Travel Mercies

We have the possibility of being free agents of fate,

the random representatives of hope in the world.

Travelling alone, I often rely on the kindness of strangers. They are the problem-solvers, the direction-givers, the staff who go out of their way.  I was reminded recently that when you are alone traveling through the world, you yourself have rare opportunities to turn the tables and pay real attention to those strangers around you.

Not long ago, on a plane to Kansas City, the young man sharing the row with me, slipped me a note and asked me to read it when I got off the plane.  (OK, this could be good or really bad. I haven’t been handed a note since 6th grade and that one was not at all encouraging.)

The note was very simple, written on a page of paper he’d borrowed from me in the air.  He said, “Thank you for the conversation. I needed that more than you can know.  I wish you and your family a happy holiday.”

I was no angel of the airways here. Actually, the reason I chose the seat doesn’t speak well of me.  It was going to be a fairly full flight on Southwest and I had some important reading to do en route.  As I went down the aisle, I spotted this really big, imposing young guy in the window seat of an otherwise empty row.  I’m thinking – this guy is NFL-size, really big, scary big.  So, with me on the aisle –  traveling with the laptop, the notes and the folders, I look like a fidgety, uptight nightmare of a seat mate – no one, unless forced, would choose the middle seat between us. (I was right.)

After takeoff, we talked a little and he told me that he was moving from his home in Kansas to another city, one he’d just visited. It was a required move for his employment.He was worried and had never lived away from his home and his family. I work with a church in that city and had heard some surprisingly encouraging things about it, even given its economic woes.  We talked  the climate of the area, the bright spots, the turn-arounds going on.  The conversation was light – no advice or deep thoughts but it was a good connection and it passed the time.

The spiritual practice I was reminded of is attentiveness. When we travel with our family and friends, we turn to each other. Sharing the experience is a big benefit of traveling together.  When we are alone, we are present in a different way. We have the possibility of being free agents of fate, the random representatives of hope in the world.

It brings to mind the quote from Macrina Wiederkehr, “Remind yourself often, ‘I am pure capacity for God; I can be more.’ ”

 

 

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Solo Travel and the Do-Over

My last morning in Spain found me chasing the moon across Mallorca, driving pre-dawn through fields as the ‘super moon’ set on the horizon. I had just completed a week-long riding clinic. It was a big ending to an unexpected trip.

Expectations with travel are complex. What do you see when you look back over your travels? What has changed for you as you try new things or become more at ease? More importantly, why do you travel?

For me, what began as week-long explorations of single cities (which I highly recommend) or hopping trains across a country I love has now evolved to adventures that add more and more challenge.

Pushing myself with a new challenge brings me home with more confidence and assurance in what I can do in everyday life. There is always learning – figuring out public transport, acclimating to the pace, and managing to buy a coffee in Italy. (It’s not easy.) By the end of the trip, you find the perfect view, buy the coffee, begin to feel at home in a new place and at home in your own skin.

New challenges are an important part of why I go solo. On recent trips, I’ve done  more driving and spent more time out in the natural landscape. So fewer museums, more mountain roads.

This past year was a new step for me with solo travel.  As I passed a big birthday, I wantedto reclaim a hobby or skill from my past, something I could reclaim and keep.  So after almost a year of lessons, off I went to Mallorca for a week of horse riding.

If you are a school or a course junkie, you may have had thoughts about a cooking or language immersion or, like me, a school for equitation.  I learned a little more than I expected – I realized that what  makes this travel work are the constant opportunities to start over!  Yes, the Do-Over.

When you are alone in Iceland and do something unbelievably stupid, you make it back to the hotel, (in my case dry off), get a good night’s sleep, and start over! While you are conquering the world, the presence of strangers allows you to make mistakes, step back, try again and hopefully take the day…eventually.

With a week-long class or clinic, you have an epic fail, get a good night sleep, get up and see the same people again at breakfast.  I am not a good rider.  I learned this in bold new ways on my trip. Most of the experience was spectacular…but part of it was likIMG_0260 (2).JPGe being back in high school gym class but with better and more expensive workout gear.

My best moments were when I slipped away in the snappy blue Fiat I rented and navigated the hill towns on Mallorca, found hidden backroads, and learned how to pay a parking ticket (all of this as you can imagine is related).

Push, try new things, leave time for complete relaxation – but as you travel, you’ll become more aware of where you find your joy.  What’s next for me?  Train hopping across a country I love – the one I call home!

What I Learned

  • If you are looking at a learning trip, think about the pace. Is there time for your own adventures? Do you love meeting new people and cherish the group time? What do you want the experience to be like?
  • If it’s learning a skill, give it up a little. It won’t be the same – the accents will differ, the horses won’t have the same gaits, the cooking measurements aren’t as familiar, the instructor has a different approach.  Be ready to shift.
  • Start below your perceived skill. Take the pressure off. Who doesn’t want to be promoted once you are there?
  • Most of all, appreciate the journey itself. I wouldn’t trade moment of my year of lessons preparing for the trip. It was the best part but it took planning a trip to get me started!

 

Solo Travel: Estimated Time of Arrival

 

In the weeks before, you lean forward into that moment when the trip begins. The moment when you will put one new shoe over the border and step into the adventure, when everything goes Technicolor around you, and you become The Traveler.

When is the exact moment when you cut the invisible cord and truly, irrevocably depart?

My dear friend drops me at the airport door as he has done many times. He dispenses blessings like a priest giving last rites and sends me on my way. Once through security, the detector arch like a door, I’m on the other side, in this new space. There is nothing but Me and a very compact roll-on bag that contains only what this anonymous “Me” will need to trek through the world without footprints.

One thing I like about travelling on my own is that I own my time. I know I will land at my connecting airport earlier than is really necessary. With airline club day pass in hand, I savor the hours with my maps and iPad.  I buy the last glass of wine on this shore…with bubbles. The journey has begun.

Air France knows what they are doing. There is something wonderful about the line to board the plane. How is it so civilized? I chat with a spare and chic older couple as we wait. We are blank slates to each other. We share stories and they ask who am I. (I’m not sure yet.) As we file in, we realize we are seat mates. We settle in and the flight attendant brings us an aperitif. (yes, an aperitif. In coach. Merci.) The entertainment system on the seat back has not just movies and TV but audio presentations of entire operas. I pick La Boheme just because. Oh, Air France. I’m happy for this cozy respite.

A weak sun greets us as we land in the early morning. We fly through customs. There is no waiting for luggage with my wheeled closet. I sail into… a mass of unhappy people trying to understand how to take the train into the center of Paris. North American credit cards don’t read in the ticket kiosks and the change machine is not working. And the ticket kiosk take cash but only exact change. One pauvre l’homme mans a solitary window for two hundred people.

Is this like child birth, the sweaty, grubby, peevish part of a trip that you always forget upon arriving home? Finally I’m on the RER train, surrounded not by urbane French citoyens but equally sweaty Canadian and British tourists who look too large and open-faced for their surroundings.

I did not give up on this RER train. One of its major stops is beside my hotel. The idea was genius two months ago in a world where my credit card and currency were at home. I prevail.  Once a ticket was in hand, it could not be more convenient. And cheap.

I roll my not-now-so-compact seeming bag out of the train.  My bag, my maps, my crumpled jacket and I ascend the mossy steps out of the station.

I am now The Traveller.  The mid-morning sun has burned off uncertainty as I rise out of the depths into the very heart of Paris.  Notre Dame is over my shoulder. Around me the British and Canadian counterparts have scattered through our previous stops and it’s…just…French… in my ears.

What I Learned

  • It’s great to get your local currency from the ATM at the airport, particularly if you have checked on the international fees.
  • With credit and debit cards at simple machines like train and metro ticket dispensers, however, unless you have a chip or in some cases a chip and pin credit card, you can be in trouble . (Stores, restaurants, or a staffed window at the train station, no problem.)
  • Safety flash – if you travel down the escalator into a sea of frustrated tourists, turn around.  Once I realized that we all needed cash AND the correct change, it was over.  No store or coffee shop facing this mob was going to pony up.  Backtracking, I bought coffee back near the customs area. Twice.  Change in hand, I dove back in and pretended to be from Barcelona.
  • Be nice, be helpful or be quiet as you stand in the boarding line. While solo travel brings anonymity, the plan is different. You may be spending eight hours in the company of the person next to you. They may have good chocolate or at least give you shared time on the armrest.

 

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.