Listen

When good Americans die, they go to Paris.  Oscar Wilde

I’m standing on a quiet street in Paris. The square in front of Notre Dame is deserted. Early is different in some European cities than in Tennessee but 7:00 a.m on a Sunday is universally, undeniably early.

As I turn toward the bridge, I wonder if I’m going to be walking all the way to Rue Cler. Magically, out of the mist, a taxi emerges. Since it’s just three of us – the cab, my Rick Steves roller bag and me –  the situation is clear. I hop in.

Here is the truth. I am not a good listener. All my better qualities of determination, force of will, and focus create a flip-side deficit of patience and listening. When I travel on my own, there is an opportunity to try harder, start over and learn.

On my own, I need more – more clues, more information and more nuance. When someone who doesn’t share your native tongue says, “sure, it’s nice”…you have to listen with your intuition. Nice could mean “nice if you like tripe”, “nice if you like tourists, you’re sure to see someone you know” or “nice but if my brother-in-law didn’t own it, I’d tell you the truth.”

The taxi that Sunday morning was a surprise. There was a master plan. I flew into Paris, stayed in the Hotel Dieu, the ancient hospital adjacent to Notre Dame, and was up early. The spreadsheet said to start the day by going straight to the hotel where I would stay on my return to Paris, drop the luggage, and take off for Mont St Michel with nothing but a shoulder bag, 2 croissants, and a sense of adventure.

At the beginning of this plan, the hotel was supposed to call a cab for me. No big deal. Except that a jet lagged, laser-focused American couldn’t get the French college student to make the call. “It’s not going to come” he says. “No one will come. Just go outside”. (Read that again with a French accent, imagine he’s still looking at his iPhone, and you’re me.) You fill in the rest.

This is not a critical story but it was a flash point for me on the first day of my trip. The kid was exactly right. There was no traffic, but the one cab out and about found me.

This moment made me think for the rest of that trip  – what does it mean to hear to what someone is trying to tell me?  Generally, I find most people I run into when I travel do try sincerely to help. I find this a singular marvel. My job is to take a breath, look carefully and listen intently. It’s my job to at least start from a place of belief and gratitude that doesn’t lead with my own plan.

That may be at the heart of becoming a citizen of the world.

A Favorite Hotel: The Europa Regina, Venice

The great advantage of a hotel is that it is a refuge from home life.
George Bernard Shaw

I am obsessed with hotels. I spend more time researching and comparing hotels, b & b’s, and odd little inns that I do planning the entire itinerary. Can I stay in monastery, is there a castle, a glamping hut?  Once I stayed in a guest room in the oldest hospital in Paris.

But here is the thing. Your hotel is your home away from home and when you are a long way from home, it’s home base, theater, information center, companion, and solace. You’ll pick your bolthole differently than I do but here were my criteria for an off-season solo trip to Venice.

History. At the end of the day, when my feet are done but my imagination is still alive, I want to come home to a real destination. The Europa Regina has quite a history. It was originally five palaces – one belonged to the Tiepolo family who gave Venice two doges andMorning Gondolas from room a famous painter. Another of the palaces was originally the San Moise Theatre, home of Rossini’s first opera. Another became the Hotel Britannia where Monet stayed in 1908. Better yet, a part of the square used to be a workshop for gondolas, an iron chain was attached that when drawn from this spot across the Canal was a 9th century protection against pirates. Yes, pirates.

Public space. When I travel alone, a great lobby bar or veranda or library is important. A place to be near the flow of people, stories and the great parade. You can be ‘in’ but not isolated. The Europa Regina has a wonderful piano bar that opens onto a veranda overlooking the canal, ringed with leather chairs and endless bowls of olives. Especially in winter, this was perfect. As the sun set, but too early for dinner, I was ensconced with a campari spritz, my diary, and endless people-watching.

A sense of place. In my room, I was in Venice. On the first morning, I awoke to the flood sirens and leaned out my little window and watched the canal water lap over the pier and up into the walkways. The dome of Santa Maria della Salute loomed across the way. The daily traffic changed from early morning fruit deliveries to mid-day gondolas and vaporetti to evening quiet.

The practicalities were, well, practical. Now that it’s a Westin, I could use points for an opulent (and completely unaffordable otherwise) breakfast and those evening drinks.  And they had resources and an extensive staff who were ready to offer advice and solve problems.  The place was timeless but the service amenities were very Westin.

You will have different priorities but if you are on your own, think through what you want, how you want to start your day, what is important (security, location, price, comfort), and how you want to end the day as you return to your home base.

What I Learned

When you travel alone, single rooms can vary greatly.  Here, the single rooms were really part of adjoining suites, a boon as the room itself was small but the bath was suite-worthy and wonderful.

Let the staff know if you love historic hotels. I let wrote that I was travelling alone with little luggage and wouldn’t mind an inconvenient or quirky room – if it had a great view or a story.

If it’s a special occasion, also let the staff know.  I may have mentioned it was my birthday and on my special day, they delivered chocolates and flowers.

 

What’s nearby?  At the Europe Regina, all of Venice is at your doorstep.  You might enjoy the restaurant at another beautiful and historic hotel just steps away, the Saturnia-International.  Delicious food and excellent service.   You are also just two stops away, on the #1 vaporetti line, from Ca’ Rezzonico, a palazzo restored its 18th century grandeur with furnishings and art of the period.

 

Traveling Alone: Making Your Home Away from Home

Last week, I talked with two friends about choosing hotels and remembered again what a intensely personal – and important – process this is.

My very first trips abroad were with wonderfully organized tour groups, before I turned 20, packed with activities.  I loved the comfort and welcome of a grand hotel at the end of each day, walking into a cool lobby, a warm room, the perfect bath.  And it was my first life-changing experience with towel warmers.

Most of those days were spent with a pack of other young people and the return to the room was that magic quiet time.

When you travel alone, it’s different. Choosing where you stay is part of caring for Pensione Pendiniyourself. Your hotel will be home base; the staff your problem solvers; the neighborhood your start and end for exploring.

On an early trip, I learned that where I am staying can extend the social part of my day.  You know that moment when you can’t take another step but it’s not time for dinner and you don’t want the seclusion of your room?  I like being able to relax in a beautiful bar for drinks or finding a nook in the lobby where I sit on a rainy night and watch the best view in town.

Once in Italy, I had a great deal through a hotel group I usually can’t afford. OK, that I never can afford.  The lobby was the best of old school with a black and white marble floor, a wall of mirrors, an inordinate amount of red velvet, and library spaces tucked everywhere. I used reward points for a drink in the bar overlooking the water every afternoon at sunset. They had a fireplace, a pianist and even brought olives, crackers and nuts with my drink. (hello, dinner.) It was the most relaxing part of every day, recounting my adventures in my journal, watching the parade of travelers wander in as the sun set or appear again down the staircase in dinner finery…and killing the entire bowl of olives.

It’s easier for me when I travel to be in a place that is, in itself, a travel destination. I love hotels that are unique or historic.  Then, I’m enjoying being in Rome even when I’m back in my room with my toes up. But, what are your priorities?  Ask yourself a few questions

  • What are your budget priorities – is this an experience where your hotel is a part of how you see the city? Or do you plan to visit excellent restaurants or do serious shopping – and just crash somewhere safe and clean? Where does your lodging fall on your list?
  • What makes you comfortable? How important are helpful and available staff or a central location?
  • Do you like big hotel amenities like a restaurant, bar, room service or unique quirky smaller hotels?
  • How about the cozy personal charm of a B&B or the anonymity of a bustling business hotel?
  • Do you want to blend in with the townspeople or is it ok to be in a place frequented by foreign travelers (like you)?
  • What will you trade to have the experiences you want?

Those trade offs are a big deal. I made my own list. I want  to feel safe. I want to be able to experience the streets around the hotel in the evening – safe to wander and near interesting areas.  And, very important to me, I want some serious historic atmosphere. But I will give up space, a business center, room service and breakfast.  Budget-wise, I will pay for the atmosphere even if I have to skimp on restaurants and shopping. Of course, a different trip might have a different list. Oh…and most important, I have to have a seriously great bathroom. With a tub.

Your First Moments in Your New Home: Or, This is it? Seriously?

The first time I went to Paris on my own, I wanted to stay on the Ile St. Louis. I was there with a goal of learning the city and I have a tendency to get turned around. A tendency to get completely and irrevocably lost.  An island, in the middle of the Seine, behind Notre Dame seemed like a good bet. This is a place I could find my way home to from anywhere in the city.  The idea of waking up on a residential cobbled street, surrounded by the river, next door to people who really lived on these streets, sounded fantastic.

This part of the city is pricey so I booked a small single and secretly hoped for an upgrade. No such luck.  I arrived full of bravado. Tired, dusty bravado but bravado. When the bellman finally escorted me to my room, he threw open the door and then we had a very tricky, Twister-esque experience getting me, my luggage and the bellman into the room. Beautiful French windows opened onto the cobbled street but the room was about as wide as those windows.  There was just enough room for a single bed and four feet of walking space leading to a little table in front of the windows.

I was discouraged, tired and wondered how I was going to survive five nights. On my side of the windows, there was no Parisian charm. This wasn’t my idea of a cozy home on a medieval island.

Give it a night.

Over the next twenty-four hours, I made friends with that space. The oddness of the tiny television mounted from the ceiling and all the strange switches baffled me. After some trial and error, I realized everything in the room was designed for my convenience. A panel with all the switches for lights and TV was at my elbow in the little bed. The bathroom with its hand-painted tile shower was sparkling, spacious and even big enough to store my suitcase. Those windows opened onto the perfect street and brought in the sounds of the river. It was so residential and safe that at the end of any evening, if I felt the day wasn’t quite spent, I could throw on my jacket and walk a block to the quay and watch the bateaux mouche go by while I had my pear and cheese. And the best ice cream in Paris, Berthillion, had a location directly across from my window.

I was the first person each and every day to know the feature flavors on the chalk board of Berthillion.

What I Learned

Think about how you start and end your day — your morning, evening and bedtime.

Know what you need and what you can live with.

Luxury or autonomy?  Services or anonymity?

and I really like the big fancy keys you have to leave at the front desk.

 

In Honor of Iceland’s Performance in the UEFA Euro 2016

The whole world seemed taken with the Icelandic soccer team and the fan presence last week. The skill, the fervor, the number of people who flew over – but perhaps more we were fascinated with who they are.  That the co-manager is a dentist who worked full-time in his practice on the island of Heimay until he took the national team (now it’s less than half time.) Or the players with their many jobs from videographer to youth coach.

The people and their whole approach to life, education, work and history felt fresh and intentional and honest. The woman in the gas station treated me as if she owned the place and I was important. The fellow selling the best hot dogs from a stand in downtown Reykjavik spoke perfect English, had a wry humor and an opinion on U.S. politics.  Both had other jobs and other passions as well. Their identity it appeared was their ‘self’ and not their job.

In honor of the team, I’m reposting a piece from my second day in Iceland, the Golden Circle day, in November 2014!

Iceland 2: No Theme Parks

This was a confusing day. I drove the Golden Circle to see three big sights: the Geysir (where the name came from), Gullfoss the massive double waterfalls, and Pingvellir. Pingvellir is a deeply significant place geologically and in Icelandic history.  It is where North America becomes Europe – where the plates that form the Eurasian and North American continents can be seen creating a slowly widening rift. It is also where the law-making body of Iceland met for 900 years starting in 930, always meeting during the same week of summer.

The GPS landed me in a dreary isolated car park. I had not had enough coffee and I am embarrassed that, in a stereotypical American whine, I asked the couple parked next to me “where is it already??” Where is the Information Center.  This they told me was just the hut with the maps -over there – no constantly looping video, no interactive displays. I actually had arrived. They trekked off politely.

Here is the thing. This place is sacred to the country. No gift shop or café. They don’t want to build on this place and don’t want fumes from buses and cars on the site.  If you want to see it, you hike up the valley, stand on the spot, and see the sites as close to natural as possible.

You are not left uniformed.  There are wooden placards with great stories.  In fact, I learned that thieves were the most vile criminals and were beheaded or drowned. With murder, apparently, they left room for two sides to every story.  About the drowned thieves, I wonder if centuries of this practice is why everyone from the rental car agent to the desk clerk says, ‘who locks up? It’s Iceland!’

With Pingvellir and other sites, I think they have something important figured out. The site where their government started, where the 1000th year of Christianity was celebrated in 2000, beside their biggest lake, a World Heritage site, is free admission. Open to all. There is no theme park atmosphere to make sure it’s worth the ticket.

Four Things I Learned About Iceland

Iceland was the first democracy to elect a female head of state, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, who served as president from 1980 to 1996.

They have a 100% literacy rate and love publishing. Every year, all the publishing houses release lists of new titles for the holidays at the same time called the Christmas book flood.

Progressive, they elected the first openly gay world leader, their prime minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir.

Plus, just as a bonus, there is a list of approved first names for babies. This is important because children’s surnames are their father’s first name and ‘sson’ or ‘dottir’. Crazy trends like Apple or Moon Unit just start a decline of dignity.

 

 

Life Changing Travel

“It changed my life.” How many times have you heard that said?  The range of these miraculous events from the near-misses to the new revelations is broad.

Certain trips feel life-changing in the way perspective is altered or understanding of a place or culture increased.  You learn new skills, gain confidence, or truly change your life by meeting new people who become part of the rest of your life.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that travel can  change your life – what you do, what you read, what you care about, your doubts and even your physical self.

It’s happening. I’m getting ready for a trip this fall and grateful that I still have five months ahead. It’s a horseback riding clinic in a beautiful foreign setting. (This is where friends laugh or gasp or seem very confused.) Yes, I will be spending seven days on horseback on trails, along the beach, and in the training ring.

As I counted off the years left before the next big birthday, it brought up existential questions.  Who am I? Who do I want to be when I hit that truly adult milestone?  What of the (many) hobbies I’ve dropped would I want to reclaim as part of my life? Horseback riding was one.

Though my relatives had horses, my grandfather was loath to let a little blonde bookworm with a bad sense of balance  have the reins. So to prove a point after grad school, I rode a couple of times a week but as many things do, it faded away with job changes, mortgages and life.

A trip isn’t just a promise of an experience you plan for, it can be a promise to yourself, a way to reach a goal, a definitive time where you will make the leap. Committing to the trip, getting ready, planning – all shift your sense of who you are. And once committed, there’s no turning back. (Cowardice is not one of the options on the travel insurance.)

Would you feel this too? Not only am I walking funny from sore muscles and angry ankles, other things have to change to make the trip possible. I’m simplifying my life – culling down, weighing my choices, living more simply. I am thinking, “what matters?”  In light of the big plan, what matters?

One of my favorite luggage strategies is to travel with clothes that I can let go of. Often these are things I love but are nearing the end of life. Wear that jacket or shirt one last time and leave it behind. It’s freeing. Less baggage, more simplicity, a lighter load rather than a heavier bag as I go forward.

That does work great for the suitcase but it’s an even better habit for the insecurities and fears you drop along the path – “I’m not the kind of person who can…”. It’s easier to slip out of those with strangers. It’s easier to try.

All of this will change you.Maybe the life-changing trip does begin when the idea first forms in your mind.  I want my view of the world to be bigger but I also need my life to be bigger.

Is it time to risk more, be brave and think big?

 

 

Travel Arithmetic

The small but thriving town of Tain, situated on the south shore of Dornoch Firth, is Scotland’s oldest royal burgh. Glenmorangie Distillery has been producing its Single Highland malt Scotch whisky since 1843.  Crafting the delicate spirit is entrusted to the legendary Sixteen Men of Tain. from VisitScotland.com

I have a process.  While solo travel is spontaneous, soul-shifting, and sometimes mystical, I have a process.

After that flash of inspiration where on some rainy Friday night with little warning or rational thought about retirement planning I commit to the airline tickets, I start “the plan.”  It is an approach that at its root harbors a fear, a deep fear of freezing in the face of too many choices.

Lowest Common Denominator.  Using a stern, middle school math teacher’s insistence, i look for that lowest commonality – the very basic requirements for my plan.  I sort.  What are the priorities, the real essentials for the trip? As I planned my trip to the Highlands and the Hebrides, what were those non-negotiable experiences?  This took several days of honest thought. At its prime number level, it was castles, Culloden, and the freedom of ferry-hopping. It was also the hope to reclaim that feeling of freedom on the open road adventure that I found on Iceland’s Ring Road, my first solo trip with a car.  Should I happen to stop for a rest break at the scotch distillery, so be it.

So, as Bill Clinton said at the 2012 DNC, It’s ARITHMETIC.

I do not have the infographic, but as I look at the list of all the great places I’d like to see and the must-see essentials, I start to subtract.  Looking at drive times, maps, events to avoid (Mull Road Race), and a real desire to stay at least two nights in each destination, the trip takes shape.  Any spot that isn’t a priority has to be on the wait list.  Any destination that falls too far outside the compass circle of my essential trip, has to wait.

(Side note: I love two nights just because there needs to be one perfect day where you awaken in this place with the day ahead of you, knowing you’ll come back in the evening.  Except Mont St. Michel.  Hear me. One night only. And leave immediately after breakfast. Really.)

The Multiplication.  When the framework of the basic trip is done and the hotels booked (which is by far the best part), I step back.  It’s like the journey itself begins now, long before departure day. As you run through the itinerary in your imagination, there is now the discovery of new possibilities and all the things on the way.

So what do I mean?  Planning that trip to the northwest Highlands, my tickets, hotels, ferry reservations are all made. I find some solid security in that. Now with lots of context and no cares, I start reading, mapping and dreaming. The personal adventure starts to take shape.

A couple of weeks before I left, I was planning  (or dreaming) the route from Stirling to Inverness and realized that the drive time would leave me a full afternoon on arrival in Inverness. I didn’t see that coming – so many drives on this trips were on winding roads but this was highway.  Speed!  I could head right to the Culloden battle field before going into town. What about that one perfect day in Inverness then?  Looking outside my compass circle, I really can take the time to drive to John O’Groats, an easy 2.5 hours up the coast, with beautiful scenery, to the northernmost tip of Scotland. With a free day, I can leave after breakfast and be there before lunch and home for an afternoon stroll before dinner.

Good quickly became great.  There it was! TAIN. The home of my favorite whisky, made by the mysterious sixteen men of Tain.  Right on my way up the coast. An experience I had ruled out is back in and even better now that I have the overall plan.

Life.  Basically, with travel planning, I find pockets of possibility – remembering the adrenaline of travel, learning more about the landscape I’m travelling, checking the drive times, and then the reclaiming of time and surprise and possibility. I know I live my real life very much like that first stage of the plan.  Now, I would like to spend more time living the multiplication stage – the search for possibilities, the constant adding and learning, and new things on the way. Living in the “yes, I can.”

What I Learned

Find a tool that works for you as your trip takes shape. For me, it’s a spreadsheet – for you it might be a vision board, a flow chart or a map. Don’t be afraid to really shuffle it around and look at all the possibilities.  Seeing what it would be like to reverse the trip and drive across mountain passes doesn’t mean you have to…

Leave time along the itinerary when you begin planning.  It’s kind to your future travelling self but it also leaves room to add. It’s far more uplifting to add a great experience than to realize you have to give things up.

Check event schedules.  I planned out the whole Highlands trip and noticed no hotels were available on Mull for my dates. Though normally quiet off-season, my plan A itinerary had landed me in the Mull Road Rally. Luckily, you can reverse the dates on “the plan”.

 

 

 

Solo: The Freedom of the Road

There is nothing sweeter than walking out the automatic doors of an airport into a city full of possibility…where no one is expecting you.

Stepping out into an April breeze (usually brutally early in the morning) with no one behind you, no deadline, no looming schedules.  No one expecting you.

Today, I read a review of a book by Clara BensonNo Baggage, that tells the story of her first trip with only the clothes on her back. She experiences moving through Europe never having to stop, pack, organize all that ‘stuff’.  That is a particular kind of freedom on the road of being light, nimble, unencumbered.

For me, it’s not the actual baggage, though the freedom of traveling light is part of it.  It’s aloneness. I love to travel on my own but expressing this deep longing sounds disloyal to friends and family I love and who I love to travel with.  Why do I crave this time apart and what is this freedom ‘from’?

There is a spiritual release to being alone in the world – not avoiding the world at home but having freedom to  remember. It’s time set apart  to remember who you are when you are away from your responsibilities, from your job, from your habits, and from your recurring role in the weekly sitcom of Life.

I have questions.  Am I kind when no one knows my name? What do I really want to do when I’m in charge of the day?  How have I changed? What am I good at? What is my role in the day…if it’s not already ordained by my title and my name?  At the end of the day, what am I writing home about?

A few years ago, I spent several days in Paris. It was actually April in Paris and it is not at all overrated. I took the first afternoon to just wander. I headed for the Marais neighborhood with no plan and no map, everything changing and recalculating with each step. Along the way I found a beautiful jewel of a store stocked entirely with products of monasteries and convents.

After a great conversation with the manager (and a haul of honey, needlework and candles), she showed me an inconspicuous passage from the store into the very back of the cathedral that faced the next block. Down winding hall and up a stair, I found my way to a balcony where I could listen to the choir prepare for a concert.

That afternoon was wonderful in many ways but there was a moment of clarity as the light came through all those bright panes in the balcony and the music rolled up the stones.  I was still me, regardless of the nation or the accent or the job or my name, finding the perfect jar of lavender honey… and the back door into the Church.