Sometimes It’s Not You, It’s Me

Meeting a new place is a lot like meeting a new person. You observe. You read their signals. You make judgements. You can’t help it, it’s just how we all process new information. As a travel writer, I try to be objective about every place I go. Some places can be boring, lame, or scary. Or are they? If I come across a city that I just don’t like, I have to wonder, is it the place or is it me?

Paris Makes Me Cry

When I was 10, my parents took my sister and I on the 1980’s equivalent of the Grand Tour. Dad was working at the stock exchange in London, so we came after his business trip. Part of that trip was Paris, and it just happened to be for my 11th birthday.

When we arrived in Paris, my dad went to find a hotel at the train station desk, which was just what you did in the olden days. He found one at a good price…that ended up being over a sex shop in Pigalle. These days Pigalle is a little seedy but in 1985 it was genuinely scary. I remember my mom walking out of the bathroom in that hotel just laughing to herself. She said, “I’m going to let you discover how to flush THAT toilet.”

Paris was not as clean in those days as it is now. Monuments were dirty. The air was polluted. We went to see the Eiffel Tower from Trocadero, and I was mobbed by a bunch of ragged kids my own age, shoving newspapers at me. I was a kid from a nice beach town near LA, I’d never seen poverty like that in my life. But there I was, and the kids opened my purse to grab what they could (which was pretty much nothing, I was 11 after all).

Everything about Paris disgusted me, it was terrifying and dirty. I spent my 11th birthday crying on top of the Eiffel Tower, just begging to go home to have a normal birthday like other kids. My dad tried to console me by taking us out for pizza, which will live in infamy as the worst pizza I’ve ever eaten. Paris sucked.

For years after that, I had no desire to return to Paris, or even France for that matter. When I returned as a backpacker at 20, I spent less than two days, leaving early after being charged $5 for a bottle of water at a Parisian cafe. That may seem like a minor incident but it was pretty major when my whole weekly food budget was $20.

Paris had confirmed that it was terrible. It wasn’t until I started tour guiding that I was forced to give it another chance. I stayed in a better neighborhood. I ate actual French food. I met locals. I tried the language. I still suck at French but you’d be surprised how delighted they are when you try. I needed to love Paris because if I didn’t, I had no business guiding here. And eventually, the City of Light and I clicked.

I am in Paris right now and would really like to consider living here. I love the pace and the quality of life. The recliners in the Tuileries. The cafe chairs lined up facing the street for better people watching. Stinky cheese shops. Cheap rosé being sold by guys with ice buckets on the Champ du Mars. How did I ever dislike this place? It’s gorgeous!

That’s the thing, sometimes it isn’t the place, it’s you.

Malta Malaise

I’m thinking about that this week because I just went to Malta for the first time. Everyone, but everyone, loves Malta. Beaches, museums, sunshine, and English spoken everywhere! I wanted to check it out to consider adding it to the Sicily book next year, but also wanted to unwind a bit and have some alone time.

So….I didn’t like Malta. It’s pretty, that’s true. But Sicily is prettier. It felt overdeveloped in many places and lacked charm. Tourism is a major industry for them and I could feel that. The food was mostly expensive and mediocre.

After four days there, I’m thinking about it still. There was so much I should have liked. But it was hot. Not just a tad warm, but blazingly hot and humid, the kind of heat that melts you to your core and you can’t cool down. I’m pretty sure I had heatstroke two of the four days.

I was there to have some “Me Time” but I was lonely. I missed my kids. I wanted to have someone to chat with and visit the museums with. I tend to be a lone wolf but on that visit I would have liked to have had a companion. It was hard to get to know the locals because almost everyone I met was from somewhere else, so I couldn’t really connect to the local people there either. It was isolating.

My frame of mind was just not ideal for meeting this new destination. I don’t know, but maybe I’d enjoy Malta under different circumstances. I’ll keep working through my thoughts about Malta and write up a quick report to share with you soon.

The point is, I’m trying to learn from my own experiences. Rather than label something as bad, perhaps analyzing myself first is a better idea. Paris had to grow on me, maybe Malta is the same, because it was me, not them, all along. Self examination can really be a useful approach for everything in travel.

My employer has a great way of phrasing it, and that’s what I’ll leave you with: maybe, if it’s not to your liking, change your liking.

Report from the Road: So, It’s a Bit Hot

Buongiorno from Florence, Italy! I’m here on my last day of a Rick Steves Family Europe tour. As I mentioned, this is one of my favorites and this tour hasn’t disappointed. Actually, it’s gone almost without a hitch which makes me a little uneasy…karma is circular in my profession.

But the heat though. It hasn’t been as bad as they’ve predicted so far, although Florence is pretty warm and getting warmer. This is normal for this city in the center of the thigh of Italy’s leg. There isn’t a breeze here the way we have in Rome. So, the cobblestones and palazzi simply heat during the day and radiate all night, and it never cools off. I am curious about whether we could bake a pizza on the sidewalk and just may try this scientific experiment. I think Leonardo would approve.

My group is lovely. I am closely monitoring their water intake and mood because I am a mothering type and I worry about my flock. Thankfully, chocolate and gelato can cure a world of ills. The trick of tour guiding is reading the thoughts of the group and anticipating what they will need and when. I whipped out granola bars this afternoon, just before entering the Uffizi Gallery, because low blood sugar equals low attention span.

There have been some really glorious days on this tour and it has gone by too fast. A good group is like that, I miss them already and they are still here. Tour guides are chess players, really, and I’m already in London in my head, starting the next tour.

I can report that the Swiss Alps are still where I left them and remain divine. I have about a 60/40 track record of clear skies, and we hit it just right, warm and completely clear.

We hiked from Mannlichen to Kleine Scheidegg as per my usual plan on a clear day. There is not finer (and easier) walk in the Swiss Alps in my humble opinion. I could bore you with a million incredible photos but here are just a few good ones.

I didn’t get my usual lunch of rösti but that’s probably for the best. Hashed-browns covered in Emmentaler cheese aren’t exactly good for the ticker. Instead I took a nap. I still feel guilty about that four days later but man, did that feel good.

These tours always have an assistant, usually a college-aged guide trainee (and often the kids of my colleagues, which is fantastic) but instead I had a Turkish colleague join me. Taylan Tasbasi leads tours of Turkey for Rick Steves and also does his own thing on the southern Turkish coast. He’s been great, and a great assistant makes me a better guide. After all of our conversations, I’m thinking about next summer and considering spending it in Turkey.

Our day off on this tour takes place in the Cinque Terre. I don’t really get a day off, I’m on call, but as long as everyone is fine I can find some time for myself. I chose to spend that precious time with my friend Ruth Manfredi and her husband Christiano. She has a terribly romantic story about how she ended up marrying a local in Vernazza, but she’s going to have to tell that to you herself. (Hmmm, maybe I should start a podcast…)

They invited us to go out boating for the day, which is my favorite thing to do in the Cinque Terre. If you’re going to splash out on one thing in Italy, I’m telling you, this is the thing. As more companies are doing boat excursions, prices are becoming much more accessible, starting around €120 per hour for four people.

We jumped into the water in sandy pirate coves, ate seafood on an island, putted around the coast for glorious views of each town. I feel almost embarrassed telling you this because it was so very much like being a movie star. But Ruth is just so darned down to earth and knows her region. We talk and talk and it’s always good fun. She also gives me great tips that I can pass along to you and to the Rick Steves guidebooks, so it’s all for a good cause, right?? Ok, now I don’t feel so guilty. By the way, I’ve done this before.

Our tour arrived in Florence last night. I haven’t been here in a while, which is super weird for me since this is like another home. I scurried around town last night to reconnect with people that I’ve missed. I also met for a cocktail with Georgette Jupe (www.girlinflorence.com) who is a blogger that I respect and have wanted to meet. We’ve been lobbing tweets at each other for a while, and I was glad to finally make her acquaintance. I’m on a mission these days to meet and connect quality writers/guides/entrepreneurs etc. because then I can connect them to you. Success for all!

I had dinner with my tour guide colleague and friend Antonia Lanza d’Ajeta. I will have to tell you more about her another time, but I’ll just say that she is everything that a guide should aspire to be and she’s an absolute national treasure. And I’m not exaggerating. Our lunches last hours and feel too short. It’s spritz o’clock at the moment so I’ll meet with my other guide friends Elisabetta Franchetti and Brenda Cai.

Now I have a few days off to breathe and nap a bit. Back to London to do it again! But with a job like this, who can complain about doing more of it? Spreading the joy of discovery with families is just what I was meant to be doing, I just hope my efforts are worthy of their time.

Sending you light wherever you may be. I’ll have a gelato for you, just tell me which flavor.

Love,

Sarah

The Museum of Food: Foods to Eat in France

We all usually focus on travel experiences and seeing destinations when planning a trip. Maybe we have some fantastic hotel that a trip is built upon. I’d argue that food should be a part of the decision-making process and not just a way to fill the hole in your belly. On my tours, I curate what foods we eat, and I call it the Museum of Food. I’m in France right now, so I thought I’d take you on a stroll through the French wing of the Museum of Food.

Sarah’s Quick List of the Food to Eat in France

Pastry

You all know croissants, but if you haven’t had a warm one actually in France, you’ve never had one. They should be almost gooey, flaky, buttery and crisp all at the same time. They should definitely not taste like bread.

Considering that they are not exactly low-calorie, I like to do a pastry tasting, buying several kinds and cutting them into bites. Pain au chocolat, pain au raisin, chausson au pomme, and on and on. Heck, even if you’re alone you should buy one of each and have a bite. You only live once, people.

Salad

I can honestly say that I’m a pretty darned good cook, having learned how in Italy. But I totally suck at salads. I have no idea what is wrong with me but I simply am terrible at it. The French, on the other hand, are magnificent at making the most creative and luscious salads. I’m buzzing with excitement about bringing my young son Nicola to France because he’s our salad baby, and he will be in heaven.

At any restaurant in France, look for Salades Composees, composed salad. Every restaurant will usually have a few, and will offer a daily salad special. My favorite standard is chèvre chaud, or hot goat cheese on toast that sits on top of a mixed, dressed salad. Basically every restaurant makes that. Salad specials are where things get fascinating. I once ate a salad with lettuce, green beans, fois gras and HOT potatoes on top. Weird! But excellent. Trust the strange combinations, they know what they are doing. I also suspect that the salads are so amazing because the French grow wonderful, organic veggies. The product is only as good as the ingredients after all.

Steak Frites

This is a Paris thing, and I’m kind of sorry if I leave Paris without eating it. It’s just a steak and fries. The steaks can be of differing quality, so this is where it’s smart to go to a reputable restaurant, or even better, wander through the restaurant first and see what the steaks look like before sitting down. A good steak should be medium rare, tender, and served with a pot of béarnaise sauce, which is sort of like mayo mixed with tarragon. The frites in Paris are thin and long, piping hot, crisp on the exterior and soft on the interior. Geez, I’m getting hungry just writing this. There are some famous steak frites places in Paris but I’ve never had the money for them, so I can usually find something good for under $20 away from the touristy zones.

Rosé

I’ve always associated rosé wine with my grandmother–smoking, playing cards, and drinking it from a cardboard box. Not that my grandmother wasn’t neat, I just don’t think we’d have had the same tastes in wine. But France has changed my idea of what pink wine is. I can’t even remember who suggested it to me, but I remember drinking it one day on a scorching hot day in Paris. It was chilled, cheap and cheery. And then I started noticing everyone around me was drinking it, in cafes, sitting on parks, everywhere! Rosé is great in hot weather, and it’s so stinking cheap that it almost makes me feel guilty. If you’re ever looking for me on a hot day in Paris, odds are that I’m sitting on the Champ de Mars with a €5 bottle of rosé and a hunk of goat cheese. Bring a baguette and we’ve got a party.

Crepes

I don’t really care too much about being cool, but I’ll note for you that eating crepes in Paris isn’t exactly a cool thing I’ve heard. Crepes are from Brittany and that’s apparently where they should be eaten. I’ve no plans to go to Brittany any time soon, so I’ll eat all the crepes I can stuff in my belly wherever I find them in France. They are not just sweet, even if most people love the sweet ones. I also like the savory “galettes” that can have traditional cheese and ham, or modern combos like salad, egg and tuna. Some spots in Paris offer a crepe set menu (like the Framboise chain) that give you a savory galette, sweet crepe, and a glass of hard cider for about €12. I’m not sure I can imagine a better lunch.

Escargot

Yes. Eat the snails. Why? Because they are covered in butter, garlic and parsley you silly goose! I’d eat my shoe if you soaked it in that sauce. Use the bread on the table to sop up every last drop.

Fruit

While French cakes and pastries are legendary, I’ll pass. I’m getting to an age where that’s just not a good idea anymore, and I’d rather spend my calories on wine. But the fruit! Apricots, cerises, those funny little squashed peaches, ALL THE FRUIT. It’s all so good. And the fruit vendors have a knack for only selling what is perfectly ripe. You’ll never miss dessert if you eat the fruit.

So that’s my quick tour of the French wing of the museum of food. There are more exhibits, but these are my highlights. I’ll report back later in the summer when we visit the Italian wing. Bon apetit!

Why Must You See the Mona Lisa?

Every day in every famous museum, there is a swarm of visitors mobbing a single piece. The David. Primavera. The Sistine Chapel. And in Paris, the Mona Lisa. Tempers flare as visitors vie for position to get the best view or the perfect selfie for Instagram. And as I observe the madness, I have to wonder, why are we doing this?

Along with the famous pieces, every museum is filled with “other” things. Things that sit alone, unvisited, unloved and collecting dust. I feel sorry for those things. And more, I feel sorry for the people who are killing themselves to see a work of art that they might want to see only because they’ve been told it’s famous.

Fame is a funny thing. We can all name famous works, but how many people can explain why something is famous? Origin stories fade into myth and then disappear, only leaving us with a need to see something and not really knowing why.

Mona Lisa is a great example. Do you know why she’s famous? Yes, she has that smile, but there are other paintings with smiles like that. Yes, there are many interpretations, but every DaVinci is ripe with mysterious imagery and yet, just about 40 feet from the Mona Lisa you’ll find four DaVinci paintings that nobody looks at. Is it because Andy Warhol reproduced her and turned her into a pop icon? Don’t think so. It’s probably because of a story you haven’t heard.

Mona Lisa was not a popular or well known painting, even at the turn of the 20th century. It was a part of the Louvre’s overwhelming collection. In 1911, three Italian men got jobs working in the Louvre. One of them, Vincenzo Perugia, headed up a plan to take the Mona Lisa at night and smuggle it out of the museum in the morning. Apparently, Perugia was convinced that the painting had been stolen by Napoleon and was the rightful property of Florence. That makes sense because so much of the Louvre’s collection was indeed stolen by Napoleon (don’t EVEN start with my Venetian friends about this topic) and still today hasn’t been returned.

What Perugia didn’t know was that Mona Lisa was the rightful property of France. DaVinci led a bit of an outlandish lifestyle and had trouble staying in one place because of it, so it’s said he gave the painting to the King of France as a thank you for allowing him to stay safely in France.

The theft took more than 24 hours to even register. Once it was discovered, it hit the news with a great splash and suddenly an obscure painting was in the spotlight. The thieves couldn’t sell the painting, it was too hot, so they sat on it for two years. Perugia tried to sell to in Florence those two years later and was quickly arrested. The story hit the news again and the painting was triumphantly returned to the Louvre.

Ever since the theft and media blast, the painting has been an object of fascination. Had it not been stolen, would anyone even bother looking at it? It’s hard to say but I doubt it. Beautiful masterpieces that I’d argue are better than the Mona Lisa go unnoticed by the mobs. It’s probably better that way, but it makes you pause. Every star piece has an absurd story that made it famous, and it’s rarely because it’s the best piece.

Next time you visit a gallery, take a break from the famous items and ask why you want to see them. Is it just because someone told you to? If so, change your strategy. Explore the museum and find something lovely that delights only you, maybe 18th century snuffboxes or Etruscan hairpins. That lonely item could probably use some love.

As for the Mona Lisa, the story goes that the King of France liked it, so he put it in a great spot for contemplation, a place he could sit and marvel at it every day…it hung in his bathroom. So much for fame.

And Away We Go! Summer Adventures

I’ve just arrived back in Europe this weekend and am on the summer beat. The past 10 or so summers have been spent working with Rick Steves Family Europe tours, and this summer is no exception. Starting in London, we hit Paris, French countryside, Switzerland, Cinque Terre, and finish in Florence. Is it hot? Heck yes. Is it fun? You bet!

One of the great delights of guiding family tours is working with kids. It’s not for everyone, but I find it incredibly rewarding. Teens and Tweens are my favorite demographic. They listen. They get it. And the things we do may change the trajectory of their lives. It’s important and fulfilling work, that goes beyond drinking good wine and talking about art. Some kids who traveled with me a decade ago still stay in contact, and some have become amazing world citizens based on their experience on this tour. So I do love this time of year.

We’ve already hit London, where I celebrated my birthday with high tea at my favorite spot, The Wolesely. Now we are in Paris, where local temperatures were set to hit 104 F, but thankfully stayed to a balmy 90 degrees. While I do like heat, guiding in heat is a bit trying since I have to be preoccupied with keeping my people comfortable and cool. We will soon be heading to the countryside, my favorite part of the tour.

This particular summer overall will be quite different. I’ll be here in Europe almost the entire summer. I’ll be leading two Family tours, with a few days of Me-Time in between, but the fun will really begin July 21. For the first time, BOTH of my sons will be joining me in Europe.

The three of us will be on an epic journey, driving from Venice to Palermo, then traveling through France back to London. The itinerary isn’t really set at this point. The only request from the kids is to meet and stay with my friends. So far, we have some great invitations.

My older son, Lucca, is studying French in high school and would ultimately like to study at university in France. That’s what has inspired this particular adventure, I want him to spend a couple of weeks being forced to speak only French. I can get by in French, but I’ve never formally learned it, so my skills as a tutor have been stretched even by his first year class.

I’m still in the planning stages, but I hope to use this time to double task, vacation plus writing plus tour planning. I would like to write about southern Italy beyond the typical things like the Amalfi coast. That region could really use tourism, and I’m interested to see how I can help. I’ll also be gearing up to possibly expand the Sicily book. But nothing is for sure.

What I can guarantee is that I’ll be writing to you more. It may not be in formal article fashion, but more like a stream of short updates, like a letter to friends. It will be a deviation from my normal style, and much more frequent than the past year. I hope you’ll enjoy riding along with me on this adventure.

So what I’d like from you is a bit of direction. What would you like to hear about? History? Art? Family travel? Packing? Travel anecdotes? Or maybe just little snapshots of my day? And if you have any thoughts on where we should go, I’d love to hear them. My plans with the kids are still wide open.

As always, thanks for being my virtual companions. I hope to be a better friend to you this summer, we really should talk more often, no?

Bisous from Paris.

Love,

Sarah

The 2019 Big Travel Shoes Blog

No matter what topic I write on, be it an exotic destination or something thought-provoking, there seems to be no topic that travelers want to dissect more than travel shoes. And for good reason. Bad shoes can drag a trip down by sapping energy. It’s a bit like playing music, you’ll only get a quality product by using quality tools. Putting some thought into your shoes now will keep you from thinking about them while you’re traveling. As it should be.

Strategies

You’ll need to make some decisions about your travel shoes to narrow down the thousands of options. First of all, how many pairs? Two is the minimum. You need to have an alternate in case something goes wrong with a pair. Shoes rip, break, wear down, or can rub you the wrong way. Having an alternate gives your feet a break. On a typical trip in warmer months, I suggest a pair of close-toed walking shoes and a pair of sandals. In colder months, I suggest a pair of walking shoes and a pair of lightweight, waterproof boots. This is just a minimum.

The key to selecting shoes should be a combination of comfort, weight, and style, in that order. Considering all of the light weight options out there today, you’ll have no problem finding something that meets all three criteria.

Comfort

The concept of comfort is very relative. Any time I ask for shoe suggestions from readers, the answers go all over the map for what is or isn’t comfortable. Some people think flip-flops are the best while others need orthopedic shoes. Above all, you need to find what works for you. Don’t necessarily buy into the “comfort shoes” concept, though. Many times, shoes labeled like that are needlessly heavy and overpriced. You can turn any shoe into a comfort shoe by adding great insoles, like Superfeet, which you can choose based on your particular foot needs.

A key to comfort is not just a good shoe, but one that is broken-in. Take your shoes for a good long walk every day for a couple of weeks before leaving, and find out how they feel.

Weight

While comfort is certainly important, putting an emphasis on choosing lightweight shoes can make a huge difference in your overall bag. Shoes are the single heaviest item you’ll carry with you, so shaving pounds here makes a difference. As an example, a typical “comfort” shoe for me would weigh a pound per shoe. I wear a women’s size 12. With some research, I’ve found similar comfort at around 8 ounces. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, take your kitchen scale to the shoe store. I’m serious! You’d be shocked how much weight varies from shoe to shoe, and weight has little to do with comfort or quality. Online shoe sellers also note the weight of a typical shoe, so look closely before you buy.

If you’ve been very careful with weight, you can add in extra pairs if you wish. I have been known to bring up to five pairs of shoes for two months, being super careful about weight and bulk of each pair. Five pairs can be the same as two, depending on what you pick.

Style and Color

After 20 years of tour guiding, I have decided that there are two color strategies for packing. Black/white/bright color and brown/beige/white. Pick a direction for your clothes, and the shoe colors should follow. If I’m doing a black color scheme with black pants, gray or red tops, I might bring black sandals and walking shoes, and one super colorful pair, like the yellow camel skin shoes I bought in Morocco.

If I’m going for a neutral look (which works well in summer) my clothes would be mostly beige, white and maybe a bit of blue. I’d take brown walking shoes, light colored sandals, and beige slip-ons.

Basic Formulas

If you are not sure where to start, I have a couple of formulas for making a selection.

For men, in addition to two basic pairs, I’d add a pair of flip-flops in the summer for beach time, or a pair of lightweight trail shoes with good tread for hikers. An ideal combo for a man in warmer months may be leather walking shoes (like Eccos), tough sandals (like Tevas), and a lightweight trail shoe (like Merrells). In colder climates, a pair of walking shoes (Rockports) and pair of light athletic shoes (Sketchers) and a pair of waterproof boots.

For women in summer, I suggest a solid pair of neutral colored walking shoes (like Asics Metrolyte), lightweight sandals of your choice (Ecco, Taos, Naot), and a pair of slip-on shoes (Butterfly Twists, Empress, Bob’s). I also bring flip-flops for grotty hotel floors and beaches. In the winter I suggest warm, lightweight walking shoes (Allbirds), lightweight slip-ons (Toms), and boots (Uggs).

As usual, I’ve been sniffing out the best travel shoe choices for this year. Shoe companies sadly change styles frequently, so these shoes are available as of June, 2019.

Sarah’s Picks for Women

I’ve been on the go again this year, from Thailand to Tuscany, and these are the shoes that have served me well so far.

Teva Terra Fi Lite – $100, 10 oz

I have never been a big fan of Tevas. They are too sporty and clunky and heavy. Plus, they stink after a while. But they do have their place. I bought this pair for Thailand since we do a variety of active days, biking, hiking, snorkeling, and walking in the heat. This style was surprisingly feminine even in my size, and always comfortable. They are overly heavy, but if you’re only bringing two pair, they are versatile enough to hike and go to dinner in. A similar style, Tirra, gets good feedback from readers.

Ecco Flash T-Strap – $90, 7 oz

I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say these are the perfect travel sandals, but I’d say they are close. They fit my feet perfectly, the straps are adjustable, and the soles are similar to a running shoe but they are still elegant. I picked an odd champagne color which surprised me by matching everything in my bag. They also weigh nothing and pack almost flat. Bellissime!

Sketchers Flex-Appeal 2.0 – $60, 9 oz

While I don’t feel that these shoes win any style points, they were a great shoe for lots of city walking. Sketchers are always extremely lightweight and feel like marshmallows. They are also inexpensive. This makes then seem ideal, but with the amount of walking I do, they fall apart more quickly than other brands. I see them as almost disposable but that’s ok. They do the trick and come in wide and extended sizes.

Merrell Glove 4 Trailrunner – $100, 8 oz

I’m spending the summer in Italy with my kids, and I plan to do some recon work for the next edition of the Sicily book. The book is missing hikes because I just didn’t have time to get to that. So I need trail shoes, but they need to double as my regular city walking shoes. On the advice of a reader, I picked these up and am happy so far. They are sleek enough to go with nice jeans and a cute top, and are not bulky. They didn’t have my size in women’s so these are men’s but they still look unisex enough to work for me. And at 8 ounces per shoe, I’m very pleased.

Teva Mush Mandalyn Wedge Sandal – $25, 4.75 oz

by far, the lightest pair I own. These are not new to you if you’ve read my blog before. I’m now on my third pair and I still love them. They are so light, attractive and the wedge makes them more respectable than a standard flip-flop. They also come in sizes up to 12, so a big woohoo!

Allbirds – $95, 9 oz

Yes, you’ve been waiting to hear about these I suspect. Are they all that? Is it worth the price for shoes you can’t try on? I wasn’t willing to shell out the cash for them so I bought a secondhand pair from Poshmark. After a year of wear, the answer is yes, that are that good. Super comfy, soft as a kitten’s bum, and can be worn without socks and they don’t get stinky. I do love them, I’m even considering getting them for my teenage son. They are extremely warm, perfect for autumn through spring, but way too warm for summer. I know they claim otherwise but I’ve tried it and I hated them in the summer.

They don’t make a women’s 12, I bought a men’s 10 but they definitely feel a little clunkier than they need to be. Also, they stretch out, as wool does, and I’ve seen reports that the wool wears down over time and gets holes in it, but we knitters know that these are fixable problems. You can launder them to get them back in shape, but that means they aren’t great for extended trips without access to a washing machine.

All in all, I do recommend them, but they are quite pricey for the quality. Amazon sells inexpensive knock-offs that run small but could be worth picking up to try out the concept first.

Empress Shoes – $80, 8 oz

I’m sure you’ve seen ads on Facebook for random shoe brands. I saw these and was curious so I ordered them. They caught my eye as they are a little funky in style, and I rather like that.

So far, I really find them comfy and the leather is soft. The toe box is squared which is nice for my wide feet. The insoles are good enough, although I like a higher arch so I’ve added my own and they work well. The back flips down and turns them into scuffs, a nice design feature. The only weirdness is the soles, which have raised rubber circles on them. A strange choice for tread, but they feel delightfully springy and grippy. They could be lighter, but at 8 ounces they are ok. Mail order shoes from Australia are a bit of a risk, but I’m happy with them and they arrived really quickly. Bottom line: they’ve made the cut for this summer’s backpack, which is the highest compliment from me.

Sarah’s Picks for Men

My sons are traveling with me this summer, so I’ve done some research on men’s shoes as well. I am particularly interested in extended sizes as my older son is already in a size 14, if you can believe it. Here’s my intel from my research.

Merrell Trail Glove 4 – $100, 8 oz

What’s good for the goose and all… I like these for myself and am so impressed with their weight and grippy tread. They will be very versatile for travel, both my sons will be getting a pair.

Sketchers Equalizers – $60, 10 oz

This is my go-to purchase for universal shoes for my son. They are light, breathable, don’t get stinky, and come in a wide range of sizes. They also can pass as dress shoes if you don’t look too carefully.

Ecco Yucatán- $150, 13 oz

Ecco shoes are one of the most durable and comfortable brands in general. They also tend to make comfort shoes look a little nicer. These sandals are a cut above Tevas in many nice ways. The are classier, in black or brown leather, for a start, and would look nice both on a beach or at a nice dinner. The also have the major advantage of a leather footbed, which solves the Teva stink problem. They are heavier that I’d like, coming in at a slim 13 ounces, but not bad for a highly constructed men’s shoe.

Ugg Knox – $100, 7 oz

I’ve become a huge fan of Uggs. They are super durable and well constructed, and by far the most consistently comfortable shoes I own. This sneaker takes their best qualities and combines them into a great travel shoe that weighs in at only 7 ounces! They are great looking and come with the cozy wool insole. The only downside is that they are suede, so you’d have to get some kind of protectant spray for rainy destinations. Otherwise, a great choice and nice range of sizes.

Columbia Spinner Vent – $55, 5 oz

If you’re going with the three pair theory, this would be the ideal third pair. They are versatile. They’ve been made with synthetic mesh to be water shoes and have a grippy sole for wet surfaces, but that same mesh would be ideal for hot climates or people with typically sweaty feet. Stylewise, they’d look fine with nice pants in the city. The weight is what makes them a perfect spare pair- only 5 ounces per shoe, which is virtually unheard of in men’s shoes.

These are my picks, may they take you wherever you’re going in a comfy, lightweight, and stylish way. Up next, my reader choices for travel shoes 2019…

We Need to Talk About Cruises and Venice

Cruising is a popular way to travel, and is expanding all the time, and especially in Europe. This type of travel is attractive: stay in one place and watch the world float by while you dine and relax. The problem is, cruising isn’t good for every destination. As the crash of a giant cruise ship in the Venetian lagoon recently proved, some places were not built for this kind of tourism. If cruising is on your list, I’d like to persuade you to think carefully about where you go. Let’s use Venice as a cautionary tale.

Cruising is Changing

Every dreamy shot of Venice begins with an entry on a boat. The city presents itself with its best face on the water, and centuries of foreign travelers have enjoyed that kind of grand welcome. So it stands to reason that cruises for tourism have a certain appeal.

Cruises have always been a part of the modern Venetian tourism pie, but the slice has grown significantly. The cruise industry as a whole is growing–and fast. Year on year gains are about 20% over the past few years. Boats are being run at near capacity. Naturally, that means there is an incentive for the ships to become bigger and bigger. A typical ship of the past would have housed about 1000 people, but new mega ships hold many more. As an example, Royal Carribean’s Symphony of the Seas can hold more than 6600 people. If this is the trend, and Venice can host, let’s say, 6 of these at a time, soon these beasts will bring in more people every day than actually live in Venice.

Even if the number don’t speak to you, looking at the size of the ships may be shocking. Ships passing through the Giudecca Canal dwarf the city, towering over the city skyline in an ominous way that is hard to shake.

The Venice Lagoon is No Place for Huge Cruise Ships

For centuries, Venice has been protected from invasion by its wall of water, the laguna. What makes this body of water especially protective is that it is very shallow. On average, it’s about knee deep. For centuries, Venetian boat makers have fashioned flat bottomed boats, like the ubiquitous black gondola, to deal with fluctuating, shallow water levels.

To get giant boats around the lagoon, deep canals have been cut. As the ships pass through them, the concern has become that they kick up silt on the sea floor, which is then transported out to the Adriatic when the tides change. This deepens and expands the canals, meaning that more water comes and goes with the tide. The city is built on centuries-old pilings that were never intended to deal with such dramatic fluctuations. Those underpinnings are just large submerged timbers. They are at risk of losing stability and if they do…there goes the city.

Environmental Impact

It would seem that a city without cars that faces the open sea would have the cleanest air. But that’s not the case for Venice. It has some of the worst air in Italy, by some accounts it ranks as the 4th most polluted city. The pollution comes from the emissions of factories around the lagoon (and a big shipyard that builds–wait for it–cruise ships) but also from marine traffic. The big cruise-liners billow out smoke, I’ve seen this with my own eyes. There are things the ships can do, such as filtering the smoke stacks and using cleaner fuels, but they don’t. While there is fairly universal agreement that this is not sustainable, the political will doesn’t seem to be there to make effective change.

Tourism is Tourism

If you think that cities shouldn’t complain, that all tourism is good tourism, I’ve got something to tell you. Cruising is hard on small places. Venice is a city with 50,000 residents. The kind of mega-ships that dock here have 3000-4000 people in them, and there can be 4-6 ships in the port at once. That’s about half of the population of the city, all being dumped at the same time within the same few blocks. In the hours they are in the city, usually from 10:00-17:00, streets become impassable. Many cruise passengers have not been told where to go or what to do, leaving them to linger around San Marco.

You’d think that the economy would cash in on all of these people, but the reality is that locals see little benefit. Port fees never make it to the city coffers, as the port is privately owned. Businesses don’t see much money either. Cruise boats feed passengers, and even have their own shopping. Locals say that the cruise ship people come, use the toilets, leave their trash, and go back to the ship. Trash often overflows in Piazza San Marco on days where there are several boats at port. When cruise day-trippers do spend money, it’s on trinkets and fast food, and those shops have pushed out other businesses. It’s no joke that it’s hard to find a good restaurant in Venice, quality restaurants and stores that service daily needs of residents have been displaced.

A Tough Place to Call Home

With tourists beginning to outnumber residents, life in the city is getting tough. Long-time residents point the finger for their declining quality of life on the cruise ships. The growing armies of daily visitors clog the streets and make just walking from one side of the city to another an infuriating ordeal.

Artist Stacy Gibboni has lived in a residential part of the city for two decades and has seen the change first hand. Her remarks are typical of most Venetians I know:

“Once upon a time this lagoon gave refuge and sparked ingenuity…I am disillusioned in general. I’m exhausted by the chatter and lack of action. I am fearful for the demise of a place I’ve called home…a place that literally defines the word “unique””

What Can Be Done

It is no solution to say that cruises should be banned from Venice altogether. That won’t happen, even if the locals would like that. There is far too much money involved in the cruise industry and the Venetians can’t fight it. However, consideration needs to be made about what is right–not every city can handle giant ships and the people they carry.

Image courtesy of http://www.livesaildie.com

The ships have gotten far too big for such a small city with a fragile ecosystem, one that’s already plagued by climate change and age. As we saw with the huge boat that crashed, an out-of-control boat of that size could lead to incredible destruction. Just looking at the aerial photo of the wrecked ship gives the sense of the real problem. The boats are too big.

The problem is complicated. Venetians have voted overwhelmingly to stop cruise tourism in their city but have been overruled at every turn. Citizen groups like NOGrandiNavi rage into the void but don’t have the firepower they need to change things. It feels sad and hopeless. But there are ideas. One is to use a different canal that bypasses the Giudecca and heart of the city. That doesn’t really address other issues. If the problem is to be solved, it will ideally be with smaller boats, and those boats could disembark at the Lido, never entering the lagoon.

Educating travelers is probably the best way to start some kind of change. If only the people on those boats really understood how they are affecting the city, I’d bet many of them would choose another way to enjoy it. Getting off the boat and staying in Venice itself is crucial. Nobody ever really understood Casanova or Vivaldi from the comfort of their starboard cabin. You have to linger in Venice, settle in and be romanced by the charms of La Serenissima when she’s alone, late at night.

So what can you do? Get involved. Donate to citizen protest groups like NOGrandiNavi. Spread the word on social media. Keep the pressure up on the Italian government. Tell your friends at dinner parties that Venice is better seen on the ground. I can recommend a good guidebook. And if you really need a cruise to unwind, I hear that Florida is a great place to do that.

Thanks to Stacy Gibboni (www.stacygibboni.com) and Joann Locktov (http://bellafigurapublications.com/) for their input.

Thoughts on Travel Safety

A reader recently reached out to me about travel safety, for advice on traveling alone.

Throughout my 25 years of travel, I have almost always felt safe. It’s true, I am 6’2″ and scary looking, but even so. Notice though, I said almost always. There have been some hairy and scary moments. In the end, being safe while traveling often boils down to making better choices. Here are a few thoughts about keeping safe.

Leave Little to Chance

For me, spontaneous travel is super fun. I love the feeling of being off the rails and just going for it. I once ran off the Greece at a moment’s notice. It was fantastic, but probably stupid. So much could have gone badly for me.

Women traveling alone should make a plan, reserve ahead, and leave little to chance. Doing that will greatly reduce your risks. As an example, I recently landed at the airport in Morocco and hadn’t reserved a transfer. I never do, I always wing it. I ended up being driven by some guy that was in the airport lobby–not an official taxi. It was a dumb thing to do, but I was so tired that I wasn’t thinking clearly and was thrilled to have someone help me with my bags. It ended up ok, although he drove like a maniac, I’m sure I paid too much, and the dude decided to stop at McDonalds along the way, I’m sure hoping to hang with me longer and have a romantic lunch. Um, no.

Researching your hotels in advance is also smart. You can investigate the safest neighborhoods, and make sure there is easy transportation to the hotel. Some hotels will even book the transfer for you.

Choose Your Hotel Wisely

In the age of AirBnB, I’m going to be a contrarian and suggest staying only at hotels if you’re concerned about safety. So many B&Bs and rentals have off-site management. If you have a problem, there is nobody to help you. Hotels that are staffed 24/7 are also better because there is always someone watching who is coming and going, a further safety check. I humbly suggest booking at Rick Steves recommended hotels, since we have personal relationships with most of the places we suggest, and I am confident that most places will keep an eye out for you.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Night

Many women have told me that they choose to stay in after dark. I don’t think that’s necessary. I haven’t been to any city that I felt intimidated by at night–as long as I stick to populated areas. It’s always about neighborhoods. Every city on earth has sketchy areas, find out ahead of time where those are in the place you’re going and avoid them. Typically, touristic areas are lively and safe at night. Stay on main streets and skip shortcuts the Google may suggest.

If I’m out alone at night, I liberally use taxis. Keep Uber and MyTaxi on your phone and just pay the money for a ride. It’s simpler and will keep you from wandering the streets in the dark looking for the bus. In my experience, buses are 1000% scarier at night.

Phone Home

Make sure people know where you’re going. Leave an itinerary with someone, even your librarian or optometrist is fine. Someone somewhere should know where you are. Text your friends and family daily, it’s just smart.

Bring a smartphone and have a data plan that will work (I like TMobile for that reason). A phone can bail you out of a myriad of woes, so keep it charged and bring a backup battery. Program emergency numbers for the places you’re going into your phone ahead of time, as well as any contact you may have in the area. I always feel better if I know even one person who speaks the local language on speed dial.

Simple Ways to Avoid Theft

If you have any problem traveling, it will likely be theft. The best advice I can give is to just do the little things to make yourself an unappealing victim. Look alert, especially in crowds. Don’t stand around looking at your phone in public spaces. If you are distracted, that’s when you’ll get ripped off.

Stand tall and give an air of self assurance. Dare people to mess with you. Channel your inner tough guy and look suspicious people in the eye. Being seen is the one thing thieves don’t want, so make a big fuss if you see someone pickpocketing. I once had a client pickpocketed on a train and she raised bloody hell, chased the girls that did it through the train and cornered them, and they dropped her wallet and ran, and were caught by the conductors.

Keep your bag strapped across your body, and rest your hand on your bag as your normal posture. It’s simple, but makes it slightly more complicated to steal from you. There are easy targets everywhere in the Louvre, you just made yourself a tougher one, so a thief will be more likely to feel up the Venus de Milo than you. Make sure all zippers on your bag are closed. You can up your security level by using twist tire to secure the zippers.

Wear a moneybelt. Yes, I know. They suck. But they do the trick. Tuck the belt under your waistband of your pants and keep all valuables in it. I have never had a single person that wears a moneybelt get ripped off, not one in 20 years. Proof that it works.

Make sure you hide all valuables in your bag when you leave the hotel room. I don’t recommend using the safe…people forget they put stuff in safes and then move on, losing passports and more. Tuck things into your bag and zip them up, or take them with you.

Double check your hotel room door is locked. That should be obvious, but I recently slept all night in a room with a door ajar. The lock had flipped out when I shut it and I didn’t notice! Yikes.

Don’t Be Afraid, Be Smart

Above all, don’t let fear keep you from traveling. You don’t need a body guard or a giant sword, although it’s not a bad back-up plan. Do your research and make a solid plan. Connect with other single travelers if you can, and connect with the locals. You’ll probably come home feeling that you were safer abroad than in your own backyard. I know I do.

What are your favorite safety tips? Comment here or on my Facebook page. Let’s keep each other safe!

So, There’s this New Book

As many of you know, a new book is hitting the shelves today, Rick Steves Sicily. And yeah, I am one of the authors along with Rick and Alfio Di Mauro. It’s kind of a big deal.

I realize I’ve been quiet for too long and have neglected this blog, I’m sorry for that because I know many of you enjoy our correspondence. The reasons why are complicated but the book is a big part of my absence. I want to explain, but I don’t know where to start to talk about it. So, we will start at the beginning, years before this was even an idea.

It’s important to me to be clear that this was not just my doing–there are a lot of people to thank, a guidebook takes an enormous amount of work. It was a dream but has been a very real challenge. Here’s a little background from my perspective about how this book came to be.

Rick Steves guidebooks are the biggest guidebooks around, and our titles dominate almost every slot of the travel best seller lists. With the introduction of Iceland last year and Sicily this year, we may hold all of the top slots next year. Sicily isn’t even out and it’s already a “Best Seller.” This is all very strange to me.

I’ve been writing and researching these books for 19 years, and it’s weird but neat to see our small, scrappy band of quirky traveler writers turn into the powerhouse of travel know-how. I remember the days of it being just a handful of us, when the books were thinner and our hotels were grubbier. Actually, the guidebooks are the reason for the direction my life has gone.

Years ago, on my first Europe trip without parents, a friend’s mom gave us “Europe through the Backdoor” to read before we left. It was useful and one of the only books that had some practical advice for young vagabonds. We went up to a grungy office in Edmonds, WA to get our rail passes because it was the only place we could get them the same day. I remember that office, just a few desks and about 4 people. I remember a forlorn potted plant and a dusty map of Europe on the wall. I’d have never guessed that would become my home.

The books developed into a country-by-country format and I started using them to give me ideas on my own travels. Later, I sent a resume on a whim (bad day at the architecture firm) asking for a job of some kind, maybe as a guidebook writer? And somehow, I eventually got that job. I had no writing qualifications other than speaking passable Italian, a sense of reckless adventure, and the invincibility of youth. Actually, I’m pretty sure they gave me the job because nobody else could drive a stick shift.

All of this has given me the most stupidly wonderful career. I got a chance to travel all over and update guidebooks, later writing the first editions of the Tuscany book and the England book. Some of the most memorable experiences of my life have been doing guidebook research, and I’ve made friends along the way all over Europe.

I’ve had the privilege of learning to write directly from Rick Steves, Gene Openshaw, and Risa Laib, pretty much the best writers in the travel industry. It’s the writing in our books that makes them sparkle and have created an almost cult-like following. I’m proud to be one of the voices in that choir of writers (proud author of some of the worst jokes in the books.)

As for the Sicily book, it was a dream. But it wasn’t my dream. About 8 years ago, I was at a party for the tour guide staff and was chatting with my colleague Alfio Di Mauro. We became good friends somewhat because I’m shy–I usually hang out in shadows at parties, and he’d come and visit me in the corner. He’s from Sicily, a place I’d only been on a vacation.

Alfio is one of the most brilliant people I’ve met. He knows so much, is so passionate about his home, and has a knack for creating empathy and connection to it. Sicily is often presented in a singular context, as a home to the mafia. He wanted to change that idea and show the world how beautiful, historic, and diverse his home is. Looking at the island through his eyes, I saw a magic there that I’d hadn’t seen anywhere else.

Over many drinks, we came up with an idea: he wanted to write a Sicily book but didn’t have experience writing in English, and I wanted to write but didn’t know Sicily well. Why not do it together? We pitched the idea to Rick and he said to write some sample chapters. So we did.

We spent two months working on sample chapters, exploring the island and doing historical research. It was a wonderful time, and I saw the potential of a beautiful island that had no idea what tourism was. The chapters were good, but the proposal was ultimately turned down. It was disappointing, but in retrospect, Sicily was probably not ready. It has been changing so fast in recent years, keeping an accurate guidebook would have been impossible.

And then, 5 years later, the project came back around. In the meantime, I’d been going to Sicily as often as I could and started leading tours there. The book was always simmering. We kept the dream in the back of our minds, not giving up on it. Patience and perseverance payed off.

Last year, we dove in head first into designing a brand-new book. We drove every road, checked out every hotel, ate so much cannoli that I’m surprised I don’t weigh 300 pounds or have ricotta coming out of my ears. Some things came together easily and other things felt like trudging through molasses. Days were wasted in chasing down farmhouses near Enna that turned out to be creepy or looking for good places to taste olive oil in Castelvetrano (spoiler alert: there aren’t any.)

There were misadventures like when I was alone in the countryside and both scratched my rental car and smashed my iPhone in the same day. As I’ve told you before, I’m not much of a cryer, but there were more tears in the past year than I’d like to admit.

Occasionally, everything went beautifully and we gathered great info but putting those discoveries on paper wasn’t happening, I couldn’t find an approach or I was simply out of adjectives. Writing is a fickle art form that doesn’t always appear on command. Sometimes, things that we loved were not going to work for our readers. Sicily can be complicated if you don’t speak Italian, and it was important to step away and look at things from the perspective of a typical tourist. Sometimes we had to drink a lot of wine to find the best ones for the book, because, you know, it’s really about looking out for the readers.

The guidebook consumed our time. Alfio heroically juggled writing with me while working on the script and filming of new TV shows with Rick, while Rick (and later Cameron) worked with us on the book manuscript. I did tours of Sicily simultaneously and deputized my tour members as assistant guidebook researchers, collecting restaurant reviews and discoveries.

Guidebook writing sounds like a dream job and it is, but it’s hard work. February through June of last year are a blur of Sicily, laptops, tours, writing, rental cars. I came home for three weeks in the middle and sat in bed writing 16 hours a day. I ended up at my mom’s house for most of that time because somebody needed to feed me and make sure I bathed.

The team behind producing the book took me by surprise. It had just been Alfio and I floating around Sicily for so long, that when book production jumped into full gear I found we had a huge team working and relying on our information. I walked through the book department one day and saw almost everyone was working on a piece of it. Our crazy dream had an entire department making it happen. Geez, I felt so responsible, I really hoped it was turning out ok. I’m super grateful for our wonderful editors, Jen Davis and Cathy Lu, who persevered no matter how many times the curveballs got thrown at this project. I’m usually updating books, but starting from scratch is something else. We needed maps and photos and so many other things besides entertaining prose and my bad jokes.

Late in summer, the mark-ups came and things started taking shape. I almost cried the day our fantastic map maker, Dave Hoerline, showed me the first set of maps. They were exactly what I saw in my head and something no other guidebook had! Such a thing of beauty. A really beautiful map Alfio has made for his tours was transformed into a map that will help thousands of travelers have a better experience.

In December, the final proof of the book came back for corrections. Poor Alfio had gone on vacation, and spent most of it on the phone with me, hashing through every word of our manuscript. It was at that point that I realized that it would really never be done. It will always be a work in progress because there is so much we still want to do. (We are putting together a website adventuresinsicily.com for this purpose.)

The book has arrived in bookstores and our pictures are on the back cover. Wow. People are celebrating and commenting on how good it is (I agree, its really good). Honestly, I don’t know how to feel. It really reminds me of giving birth. It was so much work, physically and emotionally draining. Now that it’s here, I’m trying to smile for the camera with my beautiful newborn even if I’m exhausted, sweaty, and unsure about this new thing that I’m responsible for. Lives are going to change because of this, business will boom for the island. But what if someone with the book knocks over a Greek temple? What if someplace we’ve recommended rips people off or worse, serves overcooked pasta? So many questions and only time will tell.

So it’s here. A dream come true. I will say a prayer every night for the people out having an adventure with our book…may the hotel be clean and the directions be accurate, amen.

More than anything I am filled with gratitude. I’m grateful to Rick Steves for giving opportunities that allow me the weirdest and most adventurous life I could have imagined. I’m grateful for the family and friends that put up with my madness, and my co-workers that put in so many hours making this book shine. Most of all, I’m grateful to Alfio for having a beautiful vision, sharing it with me, and working together for 8 years to bring it to life. It’s so much more his than mine, but I’m glad I had a part in making that happen. May the sun shine upon our book, its readers, and may it bring a bright future to the island.

🌞

While our book is available at booksellers online, spend an extra buck or two and buy it from your local bookstore. Support independent booksellers (who can order it for you if they don’t have it) as they are an invaluable part of our communities. Grazie!

Faith, Loss and Notre Dame

Standing in the hotel lobby in Morocco, I hear a gasp and someone say- Notre Dame is on fire. That can’t be. How could it? But I check and there it was. A half hour later, video came across my screen of the central spire falling in the ball of flames engulfing the cathedral. It’s a scene from a surreal nightmare.

The flames are dying down now, but the damage is done. The roof and spire are gone and the interior is gutted. It would be a miracle if any of the beautiful stained glass windows survived. The world is in shock. There are many great French Gothic cathedrals, some even better than Notre Dame architecturally, but it doesn’t matter. This was the queen, presiding over the pounding heart of France from her Ile.

It’s hard not to take this personally somehow, and even if I’m not a person that cries often, it’s hard not to feel like I need a good long cry. It’s the loss of a great symbol of our shared heritage. It’s like losing a family member. Maybe for me, that’s because I know it pretty well.

For the past 15 years, I’ve guided tours that hit Paris for a few days. I always try and approach Notre Dame in the best possible way, so that my groups see it dramatically appear. And then I tell stories, as there are so many wonderful stories to tell about this special place.

One of the stories I tell is of resurrection, and I hope it helps at this moment.

During the French Revolution, the church became an enemy of the people for a time along with the monarchy. Symbols of subjugation of the masses. Notre Dame was a symbol of both. In the frenzy of the time, angry revolutionaries expressed themselves by destroying parts of the church. For example, the stone kings in a row about halfway up the facade were beheaded, as they were mistaken for kings of France. The church was heavily damaged, and I’ve even read stories about it being used like a barn for a while. As time passed, the structure became decrepit and unsafe. A local writer thought it was a terrible shame to see the state of the once-glorious church, and decided to write a story that would spotlight the plight of Paris’ great landmark. Perhaps that story could shame the city into fixing the church. You know, I’m sure, that the writer was Victor Hugo, and the story was the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The attention brought by this famous story worked, and a restoration project began in the 1840’s.

What you may not know is that the restoration architect, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, was a historian with an artistic flair. While he researched Gothic churches and their elements carefully, his restorations added bits of fancy and folly. That’s not surprising when you consider the Victorian period in Europe as a whole, but his type of restoration would be impossible today, as restorers deeply frown upon addition that is difficult to differentiate. The funny part is, many of his creative additions are the things we like the best about Notre Dame–the cheeky gargoyles on the towers, the stained glass, and a much bigger spire in the center than the original, with a statue of Saint Thomas at the top admiring the work…which was a portrait of Viollet-le-Duc himself.

Tonight that spire is gone. We’ve lost so much that it’s hard to even know what’s left besides bones. The legendary Crown of Thorns was supposed to be in the church tonight, the only time of the year it is on display. It’s heartbreaking. It reminds me of Dresden Cathedral or the fire that destroyed La Fenice opera house in Venice, cultural tragedies where the world loses.

But the point is, Notre Dame has been heavily damaged before. It was reborn in the 19th century, arguably even better than it was before. Dresden Cathedral was rebuilt stone by painstaking stone. Terrible tragedy and gutting loss feel far too common lately and we can give in to feeling this is the inevitable symbol of our times. But that’s not good enough. As La Fenice can tell you, nothing is impossible, we all must be the Phoenix and rebuild, even if it takes a while.

As the faithful stand outside and sing tonight, I am reminded that even as she burned, her heart was still beating in those beautiful voices. She is a house of faith, and we should all have faith that she will be reborn and rise from the ashes.

Face Meet Palm, Embarrassing Moments in Travel

I’m sure that being a professional traveler looks good on the outside. I do my best to fit into cultures and present myself well on the road. But even the smoothest of cool cats make mistakes, and I’m hardly that cool. I’ve made an idiot of myself more than I even bother to keep track of.

Today I present a sort of confessional. A handful of times when I did something dumb enough to remember long term. As I write this, I realize I could keep going for days with similar stories, racked up over more than 25 years of travel. I share these awkward stories with you for one purpose, to help you remember that doing something stupid is just part of travel. I’ve gotten over it, and so will you.

Language is Hard

I will share a dirty secret with you- I am rubbish at foreign languages. School was so easy for me in every other respect, I got good grades without trying, but foreign language is what I suck at. Oh, the irony. It would have to be that I am the only person I know that actually needs to speak several foreign languages. Sigh.

Because of my perpetual battle with multiple foreign languages, I have many stories of misunderstandings and idiotic things I’ve said. I want you to know that if I can do it, so can you. Make an idiot of yourself, it’s ok. The locals appreciate the effort.

Years ago, when I was studying in Rome, I bought my fruit and veggies every day in the Campo dei Fiori. I had my regular places and felt very proud of myself for communicating my needs and understanding the responses. I happen to love peaches, and bought them almost every day. For months, I asked for “mezzo chilo di pesce” and the fruttivendolo always gave me a funny, sympathetic smile. One day I realized the word for peaches was pesche (pronounced PESS-kay) rather than pesce (PESH-ay), very similar words and only separated by a single letter. I’d been asking for months for a half kilo of fish, not peaches. D’oh.

Not as many years ago, I was working on book research, heading to the island of Capri. As I boarded the boat, I couldn’t help but notice the captain. He was muscular and tan, with an oily Julius Caesar haircut. He was like some sort of absurd Hollywood stereotype of a Roman God. He took my ticket and looked me up and down. A few minutes after departing, the hot captain came over and sat himself down next to me, handing me a beer and two plastic cups. Me? Hot guy wants to sit with me?Seriously? And then he spoke….

Italian is actually Florentine dialect. Italy is a relatively new country, and 100 years ago each region had its own unique language, sometimes indecipherable to other Italians. The dialects still persist in many parts of Italy, particularly in the south.

This is to explain that when the hot captain opened his mouth, out came a stream of deeply accented gibberish that made him sound like he had marbles in his mouth. I strained to listen and understand what he was saying. Nothing. Nada. I felt so stupid, I could not catch even a single word. He was obviously frustrated, and gestured at the beer. I split it between the two glasses and smiled apologetically. I told him “mi dispiace, non ho capito…” and he tried again and again to talk to me. Still couldn’t understand Neapolitan. “Inglese?” I offered. Eventually we both sat in awkward silence and drank our beer. I think that silence lasted about 10 years, or that’s what it felt like. Exasperated , he gave up and went back to work and I sat through the rest of the ride turning several shades of red.

Tour Guides Make Mistakes Too, But Worse

Have you ever made a wrong turn? Yeah, no big deal, you just turn around and go back the other way. But what if 26 souls (who’ve paid good money for your expertise) are following behind you? I think I die inside a little when that happens.

Once I reserved a group dinner at a restaurant in Rome near Piazza Navona. I didn’t have their number on me, so I Googled it. They didn’t seem to remember me but booked me all the same. We, 29 of us, arrived at the restaurant and they had no reservation for me. How could that be possible? My group stood there staring at me as I quietly panicked. Ok, so I asked if there could possibly be another restaurant with a similar name nearby. “Bo.” said the host, an Italian way of saying “I dunno.” I planted my group at a picturesque fountain while I canvased the restaurants on Piazza Navona, and after checking four of them, my heart was racing and I was feeling desperate. And then I saw one, and it had the exact same name as the restaurant I thought I’d reserved. Bingo! It was a tacky, touristy place, but they had chairs for us to sit in. They served something resembling Chef Boyardee pasta to eat and I was so embarrassed, but my group didn’t seem to mind since it had killer views of the fountains. Actually, I think they pretended to like it because they felt bad for me. Lesson learned, don’t trust Google.

On another occasion, when I reserved a group dinner the owner mentioned that he had another event at the restaurant that night. Was that ok? I didn’t mind. It was a big restaurant with multiple floors. Turned out, that other group was a tour from a competing company and they were seated literally inches from my group in a tight, underground room. When I say we were rubbing elbows, I mean that literally.

It was apparently their first night and the guide had a microphone, giving a noisy slideshow about their itinerary. It was our last night, where we normally say our goodbyes and give speeches, but in this case we couldn’t even hear ourselves think. The other tour guide came over to give me a piece of her mind in front of my group, how dare I eat at HER restaurant! I pointed out that I hadn’t planned the overlap and tried to say something funny to cut the tension. She didn’t think I was funny, but once I mentioned who I worked for she immediately became more friendly and gave me her card…hoping for a job recommendation. Ummm. No. I don’t know who was more humiliated that night– me, the other tour guide, or the staff that had to deal with both of us.

One morning, after a night spent having a little too much fellowship with my tour guide colleagues, I sleepily led my group on the well worn path down into the Rome subway and the Vatican beyond. We boarded the subway, and as usual, I asked the group to split up into different cars so it was easier to get on.

Packed into train cars and chatting with the handful that stayed with me, something seemed off. The car wasn’t as full as it should have been. And then it dawned on me…we were going the wrong direction. Rather than panic, I searched for my group, counting them down as I went, and got them off the train. Did we have everyone? By some miracle, yes. We ran around to the other side of the tracks and got on a train going the right direction, arriving late for our reserved time slot. Luckily, Italians never really expect you to be on time, so the only damage was to my ego.

I did actually damage myself a few years back. Also in Rome. I was headed to San Clemente church, a marvelous sight that shows the layers of the city. Leading the group down the ramp to the entrance, I didn’t quite compute that the pine needles on the ramp, mixed with rain, mixed with Tom’s shoes’ crappy soles, made the most slick walking conditions you could create. I went down like a pratfall you see in the movies, comically tumbling and landing on my left leg with all of my weight. And like in the movies, the adrenaline and distilled humiliation I felt made me jump right back up without assessing the damage. I’m alright, I’m alright!

I hobbled down the steps with my local guide and asked her if she wouldn’t mind taking the group to the church without me while I went in search of ice. Once the group was out of sight, I assessed the damage. It was bad, but not broken. I knew it would become a hematoma, as my tour guiding skills also include amateur physician skills. I knew I wouldn’t be able to walk the rest of the day and I felt so dumb for all of it. So embarrassed to do that in front of my group.

And then something happened in the church. Another group stopped and gathered around someone, gasping and calling for help. Someone had suffered a heart attack. The church custodians rushed over and called the ambulance service, which arrived with sirens and lights ablaze. I sat on a pew lamenting my leg and watching the drama, the crew of medics swarming the church, not thinking about my group. They returned to the church just in time to see the hubbub, and every single one of them freaked out, thinking the person on the stretcher was me. Oh, great, the tour guide is dead. I noticed them and waved them over. My local guide was pale as a white sheet. While they were relieved when I got their attention, I think I was not the only person traumatized that day.

Sometimes, It’s Just Not Your Day

The queen of all days-gone-wrong was my day I had a misadventure in Tuscany. But car rentals are a deep well of embarrassing anecdotes.

Most recently, I was working on the Rick Steves Sicily book, navigating around parts of the island I didn’t know. I followed Google Maps to my hotel. Yeah, you know where this is going. The app lead me off the road and down to a city park. It told me to drive through the park and down a trail. That didn’t seem right, but the map offered no other solutions. The trail grew muddier, narrower, and more suspicious. Long canes of pampas grass rubbed alarmingly against either side of the car, so I stopped and got out. From there, I could actually see my hotel. It was on a hill perched above the park and there was no way this road was going there. So I had no choice. I had to drive in reverse to get out. The grass on either side of the car groaned and screeched as I carefully drove the narrow, curvy trail backwards. Sure enough, when I got out and look, a lovely long scratch ran the entire length of my dark green Fiat 500. Shitshitshit!

Rattled and upset about the car, I did finally get to my hotel. I set my phone and purse on top of the car, emptied the back and shut the hatch…hearing a sickening crunch as it slammed shut. That can’t be good. Had I damaged the car some other way? I inspected the door and my heart stopped when I found the culprit. It was my iPhone, smashed at the hinge between the hatch door and the car. It had slid down while I was unloading. Not only was the phone cracked, it had chipped the sunroof of the car. There are not enough expletives.

My phone is my office, I really can’t function properly without it. As it was, I couldn’t leave it in a shop to be fixed in Sicily, so I had to buy a new one, a $500 blunder. The finding of the phone shop and the day that went with it are another embarrassing tale for a different day. (Side note- I did have that phone fixed when I got home and a week later it fell out of my pocket while I was mowing the lawn…and I shredded it for good)

The day I had to return the car I felt like a cat with its tail between its legs. I was so worried and embarrassed, I’d never damaged a car before. I got to the Palermo airport and dutifully fessed up to my crimes. The attendant looked the car over and shrugged. You see, I’d bought the super extra insurance package. He joked that I could have crashed it if I’d wanted to. Thank goodness for being an overly cautious traveler, and thank goodness for the graciousness of Sicilians.

These are but a few of my embarrassing tales. I could go on. I hope they make you feel a little bit better about blunders you’ve made.

Want to join me in the confessional? Share your tales of woe and travel embarrassment here or on my Facebook page and I’ll compile them into an article of commiseration.

Travel Stocking Stuffer Ideas

Christmas is around the corner and it’s time to fill the stockings of the whole family. If you’ve got a traveler in your life, it’s fun and easy to put together a themed stocking. Considering that I advocate for packing light, most of my gear could easily work for travel stocking stuffers, but here are more ideas–most of them inexpensive and practical.

Little Hair Clips – $7

There may be more of these hair clips on the floor of my home than there are Legos, but for a good reason. They do help with hair of almost any length, but they can be great little travel companions. Use them to wrangle cords or to clamp together small items.

Pocket Problem Solvers – $5-8

Everything seems to be coming in pen or stick form these days and it makes sense. Compact and easy to organize, these pens and bars are all super practical and can simply live in your bag. If you’re gifting for a health and safety nerd like me (or a tour guide!) these are the perfect, inexpensive gifts. Look for Cutter insect repellant, Benedryl stick for rashes and bites, the indispensable Tide Pen, and Neutrogena sunblock stick.

Solid Toiletries – $10-20

My readers recommended favorite travel items recently and the solid shampoo bar was a popular one. The only downside with this is that you’ll still need some sort of case to keep it in, but it theoretically should not count in the 3 oz allotment for airplane liquids. There are lots of brands out there, and I recommend one with Tea Tree Oil as it has the extra benefit of being a bug repellant. The highly rated Ethtique Conditioner Wonderbar is a little pricey, but claims to be the equivalent of five BOTTLES of conditioner.

No Jetlag – $10

This product does what it claims, reducing the effects of jet-lag. These little tablets are taken on the plane and somehow help to reset your body clock. I did test them out on a trip to Sicily and I can report that they seem to work, although I may be convincing myself. If nothing else, giving them as a gift can be like a science experiment!

Folding Sunglasses – $10-20

With my travel lifestyle, I am a total waste on expensive sunglasses. I often sit on them, scratch them, or they break in my bag. I picked up a cheap pair of folding aviator sunglasses a couple of years ago and they still seem to be ticking along, and take up virtually no space or weight in my bag. These cheapies can even fit over regular glasses.

Airplane Snacks

Nobody would claim that airplane food is good. A nice way to fill a stocking is with snacks, such as protein bars, trail mix, crackers, and nuts. Trader Joe’s is a great spot to source dried fruits and nuts. Don’t forget the breathmints!

Cellphone Leash – $15-20

Pickpocketing is an evergreen problem in tourism, but the new scourge is cellphone theft. And not just from your bag or pocket, but directly out of your hands while you’re consulting Google Maps or looking to take a great selfie. No joke, this has happened to my clients. For this reason, I cannot recommend more either a wrist strap or a tether for your phone. Whatever you choose, get something tough or it will be useless. Using a tether, maybe you could even catch a thief!

Waterproof Cellphone Pouch – $11

For travels to tropical destinations or for adventure sports, a waterproof phone pouch is indispensable. This is also a good idea for desert or dirty destinations. You can still take decent shots without fear of a water landing, but be sure to pick one that also floats or it’s kind of pointless. (Hint-hint for anyone coming to Thailand or Vietnam with me!)

Cellphone Tripod – $14

Ever wonder how to make YouTube videos? Selfie sticks are so tacky, but a little portable tripod works wonders. This one has bendable legs that can wrap around a chair, lamppost or your travel partner’s arm. It comes with a remote to help capture the perfect Christmas card photo.

Cheap-o Cellphone – $25

If you’ve bought your cellphone through your provider, odds are that it is locked and can’t be used with the SIM chips of other providers. A cheap and basic cellphone makes a great gift for anyone traveling for an extended period of time. Local SIM cards are inexpensive, and this phone can work with two numbers at the same time. I use this exact phone when I’m in Europe and need a local number. The battery lasts for DAYS.

For a personal touch, travel stocking stuffers can also be handmade. Make your own luggage tags, ornaments, bookmarks and more, read the article HERE.

Have I missed anything? Let’s reconvene after Christmas and see what everyone got!

Happy Christmas!