Why You Should Travel Solo (At Least Once)

“Shoot. I forgot to put ‘travel solo’ on my list.”  That was my thought when I woke up the morning after I posted last week’s blog entry, How to Travel Well. But then I thought it might deserve its own post.

This will not be about the Eat-Pray-Love journey of self-discovery that solo travel will allow to blossom in the heart of your true, authentic self.  Who has time for all that navel-gazing self-absorption?  There’s a world out there waiting to be explored!

Also, I’m not advocating throwing caution to the wind and trusting your sacred aura and charged crystals to protect you in every situation.  Take a self-defense class and be aware of your surroundings.

But definitely, at least once in your life, travel solo.

I’ve experienced group trips and traveling as a couple and the truth is that I like traveling solo best.

Get out of your comfort zone

Traveling solo pushes you to talk to strangers, try out some foreign phrases, and try new foods.  Your comfortable rut is no longer your anchor.  Every moment of every day when you are on the road is a new experience.

I don’t greet people in my everyday life by bowing with my hands together in front of my heart and saying “Sawadee-ka!”  But in Thailand I do!

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A temple in Thailand

Step out of the familiar

This is linked to getting out of your comfort zone.  When you travel as a couple or with a group, you surround yourself with the familiar and you travel around the world in a bubble.  Shared thoughts and opinions with your partner or friends will not give you a new perspective. You might just as well watch something on TV and discuss it.  But as a solo traveler, talking to strangers and being exposed to different points of view, you may just come across something you never thought of and see the world in a new and unexpected way.

People tend to be proud of where they are from and they love talking to you about it.  I learned a lot about the revolution in Romania in 1989 and how proud the people of Timisoara were of being the center of such a dramatic change in the history of their country.

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The opera house in Timisoara (r), the heart of the revolution

Celebrate self-reliance

In the dark days of my divorce, my soon-to-be ex-husband said to me, “Who do you think you are divorcing me? You’ll never get along without me.”  My reaction? I raised my left eyebrow and with icicles in my voice, I said, “Really.”

In the early days of traveling solo, every “tourism win” was just more evidence piling up proving that indeed I can get along perfectly fine without him.  I rarely think of his mean phrase these days. I just celebrate my own independence, competence, and ability to rely on myself in any and every situation.

Savor freedom

You wake up in the morning as the mistress of your destiny.  You can march forward to follow your plan for the day. Or you can change it 12 times in the first hour, or change the plan in the middle, or throw out the plan.  And all the while the only opinion that matters is yours.

On my first day in Paris, I was enjoying the view over the city from the top of Sacre Coeur and suddenly I remembered that I wanted to take the free walking tour. I whipped out my phone and checked the internet site for the tours to find out when the next one was.  Oof, 45 minutes.

I ran down the winding stairs and raced down the hill to find a subway station – Google maps!  And then I bought my week-long subway pass – research done earlier so I knew what to buy – and immediately ran into some inspectors checking tickets. Voila! Week-long pass!  Hopped on the train that arrived just then and made my tour with minutes to spare!  For the win!

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View from the very top of Sacre Coeur

Solo traveler at home

And when the solo traveler comes home, she has cherished memories and a few tools in her pockets for her everyday life.  She no longer needs to stay in her comfort zone, she can immerse herself in the unfamiliar and take pride in her self-reliance, and she can embrace her freedom. Life at home can also be an adventure.  It just depends on your perspective.

How to Travel Well

Having just returned from Paris, I had some thoughts on traveling. I have always believed that traveling makes us global citizens and shrinks the world.  Here are five tips to travel well.

Set a couple of priorities. The rest is gravy.

For this visit to Paris, my second, I decided that my top two destinations were going to be St. Chappelle and the Rodin Museum.  Everything else that I saw and did was extra.  I made sure to schedule my days around these two things and let go of whatever else I didn’t manage.  The new kiosk appointment system for climbing the towers of Notre Dame didn’t work with my schedule, and as much as I may have wanted to visit those lovely gargoyles keeping the Hunchback company, I let it go.

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St. Chappelle in the morning.

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The Thinker at the Rodin Museum.

Have an open mind and be curious.

I saw many people who seemed to view Paris and all its sights as part of a tourist checklist.  Eiffel Tower. Check. Notre Dame. Check. Louvre, esp. Mona Lisa. Check. And on and on (there’s a lot to see in Paris!)  Moreover, they wanted to get through their list with all the comforts of home.

Instead, appreciate the shoe box-sized, creaky elevator in your quaint hotel.  Pay attention to your surroundings and find out what the cultural differences are between your home country and the country you are visiting.  Then accept them as part of your travel experience.  Embrace them if you like them.

Get some historical background of the place you are visiting.  Do something simple like take a walking tour in the center of the city and listen to your guide.  They function as bridges between you the visitor and the city they love.  Ask questions.  Nothing will endear you more to your hosts than asking about the city and its history.  If you like something, gush about it.

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I know you thought that the Moulin Rouge was just a dance show or a musical film, but actually in French it means “red windmill.”

Buy blister patches, if needed.

On my first day in Paris, I got a monster blister.  It could have ruined my whole trip unless I liked the idea of walking for hours with a limp and in pain.  In Europe, I’ve found these amazing things that specifically treat that annoying blister on the back of your heel.  Usually the patch can stay on for 2 to 3 days and your heel is like new.  They are kind-of expensive, but totally worth it if you have a painful blister.

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I have French ones and Danish ones.

Roll with it.

Sometimes things don’t work out.  It rains on your only day in the Highlands.  The statue you came to see in the museum is not on display.  The tour you show up for is only in Spanish.  These things actually happened to me.  On the Highlands tour, I met someone from China who I still keep in touch with.  I saw different versions of the missing statue and I was able to appreciate the lesser known works more because they were no longer in the shadow of the more famous one.  I walked in a lesser-known neighborhood and found an excellent Korean restaurant.

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Bulgogi (beef), side dishes, and Korean beer.  YUM!!

Sometimes your plan doesn’t work out, but if you roll with it, sometimes an even better plan appears.

Stay in the moment.

I read an article recently that suggested that if you take too many pictures and videos, you lose the experience in the present by trying to document it for the future (or for social media).

On one walking tour, we saw racing lights on the Eiffel Tower.  It happens every hour in the evenings and it’s really worth seeing!  I took a couple of pictures and a few seconds of film.  And then I put my camera away so that I could just enjoy it.  I noticed out of the corner of my eye a man spending the entire light show trying to get just the right shot.  Will he remember looking at the lovely lights of Paris with his wife or will he remember fussing with his camera and his wife’s framing suggestions?

15 seconds of racing lights.  Go see them for yourself!

A concluding thought for Yom Kippur

This is my late dad’s (z”l) favorite story about Yom Kippur.  The original is much longer, but this shortened version gives you the main idea.

Heavy.  The Yom Kippur prayers were heavy and try as he might, the rabbi simply could not lift them up to Heaven.  A young man came into the synagogue.  He only recently became aware of his Jewish heritage and knew only how to recite the aleph bet.  He didn’t know what day it was or what was going on, but with pure and focused intention he recited the only thing he knew.  Aleph. Bet. Gimel. Dalet. …

The rabbi noticed that the prayers were suddenly lighter.  They floated like feathers on the wind straight up to Heaven.  And he knew that is was because of the young man who prayed with all his heart in the only way he could.

As we travel the world and live as global citizens, we don’t have to be multilingual or the most knowledgeable, but if we approach the world with pure intention and genuine love, perhaps we can lift up everyone around us.

Gmar Hatima Tova! May you be inscribed

and sealed in the Book of Life! 

And for those of you who fast, may it be meaningful!

Chanukah Special

A few fun facts about Chanukah

How do you spell it?  Chanukah, Hannukah, Hanuka, … Spell it however you want.  You just need to get the sounds right.

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Jewish xmas

 

 

Is Chanukah the Jewish Christmas?  No.  It’s a holiday that happens to fall around the same time of year.  But also yes.  It was never a very big deal in terms of holiday rankings, but in recent decades it became a much bigger holiday due to the overabundance of Christmas celebrations.  Jewish kids needed something fun in December as well.

 

 

What is the miracle celebrated by Chanukah?  In 168 BCE the Selucid king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, forbade the Jews to practice their religion and desecrated the Temple.  After Judah the Maccabee succeeded in ousting the Selucids, the first order of business was to rededicate the Temple.  (Chanukah means dedication.)  They found only enough blessed oil to last one day.  But they lit it anyway and sent for more blessed oil, knowing that it would take 8 days.  And miraculously, the oil that should have lasted only one day lasted for 8 days.

What’s a dreidel? What’s a sevivon?  They are the same thing:  a four-sided top that has 4 Hebrew letters on it.  Dreidel is Yiddish.  Sevivon is Hebrew.  The four letters ardreidele different depending on where you are in the world.  Outside of Israel, the letters are נ, ג, ה ,ש  which stand for “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham” (A Great Miracle Happened There).  Inside of Israel the letters are נ, ג, ה, פ, which stand for “Nes Gadol Hayah Po” (A Great Miracle Happened Here).

The story is that children would learn the story of Chanukah with the dreidel, but those who forbade the Jews to practice their religion would see only a children’s game.

What are the rules?  All the players ante up by putting 2 whatevers in the pot (usually candies).  The first person spins the top and wherever it falls that’s the instruction for that players turn.  נ – nothing happens.  ג – you win the whole pot. ה – you win half the pot. ש/פ – put in two.

Here’s a true Chanukah story.  I went to a Chanukah party in Israel and they wanted to play dreidel.  Out of about 20 Israelis in the room and 5-6 English-speakers, I was the only one who knew the rules.  That’s right.  A secular girl who grew up in small-town America was the only person who knew all the rules.

I attribute this to family Chanukah gatherings at my aunt and uncle’s house.  I remember at least one Chanukah when all of us kids went upstairs and set up our game in the hidden corridor between the bedrooms and we secretly played dreidel.  Moral of the story:  Everyone should have secret places and everyone should know the rules of dreidel.

Foods.  In honor of the miracle of the oil, it’s all fried, baby!  Order French fries or onion rings for Chanukah!  Deep-fried mozzarella sticks?  It’s okay; it’s for Chanukah!  Fried chicken?  Absolutely! Deep-fried snickers bar?  Now it’s just getting weird.

The real traditional foods are potato pancakes (latkes [Yiddish] or levivot [Hebrew]) and fried donuts with fillings (sufganiot).  Here in Israel, most people eat sufganiot and these days they are what you might call “fancy-schmancy.”  The basic one is filled with strawberry jam (meh.  I prefer the dulce de leche version of the basic and most of the fancy-schmancy ones.)

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For those of you who know about potato pancakes, you may know that one traditional way to eat them is with sour cream and applesauce.  Not so in Israel.  Whenever I have mentioned eating them this way, I get looks like I’m the crazy one.

When I was waiting at the bank this week, donuts were handed around.  It made the nearly endless wait a bit more bearable, even if it was a strawberry jam one.

What’s the real miracle of Chanukah today?  The story of Chanukah reminds us to fight for our beliefs and our way of life.  We can be proud of who we are, of our history, of our heritage, without imposing it on anyone else.

Chabad puts up a lot of public hanukiahs and lights them each night all around the world.  In Paris this week, they were discouraged from doing so.  But that isn’t the spirit of Chanukah.  They lit the hanukiah to remind us that it is always better to light a candle than to curse the darkness and from that candle many more can be lit.  Together we can banish the darkness.

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A little this. A little that.

In terms of violence, the past week was horrible.  So instead of leading with the horrible, let’s celebrate something positive and beautiful that came out of senseless tragedy: a gigantic, wonderful wedding and everyone is invited.

Last Friday, before Paris, two people were killed on the road south of Jerusalem.  The bride’s father and her brother were on their way to celebrate with the groom on the Shabbat before the wedding.  Instead of a wedding, there was double funeral and the bride’s mother and her siblings were in the hospital.  What did the bride and groom choose to do?  They chose life.  They moved their wedding date to November 26, rented out the international convention center in Jerusalem and invited everyone in Israel to join them in celebrating their wedding.  (*Cultural aside for those cynics out there: A wedding is a celebration for the whole community and a guest’s job is to make the bride and groom happy. So it’s not about the big wedding.  It’s about giving everyone a reason to rejoice.)

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Here’s their public message and invitation.

And then there was Paris

There are plenty of people much smarter and more eloquent than me that said many things about Paris.  (My favorite was John Oliver’s extensive use of the f-word, because that really is what we are all thinking – even though it might not be considered “eloquent”).

As I read the news in Israel, I noticed one line that probably everyone else thought was superfluous, but I thought was good evidence of choosing life.  In the stadium, France was competing against Germany in a friendly football match (soccer game) and even though they heard explosions, they finished the match.  France won 2–0.

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Football not terror.

Then I was really disappointed

A few days after Paris, social media started to pile up with accusations:

  • Why only Paris?  What about Beirut?  Any Lebanese flags on Facebook photos?  How about the airplane downed in Sinai?  What about all those Russians?  Why hasn’t the media reported on anything other than Paris?
  • Israel has terrorism and innocent civilians are getting stabbed, shot, and run over every day.  Yet Israel is the aggressor?  How would you like it if the attacks in Paris were reported as “8 Muslims killed in Paris”?

As to the first, I read two interesting articles that said that said all the other violence was reported, but that readers ignored it.  On top of that, coordinated terrorist violence in Paris is not the norm and because Paris is one of the top tourist destinations in the world, people can relate to it more than, let’s say, Beirut, Sinai, or, as of yesterday, Nigeria and Mali.
(Article 1 and Article 2)

As to the second, while having some truth to it, I find it cold, callous, and in short, stomping on the people of Paris.  There is a time and place for accusations of media bias, the few days after an attack is not one of them.  We don’t have all the facts, human beings are in shock and grieving, so let’s bring up media bias?  Way to set an example of showing humanity and choosing life.

Expanding the logic of the two articles in light of Thursday’s attacks in Israel where 5 people died including an 18-year-old American, it would be disheartening to think that the world finds violence in Israel normal and that they cannot relate to Tel Aviv as a city or Israelis as people.

I’m working on my own theory.  In two words: underdog and anti-hero.  I’ll expand on this in another post.

Jonathan Pollard

He was released from prison on Thursday after serving 30 years of a life sentence for espionage (read: spying for Israel).  To some people in Israel and the US this is a Very Big Deal. They’ve been campaigning for his release for a long time saying that the sentence was wildly excessive.  Now they want him to be allowed to come to Israel – he was granted Israeli citizenship 20 years ago – but his parole requires him to stay in the US for 5 years and wear an ankle monitor.  I think the real story and all the various details will never be fully known.  We’ll have to see what happens.

Pacman in Jerusalem

In good news of people who come to Israel even during these violent times: Manny Pacquiao, world boxing champion.  What’s his favorite city?  Jerusalem! (Of course!)

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Screen capture from Manny Pacquiao’s Facebook page.


 

Happy Thanksgiving!  Let’s all be grateful for our blessings and give thanks!

THANK YOU!