Thursday, July 15, 2010

Flyin' N Readin'


One of the items on my Packing List is "reading material". Lately, my reading material has consisted entirely of fashion magazines. No judging. I've found that I have had a shorter attention span during recent trips, and prefer to read magazines or just watch "30 Rock" episodes on my iPod in between naps. I do enjoy books. It's just sometimes a challenge to find one that is airplane-appropriate.

On one flight I had just started David Sedaris' "Me Talk Pretty One Day". I had somehow ended up with a window seat (my self-diagnosed claustrophobia usually demands the aisle seat), and was tucked up next to the window reading about Mr. Sedaris' adventures in speech therapy. Airplanes are a lot like libraries, where you sort of feel like you should "Shhhh-ussshhie!" and I was trying so hard not to laugh out loud. But you know, when you're trying to suppress giggles, or less-cute guffaws, it just makes it worse. I was literally hugging the wall of the airplane, with my face turned away from my appropriately-quiet seatmates, violently shaking, with tears streaming down my face. Funny reading does make the flight go by more quickly, though. What else passes the time quickly? Smut! Jackie Collins, Danielle Steele, Judith Krantz - all good smut. Although it takes a brave individual to read those books out in the open, where anyone can judge you, or peer over your shoulder at an embarrassing sentence involving things that are "engorged" or "heaving".

I think that the airplane might just be the ideal place to try to get through such arduous works as "One Hundred Years of Solitude" or "Dr. Zhivago". If you've read either of these in their entirety, my hat is off to you (and I'm probably bowing). I have never had more difficulty sorting out character names. Lordy, the NAMES! I tried and tried and TRIED to keep characters straight, with the myriad José Arcadio Buendías, and the Pavel Pasha Kologrigovstanislovskivichs. It was exhausting. I even tried to dumb them down, for my own benefit, and said "I'm going to call him 'Joe', and her 'Sally'." To no avail. However, the whole "I'm trapped on an airplane" situation might be just what you need to power through those crazy names and finally conquer those books.


My opinions on airplane-reading:

Good:
  • All David Sedaris - but be prepared. There may be spit-takes, there may be uncontrollable shaking, there may even be a little pee if you're not careful (but I was).
  • "I Am America And So Can You" by Stephen Colbert - particularly for international flights, because that's just funny.
  • Horror/thrillers - because you can always clutch your seatmate for support. Much less scary than reading it alone in your room.

Ed. note: The most terrifying book I've ever read was "The Amityville Horror". I could only read it in broad daylight, at the office, where I was surrounded by chirpy coworkers.

Bad:
  • Playboy - Seriously. I actually had to sit next to some guy who brought Playboy onto the flight. I moved as soon as we had reached cruising altitude (insert obvious joke about his impending cruising altitude, ha ha ha. Gross.)
  • "War & Peace" - come on.
  • Any variation of "Build your own bomb" - obvious reasons.
  • "Growing Up in Bhutan" - the world's largest book, with 100 pages at five by seven feet. It would require its own seat, and probably in Business Class.

Just plain pretentious:

  • See "War & Peace"
  • Anything by Proust - sorry Dad
  • "Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone" - Latin edition - yes, it has been translated into Latin.

If you forget to bring your own reading material, take the time to enjoy the in-flight magazine. It's not offensive, it's not pretentious, and you will almost always be able to pronounce the names and keep the characters straight. Plus, there's a crossword puzzle!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Packing and Posing


Some people hate packing for a trip. I kind of love it. It involves organization. There are steps. And lists.

I have a Word document, very cleverly entitled "Packing List", with all the stuff I usually have to pack for every trip, regardless of destination: toiletries, iPod, hairbrush, blah blah - it's that blah blah that gets really heavy. And then I have an Excel document that is very embarrassingly titled "Daily Outfit Planner". (No you don't!) Yes, I do.

I used to haphazardly go through my closet and think "Yeah, I like that. I'll wear that" and then pack a whole mess of things I just really liked. However, with the luggage allowance shrinkage, I have to be far more meticulous in my planning. I literally have to say "On Day 1 I'm going to wear such and such dress with such and such shoes, and carry such and such bag."

The 'such and such' brand is highly coveted in all the fashion capitals.

This kind of anal-retentive forethought might seem ridiculous to some (many), but it actually makes the trip itself much easier. Once in the hotel, with all the delirium of the vacation swirling around you, the last thing you want to have to do is put an outfit together. You're looking at the purple sweater and the cranberry velvet pants and the olive green suede boots, all of which you love individually, but an outfit they do not make.

The Daily Outfit Planner has basic clothing categories (tops, bottoms, outerwear) and also includes undergarments and hairstyles - it's that detailed (um...because I modified it to be that detailed, but that's neither here nor there).

When I was nine or ten years old, I received the Darci doll for Christmas. Darci was Barbie-sized (albeit with slightly more realistic proportions), and came with a posing stand, and multiple outfits. Mine was brunette. That same year, I also received a Kodak instant camera. If you guessed "photo shoot" for what came next, you'd be right. I carefully dressed Darci in each of her very sassy, very 70s, outfits, posed her on the posing stand and snapped away. (I also did this with my sister on one of our vacations to New York to visit relatives, but she didn't come with a posing stand.)

I was obsessed with Darci and her outfits. She had around four different ensembles, and I just remember thinking "she should have more!" I am now similarly obsessed with my own ensembles. The Daily Outfit Planner helps tame the obsession a bit, and forces me to focus. I try to stick with a base neutral color (black, brown, gray) and build around that.

Once I have completed the Daily Outfit Planner chart I can just grab those things out of the closet, roll them up and tuck them into the suitcase. Things pack better when you roll them - fewer wrinkles and you can fit more into the bag.

Helpful hints: pack small, smooshy items inside shoes and boots; wrap plastic baggies around anything that might leak; and if you happen to have purchased fancy shoes on your trip, and are determined to bring the box home with you (because the box is the fancy shoes' home!), pack other items inside the box - there's always room after you remove all that tissue paper.

The more I think about all of this, the more I kind of want a posing stand. It will need to be collapsible...

Friday, July 9, 2010

Friends in Awesome Places

The absolute best excuse for traveling is having to visit a friend in a far-flung locale.

When one of my absolute favorite people, Josh, was living on Koh Tao, Thailand, working at a dive shop, I decided I probably had to take an open-water dive course.


Josh got me the "Friends & Family" discount, and a thatched bungalow a stone's throw from the ocean.

Josh later moved to Sydney, Australia, and what do you know? That was the one continent I hadn't yet visited. I had to go! Josh gave me the key to his apartment in Potts Point for a week and we spent time lunching in Sydney Harbor, exploring the Sydney Zoo, and celebrating Valentine's Day with too many mojitos and cupcakes. He also set me loose to explore the Great Ocean Road, and the Great Barrier Reef.


En route to Australia, I had to fly through San Francisco. I was faced with a 10-hour window of free time, so I rented a car and enjoyed breakfast with Sarah in Sausalito, lunch with Noreen up in Berkeley, and dinner back in the city with Ashleigh.

My friend Sally has a friend, Steve, who moved to Amsterdam, and yes, she had to visit him and I had to go with her.

You really do have to visit your friends in the Awesome Places. If your best friend from college moved to Germany and you haven't been to visit her? Go! Your most hilarious co-worker was transferred to Hong Kong, and wants to show you around Stanley Market? Go! You will never want to be the one uttering the sentence "Oh, I should have visited Julie when she had that enormous penthouse apartment in Paris..."

And, if one of said friends happens to be getting married in, and subsequently moving to, an Awesome Place, you pull your suitcase out of the closet and say "When do I have to be there?"


Kim (the blushing bride) is truly my favorite thing about flying through London. If she has to live there, I have to visit.

Now, the rest of you, get to work on relocating to the Maldives or Seychelles...or Majorca, Menorca, Capri, Sardinia...and I don't want to hear you whining "Do we have to?"

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Never Say Never. I'm Not Kidding.


I don't know why I allow myself to be sucked into things that I know will make me fussy. Jezebel had a post about an anti-bucket list, that was linked to this list (which was actually funny) and the staff writers all listed things they solemnly pledged to "never" do. Then there were the comments, where Everyone Else listed things THEY will "never" do. The one sensible comment I found in that trail was written by someone with the username LoveNoelIG:

I've learned precious few truths in life, saying "I'll never...." is a guarantee that thing will present itself in a form you never envisioned. Life is weird, circumstances change, flexibility is required, hopefully we grow and evolve...

I hope I never pretend to know what life will throw at me.


PREACH! Here are a few things many of the commentors said they'd never do , which were also things I used to swear I'd "never" do:

  • Sky dive - This is not scary. Scary part is the rickety plane ride up to the appropriate altitude. I wanted out of that rickety plane. Do it.
  • Bungy jump - Okay, this one actually was pretty scary, but still. Do it.
  • Like country music - Again, another one I thought I would forever vehemently eschew. Love it.
  • Go to Las Vegas - Swore I wouldn't. Did. Loved it.

Some people listed items that are really nothing to be afraid of.

  • Snorkeling - Really? That is the easy one, that doesn't require any scary, iron equipment. Do it.
  • Skiing - This is fun. Do it. But if you try it and it's too hard, move to snowboarding. Or sledding. Or sitting next to the fireplace with hot chocolate.
  • Moving to a foreign country without knowing anyone - Come on. You'd still have Facebook.

Then, there were a few that just made me laugh really hard:

  • Live in a city that doesn't have Ethiopian restaurants
  • Have a pet octopus (they require "serious upkeep")

And, finally, there was one I absolutely agreed with:

  • Wear Crocs
Although I didn't rule that one out before trying them on. I couldn't get over how hideous they were, but figured they must be radically comfortable if so many people were buying them. SO I TRIED THEM!

(Ed. note: Crocs are no more comfortable than Reef flip flops, which are infinitely more attractive. There is no logical reason to wear Crocs. They are an affront to footwear.)

There is something to be said about LIVING life, rather than just finding things about it to avoid. Those things of which you are most terrified are precisely the things you should do in order to show yourself "See? You CAN do that." Or, alternately, "Well, okay, you can't do that, but isn't it better to know for sure?"

I will never make a list of Things I Will Never Do...but I will make a list of Things I Tried At Which I Was Unsuccessful:

  • Playing basketball
  • Speaking Korean
  • Making cake frosting - Mom: Ohhhhh yeah, I usually double the sugar amount...I should have told you that.
  • Maintaining a serious attitude while working at a tanning spa - I was subsequently fired for joking around about making personal phone calls on the spa's phone.
That is the kind of list that is always acceptable. "Tried it, but no cigar."

Stop letting your fears and insecurities, and that Anti-Bucket List post, keep you from at least trying new things.

DO IT.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Home Away From Home

I am a Cancer,

"Emotion runs strong for this sign, and when it comes to family and home, nothing is more important."

and

"
These souls need a retreat, some place where they can step out of the spotlight and recharge their batteries. They are finicky and tend to be claustrophobic..."

SEE! That astrology website has confirmed my self-diagnosed claustrophobia. I feel so much better!

Since I love to travel so much, "home" is often a hotel. I LOVE hotels, and the older I get, the fancier they have to be. Well, not fancier necessarily, but clean, chic, well-located, and with bathrobes and preferably a sexy concierge. I have friends who, while traveling, couldn't care less about the hotel, and would rather save the money or spend it on a meal or shopping or whatever. I, on the other hand, HAVE to have a nice, cushy home base.

Finding cushy home base involves a bit of work.

1. TripAdvisor - I start here. Usually the #1 hotel is an outrageously expensive property whose cost I cannot justify, even if I try really hard.* So I continue scrolling down until I get to one that I can realistically afford.

2. I go to travel booking sites: Booking, Expedia, Travelocity, Splendia, etc. and look up several of the TripAdvisor-rated properties, for a good compare/contrast.

3. I make a list of the selling-points for my top choices: bathrobes? breakfast included? swimming pool? rooftop swimming pool? sexy concierge? (they really should list this under "amenities")

4. I then narrow down my choices to the Top 3 or so, and visit the actual hotels' websites.

5. I commit to a hotel, and make the reservation.

6. I go back to TripAdvisor and read all the positive reviews for my chosen hotel - I skip the negative ones.

This process can take hours, but it's hours of non-stop fun for me. I have no idea why. I also really enjoy balancing my checkbook.

*For my birthday this year, I'm splurging (don't tell Suze Orman, she'll just yell at me), and staying one night at the Covent Garden Hotel in London.


My justification is "Turning 40".

Monday, July 5, 2010

Who Wants An Upgrade?


I hate coach. The seats are too tiny and too close together, you have to pay for snacks, and the flight attendants are cranky. During boarding, the airlines seat the First and Business Class passengers first, so that when les miserables in Economy class board, we are forced to slump past the comfortably lounging privileged few, who are already into their first or second complimentary cocktail, and eyeing us with a mixture of mild suspicion and pity.

When I accepted a job teaching English in Seoul, South Korea (ages and ages ago), the company booked my flight on Korean Air. I immediately signed up for the frequent flier program. I flew from Chicago to Seoul, then Seoul back to Chicago (for Christmas), then Chicago to Seoul again. And with those flights I had earned enough to upgrade to Business Class when I had completed my contract.

BUSINESS CLASS! HURRAH!

The priority boarding, and immediate friendly, smiling attentiveness of the flight attendants startled me into a state of temporary paralysis. Would I like a drink now? You mean, before the other people have boarded the plane?
And my choices are fresh-squeezed orange juice or champagne? So, you're saying I can just sit, sipping my champagne while the peasants struggle with the dilemma of their hand luggage and limited overhead bin space? That's okay? I don't mind if I do!

And the SEATS! Oh the spacious seats. I had enough room to sit cross-legged with my feet tucked under me, while the still-smiling flight attendant brought me a dinner menu - with options - MULTIPLE COURSE OPTIONS.

The meal was served with actual flatware, rather than plastic utensils.

This experience was a long, long time ago, and the lesser details are fuzzy, but I do recall almost bursting into tears of joy when, just before my movie selection, the STILL-smiling flight attendant brought around a basket of candy. M&Ms for my movie! On the airplane! I mean, yes, I could have very easily brought my own M&Ms and eaten them during the movie in coach, but this was just so much better.

Since that long-ago adventure in luxury, I have enrolled in the frequent flier programs of any and all airlines with which I book flights, just in case I happen to accumulate enough points to upgrade.

I have happened to accumulate enough points with American Airlines, and have happily upgraded on three transatlantic flights in the past two years, but I swear I never feel anything close to suspicion or pity for the people in coach. In fact, I feel slightly guilty, just sitting there, sipping my complimentary champagne as les miserables file past me toward the back of the plane. Luckily, the buzz that proceeds the champagne eliminates all that guilt and I can just truly enjoy the luxury of the upgrade.

Life is short. Be grateful for whatever upgrades you are given, in any shape or form, and may they always, always include a basket of candy with M&Ms.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

No Place Like Home

Love to travel, fine to live overseas (for a while, at least...), but always ALWAYS thrilled to go home.

Happy Birthday America.


Now check your July horoscope. We're Cancers!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

I See London, I See France...

(but I see London more)

When commuting back and forth between The Iraq and the U.S. we have myriad options for a gateway city. Most of my coworkers take the convenient route to Istanbul and then home to whichever U.S. city they happen to hail from. Or you could fly to Vienna, or Frankfurt, then home. I want to take advantage of my American Airlines frequent flier miles, so I have been flying through London. I am also madly in love with London, so the choice for me is a no-brainer.


I. Love. London.

London has so many different personalities, it's like the Sybil of major cities. You can visit it a squillion times and never have the same vacation twice. A squillion is a lot. I have, so far, only had four London vacations, but am aiming for a squillion.

My London vacations in nutshell-form:

#1 - I stayed in Soho at the ridiculously chic Soho Hotel. The lobby is fuschia, and has an enormous sculpture of a black kitty cat, so I felt right at home. I did a few of the touristy things on this vacation, like watching the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace, and photographing Big Ben.


That's right. I photographed Big Ben from an angle. I'm edgy.

#2 - I stayed in the most darling neighborhood, ever: Marylebone. At the Mandeville Hotel. I found a screaming deal on Expedia, which left me with extra mone
y to spend at Browns on South Molton Street. Wouldn't you know, they were having a shoe sale?


I bought the beige ones. Beige is practical. Ask your mom. I had actually seen these before, and felt very indifferent to them, and almost didn't really like them...but when I tried them on I thought "Hey, I can walk in these! They're really comfortable!" So I walked around the Marylebone neighborhood in my new shoes, and took in the Cabbages & Frocks flea market, and a few other places on the High Street.

#3 - The Theatah! I wanted to experience the West End, and so stayed at the Waldorf Hilton in the Theatah District. Normally I go to great lengths to avoid anything associated with Paris Hilton, but I had booked it on Hotwire and they wouldn't show me the hotel name until I had already paid. Blah. I had thought I was being all location-savvy, i.e. booking a Theatah District hotel, as I planned to go to the Theatah! Instead, I bought a ticket for "Breakfast at Tiffany's" which was being performed at the Royal Haymarket Theatah, the one theatah that was not exactly a hop, skip and a jump from the hotel. More like a hop, skip, jump, several javelin throws and a 400 meter sprint. The Theatah? Stunning. The show? Weeeeeell...let's just say it closed after a brief 6-month run.

#4 - Christmastime = Harrod's. I wanted to be as close to the Christmasness as possible, and really missed the chic of the Soho Hotel, so stayed at its sister property, the Knightsbridge Hotel. They upgraded me to this room:


I could see the Harrod's sign from my window. It made me feel all warm and fuzzy. This vacation was actually post-Christmas, but Christmasey-enough that the decorations were still up, and the sales were still in effect. I put on my raincoat and new Hunter Wellie boots, and stomped through the puddles in the rain to Harrod's. I had some sushi at the sushi bar, then trotted on over to the bakery section for a cheese scone, and finally concluded my eating bonanza with some fudge from the candy counter. I then waddled over to the "up" escalator to see what I could get with my Christmas Gift Card.


It's blue, it has feathers, and it is decidedly impractical like any good Christmas gift should be. It was 799 pounds, marked down to 99 pounds. Happy Christmas to all!

Vacation #5 is coming up in a few weeks, and will revolve around the almost-painfully charming Covent Garden neighborhood. Covent Garden resembles the inside of a snow-globe, it's that cute. Case in point; a cupcake shop:


Five vacations is still a ways away from a squillion, but there's still so much to see and do. Notting Hill, the London Eye, The Tower of London, double-decker buses, Westminster Abbey, any Gordon Ramsay restaurant, V&A Museum, Kensington Gardens, Royal Ascot, Elton John's White Tie & Tiara Ball...

One of my many personalities is pretty sure we'll be invited to that last one.

Friday, July 2, 2010

C'est Si Bon

What to do with my vacation time? WHAT TO DO??? We get six weeks of summer break (no, I do not expect any pity here). However due to tax regulations I can only be stateside for three of them. I am thus forced to spend the remaining three weeks elsewhere. This summer "elsewhere" will be the French Riviera (am still not expecting pity, but will let you know if I require it at a later time).


After muddling through a week in Paris, last March, with my Flight of the Conchords French ("Oui oui! Baguette! Gerard Depardieu! Camembert!") I decided that I loved France enough to want to communicate with the natives in their mother tongue (insert sophomoric joke about "tongue" and "French kissing"), and in full sentences. I will be spending just over two weeks in Nice, Antibes and Cannes strolling the beaches, sipping wine, dipping everything in brie, and, most importantly, studying French. Or, wait, maybe the "most importantly" is the wine...

I have completely romanticized the Cote d'Azur into an absolute utopia (should that be capitalized?) by repeatedly, and obsessively, watching these two films:


LOOOOOOOVE THEM!!!! I have said, on numerous occasions, that if I could live anywhere in the world it would be the fictional town of Beaumont sur Mer, from "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels".

I am currently imagining that 1950s Cary Grant will pick me up at the Aeroport Nice Cote d'Azur, in the borrowed sparkly-blue Sunbeam/Talbot Alpine roadster, and whisk me off to the Rotonde casino to con hapless billionaires out of their fortunes. We will then drive up along the winding cliff-side road to find an appropriate spot for our picnic, which will include wine, brie and (for some reason) cold chicken. I will be draped in an elaborate Edith Head-designed ball gown and dripping in Cartier diamonds.

My vacation is going to be le merde!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Shark Diving in Tibet

Sometimes when I'm telling stories, you know at a bar, or a party, or just to myself before I go to sleep, I will hear myself sounding a little like Hansel from Zoolander. (He's so hot right now).


"Me and my friends have been too busy bathing off the Southern coast of St. Barts with spider monkeys for the past two weeks."

or

"So I'm rappelling down Mount Vesuvius when suddenly..."


or

"This one time, I was whitewater rafting down the Urubamba River in Peru..."

When I'm recounting said stories, I'm honestly not trying to work in that I've been to somewhere superspecialthatyouhaven't, and neener neener neener. It's just that when I was riding a funny bike with a bell and a big basket, trying to find the McDonald's, I happened to be in Beijing. Or that when I had my eyelashes dyed, I was in Bali. Or that when I met my friend Whitney, we were on a cruise to Antarctica.

The things I'm doing really aren't any different from the things anyone else is doing: riding bikes, beauty treatments, meeting new friends. I just occasionally go a little further to do them.

Sometimes the activities will be once-in-a-lifetime things that could be construed as somewhat outrageous, like bungee jumping in New Zealand, paragliding in Oman or sky-diving in...Washington state. See? I do things in normal places too!

I travel because I'm a visual learner, and I won't truly understand a place until I've been there myself. I also travel because I'm moderately claustrophobic (albeit self-diagnosed) and begin to feel trapped if in one place for too long. The trips I take, and the activities in which I participate, are solely designed to keep myself entertained, and not to impress anyone else.

If I'm really trying to impress you, I'll just challenge you to a walk-off.