Some of my European friends think it’s extraordinary that I am an American and yet, inexplicably, I don’t chew gum, carry a gun, or claim to have been abducted by aliens. Our images of other cultures are often very loosely tethered to reality. But during my ten years in Seville, I’ve also experienced strange and sublime moments that actually live up to my more colorful images of living abroad.
For instance, there was the night in 2004 when Spanish friends suggested stopping for a nightcap at a bar they described as having a “special atmosphere.” Arriving around midnight, when Seville’s social life is generally hitting its stride, we were surprised to discover the place was deserted. We had just settled at a table with our drinks when the door opened and five young men strolled in.
My friend’s eyes widened and she leaned forward, whispering, “That’s Farruquito!” She indicated a boy of 22, very slim, with long black hair and fine-boned features.
“He is a gypsy,” she whispered. “The best flamenco dancer of his generation. They say –“ Here she dropped her voice even lower. “They say he killed a man in a hit-and-run accident, and he tried to tell people his younger brother was driving, because he knew the boy was too young to be sent to prison. The case is about to go to trial.”
Farruquito and his friends collected their drinks and sat at a table in the corner, talking and laughing. Occasionally they broke out into a bit of flamenco singing, their hands clapping out the complicated rhythms, boot heels tapping the floor.
The door opened again, and in walked a dozen people dressed in dark clothing, speaking Russian in low voices. They had the hardest faces of anyone I’d ever seen in real life. Even the women looked like serial killers. It didn’t take my friend’s whispered comments to clue me in that these were Russian mafia. They fanned out, taking over three or four of the little tables, talking in harsh whispers, their eyes roaming over the room. I wondered if I should drop to the floor and crawl to the exit now, or wait until shots rang out.
My friends and I finished our drinks as quickly as we could without looking as if we were hurrying. We murmured to one another, “Well, this has been lovely but it’s getting late... perhaps we should...” We paid the tab and made for the door.
“You were right,” I said, as soon as we were safely outside. “That bar really did have a special atmosphere.”
Fast forward ten years to last Saturday morning, when I happened to see a poster for a performance by Farruquito. He’d served 14 months in jail and had been back on stage for a few years, and I was curious to see him dance.
I’m no expert on flamenco, but I have watched a great deal of it, and Farruquito was easily the best dancer I’d ever seen, quick and graceful, his feet moving so fast they became a blur. His home town crowd had come to cheer him on: portly men in flashy suits, lithe young women who moved like dancers, older women with magnificent hair and tight leopard print dresses, young boys looking nervous and ill-at ease in stiff suit jackets, and characters I’d seen in the local cafés and flamenco bars for years. The plump, middle-aged woman next to me shouted and clapped and half-leapt out of her seat at peak moments of the show. After the curtain fell and the tumultuous applause finally died down, she turned to me and said, “I am the happiest woman in the world.”
I knew just how she felt. Life rarely matches our expectations, and even more rarely exceeds them. It was almost as exciting as being kidnapped by aliens.
Have you ever had an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime experience while you were abroad? Please leave a comment below telling me all about it!
“It all happened so fast,” said my friend Debbie at a recent dinner. “I’m standing at an ATM, this woman comes up and asks me a question, and then I glance down at the ground and my backpack is gone! My passport, credit cards, tickets, cash, everything!”
Driving home afterwards, I said to Rich, “Imagine being alone, stranded in a foreign country, with all your valuables stolen!”
Rich, who is (and I say this lovingly) a trifle obsessed with travel security measures, spent the next 25 miles imagining just that – and figuring out ways to avoid such disasters. I thought we’d plumbed the depths of the subject when he was preparing for our three-month train trip (see 10 Best Ways to Keep Your Valuables Safe on the Road) but it seemed there was a great deal left to say about it.
1. Never put all your valuables in one place. Divvy up electronics, credit cards, cash, documents, and vital medications, and store them in at least two places, such as on your person, in your daypack, inside your carryon bag, etc. Never place valuables in checked luggage, which can all too easily be lost or stolen.
2. Be prepared to locate and disable all electronic devices remotely. Rich likes Apple’s Find My iPhone, an app that can identify the location of a missing device, lock it down, erase all contents remotely, or – if it’s just mislaid around the house – make it ring loudly until we find it. We also have Prey, an app that works on Android, Windows, and other platforms, letting you recover your devices or wipe them remotely. Coolest part: you can trigger a loud alarm sound and send a message to the thieves to let them know you’re after them.
3. Carry your purse tucked under your arm. Despite what you’ve read in the catalogues, a bag slung diagonally across your chest isn’t safer. My friend Rena had one, and the motorcyclists who grabbed it dragged her down the street by the strap. “Your only thought at that point is how to get it off as quickly as possible,” she says. Similarly, when a motorcyclist snatched my shoulder bag, I was glad the thin strap broke; if there had been a wire cable inside the strap, I’d have shared Rena’s fate.
4. Sit with your purse on your lap and your daypack’s strap looped around a leg – your own, or that of a table or chair. When I suggested this to Patricia, a Canadian friend in Seville, she said, “But I feel so safe here!” I said, “Me, too. But I’ve had my purse stolen twice, right off my shoulder, in broad daylight.” She put her purse on her lap. If your bag’s too large for that, secure it to the furniture or your person. This isn’t necessary everywhere, of course, but it’s a must in sidewalk cafés, parks, and crowded bars.
5. If a stranger approaches you, watch out. Some thieves work in teams, and one may try to distract you – for instance, by pretending to drop a lit cigarette on your trousers and patting your leg frantically as if to put out the fire. When this happened to my friend Jim in the Paris subway, he felt a tug and managed to grab onto his wallet. My friend Debbie at the ATM wasn’t so lucky.
One of the (few) benefits of being robbed is that you learn it’s not the end of the world, just annoying, inconvenient, and expensive. You do recover. Which is good, because no security measures are foolproof; even the best are no match for truly brilliant criminals like Professor Moriarity, Neal Caffrey, or Thomas Crown. But never fear; Rich is constantly devising new and better security protocols, and I’m standing by to pass them along to you.
Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I haven't obtained any free or discounted gear in return for promoting anything on this blog. I'm just letting you know about products Rich and I consider to be the most useful for our kind of travel. If you have travel security tips or horror stories to share, I'd love to hear them!
Few things can make my eyes glaze over faster than looking at other people’s vacation photos. I’ll never forget the Christmas when a friend gave her husband a video made from home movies of his graduation trip to Europe thirty years before. After a long, wine-soaked dinner, we settled into soft sofas to watch endless footage of our much-younger host standing stiffly in front of one monument after another...after another... I was asleep within fifteen minutes, and would have spent the entire night there, snoring away, if one of the other guests hadn’t had the presence of mind to exclaim, “Well, this has been lovely. Thanks for sharing those wonderful movies!” And that, thank goodness, brought the ordeal to a close.
What is it about travel that makes us so determined to show our photos to one another? After all, you know what I look like, and you know what the Eiffel Tower looks like, and seeing a photo of me standing in front of the Eiffel Tower is pretty low on the thrill spectrometer. It's pretty clear this urge to display our travel pix has little to do with others' desire to see them and everything to do with why we chose to take that particular journey.
If you ask people why they travel (and I often do, usually late at night in bars) you generally hear either “to get away from it all” or “to see the world.” If they’re feeling particularly honest, or tipsy, they may confess it’s to have something exciting to post on social media. Friends who run a glamping (glamorous camping) website say the choice of vacation destinations and accommodations is now increasingly driven by the desire to post cool photos on Facebook. And let’s face it, a tree house in France stands a better chance of going viral than that picture of you in front of the Eiffel Tower.
All those are real and valid reasons, but I don’t think any of them is the main reason. I believe we travel to change ourselves. Sometimes it’s the simple need to relax our bodies and minds on a beach or entertain ourselves at Disneyland, but often it’s a deeper desire to reconnect with the world. “It’s easy to think in terms of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ when you’re watching TV,” my husband, Rich, said recently. “But when you are out there in some impossibly remote location, and you meet people who are essentially no different from everyone else you know, you realize there is no ‘them.’ It’s all ‘us.’”
Seeing new things makes us look with fresh eyes. And when we return, often we find that everything we know is infused with new meaning. As T. S. Eliot famously wrote: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” If we’re lucky, we’ll also know something new about ourselves as well.
Coming home transformed, perhaps in ways too subtle to identify or describe, we often have a vague yet powerful feeling that we must – must! – share this with our closest friends. But how can we do this without leaving them glassy-eyed, stealing glances at the clock, or snoring on the couch? Here are three strategies that may help.
1. Never show anyone more than three photos at a time. (OK, maybe four or five, tops.) Pick the ones that have real meaning, the ones with stories behind them.
2. When you tell those stories, put a bit of “ouch!” into them. Tales of crystal blue water, golden sand, waving palm trees, umbrella drinks… I’m sorry, I dozed off for a moment. Where was I? Oh, yes. The best stories are about things going wrong – the snake in the bed, the AirBnB disaster, the worst haircut ever – and how you coped.
3. Relate your stories to theirs. “It was almost as bad as the time your car broke down in the blizzard…” And then invite them to tell their stories.
You might even ask to see their pictures.
Do you have a vacation photo from hell? Come on over to my Facebook page, post the photo and tell us the story behind it. Or just describe it in the comments below and we'll use our imaginations.
“Driverless cars? Sure, I see them on the road all the time,” said my friend Susan, who lives and works in Silicon Valley. “They’re testing them on the freeway now.”
“Are they safe?” I asked incredulously.
She looked at me strangely. “They’re safer than cars driven by humans.”
I could see her point. A robot car is never going to drive drunk, get distracted by spilling hot coffee in its lap, or turn around to yell at the kids just as a semi is pulling into its lane. My question was just one more proof – as if any were needed – that I’ve gotten a bit out of touch with my hometown. I was born in Palo Alto and grew up in Menlo Park and Atherton, in the very heart of Silicon Valley, a place where futuristic fantasies become old hat before I’ve even heard about them.
Nowadays, the signs on the area’s glossy new business centers make me feel as if I’m driving around on my laptop’s desktop: Apple, Google, Facebook, Intel, HP, Oracle, Evernote, FlipChart. People talk casually about such cutting-edge technologies as Google Glass, the smart headset that’s built into the upper corner of a pair of eyeglasses, letting you check emails, take photos and videos, talk on the phone, and generally stay plugged in wherever you go with voice or fingertip commands. It’s still in the developmental stage, and so far, they haven’t programmed it talk to you in Scarlett Johansson’s voice, but I’m beginning to wonder if the movie Her was not so much sci-fi as a documentary of the next stage of our lives.
And I, for one, am ready to embrace the new technologies. Take the self-parking car, for example. Rich was out recently with our friend Phil, and when they found a tight but workable parallel parking space, Phil pressed a button, took his hands off the wheel and his feet off the gas pedal, and the car wriggled into the spot on its own. Now that’s what I call progress! Some cars can even be sent off on their own through a multi-story parking garage to seek out a space and park, returning to you later when you tap an icon on your iPhone. Eliminating the need for walking through dark, scary, half-deserted parking structures late at night? Brilliant.
Now that the initial shock has worn off, I’m warming to the driverless car idea in a big way. Rich and I don’t need a vehicle in walk-everywhere Seville, but when we’re in California, we have a zippy little red VW with a GPS system we call Vickie. We laugh at the way she butchers local street names, argue with her when she insists the freeway is faster at rush hour, and put up with some serious attitude when she’s recalculating our route. But she always gets us where we need to go. Would I like to turn all the driving and parking over to Vickie? You bet.
Driverless cars are now approved for road testing in California, Nevada, and Florida; Michigan allows them on the road but only with a human in the driver’s seat, and Texas is expected to legalize road tests soon. How safe are driverless cars, really? So far, two accidents involving driverless cars have been reported, one when a human had taken over the controls, another when the driverless car was rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light. Let’s face it, with 90% of car accidents caused by human error, having Vickie or Scarlett behind the wheel may be, as the testing indicates, considerably safer, more fuel efficient, and of course, way cooler. It's almost impossible to imagine how these robot vehicles could change the lives of commuters, soccer moms, the disabled, drunks, kids too young to drive, couples on dates ... and anyone who's ever been stuck in traffic. Driverless cars are not available commercially yet, but Google is talking with car manufacturers anxious to buy or lease the technology and get them in the market and on the road as soon as possible.
Welcome to the future.
Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I never obtain any free or discounted gear in return for promoting anything on this blog. I've never even seen a driverless car, tried on a pair of Google Glasses, or watched Phil's car park itself. But having spent the last five weeks in the San Francisco Bay Area, I thought I ought to bring you all up to date on some of the dazzling technology being tested here. If you've had a chance to try out any of these cool tech toys, please let me know about it in the comments below.
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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