Tag Archives: Travel

Off the Road

11 Dec

This time last year, I was staring out a hotel window at a smoggy LA scene. The day before, I was in Austin. The week before? São Paolo. I wasn’t on an intentional adventure–this was business travel. All three stops were for focus groups. I tried to make the most of it: an early morning dash for donuts in Austin, a quick museum stop in São Paolo, trying a new restaurant in LA. Mostly, though, I sat in focus group facilities, scribbling notes about consumer behavior and eating an inordinate amount of M&Ms (a focus group staple).

And now here we are, a year later, and I have zero business trips planned. After 7 years of frequent, often chaotic business travel, I’m officially off the road. It’s largely a relief–but there’s also something bittersweet about it that I’m still trying to process. My new job will involve the occasional business trip, but most the time, I’ll be home sweet home.

Switching myself off from business traveler mode has actually been one of the weirdest adjustments to my new job. On the one hand, I’m elated. Business travel can be so tiring, and it made my life really fragmented too. I could never quite plan ahead, I never committed to weekday plans more than a week out, and I always knew there was the possibility I’d have to hop on a last-minute flight. I struggled to set good habits because once I’d gain momentum, the next trip would come along and disrupt it.

And yet: there’s something beautiful about popping up all over the place. Business trips took me places I probably wouldn’t have been to otherwise: far-flung suburbs, extremely small towns, medium-sized towns that just don’t make most tourist itineraries. I’m full of stories from the last 7 years, some treasured and some reviled. That time I got lost in Alabama and ended up at a pecan farm. All the late, late night drinks and early, early breakfasts with NYC pals, crammed in to accommodate my work commitments. The months I spent staffed in New Jersey, barely seeing anything beyond my hotel and my client site.

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Waking up in Sao Paolo

This lifestyle shift is really impacting me right now. I find myself thinking about the feeling of checking in at a new hotel, pondering how much time I spent in airports, remembering all the times I dragged my suitcase around a new place. Planes and hotels were such a big part of my life for so long, whether I liked it or not. Being on the road had some exciting moments but more importantly, it was familiar. Lack of routine was my routine for so long, and it’s sort of bizarre that the pattern ended.

A more open calendar means opening up my life: the lack of movement means I can move forward in new ways. But, I’m still figuring out how this whole “non-business traveler” thing works. I’m trying to establish a better routine. I’m saying yes to weekday plans. And above all else, I’m savoring the feeling of staying still.

Since I keep a sort-of diary, it was really easy to map the places I’ve traveled for work. So naturally, I had to do it. This map only reflects locations, not frequency. For example, I hit up LA a few times in 2013 alone. Maybe someday I’ll add frequency in… but for now, the data-geek side of me finds this map pretty satisfying on its own.

Don’t Walk and Eat

27 Nov

When I was in Japan a couple months ago, most mornings started at a local bakery. Every morning we’d stop by a different place to pick up pastries and coffee to fuel our day’s adventures. Naturally, we got more than 1 pastry a day: after all, we wanted to try as many local specialties as we could. From melon buns to red bean rolls to taro danishes, we nibbled our way through a whole new realm of baked goods.

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That green pastry is a melon roll, and it was divine.

Japanese neighborhood bakeries are “self-service,” with pastries laid out buffet-style. You walk around with tongs and a tray to pick your bounty, then an employee rings you up. You can opt to dine-in, or take away. We always opted for takeaway since we had a jam-packed itinerary and wanted to jump right into sightseeing.

But, our desire to hustle created a bit of a cultural conundrum. See, on Day 2, our chosen bakery laid down some rules for us. They had this sign posted right by the tongs and trays, specifically to school hurried tourists like us.

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We giggled at first. After all, it felt a bit silly that the bakery was trying to monitor how we’d consume their baked goods. So they didn’t want us to stand directly in front of their door? Well, ok, I guess that could look tacky to passerby. But why did they care if we ate while walking? How would that impact the bakery at all?

We assumed the sign was trying to steer us away from cultural gaffes. While eating and walking is a popular combo in the grand ‘ol USA, that’s not the case worldwide. When I studied abroad in France, my professor gave us a long list of tips to “blend in.” One tip was exactly what this sign forbade: don’t eat and walk. She was so right! I rarely saw locals eating and walking when I was in France, or when I studied in Spain later on.

So that does that make Americans heathens? Or are we simply different? Who’s to say which way is “right” and which way is “wrong?” When we’re abroad, is it automatically disrespectful to do what we do at home? And on top of all that: is it this bakery’s business to tell us how to act?

I like to think that the bakery was simply looking out for us, like my French professor, and counseling us on how to blend in (or, really, how to stand out less). It’s not like we were about to get ticketed for eating pastries in the streets. But, they were guiding us to act like locals do, perhaps to save us embarrassment, perhaps to save the locals disdain. We did notice that the streets were impeccable in Kyoto, and could imagine the bakery wanting to inspire respect for their beautiful public space.

It’s so hard to respect local customs when you travel, because you can’t know all the rules off the top of your head. Without context, this sign just sounds a tad judgmental. But there are so many little things about cultures that vary around the world. It’s so easy to offend someone simply because you don’t have the right context. And in that sense, I think this bakery was just trying to help us get by.

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Another morning find. This store didn’t lecture us about how to eat, but maybe they just never thought to do it 🙂

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Inside a high-end grocery store.

All Packaged Up (Picture Prattle)

7 Jul
Grocery shelves in Pisac, Peru

Grocery shelves in Pisac, Peru

When you travel, you usually expect to find difference. You expect to hear new languages, see alternative clothing styles, and learn about the ways another culture perceives the world. You’ll find these things, for sure. But you’ll also find a lot of nuances in the products people use, even for something as unassuming as a bar of soap.

Our worlds are built on little blocks of accepted behaviors and patterns. Whether you like it or not, much of your daily routine is rooted in the products you use. The shampoo you wash your hair with, the cereal you enjoy for breakfast, the cookies you eat as a snack. When you travel abroad, you realize that many of the products you perceive as “givens” are only givens to you. You may think Oreos are the reigning sandwich cookie, everywhere. But then you go to Peru and see Casino cookies and realize you might not be so right, after all. And then you go to China and try to replace your shampoo, the one you can buy at any drugstore or grocery store in the USA- and you realize that perhaps the things you perceive as “ordinary” products aren’t necessarily ordinary for everyone, everywhere. I like to think about how it’d be to live in a world that’s defined by a whole other ecosystem of brands and products. What would be my go-to soap? My favorite brand of beer? My go-to indulgent packaged snack?

The consumer packaged goods industry fascinates me. Modern innovations mean that giant corporations can mass produce, mass ship, and get a worldwide reach that’s bigger than the world has ever seen before. And yet, local preferences persist, sometimes at the brand level, and sometimes at the product level. I always check out grocery stores when I’m abroad, and I specifically look to see how many products I recognize. Given my love of cookies, it’s no wonder I tend to do this exercise in the cookie aisle before any other part of the store.

The next time you’re traveling, no matter where it is, take a look at the assortment in the local grocery store. Do you see all the products you’re used to? Or are your perceived “staples” perhaps not universally staples, after all? If you lived in this place, how would your behaviors and preferences change? What products would blend into your life?

A Holiday in Spain

3 Dec

As you’ve likely noticed, I write about France on a pretty regular basis. Whether it’s laughing about mistakes I made before I understood French, musing on 1900s Paris, or reminiscing about how I came to love Nutella, I always have plenty of things to say about France and its culture. But while I’ve spent a significant amount of time studying French culture, I’ve actually spent more time physically in one of France’s dear neighbors: Spain.

Though I “lived” in France for 5 weeks during college, I spent an entire semester studying in Spain. Which is why it’s a bit of a shame that, to-date, my blog posts on Spain are rather few and far between. I’ve woven in anecdotes here or there, but haven’t written much that’s explicitly about my time in Spain.

What inspired this sudden revelation? Old photos, of all things. Over Thanksgiving I started digging through family photo albums and came across a picture of me posing in a guard post in front of the Royal Palace of Madrid. The photo was from 1989, when I was still a toddler- but I immediately recognized where it was taken. Because the moment I saw the 1989 photo, I had a vivid memory of posing in that exact same place with a couple of friends back in 2008. The two pictures are sheer coincidence: before I saw this picture the other day, I didn’t even realize a 1989 version existed. So as you can imagine, I squealed with delight when I realized I had two pictures of me in the same place at two very different times in my life.

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From 1989 to 2008,  in front of the Palacio Real de Madrid

I immediately dug through my more recent Spain photos to find the more contemporary version and put the two pictures side by side. Neither photo is a particularly good one, but who cares?  From toddler to college student, from tag-along trip-member to study-abroad adventure-creator. Seeing these photos reminded me of many things: how greatly I adored my time in Spain, how appreciative I am that I got to travel at a young age, and, well, how much I love posing. Let’s hope that someday I can post yet another version- perhaps in 2028?- and show you even more of my evolution as a traveler.

Naturally, I then started looking for more photos to put side-by-side. The photos below aren’t a perfect match, but they’re close enough. On the left, a photo of me at the Alhambra of Granada in 1989. On the right, the same courtyard, shot in 2008.

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P.S. I have to thank my dad for these discoveries because he created meticulously-organized photo albums for every family trip we did growing up. It’s such a gift to thumb through pre-digital memories!

Let’s Go!

25 Jul

A couple days ago I wrote about an anthropologist who let strangers dictate what he did with his day in San Francisco. Now imagine that instead of letting strangers plan your itinerary for a single day, you left it up to chance where you headed for your ENTIRE vacation. Would you do it?

 

the Mexico City airport

the Mexico City airport

Heineken recently pulled a marketing stunt where they set up a giant wheel at JFK that was labeled with a ton of destinations. The brand’s team then dared travelers to spin the wheel and play “Departure Roulette” to see where the wheel would land. Players were expected to go wherever the wheel dictated- meaning they would have to cancel their original plans. Some people declined to participate from the get-go since their plans couldn’t change, but others played along and gave the wheel a spin. They then took off on an adventure, letting the wheel tell them where to go.

Now, who knows what level of obligation these folks actually had to follow the will of the wheel- and who cares? It’s a fun idea, and the promo video has already gotten close to 2M views on YouTube, giving Heineken great exposure. Does this have anything to do with beer? Of course not. But so much of alcohol marketing has to do with lifestyle, and Heineken clearly has an agenda in mind about how they want their brand to be portrayed.

I don’t know if I’d actually drop everything and change my plans when I was already at the airport, but I do want to take a trip where I choose my destination more haphazardly than normal. Meaning that instead of spending weeks planning for a specific destination I’d simply plan on vacation days, then pick my destination the week, based on whatever flights happen to be cheapest. The boldest move, of course, would be to just decide at the airport based on flights leaving that day. But even picking a week before sounds exciting to me, and almost freeing in some way. Maybe this year…

Tell Me What To Do

21 Jul

Wandering is one of my favorite things to do when I travel. I often pick a neighborhood I want to visit as my starting point, then twist and turn to see where I’ll end up. Sometimes I have an ultimate destination in mind, sometimes I know the general direction I want to go, and sometimes I literally just start walking and then stop walking when my feet hurt too much to continue.

Though my walks often feel rather”random,” ultimately I’m the one deciding where to go and when to change my course. A video I saw online this weekend made me think about my walks in a new light. Anthropologist Grant McCracken recently visited San Francisco and put a full day’s itinerary into the hands of Twitter users. He asked users to tweet at him with suggestions for where to go and what to do. He then spent the day following their directives. Suggestions ranged from buying gelato to posing with particular SF landmarks. Each time he stopped, he did a video interview with someone nearby. It made me wonder if instead of simply following my whims, I should try letting others pick where I go.

I wish I would have caught Grant’s announcement before he did the actual experiment- it would have been fun to tweet at him and try to influence what he did. He called his approach the “automatic anthropologist,” since others were telling him where to go and he based his interviews off those suggestions. But in some ways, doesn’t it seem like his day was likely less automatic than usual? Instead of following his own tendencies, he had to do what others told him, effectively taking him off of his personal auto-pilot.

I love this idea of spontaneity, and the concept of following others’ instructions to make your way around a city. I don’t have enough Twitter followers to pull this off quite like Grant did (he has 11.5K, I have 33), but maybe next time I travel I’ll do an “in-real-life” version by stopping from time to time and asking locals where I should go next. Perhaps I’ll even plank on a fountain! (Watch the video, you’ll see what I mean.)

Would you put your vacation’s plans in the hands of strangers?

Picture Prattle: More Than Words

21 May
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From a Disneyland gift shop, circa 2011

If you’ve ever been to a Disney theme park, I’m sure your memory is bursting with happy recollections of fanciful rides and costumed characters. You probably can think back to all the glorious treats you ate, the characters you met, and maybe even the souvenirs you bought.

For most of you, the bar of chocolate pictured to the left is probably a non-starter. But for those of us who grew up going to Disneyland on a very regular basis, it’s one big inside joke. The bar says “please stand clear of my chocolate”- which, upfront, seems like a simple plea for others to leave your darn chocolate alone. But really, this bar references a much-loved aspect of Disney that is far less glamorous than its rides or its princesses: the safety warnings that play on rides.

If you’ve ever ridden the Monorail at Disneyland or DisneyWorld, the memories may be coming back to you now: at each stop, as the doors close, the recording says “please stand clear of the doors.” And then, in Spanish, it pronounces: “por favor mantengase alejado de las puertas.” It’s obviously not a very deep message, but it’s somehow become a treasured part of the Disney experience. Park fans like to say the phrase along with the ride announcer, just for kicks.

So this candy bar isn’t just telling greedy hands to stay away: it’s sort of like a testament to an in-group, acknowledging their appreciation of the Disney culture. First, the bar made me smile. And then it made me think about how the smallest phrases can turn into the most meaningful markers of appreciation, inclusion, etc.

One more thing, while I’m on the topic. I recently realized that this phrase and another safety warning Disney uses on its rides may  have been some of the first Spanish phrases I ever learned. It’s weird to think about, now that I can understand the grammar and vocabulary. But when I was little, I simply memorized the phrases as groups of sounds- I had no clue what the individual words were. I’m not sure if this phrase would hold so much weight if I learned it today and immediately understood it from a rational perspective. Would the emotional weight still be there?

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