04 February 2010

Travel grinch

While Karen was in the States last week, I got to thinking about what a lousy traveler I am.

I've never really been a very enthusiastic traveler, something my parents recently commented on. It doesn't matter whether it's flying 12 h to Japan or driving 90 min to a race, the act of getting someplace is almost never enjoyable for me. And in the period on either side, the getting ready to go and the getting there, I'm usually even more uptight, grumpy, and irritable than normal. I'm a guy who likes to know what awaits him, likes knowing how to do things, and likes things to "go right." Traveling is all about not knowing what awaits, having to figure out how to do things, and most definitely stuff going wrong.

There was a period in our graduate school-postgraduate training lives where we didn't take a real vacation for 7 years. We'd occasionally manage to travel together to the other's conference or get a quick visit in to one set of parents or the other, but we didn't go anywhere outside of work just to travel or see the world. That long spell broke about a year after we moved to Philly, when we went to visit a fellow former prisoner postdoc from our U of TX days and his wife in their native New Zealand. If you're going to break a dry spell, may as well do it in style. It was both an awful and wonderful trip. Awful in getting there. Flights were interminable, connections were missed, luggage was lost, what a mess. But aside from a couple of days at the start with our friends in Wellington, we just had a car, a map, and a couple of weeks to get to Aukland for our return flight. And so we just set off to explore the South Island, quickly figuring out how to get information in each town, learning not to worry about hotel availability at that time of year, and having a slew of unexpected memorable experiences.

That unplanned traveling model worked for us the first trip we took to Italy, as well. After 10 days of riding with a group, we dumped our bikes at a hotel in Pisa, got on a (wrong) train south, and after a pretty eye-opening evening in Naples, rented a car and drove to the Amalfi coast with no reservations or plans. A few bewildering, frustrating hours later, including stopping at and then running away from a little Bates motel-like spot recommended by the only Italian we knew, we took a break to eat at a little road-side restaurant for lesson #1 of the trip, which is that when you're sitting at an outdoor table on the side of a cliff looking over the Mediterranean, you order the simple grilled fish and local wine and then shut the hell up and just listen to what the place is saying instead of trying to make the place match up with some preconceived ideas. We got back into the car, drove 30 min down the breathtaking cliff-side highway and stopped at an intriguing little white door that turned out to be a hotel cut into the cliff face, with balconies cantilevered out over the water, where we got a room for about a quarter of the normal rate since they'd just drained the pool and were only going to be open another week. The only thing more perfect than that hotel was the untopped pizza crust that served as the bread basket at one of the little family-run restaurants we ate at one night. 9 years later, I still dream of that bread at night.

And so we travel. And Karen puts up with my increased anxiety and grouchiness at the start and end of the trip, and plenty of times in the middle of the trip until food calms me down again. We never show up with an itinerary, and we sometimes haven't done enough advance reading to generate a list of things we want to see. I'm sure we miss some amazing sites and sights, but for us it's so often the chance encounters with somebody or something that we remember most from a trip that aside from reserving a room somewhere, we pretty much wing it. And so far, cross fingers, it works out. We have never traveled so much in our lives as we have this past year. And though I'm no better at it now than last February, I hope it continues. I had fantasies after the Japan trip of really getting off the beaten path. But I'm not sure I'll ever be take-it-as-it-comes enough to handle that kind of adventure.

My most recent traveling has been on the roads just outside Paris, on the bike. When we moved here, we started riding the hamster track at Longchamp, and then I started getting out into the country to ride, using a route from here to get to the open spaces to the west, using a route learned from friends to ride in the Chevreuse valley, and taking regional trains to explore the countryside to the south and north. As much fun as that kind of riding is, 2 or more hours on bike or train just to get to and from the interesting riding just isn't practical on a daily basis.

Like more distant traveling, familiarity is a big help in finding routes. It's hard to take the dive to explore when you have no idea which towns are where and have a hard time understanding the complicated directions that asking for help enlists. In rural Italy, or even in the open countryside around Paris, it's easy to ask which direction town A is, because you're standing at an intersection with the next road 5 k down the way. Immediately outside Paris, it's hard to even know what town you should be asking for because they're packed in together with oddly shaped boundaries, and there are hundreds of possible roads, many of them 1-way in one direction for 2 or 3 blocks and then in the other direction for the next 3.

Thank goodness, then, for Google maps and especially street view. Since the French atlases are useless for this kind of thing, the reasonable accuracy of the online maps is incredibly helpful for finding unlikely arteries through suburbia, and it's easy to preview for traffic light density (French police take seriously the running of lights by cyclists) and potentially dangerous high-speed highways. Recognizing key traffic circles before you find yourself in one with no street signs to be seen is also a benefit of the street view capability.

The recent local exploring has been enormously satisfying on all accounts. Aside from making me feel like I've not completely given up on the bike, I've found some great rolling suburban and urban roads full of punchy ups and downs punctuated by cobbles and speed bumps that make riding on the road a little like mountain biking at Fair Hill or White Clay (man, I miss my mountain bike), terrain that's otherwise hard to hard to find in this area. I've learned to connect some beautiful areas just outside of Paris with twisty narrow low-traffic roads, making for good riding and just good learning about the area. And I've now got a bag full of 1.25 - 4 hour rides from my apartment door that I can choose from with a minimum of "getting to." I have aspirations of listing rides someplace here for future Paris-frustrated cyclists, since I've been unable to find any since moving here. Hopefully I'll find a mechanism to do that.

Best of all, unlike my other travel, the only times riding makes me grouchy is when the weather is nasty and I can't get out to explore more.

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