Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Joys of Solo Travel

My last post addressed the joys of traveling with adult children.  But here's my little secret about traveling:  in many ways, traveling alone can be the BEST way to travel.

I do enjoy traveling with my family, and I'd like nothing more than to get my husband to go with me to a conference or a trip to Europe.  But I have to confess:  when the girls left me alone in London, I had an equally enjoyable time being there on my own.

I dove into in living in London:  I got an Oyster card, and used the Tube to get around.  I went to the supermarket and the farmers market.  I got a local newspaper and read it.  I adopted the universal practice of dining alfresco, and the lovely English custom of sidewalk drinking (see the last photo below; a crowd gathered outside every single pub during England's World Cup matches).  I engaged in a stimulating conference and got to meet dozens of peers (and new friends) from all over Western Europe.  Then I roamed London!

Among the advantages of solo travel, you can set your own schedules, and be as aggressive - or relaxed - as you wish each day.  You want to spend a whole day in one really fabulous museum?  You can.  You want to visit 3 or 4 in one morning?  You can do that too.  You can eat whenever and whatever you feel like.  And really, dining alone is no big deal.  Order a big meal, and you have leftovers for a free dinner the next night.

Spontaneity is another virtue of solo travel.  Want to stop walking for a while, and enjoy a beer at this nice looking pub?  Go for it.  Want to linger in a shop and enjoy a conversation with the shopkeeper?  Go for it; no one is waiting on you.  Want to go into every one of the boutiques on this street?  Again, you are your own keeper.

As a big fan of cities in general, I particularly enjoy walking, letting my itinerary be random.  I do set goals, but I let them change as circumstances warrant.  Often I will just head off in a direction (with my hotel address and cab fare handy), and just see what happens.  In London, that was how I discovered all the cool graffiti in Hoxton.  And each time I return home, I try to go a different way and see different things.  That was how I discovered Neal's Yard Dairy.

I tend to do a lot of research about a place I'm visiting.  Whether I'm traveling with others or going it alone, I'll arrive with a general sense of the neighborhoods or areas I want to see (and the areas one should avoid).  That way, I know I'm not venturing somewhere I shouldn't.  I'll have a few good restaurants scoped out.  I'll know what the top-tier cultural destinations are - and have some ideas about how to go deeper than the tourist experience as well.  I ask a lot of questions.  And if I know someone in the place, I'll try to arrange a visit, for there's nothing like seeing a place through the eyes of a local.

Of course, the rules are different at night for a woman traveling alone, and knowing the culture is important.  My point is, don't let the absence of a travel partner hold you back!  Being out there on your own can be empowering.  You'll be more open to encountering new people and ideas.  You'll be more observant.  You'll pick up nuances of the people and their lives, culture and history.  In other words, being alone out there gives your mind the space to grow and leaves you more enlightened.  The world is waiting to be discovered, so go on out there and find it!

Here are some images I captured in Europe this spring - I called this file City Living.  Enjoy!

Child at Prague market

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Joys of Traveling with Adult Children

For parents of younger children, it may be hard to imagine that traveling with them could be easy and just a whole lot of fun for all concerned.  Schlepping diaper bags, strollers, car seats, toys and such is just a whole lot of work.  I don't know why anyone would willingly go through airport security these days with all of that paraphernalia.  Lucky for us, they weren't screening like that when our kids were younger.

But the joys of traveling with my girls these days are numerous.  Now that they are in their twenties, I no longer deal with these ills of traveling:

1.  Tantrums.
2.  Screaming on the plane.
3.  Sibling discord.
4.  Scheduling activities around naps.
5.  Nursing or changing diapers in awkward settings.
6.  Teenagers embarrassed by the parents, who are not invisible and mute.
7.  Eating crappy food with tired little ones.
8.  Worst of all:  being the boss of everybody, making all the plans and decisions.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I wouldn't trade for all the riches in the world their delight in Disneyland, how ocean waves held a magnetic draw on them, watching their little bodies turn nut-brown in the golden sun, or seeing their eyes opened to foreign cultures.  But these days it's just so much more fun, for all concerned.

Well, we're probably in the sweet spot with regard to traveling right now.  Both are single, and able to get away from work and school.  So here's what I get to enjoy now:

1.  Excellent, free - and honest - fashion advice from tireless shoppers.
2.  Experienced travelers who pack well and carry all their own stuff.
3.  Drinking an adult beverage with my daughters.
4.  Young adults with excellent palates - thus enjoyable fine dining prepared and served by professionals.
5.  A shared interest in art, architecture, language and culture.
6.  An agreement that every hour of shopping is earned by an hour of cultural learning.
7.  Extra arms and minds to navigate airports and solve problems (i.e., letting go of control).
8.  Best of all:  independent thinkers who know more than me about some things, add valuable content to conversations, and have ideas I wouldn't have had.

Thanks, Barrie and Annie, for being such excellent traveling partners.  You make me proud that I am able to travel with you.  Where will we go next? 

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Graffiti: Icing on the Cake?

It is basic dogma that graffiti must be covered up immediately, and the faster you take care of it, the better.  Let them know who's boss!  Property managers will tell you that once you let those taggers get a hold on things, you've lost it.  And the police tell us tags indicate gang activity.  For the most part, they're right.  But at some point, and in the right context, a city's graffiti is lifted to a true art form, and becomes the icing on the cake for your visit. 

On a stroll through Hoxton and other East London neighborhoods yesterday, I came across a ton of great pieces.  These are not simple tags, although there were plenty of those around, too.

These are clearly well thought-out, extremely well-executed, stunning works. Particularly around the better works, were repeated tags - it's as though those taggers wanted to be seen nearby the work of the greatest graffiti artistsA sort of endorsement.  But it's rare to see someone tag right over the best pieces; that's an insult.

My favorite pieces were near the new Overland train line (there's another story there, about how commuter rail can be effectively implemented right through neighborhoods, and dang, it was quiet!).  Here,  the authorities gave up an old wall, made it open for the artists to have at it. It's hard to say what's 'best:'  interesting images, or works with content?  What's more compelling?

I encountered two artists who were working on new pieces.  I asked if they were being paid for it, and they said no, they do it for the love of it.   Here's one of them, Dave.  He's been working in this medium since he was 13 years old, a little terror, for sure.  He's since gone on to art school, and has been making a go of it, career-wise.  When a wall is designated 'open' to use, they can go about their business in the daylight.

As I continued my walk, I found wall after wall of gorgeous, amazing work.  I couldn't believe the vibrancy, the creativitity, and humor!

I stopped in for lunch at a club called Cargo end enjoyed a jerk chicken burger, some shade and Wimbledon on the tv.  In a conversation with the server, I learned they have two Banksie works; these two works increased the property value by over 100,000 pounds. Banksie is perhaps the world's most famous - and still anonymous - street artist.  So this 'blight' has real value. 

Seeing this work in context drives home the point that the world's best cities don't try to stifle creativity, and are the realm of the unexpected.  With graffiti, I suppose the choice is to try to stop it or create a culture that facilitates the best of it.  In a place like London's gritty East End, the latter approach makes perfect sense.  Which ones do you favor, the interesting images, or the ones with interesting content?


Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Hardest Habit to Break

Our daily lives are so hectic, so programmed, that it can be a challenge to let go of the need to hurry.  When we travel, it's easy to keep going, filling the calendar, needing to rush about.  Standing in lines is the worst for me.  I suppose it depends whether you're on 'vacation' or 'traveling'.  But if you're in a town like London, it's doubly hard, as you feel you need to optimize your time, not miss important landmarks or activities.  Gotta squeeze it all in!

The essential objective of travel, however, is to open your mind, not stress you out.  So I would suspect that travel experts advise you to 'schedule' some empty spots in your day.  I heartily endorse that concept, and find that late afternoon is the perfect time for me to sit down with a cup of tea or perhaps a beer and relax - to just let the mind wander. 

My other favorite trick is to head out in a direction with cab fare in my pocket.  I try to limit my map checks to one or two, and stay focused on where I am.  To stop now and then and marvel, "Hey, I'm in London - wow!"  And if I get hopelessly lost, I know I can hail a cab.

Yesterday I had an hour to kill before the final event of the conference, a riverboat lunch tour.  I chose to kill it in Westminster Abbey.  Talk about Wow!  I was blown away and moved to tears, recalling when I stayed up to watch Princess Diana's funeral take place there.  And contemplating that 31 monarchs have been crowned - and most of them are buried - there.  But the space is incredible - un-planned minutes well worth the 15 quid.

After the riverboat tour, I took my wandering self through the Covent Garden area. I only needed to check my map once and happened upon the original Neal's Yard cheese shop.  I first learned of this shop through a Jamie Oliver tv show about ten years ago, and of course, their cheese is now widely available in the states.  Neal's Yard opened on July 4th, 1979.

But I met a lovely man, who goes by the handle "Curd Nerd," and shared a conversation on raw milk products and how they're handled in the UK. [His real name is Colum Hodgson.]  I had to tell myself to slow down, just engage in the conversation - that little microwave dinner back at the flat can wait.  He sold me some cheese he personally made three days ago.  In the process of our transaction, we got to talking, and I learned a lot about how this country handles the situation of a very valuable food product. 

Raw milk - from cows, goats and buffaloes - is available at any farmers market, pretty much in the whole country.  You don't have to go to the farm, in fact, it's not allowed that you get it at the farm.  Back home, now that Whole Foods has pulled it, you pretty much have to go to the source to get it.  Finding a true food pioneer was an unanticipated and welcome way to pass half an hour, and I'm pleased to have made a new friend.  Here's to you, Curd Nerd - best of luck in your enterprise to educate consumers. 

post-script:  I just love the internet - turns out there's a Randolph Hodgson who took over the dairy in the 80s and I'm betting it's this young man's father.  Which makes Curd Nerd eminently qualified to evangelize about cheese.   

Monday, June 14, 2010

On Encountering a New Food Shed

My absolute favorite thing to seek out in a new city is their food market. The distinctive sights and smells make each market unique. It's fascinating to see how the products available in the market define the area's foodshed. I've found that each market has a sort of signature, a distinctive way the produce is displayed. And you can begin to get a sense of the people by the quirky way they interact.

Markets connect people like nothing else, and no city has a market history quite like Istanbul. In this place where the east literally meets the west, trade has defined Istanbul, whether it was called Byzantion, Constantinople or Istanbul.

After getting worn out by the Grand Bazaar and the Egyptian Spice Market (pushy salespeople, too-high prices), we took a ferry to Kadikoy (cad-i-coo-ie) in search of what the guide books say is Istanbul's best market. After a little wandering, we found ourselves in a district of pedestrian-only streets marching up a hill overlooking the Bosphorus. A true neighborhood market, this one seemed ideal to me with its cobblestoned streets lined with food shops, restaurants and watering holes, apothecaries and other practical shops. We were definitely the standouts, being the only tourists in the area , but I could envision being quite happy to source my food here, and everything else I might need to live a happy life if I was an Istanbulla.

The stalls and stores were full of products representing the bounty of the region. I couldn't help drawing comparisons to California, my birthplace and what I've always considered an ideal food region. Istanbul borders the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, but they enjoy what we would call a Mediterranean diet. Stores offered a vast array of cheeses, olives, regional oils, fresh fruits and lots and lots of vegetables, many of which won't be ripe back home until about August. There were fish like none I'd seen. And the stuffed mussels they hawk all over Istanbul. Spices and exotic ingredients in jars and tins. It made we wonder about the size of the foodshed, and where it all comes from. So we went to a restaurant called Ciya (chee-ya), which specializes in Anatolian regional cuisine.

But in the market we just looked, and I took a lot of pictures. I regret I didn't have a lira to toss the old Greek man with his basked of eggs for his photo; trust me, he was totally National Geographic. I always feel a bit unwelcome taking photos in a market. The vendors would rather I buy. Oh, I'll buy something to gnosh on, but if I'm traveling, I can't stock up. I wish I could, because after seeing the beauty of their offerings, I wanted to cook up a fabulous meal. But I can't resist snapping away! I choose to believe they will opt to take it as a compliment that I found their display photo-worthy and thus appreciate my recording it. And I hope you can feel a little of the special quality of Istanbul and its food in these images.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Evening Stroll

In Spain, it's the paseo; in Italy, it's the passeggiata; in France, the passage. All throughout Eurpoean cities, people step out in the evening for a stroll. With living spaces on the smaller side, it only makes sense one would go outside and take in some air. But what's most charming is the sense of a communal experience, of connecting with one's neighbors. And with residents mixing with the tourists in a place like Prague, it makes for excellent people-watching. This picture is of the three of us on the Charles Bridge over the Vltava River in Prague.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Longest Journey

Every journey begins with a first step right?. Starting a blog is a big step. The motivation? A trip to Europe with my two daughters. We’re traveling to Prague, Istanbul and London, and we anticipate a wide variety of experiences in these exciting and unique locales. While we travel, I’ll be sharing our experiences, and my observations of city life, culture and customs, and human nature. Oh yes, there will be photos, too.

But really and truly, isn’t life just one continuous journey? So they say. So I’ll keep posting from other places I visit, and hope to uncover thoughtful ties between places and people. I hope you will enjoy reading, and please, I welcome your comments.