As I’m in the middle of going to Aix-en-Provence from Avignon this morning, I realize I have learned quite a bit about traveling in my short time in France. I’ve only used the public system to get around France and that can be…kinda chaotic for an American. You never know when the trains will strike or nature will interfere. You also never know the people you’ll meet along the way. My most recent episode was announced on my Facebook status. Thanks to the strike (that is still going on despite the Iceland volcano trouble), my overnight to Avignon last night was canceled. I had to be open enough to not only change my ticket that had me spend a good part of my day on the train on Tuesday but also find and book a hotel in the middle of the volcano crisis AND on the night before the EU returned to session. That equals expensive, hard-to-find rooms. Sometimes it helps playing the desperate-looking, young foreign female in France to the right people. I’m very certain I wasn’t suppose to pay close to what I did in Strasbourg’s current state but the Hotel Vendrome pulled through for me.
So with the various episodes I’ve been through, I’ve come up with a list of sorts of all the things on my part that I credit to having helped me out many a time.
Things that every traveler needs (but especially if you’re a twenty-something female traversing about France)
A good, all-weather coat: As you might have already noticed. I use a khaki London Fog trench coat. It is well made to put up with all sorts of abuse from hard wind and rain to being used as an impromptu picnic blanket. It also as two deep pockets that are only easy to access by the person wearing said coat. To cap it off, a trench is akin to a scarf in Europe: a must-have. Key wardrobe pieces like this that serve at least two purposes for the everyday are invaluable. Note that, for me, one good purpose is just fashionably blending in. Appearances, when you’re interacting with almost no one but strangers, are EVERYTHING.
A scarf that can go from winter/fall to spring/summer: Guys, this even includes you. Yes, shocking perhaps for American guys, but Europeans including guys use scarfs in their year-round wardrobe. It is a simple way to make your limited wardrobe suddenly very unlimited. They can also be double as half-blankets on cold trains.
A high quality bag(s): This is what I’ve got: one very large rolling suitcase, one Osprey brand Porter 40 that converts from backpack to carrying suitcase, one Incase laptop backpack, my small, turquoise HOBO purse, and my beloved Longchamp khaki patent leather purse. I admit that the two purses are MAYBE overkill but my excuse is that I’m what my mom refers to me as “a bag lady.” The indispensables are my suitcase and backpacks. The just SUPER, super, super nice-to-have’s are the purses. However, as a woman spending time in ridiculously feminie France, I’ll say that at least one purse is needed. I can’t imagine lugging around a backpack as an alternative.
An easy to care for, nice haircut: Again, I’m mentioning the “appearances” point. I know. I know. We’re taught from being very little “appearances aren’t everything.” I’ll just take you to the side and explain that in this situation, it is best to ignore that a little bit. When no one knows you, they need something to start off with to start trusting you. For me, I like an easy-to-care-for cut because if I’m getting up for a 6:10AM train, I will want as much sleep as I can get beforehand and that means I don’t have a bunch of time to look like a decent person. Decently looking equals decently helped, as I’ll continue to explain.
A credit card that works overseas: Refer to one of my previous entries on that one.
A sewing kit: Europe=Expensive and so it is wise to always have someway to not have to depend on buying replacements for clothing if it breaks, rips, etc. Actually, this rule could apply for a lot of other things that you own.
A first aid kit: May sound girl scout-ish (which I was by the way) but when you’re as clumsy as me or you walk as much as me, your little scraps and blisters will thank you for the extra protection as they’re trying to heal.
An amazing pair of walking shoes: Walking=blisters EXCEPT when you have a good pair of shoes. I think I’ve made only one bad shoe decision here (Jessica knows what I’m talking about as she helped me discover it). Lesson to be learned: buy wisely and very, very carefully. You will be walking miles everyday.
Enduring sense of awareness: The world isn’t evil but it’s no angel either. I have personally trained myself to place certain important items in certain places in my pocket/bag/money belt/etc. and then always be aware of them. I failed in doing this one time during March and I lost my wonderful red leather gloves to what was probably a pickpocket. The best thing about those gloves besides being in my favorite color was that they were actually small enough for my hands. Size 6 isn’t always easy to find.
An open mind and flexible attitude: Life is always changing and it always seems that when you start moving faster then it does, too. Be ready for it all and sometimes being creative about it. I had to give up my whole day in Avignon for just an evening thanks to the French strike. Earlier, on my way to Baden-Baden, I had to switch to an earlier train, missing class, in going to Paris to catch another train to get across the border. Crazy, it can just be crazy sometimes. Ah, well, I can at least claim that I know the French train system after this.
A sense of adventure: Again it is the nature of traveling. Don’t just be willing, but be excited to try out fois gras or escargot. Imagine being Anothony Bourdain or something. If a world-class chef isn’t afraid to try crazy stuff, and this goes for outside of food as well, shouldn’t we all take the same attitude? On top of that, is the likeliness to visit and experience all those great things you won’t find in the guidebooks. Be like a native you’ll come home with great stories. This I can guarantee.
A great smile: This could possibly be the most important thing to pack. No one will want to help you, approach you, or (most importantly) even play with the idea of doing a favor for you if you go around looking like a grump. A lot of situations I’ve gotten in, from canceled trains to just rather high museum ticket prices were made into much better experiences because people just found me to be worth it.
Here’s to hoping the rest of my transportation is blissfully boring!
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