I found myself trying to plan out the next few months this Monday and realized that it has been a little over 3 months (!) since we started our year of traveling. In some ways, it’s felt so much longer than that; in other ways, I’m slightly panicked that our year is already a quarter of the way done. Since being on the road, there have been some things that have gone as expected — we miss our friends, family and community; our reliance on one another has intensified, and our relationship has strengthened (it’s like doing a trust fall with your partner every day); we miss not having to think about whether we’re fitting in culturally or not; and I would go slightly crazy without work.
In an effort to document my own learnings on this trip, I wanted to share a list of things that surprised me about our travel along with what we expect the next 3 months to bring. I hope I can read back on this when I am far wiser and more experienced, shake my head and say, “Oh, look at how naive I was,” or, “Wow, I was pretty perceptive about that one!”List of things that surprised me or things I learned:
Slow down the travel. Way down. I know, this one is obvious when you read all the books experienced travelers write. Originally, we had thought we needed to be in London for my Company’s work for 3 months but when we found out plans changed there, we kind of went crazy with our European travel plans (like we were on vacation versus we’re just abroad for a year). We are both nomadic at heart, so having been in one place for 6-7 years (in my case) and his whole life (in my Company’s case), we went wild with it. We visited 6 European countries in 3 months, including 5 major cities in Andalusia, Spain and also including traversing up and down Germany twice. It was far too much. We barely had enough time to settle in before packing up and going to the next place. It was especially hard on my Company, who was working 12-14 hours a day, because we would cram in our major touristing and any moving on weekends which left him little to no room to recover. Right now, we’ve slowed things down to being in one city (one country) for a month. I can tell after 2 weeks in Japan that this is so much nicer already.
God bless that American passport. This is another one that should be painfully obvious, but it’s still worth mentioning. If you’re an American, count your blessings on how easy it is for you to travel without long visa applications, a long document pile of proof that you’ll leave the country, registration with the local police, etc. For my American friends who are nervous about going abroad – you’ve been given something truly amazing, and if you can budget and save up to do so, take advantage of it now. We have had (or met) friends with passports from Zambia, China or India face unreal, almost Kafka-esque challenges (did you know right now, you can’t even travel to the US if you’re a Chinese academic to present at a conference – even if it’s your own work?). Related to this is just how much English is spoken across Europe and, so far, in Tokyo center (where we currently live, not so much, and I count that as a real treat).
A little bit of empathy goes a long way. Everywhere we go, we try to learn a few critical phrases: “I’m sorry/excuse me” (the most important), “Thank you,” “I’m sorry, I don’t speak the language,” “Hello”, a various list of different types of animals to eat (I like to know the difference between chicken versus pork/beef for obvious reasons), and words for “beer”, “red wine” and other tasty adult beverages. The appreciation we have gotten from just trying a little is visible, and we get the benefit of feeling like we’re part of the community a little more rather than just perpetual tourists (which gets old fast). It’s really easy to spot how rude it is when an English speaker waltzes straight into a bar or restaurant and either (1) speaks English loudly or (2) demands English. I’ve heard this in Harajuku, Tokyo a number of times now and cringe each time. You’ve already got your fancy English-speaking country passport that allows you to travel nearly anywhere without issue, can you at least try to memorize 4-5 phrases?
So much communication happens without words. After you’ve learned your 4-5 phrases to not offend your host country, it’s understandable that the rest may be a bit harder. I’m constantly surprised at just how much can be expressed through general pointing, charades, grunts, animal noises, and laughing. We have a few regular spots we like to go to in our neighborhood of Soshigaya, Tokyo where no one speaks English (and they shouldn’t). This includes our regular neighborhood coffee roaster, donut shop, two bakeries (yes, two, and I go to them. Every. Single. Day. In fact, there’s one which I wait in line for to go to because the spongy, buttery slice of heaven that comes out of that place is worth it), sake shop, and katsu shop (the little old lady who works there recognizes my Company – well, the whole neighborhood recognizes him now – and runs out to help him order each time by pointing at different cuts of meat. We even got a loyalty card.). Sometimes at our regular spots, we both speak to one another in our respective languages and feel like we understood everything, even when we understood nothing.
Done right (and slowly), travel is not as expensive as you think. I decided to do a little experiment* and keep track of our expenses this year versus an estimate of previous years living in the Bay Area (yes, you’re allowed to roll your eyes that I’m comparing traveling abroad to the most expensive place to live on earth). Even while taking on hedonistically posh weekends (Cadiz in Spain, Switzerland, Scottish Highlands, Hakone with onsen in Japan as just a few examples), we are on track to cut our expenses nearly in half. This is without any corporate subsidies and spending time in some of the more expensive parts of the world — London, Tokyo are on the top of the list (Spain, Germany, Greece balanced this out). Even in Tokyo, we’re cutting our monthly expenses in half, and we eat out a lot because Tokyo is delicious. When you keep in mind that I was working at a company last year that covered all my meals and travel (and even subsidized my housing), this is insane. Yes, you’re allowed to do a second eye roll at how lucky I was.
Career does not need to be put on hold. I nearly didn’t do this trip because I was afraid it would slow down my career. When I look back at that, I now see the folly of my hilarious thinking. There is so much out there beyond the Bay Area (or where ever one sets up the mantle) and so many interesting things happening. For me, being able to reconnect with old friends who have settled in various places was worth many times more than whatever marginal gain I could have made in my personal career. Also, it didn’t turn out to be true. I have found that opportunities are often unpredictable, and I feel right now that there’s more open opportunities while I’m on this trip than when I was heads-down-working-with-my-eyes-staring at-my-feet in the Bay Area.
I got tired of being a tourist fast. I would say it took about 2 months, but I thought I’d just enjoy bebopping around all the famous places in each country we visited for the entire year. Nope. Right around the time we went to Germany for a conference, all I wanted to do was plop myself down at a platz and read all day. This genuinely surprised me. When you’re on vacation for 2 weeks, you typically visit all the famous places, eat and drink extravagantly and don’t mind being with other tourists. You are, after all, touring the place. When you’re living abroad and traveling, you need to budget in weeks of rest, want to immerse in a smaller community, and meet new people you wouldn’t otherwise. Every time I come to a new country a good friend is currently living in, the first question is always, “What’s on your list to do?” Right now, my list is: “Eat delicious food” (this is ALWAYS on the list, travel or no travel), learn about how people live here…like, actually live, explore by running/walking, and slowly spend a day a weekend doing the “famous” things.
Our favorite memories are surprising. I recently asked my Company what his favorite memories were of the trip, and he said:
- Running in Sevilla along the Guadalaquivir and in the Parque de Maria Luisa.
- Hiking in Granada
- Watching my mom and me cook in Lorrach in the tiny, air-condition-less kitchen during a heat wave
- Sitting around eating Lebanese food in Berlin
- Running in the highlands in Scotland
- Swimming in the ocean in Greece
- Getting his camera returned in Tokyo after I lost it
- Robot show in Tokyo — the only touristy thing we did that made it on the list, but that show was life changing.
My favorite memories are similar. I think what made those memories so special were either the people involved or being able to explore the landscape of the region or city and finding unexpected things.
Packing light is possible. My Company has a 26 liter backpack, the same one you’d imagine a 6th grader wearing to class. I’m carrying a small green suitcase that can fit in the carry on for most international flights. It was the same suitcase I’d used to take for 4 day business trips. At first, I thought my strategy would be to “buy” and “dump”, but as it turns out, we haven’t needed to buy anything beyond consumables like soap and tooth paste. Post a comment if you want to learn more, and I can share our packing strategy! This has gotten us in some pretty good habits about minimalism which we hope to continue when we return. I anticipate this will be hard for me because I have a secret/not-so-secret shame love for fashion.
Driverless cars are stupid. This is more like proving a hypothesis. Public transit works perfectly fine and is incredibly cheap everywhere else in the world we have traveled to. If there’s going to be low-hanging fruit in the US to improve traffic and accident issues, this is the way to go. Also, it democratizes the pricing across a far larger socioeconomic group than driverless cars. In Spain and Greece, the buses were on time, air-conditioned and comfortable. Trains worked throughout Germany, Switzerland (obviously), Scotland and London. The only time we took a taxi was in Greece because we were noobs at traveling and when we stayed out too late one night in Tokyo (lesson learned). Getting to and from the airport to even more remote places that we’re staying (like in Japan) is no issue at all.
Public transit works when you have a consumer base that wants it to**. I get that the car industry obviously wants to survive into the next century and figure this is some mild improvement they can make, but the level of navel-gazing elitism here is painfully obvious while abroad. It’s terrible for the environment. It doesn’t solve the problem it’s setting out to do. Worse, it’s redirecting funding from the investment world that could be put to far better use.
So there it is: the quarterly review of the trip so far. I expect that in the upcoming months, I’ll miss hearing English more. I’ll miss our family and friends, though luckily a trip to London is in the works, and that’s like a second home for me. Already being in Tokyo’s time zone, which makes texting and calling the US challenging, has made me feel a little more isolated. I also anticipate having to explain to people in Asia that I’m American and get confused looks about why I can’t speak Japanese, Korean, [insert any Asian country that may confuse me as a local] fluently (it’s already been pretty funny here in Tokyo). Finally, I anticipate gaining a few dress sizes because of the tasty treats in the near future (no regrets).
I look forward to the 6 month mark when I can post my next review. Thank you for following this journey so far. It means a lot to me to be able to connect to my friends and family while we’re traveling.
*This came out of a curiosity project, but the data is incredible and shocking.
**This is an important point because consumers have power here to express what they want. Yes, it’s slow like democracy, but choosing to buy something (or not) is like using your voting power.