My Travel Intentions for 2018

I read somewhere recently that one should set intentions, rather than make resolutions for the beginning of a new year. I don’t know that I’ve ever actually held onto a resolution long enough to see an impact in my daily life, so I’ll get on board with setting intentions for 2018. These won’t be about my health or finances, though those will likely come too. These will be travel- and human-related. Better to write them down, if they’re actually going to happen, right?! Hopefully I’ll come back to these, and update my progress, for my own sake!

Wishing you and yours a happy and healthy 2018!

  1. Take advantage of at least five new cultural/historical experiences right here at home. Thinking about starting with the Somali Museum of Minnesota, the Mill City Museum (which I still can’t believe I’ve never been to!), and the top of the Foshay Tower.
  2. Make concrete plans to get to South America. Find a travel partner for Machu Picchu, find a company for my Trail trek, and start saving! Doing responsible, adult things means less disposable income, but this particular site seems time-sensitive, as travel on the Inca Trail is being limited by the Peruvian government.
  3. Be more open to new people when I travel. It’ll take work to make this happen, especially when I eat, as I often eat alone, but this also applies generally. I usually have my RBF on in full-force when I’m in situations that could turn precarious, but especially as the image of Americans around the world is changing, I will try to smile more often, and experience things that will find me in communion with other travelers I can learn from.
  4. Be more open to spending money when I travel. I’ve been really conscious about spending money on experiences, rather than souvenirs, but I’m also still a product of my mother (who I’m convinced actually grew up during the Depression). I think I often miss out on cultural touchstones in an effort to be frugal. That €4 to sit and sip espresso at a cafe in Roma that I can never justify, the Czech Pilsner at dinner overlooking the Charles Bridge that I hesitate in ordering, the three or four meals it takes trying to find the best schnitzel in Vienna. None of those are necessary, but everyone needs to eat, and all of those choices enhance experiences. I need to remember that. And dang it, when you want an Aperol spritz in Piazza del Popolo with people you haven’t seen in years, spend the €11!
  5. Plan my 2018 to include at least one road trip and at least three new cities.
  6. Connect with at least five current and former students about study abroad options at the college of their choice.
  7. Write an actual letter once a month to someone I’ve lost touch with, but want to keep in my life.
  8. Actually write more here too–this blog is largely self-serving, but if I can convince even one person of the importance of travel (or reinforce what they already know!), it’ll be worth it! Once a month might be tricky in the doldrums of early spring, but it’s a pretty minor commitment to make.
  9. Help at least two people who have the desire to travel (but lack the practical planning tools) to take their first trip, domestic or international.
  10. Be the best ambassador I can be for everything I represent. Minnesotans, Americans, teachers, women, sports fans, politically-engaged individuals, travelers, etc. Life today is challenging enough; we should all try to do the best we can to represent ourselves to the world with integrity, virtue, and value.

That sounds like a pretty valuable way to bring in 2018. Hopefully, I’ll update this list as the year goes on, but until then, hope we’ll all find fulfillment and challenge in 2018. It’s gotta be better than 2017, right?!

MC Lean

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10 years as a traveler: my love letter to the world.

In front of my apartment at Via XX Settembre 49. Leaving Roma in 2007, returning in 2014, and our mini-reunion in 2017 (after a full day of biking the Appian Way!)

 

On December 22, 2007, I met my family at MSP in international arrivals, after requiring that they pay crazy amounts to park and come in to greet me. I had been gone for four months, after all.

I had spent those months visiting London, Salzburg, Munich, and Berlin, living in Athens and Rome, traveling around Greece and Italy, and finally, stopping in Paris and London again on my way home. I studied history, art history, theology, culture and language, and took my senior seminar on ethics and morals. I lived in a hotel with 27 other students, and shared an apartment with eight other women. I ate out for every meal in Athens, and cooked lots of pasta and ate lots of cheese in our tiny Italian kitchen in Rome. I learned the dangers of walking in Athenian traffic, and the stop-on-a-dime habits of Roman drivers. I wandered through political protests in the cradle of democracy and endured countless transportation strikes in the Eternal City.

I came home from that adventure on December 22nd, 2007. I distinctly remember sitting at Christmas celebrations feeling off. I was happy to be home, and even happier to be eating all of my favorite foods with some of my favorite people, but I just couldn’t put my finger on why I wasn’t entirely happy. That December 31st, instead of seeing friends I hadn’t seen in an entire semester, I sat at my parents’ house. Alone. On New Year’s Eve. It was then that I knew that reverse culture shock was real, and that something just wasn’t the same as it had been the previous three Christmases of my college career.

It was a slow burn, but over the next several months, it became clear that it was a permanent feeling of different-ness at home. I didn’t know what or why, but something had changed. I re-adapted to life in central Minnesota as I finished my senior year and prepared for student teaching. Adult life awaited, but I just wanted to get back on a plane. Turns out, that feeling doesn’t go away either.

“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.”

Bill Bryson

Before I left, I wasn’t sure I’d survive the semester. When I got home, I knew I’d never be the same. Ten years later, the wanderlust that was implanted over that four months in 2007 has grown into more numerous and diverse interests than I could ever have anticipated. It has led to trips all over the world with dear friends to share experiences with, and adventures by myself, discovering the joys of solo travel. It has taken me to five continents, and provided me a lengthy list of future trips to be taken. It has shown me who I am and what I value as a human, and has made me a better teacher and person. It has cost me thousands of dollars and enriched my life in ways I can’t explain. And it all began with a semester I didn’t know I would survive.

My mom gave me a little business card-sized quote that I’ve carried in my wallet every day since. I certainly didn’t realize the power of that quote at the time, but I come back to it often.

“I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.”

― Mary Anne Radmacher

There’s so much of the world to see. Get out there and do it.

 

MC Lean

Road Trip Thoughts

It’s been a long, cold winter already (at least it sure seems that way, though snow’s only been on the ground for 5 days!), and I’m always eagerly anticipating whatever flight comes next. However, until another transcontinental plan is in the works, I’m thinking frequently about where and when another road trip might take place. There’s so much of our country to explore I have to get used to the fact that buying that plane ticket might not always be the most practical (or cost-effective) option!

I realized that my last road trip post was written before I went on my 3500 mile, three week journey. So, for those of you who are planning cross-country adventures of your own, here are some suggestions to get you started off on the right foot!

  1. Get your car taken care of before you go–and DON’T wait until the last minute to do so. Don’t put off changing your oil, or replacing that filter, or whatever it may be. Your road trip becomes MUCH more expensive if you need immediate help getting back on the road, and your whole trip could go up in flames if the repairs are severe.
  2. Use Do Not Disturb and/or Airplane Mode on your phone while you’re driving. It is incredibly easy to pick up your phone to scroll through social media when on a long and boring stretch of a freeway. It’s not safe to do while driving period, but it’s especially dangerous when you’re in an area where the terrain, the speed limit, and the wildlife are unfamiliar to you.
  3. Bring good music (or good podcasts)–make sure you’ve got a good variety, and make sure there’s A LOT of it. The radio stations you may encounter will probably not be to your liking, so have SOMETHING that you’ll enjoy listening to. Make sure to download the podcasts, rather than using data to listen–I got stuck without my most recent episodes because I failed to download them before I left in the morning! This also keeps you from flipping through stations endlessly, which is a serious buzzkill (especially out west where country music is 98% of what you’ll hear anyway).
  4. Make sure to also have a playlist specifically for keeping you awake. Even if you’re well-rested and relaxed on the road, doing the same thing for hours on end tends to lull people into a false consciousness. Keep sing-along jams readily available just for the purpose of alertness! (My go-to is the Original Broadway Cast recording of Rock of Ages)
  5. Think about your route before you leave–are there natural breaks in your drive? If not, find ways and places to plan for stops. I decided that I needed to get out of the car every four hours–sometimes it was to eat, sometimes it was for gas, and sometimes, it was just to not be in the car anymore. It’s even better if you can plan it around attractions that are important or interesting for you. I stopped at a lot of roadside historic sites and local/state parks when I could, and at an outlet mall or two when I just couldn’t read any more about the first stagecoach station in Wyoming.
  6. Have paper maps with you, keep your rough itinerary on paper, and get a general understanding of your route on the map. In more rural areas of my last trip, my phone wasn’t able to help, and I had to guess/use old-fashioned map-reading skills to make sure I was heading in the right direction.
  7. Don’t rely on gas stations for overpriced food and drink–bring a variety of things you know you’ll enjoy, and keep a little cooler in your car. Especially if you need fruit, veggies, or non-sugary drinks on a regular basis. Keeping your own in a cooler keeps the stops to a minimum, and saves you some cash along the way!
  8. Keep your car snacks to things that a) won’t make a huge mess, b) won’t melt if left in the car, c) will stay edible for days at a time. Fresh fruit is great if you’re planning to eat it shortly after you acquire it. Don’t bring things that will go bad if you don’t plan on eating them! Also be careful with things that need to be refrigerated. Ice makers at hotels are not universal, but gas stations can be good options for ice.
  9. Don’t expect that there will always be gas stations when you need them. The state of Nebraska was devious here–a sign for an exit would indicate gas, which would then be FIVE miles off the freeway! When you have the chance, get gas, especially if it’s cheap, and even if you don’t NEED it at the time.
  10. Try to research the driving conventions of the places you’ll be driving so you know ahead of time what to expect. In the state of Wisconsin, if you get angry at people going under the speed limit in the left lane, you’ll spend a lot of time fuming. Figure out what you can control, and worry about that (this is PARTICULARLY hard for me to remember, but maybe saved me some road rage).
  11. Sometimes, those road side attractions you see signs for hundreds of miles prior to your destination are worth it. Sometimes, those stops are Wall Drug. If you have time and desire, always stop and enjoy the kitsch. If you don’t, you’re very rarely missing a unique experience.
  12. In any case, you’re likely taking a road trip to savor the sights, sounds, and people you’ll meet along the way. Remember that though road trips are not always the quickest, least-stressful, or even cheapest way of traveling, always take advantages of the bonuses driving provides: quick detours for historic sites, stopping on the side of a country road for a sunset photo, seeing bison roam through a state park, and going at your own pace, both on and off the road. Keep an open mind, a flexible itinerary, and some snacks at the ready, and you’ll be good to go!

La Città Eterna: A first-timer’s guide to Rome

I’ve been back from Rome for over a month, and think about how soon I can return on a daily basis. I’ve been asked many times why I have such an affinity for Rome, and all I can articulate is that I think it stems from my opportunity to get to know the city as a temporary resident of it. I didn’t cram weeks or months worth of history and sites into a few days. I didn’t have to stop at the most convenient or most English-friendly restaurants, and I didn’t have to wait in long summer lines to see (but not really get the significance of) famous Roman landmarks. It is definitely a city that needs to be experienced, not merely seen.

So, here are some tips for the first-timer (or return-tripper) to Rome. I love this city, and want everyone else to experience the same love, so I’ve put together some thoughts on what made the trip more special and worthwhile for me. I broke it up into four sections: the Centro Storico, general commentary on other sites in Rome, Roman Churches, and Vatican City. My must-dos (of which there are many) are in BOLD, but I think everything listed is worth the effort. At some point, I’ll create a post about just gelato, but for now, the sites will be my first priority! Truly take the time and energy to get to know the city, and the payoff will be unforgettable. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day, so it probably shouldn’t be seen in just one day either…😉
CENTRO STORICO (The Historic Center)
  • If you want to make sure to visit the “big sites,” the first one on many people’s list is the Colosseum. However, if you have the time and energy, the Colosseum, the Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum are now covered by the same ticket. To save time, you can go to the Forum first to get the ticket, as there is often a shorter line there. If you’re into Roman history, take some time on the Palatine Hill. I think it’s the most under-rated part of the Forum and Colosseum area; it’s where Romulus and Remus were, when they were found by the she-wolf who kept them alive. If you’re not getting a guided tour, I would suggest using an audio guide–Rick Steves is usually my go-to. For most people, it’s meaningless to wander around these spaces unless you can get some kind of tour to orient yourself. Cross the Via dei Fori Imperiali and see the Imperial Fora too–you don’t need a ticket, but you can see Trajan’s Column, and the back side of Trajan’s market (a fancy mall in its day), which is really cool, and you can actually go into the market if you buy a ticket on the other side.
  • The Campidoglio, or Capitoline Hill (right by the Forum), has a really wonderful museum, and the square itself was designed by Michelangelo, and is beautiful at dusk. Get a gelato and ponder life here while the sun sets over the hills of Rome.
  • Piazza Venezia is the square in front of the monument to Victor Emmanuel. If you’re interested in WWII history, Mussolini’s headquarters was the building on the right. From the balcony on that building, Mussolini declared war on Britain.
  • If you go behind the building with the balcony, there is a secret garden, hidden in the busyness of Rome. The courtyard of the Basilica di San Marco Evangelista al Campidoglio is a great place to sit and enjoy gelato, rest your feet, and get away from the noise and bustle of the city.
  • If you want one of the best free view of Rome, and a good walk too, climb the Aventine Hill. Go past the Circus Maximus (circo massimo metro stop) up the hill to Giardino Degli Aranci on the Via de Santa Sabina. it’s awesome, though only open until 6 in the spring and fall. It’s also close to a pretty special spot in Rome, if you want a neat, kitschy experience at a keyhole–looking through it, you’ll see a perfectly framed St. Peter’s Dome, and you’ll be standing in Rome, looking through the sovereign state of the Knights of Malta, and looking at the Holy See.
  • The Giardino Degli Aranci is also really close to La Boca della Verita, which is pretty cool, but doesn’t mean much if you haven’t seen Roman Holiday. You should definitely watch it before you get to Rome; it’ll make everything better. Plus, Gregory Peck.

Other sites in Rome

  • Campo de Fiori isn’t just a tourist draw–it has great fruits and veggies, and one of the best bakeries I’ve found in Rome. Il Forno Campo de Fiori is in the back of the square if you’re facing the Giordano Bruno statue. It’ll be behind you on the right side–get some pizza by the etto (hundred grams), and sit by the French Embassy, Palazzo Farnese, just around the corner.
  • The Trevi fountain should be seen during the day (reaaaaaally early if you want it mostly to yourself), and at night, pretty late for the same reason. It’s SO much better with no tourists and fewer people harassing you with neon light up balls, or selfie sticks, or whatever is being sold at the moment. It was one of the most pleasant surprise of my first trip to Rome; turn a corner, hear moving water, and there it is: La Fontana di Trevi!
  • The Spanish steps are not as cool as you’d hope, especially because you can’t sit on them and drink copious amounts of wine anymore, but head down the Via Condotti to window-shop at some of Rome’s most expensive stores, that extends straight out from it. Immediately on the right is Antico Caffe Greco, where Keats and Byron drank coffee. Stand, or sit and pay a bit more, but it’s worth a stop if literary history is your thing.
  • If art history is more your thing, the Villa Borghese is awesome. The gardens are beautiful and romantic, and good for a bike ride or walk, and you can get a good view of Piazza del Popolo from Pincio if you walk to the far west side of the gardens toward the river.
  • If you’re not sick of art yet, the Villa Farnesina is another beautiful home full of great art (lots of Raphael here), and well off the beaten path, for those of you who don’t like crowds.
    Churches
  • The Pantheon is SO incredible. A functioning Catholic Church, and a burial site for many famous Italians, including Raphael, and Umberto I and Vittorio Emmanuele II, both Kings of Italy. This is another site you should see during the day AND late at night with fewer people around. Get some gelato, and sit outside of it by the fountain thinking about life (notice a trend developing?). I had some pretty profound thoughts by that fountain, and seeing snow fall through the oculus in on my bucket list.
  • San Giovanni in Laterano–the Papal Basilica. It’s kind of out of the way, but a really cool church, and significant for pilgrims. In a building across the street is the Scala Santa, which people will climb on their knees seeking repentance.
  • Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore–another papal basilica, close to termini, and different architecturally than a lot of churches in Rome.
  • Chiesa de Sant’Ignazio is one of the Jesuit churches in Rome, so I’m a fan, but also close to Campo de Fiore, and has a really neat dome–I won’t ruin the surprise for you, but go if you’re close. Once inside, look up. Walk toward the sanctuary and keep looking up.
  • St. Paul Outside the Walls (Basilica Papale di San Paolo fuori le Mura) is another papal basilica, and a bit out of the way, but supposedly built over the tomb of St. Paul. Very pretty if you’re in the area anyway.
  • Santa Maria in Trastevere gets raved about, but I’ve never been. I would guess that many, many people can’t be wrong! Check it out.
    Vatican City
  • I suggest taking a full day or two half days at least if you’re planning to see the Basilica and the Vatican Museums. If you want to go to Castel St. Angelo, which is nearby, make it at least a day and a half.
  • St. Peter’s: make sure to walk around the piazza and Bernini’s colonnade. It’s a pretty spectacular sight. There’s a Papal audience on Wednesdays that you can get tickets for the Papal Audience at St. Peter’s from Santa Susanna on via XX Venti Settembre, which is pretty close to Termini, if you’re going or coming through there.
  • There’s also a brief Papal Angelus on Sunday mornings if the Pope is in town. He largely doesn’t speak in English during it, but still worth doing in my opinion, though I’m Catholic, and a fan of this Pope. The schedule for this varies more widely than the Papal Audience, but it occurs at noon.  There’s also mass multiple times a day in English, Latin, Italian, and other languages as well, if that’s something you’re interested in.
  • Definitely climb the dome of St. Peter’s. It’s worth it regardless of the weather, but make sure to do it if it’s a beautiful day. If you’re able to, I suggest you hike all the way up. Save the money the elevator would cost for gelato–it doesn’t take that long, and along the way, you get to walk around the inside of the dome, seeing the incredible mosaic work that makes up the art of the interior dome.
  • Regardless of whether you’ve had your fill of museums, make sure to spend time at the Vatican museums–most people spend 2-3 hours, though it’d be easy to spend significantly more. I would suggesting getting your tickets beforehand so you don’t waste time waiting in line, which you can get through the Vatican (not any of the heinously obnoxious people selling tickets as you wait in line!). Use Rick Steves’ audio tour, or if you prefer, get a guided tour, which are available from lots of companies, and from the Vatican itself (they also recently started doing adults-only happy hour and evening tours–if you can get in on that, it sounds pretty spectacular!). It’s frustrating to wander around without something or someone guiding you, so have some sort of plan or guide. Make sure to mail something from the Vatican post office at the exit to the museum–it’s the only place in the world you can get a Vatican postmark! (plus, your family and friends will feel like you’re extra thoughtful when you tell them that tidbit!)
  • If you have the time or interest, I suggest taking a Scavi tour too–it’s the necropolis under St. Peter’s, and will take you through the more modern parts of the crypt as well. It’s more of a Catholic pilgrimage, but if you’re into religious history, or history generally, it’s still worth it. The information on the website isn’t up-to-date, but if you email, they respond quickly. You need to reserve ahead of time, and it does book up weeks in advance, particularly around holy seasons like Lent and Advent.

So, here’s the first draft of what will likely be just one of many posts about my favorite city. Get in and enjoy the grit and well-worn nature of the place and its history; it will grab a hold of you and never let go. I can’t wait until I’m back in La Città Eterna!

 

(Approximately) 1072 Reasons to Study Abroad during College

I just got back from my study abroad reunion in Rome. A week spent in Rome with people I met a decade ago during my first experience abroad, in one of my favorite cities in the world. It was more than enough motivation for me to create an ode to studying abroad, and reminded me to continue to work daily to convince the young people I know to experience this incredible opportunity. So here goes:

  1. Studying abroad allows you to experience international travel in a way that is safe and supported. Especially if it’s your first time abroad, this creates a level of comfort for you (and likely your parents) that will make the unknown a little less threatening.
  2. You’ll discover more about yourself in that time period than you would imagine is possible. Not only more about your personal likes and dislikes, tolerances and intolerances, but your travel habits, communication style, friendship-building capacities, how you spend and budget money, what is important to take from your travels, and lots of other abilities you didn’t know you had or could develop.
  3. Integrating yourself into a different language and culture is the best way to learn either; choose to really engage in the place, and the benefits are limitless.
  4. You can make friends from all over the world who will love for you to come back and visit for decades to come.
  5. Your (adopted) home city will likely be a great jumping-off point for other travels around the region or continent you’re in–independent or group travel is much easier with budget airlines and rail systems that are much more extensive than at home.
  6. Adapting to daily routines outside of your own helps you become more flexible and tolerant, not only when you’re traveling, but when you get home also.
  7. You’ll likely experience a wide variety of new foods, and you may gain some new favorites to take home with you as go-to comfort food that will evoke instant memories of your trip abroad. It’ll also give you a reason to go try new ethnic restaurants at home, if you’ve discovered a love for moussaka, arepas, or shawarma while you were abroad, and want to expand your gastronomic experiences.
  8. You’ll gain skills that will help you post-college. You’re more marketable as a prospective employee with language skills, a proven track-record of taking on new challenges, or the worldliness that comes with experiences outside of the US.
  9. You’ll wow your friends and family with the skills you’ve gained while abroad. The first time I traveled with my parents after my study abroad trip, they couldn’t believe how assertive and proactive I was, and how easily I could navigate new cities and public transportation. I certainly wouldn’t have been equipped to help them travel more easily, if I hadn’t been given the chance to figure it all out during my semester abroad.
  10. If you choose to “disconnect” from technology to some degree while you’re abroad (by choice or necessity), you’ll discover that life without smartphones, though more difficult, can be more fulfilling. I studied abroad before smart phones existed, and I’m certain I had a better, more adventurous experience as a result. I also rediscover this every time I travel, and rely less on social media when I get home.
  11. You’ll discover things about your home and home life that you will come to appreciate more when you get back. It’ll help you realize how important some relationships are, and maybe help you understand some that aren’t.
  12. You’ll think about the world differently; knowing people and places different from your regular help you on your way to becoming a global citizen.
  13. You may be inspired to attend grad school abroad and continue your international education; especially in central and northern European countries, you may even get to go for free!
  14. You have time to truly get to know a city; the best discoveries are made when wandering aimlessly or walking to class, not usually when walking from one tourist site to another.
  15. With the diversity of programs available at many universities, you can continue a more traditional course of study OR take classes unrelated to your major; both will enrich you beyond belief.
  16. There are SO many places around the world to study, and so many types of programs, there is actually something for everyone. Want to study zoology? Ancient languages? Native cultures? Mechanical engineering? Literature? ALL can be done through one program or another, and through the lens of another language, culture, perspective, etc.
  17. There are lots of opportunities to study abroad for the same or nearly the same cost as a semester at school would normally cost. Don’t be fooled into thinking you can’t afford it; there are so many ways to make sure you can!
  18. You are not likely to have fewer responsibilities, more freedom, or more opportunities than you do in your undergraduate studies. Do it while you can, or you may have to wait until your retire to feel like you have the time again!
  19. Wanderlust is real, and once the travel bug bites, you’ll be doomed to a life of exploration, expanding your horizons, and experiencing new people and cultures.
  20. – 1072. You’ll see and do remarkable things, be better prepared for the world post-college, and you’ll make lifelong friends along the way. This is exactly what college should be about. 

Take these to heart, and go forth, and set the world on fire!

MC Lean

Ich Liebe Österreich

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The Hills are Aliiiiiiiiiiiive…

All I needed from Salzburg was another Sound of Music Tour, and the end of my Eurotrip would have been wonderfully complete. What I got instead was a hike up a mountain, an incredible view from the top, a European castle with trick fountains, a boat tour of the city, and walks along the Salzach that made me feel like Maria, ready to break into song at any moment.

I decided to return to Salzburg, as my last addition to my time after our group tour. I wasn’t sure that I wanted five days in Prague or Vienna (right on one count, and NOT on the other!), so I knew that I would enjoy Salzburg as a finale. I had been to Salzburg before, as a young, impressionable 21 year old. I enjoyed the city, but really came for the Sound of Music Tour. Not really knowing what to do with our time, we also went to see the Eisreisenwelt ice caves about an hour outside the city. Beyond those two adventures, I don’t recall much else that we did in those three days. This time around, I knew I wanted to take advantage of the beautiful countryside that surrounds Salzburg, and was much less afraid of venturing outside the city center on public transit I wasn’t sure how to navigate.

But first, the highlights from the best tour in Europe:

 

Other highlights from my few days were my tram and hike up the Untersberg, my mini-Maria photo shoot at the top, the trick fountains at Hellbrunn palace, wandering around the city, eating an enormous pretzel that served as an entire meal, msuci festivals popping up all over the city, and a boat tour of the Salzach. I was living and loving life in Salzburg, and can’t wait to get back!

A couple Salzburg travel tips:

  • Get the Salzburg Card if you’re planning to do even a couple touristy things. I got the 48 hour version, and it allowed me to do several things I was already planning to do, and also encouraged me to do several things I wouldn’t have done if I had to pay for them individually. It also allows you to use all city public transportation for the duration of your card.
  • If you’re at all a fan of the movie or of film nostalgia, GO ON THE SOUND OF MUSIC TOUR. I was apparently a little too enthusiastic about it, because while I was talking to the person selling me the ticket, I convinced a Brit and his Chinese wife (both of whom hadn’t seen the movie) to join us. They loved it, and went to watch the movie as soon as we got back!
  • If by this point in your trip, you’ve had enough sausages and sauerkraut, Salzburg has really great international cuisine. I stopped at a burger shop, which had vegetarian and vegan options, in addition to traditional (and non-traditional) burgers. There was a great-looking Chinese restaurant, great (authentic) Italian, and Indian cuisine just down the street.
  • Birkenstocks are truly solid footwear that I would suggest all travelers consider investing in. I didn’t bring tennis shoes on this trip, and I climbed an actual mountain in my birks. The Germans make footwear ready for the Alps.
  • Salzburg warrants a several-days-long stay of its own, but it’s also relatively close to Munich and Passau (of Danube river-cruising fame). If you’re in either place, think about making a day trip or a short weekend out of Salzburg. You won’t regret it!
  • Thus far, I’ve only been to Salzburg and Vienna, but Austria is on my list of incredible countries (not just cities) to visit. I’m looking forward to more and more exploration of Austria in coming trips!

Safe travels, MC Lean

 

Praha, in Czechia

A little aside before I begin: If you’ve been reading from the start (hi mom! 🙂 ), you may or may not remember me mentioning the “nickname” or shortened name the Czech Republic had decided to start emphasizing earlier last year. Turns out…very few people are using Czechia. [edit: I received an email from a gracious reader in Switzerland (!!) who informed me that google maps is already, in fact using the name Czechia. The reader is a member of the “Civic Initiative Czechia” (Občanská iniciativa Česko) that is working to mainstream the name that has roots in the Bohemian and Moravian history of the nation. He pointed out, very rightly, that it will certainly take time to get the name more mainstream, but it seems it is definitely gaining steam.]

I had high hopes for Prague. I had heard wonderful things from several friends, one of whom says it’s his favorite city in the world, and I had wanted to go for quite some time. It is a beautiful, historic city, and parts of my experience were thoroughly enjoyable, but in my short time there, it never really felt like a city I could fall in love with. However, there were some definite highlights: the free walking tours I took were great, and Prague Castle (and the monastery’s restaurant just outside the castle complex) are definitely worth a stop. I had some really interesting food, and some delicious beer (that in some cases is actually cheaper than water), and the weather could not have been more perfect for my time in Praha.

My most favorite part of Prague was its Jewish history walking tour. The one I took was self-guided, and included visits to several Synagogues, a few museums, and the Jewish cemetery in the heart of the Jewish quarter. Had I planned better, I would have also gone to Terezin (Theresienstadt in German), especially after I learned so much about the significance of that particular labor camp during World War II. I would definitely suggest a visit there, as it provides incredible (often missing) context for the Second World War, and the Jewish experience outside of Germany.

Prague seemed like a really little “big” city–or a really big “little” city–with its historic center compact and wonderfully walkable. It’s been the backdrop to many movies set in Europe, and partially as a result, it has been touched by western commercialism and consumerism, and not in a fantastic way. Economically, I understand the need for it, but I ended up in a mall that would unrecognizable from an American mall on more than one occasion. I had the opportunity to shop in pretty mainstream European stores more in Prague than I did in the rest of my solo trip combined–certainly avoidable, but as I love to wander, it was an unfortunate side-effect of my methods. When I go to Prague again, I’d take a few day trips outside of the city, to Terezin, and to Český Krumlov, a castle that is an hour or so outside of Prague. Nevertheless, everyone who is interested in important history, beautiful architecture, good food and drink, and seeing parts of the world they haven’t before, should go to Prague, and decide for themselves–I’m sure there are really appealing parts of the city that I missed out on.

Tell me what I missed–let me know what fantastic Prague attractions I neglected, or some Czech experience that I didn’t partake in that would have made the trip for me–I’m sure there are some out there!

I was fortunate, however, to find a little piece of Americana in Prague, as I was there over the 4th of July. A jazz club right off Wenceslas Square was having a night of American show tunes. If you know me at all, you know I love me some good old-fashioned musicals, and enjoying them while also honoring our Founders was an unexpectedly great way to commemorate the Declaration. It was as John Adams would have wanted.

On to Vienna, Austrian hospitality, and a return to the German language!

MC Lean

Travel Tips from McLean Meets World!

I am by no means a wizard when it comes to travel. I have actual and figurative bumps and bruises from doing things the hard way, the long way, and the just plain wrong way in my travels. I also know that just because something has worked for me does not mean it will work for others, but I seem to keep sharing the same pieces of travel advice to friends and family. I thought it was about time to write it down and put it into the ether, so here I present to you: McLean Meets World’s 14+ tips for making the most of your travels:

 

1. Climb something tall in every city. You get a better understanding of the geography of a city if you can see it from above. You see the movement of traffic, people, and the urban planning (or lack thereof) that helps you make sense of the place. Plus, if you actually climb the stairs instead of taking the elevator (if there is one), then you’ve always got a justification for that dessert you’ll end up having anyway (also, bonus justification if actually climbing saves you the cost of said dessert–you are officially doubly free of guilt).
2. Take a walking tour of the city, if one exists (especially a free one!). Many companies have started tip-based walking tours of major cities around the globe (in Europe in particular) and they’re a great introduction to a city you’ve never been to. I try to find one on my first or second day in a place. Traditionally, they’ll take you to all of the major sites, and then you can decide for yourself later if you’d like to return and invest time and money in the place. For 10-15 Euros, you’ve got a great introduction to a city, potentially some new friends to visit the city with, and a nice 2-ish hour walk through what is likely a beautiful, history-filled place.
3. See as many monuments at night as you can. Certainly go during the day and enjoy them while they’re full of tourists, even (especially?) if you’re already hot, sweaty, and cranky. But go again at night–some of my favorite moments have come with a cool evening breeze, fewer people, and a more personal experience with some of the world’s most famous sites.
4. Always know some of the language, even if it’s just please and thank you; certainly more is always better. If you have particular dietary needs, make sure to have a phrase or two written down if you’re not comfortable saying them. More often than not, sincere effort and a smile will get you about as far as you’ll absolutely need to get–but sometimes it won’t. In those moments, keep in mind #5.
5. Remember that you’re an ambassador for your language, and more importantly, for your country. Americans are notorious complainers–so far, this has held true on all five continents I’ve visited. Sometimes it’s warranted, and sometimes it’s people getting angry for others not doing things we’d expect them to do at home. Remember, all things are relative. Try to be kind and respectful, wherever you are. And of something is frustrating you, take a deep breath and think about why. Don’t be the person who becomes the stereotype for a whole country. And certainly don’t be the person who gets angry at a non-English speaker, in a non-English speaking country for not being able to understand your English!
6. Basic cultural competency will make your trip easier. Take a few minutes before you go to look for some information about tipping, restaurants, currency, escalators, voice volume, common scams, etc. When I travel, I operate using the assumption that most people are good and mean well. Keep that in mind, and definitely try to let that be your guide, but also be ready to protect yourself from being an easy mark. (This is where practical advice like: don’t carry/flash large sums of money, always have multiple copies of your passport, and don’t get in cabs with strange men at the airport, come into play. Those are important too–I’m just going a bit heavier on the philosophical here today. Also, I assume if you’ve seen the movies Hostel or Taken, you’ve got most of the bigs ones covered! And if you haven’t seen them…don’t.)
7. Group travel is great…until it isn’t. If you’re traveling with a larger number of people, especially with varying degrees of travel experience, make sure your group knows basic information about how to interact in big groups abroad. Also remember there will likely always be people with you at sites who aren’t in your group–don’t ruin it for them by monopolizing anything; a person, a place, physical space, or things.
8. Do as the locals do. Don’t go to places that (literally or figuratively) scream for tourists. Though they can be, often, they won’t be authentic or quality meals or purchases. If you find a place that’s full AND full of people speaking the native language, stop and check it out.
9. Homesickness is real regardless of how long you’ve been away, and sometimes all it takes to lessen it is a little dose of American commercialism. Stopping at an American chain for some comforts of home is okay, and can sometimes get you through a rough stretch of travel. BUT, indulge with serious moderation and with some stipulations. Don’t get Starbucks coffee in Vienna; get Viennese coffee. Don’t even think about McDonald’s fries in Belgium, get pommes frites at EVERY OPPORTUNITY. Don’t compare your Roman meal to Olive Garden, and don’t ask for alfredo sauce in Italy. It doesn’t exist.
Homesickness can also be improved by getting to know other travelers. I’m surprised every time I travel when I catch myself eavesdropping on conversations I hear in English. Sometimes I insert myself, and sometimes I don’t, but talking about shared experiences gives you a great starting point for new friendships with other travelers, whether or not they speak your language.
10. Always use the restroom when it’s available to you, especially if it’s clean and free. The American chains mentioned in #8 are often great places to use the restroom, though you should always buy something if you’re planning to use a restroom there. Museums and restaurants are also great places to use them. Carrying tissue or a small amount of toilet paper is probably also a good idea, just in case you find yourself in a jam.

11. Know your travel triggers and work to avoid or minimize them.

  • If you get irritable and angry when you do too much or sleep too little (and who doesn’t?!), build in time to be exhausted and recuperate. If you’re going 24/7 for as long as you’re in a place, the value of your experiences starts decreasing rapidly. I’m certainly guilty of trying to fit in too much, and not really caring about what I’m seeing or doing. This is when I get frustrated at myself, after the fact.
  • If you shut down quickly after getting hungry, know that, and make sure the people you’re traveling with know too. And then find something to eat, or always carry something with you. Almonds are my go-to; easy and portable–pack some!
  • If you get uncomfortable in loud, cramped spaces, try to avoid them, or at least know how you best deal with them.

Ultimately, whatever it is that’s bothering you, think about why you’re there, and whether you think you’ll be back. Plan accordingly.

12. Write things down. There’s certainly no need to carry a large journal with you, but I’ve found that a small moleskine that has a piece of elastic to keep it closed is handy. I’ve started writing things I’m grateful for at down time during travel days or at meals. Traveling alone affords more opportunity to do this, but I’ve found that I’m more centered and grateful if I take time every day to realize how lucky I am to be doing what I’m doing. Also, if you make some great finds in a city, and know that you’ll want to share them, it’s better to write them down or take pictures of things than rely on your overstimulated, likely overtired brain to file away long-term.
13. Think about what you want to acquire on your trip. Some people come away with lots of souvenirs and gifts for themselves or friends and family at home. Others place experiences ahead of things. Some can meaningfully combine both. You have to know what’s more important to you, and how you plan to budget for both experiences and things. I learned the hard way as a broke college student that sometimes prioritizing finances means you can’t have both, and may miss out on experiences. However, the years that followed my study-abroad experience where I didn’t wear the t-shirts I bought, could finally acknowledge I didn’t REALLY need that extra scoop of gelato every time, or couldn’t remember the significance of a little statue I *needed* to have at the time have convinced me that bungee-jumping over the Corinth Canal would have probably been a better way to spend my time and money. This is truly a live-and-learn situation. Sometimes you have to miss a few great experiences or purchases to figure out what is important to you, but once you know, you’ll save yourself time, money, and space in your suitcase in the future.
14.  Get Lost. Make an effort to find the “road not taken” and walk as far as you’re inspired to walk. If you have the time and inclination, go somewhere without a destination. Play metro “golf” and get off at random stops to see whatever you can see. Or, have one destination in mind, and take the long route to get there. I know this sounds scary in a city you don’t know, and perhaps with a language you don’t speak. If you’re worried about this–know how to get to ONE big attraction or site from where you’re staying. The train station, a tourist site, a store or restaurant; these can all work, and if worse comes to worse, you can find a method to get back to that place, and your destination won’t be too far. Also, I always carry a physical map with me, with the place I’m staying marked, or the cross-streets memorized. Map-reading is a seriously underrated skill, and will serve you well (and impress your friends) in times of crisis, or just during periods where you want to navigate the old-fashioned way. Technology can also help immensely. If you don’t have a great sense of direction, download the google map for the cities you’re going to, and have an electronic backup.
Some of my favorite travel experiences have come this way. We rode a bus line to the end, wandered around, and heard a booming voice speaking in German, and had just come upon the Pope’s All Saints’ Day address at St. Peter’s Square. We wandered from our apartment in one direction, and heard the sounds of splashing water, only to come upon the Trevi Fountain. I also found the best cake shop in all of Vienna this way, and made it a priority to retrace my steps several times over the next few days. 🙂 However, you should also know the cities you’re wandering–if there are dangerous parts that should be avoided, know that beforehand. I’ve walked into more than one protest-turning-into-a-riot in politically/socially-motivated/active areas. (Keep in mind: All of this should be taken with a grain of salt, and safety should be a priority, BUT get out of your comfort zone!)
[edit: I can’t believe I forgot this tip the first time around–thanks Ben!]
15. For the best experience, work hard to be a traveler, not a tourist. For me, a tourist gets a picture in front of a famous landmark, but doesn’t care about the history. A traveler interacts with a place. A tourist visits cities superficially, checking places and sites off a predetermined list. A traveler gets lost in the streets, and wants to feel the kinetic energy of a city and its people. A tourist chooses to minimize discomfort and often takes the path of least resistance; a cab instead of public transport, a restaurant with English-only menus, an American chain hotel. All of these are acceptable options, and even preferable in some situations, but think about why you choose them. Before you even board a plane, think about why you’re going and what you want to learn. Be prepared for discomfort, but expect enlightenment. Be ready for frustration, but embrace serendipity. Make smart and safe decisions, but expose yourself to the unfamiliar.
Growth happens when we are capable enough to deal with the unexpected. Travel is about that growth; of humanity and awareness, intelligence and capability, and relationships between ourselves and the rest of the world, both physical and human. Be ready for it to change you, and if you think it doesn’t, try again. And again. And again. Change the places, the travel partners, the modes of transport, the season, the attitude, and sometimes before you even realize it, those things will all have changed you.
So…what did I miss? What other useful tips would help the seasoned and not-so-seasoned traveler? Comment below and let me know!
Safe travels, friends. MC Lean