Three Terrible Things to Say to a Traveler

Pretty early on in our Europe trip last summer, my friend and I started dreading coming home.  Of course most of that was because we were living a fantasy and didn’t want to return to real life.  RomeBut we also were dreading the inevitable question: “How was your trip?!”  We knew there was nothing we could say, no pictures we could show to adequately encapsulate the complete wonder with which we experienced life in those five weeks.

We would take a photo of the view outside our hostel window, and quickly think, “Oh, that doesn’t even begin to do this place justice.”

We would stay out all night and watch the sunrise in Rome or attend a 4th of July party in a Parisian penthouse overlooking the Eiffel Tower, and we would just laugh and think, “No one will believe this.  No one will understand this.”

In the course of my travels over the last little-more-than-a-year (is that all it’s been?), there are a couple of things people have said to me that…well…just aren’t good to say to someone whose truest passion is traveling.  Here are my top three, and three things that might be a better way of saying what you’re trying to say.

 

Terrible: “How was your trip?Switzerland

Totally great intentions.  How do you even know what else to ask when the person has been somewhere that you can’t even imagine?  Except, I never know how to respond to this.  Usually I’m so overwhelmed with my recent experiences that all I can do is breathe, “Amazing,” or “Great.”

A question like that also implies that I have only about two minutes to give you the highlights.  Nope.  No way.  Most of the time, a question like that renders me speechless, as I can’t even think of where to start.

Better: “Can I hear one story from your trip?”

One of our coworkers asked us this when we got back from Europe.  When we were working, we only had time for one or two minute conversations anyway, so she would just ask us for one story at a time.  This made us more open to sharing because we didn’t feel like we had to explain the glory of the entire trip in one shot (impossible).  On top of it, telling just one story will certainly spur the memory of another, and another, and if you have the time, the person may very likely end up telling you about the whole trip after all.

 

 

Terrible: “You’re so lucky!”

Paris

This one really irritates me.  Sure, we had some lucky punches in Europe, but us being there in the first place was definitely not luck.  I worked to earn money to go there.  A plane ticket for Phuket, Thailand did not fall out of the sky a couple of weeks ago.  I researched it and bought it with my own money.

Sure, I’m fortunate to be at a place in my life where traveling is fairly easy.  I’m single, young, have a semi-flexible job, and live in Asia.  But I kind of think that traveling is feasible in nearly every person’s life, and that it’s just a matter of what you value.  When I have money, rather than buying a house or a car or spending it on a wedding or a baby, I’m going to spend it on traveling.  My choices are not any better or worse than anyone else’s; it’s simply a difference in priorities.  But I am not lucky.  I built my life this way on purpose.

Better: “Good work!”

Because my life of travel is a carefully crafted endeavor for which I worked and fought quite hard.

 

Terrible: “Sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime trip!”

Koh Phi Phi
I understand that you’re just trying to say that my trip was unbelievable.  And it totally was unbelievable, even to me.  But you are literally saying that I will never have a trip this amazing again.  Frankly, I think it’s a really depressing thing to suggest to anyone, even if they just did get back from a once-in-a-lifetime trip.  I was discussing this with a new friend in a hostel in Thailand, and he said, “Yeah, maybe more like a once-in-a-year trip!  I hope!”  That’s what we’re all aiming for.

Better: “Where are you going next?”

Let’s focus on future adventures.  Because there absolutely, definitely will be future adventures for people like me.

 

Fellow travelers: what other things have people said to you that belong on this list?

Dún Laoghaire

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This Korean Life

Well, I moved to Korea.

At the DMZ

All Packed UpYes, as in Seoul, South Korea.  Four months ago I packed up my stuff, said goodbye to everyone I’ve ever known, and hopped on a plane with a one-way ticket and a one-year contract to teach English to children in Gangnam.

I really like it here.  My students are exasperating but adorable.  My apartment is small but exactly what I need.  Seoul is crowded and bustling and somehow familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.Giraffe Class

I’m at that stage in expat life where things have ceased   being exotic and romantic and completely exciting all of the time.  I have a full-time job.  I have a long-ass commute.  I have to go to the grocery store and clean hair out of the drain in my bathroom.

Seoul in the summertime is hot and humid, and it rains all of the time.  I mean allllllll of the time.  I can probably count on one hand the number of Insadongtimes the sun has shined since the turn of the month.  Monsoon season means grey skies, sudden downpours, fog, and humidity that physically weighs on you.  I guess you could say my relationship with Korea is out of the honeymoon stage.

That initial stage is immensely fun, true enough.  It’s filled with lots of peace-sign pictures, new and weird foods, bizarre language barrier confusions, and fascinating places to explore.  But now I’m feeling that familiar itch to buy a plane ticket and discover somewhere new, somewhere with IMG_7597a different language, different architecture, different climate.  It will be a growing experience for me to stay put for a while yet.

My struggle will be to maintain this sense of adventure when it isn’t all new for me anymore.  It’s easy to be enamored with a place where everything is different and all of your senses are alive and overwhelmed.  Can I stay in love with a place, even when it’s hot and rainy, even when my heart is broken and my life is quiet, even when I have a daily grind?Seoul

Europe: Land of the Lucky Punch

Michelle and I were on a train on our way to Neuschwanstein Castle just outside Munich, Germany.  As the train car glided past fields and cows and mountains and our new friend and tour guide laughed at the photos on our cameras from the previous night’s “beer challenge,” I pulled out a bag of Dove dark chocolates and opened up a piece.  Inside, the foil wrapper read, “You are exactly where you are supposed to be.”

Neuschwanstein Castle

Me & Michelle at Neuschwanstein Castle

“It’s a sign!” Michelle and I squealed.  “Add it to the list!”

Even before we’d left on our European adventure, Michelle spotted a license plate on our way to O’Hare International Airport that read, “UK USA OK.”  From that moment on, we started keeping a list of signs.  Some were kind of dumb but funny, like the fact that Michelle’s sneeze in London sounded a lot like the word “tea” or that Justin Bieber had been in Cologne just the day before us (and our German friends would randomly break out into choruses of “baby, baby, baby oooooo”).

Lucky Punch List

Page one of lucky punches

But some were undeniable and gave us chills, like the message on the chocolate foil on the trip through the German countryside, or the numerous times we lucked out with the last room in a hostel (a private room for a dorm price) or the last two seats on a train (the seat numbers corresponding with our respective birth years).

When I had trouble at the UK border, a nice guy named Chance (yes, Chance!) helped me out.  When we were in Brussels, it turns out our German friends just happened to be in Cologne, less than two hours away by train.  We were able to see the first German Euro Cup soccer match in Germany (which they won!  Deutschland!), be in Barcelona for the Sant Joan Festival, and run into a good friend of Michelle’s from college in a Parisian Metro stop.

When we were sick, we were blessed with a private, air-conditioned room in Rome.  When our spirits were low, a group of Swiss guys sat next to us on the train and sang songs and played their ukulele.  And when we needed a little taste of home, our friend Stefan invited us to his village in Germany where he and his mom cooked for us and where we got to see some familiar faces.

I’m not saying all this to brag.  Okay, maybe a little bit of bragging…(we spent the Fourth of July in a $10 million penthouse apartment in Paris that overlooked the Eiffel Tower).  But the point I want to make is that we kept our arms open to new experiences.  I think because we kept our eyes peeled for signs, we found more things to interpret as such.  We ended up in cool situations we never could have planned otherwise.  And because we maintained a positive outlook, everyone was nice and every situation had a positive bent to it.

On the second day of our journey, in St. Pancras Station in London, we spotted a notecard tucked away in the shadows of a statue:

“Observation is about finding something interesting in ordinary places.  I’ve found that it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with how you see them.”  –E. Erwitt

St. Pancras Statue

The statue where we found the postcard. Can you spot it?

So whether you want to call them signs, as we did, or “God nods” as my mom calls them, or “lucky punches” like our German friends, I think they were a direct result of our searching them out.  We chose to see Europe as an endless opportunity of adventures filled with kind people, and it became just that for us.

It was fairly easy to do since each experience was brand new in a foreign country where everything was unfamiliar and each one of our senses were on high alert.  The challenge, now, is how to bring that attitude back to the U.S. where everything is routine for us.  How can we remain positive and open to new experiences when we’re back in the daily grind?  I haven’t quite figured that out.  Does anyone have any advice on that front?

In the meantime, I encourage everyone to go travel.  Keep your eyes open for a lucky punch or two, and I guarantee that if you’re actively looking for it, you’ll find it.

Five Weeks & Eight Countries Later: Bitten by the Travel Bug

In the twelve days between deciding to go to Europe and actually leaving, I still had to work.  Go figure.

Traveling

Traveling

Suddenly, though, something was different.  I had an end in sight, something to work for, a countdown in my head.  I knew I was about to be living a better, more interesting story.

And my trip was affecting my customers, too.  As I poured wine for people and the subject of Europe would come up, a change came over them, and they sat up straighter, their eyes would light up.  Stories of their own European travels, whether they happened two months ago or thirty-two years ago, would spill from their lips.  They were alive with joy, with the memories of their own trips, eager to share with a pair of willing ears.

One woman backpacked for six months after spending the summer on a diving team in Spain, and with her first stop she found herself at a German train station at night all alone.  A stranger and her husband took her in for the night and cooked for her.

A man sporting round, wire-frame glasses told me all about traveling with his now-wife.  They spent all their money on hashish and custom-made leather jackets in the 70s.  He laughed a lot as he recited their itemized expense list.

A former travel agent told us, “You have to go to Interlaken, Switzerland.  It’s the most beautiful place on earth.” (That person was telling the truth, by the way.)

Hiking in Interlaken Switzerland

Hiking in Interlaken Switzerland

I heard stories about getting lost, getting found, serendipitous meetings, falling in love, adventure after adventure after adventure.  As they told stories, their minds traveled to another place, to another time.  They relived the best parts of their lives with me as an observer.

One woman, after nearly an hour of crazy stories, snapped out of her memory dream and told me, “This will be you.  In just a couple of months, you’ll be full of stories just like this, lighting up at the memory of it all.”

And boy was she right.  About halfway through our trip, my travel partner and good friend Michelle and I started to dread going home to the question, “How was Europe?”  We were accumulating unbelievable experiences and stories at an awesome pace, and the idea of having to distill all of that down into a five minute response was just too hard.  Even the nearly 5,000 pictures (yes, that’s a five with three zeroes) weren’t good enough.  We snapped photos of a La Sagrada Familia, the Swiss Alps, Neuschwanstein Castle, the Eiffel Tower, or even just down random streets or the views from our hostels, look at the photo, and would shake our heads.  “No one will understand from this,” we’d say to each other.  It felt like an entire lifetime in one five-week-long span.  I was afraid I’d come home and go back to work and that all of it would feel like a dream–an amazingly vivid one, but a dream nonetheless.

I’m still afraid of that as the days pass by and Europe gets farther away.

Excited to be at the Eiffel Tower

Excited to be at the Eiffel Tower

So forgive me for being so late with this blog entry.  It’s simply because I had no idea where to start.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll be chipping away at it all, sharing my favorite moments and lessons learned.  Also, some of you might be wondering, “Hey, wait a minute, isn’t she supposed to be starting grad school in Seattle?”  I’ll talk about that, too.

The other day, post-Europe, I was pouring wine for a couple of ladies.  They were asking me about my trip, and I was glowing with memories, spilling story after story.  One said, “Sounds like it was a once-in-a-lifetime trip!”

And I responded, “I sure hope not!

It’s amazing how a spur-of-the-moment decision can alter your whole perspective on the world, how it can change your whole life.  I’ve been bitten by the travel bug, as one friend put it, and I can’t wait to go back.  Travel as an answer to the “Get-a-Life” dilemma is working for me, and I don’t plan on giving up on it quite yet.  Hopefully reliving it here a little bit at a time will extend that feeling until my next trip.

Have you traveled?  Share one of your stories in the comments!  Or, if you’d like to guest post on this topic, email me at allison.rivers@gmail.com with a lesson you learned from your travels or an experience you had that will stay with you forever.  What is it that makes you light up and come alive?  And how do you hang onto that feeling when the daily grind sets back in?

Get a Life vs. Get a Job

In four days, I’m getting on a plane.

Moments after purchasing my airline ticket.

This plane is going to take me to London, where I will begin a five-week-long trek around Europe.

Let’s back up.

When I started this blog back in 2010, I was frustrated and angry.  I was stuck in a job that sucked the life from me, and I thought if only I could get the right job, if I could put my skills to work and feel like I was making a difference, then I would be making something of my life.  I titled this blog “The Get-a-Life Project” because I felt that at best, I was biding my time, trapped in a holding pattern until something better came along, and at worst I was wasting my life trapped in a cubicle.  Somehow I had confused “The Get-a-Life Project” with “The Get-a-Job Project.”  And those things are definitely not the same.

In the course of these two years, I’ve switched jobs three times in search of something better.  I’ve applied to grad school and been accepted.  I’ve spent significant time unemployed, and I’ve moved back into my childhood home.  I’ve followed every practical step I thought I needed to get a decent job, and therefore a good life (or one with meaning).

It’s easy to do – get a job confused with life.  We spend such a large percentage of our lives at work…where do we draw the line?  People talk about work-life balance, but what is that, exactly?  Our job is a huge part of what defines us, but it’s not everything that defines us.  While battling with this conundrum and working at jobs I feel do not even define a part of me, I’ve made some wonderful friends with my coworkers–one of whom was planning a backpacking trip through Europe.

As the time for her to leave was drawing closer and closer, I was mourning the loss of a bright presence in my otherwise dull job.  She kept saying, “Come with me!” and I would laugh and say, “Oh, if only I could.”  I had already resigned myself to a bleak summer at another dead-end job.  Until a wise person asked, “Well, why don’t you go with her?

So I called my friend and asked if she was serious about me going.

And then a week ago I bought a plane ticket.

No, it’s not necessarily “practical” in the way I thought I always had to be, and obviously I can’t backpack through Europe forever.  I have to work, too.  But for now, I have some clarity, and dang it if I’m not getting a life.

I want to hear from you...
Where do you find your work-life balance?  What do you do to get a life?

Moving forward from here…

Well, I’ve been a little lax on the blog updates lately.  Life has been a little crazy lately, and in the spirit of my last update’s question, I would like to let you guys know exactly what I did about my bad day(s).  This might also answer the question of where exactly I have been and why I haven’t been updating my blog in the last, oh I don’t know, month or so…

  1. I got a new job. True to my word, I applied and interviewed twice at a big coffee chain last week and by Wednesday, I had a new job.  On Thursday I gave my two weeks notice at my current job.  So, in a matter of about a week, I will be making my transition into what I hope might be a more life-giving job.  Now, I know on paper it might look like I took a bit of a step backwards, but I think it’s actually going to help me a lot in the long run.  I’ll have more flexible hours which will give me more time to research grad schools or teach myself SEO or take more classes at the local community college.  Either way, I’ll have more time to do something that will get me closer to my goals.  I won’t just be sitting in a cubicle, staring at a computer monitor all day long.  I’ll be interacting with people and engaging in things outside of work that are interesting to me.
  2. I’ve been traveling a lot to see friends–this topic could be an entire week of entries by itself.  In junior high, a friend of mine referred to be as being like the center of a Venn Diagram (yeah, we were kind of nerds).  I have always had multiple groups of friends that never really overlap except through me.  Even now, I have my sorority friends, my creative writing friends, my friends who lived in a certain dorm in college, my high school friends (this group is split into several sub-groups), my Oregon friends, etc.  This has been both a good and bad thing, especially since graduating.  The bad news is that they are all spread out all over the country.  The good news is that I get to go to a lot of cool and fun places to see them all.  This weekend I went to Bloomington, Indiana where a creative writing friend is in law school now.  Last weekend I went back to my college town where I got to spend a lot of time with my sorority friends as well as a smattering from some other groups.  Each group of these friends knows a different part of me, and when I’m having bad days like I described in my last post, it’s easy to just keep to myself.  But after spending two weekends in a row with really great people who know me in such different ways, it’s like I’m able to rediscover those parts of myself that they love.  I’m able to come home feeling refreshed and ready for whatever comes next.  I am so appreciative of the people in my life.  I just want to say thank you to all of you out there.  Everyone I’ve talked to has been so supportive of me, especially recently with this blog and the job change.
  3. A brief grad school update–kind of. Going along with my last point, when I was in Bloomington with my creative writing friend it just felt so good to be on a college campus again.  She also pulled a bunch of old projects off of her bookshelf and we spent a couple of minutes going through them and reading old poetry from our peers and each other.  It was just so good to be with someone who knows me as a writer because people around where I live now don’t really know me like that.  Likewise, she was surprised to find out that I was a singer in high school, which is mostly only how people know me here.  I digress, but the point I’m trying to make is that it was nice to rediscover some projects that I don’t even have copies of anymore and to be with someone who knows my writing and is so encouraging about it.

I had every intention of making this a tighter and all-round better written blog entry, but the traveling and interviewing and giving two weeks notice has all taken its toll on me when it comes to stress and sleep deprivation.  But at least I wrote something and at least I’m making positive steps with my life.  So in the interest of keeping my health and sanity in tact, I’m saying goodnight for now.