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Beyond the Bucket List: Opportunities for Personal Transformation

Statue of a gargoyle with its face propped in its hands and the view of the city in the background.
Gargoyle at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Photo © S. Borisov.

When I hear the phrase “trip of a lifetime” I immediately think of THE ONE BIG TRIP, the trip that renders all others inconsequential—a notion that runs mildly counter to what I promote as the editor in chief of AFAR, a magazine devoted to experiential travel. At AFAR, we believe that every trip has the potential and the possibility to be a trip of a lifetime. We believe that the power of travel comes from deep, immersive experiences that connect travelers to a place and its people, and that to truly understand the complexities—and glory—of the world, travelers must celebrate its diversity.

I suppose it’s the difference between the trip of a lifetime and a trip of a lifetime that throws me. The stereotypical ONE BIG TRIP is a big-five safari in southern Africa; a month-long backpacking jaunt through seven countries in Southeast Asia; an around-the-world cruise that brings you to nearly every continent. To me, so many trips can be trips of a lifetime—what matters most is the depth of a trip and the feeling it conjures in a traveler.

Those of us lucky enough to make travel a big part of our lives get to enjoy numerous trips of a lifetime—and they can take many different forms. A trip of a lifetime is not about duration or about breadth of places covered. A trip of a lifetime is full of opportunities for personal transformation—a series of small moments or big experiences that changes the way a person sees the world and his or her place in it.

When parents or relatives plant the seed of travel at a young age, trips from childhood spark sensory memories for the rest of your life. I still remember the smell of petrol inside a borrowed Renault in Cambridge, England; the wet, swirling air of the west coast of Ireland; the first taste of melting cassis ice cream on a hot day in Paris; the sensation of slipping down a muddy trail in New Brunswick, Canada; the view as the sun dipped behind a mesa outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. These memories cemented my love for travel, and each made changes in me—some explicit, some subtle—that I came to appreciate only in retrospect. As I grew up, I recognized that travel did something to me that staying home couldn’t. And I figured out that even when travel was hard and challenging, it was in fact good for me.

When I got even older and started traveling independently, I realized the best kind of travel meant more than just seeing the sights. The most meaningful travel involves connecting with locals, going beneath the surface of a place, soaking up inspiration off the beaten path, and forcing yourself outside of your comfort zone. You bring your own preconceptions to any place and to any group of people, and when you come up against foreign places and foreigners in a very real way, you’re forced to confront your own prejudices. You quickly come to realize that life is much more nuanced than it seemed before you left home. The metaphoric walls come down, and conversations become two-way dialogues, as opposed to a series of hyperbolic newspaper headlines. A trip of a lifetime is just as much about people—both traveler and locals—as it is about the place. This is travel beyond the guidebooks, beyond the bucket list. This is travel that involves getting lost. And, in some instances, being alone.

When I was 27, I convinced my then-bosses to give me a month off my high-stress magazine job. After filling in for two maternity leaves within two years, I was beyond exhausted. I was also in dire need of some soul-searching: Was I in the right job? Was I dating the right man? Did I want to relocate and live abroad again? In retrospect, it was all very Eat, Pray, Love of me, just without the terrible divorce and with my own particular brand of skepticism.

A friend loaned me her family’s garret apartment in Paris, and I flew to the city with no agenda and no itinerary. After lugging my suitcase up five flights of stairs, I wrote in my journal, “The purpose of this trip is what? To escape the humdrum and hope it inspires staring-at-the-wall thought? To figure out what I want on all fronts? To realize I have what I want—though it may not be exactly the way I want it?” I don’t remember articulating these (albeit indulgent) questions to friends or family before heading off, but the thoughts were clearly percolating. I needed to get away from my routine and spend some time pushing myself beyond my boundaries, into places that were lonely and uncomfortable. I knew that these sorts of questions were best answered in a place other than home. And what better place to do that than Paris?

I had been to Paris a handful of times before this trip, but never alone. My one-room apartment in the 6th Arrondissement was small but beautifully appointed: Philippe Starck chair, check; hand soap from Provence, check; tasteful small European refrigerator, check. There were windows on either side of the apartment, and if I opened the shutters and craned my head just far enough to the right, I could see the Seine a few blocks away. Beyond the water, I could catch a glimpse of the grand Louvre museum. By evening, the apartment was hot and sticky, and I rarely slept with anything more than a sheet covering me on the pull-out sofa bed. The sounds of revelers on the street floated up through the open windows, but I was blissfully ignorant of what anyone said, my French language skills utterly lacking.

I spent my days wandering around the city, thinking my experiences would help answer all of my very important existential questions. I sat for several hours on a bench in the Musée de l’Orangerie, staring at Monet’s water lilies. I cooked omelets for dinner and drank cold rosé wine. I peered out the open windows at French families in the buildings across the street and came up with elaborate stories about their lives. I read novels set in Paris in the 1950s. I bought linen dresses at the boutique APC. I picked up thick, crusty loaves of bread at Poilâne. I sat in a noisy restaurant at 10 p.m. in St. Germain des Prés, slowly devouring a plate of steak frites. I ogled weird art books at Colette. I smoked Gauloises cigarettes from the tabac across the street from my apartment. I walked around the Place des Vosges, the Luxembourg Gardens, and the Tuileries. I ate the most perfect orange melon by myself in a hidden pocket park. I talked to strangers with thick accents from countries near and far, and we pretended to understand each other through the universal language of gestures.

It was lonely and exhilarating—and completely liberating. I had never spent such a long, uninterrupted period of time by myself. I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I could sleep until noon! I could eat a pain au chocolat every day! I could perch on the banks of the Seine until my skin turned the color of a tomato!

It was all lovely, and all a little cliché. And despite all my best efforts, I still hadn’t answered any of my big, ponderous questions. No clarity had been achieved. Then one day toward the end of my trip, I woke up early and took the metro to the Porte de Clignancourt, to explore the giant, never-ending flea market, Les Puces de Saint-Ouen. This market is Paris’s largest, and it sprawls across outdoor and indoor stalls on the outskirts of the city. In the morning, it is a bustling, crowded marketplace of people from all over the world, selling and buying anything from vintage postcards to high-end antiques. I saw gilded mirrors from the 18th century and children’s dolls that had been sewn decades ago. I saw dressers, desks, and chairs that looked straight out of Versailles. It made my collection of midcentury furnishings at home seem shiny and new. As a first-timer, the whole experience was utterly overwhelming.

I walked to the end of the market, thinking my next destination—Sacré Coeur in Montmartre—couldn’t be too far away. But before I knew it, I had disappeared off my Streetwise Paris map. My spidey sense said to keep walking in the same direction. There was something about where the sun was, something about my inner compass, and something about my intuition. I wandered through African neighborhoods and Arab neighborhoods, past halal butchers advertising fresh poulet. I smelled spicy shawarma roasting on rotating spits. I walked by women wearing full hijabs. I walked past huge housing projects that I’d seen stereotypically portrayed as bastions of crime in French films. I followed long, broad boulevards packed with line after line of bleeping cars. A slight diagonal turnoff here, and suddenly all the perpendicular streets seemed to be going the right way.

Every once in a while I would wonder if I’d stretched myself too far out of my comfort zone, if my street smarts weren’t as finely attuned as I liked to believe. After all, I was an American girl who spoke no French, lost in the middle of a neighborhood where my fish-out-of-water status was glaringly apparent. But still I wandered on, nervously enjoying the sense of the unknown and the thrill of the unexpected. No one knew where I was, what I was doing, or that I was fantastically lost. I bought a bottle of water from a little grocery store and tried to ask the clerk which direction I should be walking. The conversation was an epic fail.

After what felt like seven or eight miles and numerous hours spent walking, I was ready to give up. I didn’t want to admit how much I yearned for a taxi, but my legs hurt, my feet were blistered, and I was ravenous. My big-picture, existential questions had fled from my brain—I was simply concerned with the sidewalk ahead of me. Just then, I found myself in exactly the same spot where I had started. The corner felt different in the late-afternoon light, but I knew it was where my day had begun. There were the guys leaning up against the guardrails. There were the street vendors hustling me to buy cheap shell earrings made in Taiwan. I stopped walking, found the intersection on my map, and did an about-face. I had walked in the wrong direction from the get-go. So much for that impeccable spidey sense.

Somehow I found another reserve of energy, and I eventually made it to the stairs leading to Montmartre. I stumbled into a sidewalk café and ordered a bière blanche and some pommes frites. The café was straight out of the film Amélie, a marked contrast to the neighborhoods I’d wandered through. Sated, I walked the rest of the way to Sacré Coeur. It was impressive, to be sure, but I had learned more in my lost hours than I did staring up at the glary white façade of the building overlooking all of Paris. My ramblings had given me a street-level view of the city that never makes it into guidebooks. I hadn’t chosen the comfortable route or the expected itinerary for my day. And yet somehow, sort of poetically, I had ended up in exactly the same place I had started. And then in exactly the place I set out to find. By accidentally distracting myself with something much more imperative and urgent than my existential questions—literally finding myself after I had gotten lost—I surrendered something. I stopped obsessing about the choices I had to make and just started living and traveling in the moment. And that, of course, enabled me to make some of the tough decisions I had flown across the world to make.

By my flight home, I decided that I would stick with my relationship, stay in the Bay Area, and quit my job. Two weeks later, I did just that. It was a scary choice because I didn’t know what I would do next, but it led me to a new magazine devoted to exactly the kind of travel I experienced that long day in Paris. That day, I ended up having a thoroughly transformative experience in a city I had already visited many times, a city that is also one of the most-visited places on Earth. That is the power of travel, whether you’re taking that big trip or going somewhere seemingly familiar—to continually surprise you and to stretch you in ways you never could imagine. And that is why once you experience one trip of a lifetime, it only leaves you yearning for another.

—Julia Cosgrove
editor in chief, AFAR