Thursday, April 15, 2010

Travel Tips for Twelve-Year-Olds

The daughter of a friend of mine is going on a two-week trip to England and France this summer through a program called People to People,

People to People Ambassador Programs offers extraordinary, life-changing educational travel opportunities for students, athletes, educators, and professionals. With nearly 50 years of experience, more than 400,000 alumni, and destinations on seven continents, People to People is the world’s most recognized and respected educational travel provider.

She asked me if I had any travel advice for her. I gave it a lot of thought, and wrote down what I could think of that would be useful to a 12-year-old.  Not wanting to waste all that effort, I've posted it here as well.

International Travel at your age is tremendous, worthwhile experience that you'll probably cherish your entire life. You can't even begin to imagine the benefits you'll reap from this trip, and hopefully the many that will follow.  You've made an excellent choice to take advantage of this opportuity, and becoming a comfortable traveler now will really help you later on too.  You're on a guided tour, so you're not going to have to worry about transportation, translation, fees, most meals, lodging, etc.  But there are still some things that can make a big difference during your trip.


You're going to over-pack.  I'm sure your tour leaders will have provided a suggested packing list, and I suspect that there's too much stuff on it.  They'd rather that you were over-prepared than overburdened with having to haul way too much gear around.  But keep in mind that you will be responsible for packing, unpacking, carrying, stowing, retrieving, loading, unloading, dragging, and carrying this luggage around for the duration of your trip, and the more your bring, the more miserable the whole process of dealing with your stuff will be.  For a fun exercise, I suggest packing up everything you're planning on taking on your trip, then get someone to take you and your luggage to the mall for the day.  Make sure you're the only one who handles your luggage the whole time. Load it in the car, unload it at the mall, drag it around into stores, restrooms, restaurants, movies. . . .  If after the end of the day you haven't completely rethought your packing strategy, then you're probably OK.

I suggest that for a two week trip to Europe in the summer, you can get by with one carry-on sized bag and a small backpack.  Actually, I suggest you can get by with this strategy for pretty much any trip.  Personally, I prefer a bag that does not have built-in wheels and a handle because they take up too much of the bag's available space.  The MEI Voyageur is probably the ideal bag for this:  Once you have the bag, you should learn how to pack it.  The best site I know of on the topic is One Bag


You're not going to Europe to eat American food.  Avoid it at all costs. It's only two weeks.  Besides, the food is better in Europe anyway.  Most of your meals are probably included in the tour, but if you have any on your own, you can eat a lot cheaper at a grocery store than a restaurant.  When you're eating in somebody's home (which you should do every chance you get) try everything.  Even if you think you don't like something, at least try it.

Buying Stuff

Don't buy anything in Europe that you can buy at home if you don't really need it right then: it costs more and you'll have to lug it around for the rest of your trip.
Don't get travelers checks.  They're so last-century.  Also, don't exchange money at a currency exchange place.  You'll get ripped off on either the fees or the rate.  Instead, get an ATM card and let your bank know where and when you're going so that they don't shut down your card thinking it's stolen. Get used to translating prices in your head, or make a little cheat sheet before you go.  If you look at a price and think that $1 = £1 = €1, you'll be in for a rude awakening when you run out of money a lot faster than you throught you would.  ($1 = £ 0.65 (65 pence) = € 0.74 right now, or £1 = $1.54 and €1 = $1.36).


Get a camera and learn how to use it.  A camera that takes AA batteries is a lot more convenient than having to bring a battery charger with you because you can buy spare AA batteries everywhere.  Camera memory is also super cheap, so get more than you think you'll need.  Take way more pictures than you think you should. . . every chance you get.  You'll never wish you had taken fewer pictures.  If you like to write, a journal is a great thing to have.  In my opinion, the Moleskine journals are the best. You can get them at Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Amazon.

Advice from My Kids

I asked Tristan and Zoe what advice they would have for other kids traveling, and they recommended bringing plenty of entertainment - books, magazines, music, etc. When traveling with a group, you're going to have a lot of hurry up and wait time, so make sure you have something to entertain yourself with. Oh, and if you have the chance to use a clean, convenient bathroom, do it, even if you don't really need to.  You never know when you'll find the next one.


England is easy since you already speak English, but bear in mind that they call some things by different names than we do.
French: As part of a tour, you're probably not going to need to be able to speak any French, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't.  You should at least learn a few common French phrases (yes, no, please, thank you, I would like. . , where is the bathroom, etc.)  Most French people you would encounter probably speak English, but they really, really appreciate your attempts to speak their language in their country.


If you have to take anything that plugs in, you'll need an adapter and/or a converter because power outlets are different shapes in England and France and different voltages too.  You'll probably only need an adapter since most electronics (iPod chargers, battery chargers, hair dryers) can run on either voltage automatically. Get one adapter that has the British and European plugs on it.  If you use a dual voltage hair dryer, make absolutely sure that you switch the voltage over to 220V before you plug it in over there.  It'll blow up if you don't.


Rick Steves, who travels for a living, has a huge amount of great advice:

Try to blend in with the locals - do what they do, eat what they eat. Try not to be loud (Americans are really loud). Be adventurous. Be outgoing. Make new friends. Don't stress. Have fun!


Addendum: My friend Cricket has some excellent advice to add:
One more bit to add about France: EVERY time you go into a store (especially small stores, and especially outside of Paris), no matter how silly you feel, say "Bonjour Madame" or Bonjour Monsieur" (loudly enough to be heard) and smile or nod. If you were French it would be rude not to. As a foreigner, you'll make a good impression.

I'd also suggest learning to say "Where are the toilets, please?" and "I'm sorry, I don't speak ____" in the language of every country you're visiting. It's much more impressive to locals if you've made the effort instead of just asking "English?"! It's gotten me in trouble once or twice when I said it well enough for people to think I really could speak/understand well, but when I look baffled and repeat myself, they laugh in a friendly way and add their few English words and a lot of gestures, or break into full-blown English.

On packing, you can get by with less if you have fast-dry garments that can be washed overnight in the sink. 

Sunday, April 11, 2010

What to Do on a Two Week Business Trip to England, Part 1

(that's totally not where I was working, but it was also in England, so it'll do)

Monday, March 1st (written weeks later)

Finally the reason I was in England - work.  We met the others down in the lobby of the Hanbury Manor at 7:30, piled into our two rentals, and made the ten minute drive to the GSK site in Ware, which means me probably got there around 7:45, which was unfortunate because A) the cafeteria didn't open until at least 8:15, and B) the meeting wasn't scheduled to start until 9 or 9:30.

About the cafeterias at GSK in England, they're run by Sodexo (the same folks that run the cafeteria at the kids' school) and they don't take cash or credit cards.  You have to buy a vending card (£2 deposit), the put money on it via a vending machine that seemed to have uptime issues.  What a pain in the ass!  I could see the vending cards in addition to cash & credit, but with a captive market, they have no incentive to innovate. Unfortunately, Sodexo will be running the US cafeterias as well pretty soon.

Back to the meetings.  We met the rest of the attendees, maybe 20 in total.  The sessions were divided into two streams, otherwise the workshop would've been four weeks instead of two (could you imagine?)  The meetings went all morning, with breaks, then lunch in the cafeteria, then afternoon meetings, usually finishing up after 5pm.

Back to the food: breakfast was usually a couple of steamed eggs, a nice roll, and English bacon, which is close to our country bacon (American bacon is called streaky bacon.)  They had the full complement of GSK-produced beverages: Lucozade and Ribena, but barely a low or no calorie option.  The subsidized prices on that stuff were pretty good though.  During the breaks we made avail of the interesting coffee vending in the break rooms.

A single machine dispensed everything from coffee, cappuccino, espresso, mocha, latte, hot chocolate, etc. into these small plastic cups, all free, fortunately.  When you finish with your wee plastic cup (hot drinks in a Dixie cup? Weird) you dumped the remnants in the center of a special trash can, and then deposited the cup into one of seven cup-sized sleeves in the same can, so the cups could be recycled.

That part sounds good, but with people using as many as a dozen of these cups a day, I can't imagine that bringing your own mug or water bottle (the filtered water machine dispensed the same cups) wouldn't have been a better option.

Lunch: Meh. The sandwich station was OK, mostly because the bread in the UK is far superior to NC.  They had pre-packaged sandwiches that really interested me because they were often very unfamiliar. I learned the difference between egg salad and egg mayonnaise (no pickles), and enjoyed things like prawn mayonnaise, roast beef and horseradish, BLT, and sandwiches with watercress.  For the most part, I kept my lunches light to save room for dinner in a proper restaurant.

After the meetings concluded, we'd head back to the hotel, our out to explore. Since I waited weeks to write this up, I'm a little fuzzy on each day's details, so I'll probably summarize, generalize, and possibly mix up a few of the days.

The first Monday night (01-March) we went to a pub in Hertford Heath called "The Goat."

This was a very typical English pub.  It was probably 200-300 years old, fairly small and cozy and wonderful.  To me, I think it felt so comfortable because it reminded me so much of my early childhood. Our house and the houses of some of our family were of the same style and time period as the pub.  They looked the same, and with the wood-burning fireplaces and coal stoves, they smelled the same.  It was like being in Coventryville (Pennsylvania) and felt like home, but with hand-pumped cask ales and better food.

I asked some young guys at a table what they'd recommend (gesturing at the hand pumps.)  They said "none of the above," and pointed to the "Ice Cold Fosters Lager" tap.  I guess England has its beer drinkers that don't really like beer either.  A pint of Abbot Ale it was!

I really wish my brother Andy could have been there with me at that bar, because I know he loves English pubs, and fine beer, and with a ceiling height of maybe 5 ½  feet, I had to duck a little, but he would have had to really bend over uncomfortably far, and that would have been funny. It's not often that my height is more advantageous than his.

About a dozen or so of us made the trip out that night, and after a few minutes with our first beers, we were seated in the dining area.  We shared some appetizers around the table, and for my entrée I got the ribeye and chips (fries).  It wasn’t very thick, but it was cooked perfectly.  For dessert I had a bread & butter pudding.  When the waitress, who claimed she liked our accents ( I think she was just sucking up, knowing that being Americans, we’d probably leave a tip) asked if I’d like custard on that, I asked her if she would like custard on that, since I had no idea if that was a good thing or not.  She said she would, so I said I would.  We were both right!  Somebody picked up the tab, and off to the hotel we went.

Tuesday 02-March

The day started the same, though I was growing weary of departing at 7:30 for a meeting that didn’t start for 1 ½ - 2 hours, but I kept my mouth shut.  The rest of the work day was the same.

After work, Tom, Pat (from PA), and I tried to find the Tesco Supermarket, but ended up several towns away at a Tesco Express convenience store.  I got the first of my strange-flavored potato crisps, sweet Thai chili, I think, and a pear cider.  We went back to the hotel.  I looked at the menu at the mid-level of the three hotel restaurants.  It was pretty unimpressive, but one thing did catch my eye, a cheeseburger, for £16. A $24 cheeseburger?  That is absolutely insane.  Who does that?

I went down to the lowest price restaurant, a golfer’s bar with a few menu items but none of the charm of a pub, called Vardon's.  It turns out this was a popular spot for several of my coworkers, who ate and drank there regularly.  With that cheeseburger on my mind, I ordered the Vardon's equivalent for a mere £11 ($16.50).  I suspect it was the exact same burger that was served upstairs.  I’d estimate its fair market value at £3 ($4.50).  But dinner was fun, several of my coworkers were pretty lubricated by this point, and someone had the idea that we’d do a bowling night and dinner in nearby Stevenage on Thursday.  Sounded good to me. So long as I didn’t have to eat at Vardon's again, a bowling alley sounded like an improvement.

Wednesday 03-March

Work was the same, though we did start leaving the hotel later and starting/finishing the meetings earlier.

After work, Tom and I went to “Sow and Pigs” another very traditional English pub that was located where the manor’s driveway met the public road, a mere 10-minute walk from my room.  I had a lovely (they say lovely a lot in England) Aspall draft cider and an English bacon-wrapped stuffed chicken breast, while Tom had a ham hock the size of a grown man’s thigh.  I exaggerate a little, but that thing was huge, and according to Tom, very tasty indeed (they say indeed a lot as well.)

From there it was back to the hotel, and typical hotel evening activities, which for me meant catching up on e-mail, a phone call home, and hand-washing clothing in the bathroom sink.  That last part can kind of be a pain in the ass sometimes, but it’s essential if you want to pack light.  Of all the clothing I brought in my single carry-on bag for my two-week business trip to England in the late winter, there were only three things that couldn’t be hand washed in the sink:  two cotton quarter-zip pullover sweaters, and one pair of jeans.  Everything else I could and did wash.  So by the end of the trip I didn’t have a large suitcase full of dirty clothes I had worn one time.  I am a big proponent of the One Bag school, but that's a blog post for another day.
Friday, April 09, 2010

Virtual Sets

I like to take pictures. I like to take pictures a lot. When I'm out taking pictures, I try to encompass as many different kinds of photography as possible, for I believe that having the skills and experience to capture a respectably competent photo when it presents itself, regardless of genre, is the most useful tool in your camera bag. Whether it's nature photography, architecture, portraits, sports, panoramic, long exposure, landscape, macro etc., you should know the basics of all of them.

But in taking all these different kinds of pictures, I find that I'm drawn to some styles and subjects more than others. The recurring patterns that appear in my photo catalog almost suggest a logical grouping of their own. Virtual photo sets, if you will. So here are some of my virtual sets that I must get around to creating on Zooomr and Flickr.

Pictures of Cute Chicks Taking Pictures

This is so meta. Buckingham Palace

Q: How many hot South American chicks are at Disney World? A: Four Brazilian
Or maybe this one should be in a "Pictures of Cute Chicks Having Their Picture Taken by Someone Other Than Me" set. Magic Kingdom

Japanese Tourists
And here's one that's kind of both. (The photographer was also cute, I assure you.) Some Palace, Seoul

another set could be. . .

Pictures of Strangely Flavored Potato Chips

Roasted Chicken and Thyme (as far as I know.) Morocco

Worcester Sauce. England, which makes this "Potato Crisps," technically.

Oriental Ribs. England, so the use of the adjective "Oriental" is not passe and offensive.

Sizzling King Prawn, which is a much more awesome name than "Shrimp". England, some bowling alley.

So that's what I have for starters. Let's see what other virtual sets naturally assemble themselves.
Friday, April 02, 2010

I'll Be Flying High All Night

I shot this four-engine jet at the Imperial War Museum Duxford in Cambridge. Ironically, the plane had absolutely nothing to do with the museum, and it was only because that I was walking around, camera in hand, shooting pictures of the many planes that did have something to do with the museum that when this one flew overhead (way overhead) I zoomed in as much as I could and shot away. Using an auto color/exposure fix in Photoshop Elements turned the deep blue sky black, and I stopped right there. This turned out much cooler than I had planned, and just reinforces the notion that you should always have your camera with you.
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