By Caitlin Kelly
I’m 14 days into my six-week six-nation European journey, much of it solo.
A few notes, in transit:
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.
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!
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. 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.