Making Memories while Traveling

Country 1: Germany |This post is part of my 30×30 series. Read more here!

Is it irony or fate that the first country I ever visited is also the place I’m currently living? It was 1993, my grandfather had booked a trip to Germany to revisit the country where he’d spent his time in the service. My grandmother had just died, and rather than go alone, he asked my parents if they’d come with him, and bring the kids too. I was 3, my brother not even a year old. As I got older, people often said this trip “didn’t count”, because how could I remember things that happened when I was 3?

Making Memories while traveling as a child

Science says that adults have memory amnesia, where we can’t remember things before the age of 7. Competing science says that we can start building memories around 3, although they can be unreliable.

Hm. Well, I’m not a scientist, but as I understand it, there are two types of memories that everyone captures: explicit memories, which involve conscious recall (as in, “I ate a chicken tacos last Saturday night”). This type of memory is usually associated with a time and a place, and is summoned intentionally. And then there’s what they call implicit memory, which focuses not on specific events, but is rather a more unconscious, emotional feeling (as in, “The smell of garlic and onions reminds me of my grandmother’s house”).

Maybe I’m a freak of nature, but surprisingly, I have a lot of tangible memories from that Germany trip—things that aren’t associated with a photo. Seeing snow for the first time. Eating “purple chocolate” from Milka. Finding a stamp that had my name on it. A dim memory of the Alps, seen from a swaying cable car. The warm felty feel of my grandpa’s Tyrolean hat.

So does that mean the trip counts? Was it worth it for my parents to take two toddlers to Europe?

My personal opinion (“Yes!”) is beautifully summed up in this quote from Fatherly:

“If the kid has fun, even if they don’t remember the experience, that’s nothing to sneeze at in terms of forming a worldview that life can be enjoyable,” says Nora Newcombe, Professor Of Psychology at Temple University and Co-Director of their Infant & Child Laboratory. “It sets a global expectation that the world is a nice place and people are good to me.”

For what it’s worth, I can’t say for sure if it was this trip at a young age (the only time I traveled internationally until I was 17), or my own personality, but I’ve always felt that travel intimidates me less than other friends—especially back home in the U.S. But whether it’s these implicit warm fuzzies or the direct imprint of the trip experiences that serves as a motivation, I guess I’ll never know.

Gabrielle at the Black Forest Fountain

Making memories while traveling as an adult

All that considered, it’s kind of a wonder what we can absorb and take in as functioning adults—especially when traveling. As an adult, you’re responsible for getting around, staying safe, making plans, finding food and things to do, and, if you have a family or partner yourself, looking after those in your group. With that much brain space devoted to actually traveling, how can we make space in our minds and our consciousness to take more in?

It’s obviously no coincidence that souvenir, in French, means to remember. And the shops that fill the main tourist drags and airport stalls are packed full of trinkets and treasures to memorialize your stay. But if shot glasses and keychains aren’t quite your aesthetic, what are some other ways to capture the essence of your trip?

Choose one thing to collect from each country

I first bought a mask in Venice, and then in a few subsequent trips to countries that have masks as a part of their culture, collected a few more. I’ve stopped getting them from every country, but when I find a cool one when traveling, I’ve bought it. Now they hang in my living room as a cool piece of art—and a definite talking point when I have people over.


Make country-specific playlists

Tim and I started doing this when we found an awesome radio station in Tenerife. We Shazam songs we hear on our trips, then build a playlist of them afterwards. Music is a powerful tool for memory, and hearing just a few bars of a song can instantly transport you in time and place. Creating aural scrapbooks is now one of my favorite things to do!

Learn to cook

Taste is another powerful summoner of memory, and food is a great way to experience another culture. Build a cooking class into your travel itinerary, visit the markets, or stock up on local goods that you can’t get at home—spices, sauces, pasta, or preserves. On a winter night, you’ll be glad for that hit of chili to send you back to warmer places.

Take a signature photo

Rather than buying something in each place, we’ve started taking one signature photo (#thingswearenottalerthan) on every trip we do. It’s a fun tradition that lets us learn more about each place, and, as a series, is a nice overview of where we’ve been and what we’ve seen.

Write about it

Studies have shown that record-keeping or journaling improves memory recall—whether that means taking notes on your phone, composing longer Instagram captions, keeping a travel journal or diary, or making your own blog!

People forget years and remember moments.
—Ann Beattie

With the nonstop cycle of terrible world news, I think it’s easier than ever nowadays to forget that the world is full of magic and wonder. And one of the big benefits of travel is that it forces you to be in the moment—whether you remember exactly what the moment was, or simply how it made you feel.