September 27, 2014

The Dark Side of Travel Romance

shadowWhen it comes to the ways of love and romance, no aphrodisiac is quite so potent as travel. On the road — freed from the dull routines and restrictions of home — you become more open, more daring, more willing to seize the moment. Away from home, the people you meet (be they locals or fellow travelers) seem sexier, more exotic, less repressed — and this makes you feel sexy, exotic, liberated. Freed from your past, happily anonymous, and filled with a sense of possibility, you are never more willing (or able) to fall headlong into a love affair.

The only downside is this: Rekindling things when you get home almost never works. Regardless of how great you and your lover felt in Rio; regardless of how seamlessly the two of you bonded in Paris; regardless of the memories you cherish from Koh Samui, you are risking heartbreak if you try to resume the romance in Hackensack or Burbank or Minnetonka.

I used to wonder why this was the case — why, after sharing intense travel experiences, my relationships with the intriguing women I met in Cuzco or Tel Aviv would sour into a series of uninspired emails, awkward phone calls and (on occasion) anticlimactic reunions. Why would everything change once we’d stopped traveling?

I finally got a clue to the problem several winters ago in Thailand, when I met a Belgian lass I’ll call Katia. Willowy and doe-eyed, with a sexy pout and effortless European grace, Katia would have been out of my league back home — but in the colorful madness of Bangkok, we somehow fell into an easy love affair. Together, we took a train down to Khao Sok National Park in southern Thailand, where we stayed in a tree-house hotel, swam the jungle-rivers, drank Mekhong whiskey, and shared the stories of our lives. After a week, when it came time for Katia to fly back to Brussels, I felt like we had really connected — that our time together had amounted to something special.

Katia must have felt the same way, since — over the course of the next several weeks — she told me how much she missed me, how much she cared for me, and how much our time together had meant to her. When she eventually invited me to join her in Brussels for Christmas, I didn’t hesitate: I bought a plane ticket and flew out as soon as I could.

Once I arrived in Brussels, things fell apart almost immediately. When I tried to put my arm around her as we walked to meet her friends at a bar, Katia curtly warned me not to touch her in front of her friends (“They know I’m not sentimental like that,” she told me). Once in the bar, Katia continually scolded me: for eating too much; for not sitting up straight; for not asking her friends the right kind of questions. For some reason, I’d suddenly become an embarrassment to Katia — an uncultured American fool who couldn’t do anything right.

The disappointment went both ways: Back in Thailand, Katia was laid-back and affectionate, and she’d talked about her passionate calling to design jewelry; in Brussels, I’d quickly discovered that she was a shrill busybody who used her art studio mainly to play computer games. When we visited Belgian museums, Katia sneered at my ignorance of art history; when I read a book on the train to Louven, she scolded me for not looking out at the scenery; when we ate dinner with her parents, she lost her temper when I didn’t pay enough attention to the conversation (which, I reminded her, was mostly in Dutch). In Thailand, Katia had found pleasure in the simplest moments; in Brussels, the only times she seemed remotely satisfied were when we were arguing.

After a week of being trapped in a small Brussels apartment with Katia, I had a realization: despite everything that had happened between us in Thailand, she was still complete stranger to me. I had fallen for Thailand as much as I’d fallen for Katia, and she had done the same. The world we’d experienced together as travelers was, in many ways, a transient fantasy world — and the mountaintop experiences we’d shared in Asia amounted to a sandcastle by the time I’d arrived in Europe.

Indeed, if the anonymity and renewal of travel makes love bloom easier, returning to the noise of your home-life makes road-romance reunions that much harder. Despite all the memories you’ve shared on the road, you can’t pick up the relationship where it left off, because that place is now thousands of miles away.

Last summer, after having not communicated for four years, Katia sent me an email suggesting we meet up and talk. We met — as friends — in Paris, and I felt like I got to know my old Belgian lover for the first time.

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on Apr. 10, 2006. All rights reserved.]

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Category: Europe, Sex and Travel, Vagabonding Advice

September 14, 2014

Finding new perspectives on familiar places

It can be difficult to find new angles through which to view places you already know well. Human nature being what is, it takes a conscious effort to see anything through new eyes. We tend to see only what we’re familiar with, and what strikes our vision on the most surface levels: the old buildings, the people, the streets, the here-and-now bustle that is so easy to get caught up in. But shifting our approach is sometimes needed if we are to really appreciate all the layers and the richness any place has to offer.

As a travel writer I’m always forced to do this, and though it’s challenging, it always rewards me with a much deeper perspective of a city’s beating heart and long-hidden scars.

For example, trying to find a topic in which to write about can suddenly have me thinking thematically. In the case of Amsterdam, I was recently casting about for a theme. The picturesque canals and predictable clichés are worn out. I wanted to go deeper.

Clichés are lame.

Clichés are lame.

Of course, a well-deserved reputation for religious tolerance in previously intolerant times is a strong undercurrent in the city’s history, shaping its character. But everyone knows about the city’s lenient attitude towards marijuana and prostitution. The pot-selling “coffeshops” and the brightly painted brothels of the Red Light District are hard to miss, and at any rate weed and sex are not exactly major taboos anymore. So, in doing this “personality profile”, as I like to view travel writing, I decided to focus on the less well-known, more hidden-in-plain-sight landmarks that quietly but effectively tell the story of Amsterdam’s legacy of tolerance in intolerant times.

The point is, looking around the city for these things forced me to look through fresh eyes. I began to notice things I hadn’t paid much attention to before. Statues and plaques commemorating Amsterdam’s history—normally easy to pass over in the bustling, thoroughly modern city—began to emerge from the background, as if reaching out through the centuries to educate me with a silent power.

Paying attention to these small reminders eventually told a story, a long and rich narrative, of how the city’s philosophy of tolerance became a beacon for many persecuted people seeking a safe refuge from their own country’s intolerance in a way that the pot bars and sex shops could not. Small churches emerged from the urban crush and hordes of camera-toting tourists, inviting me into their quiet, solemn interior just as they’d invited minority sects whose beliefs had marked them out for discrimination. Small Catholic churches in times of Protestant intolerance (and vice versa) thrived here, as did humble little synagogues that operated without interference or malice from the city’s fathers.

Around a corner from a busy street, a small brick building in a quiet courtyard bears a faded plaque indicating that English pilgrims came here to worship before heading to the New World. They prayed here, and then boarded the Mayflower to escape persecution in their home country.  They were made to feel comfortable here.

The remnants of more recent times came to the fore as well. I begin to notice the many houses bearing historical plaques indicating that the occupants courageously sheltered Jewish families during the Second Word War.

Not far away a statue of a portly, none-too-attractive dockworker seems at first glance to be a forgettable, bland post-war tribute to laborers. Look closer and you’ll find an inscription indicating that it memorializes the brave stand of the Amsterdam’s dockworkers, who staged the first strike undertaken in Occupied Europe to protest the mistreatment of the city’s Jews by the Nazis.

Statue commemorating the Strike of 1941

Statue commemorating the Strike of 1941

The strike, held a few days after 400 Jewish men were herded together on the spot where the statue now stands, was brutally put down by the SS within hours, and is remembered by few today. The statue’s rotund subject was a real-life non-Jewish dockworker who participated in the strike because he felt it was the right thing to do.

A small room in the city’s historic Dutch Theatre, once a point of assembly for Jews about to be shipped off to concentration camps, holds a humble memorial of three little stones. The memorial seems unimportant. Search for the true story, however, and you’ll find that the three stones represent a local man named Walter Suskind, his wife and small daughter. Suskind smuggled 1,200 Jewish children to safety during the war. In 1945 his work was discovered by the Nazis and he and his family were themselves sent to Auschwitz, never to return.

Hollandsche Schouwburg (Dutch Theatre)

Hollandsche Schouwburg (Dutch Theatre)

Soon I begin to understand how many centuries’ worth of brave Amsterdammers have risked it all to welcome and aid minorities in dark times, and that courage was common place in the face of tyranny. It underscores the strength of Amsterdam’s heritage of tolerance more than any fashionable pot bar or cheesy sex shop ever could.

My point is, the “what” that you look for isn’t nearly as important as the act of searching for new ways to connect to a city’s unique DNA. The important thing is looking from a thematic perspective, searching for that thread of history that informs its culture. This can provide the prism through which you can see through the here-and-now veneer and access the richness of a city’s historical character, forged in the crucible of time and trial.

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Category: Europe, Notes from the collective travel mind, Travel Writing

August 14, 2014

7 paradises for 7 loves

I have recently decided that wander-lusters come in many varieties- many more than I had thought. You know, we like to find our commonalities so it is comfortable to believe that a traveler is a traveler is a traveler is a traveler. But one man’s treasure is another one’s trash. That is true for the non-material treasures we find out on the road just as it is in “real life” back home with material things.

For instance when my husband and I were conversing about the reasons why we travel, one man said that our travel style would not be his idea of a good time at all, even though he considers himself a traveler too. For him, travel is about photography and natural beauty. And if he can’t take his camera lenses somewhere, then it won’t be as joyful to be there.

The fact is, there are as many types of travelers as there are types of people. There are people who love history and that’s why they travel. And people who love people and that’s why they travel. Or people who love animals and that’s why they travel. It goes on and on.

Of course, most of us who love travel probably have many passions sourcing that love. We love people and adventure and culture and artwork and nature…and that is why we travel.

For that reason, it can be hard to answer that question…”Where was your favorite place to travel to?” One place fuels one passion while another place fuels another.

Thus, I give you my 15 paradises for my 15 different passions.

1.) Zakynthos- paradise for the lover of simplicity.

Zakynthos

 

Zakynthos is just the place to go to feel like the rest of the world’s hustle is out of reach. The towns are small and everything is on “island time.” The day’s itinerary often included “jumping into blue water” and “riding a scooter along the cliffs.”

2.) Amritsar- paradise for the lover of culture.

golden temple

Amritsar is essentially the birthplace of the Sikhs and is home of their most important temple, the Golden Temple. Unlike some religious sights, the Golden Temple is both accommodating to tourists and apathetic of them. I love that. They are purely going about their own religious duties here and while tourists are welcome (as long as they cover their heads and remove their shoes,) there are no disgenuine displays for them.

It’s a place to soak up a genuinely fascinating series of religious practices. Men and women bathe in the waters, there is a kitchen dedicated to serving literally thousands of poor people and visitors, and many of the men have enormous turbans and long swords at their sides, important pieces of the Sikh disciplines.

3.) Vienna, Austria- paradise for the lover of architectural beauty.

rathaus

Anyone who’s been to Prague disagrees with me on this but I have yet to see Prague (hopefully this fall). So until I see Prague, Vienna wins out as my favorite city for architectural beauty. Every building has that gorgeous stature of something built in a time when things were beautiful instead of efficient. The effect is quite romantic. Unfortunately the Rathaus, one of the most impressive buildings in Vienna, is frequently hosting private festivals, parties, events, etc. So you cannot always get very close to it if a special event is going on.

Not to worry though. Every other building is beautiful too.

4.) Queenstown, New Zealand- paradise for the lover of adventure sports.

sheep in new zealand

Queenstown is not only gorgeous but also has at least three different area mountains for skiing, snowboarding, etc. etc, including The Remarkables which are…remarkable! But you aren’t out of luck if you dislike skiing or snowboarding. You can go sky-diving or hang-gliding or hiking. There’s something for everyone.

5.) Switzerland- paradise for the lover of natural beauty.

switzerland

 

Switzerland is full of incredible views at every turn. Just driving to your destination is an activity in and of itself simply for the scenery throughout the Swiss Alps. Unfortunately, it’s heinously expensive.

6.) Bangkok, Thailand- paradise for the lover of delicious, affordable food!

soup with scallops

I love Thai food. Everything from the fried noodle dishes of Pad Thai and Pad See Ew to the soups like Tom Ka Gai and Tom Yum. Thai food is full of the delicious flavors of kefir lime, lemongrass, ginger, coconut milk and other novel things. If you like spicy food go for the Pad Kra Pow (minced chicken in peppers and basil) or if you like the sweeter dishes, go for the Tom Ka Gai, (a coconut based soup with straw mushrooms, pea eggplants and other quintessentially Thai ingredients.)

Bangkok in particular is a good spot for Thai food because you will be able to find Northern Thai dishes as well as Southern Thai dishes. Also Bangkok has lots of street vendors with quality dishes for sometimes even less than a dollar.

7.) Fiji- paradise for the lover of exotic snorkeling.

what was this thing?

Fiji is not only home to some pretty amazing tropical fish, but to some impressive soft corals as well, which contributes greatly to its popularity as a spot for diving and snorkeling. Snorkeling is a beautiful adventure in the Yesawas where there’s no telling what you’ll see in the clear waters. (…anyone know what that thing in the picture is? We could never figure it out!)

 

Next time someone asks you where your “favorite place to travel” is, what will you say? Do you have a favorite place for each of your interests?

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Category: Asia, Europe, Images from the road, Oceania

August 10, 2014

The Value of Time

It’s an increasingly accepted as fact that, as a nation, we have allowed a work culture to develop where taking time off is seen a sign of disloyalty or lack of care, and where extended time off is more of a concept than a reality. It’s also a given that more and more data suggest that the costs of this approach in stress and lack of free time for rest, recreation and family is having a profoundly detrimental effect on our society.

Traveling in Europe always brings the difference between the US and European cultures with regard to work/life balance was illustrated in sharp relief for me. It’s one thing to hear how the Europeans put priority on the “life” side of the balance, and it is another to see it in action. As many know, the Europeans enjoy social benefits such as maternity as well as paternity leave, and up to six weeks of vacation time per year.

Enjoying life.

Enjoying life.

To see the very obvious benefits of that strategic choice for a shorter work year play out in the lives of everyday Europeans illustrates the point. Watching families strolling in the parks, laughing and chatting happily, on a weekday afternoon or visiting with friends over a drink in a café—enjoying the free time their generous benefits affords them—is to reinforce any stressed-out American’s suspicion that we are on the wrong side of the equation.

Of course, there are economic trade-offs along with such benefits. With less time focused on work and more time focused on free time, GDP is affected and taxes are high to support these benefits. Countries with a historically take-it-easy approach to life such as Italy and Spain had no trouble swapping time at work for time with friends, but how do these policies fare in the more traditionally industrious nations of the north? Does this bother many of them?

Not very much, it seems. “Everyone hates taxes of course,” a German told me, “but we willingly make the trade-off because it’s a good bargain. The time is more valuable.” Another said, “We made the conscious choice to arrange the society this way, with the emphasis on maternal and paternal leave and more vacation time. It has many positive benefits. We just do with a little less material things.”

In a surprising finding that bolsters the arguments of proponents for more European-syle work arrangements, a recent analysis from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (link to the study is here) found that workplace productivity doesn’t necessarily increase with hours worked. Workers in Greece clock 2,034 hours a year versus 1,397 in Germany, for example, but the latter’s productivity is 70 percent higher. In other words, there’s not necessarily the direct correlation that our system is predicated on.

“You Americans kill yourselves with antiquated work policies,” says a French acquaintance. “You have two weeks of vacation, if you are very lucky. We are a very prosperous, industrialized economy with a national healthcare service too. We make it all work.”

I knew it begged an inevitable question, and my friend asked it. “So why can’t you?”

That statement and its inevitable question was put to me many times, in many places. It is a question I brought back to the US with me. It stayed in my mind as my flight arced across the Atlantic and over the North American continent, remaining as an important souvenir. The issue was never about lingering in cafés or visiting the Alps, but rather the stuff of a good life: choices, time and freedom to make of it what we will. Would you be happier and more productive if you had more of these? What will it take for us as a society to finally demand it?

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Category: Destinations, Europe, Images from the road, Languages and Culture, Notes from the collective travel mind, On The Road, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Case Studies, Vagabonding Life

July 13, 2014

Lessons from a tour guide, part I

This week I returned from a month and a half overseas working as a tour guide, helping to lead two different groups on an epic Best-of-Europe grand tour. The experience was a new one for me; after years of exploring the continent’s cobbled backstreets and ancient cities as a solo travel writer, I found myself with the unique opportunity of being a guide for one of America’s most well-respected touring companies.

plane image for blog

A couple of concerns dogged me as I flew over the Arctic Circle, the plane making its slow path from my home base of Seattle to the tour departure point of Amsterdam. Questions like, how would I be able to handle a large group as we steam across the continent day in and day out? And, how will the mechanics of moving groups from one site to the other in an efficient way work? But these concerns paled next to the most significant challenge: Helping the scores of American travelers connect to the history and culture of the places they came so far to experience.

Staring out my window at the endless expanse of the north Atlantic, I began to feel the weight of the responsibility settle into my gut. How do I curate this experience for our flock? I’d always done it for myself just fine; teaching others how to appreciate the richness of Europe was something I’d never needed to do beyond my writing. It was easy enough to crank out articles about the places I’d visited and about the treasures—the food, the history, the people, all the things that make up the culture—those places had to offer. Would I be able to help our travelers connect to them and appreciate them in the same way that I did?

A final goodbye to the group near the Eiffel Tower at dusk.

A final goodbye to the group near the Eiffel Tower at dusk.

The teaching I’d done before—giving free travel talks at public libraries to would-be travelers who were interested in learning how to create their own independent European adventure—was indispensable. The classes I’d taught had given me a sense of what tickled a traveler’s fancy and what common-sense issues they worried about. This gave me the advantage of being able to anticipate questions and concerns, sometime before the group members even knew they had them.

The true challenge was facilitating the tour member’s experience of the culture. It was in trying to cast new food experiences as a part of good travel, as “sightseeing for your palate”. It was in helping them fend off museum overload by urging them to see the art of the Louvre and the Accademia with their hearts rather than their mind. It was in not rushing through another “check the box” locale (don’t rush through St. Mark’s square, I counseled, just take your time and find your own way to relate to the space). And it was in fending off cathedral overload by teaching that architecture was art we walk through—art that took generations of devoted believers and craftsman to create—rather than just another drafty old building.

Helping the group appreciate the elegant, historic decay of Venice is a challenge when the city is crowded and hot.

venice 1

Finally I kept the old teacher’s maxim close to my heart: “The task of the teacher is to honor the integrity of fact while at the same time igniting the student’s imagination.”

Over the course of the following weeks I’d work on striking that balance, always trying to bring long-ago stories and long-dead people to Technicolor life. Success for the tour guide also means the tourists returning home knowing that the struggles, the tragedies and triumphs of those who inhabited the majestic castles and cobbled city streets so long ago set the stage for the world as we know it today.

The trick to achieving that was helping them forge an emotional connection to the events a given site had witnessed; that its history was not just a collection of faceless dates and facts, but human beings with hopes and dreams who lived in similarly dramatic times of war, economic uncertainty and dramatic social change. Those folks tried to make the best of it, and somehow got through it. We can too. But more than just the appreciation of history, it’s the appreciation of the culture that really informs a successful travel experience. My hope is that the tour members came away with a renewed perspective on how Europe’s endlessly varied tapestry of cultures, while wonderfully diverse, are similar to our own in the most fundamentally human ways.

If you ever find yourself in the trying but satisfying role as tour guide, I think you’ll find that those lessons are your tour members’ best souvenirs.

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Category: Europe, Languages and Culture, Notes from the collective travel mind, On The Road, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Case Studies, Vagabonding Life

June 22, 2014

Roadtrip: Czech Republic to Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, and back

I recently had the experience to travel by car from Czech Republic to Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, and back. I was in the company of my fiance and his mother, the latter speaking only Czech, while I speak almost only English. Our situation had an interesting dynamic, but we had a lovely week camping, walking around cities, passing time in the car, and trying out local food. Unfortunately the weather was colder and rainier that we had hoped for, and camping in thunderstorms and snow was quite an unexpected adventure.

We started in Prague, and headed south to Austria. We didn’t have much of a plan, just a week to spare for traveling, and our first night we wound up camping on the side of the road. We cooked a small meal and went to bed somewhat early to get a quick start the next day.

We stopped briefly in Mariazell, Austria, but other than that we were in a rush to get to Slovenia. We found a campsite in near Lake Bled that was really really nice. They had showers, a pub/restaurant, free wifi, and the grounds were well kept and clean. A few miles walk through the woods and along the road would lead you to Lake Bled. The weather was perfect.

Lake Bled was probably one of the most picturesque places I’ve been. There are swans, castles, a thick forest, and the sunset over the lake was perfect. The campsite near by was fun, but I can imagine that staying in a hotel right on the lake would be a very nice experience as well.

After a couple of days in Slovenia, we headed to Croatia. Our first stop was at the waterfalls in Plitvice. The entrance fee was around $30, but the views were worth it. We only had a couple of hours because we got there later in the day, but again, worth it. We camped in Plitvice for the night, where it stormed non-stop.
(more…)

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Category: Europe, General

June 7, 2014

Slumming the Golden Arches

Golden Arches, Barstow Station

Image credit

This month marks the beginning of student-travel season in Europe, which means that — at any given moment — continental McDonald’s restaurants will be filled with scores of American undergraduates. Quiz these young travelers, and they’ll give you a wide range of reasons for seeking out McDonald’s — the clean restrooms, the air conditioning, the fact that it’s the only place open during festivals or siesta. A few oddballs will even claim they are there for the food.

European onlookers will tell you (with a slight sneer) that these itinerant Yanks are simply seeking the dull, familiar comforts American culture. And this explanation might be devastatingly conclusive were it not for the fact that European McDonalds also happen to be crammed this time of year with travelers from Japan, Brazil, Israel, New Zealand, Argentina, Korea, Canada, India, Taiwan, Australia, Mexico, South Africa, and — yes — neighboring European countries.

Indeed, despite its vaunted reputation as a juggernaut of American culture, McDonald’s has come to function as an ecumenical refuge for travelers of all stripes. This is not because McDonalds creates an American sense of place and culture, but because it creates a smoothly standardized absence of place and culture — a neutral environment that allows travelers to take a time-out from the din of their real surroundings. This phenomenon is roundly international: I’ve witnessed Japanese taking this psychic breather in the McDonalds of Santiago de Chile; Chileans seeking refuge in the McDonalds of Venice; and Italians lolling blissfully in the McDonalds of Tokyo.

Before I traveled overseas, I never knew McDonald’s could serve as a postmodern sanctum, and — save the occasional Taco Bell burrito — I rarely ate fast food. This all changed when I moved to Pusan, South Korea ten years ago to teach English. Overwhelmed by the onslaught of new sights, sounds and smells my first week in-country, I retreated to a McDonald’s near my school, where I was able to stretch a Big Mac Meal into three hours of Zen-like oblivion. The appeal of this environment came not from the telltale icons of franchise culture (which I’d always found annoying), but in the simple opportunity to put the over-stimulation of urban Korea on pause. Once I ended my Pusan stint and started traveling across Asia, I retained this habit of occasionally seeking out McDonalds during times of mental exhaustion.

I’ll readily admit here that, within certain hipster circles of indie travel, announcing that you patronize McDonalds is kind of like confessing that you wet your bed or eat your boogers. For many politically minded travelers, McDonald’s is less an eating establishment than it is a broader symbol of cultural degradation and corporate soulnessness. In fact, fast-food franchises have been the target of so much protectionist, environmentalist, and anarchist ire that firebombing a McDonald’s has become a globally standardized symbol of protest — a McDonaldization of dissent, if you will.

(Interestingly, Marlboros are sold worldwide — and American cigarette brands are just as unhealthy and aggressively marketed as American fast food — but for some reason there is not a similar activist reaction. Perhaps this is because there are no Marlboro outlet stores to firebomb — but I suspect it also has to do with subliminal, adolescent-style favoritism. The Marlboro Man is, after all, a handsome tough-guy, whereas Ronald McDonald is a makeup-and-jumpsuit-wearing dork.)

Political gestures aside, I’d wager that the contempt sophisticated travelers hold for McDonald’s has less to do with ethical principle than the fact that fast-food franchises ruin the fantasies of otherness that are an inherent part of travel. To be sure, the aesthetic enjoyment of the Taj Mahal or the Jardin des Tuileries can often feel compromised when the Golden Arches are just a few blocks away.

Look closely, however, and you’ll discover that (despite their placeless ambience) the McDonalds in far-flung places are culturally discernible from the McDonalds you’ll find in Modesto or Milwaukee. In India, for example, a McDonald’s serves chicken “Maharaja Macs” instead of Big Macs (due to Hindu and Muslim taboos against beef and pork), and a door-greeter is often available to assist the middle-class clientele. Moreover, as any Pulp Fiction fan will note, Paris McDonalds offer the option of ordering a frothy beer with le Big Mac.

At times, an international McDonald’s franchise can serve as a kind of measuring stick for cultural nuance. In China, where familial identity is a core virtue (and where a sexually ambiguous bachelor-clown mascot might seem a little weird), Ronald McDonald is known as Uncle McDonald, and he has a wife, Aunt McDonald. In parts of Bangkok, where the laid-back Thai concept of sanuk (lightheartedness) threatens fast-food efficiency, McDonald’s staff members use James Bond-style digital countdown clocks to ensure the food arrives in a timely manner. In Cairo, I witnessed young, middle-class Muslim couples going on chaperoned first-dates in a McDonald’s; in Tel Aviv, the teenage staff got so flustered when I ordered non-kosher cheese on my Big Mac that they forgot to add the beef patties.

Just as fascinating as these local variations of American fast food are the local food chains that copy the McDonald’s model. In Jeddah, for instance, you can join Saudis for a round of halal chicken-burgers at Al Baik; in Tokyo, you can compare the teriyaki burgers at McDonald’s to those served at the Japanese Lotteria chain; at Jollibee in the Philippines (which has exported its franchises to the United States), you can sample chicken, burgers, or a startlingly sweet variation of spaghetti.

Ideally, of course, fast food should play a decidedly minor role in any international sojourn. Still, it can be interesting to learn how the simplest experiences overseas can affect the way you see things when you come home. I recall how, after returning from my first year in Korea, the understated calm of a Great Plains Christmas left me with a severe case of reverse culture shock.

My solution? I headed over to the west 13th Street McDonald’s in Wichita, where my sense of place melted away the moment I walked through the front door. Indeed, as I ate that Kansas Big Mac Meal, I may have as well have been back in Asia.

Tip sheet: A few pointers regarding travel and fast-food
1) Street food is the true fast food.

Remember that fast food didn’t originate with Ray Kroc: Street vendors, who cook local delicacies right in front of you, mastered the art centuries ago. Any city or region you visit will have plenty of street-food specialties: samosas in Mumbai, roasted sweet-potatoes in Quito, crepes in Paris, kosher-dogs in New York, sheep’s-brain-and-falafel sandwiches in Damascus, mandu dumplings in Seoul. And fresh squeezed juice from a guy pushing a cart always trumps a Super-Sized Coke.

2) Save franchise food as a last resort.

Visiting a McDonald’s to temporarily escape the urban hubbub of Kiev or Curitiba or Kuala Lumpur is perfectly normal — but eating there every day is silly and escapist. Granted, travel can be taxing and disorienting, but overcoming these challenges make a journey invigorating. One visit to a Burger King or KFC per week on the road is plenty; any more is a cross-cultural copout.

3) McDonald’s (and other fast food) is easy to avoid.

Irritated by the fact that you can spot the Golden Arches from the Acropolis, Tiananmen Square, or Copacabana Beach? Not to worry: McDonald’s doesn’t make Greece any less Greek, China any less Chinese, or Brazil any less Brazilian. Just hike a block in any direction, and it will be easy to find authentic local food (and the farther you get from the tourist attractions, the cheaper that food will get).

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on June 5, 2006. All rights reserved.]

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Category: Backpacking, Europe, Food and Drink, Travel Health, Vagabonding Advice

May 18, 2014

Introducing travelers to Europe’s riches

This summer I’ll be spending several weeks helping to guide travelers through Europe’s best sights. A dream job to be sure, but the stakes are high; the task of introducing people to the richness of Europe can be a heavy burden. Being in charge of a group’s travel safety and general exposure to the rich cultural treasures of any place is a daunting responsibility.

Tuscan countryside

Tuscan countryside

Curating a group’s travel experience is not for the faint of heart. The question is always how best to introduce people to the buzzing urban intensity of Rome, the humid, decadent decay of Venice and the vertigo-inducing heights of the chilly Swiss Alps. One person’s death march through the hot, crowded streets of Florence is another’s carnival of once-in-a-lifetime Renaissance sights. On the other hand, consider that same tour member’s restless boredom in an ancient half-timbered German hamlet. It’s another’s perfect medieval village vacation under the shadow of a ruined castle looming in the hills above.

Venice

Venice

The main task of any good tour guide is, of course, to help people connect to the history, the people and the culture of the place they’ve come so far to see. And different people connect to the culture in different ways. Some come for the food, while others could care less about the cuisine scene. Some just want to take in the sights, while still others need every historical detail you can offer them. One tour member’s Michelangelo is another’s gelato; it’s not right or wrong. It’s just different, because people are different.

Swiss Alps

Swiss Alps

A good guide can gently expose a conservative American mom to the permissive hedonism of canal-laced Amsterdam, and inspire her to think about the Dutch culture’s success in keeping drug abuse and teen pregnancy to record lows compared to our nation’s sad stats. Or bring the history of an otherwise lifeless site to life through a well-rendered story detailing the intense human drama it witnessed. The same guide can introduce the tired, indifferent sightseer to the majesty of the Louvre and the Uffizi Gallery, and walk out with a convert to the flashy, fleshy vividness of Renaissance humanist art.

paris

So the tour guide’s other main challenge, then, is to help one connect to the place in their own way, on their terms. In other words, help them find what they’re looking for—and sometimes what they didn’t know they were looking for. Some come for enlightenment and some come for a good time. There is no reason they can’t leave with both, their bag filled with insights and fun memories that will last a lifetime.

 

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Category: Europe, Notes from the collective travel mind, On The Road, Working Abroad

April 16, 2014

Vagabonding field report: London,UK

Cost/day: ~$40 USD (we had free lodging)

What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?

I don’t know that I would say anything was particularly strange, but London has a lot of quirkiness, especially when it comes to street art. The East End is likely the most notable area for street art, and you’ll find examples all over the place. In terms of art installations, anyone is pretty much welcome to add to the collection, so you’ll find art of all kinds adorning buildings and signs, from the small to the gargantuan.

East End street artHuge street art
Some of the older buildings have been declared as heritage sites, so their facade has to remain intact. You’ll also find many buildings with the windows bricked over. This is because at one time they used to tax people according to how many windows they had. So some people simply bricked them over to pay less tax.

This is the front of someone's apartment. It's a heritage site, so they can't change the exterior.

This is the front of someone’s apartment. It’s a heritage site, so they can’t change the exterior.

Window tax evasion

Describe a typical day:

As is often the case, London is best explored on foot or bicycle. There is an extremely robust (and expensive) transportation system. We usually would take the tube (the underground metro) to a spot and walk around from there. Once you’re in central London or a large neighborhood (like the East End), it’s really quite easy to see a lot of things by walking around.

In fact, you can see most of the major iconic landmarks without wearing holes in your shoes. Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, 10 Downing Street, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, the Tower Bridge, and the London Bridge are all within reasonable distances of each other.

London from the London Eye

Describe an interesting conversation you had with a local:

We didn’t really have that many chats with people. Most of our experience was asking people for directions. For being in quite a large city, I was surprised at how friendly Londoners were, and they were always seemingly happy to help. We did do a rather wonderful food tour, however, which was run by a local. We learned a lot about local history and culture as well as some of the historical buildings in the area. We even stood near the site where Jack the Ripper’s first victim was found. Quirky is a big theme here.

In that tour we learned why proper English tea is black. They used to drink only green tea, but people started just adding colors to it to make more money. The dyes were making people sick, so they switched from green to black tea, and it’s been that way ever since.

What do you like about where you are? Dislike?

I loved London’s quirky side, but the history was a big winner for me. Almost everywhere you turn is a building or site that has some historical renown. It was quite impressive to walk among buildings dating back hundreds of years and see them still in use. For example, the huge Victoria Tower is actually now an archive for Parliament.

London has so much to see and experience, and I also loved the rather plentiful ethnic diversity.

London's Chinatown

Describe a challenge you faced:

The biggest challenge was financial. If your bank account uses the US dollar, you’re at a major economic disadvantage in the UK. We were lucky that we had a friend who lives in London and was on holiday, so we were able to stay in their flat at no charge. Otherwise, I doubt we could’ve afforded to stay a week in the city. There are definitely ways to make a visit cheaper, but it’s still a hit on the wallet.

What new lesson did you learn?

I can’t say it’s totally new, but I learned that it really is valuable to see a city for yourself and not just rely on the experiences of others. London had never really been high on my list of places to see. In fact, I had absolutely no plans on visiting it, but my son was eager to see the Tower of London and ride the London Eye. Since were flying into London on our way to a house sit in North Yorkshire, I figured why not stop. I’m so glad we did because London ended up being one of my favorite cities.

The Thames

Where next?

Brasov, Romania

You can follow along or learn more about our adventures on our blog and by connecting with us via Facebook.

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Category: Destinations, Europe

April 13, 2014

An Introduction to the Budapest Bath Experience at Széchenyi

Finding yourself tired and achy after a long day’s sightseeing in Budapest? That can be easily fixed by indulging in one of the city’s great experiences—a long soak in the healing waters that residents and visitors have been availing themselves of since Ottoman times. Blessed by its location—it sits above numerous natural springs spouting warm water fortified with minerals—the Hungarian capital offers visitors some of the world’s great public bath experiences.

Szechenyi Thermal Baths, Budapest

Szechenyi Thermal Baths, Budapest

With over fifty baths, spas and public pools, Budapest wisely takes full advantage of the waters burbling up from its sediment. The experience of the spa/bath has become a way of life in this city, and integral part of its social fabric. Some baths date to the sixteenth century when the Ottomans first indulged in the bath craze, and others date from the early twentieth century. It is not unusual for a Hungarian physician to prescribe a visit to the baths, such is the strength of Hungarians’ belief in the restorative powers of the experience.

szechenyi_baths 3

There are dozens of great thermal baths to choose from, but for the first-time visitor the popular Széchenyi offers a fine look into a top-notch Budapest bath experience. Housed in a grand old yellow building situated in the City Park, the enormous complex with the Baroque copper dome looks like every bit the grand nineteenth-century retreat it is; a recent renovation has given the historic building a fresh coat of gleam.

The brainchild of a Budapest mining engineer, Széchenyi was the first thermal bath on the Pest side of the city, with records showing that an artisanal bath existed on the spot by 1881. By 2014 a full panoply of options existed, including an outpatient physiotherapy department.

Upon entering, you’ll choose the options you want (children under 2 are free and there is a special student discount), rent your towel, and hit the locker room to change. If you get lost in the complex or just plain overwhelmed by the choices, attendants in white will try their best to assist, though many do not speak English. This being Europe, there are some swimsuit-optional areas, but the American visitor will be happy to know that most patrons are covered—minimally, by severely strained Speedos—but still covered.

szechenyi_baths 4

Settling into the hundred-degree water, stress tends to melt away like an ice cube under a blazing summer sun. There is nothing to do but watch the other visitors, a great European pastime. An observant guest will find a feast of people-watching opportunities such as blissed-out regulars playing chess in their Speedos and local big shots discussing weighty political matters while struggling to stay awake in the relaxing water, their eyelids heavy as steam swirls around them. Don’t worry; you almost certainly be the only tourist there.

There are older, more historic spas and thermal baths in town (some of the Ottoman-era spas) and swankier spas (the Gellert Baths are justifiably popular) but for a locally-loved and affordable introduction to Budapest’s water wonders, spending a lazy afternoon relaxing under Széchenyi’s glimmering domes is a great way to start.

For a trove of information on spas and bath experiences around the world, visit http://findmesauna.com/ run by spa connoisseur and world traveler Sandra Hunacker.

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Category: Destinations, Europe, Images from the road, On The Road, Travel Health
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