Why Everyone Should Travel With an Octogenarian

Barcelona is the perfect city to visit with an octogenarian. Old people walk slowly. In 2012, I was visiting Barcelona with my then 84-year old father. Whenever I thought I was walking at a slow pace, I needed to divide the pace in half so as to not leave Dad behind. And I discovered that when you slow down in Barcelona, you have time to look up. And when you look up in Barcelona, you can take in the phantasmagoria that is the architecture of the city — the gargoyles and curlicues, trompe l’oeil facades, spires and curved arches.

My mother had died a year earlier and my father had lost not only his wife of 56 years, but a lifelong traveling companion. I recently found a faded color photograph of their first overseas trip in 1966, posing in the BOAC jetliner enroute to London, my mother’s hair neatly coiffed, sporting matching bright plaid skirt and blouse, my father wearing a sport jacket. From that trip, their travels took them through Europe, to China, Russia, Mexico and Uzbekistan.

With all of their travels, my mother and father had never made it to Barcelona. On our first morning, when we strolled onto the kinetic, colorful frenzy of Las Ramblas, Dad paused for a moment and said quietly, “your mother would have loved this.”

Barcelona was the first of several trips with my octogenarian father and a chance to learn more about him, and also about my mother. I learned that they had enjoyed traveling most with no plans, just a rental car, a map and a guidebook, a mode of travel that is almost lost in the Trip Advisor age. Travelling that way, they always managed to find a room in an interesting inn or parador, even the one in the Alhambra, that I had booked months in advance, on-line.

An older person brings a different historical perspective to a place. For my father, the memories of Franco’s Spain were not that distant, so that a visit to Montjuïc Castle recalls horrors in one’s adult life. On our next trip, to Argentina, my then 86 year old father remembered the Peron years, the bombing of the embassy and the community center, Evita and Isabel. His generation lived through fascism as a real threat. He engaged our guide in Buenos Aires in animated discussions over politics, freedom, democracy, Judaism.

Traveling with an octogenarian reminds you aware of the perils of aging — the fears, the weaknesses, the loss of balance, hearing, and the slowness to adapt. Carrying luggage, making your way through busy train stations and airports, present challenges. When we arrived in Buenos Aires two years after Barcelona, and settled into our Recoleta apartment, my father discovered that he had left a bag of hearing aid batteries in the plane. So my introduction to Argentina was a frantic search for the nearest farmacia where, by repeating “Quiero una bateria” numerous times and pointing to my ears, I learned that the Spanish word for “hearing aid” is audífono and that, just as in my nearest CVS, the hearing aid batteries were behind the register.

I learned patience traveling with my dad, and learned that sometimes he had to also be patient with me. My father had stayed uncharacteristically calm in the back seat of the car on a dark night in Granada when, hopelessly lost, my husband and I had devolved into a tirade of blame and cursing. He then stayed awake enough to join us on a midnight walk through the cobblestone streets of the Albacín where we found the only restaurant still open serving plates of jamon serrano and cheese and hearty red wine.

My dad was eager to live it up in Argentina. In Mendoza, we took a one-day guided tour of the wine country, hitting four wineries between 10AM and 4PM. The only other tourists on the tour were four young men from Dublin. By the third winery, the Irish guys were slapping Dad on the back and tossing back rounds as the Argentine hosts filled glass after glass. By the fourth winery, Dad sat outside at a picnic table in the misty rain, holding his heavy head. Two of the Dubliners helped him back to the van, proclaiming that he was one of the coolest old guys they had met.

In 2016, we took Dad, by then 88, with us on a trip to Ireland. Although my father was still not ready to give up on traveling, the Argentina trip had worn him out; Ireland felt like a safer, easier choice: a short flight to a small country with English speaking and hospitable locals.

In Ireland, my father made one of his last valiant attempts to not act his age. We had arranged with a local guide in Connemara for a hike following the Mám Eán pilgrimage trail to the Chapel of St Patrick, a tiny stone chapel on a remote hill. Along the trail as you approach the chapel are large stone cairns topped with wooden crosses, representing the Stations of the Cross — Ireland’s answer to the Via Dolorosa.

The trail is not particularly steep or long, but the land is boggy, uneven and strewn with rocks. My father gamely set out from our van, flanked by our driver and my brother in law. His slow pace in Spain had become excruciating. I stood and watched as he inched his way across the emerald field. A few hundred yards in, he finally gave up. I went down to meet him, and he admitted he wasn’t going to make to the Chapel of St. Patrick. Our driver walked with him back to the van and they passed a couple of cheerful hours in a pub till we returned.

This year, Dad will be 91 and, following in his grandfather’s footsteps, my son will graduate from law school. This time, the graduation will be in Los Angeles. I think my father has one more plane ride in him.

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