I recently returned from a work trip to London; I’m fortunate to have a job that sends me around the world on occasion, and around my own state fairly often. I love my job, and I LOVE to travel. The hard part is that my job takes me away from my family, and I can’t share the wonders of the world with them. What I can share is what I learn on the road, and I can bring pieces of the world back to them.
Here are a few lessons I learned on my most recent trip; lessons I hope to pass down to my children as I instill a love of travel in them, too.
1. Eat everything!
On my flight to London, I read an article about the revolution of British food. British food has not been traditionally considered gourmet. It’s mostly fried, mushy and tasteless. But chefs are finally tackling boring British menus and
making them, well, tasty! This article mentioned a traditional appetizer called Scotch Eggs. These are boiled eggs, wrapped in sausage, breaded, and deep-fried. Sounds terrible, but it was something I just had to try!
I got my chance at a work reception that took place in a little pub that week. These particular Scotch Eggs were quail eggs, and they were the perfect size to just pop in your mouth… and they were delicious!
I make it a rule to at least sample local specialties, and to never eat at a chain restaurant when traveling. My kids are picky eaters, as are most kids, but I hope that as we go on family trips and sample foods local to our destination, they will learn to try new things and associate travel with discovery.
2. Talk to everyone.
Solo travel can be lonely. But unless you take a vow of silence on your travels, it forces you to meet the people around you, and this can be almost as enlightening as trying new foods! While in London, I stopped by a wine bar I’d read about. It’s the oldest wine bar in London, and the building is where Rudyard Kipling lived while he wrote “The Light that Failed.” Apparently I’m not the only tourist who has read about it, and it was packed on the night I stopped by. All the indoor cave-alcove tables were taken, so I ordered a half-bottle of zinfandel and wandered outside to find an empty table. I ended up having to share a table with a fellow traveler, and while a part of me wanted to ignore my tablemate and not have to stumble over polite conversation, I decided to offer him a pour from my bottle of wine and a few friendly words.
It turns out that he is in the film industry, originally from Australia and living in London for the past 18 months. He moved to London to gain access to Europe, and was worried that he won’t have seen enough of it when he has to return to Australia in six months. I learned about what Aussie tourists look for on their travels (bonus that I can apply this knowledge in my day job!) and what he recommended I try to see in London before going home.
All of my travels have introduced me to fascinating people and cultures, but you’ll never see what’s right in front of you if you walk around with your eyes and mouth closed. While I don’t encourage my kids to talk to strangers, I don’t want them to be afraid of strangers, either. Ugh, I never thought I’d quote the greeting on my high school wall, but here goes: “Strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet.” Sappy, yet true.
3. Don’t be afraid to look like a tourist.
My biggest fear when traveling has nothing to do with safety: I’m afraid to look like an “ugly American.” Shoot me if I ever don a fanny pack! But I’ve learned to accept that when I’m a tourist, I look like one, and that’s okay. It’s okay to have a big camera and take pictures of castles, museums and guards in funny hats (hey, it’s London, guards in funny hats are everywhere!). It’s okay to pull out a map when you’re lost (or better yet, ask a local!). It’s okay to buy a souvenir bag and fill it with goodies to take home. Yeah, so a camera, map, and souvenir bag scream “tourist!” to the locals, but being a tourist means I’m there appreciating their fine city, and I hope the locals can forgive my bag full of souvenirs. Hey, at least I’m not wearing a fanny pack!
4. Get lost.
I’m a planner. I have to know where I’m going, what I’m seeing, what train I need to take, and where I’m having lunch. But through the course of my travels, I’ve learned to appreciate the art of getting lost. Being lost is how I’ve found some of the most memorable cafes and stumbed into beautiful neighborhoods that aren’t on my “Top 10 Sights to See” list.
Getting lost has also taught me to trust my own ability to figure things out. A college friend once told me that when he turned 16, his mom took him on a long drive, dropped him off with a bus map and money, and made him find his way home. Yes, that sounds extreme, but after that he said he felt confident in navigating any bus system.
Once, when I took a train from Berlin to Amsterdam, I got on a wrong train, learned that English is NOT spoken everywhere in the world, and realized that I was truly out of my element. I was terrified. And after a quick study of a map, and watching other travelers, I figured it out. The confidence that came with simply getting lost and finding my way is something I’ve carried over into other parts of my life – and my career.
There are such great lessons to be learned by getting lost, and I hope I can teach my daughters to appreciate the feeling of being out of control, and regaining it.
I miss my daughters immensely when I travel, but I hope that they are absorbing the lessons I learn. And I hope that the satin Chinese dresses I brought home from Shanghai, the clog slippers from Amsterdam, the royal Corgi dogs from London, and the countless bits of foreign money, food and other souvenirs will all add up to an interest in these other cultures. I hope they will grow up knowing that the world is so much bigger than their own hometown, and that they are not afraid to discover the rest of the world for their own.
And in the end, I hope they appreciate coming home. There’s no feeling like walking through your own front door, into the waiting arms of those who love you. That’s perhaps the best lesson of all. No matter where you go, and no matter what adventures you have, there’s no place like home.