Sunday, January 7, 2018

How I Like to Travel

The first time I ever traveled overseas, I was 22 years old, and I had just graduated from university.  Using my parents' travel miles, I flew to Europe with my good friend N, whom I'd known since I was five.  We had six weeks, ridiculously heavy backpacks, Eurail passes, and very little money.  It was going to be amazing.

Except, it kind of wasn't.  I mean...there were moments that were amazing.  Like the first day in London, when I walked around the city with my mouth hanging open saying things like "OMG...Alfred Russel Wallace lived here*.  OMG...MAHATMA GANDHI LIVED HERE!!!"  Or the beautiful day we spent on a boat on Loch Ness, before I discovered how badly I had burned my legs because I had decided to "let them tan".   But there was also a lot of hard stuff.

The biggest problem was that N and I wanted to have completely different trips.  I had planned for the trip obsessively, reading Let's Go Europe from cover to cover and marking things as "Must-See" or "Would-Like-To-See-If-We-Have-Time".  I had practiced saying Hello/Goodbye/Please/Thank You/I desperately need a bathroom now in the languages of every country we would visit.  And I had dreamed of all the nerdy historical places we would visit:  Westminster Abbey, Edinburgh Castle, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Roman Forum. 

N had packed her party clothes.  Unbeknownst to me, this trip for her represented an opportunity to escape from her somewhat overprotective parents and just have fun.  She had almost no desire to buy the discount passes that let you see all the historical sites in a city, but every desire to meet people at hostels and go dancing.  So for six weeks, we cramped each other's style, arguing constantly about whether to spend our time in a museum or a bar.  By the time we flew home, we were barely talking to each other.

I realized on that trip that I have some pretty specific desires when I travel, and they aren't necessarily the desires of others.  Which is completely okay.  I in no way judge the crazy people who want to be social and spend times in crowded spaces.  I simply don't want to travel with them.

Over the years, I have been very fortunate to have lots of opportunities to travel.  And with each trip, I've gotten even better at knowing what I will or will not enjoy.  Which is particularly relevant to me right now, as I just bought tickets for a conference and vacation in France this Spring.  FRANCE!  If you follow me on Twitter, you will know that I have been posting there frequently about my excitement about learning to speak French and planning my trip.  And to build on that excitement, I've decided to post about some of the things that make a great trip for me.

Really Nerdy Activities:
I love nerdy things, and the more I embrace this fact, the happier I become.  When traveling, I have no interest at all in the popular shopping district, but I absolutely do want to see the collection of 18th century dioramas/the site where a famous scientist was born/Galileo's middle finger.

When traveling, I seek out the oddities.  I look on Atlas Obscura to find places to visit (Oradour-Sur-Glane is high on my list for France).  I allocate entire days to medical and natural history museums.  And I love every minute of it.

Traveling Alone:
Shockingly there are few people in this world who want to spend hours with me in a natural history museum photographing a dodo bird (A DODO BIRD!) from every angle.  When I travel with another person, it is inevitable that at some point the other person will become impatient and/or I will feel rushed.  Which is quite easily overcome by me simply traveling alone.

While traveling with someone else isn't entirely negative (eating in restaurants tends to be better with another person), I do tend to prefer traveling on my own.  I like having complete control over where I go and what I see.  I like being able to commit a day of travel and four hours on a bus to visiting the seaside town from which the French explorers departed for Canada.  And I like never being dragged out in the evening to socialize with people I don't know.

Flexible Schedule:
Whenever I travel, I tend to alternate between days of "OMG I'm so excitied!  I'm going to see three museums and take a walking tour and take hundreds of photos!" and days of "Cobblestone hurts my feet and I don't like the food here and I want to stay in bed and Internet".  This pattern repeats itself on every trip I go on, and if I ignore my need for downtime and try to push on with the sightseeing, I will inevitably become miserable.  I've learned to build flexibility and extra time into my schedule so that, when needed, I can spend a day on the couch with a block of cheese and a good book and recharge my traveling energy.

Small Cities and Towns:
When N and I went to Europe, we gave ourselves four full days in Rome, recognizing that there was a lot to see.  And for four days we rode on the crowded subways and got catcalled by Roman men and saw site after site of broken columns.  For me, I was overwhelmed by the number of people and by the sense that no matter how much we rushed, we would never see everything.  I learned from my visit to Rome that I prefer the small places to the big.  Small places may not have as many things to see, but I enjoy the sense of being able to see everything, even when I go at a leisurely pace.  And I love the oddities that turn up in small places, which would never attract tourists in a big city, like the preserved two-headed pig in the farming town where my grandparents lived.

Packing Light:
On my first trip, I bought the biggest backpack I could find, and I filled it with everything that would fit in it.  And then I packed a second smaller backpack as a day pack.  Even though I was only 22 years old, I felt like an old woman thanks to the constant back and shoulder pain from carrying my things around.  When I watched the movie Wild, I couldn't stop laughing in recognition at Cheryl Strayed's pack (although, for the record, I did not pack 12 condoms for my trip to Europe).

Every time I travel, my suitcase gets lighter.  I simply don't need much stuff, and I hate hauling a heavy bag into airport bathrooms and onto trains.  On my most recent trip, which was to Quebec City, I took only my camera bag and a carry-on suitcase, and it was still more stuff than I needed.  I will probably need to take a larger bag to France, as I need to bring work-appropriate clothes with me, but you can bet that it will be packed as lightly as possible.  (Leaving room to bring home wine.)

So this is how I travel.  A solitary introvert with a tiny bag and a big camera, visiting the nerdiest places I can find.  My idea of a fun vacation would probably be a nightmare to a more outgoing person, but it works perfectly for me.  Which I think is a good guiding principle for life:  do what works perfectly for you.

*You know you're a nerd when you not only know who Alfred Russel Wallace was but also still feel angry that he didn't get the recognition he deserved for the theory of evolution.


  1. I've mainly traveled solo, but I really want to travel with someone. I like getting to do what I want and not waiting for my life to look a "certain" way, but even just the small things of leaving your luggage with your partner while you head to the restroom in an airport is really helpful.

    I like a combo of nerdy and ambling. I plan and print out everything so I know where I am, but then I go with the flow of the day. I just want to have enough information so that I don't get lost. But if a hunk of cheese calls to me, or a museum has an exhibit that wants more time, I'm there.

    1. I think the bathroom part of travel is going to be my biggest challenge traveling solo this Spring! I had gotten very used to being able to leave things with my ex, and I'm not looking forward to having to pee with a camera bag and suitcase. More incentive to pack lightly.

      Your style of traveling sounds very similar to mine. One of the joys of traveling is finding unexpected things (places, food, etc.), and I have learned to always leave time for those things.

  2. I prefer a combination of things. I probably wouldn’t want to go clubbing, but I do like going out for dinner and talking to people. I like museums but definitely wouldn’t want to pack my whole day with them, or to spend hours in one. I like going for walks or hikes, having a coffee or snack someplace, and then taking a nap and reading or relaxing. It’s nice to go with someone who is on the same page so we don’t fight all the time.

    1. Traveling with the right person can definitely be nice. My ex and I had very similar travel styles, so we traveled quite well together. I will definitely miss having someone to eat in restaurants with, as dining alone can often feel awkward.

  3. I like both traveling with companions and by myself. It's nice to eat what and when you want to, and control the pace of the trip when you're solo. But I miss sharing my excitement with someone else over things when I'm alone. Eating alone can suck, especially in some countries where the cultural norm is geared towards social eating. I have been turned away by Seoul restaurants for being solo. On that note, Japan is the best solo travel destination. Restaurants are used to solo diners,most hotels have single rooms at a reduced price.

    1. That's interesting that you've actually been turned away from a restaurant! I've definitely been seated at some pretty crappy tables when dining alone, but overall I've been treated okay. I typically try to avoid really nice restaurants and really busy times when dining alone, and I find I usually get good service. And sometimes I just eat bread and cheese alone in my hotel because the stress of eating out alone is too much.

  4. I think I love you, Blessed be.

  5. I've travelled with giant groups, with one other person and by myself. My best trips by far, are by myself.

    If I'm going somewhere new, I will research ALL THE THINGS - and I will have general "plans" on what I want to be certain to do, even if I don't schedule things for a particular day necessarily.

    I tend to go to hot places, where I can swim in the ocean - and I've settled into a pattern of "get up really early, go to the location of the day, snorkel, swim, do the things" - and then depending on how I feel, I may do lunch and then something else unplanned - wander around town poking in stores and finding postcards or driving randomly down the coast and taking photos - and then in the afternoon, I'll go back to my rooms - and veg out until dinner. If I'm feeling ambitious, I may go to the pool :)

    It works pretty well - I get a nice balance of "do ALL THE THINGS" and relaxation.

    I'm getting better at packing lightly - I always end up taking more clothing than I need - but I'm getting *better*

    1. Sounds like you've figured out a system that works well for you, which I think is key. For me, I also try to do things early in the day when my energy level is the highest and things tend not to be as busy. Then if I still feel like doing something in the afternoon, I can do a second activity, or I can just sit in a cafe and drink a glass of wine.

  6. I learnt a very similar lesson when I went on a group holiday. Constant arguments about really petty things, constantly trying to compromise but still failing to make everyone happy. Never again. I didn’t realise that you learn more about a person when you travel with them, the good and the ugly, you also learn different travel styles.
    I’m also planning to go on a solo holiday this year, which would be my second one!

  7. I am with you. I prefer to travel alone or with one other person who has the same interests as me. I've already had the requisite group travel stress, arguments, and resulting fallout.

    I'm into architecture and food when I travel, but surprisingly, some people aren't! Enjoy your trip to France!

  8. I have greatly enjoyed my time traveling alone. When in France, I went up the Eiffel tower twice (sunset and at night), just because I wanted to. I love doing things like that. But it's been great since I met (and married) someone who mostly likes to travel like me. We have small differences, but for the most part, we mesh well. It's really great to be able to reminisce about trips with him.

    But if you can't find that just right person? Yes, so nice to travel alone. Or to travel with someone who agrees that the best traveling is when you each do solo stuff often and only sometimes go out together.