Category Archives: Travel

travels with my brother.

“And that’s the wonderful thing about family travel:  it provides you with experiences that will remain locked forever in the scar tissue of your mind.”

–Dave Barry

My brother's entry on the visitors' board at a craft shop.

My brother is a man of few words. I was reminded of this when he picked me up from the airport in Wichita, Kansas, last Friday night. Kansas seemed like an odd destination, especially after a semester in London, but I’d come to keep him company on his 23-hour drive home for Christmas break. He transferred out to a small town called McPherson this semester to play soccer for a small college, and I knew this was most likely my only chance to see this new alternate universe he inhabits.

After a greasy breakfast at Neighbor’s Cafe on Saturday morning (and a few moments of confusion whereby we were mistaken for a couple–“Mr and Mrs?” our waiter asked to Grant’s horror) we headed out to an even smaller town fifteen minutes away called Lindsborg–otherwise known as Little Sweden, USA. My parents had walked around it when they flew out for a visit in October and I expected it to be just the sort of place I love, the kind of towns I spent a month exploring around the North Island of New Zealand: tiny populations, quirky personalities, and outrageous claims-to-fame that only small town tourism boards can invent.

As a collection of at least twenty painted Swedish dalas placed outside shops had me running back and forth across the main street, Grant walked slowly along as I revelled in the whimsical touches of Scandinavia here in the heartland of Kansas and questioned patient proprietors of shops like the Wild Dala Winery about where exactly all this had come from.

“Alright, I think I’m ready,” I said finally, my camera’s memory card nearly groaning under the weight of a hundred photos and my capacity for dalas nearly reached. We made our way through a few back streets, around the campus of a local university, and then back, I thought, towards McPherson. But then Grant turned the car away from the highway.

“Where are we going?” I asked, but no sooner had the words been spoken then there appeared in the woods a one-lane bridge, the kind of bridge built from a structure of criss-crossing iron beams. They were painted green, had strings of Christmas lights wrapped around them, lit even in daylight, and the words God Jul–‘Merry Christmas’ in Swedish–painted across the top front beam. It was set back between leafless trees and a narrow creek ran swiftly beneath.

“How’d you know it was here?” I asked, surprised.

“I saw it,” he said simply, probably having little idea of how it touched me or how much it meant.

I hopped out of the car to get a few shots, struck by the beauty of the Christmas bridge, but thinking mostly of how we don’t always need words to know someone cares.

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the little things.

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.”

–Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I’ve been known to get things wrong before, especially when it comes to travel bookings. Booking my flight home for Christmas, I purchased it so fast I didn’t realise my return journey to London included an unintentional 12-hour (and not to mention, overnight) layover in Chicago. I’ll be leaving Richmond on a Monday night, arriving in Chicago at 9pm, departing at 9am the next morning and not getting back to London until 10.45pm Tuesday night.

Epic fail. Epic travel fail.

But as it turns out, my flight to the States today also included another unexpected twist. My itinerary with American Airlines was to start off with a quick jaunt north to Manchester, from where I would catch a flight to Chicago and then on to my final stop, Wichita, Kansas. An AA representative had a quick look at my schedule, though, before saying, “Oh, no, that couldn’t be with us. We don’t fly to Manchester.” A brief dart of panic shot through me. I’d been anticipating this–a stopover in Manchester before an international flight just seemed too weird–and I had my Please-Have-Pity-On-Me sob story all ready for use at a moment’s notice: “But you don’t understand, I have to get on this flight. My sister just had surgery…brain surgery…and my brother’s meeting me in Kansas…Kansas!

The script wasn’t needed, after all. “You need to go to Terminal 5, Miss,” the woman explained. “You’re flying to Manchester with British Airways.”

I’m what? I wanted to ask, but I knew better than to question this little stroke of luck. I might as well have been picking up the Ford Taurus rental car I’d hypothetically scheduled and been told a Lexus was waiting for me outside. I’m not well-acquainted with upgrades when it comes to the world of travel, so as I walked down the jet bridge, where there stood freshly-pressed stacks of the Daily Mail, the Independent, and Financial Times–all complimentary, of course–I knew I was in new territory.

That’s also when I realised life is all about the little things. When it comes to flying, I’m more accustomed to the business plans of budget airlines, whereby they strip you down to nothing but a body. Don’t get me wrong, the insanely low base fares are well-worth the inherent demoralisation (recent bookings have involved a $14 flight to Sardinia, Italy, and a $20 flight to Porto, Portugal–thank you, RyanAir), but what these fares don’t include are the $10 administrative fee, the baggage fees, the online check-in fees, the extra transport to London’s less prominent airports, and they certainly don’t include free copies of the UK’s finest publications, nor other more important incidentals involving nourishment. There have even been rumors concerning RyanAir and a potential charge for using the toilet, which seems like they’re just asking for a lawsuit.

But on my unexpectedly lovely ride in luxury this morning, I was amazed at how nice it was to have all those small touches again–the newspapers, the leather seats, and the built-in headrests that seem to welcome you in like an old friend–and then, as if that wasn’t enough, the pilot came on once we were in the air and said, “We are pleased to be serving you a hot baguette with tea or coffee this morning.”

Could it get any better? On one of those 40-minute flights that seems to begin preparing for landing before it’s even taken off? And as I sat there, sipping on hot coffee, a little plastic cup of orange juice, and tucking into a baguette filled with warm tomatoes and bacon, I thought of how nice it was to feel like a human being again, not just a body filling a seat, and how the simplest gestures bring such a smile to your face.

The little things can go a long way, can’t they?

 

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the long way home.

“Paying attention, I learned again, is the foundation of great travel writing – and as a bonus, it deeply and resonantly enriches your everyday life as well.”
–Don George, Gadling

It had been a week to remember. A brisk drop in temperatures preceded Britain’s earliest snowfall in nearly two decades, since November of 1993. But a surprisingly mild weekend set about erasing all sign of the record-setting snow and Sunday’s cloudless blue sky filled my lungs with crisp chill air. It was the perfect sort of day to bridge autumn and winter, I thought as I set out for Tolworth, a little area just south of Surbiton. My editor for Kingston’s student magazine had wanted me to go report on a sports alumni event taking place that afternoon, a series of matches playfully pairing current and ex-students against each other.

Me being me, lacking the standard allotment of common sense and all, didn’t think to check with my editor first to see if the snow, the same snow that incapacitated nearly every other aspect of British life this week, might not have had a similar effect on the sports event. Indeed, as I rushed off the bus and down Tolworth Broadway towards the sports grounds, I was greeted by nothing but lonely, snow-streaked fields.

I kicked the fence bearing a cheery blue sign: ALL SPORT CANCELLED. My typical self would have been, to put it lightly, annoyed, perturbed, even angry, perhaps? But for some reason, as I headed back to the bus stop, I was fine. With my afternoon suddenly as clear as the sky above me, I felt something close to happiness and made a deal with myself: if I walked the hour back to Kingston, I could use the money I would have spent on bus fare on a coffee from the library cafe (yes, I am on that kind of budget right now…).

Once I started walking, I couldn’t have been more pleased with my decision, iPod popped in and set to a dance/house playlist to put a little pep in my step. Gratefully I’d brought my camera along, as I was just in time for the rich sunlight that comes with the Golden Hours (which sadly start in mid-afternoon this time of year). Ordinary rows of shop buildings were gloriously illuminated, shadows dancing blithely on their walls, and I started to shift into travel-writer-mode, i.e. giving attention to the details so easy to overlook: the items in an antique shop’s storefront window, the diversity of restaurants and food markets to choose from, and a road sign for Kingston Town. How cool, I thought, to live in an official “historic market town.”

But what I loved most is what I will always remember of England in the winter: church spires and barren branches. Sunlit and standing tall, the steeples were everywhere, appearing above houses and shops and framed often by spidery branches stripped of their leaves.

There’s something to be said for taking the long way home.

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a week’s worth of thankfulness.

“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
— G.K. Chesterton

The last Thursday in November is inevitably the one day of the year where my homesickness soars to unprecedented levels. Yes, being away for Christmas is hard, but there’s something about Thanksgiving that makes it even harder. After hearing other Americans the past couple of weeks explain to Brits what it exactly it is that makes the holiday so wonderful to them, I’ve realized I’m not alone in my sentiments: it’s like Christmas, but better. All the food and family and fun, with none of the pressure of gifts and certainly nowhere near the massive commercialization. And so I’ve come to expect that pang, a little twinge of sadness, every time I Skype home on Thanksgiving. Maybe it’s just that my entire extended family seems to have that afterglow of gluttony on their faces and all I’ve had is spaghetti, but I always miss home a little more this time of the year.

When we were younger, my mother–much to the chagrin of everyone’s grumbling stomachs–would hand out five kernels of corn to each of us and before we dared touch the turkey, dip a finger into creamy mashed potatoes, or, God forbid, sample Grandma’s green jello salad, we had to go around and say five things we were thankful for. I hate lists and will have nothing to do with them in my normal blog routine–we can all figure out the “Top 10 Most Amazing” whatever’s wherever on our own, right? But, in the spirit of the season and given that it’s been an exceptionally good week in London, I thought I might dig up the old tradition…with or without the kernels to help me count.

1. Flatmates

I spent the summer at home practically stalking sites like Gumtree (a British version of Craig’s List) and Kingston’s own accommodation site. I bought Skype credit to call landlords and agents and did my best to convince them I would wire over a deposit to secure a room for September. Ha! Like that worked well. But now that it’s been two months since moving into my current flat in London, I can, with that blessed gift of hindsight, see why none of my desperate attempts this summer panned out. Although both Welsh Nick and Zambian-English Keith are lovely, it’s an Essex girl named Claire who has made me know for sure I was meant for this flat. Whether it’s catching up on the latest episode of Gossip Girl, nipping over to our local pub for a quick drink, or sharing travel stories and plans for new trips, my new friendship with Claire is one of those connections that makes each day a little brighter.

2. Food

Keeping in with the theme of one our favorite shows–“Come Dine With Me,” in which a group of four or five random people take turns cooking and entertaining each other–Claire has been fixing up some exquisitely tasty dinners for us the past few Friday nights. Two weeks ago it was a Moroccan-themed dish of lamb and red peppers, stuffed with chili, couscous, and halloumi cheese. Last week it was a Thai green curry with chicken and veges. “Where will we go next week?” Claire asked as we sat down to eat.

3. Events

I first met Dr. Chris Barlow, a fine art historian, two years ago through my flatmates at the time, Kim and Emily. Although they’ve seen moved back to the States, they sent me an email from Chris about a month ago, an invitation for the opening night of a contemporary art exhibition here in London. I was intrigued, and invited my Slovenian friend Tanja along to take advantage of her art expertise. The exhibit, held in La Galleria along the Royal Opera Parade, was called “Parallax,” which, I’ve since found out, means, “the apparent displacement of an object as seen from two different points that are not on a line with the object” (thanks, Princeton.) The paintings and pieces displayed couldn’t have been any more different from each other, but apparently that was the idea. “The theme is that there is no theme,” Chris explained to us. “How very postmodern of you,” was my response. “We need a new art history,” Tonja said to Chris as they discussed it further. I simply rolled my eyes, loving every minute of it.

 

Robert Bodem, “An Invitation,” bronze. £25,000. Yes, you read that right.

4. Travel bloggers

It’s true. Ever since TBEX in Copenhagen, I can’t get enough of them. Even as we parted ways after our whirlwind Danish adventure, I was excited to find out that many of the people I met at the conference are based here in London. I’ve since gotten together with some of them at a house party hosted by the esteemed Travelling Editor, otherwise known as Dylan. Last week I had a chance to attend a lunch the Dubai Tourism Board was giving especially for travel bloggers  and last night, Matt and Deborah of Travel With a Mate hosted a monthly London Travel Bloggers meetup at the Founders Arm in Blackfriars, where I got to catch up with my friend Justin and hear about the next 48-Hour Adventure he’s got up his sleeve. Conversations with Justin, Dylan and their friends were some of the most stimulating and thought-provoking I’ve had in a while, from freedom for Tibet to genocide in Africa and figuring out just how to make our love for travel and the world work. Who knew Copenhagen would open up so many doors in London?

5. The view

With a wall of windows overlooking the Thames, last night’s pub couldn’t have been located any better. As enjoyable as the conversations were around our table, I felt myself distracted half the time by the dome of St. Paul’s literally just across the river. It’s amazing how easy it is to get caught up in yourself here, in the craziness of commuting and the busy-ness of life. But pressing pause for a few seconds just to take in the view around me is enough to know I couldn’t imagine being anywhere but here

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seaside on a saturday.

“Brightly coloured beach huts are an essential part of the British coast. They go together with ice creams, sandcastles and the unreliable British weather to form part of our experience of summer by the seaside.”

–Seasidehistory.co.uk

Catching the bus for Southwold, I am distinctly aware of being the youngest on board. By about four decades at least. Every other white-haired passenger wears oversized polarfleece zip-ups produced by brands like “Arctic Storm.” I’m sporting a black leather jacket. But that doesn’t mean I’m not loving this trek to an out-of-the-way seaside town of no more than 1,500.

At an intersection, signs point the way to places like Spexhall (2.5km), Bungay (8km), and Beckley (9km) and it’s nice to not have any idea of where I’m going. Each little place we pass through, places like Blyford and Wenhaston Village, is lined with cottages with names that hang next to their doors on painted signs; names like Honeysuckle, Driftwood, Fern, Daisy, and then, questionably, Post Office Cottage. A row of terraced houses is painted in such a way that it resembles the inside of a carton of neapolitan ice cream. This is an altogether lovely corner of the country, I think to myself.

By the time we arrive in Southwold, my nostalgia is moving with full force and I make straight for the beach. Two months in the capital have left me itching for salt in the air and gulls squawking above. Maybe it was a week my family once spent at the beach over Thanksgiving when I was seven years old, but there’s something about being near an ocean in the winter that always gets me. Walking along the shore, it isn’t so much about the warmth of the sun and the swimming anymore, but a fundamental state of being, the openness and a briny chill in the air.

I quickly grow obsessed with the beach huts that line Southwold’s promenade. They’re nothing more than your standard backyard shed with a little porch tacked on the front, except they seem imbued with all of the character and personality Americans normally give their beach homes. Each hut has a name and is painted in distinct and vivid colors–bold primaries, funky teals and fuschias, and quiet pastels. Apparently they date as far back to the early twentieth century, when British conservatism and modesty was at a high. Changing in public was strictly forbidden, so city councils began providing the huts as changing rooms. Many are outfitted with small stoves, so that no one will have to sacrifice afternoon tea for a day at the beach.

There’s an old man working on the door of a hut named Nollers Nock. I walk up to him and ask frankly, “Is this yours?” When he realizes there’s someone standing there, I have more questions. How do these work, I ask him, do you sleep here or just hang out during the day? Do people own or rent them, are they passed on from generation to generation?

“Oh, yes, this one’s been in the family since the 1960s I’d say.”

“And is that how it normally works?”

Before he can answer, a woman’s voice from inside the cabin calls out, “Not as much as they used to be.”

“Sorry, voice from the deep,” she says again, poking her head out of the door, holding a curtain rod in her hands onto which she is in the process of sliding gauzy material.

I leave them to finish their improvements in peace and soon pass a family, little Tom and Rachel all bundled up. Tom has a small red spade which apparently Rachel wants back, despite the larger blue alternative her mother holds out to her. As usual, Tom sets off waddling down the sand like a goose with a limp, Dad and Rachel running after him.

“Don’t snatch it from him, please, Rachel,” her father exhorts. “Remember what we talked about yesterday? He just needs a bit of time to warm up before he hands it over.”

Rachel isn’t so understanding.

I make a final loop down the beach and then, full of sea air, pop into the Boardwalk Café for a coffee and a place to eat my lunch. From my seat at a long counter facing the ocean, I can see the lighthouse and the very top of St. Edmund’s church. There’s an old man wearing a naval cap sitting at the end of the bar from me. He reaches into his fleece and pulls out a pair of binoculars that hang on a string around his neck. He stares out through them towards the horizon for such a period of time that I start to wonder if maybe I’m missing something.

But then I look again at the rows of brightly colored beach huts, at the fisherman gathered under large umbrellas at the end of the pier, and at the muted sunshine glinting through the clouds onto the surface of the sea, and I know that no, I’m not missing anything.

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how UK travel is like internet dating.

“One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore.”

–Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

I’ve recently taken to comparing travel within the UK to Internet dating.

It’s one thing to spend a few hours getting your itinerary together–buying regional train tickets, noting their times and working out local bus schedules–and yet it’s another thing altogether seeing how it works out in reality. In a similar vein, seeing someone online is a nice thought. You can learn a couple of things about them and view their (undoubtedly enhanced) photos but the real test (not that I would know…) comes when you meet them in person. Will they measure up? Will they follow through with everything they promised? You can only hope for the best, right?

And so I set out for the seaside town of Southwold this morning fearing for my life.

Well, perhaps not life–no need for the melodrama, I suppose–but at least my sanity. The last time I attempted a “day trip” in the UK a few weeks ago, things didn’t end so smoothly. It turns out London Midlands rail service isn’t quite as punctual or efficient as her online profile leads you to believe. As the train delays began stealing precious hours from my life, I began cursing their inane scheduling shortfalls. Leave it to be said there was no shortage of weeping and gnashing of teeth before that night was through.

Nearly a month ago, though, I came across a tiny blurb in Lonely Planet magazine mentioning the Ways With Words literature festival being held this weekend in Southwold, England. Although I might’ve happily gone along no matter how illustrious a line-up they had on, one particular speaker arrested my attention: Alain de Botton. With his books often said to cover “the philosophy of everyday life,” he’s a phenomenal writer and thinker, but–and maybe this is obvious–it was his book, The Art of Travel, that had me hook, line and whatever.

But after my trip home from Liverpool spiralled into a disastrous, nearly seven-hour mess of a journey, I started thinking this week: is Alain de Botton really worth all this fuss? Is visiting an obscure village on the east coast of England actually worth the risk of losing more hours of my life to the incessant failure that is UK transport? Last night, my flatmate Claire had a good laugh predicting things wouldn’t end well for this trip. “You know you are so not going to make it there! Buses hate you!” she said, tearing up with laughter, all the while fueling the fires of my inner panic.

In the end, I ran the risk anyway–but not without great trepidation. A 5am wake-up call got me out of bed and fumbling around for several layers of warm clothing–something about visiting a coastal village on the edge of the North Sea in November sounded slightly more threatening than a trip to the beach for, say, spring break in Miami.

My journey from Surbiton to Liverpool Street Station was remarkably unremarkable–both train and bus proved capable of holding to a schedule. My train from Liverpool to a town called Halesworth 100 miles away also not only left on time, but arrived exactly on target as well…I hardly knew what to think. The last test, however, was the local bus, No. 520 from Halesworth to Southwold. I waited outside the Halesworth train station with my fingers crossed so hard they hurt. And sure enough, at 10.09am on the very dot, a big yellow bus flashing “Southwold” in red letters miraculously appeared around the corner.

Just like it said it would.

I could have wept with joy. I’d come prepared. I’d brought my laptop, plenty of writing to work on, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and a full roll pack of milk chocolate digestives, just in case things got truly desperate. But for once, over-preparation was totally unnecessary.

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how travel bloggers spend their saturday night.

“This is a new kind of adventure. I want to capture a sense of remoteness and send it back home. It’s about traveling in real time with the online community in my backpack, connecting travelers everywhere to my footsteps.”

–Andrew Evans on “Where’s Andrew,” his new project for National Geographic Traveller

Maren’s eyeliner graffiti on the bathroom wall of Jolene’s.

We’d been blaming David for everything. As one of the only people in our group actually from Copenhagen, it was David who took the lead as we set out trying to find a place to eat Saturday night after the TBEX (Travel Bloggers Exchange) Europe Conference came to end. As an employee of Momondo, the conference’s chief sponsor, he shouldered full responsibility for our empty stomachs. We headed south to Vesterport, past the city’s red light district, and the harder it became to find somewhere, the more we blamed him. If a pub was too big or too small, if it was too empty or too full, David was our scapegoat–and he playfully took it personally. “I give up!” he shouted in faux exasperation. “You are all too critical!”

After a brief dinner of goulash and bread (Hungarian soup that’s way better than it sounds), we ended up at a bar in the city’s meatpacking district called Jolene’s, its name pulsing onto the dark sidewalks in bright pink neon letters. The place was dead–no one but a lone bartender and the DJ setting up his decks across from the bar. We soon filled a back room, where mismatched couches and chairs sat in front of a wall papered with safari animals–elephants, zebras, giraffes, the like. Twinkling fairy lights had been strung around exposed silver ductwork on the ceiling, a needlepoint crossstitch hung on the wall and candles glowed on a table. It had the kind of funky ambiance you always hope for in a place.

Jolene's bar in Copenhagen's meatpacking district.

After we settled in with our drinks, David pulled out his iPhone and announced, “Momondo is going to do its first narrative tweet!” We’d all been in a workshop that afternoon called “Storytelling 101” given by Andrew Evans, a well-known travel writer whose most recent tour de force was a voyage to Antarctica via a 10,000-mile bus journey from DC to Argentina. Although the trek would have been remarkable in its own right, Andrew used it as an opportunity to practice, as he calls it, “real-time storytelling”–utilizing social media tools like Twitter to report directly from the road: tweets, blog posts, photos and even videos like this one of a rare black penguin.

But it isn’t just reporting…in many ways, it’s still writing. In the workshop, Andrew encouraged us to be creative with our posts, sharing how he’s even taken to crafting his tweets into haikus–working within, rather than against, the confines of Twitter’s 140-character limit. Here’s a couple he posted just yesterday:

“In Copenhagen/ November dawn comes too late/ The day ends too soon.”

“Danes inside Denmark/ Sport tight black leggings, high-tops/ & star trek Haircuts.”

As someone who’s always eschewed Twitter, finding it something that merely duplicates the Facebook status updates we’re already posting everyday, I left the workshop somewhat inspired…and actually itching to get my hands on an iPhone. I liked the fact that tweets can be more than just “I’m in London and loving it!”–that we can actually utilize it as a tool to engage creatively with wherever we are–be it at home or on the road. As Andrew said, “The jury’s still out on Twitter.” It’s up to us to use it as we see fit.

And so it was in a bar called Jolene’s on a Saturday night in Copenhagen that a group of aspiring travel writers/bloggers tried their hand at the same, all from the suggestion of David. He handed me his phone and I, along with a London-based Aussie named Justin and a Berlin-based American named Cheney, whipped up a haiku of our own. Here’s what we came up with:

It was a proud moment for all of us, but we didn’t give it a lot more thought until Maren, cofounder of TBEX and GoGalavanting, and Dylan the “Travelling Editor” suddenly walked into the bar. “How’d you find us?” we asked, amazed that out of all the bars in Copenhagen, they’d come to Jolene’s. But it wasn’t so random, after all. “The haiku tweet, of course…it was like a treasure hunt!” We could’ve tweeted something as uninspiring as, “TBEXers–meet us at Jolene’s!” Instead, we took a few extra minutes, soaked in the atmosphere around us, and wrote something both creative–actually still informative.

And to think it had been David’s idea…for once, we weren’t blaming him for this.

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