Unexpected Lessons in Venice

venice2I wrote this piece a couple years ago after reflecting on an encounter in Venice.  It is a simple example of how traveling has broadened my perspective over the years.

Ring the Bell

We arrived at San Giorgio Maggiore to find that we were alone.  Where were the other visitors for the Gregorian chant?  We walked around with the notion that maybe if we just wandered a bit, the answer would reveal itself.  It did not, so my aunt pulled out her Rick Steves’ guidebook and reread the passage.  “On Sunday, ring the bell at the door to the right of the main entrance for admission to the mass.”  Compared to the grandness of the church, the door felt a little less sufficient.  Maybe this was the door Alice went through after chasing the rabbit.  We rang the doorbell as if we were ready to be welcomed into someone’s house.  I guess it is someone’s house after all, the house of God.  I backed away further from the door in case an irate man came down to shove us off.  But instead, a nice monk appeared, and quietly guided us to the room where the mass was being held.

Yes, I said mass, not chant.  We sat in the tall choir pews that neither pleased the back nor the behind.  Where were the chanters?  I learned about the Gregorian chants in my college music course and loved the sound of the repetitious sayings.  I wanted to hear the heavenly prayers.  Instead we heard half-asleep, monotone men reading in Italian.  They spoke together in the same dull voice.  It reminded me of the nuns on TV that constantly repeat the Ave Maria.  As I watched, I felt pity.  Pity for a life that lacks fulfillment, a life of repetition.  I imagined what it must be like to be a monk, to wake up in the predawn hours to perform mass, and continue to perform mass several times throughout the day.  At this point, the voices became murmurs as I wondered why anyone would choose this life.  This is not a life God would want a man to live.  I understand they are spreading the Word of God, but there are only four visitors.

At this point I became impatient.  I came to hear chants, and instead I was trapped in an uncomfortable chair.  My stomach made noises that I am sure everyone could hear, and I was just ready to leave.  A few short moments later, the mass was complete.  We rose and made our way towards the exit.  Shortly after exiting the room, we found that we were not alone.  One of the monks was not far behind, and he asked us if we would like to stay for coffee.  His English caught me off guard.

He guided us downstairs to the kitchen and dining area.  There was a man already there, percolating some coffee.  He was staying with the monks for a short term basis.  Unfortunately, he did not speak any English, so we were only able to enjoy each other’s’ company.  Dona Andrew began conversation.  “How did you hear of the mass?  Did you enjoy it?”

“We learned of a chant from Rick Steves.” replied my aunt.  “Thank you for inviting us in.”

“Oh yes, Rick Steves.  I remember him visiting.”
While drinking my tea and savoring my sweet lemon dessert, I sat and thought about my previous impression of this man.  The problem was not my impression of this individual man, but of the men as a group.  I don’t know them at all, and yet I felt I had the right to judge their lives and choices.  I have no right.  I constantly do this in every aspect of my life.  I make up stories of who I think people are based on my impressions.  Impressions are very important, but they do not provide an accurate enough picture to portray the whole story of a person.  As I took another sip, I realized that I have a major fault with assumptions.  While Dona Andrew was talking, I became more and more interested.  Since I found out my story was so wrong, I wanted to know the truth.  I asked him how he became a monk.  His response was not expected.

“Back in Scotland, I found myself becoming very selfish.  I looked at my possessions and the life I was living, and I knew that I could not stay on this path,” he stated as he stirred his coffee.

At 30 years old this man became a monk.  I kept thinking: you can do that?  You can be a normal civilian and simply just decide that you want to be a monk?  monasteryI don’t know what I imagined.  Perhaps that it was something not chosen, but more of something indicated at birth like hair color.  My little world was ill informed about monkhood.  I wanted to know so much more, but it did not feel appropriate to inquire about this man’s whole life story during our first meeting.  As the drinks became low and the snacks had disappeared, he offered to take us on a tour of the church.

He guided us through the nave and pointed out the tile.  The design was geometric in a similar way to Escher.  From various perspectives, the flooring looked three dimensional.  He discussed how he found beauty in the idea of perception.  What an interesting connection considering my previous perspective of this place.

My perception changed more as the conversation continued.  He showed us a painting by Titian in a room that seemed lonely of visitors.  The scene showed Jesus being pulled down from the cross.  He described the image to help us understand its importance.  “Do you see his hand there?  It is larger than the other one.  We ask ourselves why the hand limp in Mary Magdalene’s hand is larger?  Perhaps it is to show her importance.”

As he continued on I was left wondering what he meant.  I couldn’t keep quiet, so I asked what he thought it implied.  He didn’t know for sure.

“I think that Mary Magdalene may have more importance than we may know.” I let out before thinking.

“I wonder.  You know, it only matters that you believe in something.  To be honest, I don’t care what you believe, as long as you have faith in something,” he declared as if they were the words of God himself.

The tour was ending and I was not ready to part.  We provided him with some gratification euros for the delightful discussion.  I exited the doors of San Giorgio Maggiore to an empty vaparetto dock.  As we waited for the next boat, I worried about not only leaving this island, but also this way of thinking.

It is odd how the most important moments are not planned.  Perhaps all planning in life should be minimal.

Living with the Locals

Arles StreeyDetermining accommodations before you leave can offer great advantages.  The price is often better, and availability is not a concern.  Typically people never look past hotels when booking their accommodations, but other options may be a better choice.  My preference is to rent an apartment when I’m staying for a few days.  Vacation rentals are a great way to live amongst the locals, and they can be a great value.  With the advice below, your sleeping arrangements can become more than just a place to stay, but a place to provide experiences.

Set a Budget

Having a budget in mind before you begin can help with avoiding splurges.  Make sure you consider elements such as the deposit and possible fees like insurance.  Once you know your limitations, you can start moving forward.

Create a Must-Have List

It is best to go in searching for what you need.  Just like renting a normal apartment, sometimes we have to compromise.  It is best to consider what is the most essential.  Some questions you may want to ask yourself include:

1. How many rooms are needed?

2. Is an elevator or lower level apartment important?

3. Will parking be available (if it applies)?

4. Will I use a kitchen? (This can be a great way to save money by cooking for some meals instead of going out!)

5. How many bathrooms are needed?

6. Is air conditioning crucial?

7. What are some amenities that are preferred, but not dealbreakers (washer, wifi, cable, pool, etc.)?

Select a Neighborhood

After you know what you are looking for in an apartment, then it is time to decide where you want to stay.  I prefer to stay in less touristy neighborhoods.  I’d rather find pedestrian streets instead.  It is also very important to be near public transportation if you plan on using it.  This is the part that needs a little research.  Investigate by readinAix Cafeg guidebooks, following forums like Trip Advisor, or asking friends that have traveled.

In Paris I know that I like Montmartre, Rue Cler, and Ile St. Louis, but I wanted to try something new.  I wanted to be close to fromageries, boulangeries, etc., so I opted for an apartment near a market street.  I begin with my preferences and narrow down the possibilities until I find the right match.

Use Google Earth

Once I have a few apartments in mind, I begin to search for them on Google Earth.  I take a virtual stroll through the neighborhood to see if it looks appealing.  If I see a lot of graffiti, I look somewhere else.  If I see stores and parks, I consider it as an option.  This allows me to check out possible issues before committing.

Read the Reviews

Whenever I’m buying something, I read the reviews to get the inside scoop.  Don’t let the reviews make or break your decision, but definitely read them.  If everyone writes about the bugs in the apartment, there will probably be bugs.  My most recent apartment I rented had 45 reviews and they were all positive.  Reviews provide some insight from other perspectives.

Interested in renting an apartment?  Here are some sites to get you started:

www.vrbo.com

www.homeaway.com

www.airbnb.com

If you are feeling extra adventurous, www.couchsurfing.org.

To find more local renters try searching (city name) vacation rentals.

Summer Solstice in Paris

Eiffel-TowerThe volume increases once I surface from the metro.  The heart thumping bass reverberates through me as I take my last step up to the streets of Paris.  A faint fiddle can be heard through the percussion of techno music.  Stepping in any direction will lead me to a new sound.  There is music everywhere.  There are people everywhere.

Paris seems to have its own soundtrack on any given day.  It may be the accordion player on the bus, or the violinist playing at your favorite café haunt.  On the longest day of the year, every corner musician builds on the soundtrack of Paris.

The event is known as the Fête de la Musique.  Since 1982, musicians both large and small have been bringing their equipment out to the streets.  There are some acts during the day, but the real buzz begins at night.  Paris is a giant, free party welcoming anyone to step out of their hotel, and groove to the music (whatever your taste).  Here are my top five tips for this special day:

1. Make a Plan-What type of music do you want to hear?  Look at the schedule to see what catches your attention.  Interested in a Gregorian Chant?  Check out Notre Dame.  Sometimes my strategy is to wander and follow my ears.  Check out my sampler video on youtube to get an idea of what it is like.

2. Travel Light-Pickpockets will definitely be out tonight, so keep the essentials in your money belt.  I don’t even bring my big camera out on this night.  Take in the experience.band

3. Be Prepared for People-There will be a lot of people everywhere.  If you suck it in, you may be able to fit on the metro.  Humanity is good, right?

4. Move On-Not all acts will be music to your ears.  If you’re not pleased with what you are hearing, move on and find something else.  The options are abundant.

5. Eat Late-This would be a great night to have a late dinner at a café near the music, or pick up the necessary materials for a picnic.  Dinner and a show.

Are you visiting Paris or another participating city?  Check out the website to see if you can join in!

Finding Locals

ElizabetaThe sun stands high over the campanile as I begin to melt.  A group of tourists, all in matching orange shirts, bump into me as a man with a camera steps on my bare toes after trying to take a picture of the basilica.  If I put my arms out and spin,

I would take down about 11 people.  They are everywhere.  These aren’t Venetians though; they are travelers just like me.  Where did the locals go?

Meeting locals is crucial for diving into the culture.  This is true whether you are going to New Orleans or Venice.  Here are some tips to end the hiding, and seek the locals.

Hire a Local Guide

This past summer I met some of the most influential people on my travels.  Many of them were local guides.  Herr Jung was a retired schoolmaster in Bacharach, Germany that brought World War II to life in the vineyard covered Rhineland.  Francesca was our Rome guide.  While walking through the Colosseum, I almost heard the lions roar.  Local guides offer expertise and a connection to their city.

Finding a guide can be as simple as checking out a reliable guidebook.  Something that I will be trying this summer is a greeter tour.  The Global Greeter Network offers free tours to over 40 destinations.   The company connects you with a local to provide an insider experience.  Check out the site for more information.

Take a Class

I love learning and often take classes here in the states to meet new people.  Consider your interests when thinking about options.  Visiting Paris and want to learn some new recipes?  Take a cooking class.  Staying in Madrid and want to practice your Spanish?  Take a language class.  This will be extremely handy for the next tip.

Talk Herr-Jung-Through-the-Back-

The truth is, you will probably have to talk to people if you want to build any kind of relationship.  If you are traveling abroad, learn some basics from the language.  This breaks down barriers even if all you can muster up is a “buongiorno.”  Chances are they might know English anyway.

Traveling solo forces the adventurer to begin conversations.  Ask someone to take a photo for you, comment on someone’s football jersey, or ask advice for a place to eat.  There are so many ways to begin a conversation.  Imagine your kindergarten days when all that stood between you and your new friends were the first words.

Check the Calendar

I love when markets are in town, or a festival is taking over the streets.  This is one of the best times to get involved with your new destination.  If I’m in Paris during the summer solstice, I wander the cobbled streets as my ears take in the music all around during the Fete de la Musique.  Is it October in Germany?  I hope you’ve trained yourself for some serious beer drinking.  Visiting Arles on Wednesday?  Get ready to hunt for some bargains because there is a great market along the ramparts.  Maybe you could even pick up a baguette and cheese for a makeshift picnic in the spot Van Gogh supposedly got the inspiration for Starry Night.

Stay at a B&B

Staying at a bed and breakfast is like going to grandma’s.  Get ready to be spoiled with food, comfy accommodations, and an expert on the area.  Hosts can offer a unique perspective that allows you to find the best restaurants and local hangouts.

There are several tricks to getting out there to meet new people.  Become a liberated traveler as you break free from the tourist label and become someone’s new friend.

Do you have a story to share?  Please tell us how you have met new people while traveling!

Be a Morning Person

I understand that very few Haarlemindividuals out there are morning people.  Even if that is the case, I urge you to become one on your travels.  When I recount my favorite travel memories, so many have taken place in the early morning, before the tourists have been dumped off their ships, buses, or whatever vessels they arrive on.  One of my favorite examples is my recent stroll in Haarlem, Netherlands last summer.

If you look at my pictures, you might be able to pull out the reasoning behind my infatuation with the morning.  First, take in the light.  It is gentle and accents every object it touches.  Second, gaze up at the sky.  I find some of the most complementing clouds during this time.  Third, observe that water.  It is still with precise reflections.  Finally, do you see any people polluting my shots?  The only people out at this time were the locals.  They were taking a peaceful canoe ride, or riding on their bikes in their formal dress attire.  These are the types of compositions I want to design while traveling.

Set your alarm clock early, fix some coffee, and start your day.  The experiences may be the only motivation you need to change your habits.

Reflections

The Master of European Travel: Rick Steves

Rick Steves has been traveling with me since Paraglider3my first trip to Europe. His guidebooks offer the insider tips every traveler needs to get rid of the tourist label.  His company, Europe Through the Back Door, promotes thoughtful travel at an affordable price.  If you are going to Europe, he is your man.  I wouldn’t zip my suitcase without him.

This time I not only took his advice, but let him plan everything.  I don’t think there is a better touring group in the world.  I’ve always been more of an independent traveler, and this tour offered that freedom.  For more on my experiences across Europe on a Rick Steves’ tour, please visit my award winning website: www.experiencingthebestofeurope.com.