A Fresh Air Fiend’s Moments of Travel Bliss

child drives a train in italyFreedom. That’s the whole point of travel, right? Travel is about untethering yourself from your comfort zone to satisfy your curiosity about what’s around the corner, or around the world. Done right, it can be incredibly liberating. But in the U.S., and increasingly around the world, risk adverse corporations, trigger happy lawyers and Big Brother can sometimes take all the freedom and liberty out of our travel experiences.

In May, I had two experiences on FSE, a small regional train line in Italy that reminded me how joyful travel can be when you have the wind in your hair and there are seemingly no rules. The first blissful ride was a short trip from Lecce to Otranto, in Italy’s heel.
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FSE trains are shorter and narrower than full size ones, so you have the feeling of being on a mini-train. On this day, there were only a few other passengers on board the three- or four-car train and we had an entire car to ourselves. It was a warm afternoon, and we were passing through a lovely landscape dotted with olive groves, palm trees and tiny little train stations where bored young men used hand crank machinery to shift tracks for passing trains.There were ten windows and I went through the car and opened every one of them as far as I could. I wandered about the empty car, reveling in the life-affirming breeze, which was blowing the train curtains to and fro. I occasionally popped my head out the window, just for the hell of it and because no one was there to tell me not to.

Italians hate open windows on a train, so I was well aware that someone might board the train and end my party at any moment. But it never happened, a few others joined us, but they left the windows open. I enjoyed the ride immensely; in fact, I didn’t really want it to end. But it also reminded me of how rare a commodity fresh air is in hotels, buses, trains and even some ferries these days.

Paul Theroux named one of his books “Fresh Air Fiend” and he could have been writing about me. Unless the weather is brutally hot, I love to be outside and I always want the windows open. But in the U.S., and other countries, it’s getting harder and harder to control one’s access to fresh air. Some hotels don’t let you open the window at all, and others let you open it just a crack.

child on a trainThis spring, I stayed at a Marriott in Zurich and our room had a dramatic view of the city with snow capped mountains as a backdrop. I called down to the front desk to ask them if I could have just one little photo op with the window open, but they wouldn’t budge.

“It’s for liability purposes,” the English speaker at the front desk said.

“But I won’t get that close to the open window,” I pleaded. “Look, you can even have someone hold my hands if you like.”

But it was no use – they refused to let me open the window, even to take a photo. At least in hotel rooms though, one can usually exert some measure of control over the room temperature, imperfect though those systems often are. On a sealed-shut train or bus with no ability to open the window, you are at the mercy of whatever the room temperature is. I’m always warm and my wife is usually cold.

The main reason I don’t like flying is the claustrophobia – there is limited space to move about and you obviously can’t open the windows to get some fresh air. But newer trains and buses are also becoming like flying coffins, where we are sealed shut and protected from both the elements and ourselves. In our cars, we can still put the windows down, at least for now, but the newer ones will squawk at you should you have the nerve to unbuckle your seatbelt, even for a moment.

You can almost always get some fresh air on a ferry ride, but even there you can occasionally be forced inside a sealed coffin. I was on a small ferry in very rough seas en route to the Greek island of Syros in June and the crew forced those of us who were on the deck to go inside when the going got particularly rough. I didn’t feel seasick on deck but inside the cabin with nothing but stagnant, warm air, my stomach started to churn.

And while the fresh air issue isn’t just a U.S. problem, we do seem to have more rules and regulations – many of them inspired by our lawsuit happy culture – that can make travel feel less spontaneous and fun.

I’m not a big drinker but when I visited the ancient Italian college town of Perugia this spring and saw all of the young and not-so-young people enjoying adult beverages in the squares, I wondered why we couldn’t allow the same here. We’re strict about public consumption of alcohol but our college students engage in more binge drinking than the Italians, who are free to drink from an earlier age and in public.

My second moment of travel bliss came on the same train, this time heading to Gallipoli. FSE conductors wear no uniforms, which gives the whole experience a rather casual vibe, and one of them invited my sons to come into his control room to blow the train whistle (see video).

My sons, ages 2 and 4, loved having an opportunity to push the button to blow the whistle and the conductor let them do it over and over again. But after they got bored with that, he actually let my 4-year-old take over the controls of the train for a minute or two (see video below). Now, he was obviously standing right there and could have taken over at any point if an emergency arose, but I just sat back laughing, thinking that there’s no chance that Amtrak would allow such fun and frivolity.

So here’s three cheers for hotels, trains and buses with windows that open, drinking in public and allowing 4-year-olds to drive trains. After all, these are the things that travel is all about.