Today is my dad’s birthday.
Last year, it was on a Thursday.
Last year, he turned 52.
Last year, we celebrated on a river boat in Budapest, floating slow beneath bridges with lights and past glowing buildings. There was a breeze on the deck and enough darkness to feel peaceful.
It was one of the best evenings of my life. We had dry white wine that I fell in love with, rolling it over my tongue after cheese and before dessert. I wore a dress that was more comfortable than cute. I didn’t think about coming home or leaving home. I just thought about the lights on the water and being in Europe with the person who taught me the value of a plane ticket and a passport.
I told our tour guide (not so sneakily) that it was my dad’s birthday. She came out smiling with a candle-bearing cupcake and Americans and Hungarians stumbled through “Happy Birthday” together, because who ever actually sings that song and sounds good?
And then our Hungarian tour guide did an astonishing thing. Well, astonishing to us, having never celebrated a birthday in another country before. She took hold of my father’s ears and tugged on them, reciting a few words in Hungarian and laughing. She translated: “May your earlobes grow to touch your toes.”At first glance, this is a rather odd sentiment to wish on someone for their birthday. But when you think about it, it is actually the kindest thing to want for another person.
Ears are one part of our bodies that never stop growing. So theoretically, if your earlobes have grown to touch your toes, you have lived a very long life. I hope my dad’s life is filled with travel until his ears stop growing.
He is why I love long journeys, backpacks, and hotels so much. There is so much that is learned in other places and so little that is learned in your own backyard. I had to go to Hungary to learn that ears grow forever and that “Happy Birthday” can include a different kind of prayer. I had to go to Krakow, Poland to feel sadness, real sadness, in a square with chairs as monuments to those who died in the Holocaust. I had to go to Prague to cross famous bridges and drink beer with a friend from a long time ago.
None of these things could have been taught in my little town, a town that holds my heart and is my foundation, but a town that doesn’t have history the way that Europe does. It’s just a little place in New England where there used to be a lot of cows and now there are a lot of solar panels.
Some people grow up in little towns and can’t imagine moving away, somewhere foreign and unfamiliar and exhausting. I live for the exhausting. I miss the exhausting. I haven’t been out of the States in a year, and it feels weird.
I am happy at home. I have a life that fits into my little town (for now). But the thing is, once you taste dry wine on the Danube River and learn how to say “Happy Birthday” another way, you never want to sing the song the same.