In the cyber abyss of reviews, blogs and travel forums, engrossed for countless hours in research the Paris from my dreams began to take shape. Now by countless hours, I mean four hours per night (at least), from May until November 2013 when I finally left for the city of lights. Now before you hit that ‘x’ symbol on your computer screen and make for the hills thinking I must be a an OCD mad woman, in my defence allow me to explain.
You see having never travelled independently until thirty years of age, I’d developed some unconventional fears, the ‘unknown’ being one of them. Like, what if my luggage is lost and I have to use all my spending money to purchase clothing. Or a natural disaster grounds air traffic and flights, leaving me stranded abroad for an infinite and unknown time. Or perhaps, what if the establishment for the hotel reservation that I’ve made has over allocated, pushing them to full capacity and upon my arrival I discover I am without lodging. Argh! Too many what if’s. Too many unknowns.
But, and it is a very BIG but, herein lies the beauty of the paradox. For it is in the ‘unknown’ that entices me to do what also scares me. The exhilaration of an “I can do this, I’ve got this” empowering, warm and fuzzy aftermath. For it is in the ‘unknown’ that we are challenged, and it is in the realm of ‘unknown’ that we soon discover that which we previously did not know. It is in the sphere of ‘unknown’ that I grow. Grow in confidence to face and experience new challenges. Grow in understanding and insight through new ideas that are borne from new situations. It’s as ‘they’ say, nothing changes in life, if you don’t make room for change. For me change is the doorway to the destination of opportunity, (and most of the time those opportunities were only later realized). On a side note, I have an amazing story which I’ll share with you at another time about meeting the head of the entire Victorian division of one of the largest Telco companies in Australia, it changed everything for me – but that’s another story.
Anyway, so this fear of the unknown versus the exhilaration of the unknown are at odds with each other in an emotional tug-a-war. Having once tuned in midway to a TV show on people with odd phobias I witness footage of a woman with snails crawling over her entire exposed body. Another was a man being encouraged to confront his phobia by touching the bowl of a public toilet and suddenly I had a light bulb moment whilst listening to the words of the psychologist. He was reassuring the phobic participants with, “…You are not your emotions. You control your emotions, not your emotions you.” That, right there was my turning point (at least mentally). The moment when you chose to crucify the fears and inhibitions that limit your potential and rob you of your dreams. That is when I decided that solo travel as a female is an option for me. Travelling with a child is ok. Venturing to a foreign country where everything is alien is ok.
However, in reality, maximizing my experience whilst abroad still required more than a light bulb inspirational moment of “Just Go”. The fears were all still real, they were just no longer going to dictate my actions, and so my inner choleric knew that as the saying goes, “knowledge is power”. It is this same powerful knowledge that I desire you too. For you to be overseas, and if/when things go wrong to be able to have your mini hissy fit, but then stop and think “I’ve got this”. Here’s how…….
That’s my secret, my key and the best guarantee to the road map for successful travel. In passing I mentioned this to my best friend one day, to which she replied, “…how do you even think or know where to start? How do you know what you don’t know?” So that got me thinking, that if she wondered this, perhaps there may be others sharing the same question. So here is my personal self- evaluation planner that is one of many tools to walking away from the best trip ever.
1. In life, what do I place great value and importance on?
Is it experiences, culture, art, history, shopping, cleanliness, respect, safety, luxury, food, spontaneity, independence, structure, quality versus quantity, etc.
The above considerations are an efficient filtering tool when choosing destinations of interest. I am an extreme worrier at the best of times, so safety rates high on my list. I always research the potential safety issues for any possible destination. Smart Traveller (a government website) is brilliant for this, although very conservative in its advice. Another effective tool in ascertaining a countries safety level (just as a gauge) is by reading their local newspaper. What makes headlines can sometimes be a good indication of the goings on.
2. What time Constraint do I have?
A weekend? One week? Perhaps a toddler or tea-totaler that needs daily afternoon naps to avoid transforming into a crankosaurous. Consider daylight saving and seasonal changes, particularly relevant to me as I prefer to explore with the light of day. Navigating unknown streets whilst in the dark can detract from ones experience, particularly if you are anxious by nature, so knowledge of useable daylight hours is particularly helpful. Establishing how much useable time you have is also essential to setting the right pace and momentum for your day (see sample itineraries for inspiration), in conjunction with considering point number three below.
3. What are my physical and personal limitations?
Perhaps to some this question may seem like common sense, but let’s not forget about the image that most of have seen or heard of. The poor (lovely), over ambitious and over optimistic tour group member who trails miles behind the rest of the group. That image of the struggling ill prepared person, swayed by the high resolution PC images of rugged mountains and a winding path to cycle through, along-side azure lakes, only to discover that due to fitness levels, age, or health the experience in reality was anti-climactic. Why not see the mountains by boat, or a walking tour, perhaps bus it, a chauffeur drive you, a scenic overhead helicopter flight? Find the experience you desire, and then match the method of experiencing it to suit your limitations. The end result should always be to walk away from the experience having enjoyed it, otherwise it is has the potential to negatively taint your memory of the trip.
4. Ask yourself, “Why have I chosen this destination?”
This filtering school of thought guides you when deciding on activities, assists in the drafting process of your itinerary and helps clarify expectations. Having learnt the hard way unvoiced expectations is a recipe for marital disaster, as my hubby huffed and puffed whilstI shopped up a storm on one of our trips years ago. In hindsight, he had no idea that shopping was high on my agenda for the destinations, now when planning for travel we always ask each other, “…What are the three things you want most from this trip?” No guessing what his re-occurring top one is, starts with ‘S’, ends with ‘X’ (sorry there goes my first moment of too much oversharing), but I did warn you about that in my “about” page of this blog….anyway moving right along.
5. What is the budget?
In a voyeuristic kind of way, I always find this one so interesting. The different ideas and approaches that some have. There are those that just go, do all that they want via credit card, and then faint when the bill arrives. Then there are those that plan by first setting their budget, and then fit their itinerary within those parameters. Then there is me. Itemizing and listing all the things I must and want to do, how much each activity will cost and then arriving at a final figure, which determines my budget. Activate the savings plan (an agreed and affordable amount per week), divided by the total cost of the budget, which then churns out how many weeks/months it will take me to save the necessary figure and Voila! I have a travel date. You still with me?
6. What style of trip, with what focus do you want?
For examples, Romance, Adventure, Structured, Spontaneous, Independent, Guided, (perhaps a combination of more than one).
The final lucky number 7, and the most crucial for me,
7. What movie reel is playing in your head when dreaming of (….insert whatever destination you’re considering here…)?
Perhaps I’m odd and unique, as I have mental snap shots and images playing like a film reel on repeat, screening how my trip will unfold. From the sights to the sounds, I imagined a croissant in hand, meandering along side streets whilst sipping on exquisite Parisian coffee. Often pausing to gaze into shop fronts and feeling like a glamazon fashionista. I dreamt that the aroma of yeast and rising dough would waft from boulangeries and flora filled wicker baskets attached to rustic steel bicycle frames would weave in and out of lane ways like a scene from Owen Wilson’s “Midnight in Paris” film.
This movie reel, without realizing it at the time was actually my unvoiced expectations. The way I hoped to find Paris. The marketed images from films and magazines that had lulled me in love with this romantic city. So thank goodness for prior research, which adjusted my expectations prior to arriving. I discovered Australian style good coffee can only be found if you go digging for it. Though the food is amazing, it can be a real hit and miss affair unless you know where to go.
I also discovered through research once again, that nobody drinks coffee to go (ie: takeaway). If you want to blend in with the locals leave the sneakers at home and linger over that meal, sip that coffee while seated. For this is the French way.
As for my reverie, lost in thought, drifting on foot through laneways whilst gazing at window displays… well, not so. My eyes were glued to the ground, playing hop scotch with the dog poo.
So, on that note I shall not leave you. Rather, I bid you adieu by saying that the countless hours of research was the most beneficial item that I packed in my suitcase of dreams as I prepared to board. Paris bound I arrived with a pat-yourself-on-the-back kind of itinerary (which in practice performed like clock-work), empowered by a confidence that is borne from knowledge and insight of pre-preparing, as opposed to a “let’s just wing-it” attitude, (pardon the pun).
I arrived with expectations that were realistic yet hopeful, and departed six days later for home with my heart left somewhere between rue Cambon and Place Vendome. I’m going back to retrieve it, although I suspect that will take a great deal of coaxing.