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Monday, January 18, 2016

Ireland 1994: Birth of a backpacker

This blog has been going for a few years now, but its focus hasn't always been travel. Somewhere along the line I went from being a (more or less) happy passenger in the backseat of my parents' car, to traveling independently. I didn't always post about my travels, but I always wrote about them. The useful things, the indiscretions, mostly moments I experienced that made that trip unique and different from anyone else's. Then one day, I decided they might be useful for readers too.

On what trip did I become what they call a backpacker? Was it Germany in 2008? Wales in 2002? Or even earlier, southern Ireland in December 1994?

"Backpacking" means two different things. It can mean hiking with all your gear to camp overnight; this requires the kind of a big frame backpack that can hold a tent, sleeping bag, etc. "Backpacking" in international travel means traveling light (and relatively cheaply), not carrying a suitcase. These are sometimes confused, including by travelers themselves, who buy, and can then be seen carrying, the type of backpack you'd need for trekking in a national park. The Discreet Traveler means a regular backpack, ideally the size that can fit as carry-on luggage on a plane.

That first time I went off traveling with nothing but a backpack, I was twenty-one. It's a nice stereotypical age for a backpacker. The Republic of Ireland seemed like a good place to start. There was no language barrier, at least not more than there is in England, where I'd been living for six months. It seemed almost wrong not to make the short hop across the Irish Sea. Because I wasn't prepared to drive myself around, I booked a week's tour of Dublin, Galway city, and Cork.

When I say "tour": I had hostel beds booked in the three cities and "coach" (bus) tickets in between. There was no guide or other impediment to independent travel. I exchanged currency--in those days, Ireland used the punt--packed the same backpack I'd been carrying around as a student, and flew to Dublin.

I know I was wearing a warm coat, because it was winter. Other than that, I couldn't have been carrying many clothes. I must have washed them out in the bathroom sink, as on subsequent trips. Funny how such a detail, which sounds like such a pain in advance, is totally inconsequential in the memory.

I remember walking down the high street in Dublin and seeing a chalkboard sign for a vegetarian restaurant that turned out to be cheap and delicious, as vegetarian food often is. I saw a flyer in the hostel for a Dublin literary pub crawl. It was to be the evening after I visited the Dublin Writers Museum, so I would actually have heard of Brendan Behan and the other writers they were talking about.

It was a great time. There were a number of us including a couple Australian girls and a Norwegian guy who was at the upper limit of the old 18-35 age range (hostels aren't "youth" anymore). It seemed wild then, that someone so much older was backpacking around the way we were. I'd assumed that, by 35, everyone would at least have a mortgage, if not kids.

(Cut to myself, turning 35 in a bud-ridden bedsit, newly single, no savings to speak of...but that's another backpacking trip.)

Two actors told us about the writers of Dublin, reciting from their work as we moved from pub to pub. I drank Guinness and Harp. By the time we got to our final stop, I was ready for a quiz question: Name a writer from Ireland who has won the Nobel Prize in literature. I'd just been to the museum so I named Samuel Beckett. Who wrote in French, but never mind; where you're born is the only thing that matters in these isles.

The prize was either a Jameson's duffel bag, or a bottle of their whiskey. I chose the whiskey.*

On the other side of the (admittedly small) country, whom did I run into on a street in Galway but those same Australian girls! I've learned since that this is not remarkable in travel; you tend to run into people down the road. It's nice if you've been friendly or helpful to them in the first place.

You might think I'm straining a metaphor for life, but I think all travel is that.

By Cork, I was over this trip. Only the local stout, Murphy's, stood out, as I preferred it to Guinness (and I'd had a generous amount of that free at the brewery back in Dublin). Cork airport was as small as my native Tri-Cities at the time. A driver (pre-booked) bumped over the gravelly road. I got lovely Irish butter with my bread on the plane. Yes, an hour's flight included food and drink. This was Europe!

The taste for packing light and taking off with only a small backpack has never left me. I haven't always traveled that way, but it's my favorite. There's nothing so freeing. I don't need cars or even to tell anyone, exactly, where I'm going. Because I may not know.

*I was to hold this souvenir of Ireland until I accomplished one of my life's great goals: to emigrate to Canada. It would be almost six years before I'd land in Toronto and finally open that bottle.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

France 2000: Lessons for a safer and better trip

I took many trips before I started this blog. Part of the joy of travel--perhaps the main joy--is looking back over the travels you've already been on, and reliving the pleasures and even the challenges. Writing them down at the time or shortly thereafter helps, of course. It's only a bonus to be able to go back and share those adventures with readers now.

My first trip to France was in 1992 but I want to share some anecdotes from my second visit, in February 2000. That's because it's a good snapshot of some of the bad, or at least hard, things that can happen during travel, and also why it's all worth it. What I learned in France in 2000 is a good summary for the rest of The Discreet Traveler's life.

The first thing that happened to me in Paris, after being greeted by my lover who was living there at the time, was that I got pickpocketed. In more than twenty years of international travel, this was the only bad thing that has ever happened to me (long flight delays and cancellations, while annoying, are First World problems that I don't consider as having caused me any harm). I want to emphasize that, because while I drew several lessons from the experience, it was highly exceptional. It also was not that "bad" in the way that an outright robbery, or violent crime would be bad. That's the most important thing I learned from the experience. Here are a few more:

1. It was avoidable. No, I don't by any stretch believe that criminals aren't responsible for their crimes, but that doesn't mean travelers shouldn't take sensible precautions. Me getting pickpocketed was an opportunistic theft. The thief could see that he had here a tired, jet-lagged foreigner who had never been on the train in from the airport before and was preoccupied with talking to my companion, looking at the signs, etc. If I hadn't been so tired and preoccupied, I would have noticed him moving in and gradually sliding open the zipper on my bag--movements I clearly recalled once I got off the train and realized my wallet was gone. Don't give lazy thieves easy opportunities like this.

2. It's hard to avoid jet lag or being distracted, but it's not hard to prepare properly. Wearing one of those "fanny packs" or "bum bags" was a really bad idea; I've never done it since and don't recommend you do either. They present your valuables on a shelf to any pickpocket happening by. Some people swear by money belts but I find them uncomfortable, and it's awkward to have to dig around under your shirt all the time.

3. Another thing I made sure never to do again was to have all my valuable stuff in one wallet! Cash (yes, Americans, most countries do use it; you'll need some) in one place. Cards in another. Not all cards together. And whatever you do, take only essential cards abroad that you are going to need. I could have done without having to replace my Social Security card, library card, and other things there was no reason for me to have in France anyway. Don't carry pictures or anything irreplaceable.

4. One thing I had read about doing in advance, and was really glad I'd done, was making photocopies of important things like my passport (which fortunately was not stolen), and the front and back of the cards I was carrying. Oh, and keeping those photocopies in a different place from my wallet! It made it so much easier to call the credit card company and cancel the card (everything was done by phone in those days) when I had the numbers right there.

5. Finally, I learned that while this was a bad start to my trip, it was not that bad. Believe it or not, I could carry on a passable conversation in French in person, but as anyone who's studied a language knows it's a lot harder on the telephone, when you have no facial expressions or gestures to guide you. I froze up with the stress and the woman on the phone assured me that it was OK, she spoke English. Don't stress yourself out. It took a detour to a Western Union office where I stood in line and filled out forms, but I got cash. Just like that, there were no problems at all bar a couple follow-up phone calls after I got home (and all but one of those could have been avoided if I hadn't had unnecessary cards with me--see #3).

The rest of the trip was one of the most amazing of my life. I explored Paris and successfully asked for directions in French (a language only comes alive when you stop studying and start using it in real life). We went to Normandy, where everywhere there were signs proclaiming "Welcome to our Liberators"; we visited the beaches where the D-Day landings took place, in a group that included descendants of troops from other nations. I successfully negotiated bus information to Mont Saint-Michel from a hotelier whose English was even shakier than my French (but who, like everyone else I met, was friendly and trying very hard to help us). We got to St-Malo as night was falling, without an advance reservation, and found a room with no problem (I had never tried that before). At the train station ticket office, a man who did speak English was tickled at how "good" my French was. My French was terrible, but the point was I was visiting his country and trying. You have no idea how far that will take you in non-English-speaking countries of the world.

I've been told that this has something to do with my Americanness, and that an English person would have a different experience. I can only say that my British companion had exactly the same experience throughout the trip--but then, she was living in Paris, so of course she was also trying. When confronted with a particularly obnoxious English-speaking couple in a restaurant, we actually tried speaking French with each other, just so nobody would think we were with them!

So, here was a trip with a bad start, but many highlights thereafter. We ate at a restaurant around the corner in the 9e arrondissement called Haynes--sadly, it is no more. It was founded by an American jazz musician who used to live in Paris, and served wonderful soul food. We had tourist experiences but also discovered things about the people and place we never would have, if we hadn't been traveling independently. And, as upset as I was at having been pickpocketed, I did not let it affect the rest of the visit. I got my money and moved on.

It would have been possible to have that initial experience and conclude something about the French, or people of possibly-Arab origin (I did see the guy), or even men in general. There are plenty of people, and women specifically, who are afraid to travel for this reason. But to me, those conclusions would be absurd. I had some of the best bread, wine, and personal interactions of my life on that trip to France. In fact, 2000 turned out to be the best year of my life up to that point.

I'm so glad I didn't stay home.