Free Day in Paris

Sunshine, gracious not glaring, a light breeze, the crunch of gravel under the blooming horse chestnut trees. The sound of distant chatter from a tour boat on the Seine.

Nowhere to be but here.

Shouldn’t every trip have at least one unplanned day to wander? An absolutely unscheduled day leaves room for adding something unexpected but that is just a side benefit. Keep the joy of the traveler. As a type-A traveler, I set challenges, have lists, and push to the next summit.  I can lose the joy before I realize it.

Once, with a whole week to spend in a beautiful city, full of places to be and sights to see, it struck me. This used to be more fun.  My travel lust started at fourteen on a fantastic 16-day trip from London to Lucerne. I still have whole sections of the brochure memorized.  Though I might not feel the same way today as I did then, walking out of the hotel, luggage whisked away and boarding the bus meant anything could happen. I just had to show up.  (The smell of bus fumes in a city still inspire a feeling of possibility and mystery – odd, but true.)

As I stood in the street that day, in that city, I changed my plan.  I had a list of three obscure museums that the average traveler would not find and an address for a great authentic lunch.  I ditched the plan. How could I reclaim that feeling of the naive traveler wandering through the day like a theme park of history and art?  When all else fails, go to the train station.

From the train station, a joyous line of day-trippers was pouring into the streets. Hawkers were selling souvenirs, ice cream and expensive Cokes. I got a $4 Coke Light and joined the crowd. I felt it edging back in – JOY! You could almost hear carnival music.

Wondering with the crowd, I landed in a neighborhood that had eluded me the day before with my map and my list.  There it was – a perfect accident.  I broke my rules and ate in a restaurant with a menu in four languages.  The food was adequate but the people-watching was stellar.

It was a day off amid a vacation.  So, back 100_0682-0_0125to Paris and the horse chestnut trees.

On this morning, I bought a pastry on the corner and started a slow ramble along the Champs de Mars. Following a bustle of activity, I watched with the crowd as three military helicopters landed like very dusty dragonflies. (We agreed, the crowd and I, that this was either very interesting or very bad.) Then, from far down the park, we heard the jingle of bridles and the most amazing equestrian parade appeared.

100_0693-0_0133A visiting dignitary had apparently arrived and was whisked into L’Ecole Militaire. Soon after, they emerged once more, were bundled into a motorcade, and traveled down the boulevard with brilliantly uniformed riders before, after, and alongside the cars.

100_0696_0136It was spectacular.

And then they were gone, and I continued my stroll. What next?

I like problem-solving and gain great gratification from jumping hurdles and finding myself on the train after a tricky connection or achieving that elusive sunset view at the very right moment.

It is, though, a balance to maintain – the combination of great feats and achieving a purpose and just strolling with a camera and ice cream.  That day in Paris I wore a dress that I almost gave away. “At my age,” I thought, “this dress would only work walking along the Seine in Paris with an ice cream cone.”  So I did and then left the dress for the next guest.

 

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Saving Grace: Coming Back from a Bad Experience When You are On Your Own

There is that moment when it all goes south.  You’re on the dream trip, it’s all you hoped and then, boom. An unexpected problem. You’re tired, you’re jet-lagged, and maybe a little insecure. When you’re with a partner, you may throw them the reins and take a break. (When you are with a partner, you may also say unforgivable things and end a relationship. It’s 50/50.)

When you’re by yourself, how do you make a comeback?

There are some tips at the end for practical help, but how do you stay in the game, be your smartest, and make the most of your trip?

When You Make a Mistake.  Or When Someone Else Does.  Things happen on a trip – a delayed train, an overbooked hotel, or in my case an opera called on account of a flood.

  • Become your own cool-headed negotiator.
  • Don’t take anything personally.
  • Take a moment if you need to – don’t take a deal or make a rash decision too soon.

Access your business-self and leverage your possibilities. Think of it as hiring that side of yourself to help the disappointed you.  Be the gracious but experienced and no-nonsense traveler. For example, if the hotel is overbooked, consider what might give you priority as a guest. Are you a club member – did you book on a premium credit card? Did you correspond with a particular staff person at the hotel?  If you need to be walked to another hotel –  insist on understanding where they are sending you and the level of the room. You should get an upgrade at the new hotel. If a premium room is available, they can do that for a quick fix to your problem. When I approach this is a rational, collaborative way, staff can be relieved to have a way to please a guest.  If this hotel is important to you, be gracious about what has to happen tonight but insist to know when they can get you back in – you should be in line in front of tomorrow’s guests.  Save your own trip.  (Then go to the pub next door and cry if you must.)

When Other People Are Jerks.  It just happens.  You walk into someone else’s bad moment. It can be hard to make a quick recovery. Especially if they are French.

Here is a secret weapon. Do something great for someone else. Something completely unexpected. The good that you create will diminish the disdain or rudeness of the other encounter.

In Edinburgh, I had just twenty-four hours for sightseeing on my way home from a trip in the Highlands. Everyone I encountered out in the rural areas was friendly and patient. As usual, back in the city, I got turned about on the city streets, made a few wrong turns, and asked the wrong group for directions.  I left feeling like a stooge.  Why did it matter so much? This was a limited time and I wanted to enjoy the city but I lost my confidence. So I bought a gorgeous slice of cake from a bakery (it was meant for me) but as I got back to the hotel, I was thinking how welcoming the desk staff had been when I arrived and how much random anger they must encounter.  So I took the cake to the young girl that had checked me in a couple of hours earlier.  I don’t know why but that cancelled out the bad experience.

When You’re Tired.  On your first day or after an arduous or exhilarating part of the trip, you could be emotionally or physically exhausted.  This may sound over-thought but if on the first night of your first trip alone, you don’t honor that and you have an unexpected come-apart, you begin to question whether the whole trip was a good idea. Just recognize what is happening.

Give Yourself a Break.  First, if you are tired, disappointed, having trouble making decisions (because you are tired and disappointed), find home base.  I take a journal, an iPad, a book or camera and set up somewhere that feels like I’m on the parade route.  A café near the hotel or, if you have one, a hotel lobby bar, is full of possibilities. You’re close enough to your room so you don’t feel desperate about being out of energy but you’re still have a front row seat to (Paris, Istanbul, Memphis, San Francisco).  When your body can’t take another step, but you can’t bear to miss something, this really works.

Nuclear Tired. If that doesn’t sound good, what would you do at home?  It’s not against the rules on your own adventure to find comfort food, some imaginative  takeout or a weird potato chip flavor only sold by Lay’s in foreign clime, and return to your room and the remote.  Some hotels have a stash of DVDs at the front desk.  I travel with a comfort-food-movie downloaded on my ipad just in case.  Take care of you.  You’ll be ready for tomorrow.

What You Can Do – Practical Tips

  • Reservations.  Copy all your confirmation numbers and paperwork. Keep a backup set in your luggage or emailed to your account.
  • Money. I’m not an expert but if I don’t have cash or card problems, I can handle everything else.
  • Prescriptions/Health.  The hotel staff are great help if you discovered you left a prescription at home or you need to locate a doctor.
  • Ask for help.  There really is a sisterhood that extends beyond country and language. Even the most glamorous looking Viennese woman behind the hotel desk can recognize a girl’s last leg.  Admit your having a bad moment and ask for advice.

 

 

 

Feeling Safe Series: How You Walk Through the World

You’re walking down a street in Barcelona – in the dream, you blend in, you’re part of the parade, you’re at ease.  But how do you join the scenery and not look like what you most likely are, a tourist or at least a visitor?

In an earlier post, we talked about feeling safe and confident. Security boosts your confidence and helps you do all that you hope to do in a strange city.  There are also practical tips that fellow travelers can offer that do boost your safety.  Part of being and feeling safe is not sending out the signals that you are out of place, unsure of yourself, distracted or inattentive.

Barcelona comes to mind because The Rambles is the most recent place where I didn’t feel safe and I wanted to go back to the hotel. I was sure the area was prone to pickpockets and I felt like a target. Luckily, I had been warned (and by savvy travelers who never overreact!)  I had taken precautions and I was fine but I didn’t like the feeling! You can do simple things to take care.  I asked some friends who travel often to share their best ideas.

How You Look

Posture. How do you walk through the world?  Looking both in control and aware makes you a less obvious target.  My good friend, Beth, has terrific posture. She says, “whenever I am in a situation where I feel vulnerable, I straighten my spine, throw back my shoulders, and channel my inner force field.”  Confidence, strength and focus make a difference.

Blending in.  Look around when you arrive in a city. How do people dress? How do they carry their belongings?  Are there ways you can easily change your appearance to blend in?

What You Carry.  If you can, no maps, no backpacks. You might stop for coffee and get your bearings with your map at a table but not in front of your face on the street.  I have come to love using the map app on my phone but I don’t walk along staring at my phone. Look up and around you. Get the route and put the phone away.

Attentiveness.  You don’t want to stroll the streets staring at the phone. Don’t you dare wear earbuds.

What You Do

Ask for help smartly.  Lisa Ball of Lisa Ball Travel Design in Kansas City is beyond savvy.  She says, “Know who to ask for help. If you’re lost in a city, go inside a reputable hotel. Hotels always have maps and usually a nice person who will give directions.”

Remember the little things. Look for small things you can do. In Paris, so many residents use metro passes and I find the smaller station’s ticket machines sometimes out of order.  I buy more than a single ticket and kept an extra or two. Keep a little easily accessible cash in your pocket for the small things. Carry a card or brochure from your hotel in case your pronunciation is as bad as mine.

Care for your financial security.  Another friend, Cliff, once asked why I was stressed about packing.  “All you need, really,” he said, “is your passport and credit card.” To some degree, he’s right.  Here are things I do to secure those:

  • Take your debit card and at least two credit cards. Check them for damage. Really. You may forget that your debit card has a little crack until it gets remarkably worse…in Istanbul. Call your card companies and make sure they know your travel dates and destinations so you won’t be surprised by fraud alerts.
  • Don’t carry all your cards and cash with you. I leave a card and cash locked in my suitcase or in the room safe when I am out and about.
  • Copy or photograph the front and back of your cards and stash them somewhere separate just in case you need to cancel a card.
  • Recently, I signed up for Venmo. If something goes wrong, a quick way for friends or family to send you cash would be good.
  • Also, scan and email a copy of your passport to yourself as well as tucking a print copy in your luggage.

Have quick and easy access to your travel information.  I still go old school and print outIMG_0241 my spreadsheet (yes, it is true) with my confirmation numbers, prepayments, train and plane information.  I also email this to myself so I can retrieve it digitally.

Travel light.  A woman in heels with too many bags doesn’t just look like a target, she is. If you are traveling alone, travel light and smart.  Once settled in, I never carry a normal purse when I’m alone. Use a small bag under your jacket or good cross-body back that you can slide to the front.

My friend, Susan, travels solo in a different way for her work. She does a lot of driving between small towns in the U.S., often leaving her hotel before dawn.  This advice is just wise whether you are in the next state or across the globe:

  1. I wear my work uniform–a white lab coat–when I walk around. I know most people don’t have this prop, but it gives me an air of someone of importance.
  2. I ALWAYS have my keys in hand (hotel room, car) when I exit the hotel or vehicle.
  3. I keep a large tote in my car so that I can consolidate the items I am carrying in and out of hotels (my purse, food, drink, etc.) so I’m not fumbling with a lot of separate bags.
  4. I park as close to the entrance as I can. I often am working at 4 am and I’m supposed to park in the outer parking areas, but I don’t. I always park very close and then move my car after daylight.

There is great advice online from women who travel including choosing your room, safety inside hotels, and taking transportation. Just being aware and doing some reading can give you both greater safety and greater confidence.

What I Learned

  • Make it personal.  We are all different so what causes you stress? Make a list of your top three and then construct clear plans to address your list.
  • If you feel insecure and are flustered, stop.  Find a restaurant, hotel, or good shop, and stop and recollect. You are more vulnerable when you are off balance.
  • Pick your home base with care.  I know that on my list is having zone of space in a city where I do feel at ease, can take a late walk, feel like I can travel without armor.  I will pay more for a small single in a hotel or inn with good staff in a great neighborhood for this — and make up the cost in some picnic dinners and less shopping.

 

Iceland 3:  Purpose and Snow Pants

Snow pants. Insulated, waterproof, snow-white pants. Planning the big Icelandic trip, somehow 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 trip goals of northern lights, glaciers and horses? Being cold…or wet… or cold and wet. The pants were an investment in the dream.

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 for me. If I know what I am about, then choices fall into place. The old flaws of chickening out or defaulting to an easier plan B ease.

Saturday night, my arrival at the high end hotel I had so looked forward to seeing was a little rocky.  The public areas were beautiful, but closed for a Christmas buffet. The hot tubs were full of children. My room was eventually quite wonderful but at first glance had a retro-state-park-knotty-pine style. But smaller.

The other guests were testy. They too were here to see the lights but seeing the Northern Lights proved more about arguing over your ISO setting and the tripod than seeing wonders of the heavens. With your eyes. In the moment.

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

Here is where it started. It was very tempting to stay inside and warm. I had an early morning ahead. And furthermore, the much heralded buffet didn’t start until 9 a.m., long after my take off. 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 took the easier travel path this night, I would have had more sleep tomorrow.  If I postponed even my departure, I could enjoy the hotel. I would also lessen the risk of telling off the grouchy Brits outside my window struggling with more camera than they could handle. But how would I feel later? Would that slow and insidious feeling of everything being less begin?

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, at last, 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, milestone moment for a courteous traveler. And true, I could barely stay awake at the end of the day Sunday as I drove back, even singing classic rock as loudly as possible with hand motions.

But what I had was  the buoyant, unconquered glow of success for which I had come to Iceland.