Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Boldly Go Where No Man Or Woman Has Gone Before - Just Not In Your Underwear

A number of years ago, I found myself in Paris, late October, and it was absolutely beautiful. It was one of those perfect fall days where the sky was a brilliant blue, the sun was warm, and the air was a fragrant combination of decaying leaves, fresh pastries and cappuccino. I had just arrived from Canada and was anticipating the two weeks I had to spend in Paris and the French countryside.

I checked into my hotel, and found out that I had a few hours to kill before my room would be ready. Even though I had not slept a wink on the over-night flight, I was energetic and eager to explore one of my favourite cities in the world. I arranged to keep my suitcase behind the hotel reception counter and before heading out, knowing how gorgeous the weather was outside, I quickly grabbed a pair of shorts, a fresh t-shirt, and changed for my trek through the city streets.

So there I was, a Canadian in Paris, as happy as can be. I’ve been to Paris enough times that each time I arrive, it feels like a second (albeit a tad more expensive than my first) home.

But something was wrong.

Have you ever had one of those dreams where you’re somewhere like school, work or at the mall with 30,000 other people, and you’re standing around in your underwear (or less)? Well, this is how I felt about 3 minutes after stepping out of my hotel lobby and onto the streets. (Note: for those of you who have never traveled to Paris, stepping out of a lobby never takes very long, particularly for those of us with limited resources ($) for hotel stays. The budget hotels lobbies are never bigger than about 5 feet wide by 3 feet deep, and this includes a reception desk and a rack or two of tourist brochures – and I won’t even go into the size of the typical budget hotel elevator here).

It took me a while to realize it, but after about 5 blocks of walking, my eyes were diverted from the historic architecture to the local haute couture – particularly to what everyone else was wearing around me. I can tell you that they weren’t wearing shorts and t-shirts, even though it was more than 20 degrees Celsius outside - of course anything in Canada warmer than 10 degrees brings people out in shorts and tank tops, particularly if an impending winter is near. This early afternoon in Paris, everyone around me was dressed as though they were off to either a very important meeting where they’d be discussing world politics or they were off to a ball worthy of an appearance by Cinderella or maybe even George Clooney. I’d like to think that they didn’t notice me, practically naked by comparison, but I’m sure in reality my appearance wasn’t dissimilar to a zebra attending a meeting of polar bears.

Typical fashions you see at any hour wandering around Paris.

Not ever worrying about what people think about what I wear, I did what any confident, who-cares-what-you-think kind of person would do – I double timed it back to the hotel, dug back into my suitcase and pulled out some clothes that would keep me from being nabbed by the French Foreign Legion of Fashion and therefore be thrown in the nearest jail for those who are couture-challenged.

So this brings me to today’s topic – finding the appropriate dress for your travel destination.

It’s good to do some research - what the local customs are, and what you can bring to wear, particularly if you hate that feeling of sticking out like a sore thumb. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it’s great to look like a tourist (I can’t think of a bigger fan than myself of those fantastic flowered shirts you can pick up at any street corner in Hawaii), and at times it would be physically impossible to ‘blend right in’ (think of me, the 6 foot 1 inch tall Caucasian traveling anywhere in the Orient).

Wearing this, you're guaranteed to blend in at any luau

Another thing to consider is dressing not just blending in, but to respect local customs. I remember being in Europe for my first time after graduating from university. I was there for 2 months during the summer months, and in that time, I wore pants three times (each time reluctantly). Twice, because it was actually cool outside, but the third time was on a day that was 35 degrees Celsius with humidity levels of around 235% (or so it felt like). It happened to be one of my only days in Rome, and a day I wanted to visit the Vatican, where they will not let you in without the appropriate clothes, which doesn’t include shorts. It also turns out that with their newer safety restrictions, they won’t let you in with your all-essential Swiss Army Knife either (if you’re there soon and going through the security line, you’ll find a bunch of interesting items there, likely including my beloved knife!).

Maybe a little extreme for a way to dress, but if you really want to fit in...

In other countries, particularly if you’re female, you may find yourself wearing a veil or headpiece to respect local customs. If you’re a guy and you happen to be in Pamplona, Spain, mid-July, like I was once, you might find yourself wearing white pants, a white shirt and a red bandana around your neck (I didn’t do the pants or the shirt, but I did buy a bandana to feel like I fit in). If that happens to be you, please be wary of the bulls, the local Spaniards who’ll be happy to talk you into running ‘with’ the bulls, and most-importantly, watch out for the sangria or any combination of the three. They’ll all kick you if you’re down, so to speak.

Going to Scotland in wintertime with nothing warmer than a fleece would be downright silly and potentially hypothermia-inducing, while going to Egypt in summer without light cotton clothing would likely get you going on that heavy sweat weight-loss program, like it or not.

So basically, do the research, and it’ll add to the enjoyment of your trip. Plus it will give you the opportunity to start feeling like you’re on holiday before you even leave. Most importantly, it will likely keep you safe from having the uncomfortable feeling of standing on an open street corner in Paris with a thousand Parisians laughing and staring at your…pastries.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Joys and Surprises of Fall Travel

For many people, once the calendar turns to September, sadly, the travel year is over. At least until the highly anticipated winter trips that involve palm trees, patios, and sliding doors without screens. It’s now fall (this side of the world), and in my opinion and from experience, I feel this can be one of the best times of year to travel.

Here’s why:

1. Less crowds
2. Flights and hotels tend to be discounted
3. If you’re traveling by car, there are way less RVs hogging the road
4. Your teacher friends can’t. And that should be good enough of a reason!
5. Sometimes you just find things you can’t with the summer crowds

One other excellent reason to travel in the fall, as silly as it sounds, is to take in some serious fall colour. This is what I did about 7 years ago. I traveled to Atlanta in late October to visit my brother and his family, and then continued on by car with them to a place called Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. As I was told, it’s a place renown for it’s fall colours, displays of pumpkins, outdoor markets, and what I’d find out later, for some famous large breasts. That I should explain. Pigeon Forge is just a few miles away from Dollywood, an amusement park owned by Dolly Parton. One can imagine with some humour as to what the roller coaster experience would be like - Wheeeeeeeeeeeee! Wheeeeeeeeeeeee! and you’re done!

This I found out also had influence on the neighbouring towns, such Pigeon Forge. I was expecting a scene of quaint cabins, babbling brooks, amazing foliage and abundant serenity, but this ‘cultural icon of amusements’ should have been my first clue as to what we were actually going to experience.

After a much longer than expected drive than expected from Atlanta (pre-GPS and a brother who doesn’t quite read maps well), we arrived in the dark to a decent little non-rustic rental property. Next day, up bright and early on a cool and crisp autumn morning, we started to explore. Picture if you will a 4-lane roadway running straight as an arrow through town, lined on both sides with Super-8-type hotels, Perkins-like restaurants, and more gift shops than you’ve ever seen, or ever want to. Just a side note - every single gift shop we entered had fancy scented candles burning and each was playing that same Vivaldi song you hear every time you walk into a gift store, no matter where you are in the world. The royalties for the artist must be staggering.

As it was, I put my movie-watching talents to use (this is my unique ability to lower my standards and enjoy nearly any movie, with the exception of the third and hopefully final Pirates of the Caribbean movie), and forged ahead for a weekend of exploring and experiencing what the town and countryside had to offer.

I have to say, blocking out the town, the area was incredibly beautiful with rolling hills on all sides, babbling brooks, and hiking trails through forests of stunning colour. Although there were still a lot of people around, it was fall, so we hiked a trail or two and just soaked in the surrounding scenes and at times felt like we had the place to ourselves.

This was turning into a good fall trip, but I didn’t realize that the true highlight was still to come.

It was our last full day there and that afternoon we stopped at a roadside farmer’s market. Pumpkins of all sizes were on display along with a variety of colourful fall vegetables and some aged but rustic looking harvesting machinery.

Just as I was about to declare the trip as good, but not fantastic, I saw the one thing, or I should say the one person that made my trip turn from good to fantastic.

Let’s call him Farmer Hatfield, or maybe Farmer McCoy, but this guy was incredible. He looked like he had just crawled out from the hills after decades of living in lonely isolation. Wearing his green cloth hat, plaid shirt, overalls and some complimentary bare feet, he appeared to be skinnier than a bulimic rake during a fasting. What teeth were left pointed in every direction ever explored by man and only resembled teeth in that they hung from gums but I’m sure didn’t function beyond that. Yikes.

And why was this so great? This, you can’t duplicate. This you don’t see in the travel brochures. You can’t dress someone up to look like this, even if you paid them. This was a genuine, true-to-form fall farmer’s market, and this was a true-to-form and authentic Eastern USA hillbilly – true to the area, and something completely unplanned.

At this moment, outside of all the commercialism and traffic and awfully scented candles, I knew I had found my gem of the trip and felt content. My fall travel, with the smaller crowds, the colours of the leaves and beautiful crisp air and quiet roads, my complete surprise included, was just…complete.