The Rules of International Travel

We hadn’t even made it back to the US when reverse culture shock slammed me in the chest. The couple sitting in the row in front of me, a young couple from Kansas stated “Oh, it was wonderful but we’re so glad to be going home.”

No, I thought. I don’t want to go back. Don’t make me go back.

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I ❤ Norway.

We flew into Bergen, Norway, where we rented a car and drove to Oslo. The next day, we jumped on a ferry from Oslo Fjord to Kiel, Germany, where we rented a different car and drove from Kiel to Amsterdam, The Netherlands for one more night. Then, on to Brussels, Belgium for two nights. Then to St. Malo, France for two nights. Then, to Paris for one night for an early morning flight out of Charles de Gaul. From our takeoff in Denver to our landing in Denver, we had 10 days. This is not a good way to see and experience Europe, but it was the perfect way for us to be. We missed more than we saw, but it was perfect.

I traveled so much as a kid, that it’s ingrained in my muscle memory. The only thing more fundamentally comfortable, more soul-relaxing than being surrounded by a landscape and language I don’t know is skiing.

On this trip, I was with someone who had not been out of the United States since he moved here ten years ago. This was his trip, really, and it was my job to show him how to wander well. I shared what I know, my rules of international travel.

You’ll notice that a lot of these involve food. It’s funny, because the idea of “traveling to eat” confuses me. But. I am a hungry, hungry hippo who could eat her weight in French butter if given the chance. Being hot, tired, thirsty, and hungry is the worst state in which to be while traveling. You’re likely to do something stupid.

Never Eat Anywhere That Has Pictures of the Food on a Placard. They are often captioned in English. I don’t even understand why anyone would fall for this. The pictures don’t even look good.

Never Eat Anywhere That Has English Posted Prominently Outside. This includes: English phrases like “Best Coffee in Brussels” (I promise it isn’t), and exclusively in-English menu posted outside. This does not include: English translations of menus presented once you sit down.

Take Advantage of Specialty Shops. Find the bakery/cheese shop/butcher/wine merchant/farmer’s market stall with no photos or English displayed. Walk in. Do not expect anyone to speak English. If necessary, point to the things you want. Pay for them. Eat these things with your bare hands on a bench, in a park, on a stone wall. It’ll be the best god damn meal you’ve had all trip. Repeat tomorrow.

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Lunch with a view.

Never Go Anywhere Where Someone Speaking English Tries to Hustle You Inside. This includes: restaurants with food-picture placards, gift shops, things masquerading as educational tours. If it’s 2pm and the guy tries to hustle you into doing a tour immediately because the last tour is at 6pm, you leave. I’ve also noticed that this kind of person tends to speak very quickly (even if they speak perfect English) as if aiming to confuse you into compliance.

Look Closely At Positive Reviews. Just because a bunch of Americans “really liked” one coffee stop doesn’t mean it’s any good. In fact, that might mean that they specialize in the sugary, weird, five shots of flavored coffee drinks that Americans like. That said, use Google. Especially when you’re there. Especially for restaurants. Look for positive ratings. Look for positive ratings made by people writing in different languages. That, my friend, is where you want to eat. Do the same for attractions. I don’t really use Trip Advisor, but I’m sure this law applies there, too.

This is Madurodam. It was the coolest, most random place I've ever been.
This is Madurodam. It was the coolest, most random place I’ve ever been.

Not All Tourist Traps Are Created Equal. By this I mean, some tourist traps are entirely worth doing. Poo-poo city bus tours all you want, but if you want to get oriented to a city, there are much worse things you can do.

Get Lost. Take a wrong turn by accident. Pull off at a random roadside attraction you’ve never heard of before. Let plans fall apart or, even better, let them not exist in the first place. Take a nap on the side of the road. Lose yourself in the weightlessness of bombardment by words you don’t recognize. For what is perhaps the first time since you learned to speak, struggle to communicate. 

You can debate forever the merits of travel. Whether it can really make you grow, expand your horizons, change your life, blah blah blah. I don’t think travel does any of these things. You are not more profound for getting your passport stamped.

The important part of traveling is learning to be comfortable with being misunderstood and comfortable in that you , too, will misunderstand. But, like a good existentialist, you must not accept this. You must try–struggle, even–to be understood and (most importantly) to understand.

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This is the face of pure fear navigating the Arc de Triomphe rotary.

I Go To Seek The Great What Does This Button Do

So guys, I found this really cool thing on Pinterest? I'm totally never going to make it.
So guys, I found this really cool thing on Pinterest? I’m totally never going to make it.

A month and a bit into living in Colorado and I am still catching up with friends. I moved here so suddenly that there were a lot of people that I didn’t get to see, didn’t get to say goodbye to, didn’t even tell. In these conversations, phone calls that linger on and on, some form of the following statement is said: I’m so impressed that you were brave enough to do this. Even my mother says it, adding, What you’ve done is a scary thing.

Scary? If this was supposed to be scary, then why wasn’t I scared?

A while ago, I found this image while trolling Pinterest. “I Go To Seek A Great Perhaps.” I thought it was nice. The words felt good on my tongue as I whispered them out loud, full of promise.

Then I left home and came here, and now the words don’t make sense. A Perhaps is, maybe, what happens at Wanderlust Fest when you’re blissed out on yoga and kombucha. Maybe a Perhaps is the music/time passing sequence in a rom com. Something sort of tame and pleasant and predictable, which is all well and good… But, to be honest, I’m more of a What Does This Button Do kind of girl.

My good friends all come to recognize a particular mood that comes over me. I don’t know what to call it, but when I’m in it… I’m apt to dissect remote controls, climb on buildings, eat the entire pie. I turn around and talk to strangers and follow people I barely know into strange places. I don’t stand still; I want to know what is behind the curtain, even if it’s just more of the same.

Maybe it’s curiosity. Maybe it’s recklessness. Maybe I’m just compensating for all of the time I spend shy and nervous and uncomfortable standing in the corner at parties wondering if it’s socially acceptable to crawl under the table with the dog because, man, he just gets me.

But it’s a pretty good way to live.

I Go To Seek The Great What Does This Button Do

Laney writes: “Low-novelty seekers like to see the big picture before plunging ahead…” And low-novelty seeking correlates strongly with introversion. Apparently, no one told me this when my brain-chemistry was mixing in the womb. I nail every other introvert trait except for that one, as if even as a pupa I rebelled against my own nature… as if… as if I went exploring through my genome, turning things on and off according to a set of printed out directions until I came across this one tantalizing gene… proto-Liz paused there and said, “Huh. I wonder what this button does.”

Let’s Do That

A sinus infection laid me low without my even noticing it. I’m the sort that blames every scratchy throat or fuzzy headache on allergies, or a passing cold. Before I know it, three weeks pass and I’m sitting in the doctor’s office, the nurse gasping at my 104º temperature. I had no idea I even had a fever.

The week before, I alternated between the sun, the water, the shade, and 27 mile bike rides with my father. Uphill both ways, as they say.

Before that, I was in New York City, head tilted back and marveling at the fireworks, Amazing Grace on my lips.

The New York trip was a complete spur of the moment impulse. A new friend invited me. The next day I bought my ticket. Two days later, I was on the bus – Burlington to Manhattan. What a change that was.

But what a change it wasn’t. Maybe my head was already thick with the infection I wouldn’t notice for two more weeks, but the process of arriving in the city made me calm. Usually not a fan of cities, I felt relaxed and comfortable.

I love traveling.

But even more so, I love being impulsive.

This is a trait I’ve worked quite hard to quell through random acts of mindfulness, repetition, and routine. I’ve been so “good.” So “steady.” This is all well and good when it comes to major decisions. Job changing. Job searching. Roommate-picking. Interpersonal relationships. But, gosh is it dull!

Haters gonna hate, but Citibikes are awesome.
Haters gonna hate, but Citibikes are awesome.

I love the moment when a metaphorical button is pressed, and before I know it the words are falling out of my mouth. “Yes. I am going to do that. I am going to do that right now. If you’d like to come along, great. But I’m not waiting anymore. I’m going.”

Reminds me of the “Let’s do that” Subaru commercials that were all over the Tour de France coverage.

C’mon. Let’s do that.

Wanderlust

It’s been too long since I last disappeared. I miss the weight of a rucksack on my shoulder. I miss the moment when I first step off of a metro in a strange new city; the nanosecond-long pause to inhale the new air and realize it’s just the same as the air at home.

(I lost countless photographs in a hard-drive crash during college. I have so few photos left from my travels… Here’s one. Hopefully hard copies of the rest have survived, buried somewhere in my parents’ basement.)

A moment's rest on Mt Luxmore.
A moment’s rest on Mt Luxmore.

“You’re coming to realize that travel anywhere is often a matter of exploring half-understood desires. Sometimes, those desires lead you in new and wonderful directions; other times, you wind up trying to understand just what it was you desired in the first place. And, as often as not, you find yourself playing the role of charlatan as you explore the hazy frontier between where you are, who you are, and who it is you might want to be.”

Rolf Potts, from“Tantric Sex for Dilettantes”

I bless the snows down in Africa

This film more or less sums up why I’m so enamored of the idea of riding in Morocco. (Although it was the family copy of Warren Miller’s 1993 film Escape to Ski that first planted the idea in my mind.)

“The conditions were probably not at the best… but it’s the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, just between the desert Sahara and the ocean. That’s skiing in Africa.”

Film from Female Wolf Pack, an awesome place to discover female athletes doing what they do best – kicking ass.