Wednesday, January 29, 2014

How Not To Be An Ugly American In A Foreign Land

What Does It All Mean?

The term - Ugly American - what does it mean to you and have you ever acted like one? Be honest. We all have those moments when we are not at our best while traveling. And with the internet, the blogosphere, twitter, facebook, etc., etc. etc. you can see true red, white and blue Ugly Americans in America and elsewhere. It seems that we have become less civil. And advanced technology gives voyeurs of every ilk larger and larger windows open to the good, the bad and the ugly of people everywhere. Sometimes, we just don't do ourselves proud when something or someone interferes with our otherwise perfect day.

And of course, some parts of the travel experience have earned and are deserving of our complete and utter disdain. Flying immediately comes to mind. Let's face it, commercial airlines have become human cattle cars with wings. From the seats for vertically challenged anorexics to the lax rules allowing anyone to wear anything and bring any food item, no matter how disgusting, onto a plane, flying today is just an expensive exercise in human degradation. Or the car rental agent who, as Jerry Seinfeld noted in a classic episode, knows how to make the reservation, but just doesn't know how to hold the reservation. Bob at the rental counter in Portland comes to mind, but, after several minutes of typing on his computer, he saw the error of his ways and got us the car we had reserved.

From various sources - Ugly American is defined as follows:

An American in a foreign country whose behavior is offensive to the people of that country. And an interesting comment by an anonymous reader added this thought - The rest of the definition is the tendency of Americans abroad to believe, they should not have to conform to local laws and customs, as their own sense of laws and customs are superior.

I don't know about you - but me thinks that definition may have been developed by some anti-American Tories during the revolution when we kicked the redcoats' behinds and sent them packin' back to King George and Mother England. Actually, the term is derived from the best selling 1958 novel, The Ugly American,  an exposé of American arrogance, incompetence, and corruption in Southeast Asia. The book and, later, the movie, starring Marlon Brando, generated this most pejorative of terms that has since become part of our media driven reputation for boorishness, deserved or not. We have all witnessed the strange behaviors of people from other lands that visit America. However, since the United States is the most multicultural of all nations, welcoming virtually every ethnic, racial and cultural group to our shores, we are, in fact, probably the more accepting of customs and behaviors from other lands. It is not always smooth sailing, but, the ultimate cross cultural question - Can't we all just get along? - is uniquely American.

Parisians Really Don't Hate Us - Read On

I have heard it said of Europeans that they often loathe our politicians but like us as individuals. I think we, as Americans, can certainly understand that, since we loathe our own politicians. As of today, the latest polls show our president at 39% and our congress at 9% approval. Fortunately we have a system, whereby we can dispense with the current loathsome bunch and replace them with a new bunch that will become equally loathsome in no time.

The disdain of many Europeans probably has something to do with the normal resentment by our cultural ancestors of the perception that we think, no - we know, that we are the biggest dogs on the porch. I mean we have saved their bacon in two world wars and numerous other conflicts. Churchill said -You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they've tried everything else. And that , in turn, has probably lead to Americans having larger expectations of  our Italian, French, British or German brethren, which, in turn, deepens the resentment of the Ugly American syndrome. It's a vicious cycle I tell you!

The point of all this pontificating is the fervent desire to assist, in my own humble way, Americans tripping in foreign lands in the achievement of true enlightenment through travel.  Like the song says - Don't Worry Be Happy - and every thing, great and small, will change you for the better. For, if travel doesn't change you, then what's the point? That's why we spend hours hunting for that perfect place in the sun, by a cool clear stream where we can find some meaning in a world that has less real meaning than ever before. In other words, I want you to have a good time - OK?

Rules of The Road

So how does one ensure that one will not be viewed as just another boorish know it all, who really doesn't know anything at all? In light of my meanderings thus far, loathsome though they may be, I have compiled a simple short set of  suggestions to ensure that the sidewalk cafe waiter in Paris or the concierge in the little boutique on the Grand Canal in Venice will hate to see you leave.
Learn the history and culture of the country. Knowing the real history of pasta in Italy  will make the trip to the country that gave us spaghetti much more interesting. For instance, I recently discovered that pasta was actually first introduced into Italian culinary traditions in first century BC and has evolved into the international delight we enjoy today. This is in direct opposition to the myth that Marco Polo brought this food product from his travels to China - Ha!
Learn the language. It's probably a stretch to think you can become fluent in a foreign tongue by listening to CD's. Although, I am currently giving it a whirl - trying to learn the languages of Spain from Rosetta Stone. And we spent countless hours listening and learning French and Italian.  Even if you can't pass yourself off as a native, life will go so much better in any foreign land if you can at least converse on a basic level with the locals.
Learn to read the language. This is a little bit different than just learning the language. Since you spend large amounts of time in restaurants, cafes and reading road signs, the trip will go much better if you don't take the wrong turn or accidentally order something you have never seen. Once, in Chinque Terra, we observed an American woman proclaim, in an irritating loud command, that she could not eat the prawns she was served because they still had the heads attached. Ugly indeed!
Go with the flow. This is an absolute must. As Americans, we expect everything to be up to a certain standard. Europeans are masters at turning jails, monasteries, gas stations and hay barns into boutique hotels. With this innovative approach to repurposing may come some things you don't see in the good old USA. Really small bathrooms, odd room configurations and other design "flaws" that may not meet our exacting standards. So just relax and realize that you are not in Kansas anymore, but that Oz is so much more interesting if you just follow the yellow brick road.
Listen and Learn. That's right. Concierges, waiters and other hospitality people really want you to enjoy yourself. They know where all the best spots are and, if you ask, they are more than willing to share their knowledge with you. Otherwise, you may have to settle for something that is not authentic and what would be the fun in that? Also, if you just pay attention at train stations, restaurants and shops, you will learn more about the customs of a place than you will ever learn from Lonely Planet or Fodor's.
If You Don't Know - Ask. This is closely associated with language and communication. I have enjoyed some of the most interesting conversations, usually in my honest attempt to communicate with the person in the know, about a restaurant or some other place I want to go. Italians, in particular, love to talk to you and will offer loads of help when asked.
Smile. Even if your heart is breaking because you have no water pressure - smile. I am convinced that if you can laugh at your particular predicament, it will go better. If everything in travel comes off without a hitch, then you won't get to experience the joy of realizing that your world is small indeed. Think of how good you feel after a cold headache. It's always worth it.
Listen To Your Significant Other. My travel companion of forty plus years knows how I work and think. I have yet to completely figure her out. I am also blessed with a mate that people everywhere just automatically like, even before meeting her. It's a gift. So, when she says go there and not there, I try to listen. Although, the many u-turns and wrong turns we have endured on the road, unfortunately, show that I am not a particularly good listener. So, in this case - Do as I say do and not as I do!
So, as you get ready for your next sojourn, just keep these things in mind. Who knows, you may have an epiphany sitting on a plateau in Tuscany that will change your head and your heart.
And just as a reminder of how bad things can get, check out this classic scene from Five Easy Pieces. He just wanted some toast. 


When In Rome - I'm Just Sayin'

Travel Quote of the Week - There are only two emotions in a plane:  boredom and terror. - Orson Wells 

Video Artist of The Week - Kasey Musgraves, one of the few Grammy winners this week with actual talent - Best Country Album - in the spirit of other great Texas singers/songwriters, this young lady takes a new direction in the great American tradition of songs about the other side.


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

How To Be The Smartest Vagabond In The Room of Your Choice

All Travel Planning Should be DIY

It's January 22, 2014. And, like every other January 22 since I was a tyke, the weather sucks, making one and all wish and pray for better climes. Probably to me detriment, I have never been a "Let's go to the Caribbean in January" kind of traveler. We did travel to the Caymans once, many moons ago, on a trip with another couple, who planned the entire adventure. I learned several things about myself and my travel preferences that have informed my travel since. 1) Pick your travel companions carefully. Making small talk and/or plans with someone that you have little in common with can be a tedious chore, 2) The only thing keeping the Caymans from becoming a third world country like many of its neighbors is the fact that it is a British Territory. At least the British bring a civility to the populace that is very unfriendly , particularly to Americans, 3) Don't order ice tea in the Caymans. It is not very tasty and it cost a fortune, 4) Don't go to the Caymans in summer. It is on the equator and, trust me, you will pay and, finally, 5) Do not, I repeat, do not ever let anyone other than you and yours plan your travel. Let's just say that the guy that put this trip together takes a different approach to travel accommodations. A "waterfront" condo, with a couple of window units, that you needed binoculars to actually see the ocean and a rusted out Volkswagen "Thing" to traverse the island with was part of this deluxe package for travelers who just really don't care.

Fast forward to the modern world of travel planning we have at our fingertips in the new millennium, and you can boldly go where no vagabond has gone before, stay at all the right places and come home with some cash left in your pocket or at least have some room left on your AMEX Card.

Do Your Homework
The difference here is that this homework is fun. You can dream your dreams and then, through extreme diligence, make your dreams come true. I mean its not like you're learning the Table of Elements or conjugating verbs, right?

I have said it before, but it bears repeating. Today's traveler has opportunities and choices that simply were not available to any but the most seasoned and moneyed traveler even a scant ten years ago. Like everything else in this new technological world of laptops, tablets and smart phones, the internet has changed everything. And it is getting better all the time. Even the smallest repurposed hay barn in rural Estonia has a web site that will allow you to kick the tires and make reservations on your own terms.  In addition, there are so many travel review web sites, blogs and virtual travel magazines, that you can find out everything you ever wanted to know about the place and never leave your chair. And the travel business is now mobile. That's right - travel sites, hotels, even small intimates have made the jump to New Millennium hipness with their very own apps, so that every thirty something vagabond can have their hand picked cool little hotel right at their fingertips.

From millions of travel related web sites, most of which have corresponding mobile apps for the in the know crowd, check out some very strong sites that will help in your travel planning.

If It Feels Nice, Don't Think Twice
Honest reviewers can make a difference. A good rule of thumb - If the first five reviews are very, very bad, move on. Actual travelers rarely take the time to review unless they mean what they say.

Trip Advisor - This is the big dog of travel reviewing with first person reviews by guests.

Virtual Tourist - Another biggie with a plethora of choices for everything from stuff to do to hotels and restaurants.

Oyster - The boutique hotels page of this great travel site that concentrates on smaller hotels is an excellent resource.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith - This is a great site for the vagabond with some extra cash who wants to take travel to the next level.

Chic Retreats - Only discerning nomads need apply. Great site for people who refuse to settle. Prices from very affordable to ridiculous.

Hip Hotels - From the same people who brought us the Hip Hotels book series, featuring the best of the best in the small hotel world - from concrete wigwams in Arizona to lake front villas in Northern Italy, these guys get it.

Become Inspired
Reading about the exploits of other travelers can open your head and your heart. From the ridiculous too the sublime, people everywhere just got to be free.

Full Course Travel - They sold everything and took off for parts unknown. This blog will give you some insight into what you think travel really means on your own terms.

International Living - The perfect insider information site for wannabe ex-patriots. Where to go, what to do and how to live abroad.

Travel Deep - A deeply personal journal blog that will make you think about where to go and what to do next.

Inspiring Travelers - Tips and trips from a couple of thirty somethings. Great reading.

Anything Worth Doing Is Worth Doing Right
And that goes triple for finding that cool little piece of heaven you fall asleep at night dreaming about. These sites are the best of the best. In addition to professional and "regular folk" reviews, they feature some of the best little hotels on the planet. All true vagabonds love little hotels, right?

I-Escape - With pictures, reviews and relevant information, this site will lead you to some of the great small hotels the world over. I have stayed in many featured hotels, and have never been disappointed.

Epoque Hotels - Where would you like to go today. Epoque will make sure you lay your head on a stylish pillow when you arrive.

Tablet Hotels - The hotel site for vagabonds who want only the best. Somewhat pricey, but deals can be had.

AIRBnB - The frugal vagabond's savior. This great site proves you can have your cake and eat it too, literally. The AIRBnB place we bunked at in Oregon left us hot scones at our door for breakfast. The place had it all - great interiors, great location, great bed and all the perks - for the ridiculous sum of $75 per night - Bright Airy Studio In The Trees. As they say in Alabama - it don't git no better!

Boutique Homes - A hotel site near and dear. It's focus on design makes it unique. Featuring homes and small hotels in every setting imaginable, many by world famous architects, this site is for vagabonds for whom design matters.

So, its January, but, spring is just around the corner, so get busy. Remember, just as the early bird gets the worm, vigilant vagabonds get the best seats in the house for a lot less money!

Happy Hunting


Travel Quote of The Week - “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” - Oscar Wilde.

Video Artist of The Week - From Bridge Over Troubled Water to Graceland, this versatile artist has given us a lifetime of great music - Paul Simon.


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

So Exactly How Do You Plan To Vagabond in the 14th Year Of The New Millenium?

In galaxies far, far away, long, long ago, and more recently, I continue to be enchanted by the unexpected in travel. Travel leads to things you never could have imagined. And, if you are open to it, it can change everything. Your perceptions about culture, your understanding of people in other parts of the world and the poetry of languages you don't really understand that, if you try,  will allow you to communicate with another human being like never before. Today's post is about serendipity. Those unexpected things, both great and small, that make your Nomad spirit soar. As you gear up for your travel plans, remember the words of Mark Twain:

"Nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people."

Here are some personal moments of the unexpected we have encountered along the highways and byways.

Bocce Ball In The Shadow Of The Eiffel Tower
Upon visiting and enjoying my favorite city in the world for the first time, we headed out to the Eiffel Tower like all the other tourists who come to the City of Light. Paris is known for many things. It has more world class museums per square foot than any other city in the world. Unlike large cities in other parts of the world, the scale of Paris is very human. Without the massive skyscrapers of New York, Chicago or London, it retains intimately scaled and diverse neighborhoods that encourage walking, sitting and people watching. And no city has sidewalk cafes virtually everywhere like Paris just for that purpose.

As we were making our way to the iconic tower, the engineering and architectural centerpiece of the 1889 World's Fair, we discovered an entire culture of local activities among the trees and lawns surrounding the Eiffel. One such activity involved the ancient game of Bocce Ball, played with great passion by mostly men, young and old. As an American, my perception of bocce ball is that it is akin to bowling with a twist. As you would expect, it has its own set of rules which make absolutely no sense to the uninitiated. Sitting on a bench and watching the players trying to get the large ball, or boccia, closest to the small ball, or pallina, was one of those unexpected pleasures in the middle of this great city of over two million which made the visit worth the walk. And by the way - Unlike the uninformed rants of some unhappy Americans, we found Parisians to be some of the friendliest and most helpful people we have ever encountered in our wanderings in Europe. In hotels, restaurants and on the street, we found people to be quintessentially French and proud to share their culture.

Architecture As Art In Northumberland UK
On our 2012 trip to the United Kingdom, we traversed the hills and dales of the "little continent" by car and happened across one of the most unique national parks ever. The Kielder Water and Forest Park, in addition to having the largest man made lake in Northern Europe and a 250 square mile forest, contains numerous architectural and sculptural installations for all to enjoy. We discovered one of the most unique installations after wandering down a road that said "No Admittance". With much consternation by some in the car, we arrived at the shore and enjoyed one of the most unique pieces of architecture and wood sculpture I have ever seen. Freya's Cabin is an architectural installation with views across the lake to its counterpart, Roy's Hut. Both are sculptural representations of the story of two characters who live by the lake and their efforts to meet. The following explanation, from the Kielder web site, gives some small insight into the idea behind the design of this interesting work of art.

Their two structures have been imagined within a fairytale that the designers wrote specifically for Kielder, inspired by the two sites, mythology and folklore. Within the story, Freya’s Cabin and Robin’s Hut are designed and built by the characters: the real structures offer visitors evidence of these characters and their adventures.

My only regret was that we were unable to stay longer and visit more of the installations on the twenty seven mile walking trail around the lake.

Breaking The Language Barrier In Umbria 
Located in the village of Spoleto, in the heart of Umbria, Vecchio Molino is  a small hotel ensconced in a repurposed grain mill next to a small paleochristian temple from the fourth century. It's one of those places you can't find unless you really look. In addition to clean, simple rooms, the grounds of this magical place have numerous linear water sluices within formal gardens and plantings that render it almost surreal. After strolling through the water laden gardens and enjoying some local wine and cheese, we asked the young concierge if there was a restaurant nearby. Just down the road she said -  so we walked until we arrived at a small trattoria nestled in the woods. Upon entering, I felt like we were in a 1940's romance novel. The place simply oozed character, from the rough hewn beams to the Italian tile floors, it just felt so Italian. We soon found out that it was, indeed, Esagarato Italiano. Not only was the food amazing, but the chef was of the gregarious variety who spoke no English.
As much as we tried, our Italian was not much to brag about. So we began a most interesting cross cultural conversation. With both broken Italian and English and numerous hand gestures, we didn't get much accomplished. Finally, we began what became a game of language tutorials between us and this utterly delightful man in the apron. He would bring out some food group, such as egg plant, hold it up and ask us what it was called in English. We would respond with the English word and he would tell us what it was in Italian. This went on for several minutes as we laughed and enjoyed one of the most delicious and entertaining meals anywhere. It also proved that there really is no such thing as a language barrier. You just need to get creative. And the most surreal part? I could hear none other than Janis Joplin singing "Me and Bobby McGee" over the stereo - A trip within a trip!
And Serendipity Happens In The Good Ole USA Too
Sometimes, the expected rises to the level of the unexpected. Since our children are grown and live in different cities, we make a point to take a trip for just us at least once a year. We tried our best to take them to places of interest when they were kids, so they both are always up for a new adventure, especially when mom and dad are footing the bill! A few years back, we decided to take our family trip to The Big Apple. While checking into the very intimate Muse Boutique Hotel just off Times Square, the consierge recommended that we not miss a little known musical/percussion/performance art group called Blue Man Group. In addition to the sites and sounds of New York, we took her advice and bought tickets to the show. Well, if you know anything about Blue Man Group - They are now internationally acclaimed - you know what we saw. One of the most uniquely entertaining shows involving insane drumming, liquid color splashing ten feet in the air, miming of the first order by a group of acrobatic performers dressed and painted in neon blue. It was true performance art at the highest level. Nothing gives parents more pleasure than watching their kids enjoy something like we did that great night in lower Manhattan.
These are just some of the unexpected experiences we have enjoyed while traveling. If you really think about your own travels, you can bring those experiences back to your consciousness and smile again. Of course, the best way to keep track of  the good, great and completely weird is to keep a travel journal. I try to write something every day when we are on the road. That's becoming even more important nowadays, since my long term memory ain't what it used to be! Or is it my short term memory? I forget.
So here's hoping that 2014 will take you and yours down those side roads that will allow you to get in touch with your utterly vagabond self. Surprise -Surprise -Surprise!!

Happy Trails - Allegre Biciclettate - Sentiers Heurex - Glücklich Spuren - Happy Stier!


Travel Quote of The Week -"Why think about that when all the golden lands ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you're alive to see?" -
Jack Kerouac, "On the Road."

Video Artist of The Week - Stan Kenton - The bio of this master of jazz and big band says- "There have been few jazz musicians as consistently controversial as Stan Kenton. Dismissed by purists of various genres while loved by many others, Kenton ranks up there with Chet Baker and Sun Ra  as jazz's top cult figure"  Take a listen in the margin.


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Random Vagabond Alert No. 17 - Let's Take A Quick Time Out

My Alma Mater Beat My Alma Mater

Today's quick report is not about travel, unless you are one of the fortunate few who had an extra five grand to spend to attend the BCS National Title Game at the Rose Bowl In Pasadena. No, today is about the great game of college football between the Seminoles of Florida State University and The Tigers of Auburn University. Let's be clear, I am not torn in my allegiance - I was born and raised in Tallahassee, graduated from FSU and attended my first football game sometime around the ninth grade when FSU was pretty much a minor player in the world of big time college football. I have continued to sit in the same seat on the forty nine yard line for longer than I care to admit, except, of course, when the Vagabond spirit calls me to some far away place. I also attended architecture school at Auburn - "The Loveliest Village On The Plain", where tradition reins supreme as evidenced by celebrations at Toomer's Corner after a win. You have never seen that much toilet paper on a tree. Since 1896, Toomer's Drugs has made the best fresh squeezed lemonade on earth. And lest one be confused about the incorrectly perceived identity crisis between the Auburn "Tigers" and the battle cry "War Eagle", the following explanation from Wikipedia will clear up the confusion.
The widespread use of "War Eagle" by Auburn devotees  has   often
led to outside confusion as to Auburn's official mascot. However, the official mascot of Auburn University is Aubie the Tiger, and all Auburn athletic teams, men's and women's, are nicknamed the Tigers. Auburn has never referred to any of its athletic teams as the "Eagles" or "War Eagles." The university's official response to the confusion between the Tigers mascot and the War Eagle battle cry is, "We are the Tigers who say 'War Eagle.'"

Enough trivia. If you are a college football fan then you already know about the heart pounding contest between two great football teams this Monday past. However, I do understand that it's not everyone's cup of tea. My BFF and sweetest vagabond of all really doesn't care about college football per se, but, in deference to her significant other, she "endures" my passion and shows concern, especially when we win the big one, as we did this year. After trailing most of the game, the "Unconquered" Seminoles took the field with 1:19 left, drove eighty yards and scored the winning touchdown with thirteen seconds on the clock. The imperfect was rendered blissfully perfect! Even for a non fan, it just doesn't get any better.

Finally, for true Nomads who also happen to be college football fans, you owe it to yourself to take a fall and attend some football games at some of the most unique sporting venues you will ever see. From Howard's Rock at Clemson to The 12th Man at Texas A&M to Mr. Two Bits  at the University of Florida to Ralphie The Buffalo at Colorado to the Tiger Walk at Auburn, you will see the passion and color of America's greatest sport. And finally - take a long weekend to the greatest venue in all of college sports, in my home town - Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Florida, also known as God's Country. With the greatest mascot on the planet - Chief Osceola and Renegade - the current king of the football world will show you what three hours of great football is like.  A long list of hotels and restaurants will make your stay in The Capital City one to remember.
When In Doubt - Hit The Road - Go Noles!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014


Resolve In 2014 To Boldly Go Where No Nomad Has Gone Before

Today's post is all about motivation. It's time to dust off the cobwebs of 2013, which, in my humble opinion, was one of the worst years in recent memory. So, get ready to take that trip you have always talked about. As the great Southern comic, Brother Dave Gardner, once said - You don't wanna' be sittin' on the front porch sayin' well I coulda'!

For our part, we are already in the planning stages for some big trips this year, Spain is on the horizon, with some side trips to Greece, Portugal and Normandy. And in the states, we have always wanted to do a western road trip. I think this might be the year. And, like the true vagabonds we are, there will be numerous side  trips to new and familiar places. One of the things I have come to really understand - trips with the kids - mine are both grown and live in different cities - makes everything better. We usually take at least one big trip together. And this year will be no different.

If You're A True Nomad - You Gotta' Go
So get busy - trash the resolution list with all the usual stuff - loose weight, run a marathon, eat less salt, blah, blah, blah. Instead, work on that bucket list, check out your favorite places to see before you die,  take that trip, go see that place or, if nothing else, take the ones you love to a new place. This blog has always been about roads less traveled and serendipitous happenings on the side. One of my new resolutions for this blog is to provide more ideas, more lists and more experiences for the serious vagabonds who refuse to settle. We are entering our third year of providing suggestions, personal experiences and bucket list options for "aesthetic vagabonds" everywhere.

It is my fervent hope that you and yours enjoy life to the fullest and find those places that change your head and your heart in 2014.

Happy New Year,