(I originally wrote this column for LiteraryMama.com in June of 2004. I’m revisiting the topic, seven years later, to note what’s changed and what’s the same for me in conference travel.)
It's a Wednesday afternoon in March and I’ve just taken a cab to the airport. While I usually manage to get a ride, my two usual chauffeurs are both unavailable: Mariah’s back at school after a pleasant spring break with us, and Mark’s preparing for an evening class. I pay the cabdriver and walk in, pulling a small rolling bag behind me and carrying a computer bag slung over my shoulder. Despite the weight I immediately feel lighter as I enter the check-in line: I have no one but myself to look out for. I am giddy with excitement (or is it nerves?) as I walk through the airport, alone.
The last time I went to the airport I was not the traveler, and I was not alone. I was with my whole family, and it was November. We drove to Dulles, a nearly two-hour drive, to drop Mariah off for a flight back to college after a too-short Thanksgiving break. We had to leave almost four hours before her flight time, allowing for traffic delays, security at the airport, and my own anxieties. In the end, we got her there only about half an hour before her flight, dropping her at the curb with a kiss and a promise to call. In an instance of remarkably good travel karma, her flight was so delayed that the airline put her on a competitor’s flight, a direct one—and she got back to college before we got home.
I had no such luck this past week, but I actually enjoyed my wait time. On Wednesday, I find the electronic check-in, swipe my credit card, pull out a boarding pass and walk easily through the terminal to my gate. I’m not in any hurry as I remove my watch and shoes, belt and jacket, watch my bags through the x-ray machine, and stop for a quick snack to carry on (are all flights now across meal times?) after I pull myself back together. I sit in the gate area reading a book on my iPad—this is my first conference trip without a laptop since I was in graduate school—and knitting. I make progress with both my book and my scarf.
Despite the indignities and inefficiencies of contemporary travel, I enjoy it. I am anonymous and irresponsible. For the next five days, I am no one's mother, no one's wife, simply a traveler and a conference attendee. I buy coffee and bottled water and magazines; I fail to eat balanced meals; I stay up too late talking and then shower early in the morning to clear my head. (All this is the same as seven years ago!) I converse only with grownups: instead of conversations about homework and vegetable-eating (or lack thereof) and who did what to whom in the cafeteria, we talk about our work, our kids, our aging parents. We’ve been attending conferences together for almost twenty years and our concerns have changed, but the touchstones—family, work, work/family—remain the same.
A successful conference, for me, balances good conversation with quiet moments, stimulating talks with time for reflection. I get it all at this conference, coming home refreshed in my research and ready for the final push of the semester. Unlike seven years ago, I don’t feel as if I’ve needed the relief from kid-wrangling that conference travel brings; rather, I move fluidly from friend to parent to professor and back again. It’s nice to feel integrated—and it’s nice to be home.