A Travel Essay (aka: To tattoo you, or not to tattoo you, that is the question.)

Years ago my mini-me asked, “When can I get my nose pierced?”

This question caused me to launch into one of my favorite travel stories.

“When you’re 18. Maybe.”

She snarled her face. “Same for a tattoo?”

“Oh, baby. You don’t want one of those.”

“Yeah, I do.”

I patted the sofa. “Sit. Let me tell you a story. A travel story.”

There we were. In the third floor bathroom. Me and my co-worker.  

She’d worked  in the advertising department of our Washington, D.C. publishing company for over a year.  With six months on the job, I was the office newbie. She and I plus another girl—who had pale green eyes that tilted like a cat’s—did everything together.  

The three of us, and the guys we hung out with, were friends way before Monica, Rachel, and the rest of the gang ever set foot in Central Perk.

As we washed our hands, my non-cat-eyed friend spoke to my reflection.

“I’m going to travel through Europe with one of my high school friends this summer. Want to go?”

I pumped soap into my palms. “Did you ask Laurie, too?”

“Naw. She’s too pretty. She’d steal all the guys. Plus she’s moody. Moods are dangerous when you travel.”

“Ask me again,” I said, holding my breath.

“Do you want to travel to Europe for the summer with Heather and me?”

Water went everywhere as I jumped up and down. “Yassssss!!!”


Don’t say it, I told myself. Don’t even open your mouth.

“I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’m gonna.”

It was Super Bowl Sunday and my co-worker and I were preparing a stuffet of staggering proportions.

She paused mid-avocado-mash. “You shouldn’t say what?”

“Boyfriends will pop in and out of your life, but your girlfriends–guy friends, too–are forever.”

I continued cutting carrots. “We’re sick of it, our whole gang. Ever since I introduced you to him, you two have never stopped being love hermits. Like, you never come out of the bedroom. Ever. Except to eat and pee.”

I then took my left foot out of my mouth and inserted my right.

“I get it. He’s really cute. And an engineer. That’s why I introduced you all, but for crying out loud, you never play with us anymore. You don’t go to happy hour. Or on Ikea runs. You don’t go dancing.”

She dropped the avocado smasher in the sink and dried her hands with a paper towel.

“What if you break up?” I said to her back.  “What if he’s not the one?”


This isn’t going well, I thought as I sat on my bunk in a youth hostel in Bruges, Belgium.

We’d flown into Heathrow two weeks ago. Spent a week scamping around London. I glanced around the room. I was alone.

“Actually, they sedately toured,” I told the ceiling. “I was the one doing the scamping.”

France was our next stop.

The crazy hovercraft thingy that transports you from London to Paris? It’s ridiculously cool! 

J’aime Paris. Beaucoup.  

The first, tiny cafe au lait I sipped in an open-air cafe kept me awake till four in the morning. The blood inside my veins was all zoom-zoom-zoom! I felt the exact same way when I stood at the foot of the Arc De Triomphe with all those tiny Renaults and Fiats whizzing by.

Paris is a sleek cat—always elegant, always purring.

The Mona Lisa in the Louvre? If I’d had enough time with her, I bet I could’ve made her bust a gut. I wondered if at night, she and Venus de Milo dished on the day’s tourists.

Things got a little way crazy the night we rendez-voused with our friend, Dave.  

Dave was a friend of mine from college. He was now a flight attendant and on a layover in Paris. To give us a break from spartan hostel lodgings, he  let us crash in his tres chic hotel room.

For supper, we bought a couple of baguettes, some cheese, some wine. Then we left the hotel to explore the City of Lights at night.

Wait. Why did the police make us leave the Eiffel Tower grounds?

Oh, yeah. Because we, along with some new French friends, built a pyramid on the lawn beneath the tower.  I got to be on top because I was the smallest.  

Parisian police are just like the Mona Lisa. They won’t smile for anything. Not that I didn’t try. Apparently, they take that green space below their precious landmark very seriously.


On my bunk in the hostel I tossed my pillow in the air as I considered the coolness of my travel companions. If I wasn’t around, surely they wouldn’t be having any fun. They were way too shy.

“If it wasn’t for me,” I huffed, “we never would’ve met those guys in the change bank.”

Which means we wouldn’t have eaten in the underground restaurant that dated back to 15-hundred something. Where you filled your table’s wine pitcher from a wooden cask. And that steak? I’m pretty sure I heard it moo, but I’m telling you what, it was the best piece of meat I’ve ever tasted.  Ever.

“I think they’re shunning me.”  

I dug in my backpack for my travel journal. To document the offense.

“June 15.  Thing One and Thing Two barely talk to me now. They plan each day and I follow along. Whenever I make friends with people, the two things pretend to like me while we have cool adventures. Once the  people leave, the girls shut me back in my closet of silence. What to do?”

Suddenly a tiny young woman bounced into the room.  

She couldn’t see me up on my bunk so I stuck my head over the side.

When I said Howdy! she jumped. And squealed. Then grinned up at me. “Oh, hello up there.”

Within fifteen minutes, I knew Charlottesville, Virginia was her hometown, a generous grandmother had gifted her this European trip as a college graduation present, and why yes, that was her natural hair color.

She informed me that some people on Greek beaches go topless and bottomless, and told me a pickpocket snatched her passport on a train in Spain, but the U.S. embassy got her a new one within a few days.  

In the middle of the room she threw her arms up in the air and twirled around until she wobbled.

“I am having the time of my life!”

Squinting down at her, I observed:

“You’re younger than me and half my size. If you can travel Europe alone, maybe I can too.”

“Sure you can! And the bonus is, you meet tons more people when you travel solo.”

The next day at breakfast I told my original travel partners, “See you, wouldn’t want to be you.” 

That’s not really what I said, but seriously, there was no way I wanted to be them, because let’s face it, the life of the party was leaving.  

I heaved my 30-pound backpack behind me, and settled my smaller daypack in front of me, all while resisting the urge to cackle at their bugged eyes and gaping mouths.

So there I was, trying to travel all by myself. In Europe. 

I Eurailed south because my travel Bible, Let’s Go Europe, said I should. Soon after, I paired up with Kim, a nurse from California who’d recently dumped her beau. 

In Germany, over steins of beer and a shared wild game platter, Kim revealed her dating theory.

“If a guy doesn’t ask you to marry him in three years, he never will.”

I didn’t tell her I was engaged. To a prince of a guy.

I’d left my ring at home after I heard sometimes thieves’ll cut off your fingers to get your rings.

In the small town of Baden-Baden, inside a quaint bakery, Kim and I wolfed down thick slices of Black Forest Cake as she skimmed her copy of Let’s Go Europe for Baden-Baden tourist info. “Listen to this! ‘On Tuesdays, the town spa charges a mere fifteen American dollars for several luxury services.”

“Sign me up!” I hooted.

The next day it became quite clear why the spa was so inexpensive on Tuesdays. Tuesday was co-ed day. Every other day of the week, only one gender at a time was admitted. 

Because nudity was mandatory.

As a result,

On Tuesdays, all the old men in Baden Baden visited the spa to see all the young tourist girls. Naked.

I wasn’t too freaked out. I’d never see any of these people again. And there were no cute guys waiting in line with us, just really old German men. I wanted to ask, “Do your wives know you’re here?” but, Ich spreche kein Deutsch (Translation: “I don’t speak German.”).

Our fifteen American dollars purchased an extensive array of spa services. We steamed then sauna-d. We also got scotch-sprayed which entails being power-washed drenched with a fire hose held by a burly fraulein. 

Next we were supposed to dip briefly into a vat of ice water so as to be energized. I opted out of that activity. Then we were directed to a giant swimming pool of mineral water. You could float and/or swim as long as you wanted. As long as you could stand the rotten egg smell.  

It was while “taking the waters” that I saw what caused me to never want a tattoo.

Have you ever seen the backside of an eighty-year old man? Once I went to Baden-Baden, I knew what the front and back of an unclothed old man looks like.

Gravity is not kind. 

I’ve worked for an interior designer so I know what swagged window treatments look like. Every time I recall the buttocks of the old Baden-Baden men, I picture swagged drapery treatments. 

Or, if you’re familiar with the work of Salvador Dali, imagine if he painted old men’s naked rumps, instead of clocks.

The skin on each buttock does a swoopy thing. It starts high on the left hip, sweeps down, then swings up again to attach at the tailbone. Ditto on the other side.

Senior seats kind of look like the golden arches of McDonald’s if they were a) pasty pink and b) upside down. 

Given this experience, I can only imagine what a tattoo would do as the body ages.

The once taut and firm skin canvas would soften and slide south. Decades after their creation, surely the mermaid, the anchor, or the first wife’s name would be pleated and blurry, if not unrecognizable.


I turned to my daughter.  “And that, sweetie, is why I’ll never get a tattoo.”

She didn’t blink. 

“So can I get a tattoo if I promise not to get it on my butt?”

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