When you lose a parent (or two) at an early age, it either teaches you to be bitter and resentful, or else it teaches you to savor every precious moment of life. Lucky for me, I chose the latter. It also made me want to experience everything I could, as quickly as I could, in case I end up having the same fate as dear old Mom and Pop. The resulting fire in my belly for the last few years has been to travel. Traveling has opened up my life and my world. Guess what!? There is more to this world than Brown Deer, Wisconsin. Who knew? Here are a few things my traveling adventures have taught me:
Every city has something to offer. I work in social services, for crying out loud, so I'm not afforded the vacation time nor the resources to hang out on a yacht in the French Riviera or jet set to the Galapagos Islands. And you know, it really doesn't matter. I have been to Europe a couple of times, and it was all well and good, but I have had just as much fun spending a three or four day weekend in cities that are hardly known for their tourism industry. Cities like St. Louis and Cedar Rapids. 'Tis true. Every city has something they are proud of that you should check out, at least one or two great restaurants, and people who are worth getting to know. Just get in your car and go.
Patience is a virtue. My mom used to say this to me all the time as a kid, and it aggravated me to no end every time she said it. Now that I have grown and matured (at least somewhat), I have to agree with her, but I would amend it. Patience is a virtue, especially when you are at the ticket counter. In travel and in life, things don't always go your way. You can choose to be upset, or you can choose to roll with it. Being upset won't make the fog go away and alleviate the 13 hour flight delay you experience in Juneau, Alaska. (Yes, that really happened to me.) But choosing to roll with it will mean that, while enduring said 13 hour flight delay, you will find the long-awaited perfect cup of clam chowder in the Juneau, Alasksa airport. Even when things are all f'd up, life can be good. Never lose sight of that.
In life and in travel, picking the right partner matters. A lot. I have had to get to know myself well enough to be able to pick the right partner(s) for travel. (I am still working on picking the right partner for life.) I have friends I adore who do not make good travel partners for me, for one reason or another. I need someone who will do some (but not all) of the planning, who will be spontaneous and inspire me to be so as well, and who will not complain if I want to take a short late afternoon nap before going out for the night. I know these things. I can't compromise these things if I want to have a great travel experience. And I will not settle for less.
Sometimes you just want to get your Pizza Hut on. So I totally believe in checking out the local cuisine, and in asking the locals where they like to go, and in living life as art by trying new things. I get it. That's the gold standard. But sometimes, travel can wear you down and you just want the familiar. I will never regret the meal I had at Pizza Hut in San Jose, Costa Rica. It was exactly what my bestie and I needed, exactly at that time. I was going to hurl if I saw another plate of Arroz con Pollo. I was tired. I was hungover. I had been behaving badly. And Pizza Hut purported to cure all that ailed me. You know what? It did. No regrets. I slept like a baby that night.
Don't waste your money on the hotel. Unless you are on your honeymoon, or you are independently wealthy, an upscale hotel is just not worth it. My sister has taught me the joys of Priceline. It's like buying the "mystery bag" gift--you never know what you are going to get. We have gotten fantastic hotels for $50 a night, and not-so-fantastic hotels for $50 a night. The point is, it doesn't matter. As long as it is clean, the bed doesn't hurt your back, and no one gets shot in the parking lot, it's all good. Traveling is about seeing. You have a beautiful, comfortable home to return to. So save your pennies for the whale watching tour or the amazing dinner or the carriage ride through Central Park that you might not have had if you had stayed at the Westin. Those are the memories that will last you a lifetime.
Sensible shoes are more important than looking good. I learned this painful lesson--and I do mean painful--in Washington, D.C. The first day there I had on a cute little dress and sandals. Sandals that ripped my feet to a bloody, disgusting, painful pulp. I spent a good portion of the rest of my vacation bandaging my feet, complaining about my feet, and wincing everytime I stepped on my feet. Stupid, stupid, stupid. D.C. is a walking town. My feet were so bad by the time the trip was done that my friend and I took a picture of them. Lesson learned. It is better to feel good than to look good. At least when you are traveling, that is. You can look good when you get home.
Sex in a foreign country doesn't count. Well that is what someone told me once, anyway. Enough said.
Don't kiss the Blarney Stone. Sometimes you want to see that thing that everybody else has seen. But other times, it's just not worth it. My trip to Ireland was one of the best trips of my life. I did a lot of things, but I did not kiss the Blarney Stone. And I don't care. I walked through a cemetery that had gravestones from 3 A.D. I had fish and chips at the quaintest little pub on the coast in Northern Ireland. I drank beers, a whole lot of 'em, with drunken Irish soccer players who were missing most of their teeth. I fed a flock of sheep some grass through the fence, and laughed so hard I almost wet my pants. So Blarney Stone be damned, I experienced Ireland the way I needed to experience it, and I loved every minute of it. Make your vacation uniquely yours.
Do visit Iowa's Largest Frying Pan. So in Brandon, Iowa there is what is allegedly Iowa's largest frying pan. I say allegedly, because how does this sort of thing really get authenticated? It is kind of dumb, and pointless, and really only a photo op and nothing more. But it is damned funny to see. Stopping for the silly is always worth it. And if you don't know where to find the silly, you can always visit http://www.roadsideamerica.com/.
Pretty much anything can be funny if you look at it through the right lens. If you are in the right mindset, that is. Regular Jen is a pretty fun gal, if I do say so myself. But Vacation Jen is extra fun. She delights in the little and the absurd. How else would I laugh hysterically at noting that our San Diego hotel elevator had a different font for each of the numbered buttons, at the fact that my friend Katie got stains all over her ass while sitting on the carpet of the divey bar we were at in Louisville, at my own monitoring of a ketchup bottle's fate in Memphis, or at the 3 a.m. fire alarm I endured with my friend Colleen in Sarasota? I know, you are reading this and thinking "that's not funny at all" but I assure you it was. So funny, that in each instance I laughed so hard I could not breathe or contain myself for long periods of time. Love, love, love, love, love that part of travel. Lose yourself in those moments. They are rare and awesome and what life is all about.
There's no place like home. People always talk about taking a vacation to relax. That's all well and good, but I find that a good vacation exhausts me. It exhilarates me too, but the hallmark of a great week of travel is that I am physically and mentally spent. Like when I came home from New Orleans and had not slept for the past 36 hours. That was good stuff. And while the trip home is never as much fun as the trip there, getting home is always a blessing in and of itself. Oh, the bliss of being back with my stuff, my cats, my bed, my shower. It is always good to leave, and it is always good to come back. Maybe that is why I love to travel so much...it gives me just the right amount of perspective that I need and helps me avoid taking for granted that amazing life I have right in front of me.
So all of that being said....get out the map, kids...I think it's time to plan our next adventure. Where shall we go? And more importantly, what shall we learn along the way?