27 August 2012

Enough With the Road Less Traveled: Six Ways to Enjoy the Beaten Path On Your Own Terms

Here's a great conversation-killer when you're talking travel: "I like the beaten path."

It's right up there with "I just can't [scratch] get rid of [scratch scratch] these bedbugs" and "For style and function on the road, you really can't beat cargo-pant Zubaz."

But I do like the beaten path. I feel no shame in saying that, even as I brace myself for the ensuing awkward silence.

The thing is--and I'm far from the first to say this, and it's a point I discuss quite a bit in the book--there's a reason people go there, a reason the path is beaten: because there's some cool stuff there. It's just as absurd to avoid a place simply because other people are there (even lots of other people) as it is to go there for the express purpose of following the crowds. And sometimes, yeah, the crowds are too thick, the site not actually all that attractive. Sometimes the tourist-haters are right. But not always. And that's a judgment you really need to make for yourself, on your own terms.

It's not just the "there's cool stuff there" argument that wins me over, though. Because sometimes (hello, Venice) even if a place is beautiful or interesting, the innate touristy-ness of the place--the crowds, the souvenir stands, the fact that you've seen all these sites in movies and friends' postcards--does rather detract from the over all allure.

I also like the beaten path precisely because of the extra effort required to make it feel interesting and new. Even in the midst of crowds, there are some measures you can take to shift the focus.

(And besides which, if you'll forgive one last digression, it's not like the proverbial road less traveled can't lead to its own flavor of misery. I mean, if I learned nothing from the important lessons of all those Hitchcock movies I watched at at far-too-early age, it's that taking one wrong turn will almost always lead to you being either (a) dead or (b) falsely accused of murder and tied up in a sprawling and sinister plot that involves, at minimum, the FBI, organized crime, and a femme fatale whose innate and oh-so-sublime sultriness is rather diminished by that whole fatale part.)
Manneken Pis in Brussels. Discuss.

Anyway. Like so, so many other things in life, travel is what you make of it. And here, based on my own experiences on that well-trod trail, are six ways to enjoy the beaten path on your own terms.

1. People-watch. Just sit on a bench or in a sidewalk cafe and watch the parade of life pass by. I mean, don't be creepy about it--you don't want the friendly local residents to call the cops about the shifty-eyed weirdo, lest you end up needing to reference the "What To Do If You're Tossed In Jail" section of your guidebook. But do just sit and watch. The world's an interesting place. Take it in. To make things more interesting, start keeping tallies of various archetypes: businesspersons traveling in packs; kids on skateboards; art-school hipsters who nonconform in the same way as all their counterparts in every other city on the planet; tourists trying to blend in but failing spectacularly.

2. Chat up the service industry workers. The woman at the gift shop, the server at the gelateria. If they're originally from the place, ask them how it's changed--or just, you know, ask them for their own advice. If they're immigrants--and a ton of service-industry workers are--ask them for their local-but-outsider take on this place. Touristic transactions don't have to be cold and impersonal.

 3. Look for the unfamiliar takes on things that are familiar to you. Because sometimes the sorta-familiar things can seem even more bizarre than the wholly new, because you understand the template but not the end result. Watch a Japanese sitcom, even if you don't speak Japanese, and see if the stock characters and situations hew to your expectations. Listen to the unintelligible trash-talk of Vienna teenagers playing pickup basketball in a park. Go to the local fast-food joint and order the least-familiar item on the menu. Also look around for the remixed versions of the local food or music—the immigrants' take on the traditional local music, or the locals' take on their immigrant neighbors' traditional foods. Look for the caroms of culture, the reinterpretations that create(as I put it in the book) the discreet poetry of the everyday but unexpected.

4. Indulge in the kitsch. Buy a tacky postcard and send it to your best friend. Go to a landmark and take a photo with a ridiculous pose—pretending to wear the Eiffel Tower as a hat, for example. Be silly. No shame. I mean, come on: You're an outsider in an unfamiliar place--that's the stuff of sitcoms right there. Embrace the absurdity of the situation. Have fun with it.

5. Or, be serious. Become a student of history. Nearly every tourist site is famous for a good reason—its innovative design, its astonishing back story. Read every brochure and plaque you can find. Brussels's iconic statue, Manneken Pis, is weird, but he's pretty interesting—and, okay, even weirder still—once you know just how popular he is and why.

6. Get lost. Shut the guidebook, turn off the smartphone, close the map, and wander. Trust in your own instincts and the Goddess Serendipity (and the fact that reality typically does not, in fact, conform to sinister Hitchcock plots). If you see something interesting in the distance or smell an interesting smell, go investigate. Lower your expectations and your understanding of where you are; reintroduce an element of mystery.

21 August 2012

Wants vs. Needs: Guest Post by a 1960s Traveler

One of the unanticipated joys of writing a book about recent history, it turns out, is hearing from people who were active participants in the cultural moment--individuals for whom the now-legendary triumphs and travails and watershed moments are not merely the stuff of books but were once day-to-day reality. 

I've been getting quite a few letters and emails from 1960s travelers like my mother, Grand Tourists from that initial, influential wave of budget travel. Many of the emails come with stories or questions--I used Frommer's book for real; I stayed in the same hotel in Rome; Do you know if this restaurant in Amsterdam is still open? 

I particularly enjoyed the story I received from Ron Dunn, and I'm grateful that he has given me permission to share it here on the blog. 

Athens,  Kolonaki Square, 1895. Via Flickr Creative Commons, photo by Martin Baldwin-Edwards.

Wants vs. Needs
By Ron Dunn

The early March weather of 1967 was pleasantly warm and sunny as I sat down at a table in Athens’ Constitution Square, just across the street from my hotel. My visit was for three days so I had bought enough Drachmas to cover my needs and left my traveler’s checks in my hotel room. A band was playing bouzouki music as I placed an order for a beer from a wandering waiter. This was a dramatic change from the bleak winter I recently left in the Midwest.

When the beer was served and paid for, a girl who was very distractingly dressed sat down beside me and asked, “What airline are you with?” I was surprised at her comment, but, Olympic Airways was offering airline personnel a weekend in Greece for $49.99 and Athens was flooded with airline people. I must have looked the part—and I was. My situation was with Sabena’s 30 days in Europe for $100. I may have looked like a wealthy American—but I was not.

She ordered a drink and continued to talk in fairly good English about the city, then to my disgust, turned to more personal issues. My finances were limited; I wanted to experience as much Europe as I could. Girls are expensive, especially her type. Her cleavage caressed a pearl necklace with each lusty breath—and captured my gaze and attention. In spite of that I showed no interest in her advances; advances that went from verbal to physical. I chased her away with surprising ease and was enjoying the rest of my beer until the waiter firmly demanded payment for her drink—a very expensive drink. When my hand went into my pocket I discovered a stomach churning, stunning, emptiness. She was a professional pick-pocket, and the waiter was part of the scheme. I’m sure he told her where the money was and that there was a lot. The waiter insisted on payment and convincingly threatened me. A brief thought of trying to flee entered my head, but left when he took me by the arm and told me to go to my hotel and cash a check. His thumb ground painfully into my right bicep as we crossed the street and entered the hotel. He made note of my room number as I claimed my key and reminded me that I must return—or else… Return I did, cashed a check and paid him off. He ran out the door and away from the square.

When I cashed another check and explained to the clerk what had happened, he told me to go to the tourist police, which was nearby. The police interrupted my story and told me what happened. The man was not a waiter. He went to a café, bought the beer and set me up with the girl. Their only help was to advise me to beware of the company I keep. Their cavalier attitude was discouraging, but I held no grudge against the Greeks. This could have happened anywhere, even at home.

It was time to recalculate my finances. My library copy of Arthur Frommer’s Europe On Five Dollars A Day listed some very inexpensive hotels in the remaining cities I would visit. None cheap enough to allow me to also eat or drink, my per diem was now down to about three dollars a day. My personal checking account was as empty as a pick-pocket’s victim and my only credit card was with Standard Oil. I could have gone home but the thought never crossed my mind. The Siren’s Song that led to this turn of events would not keep me from Holland, France, Monaco, Italy, Belgium, and Switzerland. There I was, thousands of miles away from home with the only sure source of food coming every three or four days when I changed cities. Every change involved flying back to Brussels and then going to the next destination. That was a little inconvenient, but had nourishing fringe benefits; food and drink was served on each leg.

Creative provisioning became the order of the day. Breakfast really did break a fast every day. Going toward the end of the serving period just as most were leaving allowed me to pick up leftovers to give to my very “best friend,” my tote bag. Hot chocolate was the beverage of choice, it has nourishment. Mountains of jams and jellies covered rolls and bread from crust to crust. Lump sugar was available for coffee—but not after I left. My pockets were filled with the contents of the bowls. It is a bad source of energy, but it helped to keep me going. The inventory of fruit stands was often reduced as I walked by. Flight attendants passed through the cabins with baskets of hard rolls. My “best friend” captured them for later banquets. Sometimes we would deplane through the galley and the horn-of-plenty bread basket provided even more feasting items. Cheese and wine were very cheap, so I bought those from time to time with spare change I could not trade in at a currency exchange.

The hotels I stayed in during the rest of the journey were all family owned and offered little more than shelter, breakfast, and a toilet down the hall. Business and personal travel of later years provided exceptional accommodations on three continents, but none provided the comfort of the old-world lodging of this trip.

Public transportation and the “shoe-leather express” took me to places the average tourist would never see; I was a traveler, not a tourist, especially not an American tourist. The bus line from Nice, France ended at Menton, France, about a mile from the Italian border. A short walk by European standards placed me at the border where I was thoroughly cross-examined by the border guards. They could not understand why an American would walk from one country to another. They were suspicious of my “best friend” and its contents. After a lot of dialog and enough gesturing to create “Italian Elbow Syndrome” they finally let me pass. After several hours I was back at the French border and was subjected to the same treatment. I asked them to check with the Italians, but there had been a shift change and the Italian guards knew nothing about an American on foot. With a reluctant “bon voyage” I was allowed to pass. Years later, I laughed as I saw an I Love Lucy episode that was staged at the same crossing—with similar problems.

The highlight of my trip was to be a week of skiing in the Swiss Alps. Captain Bert Jensen who I knew from a previous Austrian ski trip was in the Regina, a five star hotel in Grindelwald, Switzerland. He was leaving the next day, but made arrangements at his hotel for me to cash a personal check for one-hundred Swiss Francs, about forty dollars, that I hoped would arrive home after I did. He also referred me to a nearby economy hotel of questionable stars.

Frau Moser, the owner of the Bel Aire Eden didn’t want to rent me a room with breakfast only. She preferred to provide half or full pension service and made some comments about cheap Americans. When I told her my story she softened a little and let me in, but I had to pay in advance. Ski rental and lift tickets would put me back to survival living again.

The next morning I noticed Frau Moser watching over her “Inn Mates” like a prison warden watches in-mates. Creative provisioning was out of the question. I listened for my native language and targeted Anthony Atkinson from England. As we talked over breakfast, I discovered he was on limited finances too. One could take only a small amount of money from England at that time. His full pension included a picnic lunch, which was more than he cared for. We struck a deal, I would buy two beers for us, and he would share his lunch.

Tony and I walked into the hotel and the lovely aroma of the evening meal as we returned from each day’s skiing and parted company. He went to a nice dinner; while I suffered a double dose of caloric deprivation. I went to bed with hard rolls (there weren’t any fruit stands in the Alps) and tried to stay warm. Frau Moser was very stingy with her heat. This was the start of a “love affair” with the area that lasted over twenty years. I returned to the Bel Aire Eden for a few years until I had a family and rented a chalet. The half pension service was wonderful, and there was heat when Frau Moser’s son took over.

My month in Europe came to an end in Grindelwald. Three trains, five airplanes, and about forty hours later I arrived in Kansas City. My “best friend” was empty, my stomach was full, there was a dime in my pocket, and I was happy to have a treasure chest of long lasting pleasant memories. Memories that make one understand that what is really important is what one needs—not what one wants. I came to fully appreciate this while sitting on a hotel room balcony on the French Riviera enjoying some airline, by then, very hard rolls, cheese, wine, stolen fruit, and fascinating scenery. Earlier in the day I had stood visually devouring a pizza being made in a storefront Trattoria and felt sorry for myself because I was so poor that I could not go in and enjoy the simple comfort of a good hot meal. The water from my drip-dry shirts was playing a tune on the newspapers I gathered to quell the flood. I took inventory of my situation and felt a wave of delight sweep over me. I had shelter, clean clothing, food, wine, and much more exotic surroundings than Kansas City—I was a very wealthy man.