"Philosophy and Opinions of an Opinionated Traveler" Personal Page by flyingscot4
Let me say at the outset that I am an opinionated traveler. Some of what I write will be as factual as I can make it; some will be opinion - MY OPINION. I will try not to put my opinions out there as fact, but if I do, please correct me. Opinions are not necessarily right or wrong, they just are. I am not attempting to tell others how to travel. I am trying to impart what has worked for me. What I do is not necessarily right for someone else, but there might be one piece of information that has value. Use what you can, and toss what you can't.
I should start out by saying that I worked in the field of portrait photography for over 40 years. While I have extensive knowledge of portraiture, my knowledge and ability when dealing with landscapes and scenics is not more than that of an advanced amateur. Until I bought my first digital camera (and the one I still use), when it came to vacations, I put my camera away! To this day I am sorry because like the shoemakers kids without shoes, I took very few pictures of my daughter growing up and they were portraits, not pictures for scrap books. Now, I wish I had those scrapbooks that everyone else has of their families. Life teaches hard lessons; now my camera is always with me on vacations and I am going to buy a little point and shoot to keep in the car. I know now that some things are too important to miss. That is a bought lesson. More about cameras and photography later.
I should also admit that I was a terrible traveler/tourist at one time. My idea of a good vacation was one where everything worked out according to MY plans. If everything did not work according to THE plan... well, let's not go there. Now I admit to taking the planning a bit too far. For example, I knew where the sun would be and the approximate time I would need to be there to get THE picture of THE VACATION that I had so diligently PLANNED. Clouds, rain, they wouldn't dare! Yes, the would, and YES they DID. We're not going there, remember? Let's say that my vacations were adventures for everyone else. To me, they were mostly disappointments.
Travel is a great teacher. I have learned that plans can only go so far. At one time I had no plans, except for knowing when I had to be back to the airport. That kind of thinking is great for someone who has unlimited time and unlimited resources. Most of us have no such possibilities. So I had to learn, or rather, I had to be taught that sometimes things go wrong. Sometimes everything goes wrong. In fact, sometimes NOTHING goes right. The lesson is simple: so what? If no one died or was injured or in a position that one or the other could happen, so what? So I have nowhere to eat or sleep, so what? It's only one meal or one night. Make a new plan. Make a very loose plan that allows for things to go wrong. I recently saw a PBS program by Rick Steeves in which he detailed what goes into the production of his 30 minute shows. Talk about planning. To accomplish what he and 2 others do in six days is remarkable. They actually DO plan for the weather. There is always a back-up. We are fortunate in that we don't have to have plans that are that elaborate. The moral of this tirade is to at least make loose plans that allow for mishaps, and some bad weather, and don't worry. If you find yourself memorizing train schedules, well then... I learned to leave the elaborate planning to people like Rick Steeves- they're good at it. I'm not.
I travel to learn, to observe, to be part of, to enjoy, to experience... I don't travel to spend. I learned over 40 years ago that enjoyable travel doesn't have to be expensive travel. Travel is not about how many places we have seen, how many pictures we have taken, or how much money we have spent. To "travel" is to take something from our experiences in old or new places. That takes time. I try not to look at each location as a place to "see," as much as a place to "visit." I firmly believe that if a place is worth going to, it is worth getting to know. It wasn't always like that.
I started out traveling as fast as I could when I was in my 20's. I saw Europe in a Volkswagen, and considered myself "well-traveled." Things changed when I started going back to Europe during the 80"s (mostly Scotland and Ireland at the time). This time I didn't have a car or money. I learned about public transportation and schedules. I learned that one has to be at the mercy of public transport to understand that we cannot control everything. I learned that there is a lot to see even when you are waiting for a bus or a train. I learned that the people sitting next to me on a bus or train know a lot of things that I don't. Mostly I have learned that I have been a lot of places, but what I saw and what I experienced were two different things. Now, in a way, people have become the most important sights. We all take pictures of the "sights" and wish that the other "people" would get the hell out of the way. I am more than guilty of that. But when we sit at a sidewalk cafe or in a pub or gasthaus in a beautiful square we come to realize that it is really the people who create the total and meaningful part of the experience. Some things cannot be captured in a photograph. A photograph cannot capture many of the feelings and memories. So why take a camera in the first place? I think it's because that's where those memories and feelings come from. A picture of ourselves at the Sistine Chapel doesn't remind us so much of the Sistine Chapel as much as it reminds us of our feelings as we stood, mesmerized by the emotional power we felt surrounding us. Don't get me wrong. I still take a lot of pictures. It's just that now I try spend enough time to "Capture the experience and emotions of every location," wherever it happens to be.
That is the First of my Travel Rules. The Second Rule is, "You cannot plan the weather." It is not just my parade that is getting rained on. Find something else to do.
The Third Rule is, "Bring your umbrella and good manners with you." It is very easy for us to forget that we are the foreigners in our destinations. Being American doesn't open doors. Good manners usually will. Most of European society is very polite even if it doesn't look like it. "Please" and "Thank you" are ALWAYS used. At a bakery counter, for example, the clerk will almost always wish you a "good morning" or "good day" before asking what you would like. Smile and wish them the same before telling them what you want. A simple "Bonjour madam," or "Gruß Gott" will go a long way. Good manners will get good responses. Don't forget the smile.
The Fourth Rule is to "Have fun!!!" It is difficult to have a good time if one is changing hotels or getting on buses or doing something all the time. Part of the fun of travel is doing nothing but enjoying the surroundings and the people.
I do not "live to eat;" I "eat to live." Readers will find very little information about food in my ramblings other than when I write about Germany. The list of things that I like is far shorter than the things I don't like. I don't like any kind of fish (yes, I know that I have never tasted your or yours grandmother's recipe), and that isn't going to change. I am not adventurous when it comes to roller coasters, high places, or food. I am the quintessential all-American meat and potatoes guy; always have been and always will be. Medications and exercise keep me alive and complaining. (Did I mention that I am somewhat stubborn?) Anyway, you will not hear about the fish in Italy or Denmark or Britain. I am not a connoisseur of French sauces (although I love a good sauce with beef or pork). I don't like "hot" foods. The only thing I will comment on about food is bread all over Europe, and probably bratwurst and pork in Germany (and maybe a few other places). I know that my eating habits get in the way of "experiencing" the totality of a locale's character and I will have to live with that. I can tell you what kind of ham or chicken or turkey I like best for the many sandwiches I eat. For the rest of it, you're on your own.
Here come some blatant personal opinions. I travel as inexpensively as possible. I don't have a lot of money, so I try to be very frugal. The Fifth Rule is, "Frugal is not a dirty word." The amount of money that one spends is usually directly proportional to the amount of money one has. I don't have much, and therefore don't spend much. Simple. I am the worst kind of tourist in that my goal is not to leave money in Europe to support the European community; it is to NOT leave it in the EC so it will help support me. Most of my past trips to Europe were budgeted for about $1200.00. The duration is between 10 and 14 days. I have never spent more than $1500.00 (including airfare from Madison or Chicago) until this year when my trip is for 5 weeks. I backpack (it gets heavier as I get older), stay in hostels with free breakfasts, and live on sandwiches and other provisions I have purchased from bakeries and grocery stores (Aldi forever!). When I find that I have forgotten something that I need and can't find it in stores, I wonder how all these Europeans have gotten along without it for all these years. It finally dawns on me that I probably don't really "need" it either.
I usually travel alone which requires hostels, where I can stay in a dorm and pay for 1 bed, not 1 room with 2 beds. I have stayed in co-ed dorms where I am at least 30 years older than any other guests. Like them, I don't need a private bathroom or shower; much of the world has gotten along without them and so can I. Whatever "germs" I pick up are probably no worse than those I am leaving. Having a shower does not make one clean, it's just easier. The point is that travel can be done very reasonably ($50.00 per day or less, especially on days where you have no transportation or tour costs). I know what a washcloth is for (remember to bring your own) and vividly recall the days when we didn't have showers.
I travel slow but I believe that seeing is not as good as visiting. I like to take time (mine and the location's). My next trip (Apr 2007, and it didn't work out as well as I had hoped) is a whirlwind. I am going to a lot of the places I saw 40 years ago to pick the ones I want to go back to (missed a few places). I am not the great adventurer that wants to experience eating ants and beetles, and I don't care what they are covered with. Belgian chocolate is great by itself, it doesn't improve with an insect inside it. If I am going to go to a place where two million different breeds of insects are going to get a shot at me, there better be a full pot of gold at the end of that rainbow. I am not the "adventurous," "survival" type of traveler, just a traveler, and a "frugal" one at that.
My Sixth Rule is ,"Give yourself enough time." I have always struggled with how much time I should spend in one place or another. Is three days enough for Munich? How long should I plan for Rome? How long will it take to get to...? These are all best guess questions that can only be answered by the individual. Here are some more. Can I see the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum (both in Amsterdam) in one afternoon? What is a good amount of time for the Louvre? Do I need an entire half-day for the Deutsches Museum in Munich? The answers to those questions allows me to estimate how many places I can go, and also gives me time to add something new if my timing is off. If the time I have alloted is too little, it will be a good excuse to return on a future trip. (I have been asked multiple times about the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. For me, I can get through the Van Gogh Museum 2 or 3 times in an afternoon. I am not fond of "Expressionism" or "Cubism" or "Picassoism" or "roundism" or "ovalism" or "oblong deltoid obliqueismism" or whatever. I was a photographer and like realism. (It took me 2 entire days to get through the Rijksmuseum and I know that the Deutsches Museum in Munich is worth 3 days by itself, to me.) It all depends on the individual.
That said, my basic "rule of thumb is as follows: a town needs two days, a small city needs three days, and major cities need five to eight days. While this seems like a lot, there are good reasons (to me) for doing it this way. A vacation should be for rejuvenation and relaxation. When I get home, I should not need a vacation from my trip. European towns and cities come alive at night with food, music, relaxation, and fun. For example, a German town called Rothenburg of der Tauber is a beautiful medieval town that exudes charm. It is one of the most touristed towns in Europe. On a typical summer day there can be dozens of tourist buses arriving from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM. After 5:00 PM, the buses leave and one has the town to themselves. The "Night watchman's Tour" is one of the highlights of the entire "Rothenburg experience" and worth staying over night just to partake. If one is to truly "experience" a place, the experience must include at least one night when most of the tourists are not present.
Time is the most valuable thing that I have on a trip. It is also the most expensive. I always have a tentative list of what I want to accomplish each day. It's not that important that I stick to it, it just allows me to gauge time. At night I write down what I missed, things that I just found out about and would like to see, things that really weren't worth the time I spent on them. A couple of things happen. First, I find out what my real interests are, and more importantly, I find out what my interests aren't. For example, I did a "art museum tour" several years ago. I found out that I can get "museumed out." The same is true with fountains, cathedrals, old buildings, Gothic churches, rococo buildings, etc.. Everything, regardless of what it is, can get boring. Now, when boredom sets in, I change my plans. I go and do something different. Have "kaffee und kuchen" (coffee and pastry) in Germany and most of Europe or sit at a cafe on the square in a lovely city. Hit a flea market. I find that what makes a trip enjoyable is not based so much on what I saw as much as it is on what I experienced. As human beings, we tend to focus on the feelings that people have rather than just the sights they talk about. I perk right up when friends talk about how they felt sitting in a sidewalk cafe in a beautiful square with very old but lovely buildings around them and a fountain in the center of the square with sunny skies and birds singing... You can see where I am going with this. Couldn't you put yourself in that moment and just wish... So while I see the sights, I try to feel place. That is when time becomes most precious and the price is worth every penny.
This is my story. When I first returned to traveling in Europe, I was very intimidated by the public transportation systems. Even in the British Isles, I felt very awkward and out of place. Nothing appeared "normal." In my first experience at Heathrow Airport in London, I had no British money. I had lots of traveler's checks and American money, but not one pence, and I had to get through a guarded gate, which cost 1 pound, to get to the exchange offices. If the guard at the gate had not taken pity on me (I really must have looked panic stricken), I might still be there. Then I had to take the subway to King's Cross Station from which I had to walk to Victoria Station (two blocks away) to catch the train to Edinburgh. I had to do it in 55 minutes and I still didn't have any British money. To make a long story short, I changed some money at Heathrow (got the "royal" shaft in that exchange), asked three different people how to get to where I wanted to go, and got three different answers which I didn't understand anyway (and I had been to London before). I did eventually get to Edinburgh, but about 4 hours late and after both the Tourist Information desk and the reception desk at the hostel had closed for the night. I spent much of the night in Waverly Station (which is illegal as it turns out), getting "moved" by Scottish Bobbies every half hour or so. (Did I mention that this was in March and they don't heat the station, just the shops which were closed?) Finally, one of the Bobbies made a call to a different hostel and found a bed for me. He told a taxi driver where to take me, shook my hand, said something I didn't understand, and turned me over to the cabbie (I couldn't understand him either), who took me to the hostel. There I was welcomed by a young man from Glasgow who gave me more unintelligible information, a key with a number on it, and pointed me to the stairway (by this time I just knew that there would be no elevator). I reached my room after finding out that the 5th floor is actually the 4th floor (silly me, I forgot about that), and three of my five bunk mates were getting up for breakfast. I didn't care. I threw my pack on my bunk, stepped on the lower bunk's resident, climbed into the top bunk (Superman could not have kept me from it) and crashed. I woke up four hours later needing to use the bathroom. Such was my first day on foreign soil since 1965. I swore that "that" would never happen again, and it hasn't (not exactly, anyway).
The Seventh Rule is: "If you're going to go it alone, get a lot of information first." Give yourself time to do what needs to be done upon arrival. You have to change money. Know how and where you're going to do it. If you have to catch a train, know exactly how to do it. Give yourself plenty of time to check with the local Tourist Information (TI), they are used to clueless people. The public transport systems are not difficult but they can be huge obstacles when everything is in another language and it all looks strange. Another suggestion is to go with another person who knows what to do. University travel centers can always put people together. If you are using a travel agent, USE them! They have lots of information and if you ask a question that they can't answer, tell them to find someone who can. You are paying for this service. I hear travel agents complaining all of the time, but I don't see them going out of business.
I am a huge proponent of individual travel, but it does take a lot of research. For example, when you pay someone, do you plan to just hold out your hand and have them take what you owe? If you do, it will be an expensive trip. The point is to research the currency and coins of the country you are going to. Know what the currency and coin denominations are and what they look like. The Euro has helped a lot, but some countries are either not in the EC or they have not converted to the Euro (Great Britain, Switzerland, and a few others). Whatever the currency, learn it before you go. To those who tell you that it is really easy and not to worry about it, ask them if you can use their money until you are used to the foreign stuff. Last remark: wear a money belt! If you are new to traveling, pickpockets will pick you out of a crowd like you're wearing a big red ball on your nose. Every hostel that I have ever been to cautions travelers about the safekeeping of cash and credit cards. They do that for a reason.
Also, learn the public transport systems if you are going to be using them. Most have web sights and instructions in English. Rick Steeves goes into greater detail in his "Europe Through the Back Door" book which is updated each year. Just reading about them will help.
A great source of information is through the various guide books available. There will probably be three or four that specialize in just where you're going. As far as sights, food, transportation, and entertainment are concerned, they all try to be objective, but that is almost impossible. You can research the places you want to go, and make a list of all of those sights. If you don't want to buy the books, your public library will have some, and you can do an internet search on "guide books, Europe." There are also sites like VT where you hear from individual travelers and ask specific questions. These sights are great after you know what to ask. The answers are great. Guide books give you the questions. It makes little difference where you do your research. It makes a big difference if you don't.
I was, for years, a proponent of, "I know when I'm getting off the plane and I know when I have to get back on. In between that, I have no plans." Sounds good and it would be great, if it worked. It doesn't. You can waste half of a morning trying to figure out what you are going to do for the rest of the day.You need some plans, especially if you plan on traveling in high season. You can, and I have hooked up with small groups that I met in a hostel who were going someplace that I was also interested in. I may not have planned for it but plans can always be changed. Doing something like that is fine. Not only is there safety in numbers, there is great camaraderie. If you're lucky, you may find a group that has done this before. I see groups of college women who do this during the summer each year or so (their rich uncle pays for their education). They will frequently ask someone to join them. You win!
You don't have to plan every minute. Your odds of that working out are about as good as planning the weather. Speaking of weather, every year I see people who are having a miserable time because of the weather. That's what contingency plans are for. Beer gardens and sidewalk cafes are for dry weather. Museums, cathedrals, pubs, brewery and distillery tours, internet cafes, etc., are for wet weather. If you're into winter sports, snow is wonderful; so is rain if you are a duck. If you're not, you better have some contingency plans. Just know what is available in case of... The point is that if it is cloudy and cool, plans are not necessarily the same as if it's sunny and warm. At any time the weather can change and become umbrella weather. Don't count on sunny and warm. Carry an umbrella. (Don't take a really good umbrella. If you lose it you will miss it. Take a cheap one or buy a cheap one in Europe.) Pray for dry weather but remember that clouds are great for taking pictures. The soft lighting can be very emotional.
One last thing about plans. The castle in this picture, Burg Stahleck, in Bacharach, Germany, is a hostel. It is part of the DJH program. As you can see, it is pretty high on a hill (overlooking the Rhine River). Lots of people would like to stay in a castle. Planning, or lack of it, comes in when you are on the bottom wondering how you are going to get your luggage up to the castle. In this case, it is a long, steep climb up. Better have packed light or stay in a hotel on the bottom. Castles are on hills to make them more easily defended. They wanted them to be hard to get to. I learned my lesson which just disproves the old saying that, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." Sure you can; if the lesson is hard enough.
The Eighth Rule is: PACK LIGHT!!! I put this last because it is the single most important thing you can do. If you have never washed out your underwear in the sink, practice at home. Try to buy polyester garments that dry fast. That includes T-shirts, underwear and socks. Jeans are cotton and dry slowly. If it is summertime, you can put them on when they're still damp, and they will dry while you are walking. If you are traveling in the Spring, Fall, or Winter, you will be able to lay a pair of pants on a radiator. Make sure that the radiator doesn't get too hot. Poly-propylene is excellent because it will pull moisture away from your skin and it dries quickly. One set of poly and light pants is warmer that one pair of heavy pants. Carry a stretched rubber clothes line for drying your clothes. You can usually attach it to the bottom of the upper bunk (unless, of course, you are in the top bunk). Suction cup hooks work pretty well too. Resist the temptation to use "Space bags." While they are wonderful for saving space, the space they save adds weight because it allows you to put more into your pack or suitcase. Someone has to carry that added weight, and if that someone is YOU..., well, just think about it.
Last clever thoughts. Use the toilets in trains, pubs or restaurants before you leave. Public toilets charge for use. Fast food places have free toilets that are cleaned regularly. Keep some small coins in case you have to pay to use a public rest room (common). Carry a small package of tissues with you just in case there is no toilet paper or what there is still has chunks of wood in it (boys and girls).
There is one more tip that will save time, money, and stress level. Use all the resources available to you before and during your trip. Before - Guide books, the internet, travel agents, other people. During - Train information, TI's, concierge services, hostel staffs. The information is available. Read, question, and listen.
That's all I can think of right now. Just one last rule of safety for the solo traveler. As one very savvy woman once told me, "Keep your guard up, your pants up, and your eyes open."
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