“I don’t want to make a big deal out of it,” I said to Rich and two friends some years ago en route to Nantucket. “In fact, let’s just pretend I’m not even having a fortieth birthday this weekend.”
“Fine, great, no problem,” they all said. “No fuss. We get that.”
And I was such a chump that I believed them.
For the next four days we were inseparable, exploring the island by foot, bike, boat, and car, including a dramatic episode getting lost in a cranberry bog. On the last night of the trip, Rich handed me a package. “From all of us.”
Inside was a photo album with pictures of virtually everyone I’d encountered in Nantucket holding up a large sign reading “Happy Birthday Karen.” I mean everyone: the woman at the airport arrivals counter, the carpenters remodeling the house next door, the clerk at the video store (appropriately photographed in the “Horror” section), the lobsters we’d cooked for dinner. There was even a shot of our rental car, lost in the cranberry bog, sporting the sign on its back bumper. It was astonishing. And frankly, if it had been anybody but them, it would have been a little creepy. Make that very creepy.
“When did you take these?” I said. “We were together every minute!” Apparently each time I’d dozed off over a book or taken a shower, they’d dashed out and snapped a picture. I never suspected a thing. Once I got over my shock and paranoia, I realized that photo album was one of the greatest gifts ever, and the four of us have been laughing about it for years.
There is an art to celebrating birthdays on the road. “For my fiftieth,” a friend told me, “I arranged to wake up in a hotel overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice.” What a great way to mark a milestone! But often our birthdays aren’t the focus of a trip; they just sneak up in the middle of one. So how do you make the day special?
1. Reach out to friends. Being far from home on a special occasion can make you feel isolated and lonesome. Inspired by the Nantucket album, a few years ago I sent out emails asking friends to post birthday wishes for Rich on Facebook while we were traveling. He woke up that morning to find dozens of pix of pals holding “Happy Birthday Rich” signs, photos of past celebrations, even birthday song videos. A warm way to start the day.
2. Try a local custom. European couples often entwine a pair of padlocks and hook them onto a bridge, throwing the keys into the water to show their love will last. This charming, romantic gesture is viewed as vandalism and strictly prohibited by most city officials. One year I bought a pair of padlocks, marked them with our initials, and then, under the cover of darkness, stood lookout while Rich fastened them to a bridge. Sneaking around and evading the cops added real zing to the evening.
3. Do something you’ve never done before. This is an especially good way to celebrate when you’re traveling solo. There’s nothing like taking your first camel ride, learning the hula, or going skinny dipping at midnight to make the day feel special. How far you go with this is up to you; if you decide to get a tattoo, you might want to choose something that’s not going to require a lot of explaining when you get home.
In our increasingly mobile, global society, home is becoming less about geography and more about connection. The days of everyone we love being concentrated in one spot are long gone for most of us anyway. For me, celebrating on the road is an affirmation that I can feel at home wherever I find myself, making me a true citizen of the world. And that is the best gift of all.
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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