December 14, 2014

Traditional Christmas in Europe

Of the many things Europe does well, it’s the continent’s magnificent Christmas festivities that can charm this cynical traveler every time. From Scotland to Switzerland an extraordinary spirit of festivity, connecting this generations to others long since passed, can be felt in the wintertime air. The traditions of the season are still strong in this thoroughly modern part of the world, where bustling Christmas markets fill the main square of big cities and bucolic, half-timbered villages alike. In the cathedrals, choirs singing the great medieval Christmas hymns fill the cavernous spaces with angelic harmonies, their melodies carried to the rafters on frosty puffs of breath.

One of the most interesting aspects of Europe is the subtle variations to each country’s celebratory traditions. I find them fascinating. Here’s a sampling of those variations from three different cultures: The German, French and English traditions.

Germany, despite being a progressive powerhouse not known for sentimentality, is actually one of the most magical places to experience the season. Old traditions die hard and Germany reaches far into its medieval past to embrace and celebrate the season. From the Bavaria to the Baltic, from the Black Forrest to Berlin, its people break out the gingerbread recipes, the carols, and the colors of the season.

Christmas in Munich

Christmas in Munich

Performances of the Nutcracker are to be found in theatres across the country, while well-built manger scenes adorn the cobbled public spaces of both the Catholic South and Protestant North.

Sprawling Christkindle Markets fill the squares of communities across the country, bursting with music and food and seasonal décor. Traditional favorites such as gingerbread and sweet prune-and-fig candies are served at stalls under a kaleidoscope of Christmas colors. It’s not unusual for a small chorus to be serenading bundled-up shoppers and sightseers with classic Germanic carols.

But the singing of carols is especially beloved and ingrained in the Christmastime traditions of England. In fact, they’ve been a staple of the holiday in England since at least the sixteenth century, as many of the country’s Christmas traditions are. The great cathedrals of Salisbury, Westminster, etc. hold spellbinding choral events by candlelight and colorful outdoor Christmas markets buzz with activity.

Do you like your Christmas tree? Thank England, where the tradition of the Christmas tree originated. The custom originated when pagan-era Druids decorated their places of worship with evergreen trees in the dead of winter, which to them represented life that could not be extinguished despite the cold and the dark. The later Christians appreciated this symbolism, as it reminded them of Christ’s promise of eternal life, and adopted the custom.

The holiday dishes are of course a pivotal aspect of any celebration, and the diversity in food served on the big day is one of the widely most varying customs of Europe’s Christmas celebration. In England the regulars like turkey and veggies are served, but desert is the real treat: The all-important Christmas pudding, a fruity desert usually made with figs and brandy, and mincemeat pies, both fixtures since the sixteenth century.

Another particularly English tradition also includes the wearing of a colorful paper crown—everyone is a king or queen at Christmas. Needless to say there is tea involved on this wintry day as well, often at 6pm on Christmas to warm the soul.

France revels in its ancient cultural traditions as it celebrates the Noel with that classically French combination of style and joy. Gift giving is less emphasized than gathering and celebrating simple rituals with family and friends—and sharing a fine meal with good wine, of course.

Paris, the City of Light, celebrates in a less ostentatious way than big US cities, but its neighborhoods often host popular Christmas markets that are as festive as any.

Notre Dame at Christmas

Notre Dame at Christmas

In the countryside, where the culture of any people really resides and thrives, the traditions are stronger and richer. The warm tones of local choirs singing medieval carols can be heard emanating from candle-lit, thirteenth-century churches. Many families will attend the midnight Mass and return home to enjoy le réveillon, or the “wake-up!” meal.

And that meal is fantastic. Being France, the food is an integral part of the celebration—in fact it’s the culinary high point of the year for many. Delicacies like foie gras, oysters and escargots are popular aperitifs, while the entrée tends to be more straight-forward dishes like goose (popular in Alsace) and turkey (more popular in Burgundy). Meat (including ham and duck) is paired with a good red wine and served with the ever-popular chestnut stuffing, a French favorite for generations. Chubby truffles are another beloved feature of most dinners.

While the use of the actual Yule log has diminished somewhat, the French make a traditional Yule log-shaped cake called the buche de Noel. It’s a sugary delight of chocolate and chestnuts.

After the Mass and le réveillon, the children put their shoes in front of the fireplace hoping that Pere Noel (Father Christmas) will fill them with candy, nuts, fruit and gifts. As the kids drift off to sleep, the adults sit up late, hang goodies from the tree and polish off the Yule log. Before they turn in for the night, a softly burning candle is are left on the table in case the Virgin Mary passes by, a long-standing custom of this Catholic country.

 

 

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

December 6, 2014

In the Hall of the Baby Jesuses

SUMMER 07 PARIS PRAGUE 139The first time I was in Paris, I went to the Louvre and — like a million other tourists before me — headed straight for the Mona Lisa.

Since the famous French museum houses one of the most extensive art collections in the world, I’ll admit that making a beeline for a painting I’d already seen on countless refrigerator magnets and coffee mugs was a wholly unimaginative act. In tourist terms, hurrying through hallways of miscellaneous masterpieces to seek out the Mona Lisa was kind of like picking one harried celebrity from a crowd of a thousand interesting people and bugging her with questions I could have answered by reading a gossip magazine.

Apparently aware of this compulsion for artistic celebrity-worship, Louvre officials had plastered the gallery walls with signs directing impatient tourists to the Mona Lisa, and I soon fell into step with crowds of Japanese, European and North American tourists eager for a glimpse of Da Vinci’s famous portrait.

Anyone who’s been to the Louvre, of course, will know that I was setting myself up for an anticlimax. The Mona Lisa was there all right — looking exactly like she was supposed to look — yet this was somehow disappointing. Standing there, staring at her familiar, coy smile, it occurred to me that I had no good reason why I wanted to see her so badly in the first place.

Moreover, once I’d left the Mona Lisa gallery and moved on to other parts of the Louvre, I discovered just how ignorant I was in the ways of art history. Surrounded by thousands of vaguely familiar-looking paintings and sculptures, I realized I had no clue as to how I could meaningfully approach the rest of the museum.

Fortunately, before I could fall into touristic despair, I was saved by the Baby Jesus.

I don’t mean to imply here that I had some sort of spiritual epiphany in the Louvre. Rather, having noted the strange abundance of Madonna-and-Child paintings in the museum’s halls, I resolved to explore the Louvre by seeking out every Baby Jesus in the building.

Silly as this may sound, it was actually a fascinating way to ponder the idiosyncrasies of world-class art. Each Baby Jesus in the Louvre, it seemed, had his own, distinct preoccupations and personality. Botticelli’s Baby Jesus, for example, looked like he was about to vomit after having eaten most of an apple; Giovanni Bolfraffio’s Baby Jesus looked stoned. Ambrosius Benson’s Baby Jesus resembled his mother — girlish with crimped hair and a fistful of grapes — while Barend van Orley’s chubby Baby Jesus looked like a miniature version of NFL analyst John Madden. Francesco Gessi’s pale, goth-like Baby Jesus was passed out in Mary’s lap, looking haggard and middle-aged; Barnaba da Modena’s balding, doe-eyed Baby Jesus was nonchalantly shoving Mary’s teat into his mouth. Lorenzo di Credi’s Baby Jesus had jowls, his hair in a Mohawk as he gave a blessing to Saint Julien; Mariotto Albertinelli’s Baby Jesus coolly flashed a peace sign at Saint Jerome.

Moving through galleries full of European art, these Baby Jesuses hinted at the diversity of human experience behind their creation, and ultimately redeemed my trip to the Louvre. What had initially been a huge and daunting museum was now a place of light-hearted fascination.

I’m sure I’m not the first person who lapsed into fancy when faced with a museum full of human erudition and accomplishment. To this day, I’m still never quite sure what I’m supposed to do, exactly, when I visit museums. Sure, there’s much to be learned in these cultural trophy-cases, and visiting them is a time-honored travel activity — but I often find them lacking in charm and surprise and discovery. For me, an afternoon spent eyeing pretty girls in the Jardin des Tuileries has always carried as much or more promise than squinting at baroque maidens in a place like the Louvre.

Part of the problem, I think, is that museums are becoming harder to appreciate in an age of competing information. Back in the early 19th century, when many of the world’s classic museums were founded, exhibiting relics, fossils and artwork was a way for urban populations to make sense of the world and celebrate the accomplishments of renaissance and exploration. Now that these items of beauty and genius can readily be accessed in digital form, however (where they compete for screen-time with special-interest porn and YouTube parodies), their power can be diluted by the time we see them in display cases and on gallery walls.

In this way, museums are emblematic of the travel experience in general. In 1964, media critic Marshall McLuhan wrote that, within an information society, “the world itself becomes a sort of museum of objects that have already been encountered in some other medium.” More than forty years later, that “museum of objects” has been catalogued in ways that even McLuhan could never have imagined — this means that seeing Baby Jesuses where you had expected Mona Lisas might well be a worthwhile strategy outside of museums as well.

In the purely metaphorical sense, of course.

Tip sheet: How to get the most out of museums on the road.
1) Know how to approach big museums.

Having just confessed to my own bemusement in the presence big museums, I do have a few suggestions. Many national museums are so extensive that it’s impossible to experience them meaningfully in a single visit. Thus, study up a little before you go, and isolate yourself to one wing or hall of the museum. Make yourself an expert-in-training on, say, one period of Chinese history, or one phase of Dutch art. Don’t just watch the exhibits; watch how people react to them. Be an extrovert, and engage your fellow museum patrons on the meanings and significance of the displays.

If studying up beforehand seems too deliberate for your tastes, approach a big museum as if it were a highlight-reel of history or culture. Walk through the museum slowly and steadily, front to back, noting what grabs your attention. After the initial walk-though, go back to the area that interested you the most and spend some time there. Take notes, and read up on your new discoveries when you get home.

2) Make the most of small museums.

Small community museums can be found in all corners of the world, and they offer a fascinating example of how local people balance the relationship between themselves and the rest of the world. Because their exhibits are humble and anonymous compared to the likes of the Louvre, there is no set of expectations, and no tyranny declaring that you must favor one relic or piece of art over another. Much of the time, this better enables you to see things for what they are (instead of what they are supposed to represent). The secret to exploring these small museums is their curators (and their regulars), who are invariably knowledgeable and a tad eccentric. Take an interest and ask lots of questions, because these local experts will have plenty to share.

3) Let the world be your museum.

If the world itself has become a museum of objects, treat it with the same attention and curiosity you would a formal gallery. As tourist scholar Lucy L. Lippard has noted, a shopping mall, a thrift store, or even a junkyard can be as revelatory in a faraway place as a gallery full of relics. Similarly, daily life in a given neighborhood off the tourist trail is just as likely to reveal the nuances of a given culture as is an official exhibit. Wherever you go as you travel, allow yourself to wander, ponder, and ask questions. Odds are, you’ll come home with a deeper appreciation of a place than if you were just breezing from one tourist attraction to another.

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on Nov. 6, 2006. All rights reserved.]

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Category: Europe, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Advice

November 27, 2014

Don’t sacrifice the experience for the story

I find myself, more often than not, looking at travel experiences through a writer’s lens. Every meal, every trek, every chance meeting has the potential to be material for a travel piece. On boat rides, I think about phrasing. On long bus rides, I scroll through pictures, looking for the right one to go with the idea in my head. In cars, I pass the time by writing down thoughts that pop into my head as potential pieces.

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I want to share. I want others to know what this traveling life looks like- beautiful, challenging, freeing, and difficult.

So, I plot and plan and jot down ideas. I get excited when a new experience brings up images of perfectly worded paragraphs on a screen. When I snap just the right picture, I rejoice! It’s lovely when the ideas and the words come easily.

 

But sometimes they don’t.

Sometimes I feel as though I have reached the absolute corners of my mind and I have nothing left to write about.  Nothing of value or interest. My world starts to look quite average and I wonder who could possibly care about my excitement over finding vegetarian food in Central America.

Those are the days I most need to stop writing. Those are the days I need to get back to enjoying each moment for what it is and not worry about how I will weave it into a well-crafted article. Perfect adjectives to describe the moments take a back seat to actually experiencing the moments, as they should.

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It is nice to share tales from the road. Connecting with like-minded people through the written word is wonderful. But without a connection to and enjoyment of the actual moments that are behind those stories, it’s just empty talk.

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Sometimes we need to put down the pen, the computer, the camera and focus on being present.

There is no test at the end of our journey. No judgement on whether we wrote enough words or took the right pictures. There is just our own perception of what we have experienced. We need to be present for those experiences.

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How do you make sure you are engaged in the experience while on the road? Do you ever get the urge to put the pen and the camera down and get reconnected with the experience of living?

 

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Category: General, Travel Writing

November 16, 2014

Veterans Day and Historic Military Sites

Veterans’ Day in the US and the UK is replete with ceremonies (concerts and parades in the US, red poppies in the UK) to commemorate those who served their country in uniform. Aside from a great opportunity to thank those that fought in foreign lands, it’s a great opportunity to remember some of the historic sites that can give testament to the events they witnessed.

While some sites are now little more than quiet fields that have been reclaimed by nature, many places can still pack an educational punch that leaves the visitor still give the visitor a sense of the enormity and ruthlessness of war.

Here are a couple of my recent favorites:

Duxford Airbase and Imperial War Museum, Duxford, England

Revered as a major Royal Air Force (RAF) base during the legendary “Battle of Britain”, RAF Duxford also boasts an Imperial War Museum. With more than 200 historic aircraft ranging from rickety World War I biplanes to the B-17 Flying Fortress to the SR-71 Blackbird, the collection is arguably the finest in Europe. Also on display is part of the Imperial War Museum’s vast trove of historic photographs, uniforms and documents.

RAF Duxford exhibits

RAF Duxford exhibits

RAF Duxford, situated in bucolic countryside outside Cambridge, was founded during World War I but earned its place in history during the darkest days of World War II. In preparation for his planned invasion of Britain, Hitler launched the full might of the Luftwaffe at England’s factories and cities in 1940.

The bombs killed indiscriminately. His aim was as psychological as it was practical; he sought to terrorize the population and break Britain’s will to fight. It fell to the undermanned RAF to defend the homeland.

As the sector station for Fighter Command’s No. 12 Group, Duxford Air Base was in the thick of the battle. Casualties were immense. The pilots who fought in the Battle were enshrined in lore as “The Few”.

Historic air show at RAF Duxford

Historic air show at RAF Duxford

In June 1944 the planes launched from the same runways would protect the Allied fleet as it steamed toward Normandy. It would also gain fame as one of the homes of the fighter escorts for the Allied bombers that pulverized Nazi Germany’s industrial might.

RAF Duxford continued as a fighter station after the war and was decommissioned in the 1970’s. With over thirty authentic buildings recognized by the British government for their historical significance, the base was granted to the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in 1976 and has been a world-class center of exhibits and education ever since.

***

Mulberry Harbors and Museum, Arromanches, France

The tiny French coastal town of Arromanches, perched on the sands of Normandy, holds another of my favorite war sites. Not far from the immaculate rows of gleaming marble headstones of the US cemetery at Omaha Beach, the beach village had its fate permanently altered when it was chosen to be the main port of the Allies.

One of the most vexing logistical challenges for D-Day planners was the issue of transferring the move millions of pounds of Allied soldiers, vehicles, weapons, and supplies from ship to shore once the troops had established a beachhead. At Churchill’s order, engineers were set to the monumental task of constructing giant ports nicknamed “Mulberry Harbors”, designed to accomplish the feat.

Remains of Mulberry Harbor, Arromanches, Normandy

Remains of Mulberry Harbor, Arromanches, Normandy

Before the blood had washed away from the Normandy sand, the ports were unloaded from ships and attached by brave engineers under enemy fire. While bullets still flew the ports were operational and offloading tons of materiel per hour for the final push against Hitler’s Riech.

Today, a very well done museum perches above the coast and describes the incredible engineering task undertaken to build the ports. It gives even a layman like me a good idea of how this was pulled off, and of the massive challenges (storms, waves, German gunfire) that the Mulberry builders had to contend with.

Remains of Mulberry Harbor, Arromanches, Normandy

Remains of Mulberry Harbor, Arromanches, Normandy

But this isn’t the most moving part of the area; the really evocative sights are sitting just off the coast and demand no entrance fee. Still visible in the surf are the ghostly hulks of the prefabricated ports themselves. The skeletal iron beasts, now rusted and worn away by decades of tide and salt water, serve as a silent reminder of the world-changing event that came to Normandy’s shores. And they remind us of the ordinary people—most now passed away—who found themselves swept up in the gale force of history.

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

November 11, 2014

Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail From Istanbul to India

Magic Bus

This book found me, not the other way around. Tucked between a hat from the Karen region in the north of Thailand, an Indian pashmina and a pile of silk and cotton shawls plucked from market stalls across Indonesia. I pulled a long, tie dyed piece from the depths of the cardboard box, draped it over my shoulder, and gently picked up the book: The Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India The treasures were selections made by my friend Chris on his last winter wander through Southeast Asia. We’d traded stories and laughs late into the night before and in the morning, he appeared with his trove of tangible memories and insisted I choose something as a souvenir of our friendship. I chose the scarf, and the book.

Rory MacLean is a magician. His story weaves past into present in a way that simultaneoulsy makes the reader long for the good ol’ days and celebrate the present journey. If the early days of hippie travel, overland between Istanbul and India sing to your soul, read this book. With an amazingly lucid eye he examines the often romanticized era and ties the strings between those first intrepid journeys into parts of the world that were relatively unexplored by western travelers and the resultant changes, for better or for worse. His stories made me long to camp in the caves near Cappadocia, and renewed my desire to walk, alone, across Iran. If you’re looking for a winter escape, may I suggest hopping on the Magic Bus and reliving a journey that defined a generation of travelers?

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Category: Travel Writing

October 25, 2014

On Baksheesh

Egyptian Train

Photo Credit: walidhassanein via Compfight cc
I’m riding a second-class train up the Nile valley when a boy in an official-looking blue jacket beckons me to the other side of the carriage.

“Look,” he whispers, pointing outside. “Beautiful!”

I look out the window to see a red sun streaking the sky with bands of pink and yellow. Beyond the train tracks, the mighty Nile glitters with orange spangles of light. It truly is beautiful.

As I soak in the colors, I wonder why the boy has taken the trouble to show me such a simple moment.

It’s not long before I get my answer.

“Please,” he says giving me a solemn look. “Baksheesh.”

For a moment, I’m not sure how to react. After all, baksheesh may be an accepted Eastern form of tipping — but this is the first time I’ve been asked to pay for a sunset.

When Mark Twain visited the Pyramids in 1866, he reportedly suffered “torture that no pen can describe” from the various Egyptian pleas for baksheesh. One hundred years before that, a French visitor complained bitterly about the amounts of baksheesh it took just to dig up and steal a decent mummy.

These days — while its no longer legal to climb the Pyramids or rifle through mummy pits — baksheesh is still a thriving racket wherever tourists are found.

Take my recent visit to Luxor. Whenever I took out my map, some enterprising soul would hustle over and offer me directions. Whenever I entered a tomb, children would fight over who got to fan me with a piece of cardboard. Had I been eating corn on the cob, I’m sure one of them would have produced some dental floss.

If there is any saving grace about baksheesh, it’s that Egyptians use it among themselves as well as on tourists. Most Egyptians earn low wages, so tips and payoffs are seen as a way to provide incentive and supplement an income. Nobody in Cairo, it is said, can get basic services such as mail or electricity without slipping a little baksheesh to the right people.

So, as with any local custom, the best way to get the hang of baksheesh is to watch how the natives do it. Thus, I no longer hesitate to plunk down a few piasters when I get fast and friendly service in a coffee shop, or when the baggage-handler climbs on top of the bus to fetch my bag.

In the end, the baksheesh ritual becomes a matter of trusting your instincts and acting like you know what you’re doing.

And this is why I reach into my pocket and give the boy in the blue jacket 50 piasters.

After all, 15 cents isn’t such a bad price to pay for a sunset — and I might have missed it otherwise.

 

To hear the audio version, read by Rolf, visit Savvy Traveler

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Category: Hospitality, Languages and Culture, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Styles

September 28, 2014

Book Review VANISHING TALES FROM ANCIENT TRAILS by James Dorsey

VANISHING TALES FROM ANCIENT TRAILS by James Dorsey, 2014, Vagabundo Magazine Publishing. Buy on Amazon.

DorseyVanishingTrailsWhen I first found his writing on celebrated travel webzine Perceptive Travel, there was one thing that made me an instant James Dorsey’s fan. It was the amount of literary adrenaline he was able to inject straight into readers’ eyes with the opening three lines of each and every story. Indeed, James would pull out his wordy meathook, and catch you right under the chin, pulling you into the action. You would feel the smells, sounds and fear he was trying to tell you all about. I don’t know why, but one of his simplest descriptions, “Akira tells me to follow him closely and I am practically in his back pocket” stayed with me until today: now, whenever I tell people to stay very close to my back, I tell them to “stick to my back pocket”, and I think of Dorsey’s time in Cambodia.

This is the best quality I admire in Dorsey’s writing: his simple, dry, straight forward and damn catchy list of words that one after another “dance on the page”, as Bukowsky put it. But in this case, they dance at the sound of tribal drums during a secret and ancient ritual consumed under a moonlit forest thicket. (more…)

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Category: Africa, Asia, South America, Travel Writing

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

September 12, 2014

10 Sizzling Hot Travel Tips from Sir Francis Bacon

Bacon

1) Make travel a part of your life’s education

Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education; in the elder, a part of experience. He that travelleth into a country, before he hath some entrance into the language, goeth to school, and not to travel.

2) Keep a travel journal, at sea or on land

It is a strange thing, that in sea voyages, where there is nothing to be seen but sky and sea, men should make diaries; but in land travel, wherein so much is to be observed, for the most part they omit it; as if chance were fitter to be registered than observation: let diaries, therefore, be brought in use.

3) Seek interesting sights, such as:

* The courts of princes (especially when they give audience to ambassadors)
* The courts of justice (while they sit and hear causes)
* The churches and monasteries (with the monuments which are therein extant)
* The walls and fortifications of cities and towns
* The havens and harbors, antiquities and ruins
* Treasuries of jewels and robes, cabinets and rarities
* Shipping and navies
* Houses and gardens of state and pleasure, near great cities
* Armories, arsenals, magazines, exchanges, burses, warehouses

4) Seek interesting activities, such as:

* Exercises of horsemanship, fencing, training of soldiers, and the like
* Comedies, such whereunto the better sort of persons do resort
* Libraries, colleges, disputations, and lectures
* Triumphs, masks, feasts, weddings, funerals, capital executions, and such shows

5) Make use of guidebooks and local resources

Let him carry with him also some card, or book, describing the country where he travelleth, which will be a good key to his inquiry. Let him, upon his removes from one place to another, procure recommendation to some person of quality residing in the place whither he removeth, that he may use his favour in those things he desireth to see or know.

6) Seek varieties of experience, even within a single location

Let him not stay long in one city or town, more or less as the place deserveth, but not long. When he stayeth in one city or town, let him change his lodging from one end and part of the town to another, which is a great adamant of acquaintance.

7) Seek out travel companions that will challenge you

Let him sequester himself from the company of his countrymen, and diet in such places where there is good company of the nation where he travelleth. Thus he may abridge his travel with much profit. As for the acquaintance which is to be sought in travel, that which is most of all profitable is acquaintance with the secretaries and employed men of ambassadors; for so in travelling in one country he shall suck the experience of many: See and visit eminent persons in all kinds, which are of great name abroad, that he may be able to tell how the life agreeth with the fame.

8) Avoid traveling with quarrelsome people

For quarrels, they are with care and discretion to be avoided; they are commonly for mistresses, healths, place, and words; and let a man beware how he keepeth company with choleric and quarrelsome persons; for they will engage him into their own quarrels.

9) When coming home, keep your travels alive with intellectual exercise

When a traveller returneth home, let him not leave the countries where he hath travelled altogether behind him, but maintain a correspondence by letters with those of his acquaintance which are of most worth; and let his travel appear rather in his discourse than in his apparel or gesture.

10) Don’t flaunt your travel experiences to the folk back home

In his discourse let him be rather advised in his answers, than forward to tell stories: and let it appear that he doth not change his country manners for those of foreign parts; but only prick in some flowers of that he hath learned abroad into the customs of his own country.

 

Originally published by World Hum in 2008

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Category: Travel Writing

September 7, 2014

Wild Life by Lisa Alpine: a book review and interview on the importance of spontanous travel

2014-08-30 20.09.04

Have you ever wanted to leave civilization behind and embark on a multitude of journeys where you simply live and explore?

That’s exactly what Lisa Alpine did.

At 18 years old, she left sunny California for the rainy streets of Vienna and beyond, Europe. In Wild Life: Travel Adventures of a Worldly Woman, she recounts 14 stories gathered from her next 28 years of traveling.

Each chapter of the book encapsulates a complete story, set in a different year, spanning the arch of her life from 18 years old to mid-fifties. You would expect changes in her traveling viewpoint. But, other than a new love of B&B’s and 1000 thread count sheets, her love of adventure and finding herself in quirky situations never vanishes.

Deeply personal stories, they read more like imaginative fiction than non-fiction. The writing occasionally glosses over parts where I’d like more detail, but once you become accustomed to her newspaper-like style, the stories flow easier.

As a single girl in her 20’s, she travels the world, game for any new adventure. She spends a week with a Amazonian native and her three young children deep off the Amazon river. In her thirties, her young child gets passed around a remote tribe, held high above their heads. She licks a Monet to sample what art tastes like. She gets charged by an amorous dolphin who loves her polka dot bikini, his attention infuriating his harem.

Winner of many awards, including Best Travel Story of the Year 2014 Solas Silver for Fish Trader Ray, Lisa has an undeniable gift of seeing the good in people. And she has an enviable talent for making friends in unlikely situations. Add to the mix, her unshakable curiosity about the world and need to travel.

She sounds like a perfect traveling companion: unflappable, up for anything with an innate ability to attract a ride to her next destination. She’s the person who laughs instead of cries when things don’t go according to plan.

Her stories made me want to revisit New Orleans and taste the food she sampled that I somehow missed out on. Her persistently optimistic view on people makes me fight my impulse to tuck my bag closer into my body and eye my surrounding humans with distrust. She inspired me to embrace spontaneity and saying “yes,” instead of my knee-jerk “no.”

Luckily for me, I had a chance to ask her about her unique views on travel.

wild life

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from traveling?

That the world is an inherently good place filled with kind and generous people who open their hearts, minds, and lives to wandering strangers. (Despite what you read in the newspapers!)

I also trust my intuition and in the rare circumstances where I didn’t or don’t feel safe, I leave without excuses or guilt.

What inspired you to start traveling?

Hearing adventure stories from older women in my life when I was a teenager. I dedicated Wild Life to several of these adventuresses including my Grandma Lucy who lived in a mining camp in the Atacamas Desert in Chile in the 1920s. Of course, many years later I went there—the highest and driest desert on the planet— and stared at the full moon. It is a very mysterious place.

Also, I was an explorer from birth—always curious about what was around the next bend. Even as a baby I would crawl off to find bugs or wander down the street eating sour grass as I scooted along. The old lady’s koi pond a block away was a big draw. My mom called the police several times when you couldn’t find her baby girl.

Books also lured me to dream of exotic places and fed my craving for foreign-ness—the unknown—the colorful: Arabian Nights, Green Mansions, Bitter Lemons, Nobody’s Girl.

In the book, it seems like you’re always up for an adventure — how do you maintain that upbeat attitude?

I have known since childhood that life is a gift. Freedom is a gift not available to everyone, sadly.

One of the greatest insights traveling has offered me is the opportunity to befriend people who have suffered due to loss and wars. My story “Rada’s Bloom” in Wild Life is an ode to a woman who lost every family member in Auschwitz and yet survived with a loving, generous, non-judgmental nature. If Rada can smile and embrace humanity after that hell realm—I can be fully appreciative of this wonderful life I have been given.

“Smile and the whole world smiles with you” is my motto.

In the book, you enjoy venturing off the beaten path. How do you pick your next destination? Do certain countries speak to you?

Many times my travels are inspired by a book. I had to go to the Amazon after I read Green Mansions. Ditto for Israel after I read Exodus. Or I hear about a remarkable place from another traveler and it awakens an urge to see this place with my own eyes.

Most of my trips have just happened out of the blue—I met Lloyd Cottingam at a nightclub in San Francisco while dancing to Zydeco music. He invited me to work for him at the New Orleans Jazz Festival.

I said “Yes”. I usually say “Yes” without thinking about it first.

Spontaneity led me to discover my love of New Orleans and all things Southern. And that leads me to my stories. “Two-Steppin’ and Pussy-Poppin” is about my nine-year annual trek to volunteer at the Jazz Fest and all the crazy people and events that happened to me there.

Recently, I wanted go to a country I’d never been before; was inexpensive (not on the Euro); and had an undeveloped tourist infrastructure: Albania!

I spent a month wandering there. What a delightful people and the countryside is gorgeous. The food is delicious and organic. There is outstanding hiking in the Albanian Alps; pristine white sand beaches on the Adriatic & Ionian Seas; intriguing Ottoman, Greek and Roman ruins; and nary a tourist in sight. A first rate travel destination, and it is safe!

Maybe I shouldn’t be sharing this information…

Many people are used to shorter trips, but struggle with the mentality of longer trips. From your years of traveling, do you have any tricks/tips on having a successful longer trip?

Instead of landing in a new country and hitting the road, I like to settle down a bit and meet people.

A good way to do that is to volunteer for a short period at a bookstore, or an orphanage, a school, an archeological dig, etc… Of course, there are organizations that can set this up but they usually come with a high price tag. Instead, put a shout-out through your social media connections.

I did this before I went to Albania. One of my writing students had a church group member who had moved there 20 years ago and become a missionary. She connected us via email. The missionary visited my website and noted I also teach dance. She invited me to teach her youth group a salsa class.

What a hoot! Not only did I hear eye-popping stories from the missionaries of their tumultuous times in Albania— but I really like Korca—the town where they live.

My son, Galen, has also traveled on many one-to-two year trips and always ends up helping people. He worked at an orphanage in Cambodia and volunteered at the Christchurch Earthquake Relief Center in New Zealand. None of this was planned but he just said “Yes” when the motorcyclist in Cambodia gave him a lift while hitchhiking and invited him to his orphanage.

Galen went to New Zealand, planning to go tramping, but landed in Christchurch just two days after a big quake destroyed much of the city. He decided on the split second he would find a place that needed his help, so instead of hitching to the mountains, he went into town and asked around. The three months he spent volunteering led to life-long friends, many invites to visit remote regions of NZ, and real job offers.

Which leads us back to being spontaneous and saying “yes” and not over-planning your trip so that when the opportunity knocks—you invite it into your life.

And it will change you and make you a fuller, richer person who can give back even more than you have received.

Read Lisa’s book

You can buy Wild Life at Indie bookstores in your area. Or hop online to get an Amazon print or get a Kindle digital editions.

Laura blogs at Waiting To Be Read where she writes about why book reading is a dying and valuable skill, next to traveling.

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Category: Travel Writing
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