“This emphasis upon travel as a test, as a loss that brings a gain of stature and certainty of self, suggests that the changes of character effected by travel are not so much the introduction of something new into the personality of the traveler as a revelation of something ineradicably present — perhaps courage, perdurance, the ability to endure pain, the persistence of skills and abilities even in a context of fatigue and danger. The transformations of passage are a species of “identification” through action, which adds to the being in motion only a consciousness of the irreducible form and individuality of that being. In the difficult and dangerous journey, the self of the traveler is impoverished and reduced to its essentials, allowing one to see what those essentials are.”
–Eric J. Leed, The Mind of the Traveler: From Gilgamesh to Global Tourism (1991)
Hometown: Los Angeles, California
Quote: “People think it’s an obsession. A compulsion. As if there were an irresistible impulse to act. It’s never been like that. I chose this life. I know what I’m doing. And on any given day, I could stop doing it. Today, however, isn’t that day. And tomorrow won’t be either.” (Batman Identity Crisis)
Quote: Listen to your gut. Go!
“Talking about the authentic is often what we do when we the overfed and privileged are discussing the fetish we cultivate for lives that look unchosen, for lives that are inherited, and thus seem to us unbeset by the anxiety of choosing one thing over something else. We juxtapose the inheritances that structure a traditional society with the sense of total arbitrariness we feel about our own lives, and we long to be relieved of the burden of choice by just being told what to do. As I say in [my] book, I think this kind of dynamic is what drives the impulse to make a big deal out of, you know, eating where the locals eat. But that’s so problematic for so many obvious reasons. Like, a lot of people in little street stalls in Thailand love to eat their pad thai slathered in ketchup. Personally, I think it tastes gross. Maybe that’s a trivial example. But, to me, all of these examples are trivial in their own ways. My feeling about authenticity is that we’re all best off when we don’t worry about it too much and just get on with the business of trying to travel in ways that feel meaningful to us, for whatever reason.”
–Interview with Gideon Lewis-Kraus, World Hum, April 25, 2012
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.
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.
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.
Always travel with snacks. Eat local. Taste the street food. Try the cuisine specific to this culture. Have you ever had something so delicious? These are all things travelers hear when heading to a new destination. But for me, some places are harder while others make my taste buds soar with delight. I’ve been a vegetarian for just under ten years now. There have, as in everything in life, been ups and downs and easy and hard spots, but all in all I feel better. As a traveler, there’s a huge draw to eating local and checking out the cuisine of places. We travel with snacks, of course, but can’t wait to dive into local cuisine. Some places have been easier than others to be a vegetarian. We’ve traveled to those vegetarian friendly and others heavy on the carnivore delights and have found some more manageable and enjoyable than others.
IN MY TRAVEL EXPERIENCE AS A VEGETARIAN…
Easiest country to be a vegetarian: INDIA
Even my meat-loving husband went vegetarian for a time while on our India holiday. We even got to share dishes. Almost every restaurant we went to had an entire section of the menu dedicated to vegetarian cuisine. Nowhere was it ‘just have a side dish’ or ‘can you tell me what the base of that sauce is, please?’ Here there was even street food available for me to enjoy the same as anyone who is a meat eater and perhaps…even more. Samosas, pakoras, chapatti, naan and flavourful dishes filled with spice mixtures and colourful sauces adorned my plate and tickled my palate. This is the land of vegetarians…all are welcome!
Favourite place to be a vegetarian: AUSTRALIA
I love this country! In a land of all things close to water, the land down under is veg-friendly. Where you’d never find me eating sushi in a mall in New York, I can’t wait for my Sushi Sushi fix shortly after landing at Tullamarine airport in Melbourne. At most food courts there are vegetarian friendly choices with pumpkin or aubergine and for those pescaterians, smoked salmon abounds. Tandoori vegetarian pie at Pie Face, the garden goodness burger at Grill’d or the fabulous fries at vegan Lord of the Fries only scratch the surface of available options. It’s fresh and easy….she’ll be right!
Hardest country to be a vegetarian: EGYPT
Incredible sights, unbelievable artifacts, amazing culture but not such great vegetarian friendly cuisine. In a land where travelers must stay away from fresh vegetables and many others are fried, Egypt wasn’t the easiest place I’ve found to be a vegetarian. Although falafel and hummus are available, it’s definitely harder to find variety or non-fried options. I can say that between French fries, falafel, bread, noodles and eggs, I was content for the trip.
Most surprising place to find a fabulous vegetarian restaurant: BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA
Argentina is steak territory! My husband was in carnivore heaven the entire time with one piece of meat larger and tastier than the next. In search of a restaurant that could cater more to me for a meal, we found one that won’t soon be forgotten. Bio, a vegan/vegetarian restaurant was so good that it not only satisfied my vegetarian taste buds with a quinoa risotto, but the lactose intolerant friend and two carnivore husbands were thrilled with their dishes.
As anyone with dietary restrictions or food allergies knows, being out of a food comfort zone isn’t as easy as being in one. Check the base of soups and sauces, ask your questions, have your questions written out in the local dialect and source out as many suggestions and reviews as you like on the web. Remember, you can always find a grocery store to pick up things you know you can eat and as an extra back up plan…always travel with snacks!
For more of Stacey’s travel musings, check out her blog.
What’s the best thing that’s happened lately?
The most memorable and life-altering experiences of travel don’t usually happen on tour groups or fancy hotels. They take place in the quiet, humble homes of the people, or in the simple, candid interactions between human beings, especially if they have differing culture and language, yet can discover ways to connect based on common human-ness.
Give the background on the experience:
We lived in Costa Rica in 2007 as our first ‘abroad’ experience as a family. Our four children were young then, between the ages of one and five. They were adored by many of the ticos and Nicaraguans that they encountered, because Latin culture places high value on families and treasures children. (Many Nicaraguans come to Costa Rica looking for work.)
One Nicaraguan woman in particular worked for friends doing cooking and cleaning. She was a sweet soul, who was called Alba, which means ‘dawn’. On our return to Costa Rica in 2014, when we had our sixth child, we were able to get in contact with Alba and let her know we were back. She was thrilled to hear from us, and made us promise to come to her house for lunch, as soon as we were able after the birth of our baby.
On a Sunday afternoon we met up with Alba in Escazú, Costa Rica. It’s an upscale, affluent area in the Central Valley. She rode with us and gave directions to her house, the place where she was living with her sister and brother-in-law and their children.
Nestled between large, gated estates was a simple wooden structure with a tin roof and a dilapidated front porch. The house sat back from the road, among banana trees, and was enclosed with a simple barb wire fence.
The living room was a modge-podge of furniture — a battered couch, a shabby chair, a table in one corner, a beat-up armoire standing against the wall. Off this small space was an even smaller kitchen and bedroom.
As ‘honored’ guests, we were served first, and the family waited to eat until we were finished (this is also in part due to the lack of sufficient bowls and spoons for everyone).
Describe a challenge you faced:
As much as we love interacting with the people in genuine connections like these, we often have a mix of feelings, sometimes conflicting — gratitude, humility, guilt, joy, unease.
Gratitude for their willingness to share the ‘widows mite’ with us. Humility and guilt from realizing that we’re often unwilling to do the same. Joy at connecting and sharing with others, across boundaries of language, culture and race. Unease at being treated with deference and honor that is undue.
What new lesson did you learn?
It’s impossible to spend time with beautiful people who have less than you, yet are more generous and giving, without feeling the need for deep introspection.
How can I give more? How can I show more kindness, respect, and courtesy? How can I make others feel important and special?
“The global landscape used to be a theater of various shadings — sunlit fields and canyons of dark obscurity, trackless jungles, and misty Shangri-las. Now the whole world is like a cineplex when the lights have come on. Almost no place on the surface of the planet is really obscure anymore. Satellites watch it all and can let you know to the millimeter how far continental drift moved your swimming beach last year. What’s up along the banks of the great, gray-green Limpopo? How’s traffic on the road to Mandalay? What’s the snowpack like across the wide Missouri? The Internet or Google Earth will tell you.”
–Ian Frazier, “The Tale-Telling Days Are Over” Outside, Nov 2012
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.
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.
Hometown: Sarasota, FL – USA
Quote: “If it weren’t for the last minute, a lot of things wouldn’t get done.” -Michael S. Traylor