Travel Tips: The First Day of the Rest of Your Trip

Are you a citizen of the world or a cranky American?

It’s Saturday, May 4, arrival day. For so many weeks, this is the first day on the itinerary…you leave on the 3rd and arrive on the 4th.  Beside May 4th, on the itinerary I write “PARIS” but no plans. I know not to fill this day with arduous sightseeing – it’s a blank slate.

On the first day of my very first trip abroad, one of my favorite professors, Tom Howell, led our group on a boat cruise down the Thames. There it was – a kid from Pineville, Louisiana, was introduced to London on the river of the Romans, Shakespeare, Monet and Churchill. Standing at the rail, London rolled out before us: Parliament, St. Paul’s, The Tower. This first adventure didn’t require physical or mental acuity – just awe. It was the right beginning to that trip and to a life of travel.

When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford. Samuel Johnson

One Thing. This set the plan for me. On your first day, do one truly wonderful thing – see the famous corner where (fill in the blank), walk a boulevard, find a site from your favorite novel, have your first soufflé.

Why is this important? It’s the first day of the trip you’ve planned so carefully. This day can set the tone for the rest. Are you a successful citizen of the world gliding through international capitals or a cranky American who can’t figure out the subway ticket machine?

So on my first day in Paris, I found a restaurant recommended by a friend, Julie, who knows a great deal about Paris. It’s Le Souffle and they can serve a multiple course meals comprised solely of soufflés. This I had to see. To get there, I sorted out the map, bought a carnet of metro tickets, navigated my way to Le Madeleine and then enjoyed a very Parisian walk down Rue Royale. A quick turn on Mont Thabor and there it was…Le Souffle. (Small victory – I am a successful traveler and will be given lunch).

After a celebratory cheese soufflé,  I could let the rest of the day unfold with a lazy walk down Rue Rivoli, then across the Seine and back to my hotel for the inevitable surrender to sleep before the sun set!

 What I Learned

The first day is great for running errands, maybe validating your Rail Pass and making train reservations. A couple of necessities are crossed off your list but also you learn or relearn how to use public transportation and find ATMs. Bank a success.

Everything seems complicated the first day…and then on the second day, you’re experienced.

Bonus tip.  Boiled eggs.  Many breakfast buffets have a basket of boiled eggs. If this basket is adjacent to a vat of hot water, they may not be boiled…yet.

Giving Yourself the Time of Day

It’s not just about where you are…it’s when you are.

Have you noticed that there are times of day that are familiar – grabbing a coffee on the way to work feels the same in Monroe, Manhattan and Montepulciano. We’re all in it together before 9.  Alone as dusk falls, I feel more alone walking past cafes filled with tables of friends and first dates whereever I am.

One of my very favorite times to wander a new city alone is in the very early morning.  There is something about this time of day. Everyone is making their own way – walking the dog, grabbing a coffee and a paper, heading to the market or even dragging back home…alone.

There are three things I like to do in the morning. They start the day with the feeling that I’ve already had one grand adventure or gained entrance into the real experience of the town.  Admittedly, I love having a purpose or a destination. If you are not that completion-bound, you can probably just substitute “taking a walk” for any of these.

The Market.  Imagine it’s 6:00 a.m in Venice – the muffled chugging of motorboats on the canals rolls in your window. Peering through the curtains, you see boats weighed down with fruit and vegetables coming through the first light.  Throw on your clothes, find your shoes, grab a coffee on the way and head to the market!  When you’ve been touring cathedrals and museums, it’s so good to see the other side, the behind-the-scenes real work of bringing in the city’s food. You also see the grocers making art out of stacks of peppers, chefs choosing seafood and produce of the day, housewives checking in with their regular vendor.

Now major point of clarity.  I DID dash out at 6. The book said “very early morning” indicating that if you didn’t get up and get out, you’d catch the slacker dregs of market day.  Coming from a southern farm family, I know early…in Mississippi.  In Italy, I can tell you that it’s different.  And it’s embarrassing to be sitting on a fountain with the last of your second coffee when the first trolleys roll in. Early in Venice means 7:00.  Good to know.

The Dog Walk.  If you’re in the city near the river or a green space, you can count on early morning with the dog walkers.  It’s a sweet time to walk, grab an early pastry from a shop that has just opened, and people watch.  It’s another look, behind the curtain, into real life as little old ladies, super-joggers, kids and business suits all level the international playing field as they walk behind their dogs with plastic bags.

The Camera Tour. I’m not a great photographer but there is something about capturing the first sunlight of morning or the perfect sunset that makes us all artists. There is also joyful purpose in getting up knowing that you are looking for the perfect view. In Venice, I rose with the sun (again) to take the first ferry across the lagoon to San Giorggio Maggiore.  I failed to find the mass with the Gregorian chants that morning but the trip was full of beauty as we rode back to the city just as the sun was hitting San Marco square.  It’s worth getting up.

And one more that isn’t for everyone.  The big drive.  If you areleavingstirling in a car, there is magic
slipping away in the early morning. With the right timing, you can make quite a day trip on your own. In Iceland, I left Hella at 7:00 a.m, missing a pretty extraordinary breakfast buffet but that’s not the point.  I was able to see the sun rise over the glaciers at Jokulsarlon and still be back for dinner. Or, as in the picture here, if it’s your first day driving on the left side of the road in Scotland, get out of Stirling before the traffic!

What I’ve Learned

I never feel alone in the morning (or maybe no one wants to be with anyone at 6:30).

Having a destination or a goal gives shape to an early morning adventure.

Being a part of the early morning work of the day gives me a sense of confidence that I belong to the city that lasts all day.

Travelling at the Speed of You

A few weeks ago, I was walking the streets of Edinburgh. It was a balmy night, the wind was full of history and intrigue, old violence and literature…as well as a fantastic whiff of garlic from the steak house.

It hit me. I wasn’t happy.

How could I not be furiously, incandescently happy?  When I started traveling on my own, those first trips were wonderful weeks in one amazing city. I remember the excitement of picking the ideal home base and mapping full day walking adventures.  Learning the city under my feet.

Something has happened.

After a week of driving through the Highlands, tackling one-lane roads filled with disdainful sheep, landing exhausted in a pub or B&B with new-found friends, the city felt like a noisy, lonely place. Sure, there were infinite choices for restaurants and shops but something was surprisingly off-key. Travel has changed me.

It also became clear that we each are on a very different progress. In this world of Facebook following, Instagram instant news and perpetual Periscope, you can easily mistake someone else’s pilgrimage for your own. Or their pace for your rhythms.

Whatever you do, start just inside your own comfort zone, enjoy the victories and the small steps, push the edges. But do it your way.

For me, when I began, being a competent traveler, a citizen of the world, overcoming reticence at trying new things and “learning how” was what I needed. Could I find the courage to do exactly what I wanted?  (Frankly, learning how to buy a coffee in Venice is not a snap.)  I became the grand master of public transport and proved the best lunches actually may be in the museum.  From there, I tried feeling the freedom of train-hopping in France, never spending more than two nights anywhere, unhooked but learning the systems of movement.

Only lately was I craving that one-on-one experience with the grand and great theatre of nature, challenging my fear, hitting the road, alone and in the dark through Iceland in the winter.

Each trip feels like nudging a door open that could lead somewhere phenomenal.

For others, for you, the order would be different, wouldn’t it?

I was standing in a street full of the past, in a city I could have reveled in five years ago, but my syllabus has taken me elsewhere now.

If you are planning to set off, whatever you do, do it as you feel it and want to experience it. In the end, figuring out what you want to do and when and how, is the big gift.

My advice is don’t take my advice!

What I Have Learned

  • Think about something you want to experience, the one thing  – a view, a challenge, a day.
  • Is there uncertainty that is holding you back in everyday life? Can you push that when you are out in the great anonymity of “out of town”?
  • Don’t be charmed by any one else’s journey. Yours will be better.