Notes from the road

By Caitlin Kelly

I’m 14 days into my six-week six-nation European journey, much of it solo.

A few notes, in transit:

Crossing the Atlantic, England to Canada, age five or so…

The kindness of strangers

It’s an interesting experience, as a generally competent and independent adult, to be vulnerable, to need other people to pay attention to me when I need it — like when I got on the wrong train in Frankfurt and, re-directed by a kindly stranger, quickly de-trained.

When transport and restaurant and shop and hotel staff are helpful, even friendly, it matters so much more than when you’re at home, surrounded by the love of friends and family. I enjoy travel, and am happy to do it alone, but rudeness and indifference can sting without the emotional supports of the familiar.

Extra vigilance

I was enjoying a leisurely breakfast in a crowded corner cafe of Berlin’s Ku’damm, a major street, and a spot surely full of tourists like me — when I noticed a police motorbike speeding down the sidewalk opposite.

It was nothing serious, but it could have been.

This trip, I’m spending more time than ever before paying attention to my surroundings and how the people around me are behaving. Without my protective, savvy husband — (a former White House Press corps photographer who spent eight years watching the Secret Service protect the President and his family) — it’s all up to me.

Situational awareness matters now.

The humility of needing translation

I speak French, so Paris was easy. I don’t speak a word of German, (or Hungarian or Croatian or Italian.) Nor do I use apps or carry a pocket dictionary. It is humbling to rely on others’ knowledge, and their willingness to use it to help me.

I was at a gym here in Berlin trying to explain something, when a young man, clearly on his way to the office, stepped in: “Do you need help translating?”

I did. And was so grateful!

Sharing space

People may share tables here, and expect to do so. North Americans are more accustomed to lot of physical room, in public and in private.


I love this crazy painting in my Berlin hotel, lobby, Hotel Savoy


Your memory isn’t my memory

Everyone has their favorite (or not!) memories of the places they’ve been and I’m constantly told to Do this! See that! by well-meaning friends.

But your memory of each place is shaped, as mine are, by many variables: who you were with, how old you were, your budget and tastes, the time of day and year, the weather, even the strength of your currency, in that moment.

We also may enjoy wholly different things!

I like to wander. I’m just not a box-ticking type of tourist, rushing to every must-see or trying every must-do.

One of my loveliest afternoons happened by walking a side street, slowly, and discovering one of Germany’s major auction houses, housed in a gorgeous architect-designed building from the late 1800s. I had a great chat with the woman at their front desk, a former Lufthansa flight attendant who got married — in all places — on Staten Island, New York.

That’s not an experience I could have planned, nor offered by any blog or guidebook.


Sitting still is key

Travel is, for all its many pleasures, tiring. Your feet get sore and tired from walking. Your arms and shoulders get weary from dragging a backpack or suitcase. You get hungry and thirsty.

You need to think, to make notes, to just stare into the sky for a while.

You have chosen to stop working — and also just need to rest.

Most of my favorite memories are of sitting still for a while, even an hour at a time (!), watching the light shift and the people walking by, possibly sipping a pot of tea or a prosecco.


There’s never enough champagne!


Taking photos is my greatest joy

I started my career as a photographer, so I love finding images to treasure and frame for our home. My husband gave me a gorgeous little Leica for my birthday and I’m making very good use of it!

Everything is visually interesting to me: light, shadows, foliage, the patterns on a bike or a dress.

I’m fascinated by how different my hotel’s street in Berlin — Fasanenstrasse — looks at all hours — the sky is light at 3:45 a.m. (!) and at 7:10 a.m. I suddenly noticed sharp sunlight briefly illuminating a fantastic stone carving in a doorway.



Routine still matters

I found a gym in Berlin, took a spin class, lifted weights — and sweated happily. At home in New York, I’m at the gym two to three times every week and I miss it. I need to stay in shape.

Routine — although deadening when never broken — is also a little soothing when everything else around you is new.


That little white bear in the very back? He’s along for the ride!


So does comfort

Yes, I travel with a very old, very small, very beloved stuffed bear.

And I’m fine with that.

Acquisition versus disposal

I rarely shop for anything at home beyond gas and groceries, and find much of what I really crave too expensive — and that which I can easily afford unappealing.

So I love to shop when I travel.

But I offload as I go; every post office sells stiff cardboard boxes and plastic packing.Β  I spent 38 euros ($42) this week in Berlin to mail three packages home, things I do want later but don’t need to want to drag around at the moment.



24 thoughts on “Notes from the road

  1. This sounds lovely. It was refreshing to hear someone else say they’re not a “box-ticking type of tourist.” Neither am I, and I’ve decided to own it. I used to feel pressured and a bit odd when well-meaning people would encourage me to make sure I saw this or that or visited certain must-sees. That’s not me, and it’s okay. We miss so much beauty in the ordinary if we only hit the “hot-spots.” Safe travels! I look forward to more of your vacation posts.

    1. Thanks!

      Travel is a very individual thing — even if we do it by the millions. People get very insistent about what you MUST SEE and MUST DO — without even asking if that sort of thing is of interest to you, as though everyone always wants to do the same things. I don’t do mass things at home, so why would I do it on the road?

      I had enormous pleasure leafing through the recent photo sale catalog at the auction house and have now signed up for their upcoming sales — missed a photo that was super affordable that we would have loved for our collection.

      I’ll do a post about Berlin next week — I still have another five days, my longest stay in my journey.

      Two of my favorite photos so far are (!) of the movie theater across the street from our hotel and because I looked at it carefuilly at different times of day.

      1. A true artist! This sounds delightful. Enjoy! And I completely understand what you mean about the movie theater photos. I’m not traveling at the moment, but I love the contrast of my neighbor’s red Madza Miata against the backdrop of palms and oaks and the difference in morning and evening light, as well as how the entire scene changes seasonally here in Coastal GA. Your post reminded me to pay attention, ANd that it’s okay that I do. 😊

      1. Would love to hear more. At the moment, I’m reading a very well-written biography of Angela Merkel, in an attempt to better understand her and the country right now. The conversations I’ve had with residents and businesspeople are helping me get a better sense of it as well.

      2. I could probably go on about Germany quite a bit – in addition to living there, I also worked there for a bit. In all, I spent significant portions of 20 years in Germany (I was married to a German who had become Canadian but whose parents still lived there).

        The Germans are an interesting people who have had to do a lot of self-examination and who are also starting to come out of a sort of developmental period of “insecure arrogance.” That’s just my term, but is also an accurate description of where they were, I think. Without getting into a big discussion of WW II, most people don’t realise how young Germany is (younger than Canada) and how much growing up they have had to do. I feel odd when I realise that the psychopathic actions of the past have lead Germany (through the work they had to do) to a position as a world leader (I don’t think that it’s going too far to say that Trump has cratered the US as “leader of the free world.”), perhaps even now occupying the mantle of “the free world leader” already. My dad, a WW II vet, might have a hard time wrapping his head around this if he were still alive.

        Germans can be overly impressed with Americans (Brits can be too, but for different reasons – I’ve spent a lot of time there, as well) but I think they’re starting to see that the US is as subject to making lousy choices as anyone else.

        Told you I could go on. πŸ˜‰

      3. No, it’s all really interesting. I was verbally attacked at the flea market by a really nasty guy whose immediate first weapon – of course — was “You American!”

        I am enjoying my visit and would definitely come back (relieved by how many people willingly speak very good English and offer English menus), but there’s a mean verbal edge I’ve seen a few times here that’s ugly and weird and I rarely see in NYC (supposedly the meanest U.S. city.) So I’m more wary than I had expected to be.

  2. We are total kindred spirits here. I hadn’t traveled abroad in quite a while (8 years?) until this spring I went to England and then stopped over in Reykjavik on the way home. I’ve always loved traveling alone, but as I age, I realize that, while the kindness of strangers is always there, only I am responsible for remembering where my passport is, and not to leave my handbag in the driveway of my airbnb as I go off to get my bus! Both of which I did, with ensuing mini-panic attacks and then relief as all was remedied. An increased need to be mindful in a changing world, both interior and exterior, is essential!

  3. Wonderful post! I love to travel. For me it’s all about the people that I meet. I spent one summer in the Netherlands and took a day trip to Hamburg by train. As luck would have it, I turned left out of the train station and wandered aroudn the residential neighborhoods, vs. the tourist hot spots. I found a bakery, a lovely church built of brick, a local market, and several kind, helpful German folks. We do need to be alert and aware these days, but that also helps us be on the lookout for those moments we’ll treasure!

    1. That sounds perfect! I’m much happier wandering than trying (as I did today) to fight through MASSES of bloody tourists. I had several great chats with shopkeepers today and learned a lot about how their neighborhood is gentrifying and rents skyrocketing…

  4. I look forward to reading more about your journeys. I’m working on a life change in my 50’s and travel is something I can’t shake. Reading about yours and others travels inspire me to take my own…thank you

    1. Cool!

      This is the biggest trip, $$$$ and time wise, I’ve taken in a long long long time. I don’t miss work or home a bit. I do miss my lovely husband. πŸ™‚

      Travel is such a joy…new people, new thoughts, new images. Everything is different — here in Berlin, it is still light at 10:30 p.m. (!) and the sky gets light again at 3:45 a.m.

      1. I’m in a new phase of life and with that I’ll be going to Greece, with a group but without my husband (who’s deceased). I commend you for traveling abroad by yourself.

  5. It’s wonderful reading your travel entries (I’m so behind…). Some of the best travel memories I’ve had are from getting lost in side streets and I’m the type of guy who always likes to be in control of my environment.

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