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.

 

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.

Adventure with a Purpose

Look at your bucket list.

What do you see? Destinations, journeys, experiences, some personal challenge that makes sense only to you? Travel is a big part of my life list – to cross every Parisian bridge over the Seine, to walk the walls of Carcassonne, to have time to “be” in a place, to gain the knowledge to move through a place.

Acqua Alta. After the loss of a friend in 2009, I took a long look at my list. In that very moment, I stopped and bought tickets for a winter journey to Venice in hopes of experiencing something that had always fascinated me – the high water phenomenon in Venice. If not now, when?

Setting off on a trip with a clear focus is the best kind of selfish. I would not put anyone else through the reality that Venetian majesty might well be dimmed with fog, rain and chill. And 2 feet of water. That we’d be substituting a cozy dark bar with port for the sunny Lido.  The trip circled around what intrigues me and me alone.Flood Behind Inst. of Letters

It was a singular type of adventure – everything from the date (full moon, winter) to the hotel (great public spaces) and to the space in my luggage for my new Wellington boots – was structured around a behind the scenes look at Venice and the winter high water.

So, I left the week of my birthday and arrived on a cloudy Sunday, with a certainty of why I was here in a city stringing its Christmas lights, buttoning its jacket, turning inward.

It was a trip built on chance but it all happened. On my first morning, I awoke to the high water alarms and through my window watched the water overtake the hotel pier. (It was worth every cubic inch of suitcase space those boots required.)

It was everything I hoped, seeing behind the tourist veil to how Venetians live in a city on stilts, walking with grandmothers across temporary plywood risers to cross the square, standing in a foot of water waiting for my morning coffee with office workers, and seeing the dignified staff of the Europa & Regina clearing the marble hall of water before other guests descended! I saw and learned so much but after that morning, after the flood, I was off the clock. The rest of the glorious week had earned its spontaneity and ease. I had seen what I came to see and now each day was an open ticket.

For 2014, it was Iceland and the Aurora Borealis. It was a long shot – in deep winter, in Iceland, in 5 hours of daylight. Putting myself in the path of possibility.

What is still on the list? What must I do on my own? What would a partner never understand? What will I regret if I wake up one morning unable to go on such a trip?

What are we hoping for – in our travel, our hobbies, our loves? For me, it may be completeness. What will I resolve, put to rest, fulfill? What will add up to a life well-lived when I face the unexpected end?

I hope that by the end of my time on the planet I become wise, whole, kind and loving with a sense of humour and surprise. And I want to have reached out for all the planet wanted to show me.

Where are you going?

What I Learned

  1. Having a single goal, something you feel passion around, gives a sense of purpose, priority and structure to a trip on your own.
  2. Picking a hotel with great public spaces is a valuable investment. You need a place around people where you can read, email and watch the parade of life.
  3. The hotel staff is your home team. Let them know why you’ve come and what you hope to experience. A clear and passionate purpose can be irresistible and you may find unexpected help.

 

The First Night or 3 Things to Do with That Sense of Impending Doom

I love the adventure of starting a trip – from the cup of coffee at your home airport to arrival and that first walk through town.  But the first night can be tricky. I didn’t see the pattern until solo trip #3. You arrive sleep deprived. You’re in a strange city without the energy to embrace it…yet. There is a lot to learn and everything is a little hard.  For me, this creates some emotional mayhem.

Once I’ve awakened in a new country, all my gauges reset…I’m grounded by having slept and then risen in this new place and all its possibilities.  Not the first night. That’s when my mind is full of worry and wild thoughts of everything that could be going wrong at home right that minute.  Then here? What was I thinking to come here – what if I need help, can’t find my way in a new city or get completely lost.  (In the morning the answers are clear – ask the front desk, call a cab,  follow the crowd.)

None of this helps the first night. What do you do with your sense of impending doom? A good friend of mine – who is independent and brave – didn’t expect this rush of doubt and was so thrown she cut her trip short.

Everyone is different but I have two thoughts for fellow travelers.  First, if you expect it and can name what’s happening, you are equipped.  I learned a lesson inVenice.  My Dad’s health wasn’t great that winter.  On my first evening, I realized I had not gotten an email from home.  I convinced myself his health had taken a turn and no one was telling me.  I paid 25 euros in the middle of the night through the hotel TV for on screen web service to check my email again and again and to send a couple of half-crazy messages home. Seriously, by the time I awakened the first morning, I was sure that I shouldn’t unpack.

(I was also concerned that the national debt was spiraling, that the birthday I was celebrating that week was the beginning of the end and was a little undone by the cancellation of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. This stuff defies logic.)

Here is the second thing I learned. Embrace it. I got out of bed and made some tea and sat across the table from my nightmare. By embracing, I mean I tried to look closely and examine what I feared.  I was much more worried about Dad than I had ever realized at home and here, in a strange place, it was all rushing to the surface. Maybe I was afraid that I didn’t know enough about his health. Did I need to have some important conversations?  And I definitely wanted to spend more time with him at home. There were other worries about decisions I was making and I started to write some of this down in my trip book. I knew a little more about what was going on in my head and heart.

So what do you do in the morning? I tried something hyper-rational that worked for me. I embraced one of those fears – that something at home might be going wrong and that, though all was well today, there was the possibility of being called home early.

So – if I only had a day in Venice, what would I do?  I started prioritizing my list.  If I had one day, I wanted to visit Murano and buy some gifts I’d promised to bring home. I wanted to ride the #1 vaporetta the entire length of the Grand Canal at sunset and I wanted to eat at my favorite restaurant. Trying to figure out fear, anxiety and the whole week was too big an order but I could plan this first day.

By the time I’d worked my list that day, my head and heart were back in order. The push to get my short list accomplished nudged me over bumps in the road – I learned again how to read the vaporetta map, I made some decisions, I conquered the must-have shopping, and pushed myself to enjoy a very special event like dinner at the Saturnia International.

OK, I also gave up and called home. Everything was fine. Why, they asked, are you calling here??  It’s expensive, you’re on vacation, we’re fine, and did you buy the Christmas gifts?  The world slipped back into place pretty quickly.

In the end, my dad was gone two months later. Having taken a trip didn’t make the loss easier and it didn’t make me appreciate him more.  I had spent a lifetime knowing who he was and how lucky I am.  I did go home with a clearer look inside my heart, acknowledging fears and questions I’d tucked away and it made a difference.

Why I Travel Alone

Venice. It’s early on a gray December morning.I’m standing alone on a long pier that stretches out into the lagoon.  It’s pouring rain and, under my umbrella, I’ve rolled my suitcase as close to me as possible on the narrow floating walkway.  Yesterday I booked the St. Marco water bus to the airport, picking a time early enough to catch my morning flight back to New York without worry  What I didn’t know is that at 7:30 a.m. in a town where unless you are in produce or fish, you’re not out before 9, the ticket booths are shuttered, no other travelers are in sight and the only signs point me here to this damp narrow spot.

I’m standing in the middle of the whitecapped sea, in the rain, rocking on a lonely pier not really certain if my precarious spot is the right precarious spot to get to the airport.

Why did I take this trip alone? Why didn’t I spend for the private taxi? Why did I wear these shoes?

A boat approaches an adjacent pier. Hey! Should I be there instead of here? I start to head that way and the jaded boat pilot waves me back to stay put on my little perch.

Then out of the mist and rain, chugs a cheery little water bus with the right logo and a guy in a raincoat  ready to pull my bag aboard, steady me as I hop on and I stumble into the steamy interior.

There’s the moment. I’m a world traveler, a trail blazer, a citizen of the world.  I’m a woman who can take public transportation with luggage.

That awareness of my own competence sends me home just a little different. That is why I travel alone.

It may be a little more than that.  My desire to share my experiences about traveling alone comes from two places – first the discovery a few years ago of the joy of traveling alone. While I love traveling with friends and family, there is a completely different experience when you step, completely anonymous, off a plane in a new city with an adventure stretching before you. More importantly, as I talk with women, I’m surprised again and again by competent, independent friends who are daunted by the idea of going alone and either don’t travel because they don’t have a companion who can go with them or travel with friends they know will not want to go/spend/cruise/visit/learn/relax as they would.

There is nothing like the feeling that you faced a challenge and found yourself capable.  It’s a small thing like arriving at the airport on time when you are there but once home, it’s that added confidence that you can indeed do many more things than you ever imagined.