Eating Out: It’s All About the Cheese

Barthelemy on rue de Grenelle is like going to church. 

Cheese, fromage, fromaggio.  There are countless ways to relish the food and the whole dining ritual in a new place. On a recent trip to Paris, it was all about the cheese. I was ready to abandon entire meals to cheese.  Not the cheese course, not trying a new cheese with my wine … just cheese.

Eating out is the scary part of travelling alone for some of us. It can be hard especially when it’s a new experience.  Some venues are a less daunting. My favorite travel guru, Mary D. Bowman, introduced me to the ease, variety and people-watching-wonder of museum cafes. (The logic is brilliant – your feet hurt, the exhibit map is usually inscrutable and requires decoding, and they almost always have fancy desserts.)

Museum cafes, busy cafeterias and bakeries are easier than four star, full-scale restaurants; lunch is friendlier than dinner; fixe price is a bargain.  In any case, it helps to have a plan. I like to go not only with a plan but with a mission and a purpose.

Back to the cheese.  On the first morning in Paris, I dressed carefully (for confidence) and set out to worship at the temple of gourmet condiments, Fauchon.  I was ushered into the cool, elegant dining area early enough to feel like I had a backstage pass as the servers set up tables and prepared for the lunch crowd to come.  I had a perfect cheese tray and a glass of crisp white wine. There was time for the server to explain the choices on the tray, time to think about how all the different garnishes complemented the cheese – the honey, nuts, tapenades. Something carmelized that I never figured out.  Better, there was time to think about what I liked best.

I compared the chorus of cheeses to what I read in my guidebook about designing a cheese plate. Here indeed was a sharp, dry cheese,  a softer, creamier almost sweet cheese, a militant, strident blue and one with fresh herbs.  It was an event – I left feeling totally cared for, inspired and sated. My hand had been held on the first step of exploration.  It also blew my food budget for that day – I was relieved when jet lag sent me to bed without supper.

Later in the week, I visited three cheese shops and practiced my college French (merci, Madame Choate) choosing perfect trios of cheese from white-coated cheese gurus. Barthelemy on rue de Grenelle was indeed like going to church.  With fresh bread and yogurt from the corner shop, I had picnics with a view across the city. You begin to get adventurous – one cheese was rolled in herbs and dried currents and one had a fragrance that would scare a junior high gym coach.  The cost of these shop visits was much less than Fauchon but the cheese was excellent and I was more confident and more creative.

When I could put down my cheese knife, I experimented with when I dined and and where I sat.  Going early (not so early that the staff said, ‘you must be American’) felt less daunting – date night hadn’t started at 730.  Sitting at the bar or outside was also very comfortable.

But what if you want to truly dine in style?  When going to a fine restaurant in the evening, I go around and make my reservation in person. I introduce myself, tell them why I want to dine there, and ask for advice about when to come and what the specials might be that are planned for the week. It’s not always great but sometimes it is fantastic.

What I Learned

  1. Invest in some education – the expensive lunch taught me a little more about my favorite subject.
  2. Never give up.  I chickened out at the first gourmet shop – I just got confused and felt silly and left. But, after another try, I had my camembert. I had to try three times just to find the tapas bar I wanted in Venice actually open.
  3. Prepare for the kindness of strangers.  I learned to say in French “I love cheese, I know nothing, can you help me?”  Cheese gurus couldn’t resist helping a doltish but self-aware American.

 

 

The Next Adventure: A Dream with a Deadline

Last fall, I took a trip I’d dreamed of for years, driving through the Scottish Highlands and taking the ferries to Skye and Mull.  I wanted to see the countryside I’d only read about in books with the freedom of driving on my own.

For months, I dipped into Scottish history, read about every castle I could find (don’t an inordinate number start with “D”?), plotted my route on maps, and even watched YouTube videos of what it would be like to drive on the left side of the road.

I realized then how important having something in the future – especially something life-shaping and challenging – can be. Most of us have busy, in fact over-busy, lives.  So why the need for this next big adventure out ahead of us?

My next big dream is a riding holiday.  I’m not sure where – maybe back to Scotland, to Wales, maybe France or Mallorca?  The chance to see a new place from horseback and being completely present in the moment and in the landscape is appealing.  I want to see it all from the saddle and spend a week in a lodge and get to know the people around me.  I want to pick a skill I used to (almost) have, like jumping, and try to recapture some of that joy while I’m there.

This, for me and maybe for you, too, is an ideal adventure to take alone. It’s got a strong purpose, it’s very personal, and it could be easier to come to terms with how much proficiency I’ve lost in the saddle if I don’t know the last names of my bunk house mates.

It’s going to take months to save for this trip but more than that, I will have to start the change before I leave. Over the next few months, I’ll have to reclaim a hobby I used to love.  During those months, I will intentionally make time for this work.  It will be a physical and mental challenge – it will require getting fit –  and by the time I leave for this future dream trip, I’ll be a different person in some ways.

Could that be it? Is planning a trip that is very personal and just for you part of how we make time for ourselves? Do we reclaim some part of our personhood this way?   I remember the trip where I listened to French tapes in the car for months or hiked to feel physically ready to do everything I wanted to do.  Maybe a trip is a dream – with a deadline.

What I Learned

The more I invest in reading, researching and readying for a trip, the more I get out of it.  Knowing a little more as I travel connects me with my surroundings.

Planning for a trip that will be a challenge broadens my daily life. It gives me a context greater than next week’s deadlines.

I can be annoying to travel with – all that research just needs to be shared.  Solo is a good choice!

Learning on the Road

In everyday life, I rarely have sense of pure learning – using all my wits to learn with intention, speed, in real-time. Negotiating, assessing, aligning, sure, we do that everyday but not pure survival learning. Maybe a new device or a new tool but it’s rarely pure or primary.

When you travel, particularly alone, you are called on to learn new skills to go forward. Whether it’s how to use an electric shower (first, really, and, second, who knew you had to turn on the outlet) or driving in a new way, it’s full body and fast track.

Levels of Learning  Imagine you arrive in Edinburgh with jet lag using your last spark of energy to argue with the arrogant rental car clerk who thinks you can be swayed by an upgrade, backup screens and a refusal to talk in terms of incremental cost on your prepaid car.

Suddenly you find yourself sitting in the driver’s seat, on the right side of the car, in a cramped lot, pointed toward EXIT with twelve roundabouts between you and your destination.

I found there are levels to conquer here.

Keep Left: Survival Learning
Here is what I discovered in that first, somewhat harrowing day. There isn’t anyone but ADF00F50-29D6-4496-8085-B045722A7A68 [1223869]you. This creates clarity. No help but also no distraction. When I was finally safely parked in Stirling, there were three rules that had helped get me there.

  • First observe deeply, taking time to watch everything around you. Then watch again.
  • Accept that following is acceptable for a beginner. The guy driving the plumbing van – it isn’t his first day.
  • Last, go slow, go with flow.

Beware Right Turns: The Discipline of Attention
Since I did survive, the next step of attentiveness. Every time I got in the car, I repeated the mantra. Every time. Pay attention. Keep left. Beware right turns. Driving well is more important than the GPS lady’s instructions or her begrudging approval. You can always turn around.

The first time I thought I had it down and relaxed, I turned right with great confidence into the proper left lane, but had the left-over and inappropriate relaxed approach to the right turn.  I was lucky that the truck coming my way was still far away. It helped me to keep the keenness of focus for the rest of week.

The Good Stuff: Getting Creative
It was time to go to the Isle of Skye.  I had my driving mojo and was ready. Then I landed on a single track road, going up a mountain full of hairpin bends, and, should you begin to relax, recalcitrant sheep.  It seemed there was no way to no as you went around a blind curve if you’d meet a truck or van or worse, another tourist. After thinking it through, I realized that while I couldn’t see the next 300 yards, I could see the road farther along. If I waited a bit on the shoulder, I could know the hidden road was clear. I started keeping my eye on the mid distance…and the sheep.

So What?  Why Solo Travel Keeps You Sharp
When you meet an obvious challenge on your own, you use your whole intellect, your ability to observe and your experience.

I thought about John Wesley and the quadrilateral of seeing life and faith through scripture, tradition, experience and reason. It’s not a great fit since my travel scripture and the traditional writings of the Church fathers would both be Rick Steves, but you may find that depend a lot on experience, reading and research, what you observe yourself and daily honed reason.

In the end, is it heightened awareness or high-speed learning? Is it just truly paying attention?  Whatever you call it, I want to take this into my everyday life – upping the percentage of wit and wisdom I bring to the opportunity at hand.

What I Learned about Travel

Travelling on your own, even for part of a trip, heightens your senses.
Never go on auto pilot. Ever.
It is worth it – get the car!

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Iceland #1: Traveling with Purpose

There is a deep stream of true in knowing your priority and purpose.

Snow pants. Insulated, waterproof, snow-white pants. Planning the big trip, somehow I decided these were necessary. Or rather they were on sale at REI and, after I looked at them twice, they followed me around the internet. But I thought this through. What were the obstacles to fulfilling my three trip goals – northern lights, glaciers and horses? I know myself.  Being cold…or wet… or cold and wet. The pants were an investment in the goals.

There is a deep stream of true in knowing your priority and purpose. This is an obvious truth in life but for me, it is an absolute when I travel alone. Going to relax or to ‘have a good time’ is too ephemeral. If I know what I am about, then choices fall into place. My old flaws of chickening out or falling into an easier plan B aren’t as bad.

Saturday night, my arrival at the hotel I had so looked forward to for weeks was a little rocky.  The public areas were beautiful…but they were closed to me as they set up for a Christmas buffet. My room was eventually quite wonderful but at first glance had a retro Gatlinburg, 1967 knotty pine style. But smaller.  The serene outdoor hot tub that on the web site showed a lone traveler gazing at the horizon were full of three generations on family reunion.

The hotel is a well-known spot for seeing the aurora borealis. This night, the other guests were testy and seeing the Northern Lights proved more about arguing over your ISO setting and the tripod than seeing wonders of the heavens. With your actual eyes.

So, the hotel staff telephone when activity starts. The first round at midnight was a cold and chilly disaster. When the phone rang again at 2:30am, I had doubts. (I could hear the photogs setting up outside my room’s window.) And my Sunday plan was to leave at 7 and make a long drive to get to the Jokulsarlon glacier pool to see the sunrise over the ice.

Here is where failure crept toward my purpose. It was very tempting to stay inside and warm. I had an early morning ahead. And thinking about morning, the much heralded buffet didn’t start until 9 a.m., long after my planned solitary departure. I deserved a sleep in, it was a little scary to drive in the dark, and why would I miss the much-reviewed breakfast buffet in the morning? The glaciers would still be there at noon.

Clearly, this is not end-of-the-world stuff but you can feel the adjustments and the scaling down beginning. If I didn’t answer that 2:30 a.m. call, I would have had more sleep and risked less chance of telling off grouchy Brits with more camera than they could handle. But how would I feel later? Would that slow and insidious feeling of everything being less begin to settle in?

So, I got up and put on the bright white puffy pants, 2 Buffs, double gloves and resolutely stomped out. I stomped out to put myself square in the possibility of seeing those lights. The pants were great. I was warm and I stood there for over an hour.

I only marginally saw aurora activity but standing there, we all saw the miracle of the clouds rolling back from the southern horizon until revealing finally the whole huge sky of stars brighter than any I’ve seen. In a week of forecasts of 100% cloud cover and rain, it was magic.

A few hours later, at six, I hauled out of bed and made that dark drive with the solid knowledge that I had come and done just what I planned and worked and wanted to do.

Yes, I did tell off the Brits. It was a Dixie Carter, fire batons over Georgia moment. And true, I could barely stay awake at the end of the day Sunday as I drove back, singing classic rock as loudly as possible with hand motions.

But what I had was  the buoyant unconquered glow of success I came for.

What I Learned

The  dream that you plan and outline at home may be naive but it matters.

Know your top three priorities – it’s clarifying when you start make choices, feeling tired and losing track.  And it’s gratifying to know when you’ve done it!

Occasionally when traveling solo, you need to make a stand and let off some steam.  (grouchy Brit reference.)  Do it.  You’ll never see these people again.  And if you do, hopefully you didn’t give them your real name.

 

 

 

Solo Travel – Saving Your Soul

The waiter comes my way with a beautiful champagne cocktail floating before him on a tray – the bubbles through the fresh squeezed grapefruit juice catch the light in the wood paneled bar at the Hotel de la Cite in Carcassonne. It’s civilized, the sun is setting, the view of the historic ramparts encircles us and I’m wearing the only dress I packed.

I am a citizen of the world, the extremely cool people at the end of the room have invited me over to chat, and this is the self I imagine when I am planning a solo adventure.

But one thing about travelling on your own is that you spend a lot of time with you – surprising faults surface, your own thoughts are loud in your head, your reactions and responses not shaded from your view.

What I learned is that my independence can turn confrontational, my good planning territorial, and my efficiency far too single-minded. How dare anyone breach or put at risk the space, place and plans of my perfect holiday?

As I talked with Kim and Rene (the extremely cool people), in that beautiful bar, this was the topic. They felt it too. Rene, a native of France, and his wife, Kim, met in the Netherlands and live now in the Pacific Northwest. They were taking a day in Carcassonne, in fact, after being robbed in their car in Barcelona by two young immigrant teens. They are far more evolved and savvy than me but they found themselves surprised by the way the stress of that event brought out prejudice and judgment about people on the street around them. They were having a hard time shaking that response. I knew what they meant. What we talked about then are the nightmares of the progressive American, nightmares because we think we are past these fears – fears about people around us based on ethnicity, class, and appearance when we feel at risk. This brings some serious self-doubt about who we are. Compound that with an overall resistance of anyone causing delays, problems or frankly exhibiting very poor planning and it’s not good.  (The resentment of poor planning may be just my issue.)

Travel doesn’t create these responses. The gift of travel is that these unwanted flashes become visible at a time when I have the mental space to examine and confront them. Awareness is everything.

So how do you save your soul when you’re on your own? For me, it was 100_0664_0096looking for an opportunity and making a 180 degree turn even for a small thing. There were only a handful of connections that would get me from Paris to Pontorson, the station for Mont Saint-Michel, in the way I wanted. The TGV train from Paris to Caen had a delay and, instead of having a leisurely 20 minutes to make the connection to the small regional train from there to Pontorson, I had missed the connection by 8 minutes when we finally pulled into the station.

Out of habit, I ran for it. The conductor in my path told me to keep going, the train was still waiting at the next platform. You know what the “next platform” can mean. Yeah, not so next. Down the steps, under the tracks, and up on the other side.

I’m off like a gun has sounded. My perfect trip was still within my reach. Running toward those wet stone steps, weaving between slowpokes, (really, how much luggage did you bring?), I spot an obstacle, a young dad with toddler and a baby in light, collapsible stroller. He has paused at the top of these same stairs. He has to go down, too. It’s a moment of truth. So I stop, ask him if he needs me, (YES), grasp the front of the little stroller and down we all go. Thank goodness he turned right as I turned left. I didn’t have enough self-actualization to hang in and do this on the up steps. So I shot up those stairs and onto my train with a couple of minutes and a sounding horn to spare.

For at least that afternoon, I had saved some part of who I hope I am. I’m still working on the big stuff.  What I learned is that you cannot be so focused on the plan that you aren’t a citizen of the community around you. I also learned that the close calls, the hitches, and the moments of uncertainty create some of the best parts of the trip and let me appreciate actually making the train, finding the hotel, and learning to navigate  – instead of taking it all for granted.

What Else I Learned

Always run for the missed connection.  It may be waiting and really you have nothing to lose.
Ask for help especially on train platforms.
It’s better to miss the train than travel solo with someone you don’t like.

Finding Your Comfort Zone

Managing your own comfort zones can be a challenge.  I have a theory about the first night of a solo trip – it’s uncertainties, doubts and the many mind games of sleep deprivation.   But what do you do the first morning?

If  you don’t spend a lot of time alone or at least not time alone outside your daily structure, you can feel out of sync. Think about the way you live your life at home – when are you with people, when are you alone, where do you start your day, what are your rituals? I pick at least one place or activity to build into my daily travel life to give me that connection with my home routine.

People spots.  Every city, town, resort or even national park has spots that collect people – from the outdoor seating at a city coffee shop to bustling food markets to one of my favorites, a café inside a museum. These are great spots to be with other people and yet feel very natural and at ease alone.  During my first trip alone to Paris, I hit the cheese and bread shops, grabbed a pear from my room and packed a picnic bag for later in the day.  Picnicking alone, hmm. It sounded grim, really grim.  But later, on Montmartre, when I unpacked that little lunch, I was in a park with families, shop workers, nannys and artists. Some were in pairs, others alone.  I wasn’t picnicking by myself after all – I  was in a cozy group of other citizens of the world – different languages and ages and ethnicities but all eating really excellent cheese.

Scheduled activities.  You can also schedule and pay for time to be with other people.  On the other hand, that sounds a little seedy and completely illegal. What I mean is that you set up events throughout your trip that insure contact with others and give you some structure. From the comfort of your home computer, you can book a van tour to the countryside, a city walking tour or if you have a special interest like art, architecture or food markets,  hire a guide for the afternoon and ask all the questions you’ve been saving up.  It doesn’t have to be major –an inexpensive manicure, a free concert at a small venue or a museum lecture? Built in throughout your trip, you can balance the heady freedom of time on your own with the structure and security of a group activity.

Anchors So much of a trip is the hunt  – finding the best view, the only-

UrbanAngel2

Urban Angel, Edinburgh

known-to-locals restaurant, your way back to the hotel.  You may need a touch point – something more similar to your daily life, an oasis of consistency and familiarity.  What gives you grounding at home –  your favorite coffee spot, reading the paper first thing, the church where you worship, your corner market? Whether you have 2 days or a month in a destination, you can create this for yourself.

Once wandering the street until my hotel room was ready, I stopped in a bakery for an early morning coffee and a world-bending raisin pastry. The little shop was a small, sparse place with almost nowhere to sit, neither charming nor picturesque or even welcoming, but I recognized at once that it was part of morning routine for the neighborhood. And it was real. Every morning of my trip, I stopped in, armed for the day, and had my coffee and pastry. On the third day, the owner looked at me reached for the raisin pastry and popped it in the bag before I asked.

I’d arrived.  I had a place. I was comfortable.

 

What I Learned

  1. A little planning can give you touch points of structure during a trip – a walking tour, a ticket to a concert, a cooking lesson.
  2. It helps to find a spot or two that you love that you can enjoy every day. Even if it’s just where you get your first cup of coffee or where you stroll at the end of each day and watch the sunset.
  3. Notice the community around you. Even if it’s your first day and you don’t speak the language, you are already part of something.

 

Planning the Big Getaway

It usually starts on a rainy afternoon for me – that moment when I know it’s time.  All the ideas that have flitted through my mind, all the reviews from the travel section, all the Pinterest posts, begin to swim to the surface and demand attention.

Wrinkle-free clothes look chic (add a scarf and the right jewelry and you could wear it 7 times…)

Travel-size products are everywhere.

Luggage stores are fascinating.

But, once you decide to take the trip, to just do it, how do you start to put it all together?  For me, it all starts with a spreadsheet. Really.

In business school, we would start a financial model for an idea with a blank spreadsheet.  This was tough for some folks to do.  You’d hear the question, “But, aren’t you just making it up?”  Well, yes.   In the end, we all learned to take that empty spreadsheet, create some basic assumptions, identify some facts and decide the desired outcomes.  Then, we began building a picture.

It was never “right” at the beginning but by creating a rough picture we could start changing the pieces, shifting the variables. Pretty soon, we had a working model whose outcomes would change as we turned the dials a bit.  It was just getting started that felt hard.

This idea that I learned in school doing case studies of imaginary widget factories (with decreasing utility for said widgets while widget raw materials costs increased) actually works for me for trip planning. For you, it might be a dream board, a flow chart or a set of post-its.

What matters is asking the question: What are the basic blocks?  This is a018_18 great way to distill your your big technicolor travel dream into parts and start to prioritize the pieces.  The center of your dream could be a place, an event, or a season. I wanted to see the spring flowers bloom along the Seine in Paris, preferably from a boat, admittedly wearing my new yellow trench coat.  There just isn’t much opportunity for a yellow trench in Tennessee, but in Paris?

After scouring web sites to define the range for “spring”, I thought about what I wanted to trip to be like.  I’d love to see the full moon on the Seine so which weeks during  March, April or May would have a full moon?  Then during those weeks, was there a concert, festival or other event I’d like to see?  Any major events going on whose crowds I’d like to avoid?

This gives my trip a shape — once I put in the date range that gets me where I want to be,  but still with wiggle room, it’s a great time to look for good airfares. Can I leave 2 days earlier or come back a day later?  Then, I decide the top three or four experiences that the keys to my big technicolor dream trip.   Sometimes this causes a shift within the trip …if I only have a week, the days the  museums are closed in one city or the night tickets are available for an opera in another can shift the days within the master plan but no problem.  It’s all in context.

Once I have an arrival and a departure, and a few major activities, I start to have fun. There is enough structure to see the trip as “real” and start working on the details and extras.  Then I begin to write the travel brochure for my big adventure.

Here’s one thing I quit doing. Until recently, I planned out every day charting out what I would see, where I would go, how I would get there. Every morning I pulled out my marching orders from home and struck out.

Then it hit me.  Travelling on my own demanded more. I wanted to learn to choose what I wanted to do each day, on that day, to intentionally listen to my own heart and to take opportunities and to be brave.

My “home self”, the self sitting in PJ’s months earlier surrounded by travel books was as stern a taskmaster as a professional tour director insisting I only had 15 minutes for the Louvre. I had become my own dictator. I wasn’t really living in that moment.

Now I just have the non-negotiables charted (and this gives me a bit of confidence) and work from a list of possibilities that I pull out from time to time.  Doing what you most want to do on any particular day is more difficult than you might think but worth the experience. Shuffling off the coils of what I should do, what friends suggested, what Rick Steves would do, to follow my own path is the goal for me.

What I Learned

  1. Just start. Create a spreadsheet or chart for the number of days you have and start filling in the blocks. (Remember to check travel times and train schedules).
  2. Pay special attention to the three or four things that are key to your trip – check exhibits, opening times, holiday effects and availability for these most important plans.
  3. If you don’t feel like going to the museum, at all, no one has to know.  One brochure from the hotel lobby and your secret is safe.