Traveling Our Way

Christopher Thomas Schmidt

© Copyright 2004 by Christopher Thomas Schmidt

I take regular vacations with my two best friends. We travel as far and as often as time, family and finances will allow. We have yet to go on a trip together that wasn’t a resounding success, and yet strangely, you don’t hear a lot about traveling our way. The three of us share many similar interests—social, culinary, geographic—thus we travel together quite well. I have yet to see a show about us on the Travel Channel, however. The people from Frommer’s, Fodors, Lonely Planet, they don’t call. And Rick Steves, that dork who fancies himself quite the cutting edge traveler, even he won’t have anything to do with us. As I figure it, the primary reason people don’t look forward to traveling our way is that traveling our way is not at all relaxing. If someone were to write a book about us it would be called “Traveling for Psychopaths.”

 We are terrible planners, though this wasn’t always the case. As the only son of a computer programmer I am genetically detail oriented, and I once had an affinity for over-planning. My traveling companions, who think a reservation is a place where Indians live, have since cured me of this compulsion. There was a time when I used to like to have rooms booked and tickets purchased well in advance. Now, I am fortunate if I know the name of the actual country I am likely to be visiting on a given trip.

 “Doesn’t anyone here speak English?”

 My companion’s names are Troy and Scott. Formally they are the Krahl brothers; two individuals with whom I have spent many of the more enjoyable moments of my life. On our résumé of more interesting/ridiculous adventures: We have stayed a weekend in Las Vegas without a hotel room. Exciting, yes, though we were not the first to have tried this.

 We have charmed our way into a hotel some ten hours before the posted check-in time, after taking a red-eye into Minneapolis to catch a Viking game. This may not seem like a major accomplishment until I mention that we didn’t have reservations for that particular hotel, and Scott convinced the woman to let us stay that night for free, “since the night is already half over.”

 We have traveled from three separate points on the map to meet in a pub in England to which none of us had ever been, and to which we had only the most scant directions. Also exciting, but not unheard of.

 The one that surprises even me is how Troy, Scott and I hopped three trains and a hover craft to Brussels and managed to meet up with a friend of a friend with whom we had not spoken in over a year, and of whom we knew only that he was rumored to be living in Belgium somewhere.

Sounds relaxing, hey? It isn’t.

 “Maybe I won’t need my passport.”

 Troy and Scott would rather miss a flight than spend a significant amount of effort trying to be on it. They would rather get shut out of a hotel than waste the time and energy involved in reserving a room. They would pass on seeing any of the five or six countries we were hoping to visit in Southern Europe rather than go to the trouble of buying one additional travel guide Troy and Scott are not lazy—check that, they are profoundly lazy, but I don’t think that has anything to do with their bare-bones approach to travel planning. No, I think they have been so fortunate in having so many of their nominally arranged trips turn out so successfully, that they have little incentive to put forth any sort of effort. Why go to work if someone is willing to mail you a paycheck for staying at home? And I think I go along with it for the same reason. I could—and used to—beat my head against the wall trying to get the Brothers Krahl to commit to certain dates, logistics and expenditures, but to what end? Following the Krahl recipe, we have enjoyed a long and glorious string of intensely splendid vacations without having to commit to anything. And personally I am surprised, though pleased, to find that the anxiety I feel over having absolutely nothing arranged is significantly less than the stress I used to incur tying to have absolutely everything scripted. Resultantly, trip planning, our way, is relatively simple:

 Step One – We decide we want to go somewhere (really this is not a separate step, it’s more of a given. We always want to go somewhere).

 Step Two – We attempt to remember all those places we keep saying we want to go, except most of these discussions take place in a bar somewhere, and we rarely come up with any of them.

 Step Three – We attempt to locate a city, country or culture that is renowned for it’s nightlife, beautiful women and beer brewing monasteries that we have yet to visit, and failing that we begin to go over the list of cities, countries and cultures that are renowned for their nightlife, beautiful women and beer brewing monasteries to which we have already been, and decide which one of these we most would like to visit again.

 Step Four – We pick a date, Troy clears it with his better half—a task which has become a tad more delicate since they got married, and continues to become more so as they keep having children—and we go.

 The above may sound like a hopeless oversimplification, but there really isn’t much more to it. A few minutes online checking to see which discount airline makes the most frequent flights to our destination of choice, and a few phone calls to one another to make sure we all remember to go to the same destination, and that’s really it. Incidentals like accommodations, impending natural disasters and whether or not we can locate so and so; the guy who we haven’t spoken to in a year but who we are expecting to put us up for a couple nights if he still lives anywhere near where we’re headed, and if we have his current working phone number, are really not that important, and with us are more often than not—always—left to chance.

 “Any idea if these hotels take American currency?”

 With such egregious under-planning, I will admit that we tend to miss a lot, though this is not necessarily a bad thing. We rarely get to see and do all that we initially anticipated, but we always end up doing exactly what we want. So we didn’t see Anne Frank’s house or the Van Gogh museum, and we missed the canal tour, and straight skipped the historic-windmill bus trip, but that Heineken Brewery was outstanding as were the two days we spent in the red-light district.

 “You mean that is legal here?”

 Travel agents and all those guide books that suckers use recommend you schedule exorbitant blocks of time for the thorough enjoyment of the worlds various points of interest. Aside from laughing at the word ‘schedule,’ the Krahl brothers will tell you that no matter where you are, you can see all that you will ever want to in less than a day. Boston; we did it in a day. London; one day. Paris; one day. New Orleans; one day. Minneapolis; an hour and a half—it was early January, and as cold as you would expect, so after about an hour we wisely sought shelter in Kieran’s Pub. Amsterdam; alright that took two days, but they have these bars there that just sap a traveler’s energy (cough, cough).

 As long as every one of our abbreviated self-guided walking tours ends up with the three of us sitting in a local pub, bar, brauhaus or tavern, the Krahls consider the day well spent. I am inclined to agree, to a point, though I do suffer mild bouts of guilt—and usually temporary bouts of guilt thanks to the local pub/bar/brauhaus/tavern—unless we’ve made at least a tacit effort to see something of note. Troy and Scott are good travelers, if not always willing tourists, and they usually agree to trip around town a bit before adjourning for cocktails. More accurately, since I insist on holding the maps and room keys, and as I am often the only one carrying local currency, the boys begrudgingly agree to accompany me as I trip around town, until I grow weary of their chants of, “BORING!” and finally release them to adjourn to the nearest purveyor of cocktails.

 “The restaurants can’t ALL be closed at this hour.”

 The trick to seeing an entire city in one day, a city resplendent with acres of beauty, history, and culture, is to stay fast, loose and cheap. Do not join and organized tour group. No one can waste time like an enthusiastic tour guide, as nothing can slow you down quite like trying to stay ‘organized.’ The three of us saw more of Europe in two weeks than a hundred tour groups worth of saps will see in their entire lives. You say you are the type of traveler who likes to plan your day? Well try to keep your plan simple:

 Wake Up. Be careful not to set unrealistic constraints on sleep-time. Getting up too early, no matter how much you want to try to get done in a day, is disastrous, and you will likely find yourself returning to the room to let your weary traveling companions catch a nap.

 Eat. Again, no matter how much you are trying to get accomplished, make time for meals. Eating with the Krahls is easy, providing you don’t let some foolish desire to sample anything local and/or exotic get in the way. The Krahl brothers like simple. The Krahl brothers like cheap. The Krahl brothers like how there is a McDonald’s and a Pizza Hut in every city across the globe. I put up quite a fight at first. Myself, I like to try to immerse myself in the local culture when I travel. That night in Paris at the shi-shi bistro when they served us pasta with raw egg drizzled in it, I decided I had done enough immersing.

 Find the point of interest you most want to see and walk to it. If you are visiting someplace for the first time, walking allows you to see a variety of sights, and no one can charge you for walking past them. If you have any map-savvy, plot a path that takes you past other important sites. If you like to put a lot on your plate, and you are traveling anywhere other than Southern California, take advantage of public transportation. It is usually cheap, and can help save time by getting you close to where you want to be. In Southern California you can only get around by car, and this is a sure way to get yourself killed without getting to see anything other than your fellow motorists giving you the finger. Skip anything that charges admission. If you pay to get into anything, in order to get your money’s worth you will feel pressured to spend time there. You will save considerable time and money by simply snapping a photograph from the outside of such attractions, and moving on. In London the three of us saw the Royal Albert Hall, Hyde Park, Soho, Piccadilly, Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery (we should have taken time to go inside this one, I think), the Mall, Buckingham Palace, Green Park, St. Margaret’s Church, Big Ben, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Downing Street, the Thames, London Bridge (not all it’s cracked up to be), the Tower Bridge and the Tower of London all in an afternoon. And how? By adhering to two simple rules: keep yourself moving and keep yourself outside. Sure you miss a lot—only all the various breathtaking artifacts and national treasures that happen to be housed within the attractions you are bypassing—but you also see a lot; it just happens to be a lot of the exteriors of buildings. Lament not all that you missed, rather celebrate how you now have loads of time to drink warm flat beer from charming pint glasses.

 Buy postcards. Many travelers miss the importance of this step. Postcards are not only the cheapest souvenir you can get your hands on, they are also a great way to prove where you have been. When you return home and your family and friends start to ask you questions about your trip, questions you will have difficulty answering because you didn’t go into any of the major attractions and you spent most of your time sampling regional libations, you will be thankful you have a stack of postcards with which to assuage the doubts that inevitably arise. And oh, don’t mail the postcards. In a foreign country, and even in a domestic city with which you are not familiar, the tedious process of locating a post office and determining proper postage is an unnecessary and avoidable hassle. Hand-deliver your postcards. This lends a more personal touch by showing the recipient that though you couldn’t be bothered to spring for a stamp or remember their address, you are at least thinking of them now, after the fact.

 “Does every subway smell like this?”

 As mentioned, the success we have had with impromptu traveling is astounding. We have never had a bad trip, we have never missed anything that we would consider of major significance and there have been no tragedies or regrets. Though there have been some rather frightening moments.

 We took an overnight train from Amsterdam to Paris. We did this not because we had pre-purchased tickets, nor because we had rooms waiting for us in Paris, but simply because we had had enough of Amsterdam—we stayed three nights in Amsterdam, which is the American equivalent of a month in Vegas—and we hadn’t been to France yet. So this being Europe, where they pretty much have the transportation thing figured out, we assumed, correctly, that we could get a train to Paris pretty much whenever we wanted. We catch a late night train, and everything went smoothly, aside from having to share our sleeper car with strangers—something quite common in Europe, but unnerving for paranoid Americans who don’t relish having outsiders in their ATM space—until we finally get to Paris and realize it’s 6am local time. Now while we are hopelessly charming—annoying—in our native tongue, and are capable of conning the front-desk staff at the Minneapolis Best Western, trying to smile yourself a room in Rudeville, France at six in the morning is quite another matter.

 Enter the Hotel Brabat. We get a tip from a lady working at this tourist bureau in the train station, which gracefully is open at wee-early in the morning, about a reasonably priced hotel that is close to this station, and is within tolerable walking distance from the major Parisian attractions—the Seine, Pont Alexandre, Notre Dame, another train station that smells like urine, etc. In Paris, it turns out that “reasonably priced” is a euphemism for total rat hole. The Hotel Brabat, to which we were directed, is the most indescribably frightening place I have ever slept on purpose. I am not squeamish by any means, and I am far from aristocratic, but I couldn’t believe this place. First, none of the lights in the hallways, and most of the lights in our room didn’t work. We found out later that this was intentional as too much light angers the rats and cockroaches. Second, the door to our room had no lock on it. We found out later that the door to the bathroom didn’t have a lock either, but that was okay because there was no door to the bathroom. This also didn’t matter because there was no toilet in our bathroom. The toilet was down the hall in a community wash closet behind another door that didn’t lock. The shower in our room had no shower curtain, which when we came to discover this, made the absence of the bathroom door a tad more disconcerting.

 Like I said, I am not easily shocked, but this place had me nervous. Had it not been so early in the morning, and had I not been skeptical of finding someplace else open, I would have gone someplace else. Troy, who is even less easily shocked, didn’t seem to care at all. We had just spent seventy two hours in Amsterdam, and another eight on a train and I bet Troy could have slept comfortably on a bed of porcupines at that point. Scott, who is of a slightly less indulgent disposition, threatened legal action.

 “How much of this Monopoly money does a beer cost?”

 Occasionally during the course of our travels we find time for some cultural distraction. Rather, occasionally during the course of one of our pub-crawls we stumble across a museum. The Louvre is one such place. It is said that you could tour the Louvre for a month, and still not see all that it has to offer. The Krahl brothers gave me four hours. Four hours. This means that if you start with the Oriental antiquities in the basement, you have to get through roughly five-hundred years of art every fifteen minutes. You simply cannot get through a six-story building complex that rivals the Pentagon in size and complexity, spanning several blocks in several directions, above and below ground, in four hours. I shouldn’t complain, though, in truth four hours is more than I thought I would get from the Krahls; they don’t serve alcohol in the Louvre. I was fortunate I got the boys to travel to France at all. I think they must have heard how France is known for it’s free-flowing exceptional wine.

 “I can’t read this menu. Let’s go to McDonald’s.”

 Traveling our way certainly is not for everyone. In truth, traveling our way really isn’t for anyone. With the kind of malaise and general apathy that we plan our travels, I am amazed we manage to leave home at all. I am equally amazed at the tremendously good times that invariably results. So I don’t recommend these methods, and I should say that I strongly recommend that you do not follow our lead. But if you aren’t hung up on things like schedules and itineraries, and if you aren’t distressed by missed connections and condemnable hotels, if you are content to view the Vatican and the Statue of Liberty from a distance, say through a window from the convenient comfort of your bar stool, then perhaps you can give our way a try. Sure it’s a little embarrassing trying to explain how you missed the Eiffel Tower, but at least you’ll never again get stuck eating pasta with eggs in it.

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