken of, never once pontificated on, never even considered for a single second until that very moment. It wasn’t funny or peculiar or witty—at least not intentionally. But it did stop me in my tracks. It did make me think.
“We should get a travel agent.”
A what? A who? Say that again? Coming from a generation not accustomed to seeking or paying for travel vacation assistance, I had never once thought such a thing might be possible. After all, we have smartphone apps and price comparison websites to scroll through endlessly until our eyeballs fall out. We have social media brands and influencers, travel blogs, and an Internet saturated with reviews and opinions to help guide us to the perfect vacation destination. Surely travel agents were a thing of the past.
But let’s say this profession was not extinct. That one could, hypothetically, hire a human being to assist them with all their travel needs. That you could provide this professional individual with a few pertinent details regarding the location you desire to travel to and the activities that you would like to experience and wallah … instant vacation, minus the fuss. If so, where would we find such a person? The phone book? The World Wide Web? Or would we need to find one the old fashioned way by knocking on doors or asking the passerby if they knew of a good travel agency in the area?
Good afternoon. We’re looking to travel soon. Know anyone that can help us with that?
And people did. We consulted friends, family, and acquaintances who taught us all about the secret world of travel agents, very much alive, well, and available to assist us with our honeymoon aspirations and dreams. They explained how wonderful it is not worrying about booking tickets and hotel stays, of having all the little details ironed out by a professional long before your arrival. No need to fret. Relax! Put your feet up. Know that you are in the best of hands and that everything will be taken care of.
Before we knew it, not only were we convinced that this was the solution we had been looking for, but we were certain that a travel agent was the missing link in our goal to travel without doing much of anything ourselves.
Without a doubt.
Oh, you betcha!
With the goal of finally landing somewhere in Spain by September, we soon found ourselves sitting side-by-side across the table from a dedicated travel agent at our local AAA travel office. And that is how our next great adventure began.
Instructions for Visiting Your Local AAA Travel Office
To begin, a cheerful, good-humored man, most likely retired but who prefers to spend his time making people happy and participating in pleasant conversation, will greet you upon entering. While exchanging pleasantries, you’ll notice there are no less than three mustard stains decorating his stylish early-summer cardigan. No need to point this out. He knows. And it’s fine. Upon completion of the welcoming process (typically anywhere from 11 to 17 minutes), this cheerful, good-humored man will direct you to the sign-in sheet and the waiting area, which includes a total of four chairs located directly across from the help desk.
Please do not be alarmed by the long waiting list or the lack of available seating in the waiting area. This is all typical for a Saturday morning experience at your local AAA travel office. Many people would like to travel and require assistance to do so. You’ll have to be patient, like everyone else. Of course, you will under no circumstances have immediate access to a chair as those have been taken by individuals who arrived at a decent time, with the full understanding that the local AAA travel office closes at a decent hour, that being noontime.
In the interim, please locate a corner of the waiting area where you and your loved one can attempt to stand still and maintain awkward conversation for an undetermined amount of time. Being young and impatient, this might be difficult at first. If you find it so, you should feel free to browse the AAA travel maps, books, and pamphlets, which are readily available at the help desk. While visiting the help desk, you will find another cheerful, good-humored man readily assisting those who do not require a travel agent, but who are in need of services that include but are not limited to currency exchange, local insight and knowledge, RMV assistance, and the acquisition of AAA travel maps, books, and pamphlets.
As you continue to wait, you’ll notice that the nice couple currently sitting with the travel agent has been there since you arrived and that those individuals occupying the waiting area have taken to checking their watches and smartphones in a display of mild frustration directed by the general fear that noontime is approaching rather quickly. Rest assured, you will certainly and by no means be seeing a travel agent today. We recommend that after waiting anywhere from sixty to ninety minutes, witnessing a minor car crash directly outside the AAA travel office, and developing a ferocious and insatiable appetite for pizza, that you return home determined to wake up a bit earlier next time and plan accordingly.
Upon your second attempt, rest assured you will experience this process exactly as it occurred during your first visit. However, since you arrived at a decent hour, you will have plenty of time to meet with a qualified AAA travel agent ready to assist you and your loved one with the creation of your dream vacation. Your qualified AAA travel agent will initiate the conversation by asking you several questions, helping us tailor the experience to your specifications as best as possible.
Please note that a qualified AAA car insurance representative, located two desks over, will be engaging in what can only be described as a very uncomfortable, heated face-to-face conversation with one of our loyal AAA car insurance customers. As you select and confirm the details of your dream vacation, including dates, destinations, and pricing options, this loyal AAA customer will shout loudly many, many times. They will raise their voice to an inappropriate level, threaten the AAA insurance agent using vulgar language, and refuse to leave the office a minimum of four times before storming out to chain smoke three cigarettes directly outside the window where you and your loved one are seated. Please do not be alarmed.
Congratulations! The planning phase for your visit to the country of Spain is near completion, and your dedicated AAA travel agent has all the details necessary to guarantee the trip of a lifetime. Your vacation package includes two days in the lovely city of Madrid, followed by a ten-day bus tour extravaganza across several major cities, during which your suitcases, meals, worries, and concerns will all be taken care of for you. That’s the AAA promise. For the end of your journey, we have booked another two full days in the coastal resort town of San Sebastian where you’ll have time to decompress on sandy beaches while contemplating whether or not you can afford to quit your jobs and remain in the country of your dreams for an indefinite period of time. Thank you for visiting your local AAA travel office. Please come again soon.
The Beginning of a Very Curious Adventure
Finally. We did it! Or rather, someone else did it for us, and that was A-OK in our book. We were going to Spain. It was happening. The dream was becoming a reality. And all joking aside, the experience with AAA was quite painless. Our travel agent was incredibly kind, efficient, and helpful. She took care of everything without breaking a sweat, all while smiling and making us feel comfortable even as that customer nearby experienced a full and thorough insurance-related meltdown. We were officially honeymooners.
In our culture, when people broach the subject of a honeymoon, it’s only natural that we conjure up that blissful post-wedding marital state of being, full of romance and adventure—two lovebirds taking time away from the world to begin creating or fine-tuning their own. It doesn’t require an expensive vacation or oodles of wedding cash, just a little bit of good-old-fashioned time alone. Maybe a leisurely stroll or two, hands clasped together, the promise of an intimate candlelit dinner, and those yearning expressions of affection bouncing from soul to soul and back again.
But we went all out. We exchanged a small down payment on a house for a two-week adventure in a country we would seriously consider never leaving. It was critical, I thought at the time, that we experience the maximum amount of romance, adventure, and international culture; this was the full immersion package of fun that would determine how jealous those who followed our Instagram accounts would be!
I quickly realized that this raised the stakes, that I expected perfection and nothing less, as if we had something more to lose even though all our money was already gone.
And so, in September 2016, Amanda and I stuffed our brand new shiny suitcases with the bare necessities, threw on our nifty AAA travel badges, and flew far away and across the Atlantic to the magical city of Madrid. We spent those first two days alone wandering the streets, hand-in-hand, exploring the nooks and crannies of the magnificent parks, contemplating timeless masterpieces at the local museums, and, of course, eating and drinking our way across the city and back again, as honeymooners tend to do. Our tummies were properly stuffed with tapas, our lips stained red with too much Rioja and Tempranillo, and our hearts made happy and full with the feeling that just about anything at all was now possible.
Those two days passed by in the blink of an eye. Amanda was happy. I was happy. It was the perfect honeymoon. We stayed out until all hours of the night, soaking in the people and the culture—intoxicated by international travel and that feeling of your once dormant spark of life returning at the promise of adventure. We had barely even begun honeymooning, and already we had done and seen so much. Thank you, AAA. Thank you.
After properly introducing ourselves to the capital city, we were soon ready to attend the official bus tour orientation and commence with the next leg of our trip. There we would meet our seasoned tour guide and fellow travelers who, for the next ten days, would be our very best friends as we traveled across the country making memories and long-lasting friendships all along the way.
Orientation was hosted in a conference room located on the first floor of our boutique hotel, and we were not late, but rather, precisely on time. As we walked through those doors, I remember experiencing a shocking sensation, a feeling that shook loose the marrow in my bones.
An error had occurred.
Something wasn’t quite right.
This could not possibly be our conference room, not our bus tour.
But it was. An enormous, unmistakable welcome sign provided all kinds of information that indicated we were not in fact in the wrong room. My neurons sent out instructions to begin flooding my system with perilous quantities of fear and confusion. And yet, Amanda seemed unperturbed, unphased. She looked at me and smiled, adaptable as ever.
As I looked out upon the room, I saw a deep sea of grey and silver hair. We were not among our generation. We were among our elders and a whole bunch of them at that. Hell, we were surrounded, with little hope of escape. I desperately searched for signs of youth. Anyone. A couple our own age. Even just one would do. But there were none to be found. We were alone.
I wasn’t just freaking out; I was hard at work constructing the most horrific, world-ending personal catastrophe ever experienced by one-half of a honeymooning duo. How embarrassing. To have spent so much money and not even for a second suspected that you had unwittingly signed-up for some sort of premium bus tour catered to those of a certain age. What would people say? You did what on your honeymoon? With who?
As orientation came and went, I hardly heard a word. Instead, my mind hurriedly took to the important task of devising alternate vacation scenarios that focused solely on the idea of skipping the bus tour entirely.
We could rent a car.
Use the same hotels.
It would just be the two of us!
I told Amanda my plans, assuming she was thinking the very same frantic thoughts and experiencing the very same emotional turmoil that had my insides twisted around and upside down. Of course, I was wrong.
It will be fine.
Let’s give it a shot.
You’ll have fun.
Remembering that I was the sole part of our two-person package responsible for freaking out, for catastrophizing worst-case scenarios, for immediately assessing situations incorrectly and assuming the worst, I took a deep breath and for the first time noticed I was holding something. There in my hand was a device. It was purple and had a dial and a set of headphones.
What is this?
That … is your whisper.
Ahh. A whisper.
That night, we boarded our bus for the very first time, joining our new crew for an early dinner of exquisite Italian cuisine in the wonderful, magical city of Madrid. As for the whisper, well that device would become my lifeline, the most vital link in the one-way communication allowing me to hear all the important, educational whisperings our tour guide had to offer as I followed along to the sites and scenes of our ten-day, bus tour extravaganza.
This is NOT a Vacation … This is a Tour
Dinner was fine. Yes, we received plenty expressions of astonishment, of confusion, we passed many furrowed brows and curious looks as we walked the aisle of that bus for the first time. But then we sat down to eat, and to my own astonishment, everyone was perfectly kind and wanted to learn all about how two kids from Boston ended up on a tour like this with people like them.
And before you knew it, some of the pressure was off. No, I was not entirely on board with what was happening, and perhaps that makes me a terrible person, but at least I was being nudged in the right direction by good conversation and the slow and steady process of getting to know good people.
I should state, in my defense, that I was just as worried about the opinions of our vacation crew as I was of the imaginary and non-existent people I had made up in my mind. Both concocted and real personalities who would undoubtedly take pleasure in judging us, thinking us total dimwits for choosing to spend our honeymoon in such an un-honeymoon like fashion. Not once, during that first day or two, did I think of the other possibilities. That it would be, could be, a wonderful experience. That we would meet people we would never have otherwise had the pleasure of meeting. And that this would end up being one hell of a story.
As the days passed and we settled into what we and I’m sure many other more experienced vacationers refer to as “tour life,” we learned all about the rigorous demands of the road. Our new friends, many of whom took immediately to Amanda’s charms and smiley nature, while clearly remaining a bit skeptical in regards to her fussy husband, explained to us the sacrifices necessary to maximize the vacation experience.
You see, a tour is not a vacation. A vacation is for the lazy. For the weak of mind and body. It is for those who wish to sleep when there are sites that need to be seen. A vacation is not a tour. A tour requires dedication and waking in the darkness long before the sun has risen. It requires each and every participant to be on time and on the bus and ready to roll. The itinerary is strict but fair. Do not be unpunctual; that would be bad. Don’t be the last to breakfast; that would be unseemly. Be prepared for your day. Bring snacks to carry you through to the next destination. Be ready for foul weather. Most importantly, never ever forget, this is not a vacation, this is a tour. And one more thing: be ready to urinate or do whatever you need to do whenever there is an available bathroom. The bus will leave you behind if necessary, so make it quick.
This bus tour crew was seasoned and efficient; they were veterans of the international bus tour circuit. The Australians and Canadians and the British outnumbered the Americans by far. Many of these folks knew each other before the tour or had met on previous tours and had become tour friends—joining forces once or twice or thrice a year to knock another country off their to-do list. We followed along and learned as best we could. From Seville to Córdoba to Grenada we went. Down cobblestone streets and through sword shops, cafes and restaurants and of course, the churches.
It was a honeymooners dream. One after another, each blurring into the next as if at some point we had entered some sort of alternate vacation dimension where only churches existed and nothing else. It was ... exhausting and fun and also I don’t think we ever need to see another church for the rest of our long lives—thank God for that.
But in between quality time with our bus crew, eating at highway gas stations for lunch, and learning about the various types of wood ancient church choir chairs are constructed of, we also had a bit of time to ourselves.
Amanda and I escaped here and there for our own little excursions; continuing our mission to hunt down each and every tapa available in the country, we ate and ate and ate. Abundant quantities of bread and wine were involved at all times and dreamy strolls with clasped hands were plentiful. In Valencia, we skipped out on a day trip with the group to a doll factory (yes, a doll factory) located a full hour outside of the city and did what we do best. Walk.
We walked all day and into the night; exploring the city, ambling down streets to see where they might lead, peering down alleys, poking into shops, and eventually making our way from one end to the other. We even found a beach! It wasn’t too difficult, Valencia being on the ocean and all. And soon we found ourselves dangerously close to partaking in an actual honeymoonesque activity when we threw on our swimming trunks, rented some chairs, and commenced with a healthy amount of non-activity, rest, and relaxation.
The next day, missing our friends and newfound bus companions, we happily reunited with the crew, who at this point had taken us on as the official kiddy mascots of this great Spanish tour. While exchanging tales of our adventures, it was agreed upon, by all parties, young and old, that future tours would do well to remove all doll factory related excursions from the official itinerary, as they are a complete waste of time and as one person put it, a total snoozefest.
It was then that we learned of the post-tour review; a time-honored tradition, when individuals have the unique opportunity to share with the tour company their innermost thoughts and critiques. Upon returning home, with detailed notes and fresh memories, this competent cast of professional travelers would make it rain with friendly suggestions or seething remarks regarding their concerns and misgivings at every twist and turn along the road. It would be a time to proclaim high praise for the tour guides, but also for brutal honesty regarding the quality of the excursions and the services provided. It would be just the place to encourage the immediate removal, for the sake of future tour travelers, of any and all activities that proved to be dull or substandard.
And so the trip continued. The more we traveled, the more these people turned into real actual people. They had stories to tell, rich family lives to discuss, and of course, questions to ask of us. We shared not only excursions across the country, but conversations over dinner and wine and laughter—soon we were no longer two young kids hanging out with the adults, we were simply friends, sharing an experience of a lifetime and making connections along the way with people we came to care about.
Long gone were my thoughts of disappointment, of stupidity, and my fear of being teased by imaginary people for a honeymoon that turned out to be well worth a smallish down payment on a house. The bus and the itinerary and the waking up way too early every single day had all become a normal part of life. Gas station lunches weren’t so bad, at least not in Spain. And, as tends to be the case more often than not, Amanda led by example, showing me how to embrace and enjoy the moment, the trip, and the people—no matter how different the reality of things turned out to be in the end.
The days and cities and tiny little villages flew by and before we knew it we were spending our final hours with the bus tour crew exploring the streets of Barcelona, sauntering through Park Guell, and the church that Gaudi built, or started at least—la famosa Sagrada Familia. We stopped by the seafood stands and butcheries of the Mercat de la Boqueria, walked up an down the Las Ramblas strip, and listened carefully as our whispers guided us through the Gothic Quarter and down to the waterfront where sailboats and beachgoers painted a picture perfect scene of the renowned city landscape. We were one big happy family.
That night we had our very last group dinner. As it came to a close, one of the Australians gave a very heartfelt speech, not about the sites that we saw or the impossible amount of church pews we sat in, but instead he raised his glass and toasted all the new friends he had made and all the old ones that had joined his side once again for a bit of adventuring, if only for a short time. There were some promises of future visits and group email correspondence spurred on by the wine. There were hugs and cheers and plenty of last moments spent acknowledging what a fun time it had been and how fast it had whizzed by ... too fast, too soon. It was sad to say goodbye, but it truly was by far the best and most fascinating 10-day bus tour extravaganza we had ever taken.
The End is the Beginning
When you spend such a long time traveling with such a large group of people, it’s actually quite shocking when it ends. No longer are you a small part of a large traveling circus, but it also feels like someone broke up the gang. That just as you were getting the hang of tour life ... it was over. However, not being on a bus was its own treasure. As was not waking up at the crack of dawn or wondering if you would have the opportunity to relieve yourself within the next three hours or having more options to choose from than yet another pre-scheduled Italian dinner. We were free again to rule over our own lives.
Transportation was up to us now, and we had booked a flight on a teeny-weeny airplane to the sunny seaside town of San Sebastian, cradled comfortably in the corner of the Bay of Biscay, just a hop, skip, and jump away from France and the Pyrenees. We had entered Basque country, a place that referred to tapas as pinchos and had a long history of being their own kind of place that just happened to be in Spain for the time being.
With its white sandy beaches, crystal blue water, and cozy cobblestoned streets lined with cafes and surfside eateries, we knew instantly that it was a place we could live forever. We would learn to surf, of course. Pick up the language, eventually. And, dedicate our lives to a slower, more thoughtful pace of life, filled with lazy strolls along the river, afternoon siestas, and enormous helpings of the most delicious aceitunas and croquettes in the whole wide world. It was a good dream to have.
If only it were possible. Alas, we would not be staying indefinitely. Our honeymoon dream had come true, but we would eventually return home to our cubicles and everyday household activities, where we would be re-programmed to accept reality as it currently exists. We would go back to Boston, full of new stories and a refreshed perspective, back to our families, friends, and loved ones that make home the place to be.
We spent those final two days in Spain at the spa, the beach, and eating all the pinchos and drinking all the wine, as had become the main staples of our personal itinerary. Just two young honeymooners, enjoying each other's company on the tail end of a very successful trip. The tour had come to an end, as had the honeymoon. But our life together, well that was just getting started.