The Big Layover: A Frequent Flyer Stays Grounded When Everything Is Up in the Air

As told to Dorothy Guerrero

Norton on her front porch in Austin, 2020.

I remember exactly when I first caught the bug. Travel has always been a major part of my life, ever since my dad’s career moved our family to Singapore when I was 6 years old. With our white-blonde hair, my brother and I were an oddity when we walked down the streets. People would approach us with shy smiles wanting to touch our hair and show us off to their friends. We were welcomed with open arms and I fell in love with the richness of the culture. Since then, returning to Singapore has felt like coming home.  

Norton and her brother in Singapore, 1986.

Decades later, I have the best job in the world as the director of the Flying Longhorns travel program at the Texas Exes. In the five years I’ve been here, and for much of my life, my calendar has been full of circled dates, confirmation numbers, and reminders of things to pack. My career in the travel industry has meant I’m always just a few weeks or days away from a new adventure. But life in the pandemic has meant my suitcases are collecting dust in the attic and I’ve been grounded at home. In between catching up with travelers, rescheduling trips, and planning for 2022, I’m even doing things that people who tend to stay in one place get to do—like growing plants, trying new recipes, and fostering a cat. Things are different and strange and sometimes scary, but I know we’ll be on the road again soon.   

And this unexpected delay has also had another silver lining: It has given me time to think about the moments and emotions I’ve had abroad that have made me who I am. When I was 16, my dad’s job brought the family to Hawaii. During one of our summers there, I managed to get a plum spot as a youth counselor on a cruise ship sailing the Hawaiian Islands. As part of the entertainment staff, we ran a hula school for the passengers. Week after week I learned traditional dances and immersed myself in the world of hula, practicing night and day so I could master all the finer points. When I close my eyes now, I can remember the feeling of dancing in front of the crowd during our regular Thursday night performances as we floated past the backdrop of Kilauea, the most active of the five volcanoes that form the island of Hawaii, and its gleaming lava flowing into the ocean. Every Thursday night.  

After college, my first job was as a cruise director on a small ship with about 100 passengers. Since The Love Boat was popular, being a cruise director has become a sort of jokey nickname for chipper people who can handle anything. But that’s the real-life job that truly started my travel career. I did everything from managing guests’ shipboard accounts to their shore excursions, being an ideal dinner companion, and giving the farewell toast on behalf of the crew. I knew I liked to travel, but that’s when I saw it could be a career—and an extremely fulfilling life.   

Norton at the Norwegian fjords during her days as a cruise director.

I’ve also been thinking about Europe a lot as I write this in Texas’ August heat. I typically love exploring the immensely varied continent of Asia the most, but because I’ve been going to Europe two or three times a year, and often in the summer, I’m feeling the loss of it. So, let’s pretend I’m not at my laptop right now. I’m sitting at a wobbly table at a sidewalk café in Sorrento. Our group of Longhorns just toured the ruins of Pompeii for hours. My feet need a rest, and my soul needs an Aperol spritz and some homemade pasta. You can be there with me too, slipping a few sugar packets under the leg of the table while you order a glass of wine. We’ve got nowhere else to be.   

I’m an optimist. I’ve probably always been that smiling cruise director who’s excited for the day ahead. But even when I’m feeling pessimistic in this limbo of 2020, I know we’ll get back to where we were. Most of us who have had the privilege of crossing an ocean on an overnight flight recognize how life-changing a journey can be. Some of us are ready to grab our passport the moment we get the green light, many are already booked, and others want to wait and see. Things will look a little different to keep us safe, but I know the people who are working to figure it out and I trust they will make things happen. They’re my kind of people.  

Portrait of Norton, Matt Wright-Steel


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