George Bailey got it right: the three greatest sounds in the world are train whistles, plane engines, and boat anchors. Long before he had a supernatural advisor, he knew that travel is central to the human experience. Travel feeds the soul and expands one’s horizons—artistic, aesthetic, culinary and so on—both endeavors require getting out of one’s rut from time to time. This can be accomplished in many ways, but none so engagingly, completely, and thrillingly as with a big fat trip.
Although staff members at MoT are big fans of little weenie trips (local travel) too, we savor, pine for and dream of les grands voyages—travel so extensive and magnificent that we require an extra language or two (and lots of extra punctuation and formatting) to express our thrill at the idea.
People travel to many different kinds of places for many different reasons: skiing in the Alps, sunbathing on the Greek isles, partying in Brazil, sporting events in South Africa, roughing it along the Yangtze River, hiking the north rim of the Grand Canyon. If any of those pursuits appeals to you, fair reader, we invite you to move on to some other website. Travel that emphasizes nature over cities or physical exertion over intellectual enrichment is just not our thing. MoT wants buildings, paintings, the occasional quirky shopping experience and cultural festival, hotels with reliable plumbing and fabulous food prepared by other people. And we want you to have those nice things, too.
The Big Trip is a big event in one’s life—whether it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event or an annual pleasure. It is expensive, arduous and time-consuming, and more likely to be worth every dollar, hour, tear and stress if you prepare properly for it. Although we probably can’t come with you to help with the bags and figure out the subway and manage the lines at the museum, we can help you get ready, and are happy to do so. You’re welcome!
how to prepare
Read everything you can about your destination. (We also recommend reading good books about travel in general; don’t leave home without Alain de Botton under your belt, so to speak.) History books, current news items, fiction by authors from your destination and/or authors that set their stories in it. The more you know, the more you will understand what you come across on purpose or by accident. And the less you will annoy the knowledgeable travelers who cannot help but overhear your conversation.
If you’re not already fluent in the language of your destination, learn something: at least the vocabulary of civility with which your parents hopefully stocked you. Greetings of different sorts, as well as translations of “please,” “thank you,” “where is. . . ,” “may I,” and “I would like to have. . . ,” will go a long, long way. You are a guest; act like it. Think ahead about other phrases that might be of special use to you: in our experience, translations for”where can I find a bathroom for my toddler, NOW, PLEASE!” and “my American shoe size is 8.5” have been equally valuable life-savers.
Get guidebooks to learn about the city before you leave, and to help you find your way around once you get there. MoT never leaves home without a Michelin Green Guide, a serious compendium with great little maps and building plans. But these can be a little hefty, so we also pack a Knopf CityMap Guide; these have discreet fold-out maps and pithy commentary that is no good for planning your trip, but just fine for getting around and finding nice restaurant recommendations once you’re there.
What to see
Darling, that is up to you. Your destination probably has a few famous things that everyone sees; you should probably see them too, or at least some of them. But be realistic. If it took 200 or 2000 years for that city to grow up, you’re not going to conquer it during Spring Break. Pick your battles. Our rule of thumb is to have one focus for the morning and one for the afternoon, with a nice pre-determined, well-reviewed lunch destination in between (to find the latter, we like to troll Virtual Tourist pages written by locals). Leave the rest to fate, which will allow you to (1) discover the Art Nouveau gallery that you did not know existed but now think is the answer to your life’s secret dream and (2) not lose your junk after being stuck on the wrong side of the city for three hours waiting for the tear gas to dissipate after an anti-government rally broke out in front of your hotel.
What not to see
Do not go to the famous thing if you think it is boring. Especially if you are traveling in a pack, do not feel peer-pressured into visiting that museum just because your art historian friend says you’ve got to see the Egon Schiele gallery. No, you really don’t. At the same time, do not force her to go to the nature preserve in hopes of seeing some rare critter up close. It’s better for each of you to do your thing, and more fun when you reconvene for dinner to talk about what wonderful thing you did, rather than brooding at each other for wasting your precious day in the fabulous city.
Our most unorthodox advice is to select something precious, and not do it. We have been to Florence several times, but we never go to see Michelangelo’s David. We would like to see him, but we don’t, for the same reason that people throw coins into the Trevi Fountain in Rome: it helps us to go back. Really, if one scours Florence for all the Renaissance art and architecture there is, eventually one feel that one has consumed the city, accomplished all there is; she shall be done. And what more soul-crushing observation could there be than I have drained Florence of all its worth. Better to leave some things undone: melancholy wistfulness is much preferred to world-weary ennui.
What to bring back
John Keats wrote “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” We feel the same way about travel souvenirs. So, consider that Ciao Bella t-shirt: sure it’s a bargain at five euro, and probably fine for a fleeting memory of your big trip that you will no longer wear once (1) you grow up or (2) it falls apart. We prefer shopping for items that will last, and either (1) are uniquely representative of the place we’ve visited or (2) uniquely suited to make us happy forever (these are not necessarily exclusive ideas). Local arts and crafts, tasteful (or intentionally not) objects splashed with the country’s identity are great—ceramic bowls, miniature building models, leather goods—; these are things that will prompt people to automatically ask, did you go there?
But we recommend another kind of souvenir too—something that will come to hand regularly, especially if it’s to assist you doing something that you really like to do in your regular (non-traveling) life. To wit: we love our hand-crafted shadow puppet from Beijing, but no more than our zesteur from Paris. They both remind us of wonderful trips to fabulous cities with dear friends. Our shadow puppet, which we do not manipulate for fear of shortening his life span, is gorgeous and represents the culture of the place that was so foreign but dazzling to us. On the other hand, our zesteur, which gets a regular workout, is well-designed and reminds us of the fun we had engaging with French food in every way possible while in Paris, and the fun we have trying out new dishes and techniques when we are home. And although the rest of the world might dismiss it as a plain, inexpensive citrus zester, we know our zesteur pour l’agrume is French—véritablement parisien, purchased from a culinary store that’s been in business since the nineteenth century just a few blocks from the Louvre.
As you collect your own mementos, reflect on the fact that the word souvenir is from the Latin subvenire, “occur to the mind,” and find your own perfect reminder; whether or not anyone else knows where that thing is from, is beside the point. The souvenir is key to the travel experience which is only as life-transforming as it is memorable.