Ann-Sophie and her husband, Scott, in Japan earlier this year. (Photo: Anne-Sophie Jouhanneau)
I grew up in a tiny, isolated village outside of Paris, and the travel bug hit me early.
If I told my eight-year-old self that I now have a goal of traveling to 50 countries by the time I turn 50, and that I’m well on track to meet it, she’d never believe me.
It all started when, living in Amsterdam after college, I met my ideal travel companion in the form of Scott, an Australian who, like me, still geeks out at the sight of new stamps on his passport. I wish there was a deep and meaningful reason behind our 50 by 50 challenge, but the truth is we wanted to see the world, put a number on it, and let our competitive natures do the rest.
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The couple kayaking in Norway in 2007. (Photo: Anne-Sophie Jouhanneau)
First, we wrote down our list of already visited countries. There were many discrepancies between his (11) and mine (14), which led to tough negotiations, such as “I’ll give you Portugal if you give me Egypt!” We also set down some rules: airport layovers don’t count, and neither does just stepping over a border. It was all fun and games in the beginning. We kayaked in Norway and hopped around the Greek Islands. We saw concerts in Germany and took day trips to Belgium. We popped by Switzerland while in Italy. For my 25th birthday, we calculated which new country was closest, and drove to Luxembourg for the weekend.
A romantic trip to Thailand. (Photo: Anne-Sophie Jouhanneau)
We moved to Australia two years later, and stopped over in U.A.E. to visit Dubai. The challenge was full steam ahead as we realized we could fly via a different Asian country every time we’d go back to France. When I made it to Thailand and Maya Bay (aka The Beach, from the namesake movie), I fondly recalled a plan that my high school friend and I had hatched to travel there over summer break, which was never going to happen. It hit me that dreams have a funny way of appearing completely unattainable, until they come true, and morph into the most obvious thing you’ve done.
We got engaged, and celebrated the only way we knew how, with a trip to Vanuatu, an archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean. While it was perfectly nice, this was when we first started doubting this whole endeavor. Countries are few and far between in that part of the world, and it bothered us that we’d chosen Vanuatu primarily to raise our number.
A jaunt to Iceland. (Photo: Anne-Sophie Jouhanneau)
In 2011, we left Australia for New York, and zigzagged around the globe to add Malaysia and Iceland to our list. True to our desire of leaving no stone unturned, we planned a five-day road trip around the island to visit Jökulsárlón, an iceberg lagoon, and the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. Nearby, I walked down a black sand beach surrounded by a breathtaking volcanic landscape. I watched, mesmerized, as a seal popped in and out of the icy water, sometimes with a fish in its mouth. An overwhelming sense of joy and serenity washed over me, and I never felt more grateful for the chance to experience so much of the planet. I realized there and then that nothing in life would ever fulfill, or teach me more. I never wanted it to stop.
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When we arrived in the US, we didn’t travel to a new country for 18 months, a record for us. We explored our new playground instead, and while we enjoyed Miami, New Orleans, Los Angeles and all the rest very much, we couldn’t suppress the nagging feeling that living here was slowing us down. We were pretty excited to break our dry spell with a Mexican honeymoon.
Anne-Sophie in Mexico, 2013. (Photo: Anne-Sophie Jouhanneau)
Yet, I’ve often wondered why on earth we set ourselves a quantity-based challenge. I tend to live by the mantra “less is more”, so it baffles me, sometimes, that we’re willingly running around the world like headless chickens, ticking boxes and reducing life-altering experiences to a number on a list. We’ve discussed dropping it several times, usually after friends gush over the places they always return to. “I want to go back to a familiar place!” we whine, as if this challenge wasn’t self-inflicted. It sounds ridiculous, even to us, that we can’t visit Canada or New Zealand again until we reach our goal. Then we remember that seeing the world is the one thing we truly want to accomplish in life. That, and the fact that we’re terrible losers.
In 2010, Anne-Sophie was able to cross New Zealand off her list. (Photo: Anne-Sophie Jouhanneau)
This year, when a big work project didn’t pan out and my schedule blew wide open, our immediate reaction was to go on a travel bonanza. Flush with frequent flyer points, we hot-tailed it to various Caribbean islands, and agonized over which ones actually count as their own country. We also decided to finally head to South America, the big untouched continent on our list. When we couldn’t agree on where to start, I printed out a map, and suggested we each cross out a country until there was only one left. Argentina and Brazil ended in a draw, so we gave up and booked tickets to Japan instead.
I’m 33 now, and depending on which travel app you ask, I’ve been to 36 or 37 countries. Some days, I feel like we were aiming too low, that 60 or 70 would have been a more honorable challenge. But most times I tell myself that even if, for whatever reason, I could never travel again, I have enough memories, images and stories to last a lifetime.