My love for travel
I’m not sure what genetic mutation made me yearn to travel from the time I was in high school but I certainly didn’t pass it on to my daughter although it may have skipped a generation to her older son–time will tell there, but he at least has the beginnings of an interest in geography.
In any event I grew up in a poor family in a small town in Iowa (which would make any one want to travel) and when I first started thinking about college I begged my parents to let me go to a school with a junior year abroad program. But even with a scholarship we could only afford a college a few hours away from home.
An early marriage, early divorce, single parenthood and returning to school to get a law degree kept travel on the back burner until my daughter was out of high school.
Beginning in the late 80’s, after law school, I began taking my first trips, not surprisingly, to Mexico. Living in Colorado the beaches, beautiful waters and warm temps beckoned to me every year by late March. I started in Cancun at the Club Med there and returned several times over a period of 10 years, eventually adding Ixtapa- Zihuatanejo, Turks and Caicos and Puerto Vallarta.
Club Med’s always had a bad rap for being a wild singles’ place where anything went and there was certainly some truth to that but for a beginner traveler, it checked all the boxes. Airfare, food and drinks plus every possible sport was included. I learned to scuba dive (and fell in love with Murray my dive instructor) at the club in Cancun, went sailing, snorkeling— even tried wind surfing or wind standing as I called it, since I was too terrified of ending up in Panama to try it seriously. I also tried the trapeze at the Puerto Vallarta club. That was pretty exciting for someone with my height phobias.
On my first trip I met some great friends and I think that was not only what kept me going back to Club Med for many years but gave me the courage to do other trips on my own–3 bike trips in Europe, a trip with Global Volunteers in Southern Italy and a bike trip in the Yucatan. So strangely enough I flew ‘solo’ on all but one of my ‘group’ trips.
This post will overlap somewhat with a post I’m writing called Attitude is Everything because whether a trip is good or bad frequently depends on your attitude and expectations going into the trip as well as the group dynamics. That said here are my ‘impressions,’ taken mainly from my journals.
Provence Bike Trip
My first bike trip was in Provence with a company called Europeds. I’ve written about much of the trip in another blog about Provence but I still look back on it as the best ‘group’ trip I ever took. As with all but one of my other ‘group’ trips, I traveled by myself and I’m still inclined to do that since it typically combines the best of both worlds–the independence of traveling alone with meeting new people and having all the details taken care of. I’m not sure how I got the courage to fly from Dallas to Paris on my own, then take the high speed train to Avignon but it went fairly smoothly given the brief conversational French course I took before the trip.
The group was terrific and we laughed our way across Provence from a tiny village north of Avignon, to Vaison a la Roman, Fontaine da Vaucluse, L’isle sur Sorgue, Gordes, St. Remy and Arles and all points in between.
Our trip leader was the owner of the company and a self -professed Francophile who took us not only to the main attractions but to all sorts of out of the way places I would never have found on my own such as a Picasso ceramic museum, perhaps in Tarascon or Cavaillon. Post trip note: the only Picasso museum I can find online is on the Cote d’Azur so I’m stumped as to where we stopped.
I kept in touch with quite a few people for a year or two then, like all long distance relationships, we drifted apart. My favorite memories were of two women friends traveling together, Teddy and Nancy, maybe. Nancy (not sure if that was her name) rode in the van a lot and was hilariously funny saying frequently that the front of her back hurt. There was also a guy who was always saying c’est bon and laughing about how he sweated so much he needed bike shorts made of terry cloth.
I’ve never been a fast bike rider although I’m steady and there was always a group of us bringing up the rear. I remember our slow group rolling into a little village after our first full day of riding and several of the village elders, pointed in the direction we needed to go, saying ‘a gauche’ in unison. Unlike another bike group, no one gave us grief for being slow, probably because we were always stopping for wine and picnics.
A couple of the hotels were pretty funky, my first introduction to teeny tiny European bathrooms, but our hotels in Gordes and one near Althen des Paluds were lovely.
I’ve lost my list of people who went on the trip so if anyone from that group reads this please let me know. I’ve only found a few pictures from that trip and while the scanned copies aren’t great, I think you can tell we were having a great time. One of the group–Teddy I think–sent everyone a collage of photos after the trip and I’ve included a link below.
Italy Bike Trip One
My second trip to Europe was a bike trip in Tuscany, this time with Backroads. This one started out badly because I had a 6 hour delay getting from Dallas to Milan due to an air traffic controller strike there. The train from Milan to Florence was SRO and when I got to the Florence train station, I sat on the floor crying because I couldn’t figure out how to phone the trip leader and get to our first hotel.
All that resolved itself and again we had a great, albeit exceptionally large, group, and even though it was rainy and cool, I have a big grin on my face in every picture. We had a fairly even mix of couples and singles. While my ‘roomie’ and I didn’t really click, I became friends with two women traveling together. As I recall they were from San Francisco but one of the women was in the process of moving back to her home town of Pittsburgh. One of the married couples was on their honeymoon and regaled us with how they met online.
One of my favorite memories was an evening when we were told we would have a late start in the morning due to weather. So a group of us went to the bar and started doing Sambuca. We got fairly rowdy and the owner asked us to quiet down. We complied for a while but got to laughing loudly again when we asked the wife of the honeymoon couple to join us. She declined to do Sambuca, saying a blind date had tried to impress her by clapping his hands over a flaming Sambuca and set her new suede dress on fire.
Several of us hung out in Florence together after the trip and two of us traveled back to Milan together to fly to the States. And again I kept in touch with several people after I returned but eventually our correspondence trickled to a halt.
Italy Bike Trip Two
This was actually my 3rd bike trip since I did one in the Yucatan peninsula prior to this trip but since it doesn’t fit my theme, I’ll skip to this one.
This was definitely the oddest group of any trip. Six days into the trip I wrote: What a strange week it’s been! Fun in some ways, weird in others. My initial impressions were wrong. The people I thought I’d like turned out not to be so great and others I’ll probably be good friends with for a long time. The first night will be the high point of the trip. We went to a little restaurant ‘up the hill’ from our hotel. The food was fabulous and I was laughing and making jokes for the first time in a long time. I felt more like myself than any time in recent memory.’
[Post trip: I wrote in my journal that it was La Locanda del Castello and this appears to be their web site http://www.lalocandadelcastello.com/restaurant-en. However the restaurant shown at this site doesn’t look like my pictures. My pictures look more like La Taverna di Casciano or Locanda Demetra. At the same time I saw a very favorable review of Locanda del Castello in Food and Wine and the pictures in the article seemed similar to mine. Who knows?] Here are a couple of pictures of our dinner; judge for yourself–and yeah I realize the quality isn’t great.
There were 6 single women, 1 single guy, a married couple and a couple who later became engaged and married. While my roomie was pleasant enough, she seemed enamored of a woman from NY (and I mean that in the sense of being envious of her lifestyle) and after our first day of riding I became fast friends with Audrey and Mark from New Jersey. We corresponded for over a year and they even invited me to their wedding.
I have a ton of group pictures that make it look like we’re having a fabulous time but my journal said otherwise.
What really cratered the group for me was when two of the younger women decided that the couple from California was just too odd and encouraged everyone to pick on them. When I stood up for them, I was cut out of the herd and with the exception of Audrey and Mark pretty much treated like a pariah. It even continued after the trip when several of us stayed in Florence. I ran into some of the other single women and foolishly agreed to go out to dinner with them a couple of times, getting the same treatment.
And our guides made the group even stranger. They were both from France and spoke Italian and French but only one (Guillaume) spoke English. I wrote that he was a total jerk to me, making snide remarks about my riding while hitting on one of the younger women who only rode about 50% of the time. He also got snotty with me our last night after announcing that we were leaving from a different train station than what was in the itinerary. Several of us had tickets from the original station and I asked him why we couldn’t go there. He cut me off fairly rudely then came back and apologized. I wrote ‘tip time’ in my journal. The weirdest part was on our last day of biking when I found him waiting at the top of a hill. He called me Barb Wire and I laughed and said, ‘Oh that’s what my nephew calls me.’ ‘It’s what we call a sexy woman in French.’ ‘I don’t think that’s what my family means.’ What?! After the trip I debated whether to say something to the company but decided I’d just come off as the bitchy older woman. Today I’d have no compunction about letting them know how he behaved.
All in all, though, I found the dynamics so odd that I wrote biopics about each person in my journal. I was going to include the biopics here but decided it was TMI, with the exception of Audrey and Mark.
Audrey and Mark: Have to talk about them together ‘cause they’re essentially married (and did get married after the trip). Both are from New Jersey; nurse and advertising guy I think; they were the nicest to me and we got along well. I hope I keep in touch with them but who knows. Maybe they were just faking. Audrey kept saying the first day or two, ‘You’re really funny.” Almost made me feel my old self again. (Post trip comment: From the pictures above, I don’t think they were faking and we did keep in touch for a couple of years.)
Global Volunteers Puglia, Italy
I recently found my travel journal from this trip and was surprised to find that I had written fairly negative comments concerning the trip since my memories were fairly positive. This was a trip where the volunteers helped teach English in the schools of Ostuni, Puglia. I think my initial negative feelings came from three aspects of the trip: I originally thought most of the group was fairly serious and not much fun. My teaching experience in the high school was unpleasant especially the first three days because of large unruly classes. I found Global Volunteers to be extremely bureaucratic, forcing us to ‘journal’ about our experiences then give a thought for the day and ‘report’ back to the group during breakfast. There were tons of rules also such as not being able to take pictures the first two days. Near the end of the trip I wrote: Of course I’ve fought the bureaucratic crap every inch of the way. The last straw was his handing out the 20 pages of forms to fill out before we leave. I’m putting them back in the envelope blank, sealing it up and returning it.
The latter aspect of the trip was exacerbated by a film crew from the Today show which followed us around the first few days. I wrote in my journal that: We had to wait around for them yesterday afternoon and have them film our tour through the old city. Then a couple of volunteers and the head of GV went to a teacher’s home and were filmed there. This morning they were at our high school and the other volunteer was selected to be part of a debate that was filmed. She said it was all about the reporter, not the GV or the teacher. Towards the end of the trip one of the other volunteers with whom I became friends, Kitty from Portland, said she had the same reaction to the film crew as I did.
Returning to my first issue, my concerns about the group, I eventually learned that I was totally wrong on this front. Even though the majority of the volunteers were retired and older than I, there was a core group of 8-10 volunteers who were crazy funny and equally rebellious with respect to the rules and regulations. A few days into the trip we settled into a routine of someone buying wine for the pre-dinner drinks, drinking all the wine at dinner and having more after dinner. Our dinners became rowdier by the day and we even co-opted our little waiter into the fun. He was great although he didn’t understand the ‘lottery game’ I came up with where we voted on how many times we’d have veal and kiwi.
Here are a few excerpts from the funny dinners and cocktail hours, along with some pictures. (I wrote next to one of the pictures, “Did we ever stop drinking?”)
As the group has loosened up the dinners (and pre and post dinner drinking) have become much more fun. We have a really funny waiter at dinner who jokes around w/ us now. Wednesday night he was trying to explain the menu for Thursday and even the Italian speakers couldn’t understand him. Finally Virginia snorted like a pig and he almost fell to the floor laughing. Then later we talked him into getting us a cake for Kitty’s b-day last night. Also last night Virginia thought he said Pinocchio when he said fanicchio or something like that. Apparently Pinocchio means gay in Italian which led to some hilarious comments by the waiter. Tonight will probably be fairly crazy since its Friday night.
The group at dinner
The group (or more accurately those of us who rebelled) really solidified on our weekend trips. You can read about those trips and the beautiful cities of Lecce, Martina Franca, Alberbello, Otranto and others in my Ostuni and the Puglia post. But as we walked and talked and drank our way through those trips, we became solid friends and the fun carried over to our second week. I also wrote after the first day’s trip: Jeff, our leader, didn’t join us so dinner and post dinner drinks got a little more rambunctious than usual. But nothing like the discussion this morning when Ginny grilled every one about how to use the bidet, then, on a dare from me, asked Jeff if he could get us some info off the internet on bidet procedures.
In fact this is the only group I’ve been with that had a reunion. Several of the core crazies lived in the Boston area and invited the rest of us out the following Memorial Day. I kept in touch longer with that group longer than any other that I’ve traveled with.
The teaching aspect was by far the most disappointing. I don’t know if it was just me or poor management on the part of Global Volunteers but this is what I wrote after the first few days: The students are completely disinterested for the most part and the teachers have no control, at least not in the school I’m assigned to. There’s a huge variation in peoples’ experiences. Some have terrific teachers who show them all over and have invited them to their homes. Not me. As usual I have the worst of the worst, surly teachers, students who hardly know a word of English. Today was especially bad. I exhausted all possible topics and had to resort to reading from their text. It was a group of 17 year olds and I felt like an idiot as they sat there, stony faced and totally bored.
Things eventually got better in large part because of help from Marianne who taught at the high school with me. She was a retired SPED teacher from Worcester and she gave me lots of advice when we taught together. We eventually were assigned to a better teacher, Catarina, and I wrote: As a teacher I like her the best. She has good control over the class and tried to integrate us into their planned assignments.
Although I was annoyed when our ‘leader’ told us we also had to tutor after school, overall the tutoring was the best experience from a teaching standpoint. Even an unplanned tutoring session turned out well. I wrote in my journal: Yesterday we went in later than planned because one of our teachers wasn’t coming in and as we drove up to the school, there were kids standing around who should have been in class. Our teacher asked them what they were doing and found that the school was closed due to vandalism. So we went to MBE to send e-mails, then had a latte w/ our teacher and met a small group of students back at the hotel where we tutored them for 2 ½ hours. I think it was the most worthwhile time of the past 2 weeks; at least they seemed to enjoy it and get something out of it. They each gave us the traditional kiss on the cheek when they left.
In addition to the huge discrepancy in the teaching experience, I think I was the only volunteer who didn’t get invited on an outing with a teacher such as going to the beach or to a teacher’s home for dinner which was extremely disappointing. Maybe it was the result of my always fighting the bureaucracy but I think any group such as Global Volunteers should see that every volunteer gets a similar experience.
I’m planning to do a partially solo trip the fall of 2017, starting with 2 weeks in Florence taking an Italian language course through Michelangelo Institute, http://www.michelangelo-edu.it/index.htm. The course I’m taking is for 50+ and includes a number of cultural activities, dinners, and a trip out of town. I’ve wanted to do this forever and I’m hoping that combined with my recent TEFL certification, it will open doors for teaching in Italy.
However I’m feeling a lot of trepidation because I tried this once before 20 years ago in Spain. To say it was not a good trip would be a mild understatement. Granted I was in a bad place in my life, having just lost my job because the RTC went away, but the school experiences first in Valencia and then in Sevilla were the type that I’ve tried to forget–weird living arrangements, no other students that I could relate to and very few activities. I just remember being lonely and stressed most of the time.
This time I’m staying in my own apartment plus having been to Florence 7 times previously, I should be able to manage my time alone. I’ve already found a new wine bar near the school that I want to try plus, hopefully, I’ll be staying in the Santa Croce area where my niece and I took a cooking class last fall and learned our way around Mercato Ambrogio. Stay tuned for further developments.
[Post trip comment: Overall it was a positive experience and I went back in September 2019, having an even better experience. You can read about both in my Istituto Michelangelo, parte uno and Istituto Michelangelo, parte due posts.]
Lessons learned: As I said in my introduction, I’m working on a post called Attitude is Everything and I think the reader can see where I may be heading based on this post. I’m also working on a post about traveling with my sister and the ups and downs with those trips. And the conclusion is the same. Whether traveling solo or with someone, your expectations going into the trip can make all the difference in the world. In fact the best trips I’ve ever had were the ones where I had no expectations and just went to have fun.