Monday, May 24, 2010

Travel 101

A couple of weeks ago, despite a volcanic ash cloud’s largely successful efforts to thwart travel plans throughout Europe and the world at large, I managed to make it back home with only minor delays, comparatively speaking, from a twelve-day sojourn in London and Paris with my good friend Nikki. But it isn’t the “will they or won’t they make it to their destination?” Iceland ash cloud saga that makes the story of this trip interesting. Although said natural disaster did earn us two and a half extra hours on the plane back from Paris, a much-appreciated free round of cocktails from American Airlines and a missed connection and resulting overnight stay in Dallas.

Here’s the thing. I am a travel junkie. I have five suitcases of varying sizes, I own two travel hair dryers, I’m on my third passport and I’ve planted my feet in the soil of more than fifteen countries. Prior to three weeks ago, my companion, save one trip to Mexico, had never been outside of the U.S. So there I was, an unofficial “expert,” off on an international journey, with a certified travel “rookie.” Which could have had disaster written all over it. But somehow it didn’t, and despite being perhaps an unlikely pair of travelers, we ended up making a pretty good team. And Nikki’s new adventure, in my familiar stomping grounds, ultimately made it an unforgettable trip for the both of us.

A little back story. In late 2009, on the verge of receiving her long-sought-after, well-earned bachelor’s degree, looking for a way to celebrate her success and facing a brief hiatus before diving headlong into her master’s program, my very good friend Nikki came to me with a question. She wanted to go to London and Paris, and she wanted me to come with her. It wasn’t a difficult decision, really, London being one of my favorite cities in the world, with Paris coming in close behind. And as April rolled to a close, we packed our bags and crossed the Atlantic.

I can now admit to having had some trepidation at the time about the potential downfalls of such a trip. This would be Nikki’s first real experience with things like extended airplane rides, jet-lag, foreign language barriers, hauling your suitcase everywhere, and the French hotel version of a shower, which involves a tub and a shower head on a hose, but no hook to hang it on, and no curtain. Not to mention the fact that I’m pretty used to my way of doing things on a trip. I like to walk, a lot. I have favorite places that I always go. I can sometimes, yes, I’m not too proud to admit it, act like a “know-it-all.” For the record, I don’t know it all, far from it, in fact. Though in fairness, I do know a few things, so I might still be worth listening to, at least part of the time.

Regardless of your experience level, there are many aspects of international travel that are designed to test your patience, your energy level, and your general attitude. Throughout the trip, Nikki proved herself to not only be a good student, again, but she was also a good teacher, which is convenient, since she’s headed towards a career as one. In the end, we managed to teach each other a few new things about the wonderful world of traveling. While Nikki may have benefitted from the tips I know, the experiences I’ve had and the connections I’ve made in my prior trips – all things that I hope made her trip an experience that was both easier and richer than the one she could have had on her own, I was also given a gift – a chance to look at familiar places with new eyes, an opportunity to share an experience with a special friend and a lesson in finding the joy in doing things a little differently. The bottom line is simple. If you’re an old pro at this travel business, find a rookie, check your expectations at the door and go have a new adventure in a familiar place. And if it’s your first international rodeo, bring a friend with a fully-loaded passport along for the ride. Having the inside scoop will help you make the most of everywhere you go. You might also want to take along with you the handy list of advice I’m about to give, in no particular order. It’s just a handful of things that I think Nikki and I taught each other and/or learned together over twelve exciting, tiring, funny, fabulous and rather chilly spring days in Old Blighty and the City of Lights.

1. You will need less pairs of shoes than you think you will. Pack your bag. Then take half of the shoes out and put them back in your closet. You won’t end up wearing them anyway and your back will thank you when you start hauling your bag up and down staircases at train stations. Plus you’ll have more room for souvenirs.

2. It is perfectly okay to drink alcohol with almost every meal. You’re on vacation. Besides, you want to really soak up the local experience, don’t you? Well, that’s how the locals do it, at least in London and Paris. If you’re not in one of the great alcohol-imbibing capitals on your particular journey, then you might want to skip this one.

3. If you walk your ass off every day, then you get to see more – more sights, more scenery, more of the local flair. Plus you can eat more pastries and cheese, and drink more champagne, Guiness or Strongbow, because you’ll burn it all off. I’m just saying…

4. 3:30AM may well be the “magic hour” for staying out in a foreign city. Everything before that time is fun, interesting and exciting. Every half-hour after that time, there’s an exponential increase in the likelihood that one member of the team may stop having a good time and will just be along for the ride. On a side note, a camera and a bag of Cheez-Its are a good way to round out the night at said “magic hour.”

5. Suck up your courage and talk to strangers. It can lead to unexpected adventures, a chance to discover how the locals hang out, and if you bat your eyelashes and maybe show a little leg, probably garner you some free champagne and entrée into a nightclub or two. Note that the last one generally only works if you are female, though if you are a guy with really sexy man legs, it just might work for you too.

6. Share meals. It’s a good way to save some money, but more importantly, you can eat more often and try more things. Which means you can have a chocolate croissant for breakfast, a crepe for a midmorning snack and a filet with French fries for lunch. Not that I have a thing for food. And speaking of meals, if the first place you go to doesn’t meet all your needs, stay for a bit, and then move on. A progressive dinner is perfectly acceptable.

7. If you’ve done this all before, take your friend to your favorite haunts, because there’s nothing quite like Borough Market on a Saturday afternoon or a meal at Sergeant Recruiter on Ile St. Louis. But be sure to let him or her pick a few new places, because there will definitely be some you’ve never been to, even if it is your fifth, fifteenth or fiftieth trip. While it’s damn cold at Stonehenge in early May and it’s smaller than I expected, it was well worth finally journeying out there. And the Dali Museum next to Sacre Coeur is really cool. Never even knew it was there.

8. Learn to say please and thank you in the local language. Everyone will be nicer to you. And if you can, bring a friend who speaks said language, at least a little. Culture shock isn’t easy, and it helps to have someone with you who kind of knows the ropes, or at least how to order your dinner.

9. Make sure you travel with someone you don’t mind seeing naked or sharing a bathroom with. Even the nicest of European hotels often have close quarters. So unless you’re prepared to splurge for two rooms, pick a travel partner you are comfortable with. Or just wait in the hall.

10. Be flexible. There’s two of you. Which means two agendas, two different personalities and two different sets of priorities. One of you is never going to make it all your favorite spots and the other isn’t going to hit everything on his or her first timer, must see list. Which really is okay. Because you’ll see and do plenty, including things you never expected, like have an awesome evening with the locals at a little bar on the Left Bank or take a carousel ride in Montmartre. Enjoy every moment as it comes, because you’ll never have this exact experience ever again. And it’s good to leave wanting just a little more, because as long as a volcanic ash cloud doesn’t get in your way, you can always go back.