As you may know, I love to travel. Whether it’s a day trip to the Sierra foothills or a semester in Europe, I’m willing. It’s fun. I get a lot of inspiration for my writing. And I Learn Stuff.
Here are some lessons I’ve learned while traveling outside the US.
- Even a very limited command of language is useful–sometimes unexpectedly. Although English is spoken so widely that I’ve almost never had problems, I do try to learn at least a couple of words in the local language. It just seems polite to attempt hello and thank you, at least. People seem to appreciate it. If you can manage a bit more, even better. When I was in Lisbon, I wanted a taxi driver to take us to a particular cemetery. I know about 4 words of Portuguese but can manage a bit more in Spanish. But this guy attempted French with me, and voila!–thanks to 3 years of high school French, taken long, long ago, we made it happily to the cemetery. And once, for reasons that escape me, I had a conversation in pidgin Spanish with an airport security lady in Frankfurt.
- Go grocery shopping. This is one of my favorite things to do abroad. Grocery stores can tell you a lot about a culture, plus give you a chance to interact with locals. And you get to try all sorts of interesting foods!
- Don’t try to see everything. I know it’s tempting to try to catch everything, but if you’re visiting a place with a lot to see, you’ll just exhaust yourself. And you won’t give yourself time to appreciate the sights. I make a list of Must Sees and catch them, and I also build in plenty of time to sit at cafés and just wander. For example, a couple of years ago I had 4 days in Paris, which isn’t nearly enough. But I feel as if I truly had time to enjoy the things I saw.
- Be prepared to look stupid. Often. Those things you do every day and barely think about? They may be confusingly different abroad. Buying stamps. Using public transport. Buying produce. Crossing the street! You will look and feel like an idiot. Good. It will give you more patience when you’re back home.
- Plan, but don’t freak out if plans go awry. Some things are just out of your hands. On my last trip to Europe, a plane broke, resulting in a 24 hour delay out of San Francisco, and then Lufthansa went on strike, stranding me in Lisbon an extra day when I needed to get to Zagreb. Annoying but unavoidable. I spent the unplanned nights in nice hotels on the airline’s dime (both Marriotts, coincidentally), relaxing a bit. It wasn’t torture.
- Walk. I think the best way to see most places is on foot. Yes, you may need to use other transport at times (which can be an adventure too; personally, I love funiculars). But still, walk when and where you can. Wander. Explore.
- Don’t believe stereotypes about places. They’re often way off. For example, a lot of people seem to think the former Yugoslavia is dangerous. But the war ended over 20 years ago. I’ve lived in Zagreb twice, and visited there several times, plus I’ve been to Bosnia and Slovenia. I’ve seen the crime stats. I’ve talked to security experts with the US State Dept. Those places are safer than almost anywhere in the US (unless you wander the countryside into a minefield–but they’re well-marked).
- But sometimes stereotypes are fun. On a rainy afternoon in Paris, I sat under the awning of a sidewalk café, sipping espresso. An honest-to-God mime came in under the awning too, where he stood with one of the waiters, both of them smoking. It was wonderful.
- Small joys often outshine the big thrills. Yes, of course I went to the Eiffel Tower when I was in Paris. But you know what was more fun? Going with a friend to a crowded restaurant in Le Marais, where I was the only woman except the two ladies who run the place, and conversing in my terrible French with the friendly couple sitting next to us. The museums in Vienna were great, but so was sitting on a bench, watching the Mozarts take cigarette breaks (usually they hand out concert fliers). In Edinburgh, when the sun gloriously broke through for a few hours, we enjoyed strolling through the park as the locals sprawled blissfully across the lawns.
- Hire local tour guides. You’ll learn so much from them. I spent an amazing day with a journalist and guide in Sarajevo. Another time, my daughter and I spent most of the day tooling around with a guide on an antique motorcycle–with a sidecar!–in Barcelona. And another time, a lovely young man spent the day showing my family around Plitvice Lakes in Croatia. He even had my younger daughter, who was 8, eating tree leaves and walking miles without complaining.
- Get to know locals. Don’t just stick to other tourists. Shop at greenmarkets and flower stalls. Wander neighborhoods where people live, not just where the famous sights are. Chat with waiters, salespeople, the people sitting near you on the bus. Oh, and taxi drivers! I love talking with them. When I was in New Orleans last year, I had a lovely conversation with a driver from Uzbekistan, plus the fun experience of talking to a driver from Sarajevo.
- Don’t over-pack. This one’s hard for me. I just remind myself I’m not going to Mars, and if I absolutely need something, I can probably buy it there. Then it can become a souvenir, or at least part of the travel experience. For instance, there’s a flavor of toothpaste I can’t get here, so I always buy it when I’m in Europe.
- Choose souvenirs well. Obviously, you might want to think twice before buying anything heavy, bulky, or breakable. But I also like to think about what I’ll most enjoy back home. For instance, I have several little drawings, paintings, plaques, and photos from my travels (plus a very cool copper wall hanging from Bosnia). I’ve bought some of these from street vendors. They’re easy to pack and now they hang on my walls at home, reminding me of my travels.
- Sometimes, do really touristy stuff. A lot of it isn’t worthwhile. But I had great fun on double-decker bus tours of London and Cambridge, and even more fun on a gondola in Venice.
Do you have travel tips? If so, please comment with them!