I recently watched a classic American television special, “The Ricardos Go to Japan.” This was special to me for two reasons:
- I’m an American living in Japan, and I loved seeing the similarities and differences between the characters’ experience and what I know of Japan.
- I love I Love Lucy. I own all six seasons. Each box set was a gift from my husband, almost all given to me during periods when he was away from home on military service. I was 22 when he left on our first deployment together, and new to the military life. I spent those seven months in a new neighborhood without him, far from family, and in the beginning I didn’t have too many friends. But I had Lucy and she made me laugh.
I wish I had watched “The Ricardos go to Japan” before I came here as an introductory course on Japanese culture. I could have followed Lucy, Ricky, and their friends Fred and Ethel Mertz on their adventures in Tokyo, where they learn abut bowing, bathing, and eating in Japan. They learn not to wear shoes inside and that rice paper walls are easily damaged.
The most important thing I took away from the hour-long special was Lucy’s attitude on visiting a new place. When Ricky can’t understand how (really, why) they’re going to sleep on the floor of their hotel instead of in a bed, Lucy quickly answers, “Simple! You just think Oriental.”
Just think ‘Oriental.’ Recognize that you’re in a new culture and go with it — you might learn something. Watched closely, I Love Lucy can give us all sorts of travel lessons.
1. On travel partners
Season 2: “The Camping Trip”
This early episode is one of the first times we see Lucy travel further than the corner butcher shop. Lucy’s friend gets a separation from her husband and Lucy worries she and Ricky don’t have as much in common as they once did. She tries to prove herself wrong by spending every minute with Ricky.
Lucy finds out that Ricky and his best friend/landlord Fred are going camping together, and she wants to join so they can continue to bond. Unfortunately for Lucy, Ricky is not having it. To discourage her, he plans a pre-camping trip so terrible that by the end of the weekend she’ll never want to camp again.
Lucy finds out about Ricky’s plan, and she and Fred’s wife, Ethel, hatch their own scheme. (If you haven’t watched a lot of I Love Lucy, then spoiler alert: Lucy and Ethel hatch a plan in almost every single episode.) She basically has Ethel hide in the trees and help her appear to out-fish, out-hike, and out-shoot Ricky. Ricky finds out and feels guilty for tricking her, but Lucy can’t be too mad because she acted pretty crazy too.
In real life, planning, financing, and going through with an entire weekend trip designed to mess with your spouse might be a sign there are some marital issues that need to sorted out. More often, people agree to go on a trip knowing they won’t enjoy it because they feel like they should go. There’s a lot to be said for expanding our comfort zones and trying new things, but some trips just aren’t for everyone.
Lesson: Travel for the right reasons.
2. On learning a foreign language
Season 4: “Lucy’s Mother-in-Law”
A letter from Cuba arrives, and Lucy has to bring it to Ricky at work because she can’t speak Spanish. The letter is from Ricky’s mother and it says she will be visiting for the first time. Lucy is nervous. Initially, she just worries about her cooking and housekeeping. Then, after Ethel spies her trying to pay her cab fare in pesos, Ricky’s mother arrives and Lucy realizes her biggest challenge will be communicating.
Ricky isn’t home yet, so after some awkward silence, Lucy tries to explain what they’re having for dinner.
Meanwhile, there’s a new act at the nightclub where a man called the professor pretends he can read minds using an earpiece and a microphone strategically placed near his pretty assistant’s cleavage. She leans over, asks a question, and the professor (who’s listening in) pretends he read minds. It’s clever.
More importantly, he speaks Spanish. And Lucy has a plan. She invites him over to fool her mother-in-law and Ricky into thinking she’s picked up the language overnight. Things start out simple with a couple of “mucho gustos” and everyone’s impressed. But then they get a little crazy when the group starts asking her more difficult questions. The professor’s daughter has a baby and he rushes away, leaving Ethel as Lucy’s interpreter — needless to say, Ricky quickly figures the whole thing out.
Ricky’s mother, shockingly, thinks the whole thing is sweet and isn’t mad. I think it would have been sweeter if a woman married to a Cuban for 13 years actually learned herself a little Spanish.
Lesson: You might be able to fake another language for a little while, but not forever, so put some real work into it.
3. On coming home again
Season 4: “Ethel’s Hometown”
On their way to California, the Ricardos and the Mertzes stop in Albuquerque, Ethel’s hometown. They quickly learn Ethel has told everyone in town that Ricky’s movie is actually her movie. Ethel was a celebrated beauty queen and singer back in her day, really the belle of central New Mexico. Her father has planned an interview, photo ops, ribbon cuttings, and a concert to celebrate her big arrival back in town, and Ethel’s friends are jealous and pissed.
They perform a comedy routine behind Ethel while she sings onstage and, while this act is one of my all-time favorite Lucy moments, it’s pretty mean-spirited.
Did she deserve to be publicly embarrassed, especially when she had been living so far from home for so long? No. Should her friends have let her have a nice moment where she felt special, like her old self? Probably. Did she have to go about it in a totally nuts way and act like a different person the moment they drove into her hometown? No.
Lesson: Don’t forget — or stop being proud of — where you came from, but don’t forget where you’ve been since then.
4. On traveling with your spouse
Season 4: “In Palm Springs”
In Hollywood, Ricky keeps busy filming his movie and making Lucy jealous by hanging out with fabulous celebrities. Everyone else seems to spend their time going out to lunch and sitting in their hotel room and getting sick of each other. Lucy stirs her coffee too loudly, Ricky taps his fingers too much, Fred constantly jingles his keys, and Ethel, poor Ethel, eats too much and too loudly.
They plan to travel to Palm Springs for some sunshine but decide it would be a good idea if only two of them take the trip, while the others stay in LA. That way they’ll stop annoying each other for a few days. Lucy flips a coin and says, “Heads we go. Tails you stay.” Ricky stops her. He says she used the same trick to get him to marry her.
The girls win and leave their husbands in Hollywood — but Lucy keeps stirring her coffee, Ethel keeps licking her fingers, and it won’t stop raining. Back in their hotel, Fred and Ricky are surprised to find out they miss their wives. Since no one is ever straightforward with anyone on this show, both groups set up elaborate schemes to be together.
Ricky’s plan involves Rock Hudson sweet talking the girls, while Lucy, sans celebrity friends, decides to make a prank phone call. Classic. In the end, the sun comes out in Palm Springs, and they’re all happy to be together again.
Lesson: In close proximity, even the people you love the most can become unbearable. Take time apart if you need it, and don’t sweat the small stuff so you don’t say something you’ll regret back in real life.
5. On souvenirs
Season 4: “The Tour”
Lucy can be a shopaholic and often gets in trouble for overspending, but when it comes to souvenirs, hers don’t need to be expensive. Actually, they don’t even need to come from a store. Actually, her preference is to steal things from famous people. John Wayne’s boot prints from Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, for example.
In “The Tour,” Lucy and Ethel take a guided bus trip through Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Lucy is in a bad mood because Ricky wouldn’t take her to his lunch with celebrity Richard Widmark, but things start looking up when the bus stops right in front of Mr. Widmark’s house.
Lucy and Ethel get off the bus, and pretty soon Lucy has scaled the back wall to the house and picked a grapefruit from a tree. She’s then attacked by a guard dog. When Lucy can’t get back over the fence to Ethel, she tries to leave through the front door. The only problem is Ricky and Richard Widmark show up and Lucy has no choice but to hide in a bear-skin rug. The attack dog promptly lies down on her.
She gets caught, of course, but she gets to keep the grapefruit.
Lesson: Save your pennies for souvenirs that tell a story.
6. On the importance of travel documents
Season 5: “Lucy’s Bicycle Trip”
There’s a lot to learn in this episode. I learned how to milk a cow, and I learned that cycling clothing in 1956 was much cuter than the weird spandex stuff people wear today. But the real lesson here is to always have your passport when you need it.
Ricky brings his band on a tour of Europe, and in this episode the gang is leaving the Italian Riviera and traveling to Nice. Instead of bus or train, Lucy convinces the group to ride bikes. This surprised me, because none of them exercise and it seems like a long ride. They’re unsure at first, but eventually give in to Lucy’s peer pressure, send their luggage ahead, and start cycling.
At the end of the first day, they meet a nice farmer who lets them sleep in the barn (where I learned how to milk a cow), but not inside his home because he has too many “bambinos.” The next afternoon, they reach the border and Lucy can’t find her passport. They won’t let her through, so Ricky rides ahead to get the passport from her luggage. But it’s not there — she had it in her jacket all along!
It’s one of only a few episodes that actually stresses me out.
Lesson: Always know where your passport is, always know when your passport expires, and always know when you’re going to be riding your bike across the Italian/French border.
7. On flying
Season 5: “Return from Europe”
As the gang prepares to leave Europe by boat, Ricky gets an offer for a gig at the Roxy (the Roxy you guys!), so they decide to fly to save time. The trouble is, there are regulations about how many pounds each passenger can carry. Specifically, the first 66 pounds are free, and each additional pound costs $2. And Lucy wants to carry-on a 25lb cheese.
In a flash of genius, she realizes she can bring 66 pounds of luggage and her 25lb cheese if she wraps up the cheese like a 25lb baby. Ricky will have nothing to do with her, so the seat next to Lucy is open and a woman with an actual baby sits down. Lucy has to pretend her baby is shy, and doesn’t like to eat, and is named Chester.
When the real mother falls asleep, Lucy has a conference with Ethel about whether or not it’s worth it to keep up the baby-cheese-charade. It costs $30 to fly a baby, and $50 for cheese. It’s cheaper for it to be a baby than a cheese…but it’s cheapest to try to eat the whole thing mid-flight. Which they do.
Lesson: There have been annoying rules concerning what you can and cannot do on a plane since before you were flying. Stop complaining.
8. On being flexible
Season 6: “Off to Florida”
“Off to Florida” begins with Lucy shopping for new clothes for their upcoming trip to Miami. When Ricky complains about her spending, she says, “Honey, you don’t want me to look tacky!” which would never work on my husband. Ricky laughs and grabs what he thinks is a swimsuit for Little Ricky but is in fact her new suit. He’s surprised at how tiny it is, but she tells him not to worry, it will stretch. “See that it does,” he says threateningly. Which sounds even less like my husband.
Everyone is traveling to Miami, but Ricky, Fred, and Little Ricky are going early to go deep-sea fishing, leaving Lucy and Ethel to get themselves to Florida. Predictably, Lucy loses the train tickets, they don’t have cash for new tickets, and they can’t reach their husbands on the fishing boat for help. They consult a ride-share board and meet a weird but nice lady who agrees to drive them to Miami.
Halfway through the trip, they begin to suspect their driver is a hatchet murderess recently escaped from prison (but she isn’t), and the driver thinks Lucy and Ethel are the same convict and an accomplice (but they aren’t). This presents a unique set of challenges, and eventually their driver panics and abandons them in South Carolina. Luckily, Ethel knows how to hitchhike, and a poultry truck drives them the whole rest of the way.
There are so many places in this story where Lucy and Ethel could have gotten into serious trouble, but they arrive unhurt, just covered in feathers.
Lesson: Be flexible, but be safe.