Friday, December 24, 2010

2010: Travel Lessons Learned

I didn't travel as much this year as I usually do (Miami, Russia, Paris) but I felt like between planning and anticipating and actually going, I had a whole lot of travel on the mind. Looking back, I've come up with a few lessons learned.

1) No matter how many times you've been somewhere, it can still feel new again. Honestly, I had lost count how many times I've been in Paris. I know, that's a terrible problem to have. But looking back at my passport stamps, I count six, so this time was seven. As much as I relished being able to hit the ground running without having a learning curve, going at Christmastime lent itself to a completely "new" Paris. No tourists, no English spoken here, no crowds, but in their place there was cold weather and snowy fringes left behind after an earlier storm. The Christmas scene in Paris was breathtaking. It was not suffocating like a Hallmark-induced, Labor Day-onward commercial explosion. It was rejuvenating, liberating, and dare I say, spiritual. Paris was looking beautiful for a completely different reason this time of year. It felt new to me again, and it carved its own special memories in my heart.

2) I indulge greedily in the differences. Russia blew me away. That, in fact, may just be the understatement of the year. Perhaps, the understatement of my travel life. Looking back now, I think about what struck me most, what made the biggest impressions on me and what are the fondest take-aways from that time, and it was realizing and appreciating what made Russia and its culture different. I love that the language and the written word are so different (and that I managed to figure them out, even a little). I love that their art and culture is rooted in a history so different from ours. I love that what survives there is based on a spirit that has twisted and suffered under unimaginable influences but somehow persevered. Everything from the pastel colored palaces in St. Petersburg to the grandiose Russian living room of Red Square to blini with caviar and vodka shots makes me smile. No, I can't see that at home, or many other places I travel to, which is why it is all that more precious to me now as I look back.

3) Sometimes, travel changes just work out for the better. American Airlines tore me away from my weekend in Miami unexpectedly early. At first I was disappointed and then frazzled, but I was also relieved. It had not been the best weekend for me; I'd been suffering through it quietly, and I really welcomed the opportunity to jet home early, no matter how hot, sweaty and inconvenienced I was and how many delays and plane changes were ahead of me. I will never look upon a travel diversion again as a bad thing...sometimes, they are the lucky twist of fate.

4) Don't listen to the haters. As people found out I was going to Russia, I got all sorts of unsolicited advice. A docent at the Museum of Russian Icons said "I would not go there now with all the bombings." Friends of my parents said I was crazy for flying on 9/11, another said "I would never go there alone." Well look folks, I went and I came back safe and sound. Instead of thinking that my experience was just a stroke of luck, I instead tend to believe that their perceptions and my actual experience are a reflection of the differences between us and how we approach travel. Honestly, if I didn't do something out of fear or concern for things real or imagined, I'd never go anywhere. Seriously. Travel smart and lean on your common sense.

5) Never say never. Paris was not even on the short list this year, or the next few years even. Russia was always a "bucket list" dream destination. But the desire to celebrate my 40th year in style and also my wanderlust and craving for Monet all played a role in how my travel itinerary played out this year. I've never outwardly ruled out a destination (well, perhaps Iraq or Afghanistan, for now) but it's just sort of funny how my destinations come about. Right now, I'm thinking Croatia or Poland for next year. I wonder what I'll be talking about 12 months from now...

6) Don't try to recreate perfect. Twice I was tempted to recreate what was, to me, a perfect experience. The first came in Moscow when I had the meal to end all meals. I mean really, it was unbelievably good. I remember every detail and recall that the next day I wanted to go right back to have the same meal again. It was that good. My guide encouraged me not to. "Don't mess with perfection", she warned me, and pointed me in the direction of another really, really good meal. She was right. What if I'd gone back the next night and it was sub-par? What if I ordered something else, or worse, the same thing, and it just wasn't as good? She had a point. A couple months later, my sister and I returned to rue de Buci to find our favorite eclair shop, only to find that our little nook of pastry perfection had been converted into an upscale boutique furniture shop. Distraught, we walked away remembering our last time there, and knowing that it will forever be "perfect". Sometimes remembering experiences as they were is far better than trying to recreate the magic.

That's it for now...wishing you merry travels and lots of destination dreams!

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