My sister’s gift to me: She opened the door to the world and coaxed me through it

Seeing London was a birthday gift that proved life-changing for one traveler.
(Kirsty Wigglesworth / Associated Press)

My sister is 18 months older than I am, but I’m taller. It used to drive her crazy as we were growing up when people asked whether we were twins or, worse, whether I was older.

I thought it was obvious. She was friendly, confident and funny. When I said she was older, I did so with a sigh of relief. I liked having her as my older sister. I was proud to follow her.

And follow her I did, from kindergarten all through high school. Our paths diverged at college. She had spent her junior year abroad in Sydney, Australia, and had a roster of international friends all over Europe.

A family medical emergency brought her back home after graduation, but she still found a way back to Europe. She spent a year in London earning a graduate certificate in international business practice. She hopped to other countries on breaks; she picnicked at Versailles, France, and saw the northern lights in Norway. Meanwhile, I finished college and stayed put in Pasadena, helping the family and working. I loved hearing her stories and seeing her pictures, her smile iridescent from a continent away. I read the Travel section while she traveled.


After her stint in the U.K., she settled in San Diego, but travel was never far from her heart. She met up with friends on the South American leg of a globetrotting adventure and together they toured Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

Early last year, she told me about a deal on plane tickets to London. She hadn’t been back in five years. I told her, half-jokingly, to book it, and she emailed me the flight confirmations for a 10-day trip around Labor Day. I was turning 30, and she called this a birthday present.

Well, then.

It was a chance to do what I wasn’t able to do when she was there the first time: travel with my sister as adults, just the two of us. We had visited London as children on a family summer vacation two decades ago. There was a lot of art I didn’t fully appreciate at age 10 and that was also well before I majored in history.

I gave her a list a mile long of things I had to see (Buckingham Palace, specifically the Queen Victoria Palace’s exhibit (since closed) commemorating Victoria’s birth in 1819; Kensington Palace, the birthplace of Queen Victoria; and such staples as the British Museum, the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, and the Tate).

Our biggest adventure was Chatsworth House, the seat of the Duke of Devonshire and home to the Cavendish family since 1549. (It’s best recognized as Pemberley in “Pride and Prejudice,” starring Keira Knightley.)

It’s in northern England, hours outside of Manchester and reaching it required trains, buses and good old-fashioned walking. We stayed at an inn on the Chatsworth property and, despite asking the kind front desk attendant for directions twice, still managed to get lost. (Go up the road, turn left, go through the field, through the gate, over the bridge, and you’ll be in the park. Right. I mean left.)

A kind man helped us. (We had taken the wrong left and gone through the fields on the opposite side of the road.) Once we crossed the road, we were on our way. Walking through fields of sheep in the English countryside really did feel like a Jane Austen movie moment.

My sister planned everything, from the train tickets to the Airbnb we stayed at in Camden. She timed our entrances to museums and didn’t even give me too much side-eye when, after touring a museum for two hours, I spotted a postcard in the gift shop that showed a piece I had to see.

Strangely enough, I think my favorites were the pieces I didn’t expect. Turning the corner at Hampton Court Palace and coming face to face with “Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura),” by Artemisia Gentileschi, took my breath away. As did the Arnolfini Portrait at the National Gallery and countless others. I had studied so many of these works, carefully pasting them on my handmade flashcards for my art history midterms, and suddenly there they were.

It wasn’t all museums. She showed me where she used to live and the pubs she frequented. I met her friends, matching names to faces. I sat with them and imagined how they were five years ago, young adventurers, hungry to see the world. And I marveled at how they still hadn’t lost that sense of wonder. I think it was the most beautiful thing I saw on our trip.

We went to the exhibit of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings at the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace. Fittingly, one of my favorite quotes of his is this: “It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”

So thank you, my adventurous big sister, for exemplifying this, through your can-do attitude and openness to other places and people. For saying yes when it would have been more convenient (and more comfortable) to say no. And for leading me through that field of sheep.

All these years later, I’m still proud to follow you.

I’ve already started another list of things I can’t wait to see with you.

Departure Points explores the ways traveling changes us, whether it’s a lesson learned or a truth uncovered. You can submit a first-person essay of 700 or fewer words to using “Departure Points” in the subject line. Please include your first and last names and your contact information for editorial consideration.