One of my goals for our summer trip to Europe was not to allow my expectations to take center stage. I’m one of these people who has read travel blogs, followed Instagram accounts and read books about many different places, so of course, I had big dreams for the magic of actually visiting them myself. But I also determined not to waste a minute trying to make a day or a moment or a flavor look a certain way but to learn to simply enjoy it for what it is right now, right here.
And the moments of magic happened at random, all the time even when I didn’t expect them. I got up one morning while everyone was still sleeping in our old stone house in Provence and experimented with the espresso machine until I was able to sit down on the outdoor second-floor porch with a little cup of rich, dark café. I took in the pigeons cooing, the neighbors talking to each other and the old stone floor under my feet, shining warmly in the morning sunshine. For me, taking a second to let the moment sink in, to fully realize that I was right here fully, right now gave me those memories, those moments that will be in my mind forever.
Some days made it difficult to feel like you have the ability to help others grasp just how beautiful they were. This day was one of those, completely enchanting. After a slow morning with café on the porch, we started off up Mount Ventoux towards Sault, France. Up the mountain we drove, winding around and around until we burst out onto the side of it and saw below us, spread all around, the purplish hues of the lavender fields of Provence. Even though I’m one of those who has read a myriad of others’ interpretations of this beauty it still took me by surprise. We stopped at the top and simply took it in. The neatly set blocks of purple surrounded by the gold of hay in the valley, the green of unripened wheat, circled all about by mountains and blanketed by that blue summer sky. Driving slowly down the mountain and through the valley, we passed rows and rows of dark purple, light lavender and in between shades. The whole valley was scented with calming lavender and hummed audibly with the sound of bees making liquid, golden syrup. The sunshine brought its glow to every scarlet poppy, golden sunflower, and lavender blossom.
I planned to walk through the lavender fields, and I hoped to buy some lavender oil and try some lavender honey. I didn’t plan to have bees buzzing all around me as I stepped over the rocky earth between the wide rows of purple, but they were. I planned to visit the lavender fields, but I couldn’t have anticipated the magic of those moments that will stay with me forever.
Letting go of expectations is hard. I know. I had a lot of dreams for this trip, and they didn’t all come true. But even more moments that I could never have dreamed of happened every day. I had a few moments of wishing – and then I stopped holding onto my expectations, I opened my hand and let them go, thereby making room to receive what was there.
1. Read books set in the places you are visiting.
When I was little, my whole family read books. We used to fight over who would read books first, and were constantly snatching books from each other as soon as they were put down for a minute. Finally, my mom made a rule that whoever started the book first had the right to ask anyone else to give it up when they had a chance to read. Don’t tell my sisters, but I used to read the first paragraph of each book when I picked it out at the library, so I could always demand that they give it up because I had “started it first.” I still love to read books. There’s just something magical about feeling your imagination catching you up and carrying you away into another world. When watching a movie, we simply see another person’s interpretation of their imagination, and it doesn’t engage ours the way a book does. So I spent a few minutes researching the night before our trip, and downloaded several kindle books to read while traveling.
When we were in Paris and Provence, I read Julia Child’s My Life in France. It was set back in 1950, so it was fascinating to me to read her descriptions of an older Paris and to compare it with the modern Paris I saw now. While in Switzerland, I read Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad, published in 1880. He wrote a paragraph about the Alps that describe the feeling he got while standing under the Matterhorn.
He says of the Alps, “There was something subduing in the influence of that silent and solemn and awful presence; one seemed to meet the immutable, the indestructible, the eternal, face to face, and to feel the trivial and fleeting nature of his own existence the more sharply by the contrast. One had the sense of being under the brooding contemplation of a spirit, not an inert mass of rocks and ice—a spirit which had looked down, through the slow drift of the ages, upon a million vanished races of men, and judged them; and would judge a million more—and still be there, watching, unchanged and unchangeable, after all life should be gone and the earth have become a vacant desolation.”
Reading someone else’s perspective on the same scenes I was seeing gave me a fuller understanding, the feeling of history behind each view and a bigger glimpse into the panorama of sights, sounds and tastes that we experienced. You may not be an avid reader like myself, but try it anyway!
2. Carry the perfect bag.
You want your bag to accent your trip like the perfect accessory, highlighting your outfit while not complicating things. It needs to be practical, secure and stylish. I thought about the type of traveling we would be doing, and which style of bag would do what I needed while giving me the style and ease that I was looking for.
So I decided on the Five Pocket Crossbody for my essentials handbag. It could hold all four of our passports and boarding passes, train tickets and visitors card, plus a bit of cash, cards, and a few essentials like lip balm and lavender oil. (I always take that on a plane in case of stuffy smells.) It was perfect for walking through all those cobblestone streets in little towns, up a few mountains and down the city streets of Paris and Milan. I loved how easy it was to access my cash or card, and yet it felt completely secure right there at my side. The brass ring added the perfect stylish touch, It made every outfit look more elegant, and I felt perfectly prepared for the day when I slung it over my shoulder and walked out the door.
I chose our new Monterey Backpack for those days when we did a lot of walking, as I could also carry water bottles, sunscreen, and snacks with me. It was the perfect hands-free carry, large enough to hold what we needed and yet small and light enough that I didn’t even notice the weight. It carried easily on my back the day we took the cable cars up to a glacier, and the day we visited a foodie market in Avignon. The inside top pocket kept my phone secure whenever I wasn’t carrying it in my hand, and the key snap was the perfect place to keep the car keys safe. The large brass ring on the back made the shoulder straps self-adjust to my shoulder width, and it was always comfortably situated on my lower back. I saw so many little purse backpacks in Paris and Milan and loved seeing the different styles within this fashion.
I also took my constant travel companion, the Market Tote, for a shopping bag, picnics and market days. I took it to the Mediterranean Sea, and it held our towels and water while we swam in the salt water and danced through the waves. It carried so many picnics for us, as it was so easy to stop by a bakery for a baguette, find a little charcuterie shop and get dry-cured ham, cheese, fruit, and olives. We would tuck everything in the Market Tote and find the perfect place to picnic, whether it was beside the road among the lavender fields, under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, or perched on the rocks beside the Mediterranean Sea. It carried all our purchases the day we wandered through the market in the little hilltop town of Gordes, looking at spices and cheese and cured meats and homemade nougats, and fresh lavender honey. It held our groceries when we went shopping at an Aldi in Switzerland. I carried it through airports and planes, simply tucking it under the seat in front of me as we flew over the ocean.
3. Eat all the food.
Ok, maybe this is just me. But really, is there any other way to truly experience the flavors of a culture? This is my favorite way to travel, to find little, out of the way spots and to savor all the foods I possibly can. To me, food is not only the flavors I taste, but the sights, sounds and smells around me as I eat all contribute to the complete experience. This is why I can’t talk about lunch or dinner without including every detail that made that experience memorable.
(Provence) We eased through narrow cobbled streets, past vineyards green with lush leaves. We passed so many castles that I lost count. We drove through lavender fields soaking in the June sunshine. Slowly the flatlands turned to mountains and hills squared off with more vineyards. We finally came to the little town close to our Airbnb just before dusk as the sky turned from bright blue to pale pink with streaks of dusty blue and the full moon was lightly outlined against the pastel colors. We were so hungry, but most of the stores were closed! Suddenly we spied a little pizza truck and pulled over. We sat on stools outside the truck window and watched them spread a thick sauce, toss paper-thin onions and black olives onto a thin crust. The little TV played the World Cup, and the older man with a dark beard and an easy smile stopped sprinkling cheese on our pizza to cheer when someone made a goal. He slid the pizza into the oven, and three minutes later it was perfectly blistered and charred underneath as he pulled it out. We got back in the car with our hot pizzas in our laps, and found our way through narrow one lane roads between vineyards to the stone-walled gate of our house for a week. We walked up the stone steps and into a darling kitchen with white cabinets, an espresso machine and a little table laid out with baguettes, wine, and a roll of cured, dry ham. There was a tray with six different kinds of cheeses in the refrigerator, orange juice for the kids, pâté, and apricot preserves. We were so charmed, and couldn’t believe we would get to spend a few days here in this old stone house with its centuries of history and culture.
(Villes Sur Auzon) Walking down the narrow stone streets with houses on either side, I reveled in the English ivy spreading over the walls and the evening sun spilling over everything.e found a little café called, Les P’tits Bonheurs. Their supper service was just starting, amidst the evening shadows. The little courtyard was filled with tables and the small gravel crunched under our feet asthe waitress called out a Bonjour! as we sat down. After choosing the plat de jour (special of the day), we sipped our drinks and watched everyone around us. Several Germans sat at the next table and had obviously been in the sun that day because their necks and legs were bright red. The other patrons seemed like the local farmers, laughing and talking over their beer and wine without an iPhone in sight. Soon the waitress brought a little cucumber tartare for me and a salad with melted chèvre on toast for Jay. We slowly savored each flavor and talked about how clean the flavors were. I told Jay about a saying concerning French food, “It tastes of what it is.” After a few minutes, they brought Jay a fish and roasted vegetable dish, while I received a potato cake topped with veal wrapped in bacon. The slightly peppered and creamy sauce was the perfect complement to the smooth potato and rich veal cake. The roasted tomatoes were as sweet as sugar, and the other vegetables tasted nothing like any I had ever had in the best way possible. After sharing a dessert of chocolate cake and strawberry gelato, we left the restaurant and walked back the narrow streets toward “home.”
(Avignon) After leaving the market and walking down a roughly cobbled street, we sat down at a little café with red cushioned chairs. The waitress brought us chilled water in a bottle that used to hold wine, and we rehydrated as people flowed down the street past us. Again I ordered the plat du jour, and the appetizer blew my mind. A drizzle of a dark syrup on the slate plate was covered with a triangle of gingerbread and foie gras, with some fig preserves and a touch of green salad. The gingerbread was slightly spicy, the foie gras rich and smooth, and the greens provided a light touch. Julissa tried it and told me, “I like the cheesecake part best!” The main dish of duck breast was slightly underwhelming with its rubbery layer of fat, but Le Gourmand redeemed itself with a bright little lemon tart that tasted of citrus and summer breezes.
(Sault) We pulled into a driveway marked with a wooden Miel de Lavanda sign and found our way to a tiny little honey shop where an old man tanned by the Provence sun welcomed us in. He gave us tiny spoons of honey to try, and we bought a jar of golden creamed honey, delicately flavored with the floral tastes of lavender. It melted on the tongue, with a light sweetness that was unlike the sometimes cloying honey I am used to.
He had a table in his front yard, and we asked if we could have our picnic there. He was only too happy to share his little slice of paradise with us, and we spread out our slices of pate en croute, (meat pie) brioche bread, fresh tomato, plums and figs and melons with spicy radishes and creamy, rich butter with rosé to finish off. We ate there, looking across the purple fields, listening to the hum of bees and drinking in the scent of lavender along with our rosé.
(Milan) The first ristorante we came across while walking down the street received our business and our delight, as the pizza was thin-crusted and full of delicious flavors, the olives were sharply salty in the best of ways, the pasta creamy and fresh with just a hint of pepper and the wine perfectly crisp.
To say I had a taste of Milan would be to underestimate my abilities – I had seven tastes of Milan in just under two hours. The caffé was dark and stormy, and I thought of nothing else as I sipped the little, foamy cup. The “speck” panini sandwich was simply made with bacon, a sharp cheese and as Jay said, “Every bite got better and better as you went on.” The lemon gelato started off a little sweet, and then the tartness took over in the most refreshing way. The melon gelato tasted like a Provence Cavaillon Melon, famous for its beautifying properties. The focaccia was as thin and crispy as a cracker, and if you dipped it in olive oil and balsamic, you would have to simply roll your eyes by way of expressing your soul’s delight. So maybe I can say I experienced Milan. For isn’t, ”The cuisine of a country the only exact attestation of its civilization?”
It was late in the afternoon as we drove back through the mountain roads between the Italian/Swiss Alps. We saw so many different things that day: quiet country roads with old stone barns, awe-inspiring cathedrals, busy city streets packed with people walking, biking and motoring, and tunnel after tunnel after tunnel. We drove up and around, over and through, around and down and up again as we followed the little blue arrow on the GPS. Just after crossing over from Italy into Switzerland, we stopped at the very tippy top of the road at a little round, pink building surrounded by slightly higher peaks. As we sat in the early evening sunshine along the rounded side and looked out over the valley, a waitress brought us dark foamy espressos and light creamy cappuccinos. It tasted like the farms of Italy and the mountains of Switzerland. Sitting there in the middle of two different cultures, we sipped the delightful caffeine and talked about life. Then Julissa spilled her coke and cried because it was gone, so we got back in the car and drove on. Somehow, amidst all the new scenes the spilled coke was the familiar feeling of family, of caring for the mundane that brought the warmth of home into the moment.
“We travel because we need to, because distance and difference are the secret tonic to creativity. When we get home, home is still the same, but something in our minds has changed and that changes everything.” Jonah Leher
Traveling for me is a way to get myself to look outside my own small world and to broaden my perspective by seeing how other people live. It’s a way to show my children how big the world really is and to teach them that there are so many ways of doing things that are different than ours — and it’s fascinating. I always come home happy, inspired to create the life I want to live, no matter where I am.
I love the way each travel experience stretches my bravery by throwing me into new situations I was not prepared for. Getting out of my daily routine gives me fresh creativity. Every experience changes me just a little, as each culture has a different perspective, a new outlook that speaks into my way of thinking. Seeing so many beautiful things, old things, has given me a completely different feeling about history. My problems and frustrations feel smaller somehow, in a positive way, that helps me step back and see my part of history as a small contribution into a whole, like one colorful brush stroke on a beautiful canvas.
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