The spring of 2020 will be remembered for a variety of reasons due to the unusual measures taken to curb COVID-19, from practicing social distancing to hoarding toilet paper. Not the least of these changes is the unprecedented cessation of travel, and while making plans for future trips has been put on hold, this time offers the perfect opportunity for reflection on past travel adventures and the ways these experiences have shaped your outlook and cultural preferences. For the following Columbia families, seeing the world has been more than a vacation: it’s changed their lives.
Never having traveled much growing up, Lynn Stokes Murray and Chris, her husband, made a pact when they married. “We decided early on that instead of exchanging anniversary gifts each year, we would take a trip,” says Lynn. “We wanted to discover the world together.”
That was 28 years ago. Since then the couple, and later their children, have visited many countries and all but eight states. “It started out as a desire to travel, but along the way we discovered that experiencing the world was changing our perspective,” she says. “Travel has benefited all of us more than I could have ever known.”
One of Lynn’s favorite examples is the family’s first trip to Europe. “Chris and I really wanted to go to Italy but felt like we had to bring the kids into the decision, so we gave them the choice between Disney and Italy,” recalls Lynn. “We were so relieved — and proud — when they chose Italy!”
Traveling with another family, the Murrays spent nearly two weeks in Italy, exploring both hill towns around Tuscany as well as larger cities like Florence and Rome. “We learned so much on that trip, but what has really stuck with us is the appreciation of art that we gained,” says Lynn. “I used to think of a museum as a day-long commitment. Now, wherever I am, if there’s a museum, I’ll pop in, even if I only have an hour because I know it will be fulfilling. Before going to Italy, I wouldn’t have done that.”
In Florence, while surrounded by masterpieces within the Uffuzi Gallery, Lynn remembers telling her daughter, Elli, to sit and look at a specific painting because one day she’d see it in a textbook and be able to tell her professor that she’d seen it in real life. “And it actually happened,” says Lynn with a laugh. “It also opened her eyes to art. Now, wherever we go, Elli’s priority is seeing art.”
Lynn says that mission trips to Guatemala and Honduras have also had a positive impact on Elli and her brother, Nick. “On one trip, a group of local children was thrilled with the opportunity to kick around a real soccer ball instead of whatever they’d been using before,” she says. “It made them realize how much they take for granted. Now, after seeing how others live, they come home feeling blessed to have so much, and they are much more informed about the world.”
Like the Murray children, Drew Stevens grew up traveling with his parents and three siblings. “My parents were well traveled and wanted to pass along the lessons you can only learn by experience,” he says. “I’ll never forget visiting the 1,000-year-old pueblos in Albuquerque and realizing that they had been happy without TV or running water. With all the technology we had growing up, this was a revelation I was overdue to have.”
Drew also learned that unforeseen complications don’t have to ruin a trip. “We were touring England, Ireland, and Scotland, and there was literally a monsoon every day,” he says. “But our tour guide, Tim, turned it into an adventure. He told us to get ready to get wet because he was going to show us the best of his country. And he did. Beyond having a great time, I learned that curveballs can be an opportunity.”
With those lessons in mind, Drew has continued traveling as an adult. In all, he has visited 21 countries and has had a wide range of experiences, from discovering new foods to learning to fly fish in South America. In Israel, he dealt with the unsettling reality of rocket strikes that occurred each day. “I’ve gained confidence through travel, as well as gratitude and a real sense of optimism,” he says.
Monica and George Kessler have also found a way to share a country’s food with others. Growing up in New Jersey eating his Italian grandmother’s red sauce, George assumed that all Italian food tasted just like hers. “In Hoboken, it’s always red sauce,” he says with a laugh. “It’s like being in a Southern Italian bubble. We didn’t realize that what we now know as Northern Italian food even existed.” That all changed in 1982, when George, then a student at the University of South Carolina, enrolled in a study abroad program in a medieval town east of Florence called Urbino. “I tasted rabbit for the first time, and cannelloni, a stuffed tubular pasta that I thought was the best thing ever,” he says. “As I traveled throughout the country and tasted new things everywhere, I remember thinking how great it would be to someday open a restaurant in Columbia that served food from all over Italy.”
It took 30 years — and several more trips to Italy — but Monica and George did just that when they opened il Giorgione Pizzeria and Wine Bar on Devine Street in 2012. The menu reads like a gastronomic map of Italy, treating guests to regional specialties like Rome’s sharp, creamy Cacio e Pepe; sunny tomato and mozzarella salad from Capri; and deeply flavored rigatoni all’Amatriciana, which comes to Columbia by way of Italy’s central provinces. The all-Italian wine list also covers the country, making it easy to drink what the locals would drink with any dish on the menu. George, who does nearly all the cooking himself, says that each trip to Italy results in a few menu adjustments that keep the food authentic. He and Monica celebrate their anniversary there every few years, and they also take many of the photos of life in Italy that, when the Gamecocks are not playing, run in a constant loop on the television. “The restaurant has been such a fulfilling way to pass along our passion for Italian food, wine, and music,” says George. “Who knew that first trip to Italy would have started all this?”
Susan Pennington, whose husband, Deane, is a pilot with American Airlines, says that travel has given her a confidence boost as well. “When I fly with Deane I have to go standby, so there’s always a chance I won’t get on the flight with him,” she says. “The first time it happened I was terrified, but now it doesn’t even phase me, even if I’m in a country where I don’t speak the language. It’s an amazing feeling that’s carried into other areas of my life.”
Beyond feeling more empowered, Susan has loved every minute of every trip. “I was fine not traveling … until I started traveling,” she says. “Now we’ve got a list a mile long of places we want to visit!”
Since Deane had spent much of his childhood traveling between the United States and England, due to the fact that he was born in Liverpool, England, and his mother was British and his father was in the U.S. Air Force, England was the first place he took Susan, who had never been to Europe, after they married. “England was a great first place because Deane knew it so well,” says Susan. “He was able to mix up our schedule with his favorite things and places he knew I would love. It was perfect.”
Since then, the couple has traveled to a wide range of destinations, including Japan, Argentina, and Italy. “We see the main tourist sites, but our favorite thing to do is to get off the beaten path,” says Susan. “I’ve gotten to where I’m really willing to try anything, from curry in England, which I thought would be too hot, to Italian specialties at a tiny restaurant in Rome that we stumbled into. We had such a great time that we went back later in the week.”
Although Susan and Deane enjoy exploring, Susan says that one of her favorite aspects of travel is the planning. “Once we decide where we’re going, I start talking to people about where to eat, what to see, and where to stay. The more I learn about a place, the more excited I get about going.”
Pre-travel research is also an important part of the travel process for Susan and John Cotter. “When we travel, I like to plan a year out,” says Susan, who explains that her first focus is studying their chosen destination through movies, magazine articles, and a wide variety of books. “I vary my choices between novels, old textbooks and works of nonfiction that cover everything from history to geopolitics so I can arrive with a good understanding of where we’re going,” she says. “That awareness provides context for a piece of art or historic site, which to me is key to getting a sense of a place.”
The Cotters also work swaths of unplanned exploration into their journeys to allow them to take in the spirit of wherever they have landed. “Experiencing different cultures helps us realize that our way isn’t the only way,” says Susan. During those times, the couple often shops for gifts for friends. “We always get a brochure about the piece or take a photo of the maker and have it wrapped up with the gift. It creates a little story.” They always try to bring home a coffee table book from each destination, which Susan says provides both a detailed reference and reminder of the trip. “I lugged home a huge book with photos of every piece of art in the Prado Museum,” she says. “It weighed a ton, but I treasure it.”
Once home, the couple turns their research to cookbooks. “We love to recreate dishes we discovered on our trip and serve them to friends at themed dinner parties,” says Susan. “It’s a fun way to entertain and helps us extend and share our experience.”
Allyson and Robert Rikard have also seen their lives transformed by travel. Like many couples, the Rikards had put off cultural journeys while their children were small, opting instead for more beach-centric vacations. In 2015, though, Robert was diagnosed with cancer; he spent most of 2016 struggling through intense chemotherapy treatments. Allyson says the experience was a wakeup call. “Before Robert’s diagnosis, there was always a reason not to go to Europe,” she says. “Then we were hit with the realization that if we don’t do it now, we may not have the opportunity.”
So off they went, taking a month to explore Italy and Greece in 2017, a month in France and Italy in 2018, and trips to France and Greece in 2019 — sometimes with the boys, and sometimes alone. Before long, they discovered not only that they loved being together for long stretches of time, but that travel turned out to provide an unexpected window into the personalities of their children. This was particularly important to Allyson, who is the boys’ stepmother. “The time zone difference made it almost impossible for them to text, so they ended up engaging with us,” says Allyson. “We saw how much they know about things and realized they weren’t as checked out as we thought they were. We had fabulous conversations, navigated through conflict as a family, and learned how much we can trust our boys to make the right decisions. All while having the time of our lives!”
Pamela Woods is another Columbian who has found a new perspective through travel. Pamela first ventured outside the U.S. during college, when she studied in London for four months. Since then, she has taken on the world, traveling through Europe, Asia, South America, and anywhere else that piques her interest. She says that her journeys outside of American culture have allowed her to fully appreciate the humanity of the world.
“There is no ‘we’ and ‘they,’” she says. “We are all the same, with families, hopes, dreams, and struggles. Kindness is pervasive and therein lies the value of travel. It does not cost much to open ourselves to just go, see, do. What we receive in return is invaluable.”