Traveling Light

writing and running around Western Europe

Traveling Light(ish)

After being on the road for almost a month, I feel the need to talk about my very best traveling companion: my suitcase.

When I left home, I had a medium-sized L.L. Bean rolling duffel bag. For a 2.5 month trip, it was relatively small. Some girls I met on the plane from Dublin to Paris looked at me like I was a savage for refusing to lug around 3 different curling irons and a new blazer for every day of the week. When I got to Nice, my sad little duffel bag finally bit the dust. It’s making its last trip to Garbageville, France as I’m writing (sorry, Mom). I bought a replacement for 40€. It cut into my budget so badly I paid for the last 10€ in coins. Store clerks don’t like that in Europe, either. This guy was even less amused when I began to unpack and repack my assorted dirty clothes, half-eaten bag of peanuts, cheap tourist towel, approximately 35 pamphlets/maps/ticket stubs, incongruous Vera Bradley toiletries bag, and a super cheap bottle of wine (for emergencies, you know). But when I finally got my shit together and rolled out of there, it was well worth 40€. You can’t put a price on dry clothes that don’t smell like French gutter water.

My new suitcase is gray with four wheels and a tough plasticky exterior. I like to think when people see me wheeling it on the street, they mistake me for an incognito Icelandic princess, and that the homeless men following a few feet behind me are under cover body guards. At the very least, they might think I’m a local university student.

When I got off the tram to head to the hostel in Munich, five other kids got off ahead of me, each carrying a cumbersome (and expensive) Northface backpack. For the first time since I bought it, I felt out of place with my fancy luggage. After all, the name of the hostel is “The Tent”–maybe it’s a backpacks-only type of thing…

It’s not. My 10€ and passport is as good as anyone else’s for some slow wifi and an uncomfortable bunk bed. So I stick by my original opinion: the suitcase is the way to go. As long as you pack light, it’s so easy to carry up and down stairs. And wheeling it around is much more comfortable than carrying it. The four wheels make it tough enough to go up and down curbs without flipping over, and the tough plastic lets it double as a chair when I’m waiting for trains. I’m in love.

Those girls on the plane may have thought I travel too light, but there are things which I still could have left at home.

1. Books.
I love my books. They’re basically the perfect entertainment for train rides and lazy afternoons. However, I did not need 6 of them. What I needed was a Kindl.

2. Heels.
What the fuck was I thinking. Everyone says “Bring comfortable shoes.” It’s like the cardinal rule of traveling. And I was all, “Nooooo, my feet never hurt, I’m the most comfortably stylish person on the planet.” As it turns out, they do, and I’m not. Thank God the heels I brought aren’t heavy. I’m only 80% bitter about needing to carry them around for the next month and a half.

3. Jewelry.
I have worn the same fake-pearl studs from Forever 21 every single day. I know I have other earrings and necklaces in my bag, but I just can’t be bothered.

That’s pretty much it. Only the books are a real pain to carry around. I’m looking forward to setting them on a shelf for six weeks when I get to Amsterdam.

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A Night at the Opera

I’m staying at the cutest little hostel in Arles, called Auberge du Voyageur. One of my roommates is here from Bordeaux in order to perform in an opera competition. Her name is Claire Baudouin, and if you know anything at all about classical music and you haven’t heard of her yet, get ready. She’s gonna be huge.

Her voice is like a tiny shot of espresso with a whole packet of sugar–it’s warm and sweet, but subtly powerful enough to leave you wide awake at the edge of your seat, straining to catch every delicious drop. And you thought caffeine was addicting. To meet her, she has a fresh, sunny demeanor, which is only magnified when she sings. But don’t underestimate her because of her friendly attitude. Her performance is charmingly persuasive. She leaves the audience with the impression that she could have lulled them to sleep if she wanted, but preferred to leave them drooling on the edge of their seats, waiting for her next angelic note like trained puppies waiting for a liver snap. She’s only 24.

My other roommate and I enjoyed a lovely picnic by the Rhone while Claire got ready for her performance. Maybe it was the French riverside or the bottle of wine we decimated that made us brave enough to haggle enthusiastically with the ticket salesmen. After repeatedly waving a 10€ note from the middle-aged ticket vendor to the twenty-something usher, and insisting we didn’t understand a word of French (which is not entirely true, because I totally knew they were telling us the show cost 20€), the price magically dropped to 15€ for both of us. Another 10€ reluctantly emerged from my wallet, and I held my breath and hoped they would give me change rather than call me out for being cheap. I got my change, and if they did snicker at me, they had the decency to do it in French behind my back. Success.

The show was incredible. I’m not sure what was the most impressive part: the 21 talented singers from around the world, or the gorgeous ancient Roman courtyard where the performance was held. Tonight was the semi-finals of a larger competition. According to Claire, she came to perform in the first round of auditions yesterday, and learned she would be continuing this morning. They will announce the finalists from this evening’s performance tomorrow morning. Stay tuned.

To my right sat a young lady who seemed about my age, maybe a year or two older. She heard me explaining the different voice parts to my roommate and asked me if I were a singer. I told her that I’d taken lessons but never competed, and we got to talking a little bit during intermission. Apparently, she had come from a city north of Paris to sing in this competition, and been eliminated. I asked her how long she had been singing, and she said that she started studying when she was 16, but quit for a while to become a midwife. Keep in mind, this girl cannot be more that 25, if that. She looks about 20. And here she is telling me that she’s a classically trained opera singer, and a professional midwife. Plus she’s at least bilingual, if she doesn’t know any more languages. I’m just staring at her like, “I write things…I know words…that’s it…” Fortunately for me, neither my awed expression nor my inadequate anecdotes deterred her from talking to me. She went on:

“I wanted to learn to be a midwife, but when I met some really talented singers, they reminded me how much I love it. They told me when you find something that you really love…something that you are…something that makes you…” She couldn’t find the word in English.

“Passionate?”

“Yes- passion. Exactly. But it’s very difficult…”

The lights went down and the second act began.

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Worse On A Plane: Crying Baby Or Foul-Smelling Adult? NO CONTEST

I’ve got to agree with him…having been next to BOTH these types of travelers a few weeks ago on my flight over here.

Jeff Vrabel

GateHouse — Over the years I’ve had occasion to fly with my children, now ages 9 and 1.5, to various spots along the East Coast, which I’ve done each time for one very simple reason: The “government” apparently doesn’t let kids fly by themselves, as I discovered years ago during a particularly heated and revealing conversation with an O’Hare ticket agent.

(There’s also a second reason: I prefer flying because I’ve driven with these kids in cars. And in cars, they trouble only myself and my wife for hours upon endless highway hours; on a plane, it’s maybe two hours, and they also get to annoy everyone else, which is bad for the rest of the plane I guess but makes me feel like I’m sharing the burden, which is comforting.)

I bring this up because of a recent Harris Interactive study that asked 2,000 adults which airline seatmate would…

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Moleskine Notebook

I’d like to preface this post by saying this is not the first thing I’ve written on this subject. So, thank you, Moleskine, for being a continuous inspiration. Please allow me to go on expressing my gratitude.

The last time I wrote about my lovely Moleskine, it was in a short poem for my creative writing class titled, “The Importance of a Notebook.” The whole thing was a rather juvenile attempt at criticizing consumerism-the basic idea being, people spend a lot of money on Moleskine notebooks so they can feel brilliant like Hemingway, but being a literary genius has nothing to do with your choice of writing material. I also had to mock myself pretty severely, because I had purchased one, and allowed it to collect dust in a drawer for nine months, due to a lack of Hemingway-worthy thoughts.

Then this trip came, and I needed a travel journal, and I happened to have a very expensive one just begging to be used. I figured even if all I wrote was drivel, at least the notebook could see the world, and that had to be worth something.

I am already about a quarter of the way through it. This might become an issue, because I am not even a quarter of the way through my trip. My Moleskine comes everywhere with me. The leather cover is already starting to show a few dents and scratches–nothing slovenly, just enough to make it look loved.

Perhaps the only redeeming quality about not speaking the native language or knowing anyone that I meet is that I am never worried about people reading over my shoulder. At home, I am constantly paranoid that someone is peeping at what I am writing, and finding it very silly and arrogant that I jot down the occasional (daily) poem. Here, I don’t care. The odds that they are actually reading at what I’m writing are slim, anyway. It’s more likely that they are thinking me rude for hogging the bench by the Picassos, or professional for writing for hours at cafes, or psychotic for scribbling away in front of old buildings, my unkempt hair falling into my face.

Last night, I met a girl from Germany at the hostel where I am staying in Arles. She was waiting here one night for her friend to come, so they could go backpacking through the rest of Southern France for 2 weeks. We shared a bottle of wine and sat drinking it in front of the Rhone. As I was shuffling a few things around in my purse, I pulled out my Moleskine for a moment. She asked me if I were a writer, and, embarrassed, I said “I’m trying to be.”

I told her I started this notebook the day I left New York, and it’s been surprisingly easy to keep up. Then I told her I worried that I was going to run out of pages, and I didn’t want to buy just any new notebook because this one–

“It’s a Moleskine,” she said. She pronounced is “Mol-eh-skeen” in her German accent, but it was unmistakable what she meant.

“Exactly!” We chattered excitedly about the convenient pocket it in the back, the tough leather cover, the soft yellow paper. It really is the perfect notebook. She understood my obsession completely.

As a follow up to my earlier poem (which there is zero chance of me posting on here, be grateful), I just want to say there’s more to these expensive, impressive little books than sheer materialism. And personally, I think they do inspire people to write like Hemingway and sketch like Picasso. Although, none of the famous Moleskine artists left their final products on the pages of their notebooks. The notebook is a memory bank, and extra hard drive, an idea collection and source. It’s very personal, and it’s not supposed to be the final product. It’s part of many final products. There are people all over the world, right now, writing like mad in their Moleskines. Some of them are undoubtedly writing nonsense- but that’s part of the beauty of the notebook. It’s none of our business what people keep in there, and we probably wouldn’t understand it anyway.

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#WeGoSolo

A few days ago, I was sitting at the Starbucks on Avenue de les Gobelines, feeling guilty for being at Starbucks, but overjoyed to have reliable wifi. After sending off a few dozen emails, checking days worth of nonsense I’d missed on twitter, and making sure all of my pictures had received plenty of likes on Facebook and Instagram, I stumbled across a few articles that actually turned out to be worthwhile.

I started following @couchsurfing on twitter before I left. It’s a great place to find travel tips and interesting and inspiring stories. But the best thing I’ve found so far is the hash tag, #WeGoSolo, and the slew of associated articles and pictures of relatively young, independent women, who love to travel the world–alone.

Before I left for Paris, I received a variety of feedback from friends, family, acquaintances–practically everyone I met had an opinion on this trip I’d been planning. A lot of people talked about how much fun I would have and how much I’d learn. Of course, there were the usual questions, too: “Aren’t you scared?” Obviously. “Your parents are letting you do this?” I didn’t exactly need permission, but apparently. “Wouldn’t you feel better if there was a guy with you?” Uh…depends on the guy? “You’re really going all alone!? I couldn’t do that…”

I got a lot of contradictory feedback from the same sources. Mostly women my age agreed that it sounded exciting, but they thought I was a few bananas short of a bunch for wanting to do this on my own. In fact, when I first arrived in Paris, I agreed with them. I was scared and lonely, and I would have loved to see even the most annoying face from home, as long as it was familiar. Luckily, one particularly strong female friend and traveler was able to talk me out of a jetlagged panic attack via iMessage. “This is normal. Let yourself be scared and lonely for a while. It will get better.” Thanks, K. You were right.

Shortly after that conversation, my constant nausea, fatigue, and Franco-phobia disappeared. About a week after I’d found a comfortable groove of writing in museums and eating baguette, I found the We Go Solo Movement on Twitter. After the rape and murder of two female travelers in New Dehli, the movement appeared to support women who travel the world by themselves. The movement fights against viewpoints like “Those girls shouldn’t have been out alone,” and “They should have stayed at home.” It’s true, caution and common sense can be the difference between life and death–but that’s true for anyone, anywhere. The real issue is not women traveling unaccompanied, it is violence against women. WeGoSolo rallies behind women who want to travel the world, and refuse to be deterred by the threat of violence.

I read articles by two women, one who went backpacking through the Middle East, and one who freight-hops and hitchhikes across the US for most of the year. Compared to these adventurers, my measly trek across Western Europe seemed safer than a family vacation to Martha’s Vineyard. These writers shared some stories about close-calls with danger, and how important it is to trust your gut in order to avoid disaster. However, both women reiterated that so many common travel tips like this one are valuable for both men and women. Being a solo traveler of any gender puts you at risk, and it’s important to be careful. But being a woman, you also have some distinct advantages.

One woman talked about how traveling alone in India meant that she was invited into family circles of women, where men who were not family members were not permitted. In addition, because she was independent, she was invited to smoke cigars and discuss politics with men, a privilege generally not offered to women. The cultural differences here in France and Ireland are not that gender-specific, but I have discovered a few distinct advantages to being a girl on my own.

1. Women eat less. It’s not very romantic, and it doesn’t reveal any deep cultural discoveries, but it’s true. Having seen the way my brother and cousins eat, I don’t think there is any way they could have done this trip on my budget. A baguette and some cheese-about 2€-can last me an entire day. Plus a cup of coffee in the morning and sharing some wine or beer at night, I can eat quite well on just 5€ or 6€ per day.

2. We’re smaller, we fit in more places. When we were in Ireland, Natalie and I got the opportunity to go with our host, his friend, and his 2-year-old son, surfing in Bundoran (That’s real surfing, not couchsurfing). If we had been just a little taller or wider, we could not have fit in the backseat of Kiko’s tiny sedan, packed to the roof with surfing and baby gear.

3. Couchsurfing. This is an interesting one. All the time, even fellow travelers-male and female- ask me, “How can you stay with a complete stranger? Isn’t it scary?” The answer is no, it’s not. Think about it. Couchsurfing is an organization of hosts and surfers who find each other online, and the host opens up his or her home to the surfer. Most of my hosts have even given me their keys while they go to work for the day. Who is taking the bigger risk here? Me, the surfer, who has registered with this host online and told her friends and family where she is, or the host, who invites a stranger into their home? If I were to ever felt uncomfortable couchsurfing (which I have not) it would be unbelievably simple for me to grab my duffel bag and go find another place to stay. The hosts are taking the much bigger risk, making their home and possessions accessible to strangers. A lot of hosts I’ve met prefer to take their chances on women. Apparently, women are less likely to be armed robbers or something.

4. Chivalry is not dead. This is not exclusive to travelers, but everywhere I have been I have noticed people willing to help women struggling with baby strollers in stairs, or offer their metro seats up to tired-looking older women. Opening doors, carrying suitcases, and letting a girl go first in the queue at the grocery store, people have been unbelievably kind.

5. Families with children. Now, I’m not sure if this is just because I like kids, or because people are more willing to trust a clean-cut looking girl with their offspring, but I’ve gotten to know a lot of youngsters since I’ve been here. From Kiko’s little boy, Borick, to an American family’s 18-month old I met at a park, parents have been surprisingly willing to say “Can you watch him for a minute?” “Sure, I’d love to. Nice to meet you, by the way.”

That’s all I can come up with by the way, and the cafe I’m sitting at is switching their menus from breakfast to lunch, so I should probably stop taking up the table. Ill post the links to those other articles when I get the chance!