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I’ve always been a little obsessed with houses.

We moved several times when I was a child, and every house felt different. I noticed that right away. Sometimes I liked the feeling, and sometimes I didn’t. In my memories, I was able to belong to each of them eventually, and them to me.

After reading and re-reading the L.M. Montgomery series of books that begins with Anne of Green Gables, I learned to believe houses have a personality almost like people do. And maybe that’s what I had noticed as a child. Some are more welcoming than others, some are private and unfriendly. Some are old and charming, others old and sad.

This deep interest made Mt. Vernon my favorite attraction on our Washington DC tour. Because first and foremost, it was a home. And such a home.

This estate, built and beloved by George and Martha Washington, is permeated with the kind of personality that makes us love a place and feel loved by it. I think this is due almost totally to the philosophy of George Washington himself.

The docents and staff at Mt. Vernon all had in common a deep respect for George Washington. The literature and paintings in the museum exhibits depict him as a General and a farmer, a man worth following long before he became President – an election that remains the only unanimous vote in our electoral college. Mt. Vernon tells the story of the man who inspired that unity.

I was struck first by Mt. Vernon’s external beauty. It kind of takes your breath away when it first becomes visible a few long strides from the visitors center. The landscape only adds to that feeling as guests walk a tree-covered lane to the mansion. And as if I wasn’t sold already, after walking through the first few rooms of the home, we stepped onto its old-fashioned porch on the back, overlooking the Potomac, and my heart was lost to it forever.

I’ll always think of Mt. Vernon as the oldest house of dreams our country can claim. The beauty certainly continued into every room, every garden and outbuilding. And I think the reason is because of its famous hospitality. It opened its doors (and beds and table) to so many guests over the years that it seems to be inviting us in still today. The outer kitchen still almost hums with the years of cooking it did for Mt. Vernon’s family and many visitors. It’s truly inspiring.

Perhaps it was partly this hospitable philosophy that inspired President Washington’s famous resourcefulness. The docents and staff at Mt. Vernon infuse every word with deep respect for the Man of the Estate, and by the time I left I felt this deep respect too. It was simply amazing the way he used creativity and innovation to support the home and grounds. I was inspired by his frugality, his sixteen-sided barn, and his legacy. I love Mt. Vernon. And maybe the charm of a home has nothing to do with the size or shape or color of its walls. Perhaps it is painstakingly built into the home by the character and hospitality of its owners.

I had dreamed of going to New York City for several years before I finally went.

I’d seen its famous places in all my favorite films. I knew its skyline by sight, its iconic spots. And I believed things about it that I desperately wanted to be true, things about how it would feel to walk its sidewalks, what the energy would be like, how exciting it would be.

So I wanted to see it for myself to prove all those things true. But there was something more. I wanted to belong there. Like many travelers, I hated the tourist cliche – that picture of a person in a tropical shirt walking down 5th Avenue with a fanny pack and a camera and no concept of the people rushing around them as they paused mid-sidewalk for pictures or to stare up at the Empire State Building. I dreaded the feeling that I only belonged to New York as much as that person did.

And I got lucky. I worked for a travel company at the time, so I was able to go inside New York for meetings and meet-and-greets, inside in a way I couldn’t have if I had simply been a tourist. And besides that, I’d made personal connections in that city so far from everything I’d known. I was able to meet two friends I’d only communicated with by phone or email until that point. And sitting in their city, having an actual conversation with real live connections – that made the difference for me. I did feel I belonged and that I had a part.

I’ll always love New York, maybe more than any other place I go because I’d dreamed of it so long and it lived up to every single hope. And that got me thinking, maybe people make the difference all the time.

For our student travel company, we send a lot of groups to Capitol Hill in Washington DC. The Capitol, of course, offers free, guided tours throughout the day that anyone can join. They follow a standard path and a fairly standard script, hitting only the highlights of this magnificent building and its history.

But we like to take it one step further and get our groups a private tour with their state representative. This personal touch can make all the difference in educational tours of the Capitol. The kids will feel much more connected to the process, which will help them connect to the tour.

Any chance we can find to make a tour more personal, for any group, can turn a pleasant experience into an unforgettable one. What about you? Do you find that you travel as much for people as for places? Maybe even more?

Another Part of Me

I hope you’ve noticed from my writing that I have great passion for life and for all we have to learn and discover in our world. That’s my blogging mission here at Going Places.

You probably know I work for a student travel company and write blogs and online content highlighting all the great educational attractions out there, how to develop tours based on themes – such as art, theater, or fashion – and much more about group and student travel.

I’ve been silent for a while, because as much passion as I have for these kind of pursuits, I also believe there are seasons of rest. I’m taking an involuntary one lately as I fight a recurrence of the cancer I first faced in 2005. I’ll be taking treatments for another couple of months, and the blog may be hit and miss over that time. If you stop by, I hope you see this and know I’ll be back soon, healthy, and waxing poetic over places and culture and all there is to discover when you’re Going Places.

Serenity

Learning as You Go

When I tell people that I work at a travel company, I admit I get a thrill of pride when I add that we mostly work with student groups and educational travel. Then I always throw out a brief definition of that. Just to show you where the thrill comes in, I thought I’d elaborate on that definition here.

In my senior yearbook I quoted one of my favorite teachers who always said to us, “We’re not teaching you facts, we’re teaching you to learn.” At the time, it meant little more to me than the idea that she would be grading on participation – an exercise of which I was not a fan.

Being a student who relied a lot on memorization, I do not think I truly grasped Mrs. Hudson’s meaning until later. Not only did she want me to look up answers for myself, she wanted me to discover my own questions. I did not realize that what she was searching for was that spark – the light in my eyes to register some kind of thirst to know more than she could tell me, more than the book had described, and more than I could pencil onto the test.

Now a mother, I sometimes worry whether or not our educational system takes into consideration this wide view of learning. Do teachers have the freedom today to incorporate imaginative play and other methods for learning? I’ve noticed reading is considered the foundation for all learning. And as a writer, I’m all for this. But before reading, I think, there was experience. We were touched by humanity through our parents, through learning to interact with siblings, and by watching life ignite and swirl around us. Reading and writing are of course irreplaceable building blocks to education. But the further benefit of seeing and experiencing new places, many educators believe to be irreplaceable as well.

Here is a list of some of the specific educational benefits I believe to be intrinsic to field trips and student travel.

Compassion - The best way to convince young people that they belong to a global community is to let them travel the globe. By finding people who live lives similar to their own but in other cities and cultures, students are more likely to be moved to lend a hand in the areas of greatest contrast.

History – Perhaps this is obvious, but what person cares more for the dates and events in their history book than they do for the places and people around whom the events first came to life? Seeing important landmarks firsthand can instill in a young person ownership over both the tradition of history and the responsibility to keep from repeating its mistakes.

Reading Comprehension – It is well-established that reading is fundamental to all other aspects of learning. What better way to enhace comprehension than through experience? Visiting new places challenges our comfort levels. It makes us look closer, ask more questions, even read more carefully as we attempt to navigate unfamiliar territory.

Economy – Understanding our economy is crucial to growth and success. Earning money for student travel, even graduation trips, can teach a young person more about commerce than sitting in a classroom. And seeing how the economy is affected by various lifestyles and cultural centers will make a lasting impression on a young person’s mind.

Communication Skills – This is the building block for all of commerce, industry, and invention. Student travel can enhance this skill for even the shyest homebody. You only have to share a hotel room with one interesting personality to discover this. The challenges of travel strengthen this skill in every aspect, though, as we learn to participate in the culture we are visiting.

Student travel can awake in young adults a thirst for learning they may fail to grasp in the classroom. To see the evidence of history and touch it with your own hands makes history come alive. To experience the pulse of life in another culture creates appreciation in a way a book could not. In the words of Mark Twain from his book Innocents Abroad, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Perhaps in this way, experience through travel can teach us what books never could alone.

Travel as a Career-Finder

I usually focus here on my personal experiences with travel, the places I want to go, and why I want to go at all. But one of the most inspiring things I’ve learned about travel since working for a student travel company is that going places can help students figure out what they want to be.

As a former 17-year-old, I don’t think I was alone in not having a clue where I really wanted to go in life when I graduated high school. I think many of us tend to stumble around college, and often for several years after it, before we realize where we belong in the larger picture. The truth is, I like the idea of never giving up that feeling of endless possibilities. I think we should all be open to new goals at any moment. Unfortunately, a degree is an expensive thing to waste. And you’re way ahead in the game if you graduate with one that lines up with a very real plan.

So if you’re lucky enough to still be seventeen – or very near it, consider student travel not as an escape but as a world-wide career fair. Take this chance to see more places, to discover your aptitude for travel and to navigate the unfamiliar. New destinations can open your eyes to the streets and workplaces that hundreds and thousands of people walk every single day, which opens your mind to possibility. And besides all that vague stuff – it can give you a firsthand look at actual careers. That should be a part of any student travel tour.

Some great ideas for career observation might include fashion or art in New York City, architecture in Chicago, or creative innovation in Orlando. Seriously, Disney has some great programs for students and is a world leader in both innovation and a number of exciting careers. And I’ve had a couple fashion tours in New York City that I think would inspire anyone to consider that industry as a valid and exciting career choice.

My company has built some tours around themes like fashion and architecture, and they make a great choice if you’re looking to focus on a specific career. Along these lines, we’ve designed Law and Order tours to our nation’s capital. If you’re looking for inspiration in law enforcement, forensics, investigation, crime-fighting, espionage or homeland security, this is the tour for you.

Let’s start, for instance, with the National Cryptologic Museum where you can learn all about codes and code breaking. It’s something students may not realize they can even explore until higher education, and it can be really exciting for them. There’s also an entire museum in DC dedicated to the Drug Enforcement Administration, another worthy career choice. Other highlights on the Law-And-Order tour include The Supreme Court, the National Museum of Crime and Punishment – one of our personal favorites, and the International Spy Museum.

The Newseum was one of my favorite attractions when I visited several of the above. This news-themed museum is a celebration of journalists and the amazing headlines they’ve captured. An entire wall here projects current front pages from around the country. There’s a powerful 9/11 memorial, a portion of the Berlin Wall, and a really popular exhibit for students that’s dedicated to those who deliver the news through comedy. This medium has become extremely influential, and you only have to sit a moment in this exhibit to see why. And actually, any number of career inspiration could be sparked in this varied, comprehensive museum.

Washington D.C. is a wonderful city and has featured in several major films and television shows for its place in the fields of government, law, and order. There’s tons to take in there pertaining to crime and punishment and several different careers in the field. It’s just one destination choice for travel with a career theme, but it’s an extremely varied and powerfully inspiring choice.

The Carpe Diem List

I don’t usually write about this on my travel blogs, but I was diagnosed with cancer in 2005. I vividly remember at the time expecting a seize-the-day sort of feeling. I’m actually reminded of that daily as I follow other travel writers online and see the recurring theme to suck the marrow from life, to take advantage of every moment and of every beautiful part of our earth, to see as much of the world as possible while we’re on it.

The weird thing is, that’s not how I felt when I actually thought I was dying. I was the mother of young children. I still lived very near my family and an extensive circle of friends. And I kinda just wanted to hang. I found myself wishing I could gather all them in a room – everyone I’d known and loved. I had a lot to say thank you for, because it had really been a very cool life.

Fortunately – and quite obviously – I didn’t die then. And after the surgery and treatments were over, I wondered if I would think differently if I was ever given a diagnosis like that again. I wondered if I’d get the seize-the-day feeling the second time around. And because of that, I spend a lot of time wondering what I might do to seize the day if that feeling shows up. That is my bucket list, it’s constantly changing. I’m always weighing which carpe-diem opportunity should come first if I have to prioritize them. And it grows all the time.

I’m reminded of my carpe-diem list all the time right now as I follow more travel writers online. There are so many adventurers out there who seem to have been born with the wonderful gift to value every moment and to see as much of the earth as possible while they’re on it. I love that. It’s incredibly inspiring, and I feel I’m in excellent company.

This spring I went to New York City to see for myself (along with other group members) the attractions we usually include in New York City group tours. And technically, that was one huge check mark on the bucket list. What I’ve noticed, though, is that it refuses to move very far down the list. Having been there once, visiting again will always remain on my list of lifetime goals. And the list keeps growing.

My Favorite Part

I went to New York City last spring armed with a small list of television and movie locations special to me, comfortable shoes, a purse I loved, and a few determinations about traveling with a group.

I hereby recommend one of those determinations for everyone group traveler out there: Do not need or expect your own way. Ever.

Group travel is a completely different beast than traveling on your own, and you have to approach it with a different mindset if you want to enjoy the experience. Not needing your own way is your best chance at happiness in a group. And that’s how I determined to travel. I didn’t expect to get to see all the things I wanted, to get to stay at them as long as I hoped, or even to enjoy them exactly the way I would have liked. I didn’t care. I was finally going to New York City, the city of my dreams, and nothing would stop me from enjoying it.

Still, I carried the list, the few places I would try to find if I found myself with any time alone.

And the plan worked great. I didn’t have a moment of discontent – not when supper made us late for my first show on Broadway ever, not when my alarm failed to wake me on the first morning, not when I was the only member of my group to love where we were quite as much as I did. I had my own way just by being there, and that was enough.

But then, oh happiness, I did get free time. And one of the locations on my list was only a few blocks from our hotel. I set out early one morning and walked to Riverside Park and to this movie location at the 91st Street Garden from the final scene in You’ve Got Mail. It was peaceful and beautiful and the experience of a lifetime.

Now, I can write about New York City group travel tours with experiential knowledge. And I can write about them with only the best of feelings.

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