When I travel, I get guide books and look through them, reading histories and facts. When I get to maps and neighborhood descriptions, my brain just glosses over and I turn the pages. Orientations of places I've never been just don't quite make sense in my head. So now I just don't really bother with that. I always make sure to have a map, though, although before I go it's meaningless.
When I get to my destination, I go somewhere and then orient myself. Suddenly it all makes sense. It's like it's only relevant when I'm actually in that place. One spot will usually become my zero-point, that becomes my place of relevance and the area I return to again and again, and am able to navigate from there.
In Paris this spot is Notre Dame and the intersection of Blvds St-Michel and St-Germain.
In London, it's been too long and I can't remember. :)
In New York, before I moved here, it was Union Square.
In Prague, my zero-point, predictably, became the Old Town Square. It's big, it's full of history, it's very colorful, it's always busy. It's easy. (All of my spots have those things, actually.)
It was especially a good place because the Prague Walking Tours began there, under the Astronomical Clock.
Walking tours have become easily the best way to see the city and learn a lot of new things you won't find in the guidebooks or signposts.
Paris Walking Tours
Rome Walking Tours
In Prague, I decided to take advantage of the buy 2 get one free deal. $25 for three tours and nearly six hours of "small-group instruction" in (sometimes heavily-accented English). So on Wednesday, I think, I took the Castle Tour in the morning and then the Jewish Quarter Tour in the afternoon. On Thursday, I took the Myths and Legends of Prague Tour. All of them were good to learn history and facts about the city. The last one definitely had the best stories, as you might imagine. I'll save those for a separate post.
On this trip, I deviated somewhat from my normal daily routine. On other trips, I get up around 8 or maybe 9, have a continental breakfast at the hostel or hotel if I was feeling rich, and then set out to traipse the city. See a museum, walk around somewhere, be touristy but pretending to not be American (accomplished by dressing as inconspicuously as possibly and speaking English only when absolutely required, and then softly and politely with some of the local language if possible).
I'd probably get a snackything around lunchtime, since I don't really do restaurants in foreign places. (One of my loveable quirks is my strange eating habits.) Crepes or gelato are my preferred foreign snack. Once I was passing a market and the green beans were calling me. So I bought a small paper bag's worth and spent the rest of the afternoon crunching on raw green beans. Oh man, were they delicious.
After lunch, I'd continue the sight-seeing. Continuing to see museums, gardens, or other places, but then I'd crash around 2 or 3. I'd be in a museum and then just sit for as long as I could. Occasionally I used to sketch during this time, to pass the time and make it look like I wasn't a lazy tired tourist bum.
I'd drag myself to another sight or two, or perhaps a souvenir shop (which I hate entering), and then desperately search for something to eat. Sometimes I'd cave and go to a place that was at least semi-familiar, like McDonald's (apple pies are fried and even more tasty!) or Quick (another fast-food joint). It was never fun or pleasant, but at least I could get something to eat. Two years ago in Paris, since I speak French and was fucking hungry all the time, the whole week, I got up the balls to go to a pizza shop and get a pizza with no cheese. The guy was shocked and kept saying, "No cheese? Just sauce? Are you sure?" I kept nodding and affirming. It was satisfying to have so much to eat...but I was still hungry afterwards.
Then I'd put in a last burst of energy to get my tired ass back to the place of lodging. Never a big napper, I'd read or try to socialize with other people. If staying at a hotel with tv, I'd try to watch something. EuroMTV is always a fun choice, since--shock! gasp!--they still actually play music videos. In Venice, after about a week already in Italy, I was generally exhausted and spent a whole day laying in bed watching videos and sitcoms dubbed in Italian. That was the summer that India.Arie's Video and the Gorillaz' first song both came out, and I was surprised that they were out in the US, too.
Anyway, so that was my normal routine. I never bothered going out at night, since on my own it was just weird and awkward. Plus, I was always really tired and couldn't even fathom staying out more. Also, I'm not much into the nightlife or clubbing scenes; I travel to see stuff in daylight, not drink beer in dark foreign bars.
On several occasions, however, I have made hostel friends and gone out with them. Always have a fantastic time, too. In Rome, some Aussie guys and I went to an Australian bar somewhere behind the Trevi fountain. In Florence, two hilarious British guys, two young American girls, and a wet Canadian guy (see if you can spot him below!) (the picture is actually at the hostel, where we returned after the bar) and I went to an Irish bar. In Paris, with a bunch of underage Aussie just-graduated high-schoolers, I went to a pizza restaurant in the Latin Quarter.
So this trip, I was even more lazy than on previous excursions. Two mornings I didn't leave the hostel until noon or later. I spent hours in the evening just sitting on my bed in my empty room (five beds, but it was all mine until Thursday; talk about off-season!), and reading books.
I went to supermarkets and bought goodies to keep me going throughout the day. Yes, that's an apple! I know, I was shocked too. Here's the more shocking thing: I actually ate it for lunch on Thursday! Who knew? Here is one of my new favorite treats from Prague:
Yes, that is a chocolate bar whose squares are filled with banana. Yum! The other thing I tried that I adored were the wafer cookies in the box. They seem dry at first, but they have little nuggets of sweet in them that makes them irresistable. I bought two of each of these and brought them home untouched (which was NOT easy). (Yes, I actually put the candy bar in my scanner for this picture.)
Other than chocolate and bread, I am also a Fanta lover. In Paris, back in 2000, I came to really love the stuff. When I got home to Seattle, I was disappointed but not surprised that it wasn't in stores. When I came to New York, however, they did have it. I was happy.
Last week, when I had my first Fanta of the trip in the Amsterdam airport, I was totally refreshed by the light and sweet drink. I thought, hm, it always tastes better in Europe.
This morning, I had a flash of realization that was proven at the grocery store: the stuff in American stores called Fanta is NOT Fanta! It is plain orange soda!
I hope this doesn't lessen me in your opinion, but this was a big shock to me and it kind of stole some of my precious remaining innocence.
Real Fanta is not bright orange; it's yellow with just a hint of orange. Closer to the color of pineapple soda. Real Fanta is fizzy and light and extremely refreshing. Fake Fanta is too sweet and not even closely as satisfying.
My British friend Jean says the same thing about Cadbury chocolate. In America, it's actually Hershey's chocolate under the Cadbury label, and it's trash compared to the real thing.
Anyway. So when I travel, I am much quieter and more studious, but also quicker to tire. I love learning new things, and finding new sights to see.
I usually get lost at least once a trip. Mostly, figure where I actually am on the map, I'll find the correct street, and then walk down it in the wrong direction. In Prague, I did not get lost once. Nor did I get mugged or pickpocketed or threatened in any way. I try to always pay attention and keep myself in the moment, as Ms Frizzle mentioned. I like to notice words in foreign languages and sound them out to myself quietly. On this trip, I learned "Pristi Zastavka" (sounds like PRISHtee zahSTAVka) means "Next stop." "Kolej" is a train platform.
I love to travel. I love learning about the city I'm seeing, and I love to find out who I am when I'm alone in a foreign place. I feel so free and happy when I travel, a feeling I never ever get any other time. Then I come home, and I tell stories and anecdotes and share pictures, but it's never really enough. I smile and say, "Yes! It was a great trip!" But of course, those platitudes are the understatements of the year. I've never been able to make anyone else understand just what goes on during a solo trip, or even a group trip. On group trips, at least there are other people to understand the inexplicable joy of your experience. On your own, you have to write about it in a journal or nowadays a blog, and try to find and name those unique sensations like true happiness or real irritation at fellow Americans.
Traveling leaves scars. Coming home is like ripping off a not-fully-healed scab. You really just don't want to, and it hurts way down deep. It feels like losing a part of yourself that you found, albeit fairly briefly. Other people see the scar and take it for face value: Oh, you went on a trip. By yourself? Wow. Was it good? I can now hide the eye-rolling that goes along with this silly question, and can even fake a quick and pleasant response (because that's all the person expects and will tolerate and frankly, can understand). But the scar stays with you, a part of you forever, it changes who you are and how you see the world and act within it.
Traveling outside of your own comfort zone (and true travelers will laugh when I say this, since I've only traveled around North America and Europe) makes you a better, bigger person, but most of the time, people can't see that or understand it. Those people are small-minded, who never travel, who insist on having stereotypes and negative ideas about certain types of people. It's sad, truly sad that some people just aren't travelers.
I suppose that leaves more space for the rest of us, though.