Last weekend, on a sunny Saturday morning at a local Seattle-area library, I kicked off the first of several ninety-minute “Travel talks” I plan to give this year. The seminar-style presentations, which I call “Traveling The Best of Europe Independently & On A Budget” will be free, presented at assorted libraries in the Seattle metro area.
I began doing these talks several years ago after answering the umpteenth question about how to travel independently in Europe (since that’s my specialty), how to plan it, and where to go. I realized there was a hunger for this type of straight-up advice from a trusted source. Since then I’ve done several, and I’m always stuck by audiences’ desire for useful tips and, more importantly, a much-needed infusion of “Hey, I can do this!” confidence.
Some have asked why I bother doing these talks when it’s basically free work and free advice. My answer: Sharing my hard-won tips on budgeting, itinerary-crafting, and other how-to essentials is a joy. Moreover, it’s a public service. More than just the mere nuts-and-bolts information, I’ve found that it’s the message of “you can do it too!” that is truly valuable, no matter what destination you’re discussing. Any guidebook will have a chapter on the basics needed to plan a trip and where to go, but it’s a presenter’s confidence and palpable love for the subject that can inspire someone to finally book that plane ticket.
So, if you’re inclined to spread your knowledge and love of whatever destination you choose, please consider offering a ninety-minute “how to travel independently & on a budget to…” presentation at a local library. Impart your wisdom and fill the room with your enthusiasm for the places you’re talking about. You might just motivate a reluctant adventurer to take the trip of a lifetime, and that is time well spent indeed.
In the final entry in my series of posts on the subtle but interesting variations in how European cultures celebrate Christmas, I take a look at one of the finest places to spend the holiday season, England. It’s not just a beautiful country with a joyous approach to the holiday; it’s also the spot where some of the most cherished Christmas traditions originated.
Throughout Europe, the sound of carols spill out from churches great and small, and the youthful choir’s heavenly harmonies are carried to the rafters on the cold air, just as they’ve been every year for centuries. Families cluster together and listen to the joyous sounds as their ancestors did, often in the same place.
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 England—Wells, Canterbury, Durham, Bath and Salisbury to name just a few—hold spellbinding choral events by candlelight. Outside of the massive churches, colorful Christmas markets buzz with activity.
Once a pagan country with a large Druid population, England is also to thank for the tradition of the Christmas tree. The custom originated with the Druids who would decorate 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.
As if England didn’t have enough influence on Christmastime rituals, it was also the originator of the “kissing under the mistletoe” tradition. Dating from the medieval period, there was a tradition of hanging a small treetop called a “bough” upside down in one’s home as a blessing upon the occupants. As the years went by this custom lost its popularity, but was resurrected by the Victorians (nineteenth century) as a holiday decoration under which sweethearts would kiss for good luck.
A 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, because every proper English event involves tea.
Trees, teas, carols, and mistletoe: England is a fine place to enjoy the warmth, food and music of the season. Attend a carol performance at a magnificent old church, decorate the tree, have some pudding and kiss your honey under the mistletoe. It’s the most joyous time of the year and England is a great place to spend it.
Last week I shared five things that life and travel are teaching me.
This week, I’d like to share five more…
1. To figure it out
There is nothing like having everything go to perdition on a far off continent when you don’t speak the language. In epic ways: like the stock market crashing and taking all of our money with it, and small ways: like having to get a delirious kid to a hospital, pronto, traveling teaches us to figure it out. When there’s no friend to call for help, no safety net in place, and no option to pass the buck, I have to figure it out. What I’ve learned: I can be trusted to figure it out. That’s a good thing to know about myself.
2. To have faith
Faith in the traditional, religious sense, hasn’t worked out too well for me over the long haul; it’s a long story, but suffice to say I’m best defined as a skeptic. When I say I’m learning to have faith, I mean in juxtaposition to fear. To have faith in my own ability rather than to wonder if I can pull it off. To have faith in my fellow man, rather than fear his intention. To have faith in humanity to move forward for the collective good. To have faith that there is, indeed, light at the end of many a long tunnel. When I live my life from a point of faith instead of a point of fear, everything becomes possible.
3. To dream big
Perhaps, to some people, an open ended world tour with their family is a big dream. It was for us, once. It was the big dream that we sacrificed everything else for, and it’s been infinitely worth it. But now, it’s our “inside the box.” Long term travel isn’t hard. No where on the planet is out of reach. If anything, the problem is that we have so many options that it’s hard to choose which adventure to have next. We are learning to dream bigger, to open the next box and crawl out. The view from the tipping point of the lid is spectacular, clear to the horizon. That’s the cool thing about cultivating and achieving your dreams, one at a time; you realize that the really big, really epic thing that you worked flat out for, reached clear to the edge of your current horizon to grab hold of… is actually just the next wrung of the ladder, and there’s another rung, almost out of reach, waiting to be grabbed. One dream leads to another. I just have to keep climbing.
4. Be generous
I’ve never understood the impulse to hoard stuff, money, time, people, or anything else. I was raised in a family of givers, and to me, it’s just “the way we live.” Travel has just deepened those lessons and reinforced my natal belief that we are here to share and to give. I love to give. Stuff is just stuff, we share it where we can. Money is just money, if we have it, we give it. Time is the real gift, the true treasure in life, and when we have the opportunity to give time, that is the most precious form of sharing of all. The thing I’m learning from travel is how to receive as generously as we strive to give. The great blessing of being taken into a stranger’s home, life, kitchen, and heart. The generous friendship that results when we allow ourselves to be taken care of. The opportunities that then present themselves to reciprocate. I’m fortunate to live among, and call my friends, some of the most generous people on the planet. It’s great fun to strive to out-do one another in giving, sharing, loving and meeting each other’s needs. One of the best parts of our long term travel has been the many opportunities we’ve been presented with to give generously, and the many times we’ve been gifted with more than we could ever imagine.
5. Keep walking
Life is hard, isn’t it? Work is hard. Parenting is hard. Sometimes marriage is hard. Keeping all the plates spinning is hard. Travel is hard. Staying home is hard. Struggle seems common to man. My Dad has been known to say that, “Time carries us away from all things.” The older I get, the more I wade through, the more I realize the truth of his words and the layers of meaning below them. I thought I knew what they meant at 18; I did not. I hope I know now, but I suspect there is more to learn. The only trick I know for getting through the hard is a lesson learned every day we travel: just keep walking. Through the literal, the figurative, and the metaphorical, the emotional and the physical hardships. Just keep walking. Moving forward is the only answer. I can’t go back. Get over that thought right now. To stop is to start sinking, to mire in my own mental state. Drowning isn’t an appealing thought. So I must move forward. Of course I walk a lot, in the physical sense, it’s my own form of therapy, but really, the important walking is internal, and it’s there that I’m learning to keep pressing forward, to insist on proactive measures and growth towards productive ends.
What is your journey teaching you?
It is raining this morning, and I am sick.
It’s one of those mornings where I long for a bathtub and a big fluffy bed and endless documentary television to while away a day when I’m too icky to do anything else. Instead, I’m tucked up in my little cave bed with my second cup of tea, listening to raindrops and resting. It’s almost as good!
Instead of hiking the coast of the Coromandel Peninsula and digging out big pools of thermal water on a hot water beach this afternoon, we’re tucked in under a solid rain, making the best of our camper life. I was awake most of the night (did I mention that I’m sick!?) thinking about the things that travel is teaching me. Care to take a midnight wander through my brain?
Travel is yoga for the soul. By nature I’m a planner and an organizer and a low-level control freak. The road is doing its best to bend that out of me, one country, one culture, one mini-catastrophe at a time. I no longer expect anything to run on schedule. If well made plans for a day crash and burn, well, there must be something else more important for the day. Mealtimes are flexible. Bedtimes are flexible. The definition of “food and lodging” are flexible. There really isn’t much in life that can’t be flexible, if I’m willing to bend with the wind and go with the flow… which, incidentally, is the key to reducing stress and increasing joy in the journey.
2. What I do not need
I have more than I need. I have always had more than I’ve needed, without exception. I do not “need” most of what I have, and knowing that has increased my gratefulness for the small things and the many comforts. I don’t have a bathtub, a big fluffy bed, or a TV this morning. But my little camper bed, my cup of tea and my cheese plate are still more than I need and I’m so glad for all three! Realizing what I don’t need has increased contentment and lowered my expectations and pretty much removed the anxiety that surrounds collecting “stuff” to pad our existence.
3. This is my life
A camper van cab top bed, my hubby’s knit hat on my sick noggin, a cheese plate and a cup of tea. This is my life. My life is no more than the moment I’m in. Where I’ve been doesn’t matter as much as where I’m going. Where I’m going doesn’t matter as much as where I am. There’s nothing to be gained from comparison to anyone or anything else. I am where I am because of the choices I’ve made. If I don’t like it, I can change it. All I have is today, this moment, sick in the rain. What will I make of it?
4. Who I am
I suppose all of life, from cradle to grave is an exercise in peeling back the layers of the onion, defining and redefining this, for all of us. The growing and changing and continual evolution of self is something interesting to me to watch, from somewhere outside of myself. Of course it’s a horrible cliche, that travel introduces you to yourself, but it’s true. Getting outside of all of the preconceived constructs that define a person is educational indeed. When there are no walls, no fences, no comfy confines, what will I do? Who am I really? How do I meet the world? Where do I fit in it? What can I give? These are the questions that define us, and redefine us. The questions that have brought me to my knees in places, both geographically and internally.
5. To Make my own box
The idea that we can get “outside the box” in this life is just silly. Just about the time you climb out of the box you think you’re in, you climb into another one. We have people say to us, regularly, “Wow!! You guys live such an “outside the box” life…” And I get what they mean. Yes, we do in some ways: no house, nomadic, alternatively educated kids, careers outside of the cube wars. But we live a very “inside the box” life in the world we exist in: there are tons of other families what we call friends who live just like we do. We’re nothing special. They aren’t impressed. We’re in the box for them. So, at the end of the day, the thing I’m learning is that it isn’t about escaping from some mythical box, it’s about creating your own, according to your own passions, and your own definition of normal. My life is delightfully “in the box,” I’ve just created it myself and plastered the sides with travel posters!
What is life and travel teaching you?
One of the many great things about Europe is the magnificent way it celebrates the Christmas season. Throughout the continent, a spirit of festivity 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.
With that said, this is the first in a series of posts on the various ways Christmas is celebrated in Europe. While each country has its own festive quirks, many of them share the greatest of the ancient traditions and it’s a joy to be enveloped by it.
Germany, for example, is one of the most magical places to experience the season. This seems ironic, as it’s arguably Europe’s most progressive, twenty-first century nation. But old traditions die hard and Germany reaches far into its medieval past to embrace and celebrate the season. From the Austrian border to the Baltic Sea, from the Black Forrest to Berlin, Germany comes alive at the holidays. Its people break out the gingerbread recipes, the carols, and the colors of the season.
The 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 the bundled-up shoppers and sightseers with classic old Germanic carols, their puffs of visible breath ascending into the sky on the frosty air.
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 predominantly Catholic South and Protestant North (this, after all the birthplace of Luther and Protestantism). Jolly St. Nicholas looms in the dreams of children eager for the big day to arrive.
It’s a good reminder that there is more to Germany that Oktoberfest and the Autobahn. They keep the best of their ancient traditions very much alive as they indulge in the classic sights, sounds and tastes of Christmas festivity.
Growing up in the Midwest, my Thanksgiving was the traditional spread of turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie, devoured at a relative’s home in suburban Chicago. But I grew up to be an inveterate traveler and spent the holiday in many places—one of the best was the historic, colorful Belgian city of Bruges.
Several years ago I was serving an internship at the US Embassy in London, and received a four-day weekend as per federal law. I packed a bag, recruited a friend, and took advantage of the holiday to visit one of my favorite Northern European locations.
Once a prosperous medieval port city, Bruges saw its fortunes vanish when its waterway silted up. The Flemish jewel’s centuries of slumber had an unintended boon for twenty-first century travelers: its cobbled alleyways, picture-book canals and magnificent Market Square survive to thrill romantics and history buffs alike.
My friend, a fellow American who was visiting me from back home, had never heard of the place. This presented another great opportunity I relished: playing tour guide in Europe. At first she was skeptical of spending the holiday in an unfamiliar city, but my description of a city that offered authentic Gothic architecture, romantic canals and Crusader-era cathedral housing an ancient relic piqued her interest. She also seemed to warm to the idea when told that Belgium makes the finest chocolate and beer in the world (in fact, Belgium has almost as many beers as there are days in the year).
Having won her interest, we met up in London on a Wednesday, flew to the Brussels and caught a train to Bruges. A steady rain greeted us as we settled into a little bed and breakfast I’d enjoyed on a previous visit. I promised my exhausted buddy that tomorrow would be a lot more fun.
Thanksgiving was spent showing my hometown friend some of Bruges’ charms, like the bell tower that has overlooked the Market Square since 1300 and the historic Basilica of the Holy Blood (home of a priceless relic brought home to Bruges from the Crusades—the reputed blood of Jesus—and the Gothic artistry of the ancient City Hall.
Under a chilly drizzle, we munched on hot, greasy French fries from a stand in the Market Square and admired the pointy gilded architecture. After licking our fingers we checked out the Michelangelo kept in a nearby church and then continued wandering along the canals that lace the city. A major part of the experience was, of course, browsing the numerous chocolate shops lining the alleyways just off the colorful square.
Our thanksgiving feast was in a little Italian café off a cobbled lane, where a pizza was washed down with a delicious locally-crafted strawberry-flavored beer (Frambozen). Dark chocolate, freshly made by a nearby confectioner’s, was the dessert. After introducing my pal to a few more fine Belgian beers (Trappist monk-brewed dark, and a white beer called Dentergems), a post-feast stroll around the backstreets capped off the night.
The following Sunday I returned to London while my friend flew home to Chicago with a bagful of delectably pralines, a well-earned hangover, and a few good stories. I relished playing tour guide in Europe, and I still do.
I’ve had many interesting Thanksgiving experiences before and since, but my holiday spent in the historic, idyllic little Belgian city still brings a smile. Stuffing and family is great, but I really miss that beer.
Having just come back from another great trip, I’m reminded again of the richness of Europe and the gifts it keeps on giving to any traveler willing to seek them out. I went to France on assignment for three mid-size, nationally-distributed magazines, and set to work almost immediately. It’s amazing how profoundly engrossing traveling and learning can be, especially when you have the added incentive of a contract for a story that must be delivered. Poking around the countryside and investigating ancient abbeys, ruined castles, and little medieval towns gives me a charge like nothing else. It satisfies my twin desires of adventure and knowledge.
As usual, the interactions with locals carbonated the experience. Sharing a bench—and soon after, a lively conversation—with a local man in half-timbered Rouen or chatting with the lady at the café table next to mine in the pretty little Burgundian city of Beaune added texture to the photos I’d taken. The clusters of pixels in my camera contained beautiful images of churches and historic buildings, but the connections forged with the everyday residents of these places gave depth and perspective to the memories in my own mind—a depth and perspective I hope will be felt by my readers.
It’s the local people—like the kindly town archivist in the German city who helped me make sense of his community’s tragic WWII history—that are the real repositories of history and tradition. Without him, I’d never had known about the moving memorial that sits on a seldom-visited hill just outside the town. It was a powerful, emotional experience to visit the lonely hill—the last resting place of so many of his community who lost their lives while the dueling armies fought it out around them—alone at sunset.
At those times you realize that the pretty stuff is only architecture.
Other travelers met on the road have become new friends too; I’ll soon be swapping trip highlights over email with the LA filmmaker from the Rhine River Valley village of Bacharach, the Seattle-area photographer from St. Goar, and the US psychology student from Colmar.
As I sit here shaking off jetlag and organizing my hastily-scribbled notes, I smile as I think about the experiences I crammed into my short trip. The research I did and the photos I took will yield excellent material for my article assignments. But more importantly, the experiences are already sowing the seeds of ambition for my next adventure overseas.
“Marrying into a culture is a strange pinnacle of interaction. All of these travelers and travel writers think they’re so “extreme” because they visited this place or that place or ate this or bungee jumped off that, but — in my experience — there is nothing more challenging than truly learning language and culture to the point that you can have a genuine relationship with your mother- and father-in-law. That is some crazy shit . . . trust me.” Thomas Kohnstamm, interview
Oh yes. There is so much wisdom in this quote I can almost feel it coming out of the screen and slap me across the face, Chuck Norris’ style.
In brief: I’m sitting at the table I sit at every day for hours on end, writing, researching and imagining the new worlds that hang before me, stylized into the colors of a world map. My fiancee has left for her training session on the benefits of Chinese tourism to the local hotel industry. I think I’ll have another cup of coffee as soon as I finish this post. I have a bunch of bills to settle, and I know I’ll have to explain myself in a foreign language that sounds increasingly less foreign to my ears. I don’t see any Himalayan peak nor any series of earthen huts with thatched roofs from my window. There is just a solitary row of damp saris and t-shirts flapping in the wind.
Today, there won’t be any exciting hike, nor any backpacker competition to ascertain who stayed on the road for longer and with lesser cash. However, I might end up running at the park, skirting the hungry monkeys in search of food to avoid getting a rabies-infected bite and spend the night at the hospital. Or, I could visit my friend at the Buddhist sanctuary, sit under an outgrown branch”stolen” from the original Bodhi Tree, and sip cardamom tea. I’ll leave the visit to my in-laws for later, during the weekend. Today, I don’t feel like making the drive.
I glance out of the metal bars affixed before my apartment’s door frame, and I see nothing that could resemble “traveling”. At the same time, I feel like I’m as far as possible from any traveling stereotype. Strange, isn’t it?
We’ve all heard horror stories from our friends—and have many of our own—about certain airline experiences. With the sheer volume of flights scheduled around the world on any given day, it is a statistical certainty that there will be the occasion snafu, and sometimes it’s your flight’s turn to have the bad day, and sometimes it isn’t. So, it’s generally wise to not let one friend’s horror story or isolated incident inform your opinion of an airline.
That’s what I thought when I head of a friend’s troubles with Air Berlin the other day. Living in Copenhagen, she was scheduled to fly to Miami for a short vacation to see family. Due to an epic screw-up on the airline’s part, she has found that the soonest she could reach her destination would be in two days, thus destroying her much-anticipated visit. This was compounded by the fact that they were reportedly rude and unhelpful.
She was crushed and angry, so I took her rant about the airline with a grain of salt, especially considering the sterling reputation of the normally efficient Germans. She was crushed and angry, so I took her rant about the airline with a grain of salt—until I read this.
In fairness, other friends who have flown the airline reported nothing but positive experiences. But when a major magazine runs a story about an airline’s slow-motion meltdown and includes the line, “Germany’s second-largest airline has become a mesmerizing spectacle of shaming and apology” in the first paragraph, there is definitely grounds for warning my fellow travelers to think twice before booking until the company sorts itself out.
Recently I was asked by a magazine to look at possibilities for a travel article. Specifically about some Western European locale that featured prominently in World War II, but hadn’t been covered too widely. Turns out it was not an easy task. While scouring my map of Western Europe looking for places that hadn’t been done a thousand times already, the thought entered my mind, “has it all been done before?” Just as when I’m playing my guitar and writing a tune, I wonder if every possible permutation of chords has already been explored.
The more I stared at the map, my eyes raking over familiar place names, the more I began to despair at the thought of “it all having been done.” Later that day, while talking to a friend, she mentioned in an off-hand way how her grandpa, who’d recently died, and was given a deeply moving military burial. “Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry to hear that. He was really nice. Actually, I had no idea he’d been in the military.”
“Neither did I”, she said. “He only mentioned it a couple times that I recall, and I was a kid, so I didn’t really care.” Evidently she found out while talking to his friends and other relatives at the funeral. She proceeded to tell me the harrowing and sometimes grisly story about her granddad’s exploits in World War Two, where as a young man he fought bravely in France and Germany, and was awarded medals for valor.
“I didn’t know this stuff till recently,” she said, a tone of amazement in her voice. “And I never saw the medals or knew about them till they were taken out of a drawer and put in his coffin with him. He had lots of them. He was always so quiet; he kept all of that stuff inside.”
Reflecting on the conversation, I realized that, yes, there are still great stories to be told about amazing lives; stories that often go unknown until that life is extinguished. It’s just a matter of asking; of seeking. Every location holds its own stories too, just like people. I recall the many times I have found that a flower-blanketed field was the scene of an epic medieval battle that decided the fate of nations, or that a pile of stones in the countryside was once a soaring abbey that witnessed a coronation of a great king beneath its vaulted ceilings.
And that is our job as travel writers, and as people fortunate enough to be able to tell these stories: We need to seek, we need to ask. Because there are stories worth telling, and they hide in the most unlikely of places, like a quiet valley, a broken-down complex of haunted stones, and a kind old man’s heart.