Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Life in Between Movies: Travel Advice No One Else Will Give You

Well, I warned you....

It's been over five months since I last posted.  Quite simply, I have not seen a single film this year that has motivated me to write. Not one.

Over the past weekend, I streamed Terrence Malick's Knight of Cups, which is beautiful to look at, but laughably pretentious and frequently just plain nuts  I made it to exactly the three-quarter point before I tuned out, bored and baffled.  And this is much the same reaction I've had to other films this year.

About three months from now, I will start frantically binge-watching all the critically acclaimed 2016 movies I've managed to miss or avoid so far in an effort to come up with a respectable 10 Best List. That's just how I roll these days.  But for now, it's wanderlust - not cinephilia - that has me in its grip.

The other passion in my life, besides movies, is travel - especially foreign travel, and most especially travel to Europe.  This year I chose to remodel my kitchen and take a short trip to Branson, Missouri rather than go overseas.  It was a prudent choice in every respect, but now I find I am dreaming - nay, OBSESSING - about returning to Rome. Wandering its cobblestone streets. Eating gelato. Stopping in at churches to see the Caravaggio paintings and Bernini sculptures within. Then stopping for a little more gelato. People-watching in the Piazza del Popolo... while eating gelato.

As a traveler, I am also a scrupulous planner who aspires to someday comfortably spend two weeks overseas with just a day bag and a carry-on bag, as travel guru Rick Steves recommends.  Haven't done it yet, but I periodically comb Pinterest travel boards in search of the magical packing hacks that will make this possible.

I'm equally obsessed with finding the perfect gizmos, gadgets or mantras to transform 8-to-9-hour transatlantic flights into restful, pleasant experiences  - and not the hell-in-a-flying-tin-can-packed-with-annoying-strangers that they too often seem to be.

I've read more travel advice than I've had hot breakfasts, and I'm not sure how much lasting wisdom I've culled from all that reading. But I've done enough traveling myself to develop some advice of my own. much of which flies in the face of received wisdom.  For everyone who may be planning a trip out of the country soon (or someday), here's a little honesty for you:

1. There's no foolproof way to get a good night's sleep on the flight over.

I have never once slept well on an flight headed out of the U.S. And believe me, I've tried every tip, suggestion and purported "miracle" product you can think of to make it happen: Ambien, Tylenol PM (washed down both with booze and without it), melatonin, lavender oil rubbed on my temples, sleep masks, earplugs, inflatable neck pillows, noise-cancelling earbuds.  I've stayed up really late and gotten up really early every day for the week before the trip. I've swigged many a cup of hot ginger tea in flight and chewed many a Bach's Rescue Remedy pastille. No results, not from any of it.

Go ahead and try any or all of these tricks yourself; one or more of them may work for you.  (Or book business or first class if you can afford it - your seat will fold out into a bed and you won't be fighting over the armrest with your slumping, snoring seatmate. Or so I have dreamed...) But if none of this helps you to fall asleep, don't stress over it.  You will be uncomfortable and tired for a day, but you'll get through it.

Even in the worst case scenario, you'll probably manage to get in a nap for an hour or two before they bring around the breakfast trays. That nap, plus your tiny carton of Yoplait yogurt, roll and coffee will give you enough energy to get through passport control and out to the taxi queue once you land.

When you get to your hotel, don't spend a lot of time unpacking, and whatever you do, DON'T take a nap.  Freshen up with a quick shower and a change of clothes,  then get out of your room and into your new destination as soon as you can. Walk around, get familiar with your surroundings.  Your excitement at being in your dreamed-of location is likely to override your fatigue for several hours.

Head to a cafe or restaurant for a hit of caffeine and some fresh food. Airport and airplane foods tend to be overly carb-tastic; I usually look for a salad and some fresh fruit when I first arrive; it helps me feel lighter and more energetic.  Find some good sightseeing close to where you're staying and just keep moving.

I find that if stay out till about 7:30 local time and postpone going to bed till around 9, I will wake up the next morning refreshed and rarin' to go.  Just don't push yourself too hard or try to pack too much in the very first day. I have slept through an entire concert at St. Martin of the Fields in London and an entire nighttime bus tour of Paris while adjusting to new time zones; I now wish I had postponed those experiences till later in the trip when I would have been fully awake to enjoy them.

2. There are worse things than looking like a tourist

All those ominous articles with titles like "Never Order This Dish in Rome!" or "10 Things to Never Do in France"? They're worth reading and following ... to a point.

You should know how to avoid being offensive, obnoxious or rude to your local hosts. Get a good guidebook before you go (Rick Steves' books are excellent) and read up on local customs for dining, tipping, and social niceties.  Learn to say "hello," "please," "thank you," and few other key phrases in their language.

But please don't sweat the small stuff.

If you slip up and order a cappucino after 11 am, you might momentarily irritate the barista, but you aren't going to start a national incident.

And yes, wearing a fanny pack and big, white sneakers will instantly identify you as a American tourist (and if you wear them, be alert to pickpockets and scam artists who will target you). But so will your tour company name badge or asking directions from a local in your halting, 8th grade Spanish. And believe me, when you're setting up that group photo at the Eiffel Tower, no one will be fooled into thinking you're a Parisian just because you're wearing European walking shoes and carrying a smart leather tote bag.

Some travel bloggers will try to scare you into believing there are dire consequences for those who don't blend in with the locals, but those locals have seen tourists before.  You can strike a comfortable balance between being a gracious guest in their country and still being true to your own needs and comfort. When I travel, I wear black leather flat shoes and more skirts than jeans. I make it a point to be soft-spoken and very polite, and to use as much of the local language as I can manage. But I also unashamedly drink diet sodas and cafe Americanos, and occasionally ask for ice in my drinks or even (horrors!) have a burger and fries for lunch. A waiter on a train in England once laughed and chided me for requesting a packet of artificial sweetener to put in my cup of tea ("That'll give you cancer!"), but that's as much controversy as I've ever caused.

3. You are allowed to 'waste' an afternoon sleeping or reading or relaxing. Not every minute must be packed with sightseeing and activity.

This advice is offered especially to my fellow introverts.

Travel is exciting and stimulating; it can be overstimulating for some of us. In cities, you're going to encounter lots of noise, crowds and busy streets.  Add to this the low-but-constant level of stress generated by navigating your way around an unfamiliar place with a language you may not speak, and you can get pretty overwhelmed even as you're having the time of your life.

Our vacations are short and there is a lot to see. Your fear of missing something important may conflict with your desire to chill out and take a break.

I'm here to tell you: you can take that break.

You can sit at that sidewalk cafe table for two hours, nursing a glass or wine or a pastry and espresso, and doodle in your travel journal. You can take a late afternoon nap in your hotel room.  You can even lay on a chaise by the hotel pool all morning, catching some sun and reading magazines. (A friend and I did this in Athens; our hotel's rooftop pool afforded us a clear and spectacular view of the Acropolis. Sure, you can lay by a pool at home, but you can't gaze on ancient Greek ruins while you do it.)

In other words, even your 'lazy' experiences can be enriching and memorable.

You can also seek out travel experiences that aren't necessarily on everyone's agenda, but give you a different window into the local culture.

As an avid film lover, I like seeing what people in other countries watch and what their filmgoing experience is like.  So when I need a change of pace, I might take myself to a movie.  Most major cities have at least a few Hollywood films available in English. I saw the 2014 remake of Godzilla in Munich, in a tiny, crowded theater near a university where my friend and I shared a huge bucket of half plain popcorn/half kettle corn and sipped enormous Diet Cokes. Workers came into clean the theater for the next showing before the closing credits were done, and they were brusque-bordering-on-rude in hurrying us out. On a sultry Sunday night in Paris, I saw the classic comedy Bringing Up Baby, subtitled in French, with a delighted audience who laughed uproariously from start to finish, proving that the appeal of truly great films is universal.  In London, I saw The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley, a black comedy in which Katherine Hepburn hired a hit man played by Nick Nolte to euthanize her elderly friends - an odd, compelling film that was barely released in the US. These weren't typical tourist experiences, but they were memorable and unique.

Remember, your vacation is YOUR vacation.  It doesn't have to look like everyone else's and it doesn't have to be hectic. It only has to make you happy.

4. The trip home is worse than the trip there. Except, you will probably sleep.

My longest overseas trip to date has been just under two weeks; I'm not sure I ever want to stay longer. At the twelve-day point, I'm ready to re-enter a world where every TV show, magazine, newspaper and billboard is in English. I 'm ready to play with my kitty cat and sleep in my own bed.

The good news is that, while I never sleep on the flight to Europe, I nearly always get several hours of solid sleep on the way home.  Even so, the trip never goes fast enough. After 6 or 7 hours in the air, I am silently (but fervently) willing the plane to fly faster.

The bad news? Because you're gaining 5-8 hours flying west towards the US, you will have a very, very  l-o-o-o-o-n-g day. I live in the Chicago area, and by the time I hit the threshold of my home, I've usually been up for about 22 hours. And I've spent huge chunks of it waiting for things to happen: to get through security, to board the plane, for the plane to take off (don't know why, but I experience way more flight delays when I'm heading home from vacations than when I'm first setting out), for the plane to land, to clear customs, to get my ride home from the airport, to get Freakin' HOME ALREADY!

You can't avoid the stress or the time suck, so do what you can to eliminate unnecessary stress on the trip home.  Here are a few suggestions:

1. Check the weather report at home and be prepared.  I returned from sunny, 60-degree days in Rome last year to a freak storm that dumped nine inches of snow on Chicago. My final flight was delayed 3 hours due to the weather, so I was extra tired when I got home - but very glad I'd packed gloves and extra layers of clothing in my carry on bag so I could bundle up before dragging my suitcase through the snowdrifts on my front walk.

2. Pack the night before you leave and be sure you put your boarding pass, passport, and receipts from all your purchases in an easily accessible pocket or section of your purse. You'll need the receipts in customs when your return; it's a good idea to pack an envelope or Ziplock bag to stow them in. Also, be sure you know where your house key is stashed. (Seriously. I once had a minor panic attack when I couldn't recall what bag I'd put mine in.)

3. Buy edible souvenirs at the airport to help use up the last of your Euros. I like to bring back candy or cookies to the office, and it's easiest to pick that up at the last minute and throw it in my carry on. And buy yourself a treat when you hit a low point. You can get back on your sensible diet when you get home, but a little extra chocolate or a warm cookie will take the edge off an otherwise very trying day.

Above all ENJOY yourself!  It's a privilege - and, sometimes, a life-changing experience - to visit another country.  Don't worry that you won't do it right, just do it!