With Black Friday now extending from Halloween to New Year’s, the holiday season has become, if possible, even more overwhelming. In a rare demand for sanity, American consumers pressured some huge retail chains into closing on Thanksgiving Day, like they did way back when (two or three years ago). Well done, American consumers! But what can the rest of us do, right now, to keep our mental balance as the seasonal madness picks up speed?
My solution: Escape into a good book.
You've no doubt noticed that what you’re reading affects the way you feel about the world. Remember when you were deep into Gone Girl and found yourself eyeing everyone with suspicion? Can you ever forget sitting up alone, late at night, with that Stephen King thriller and jumping out of your skin when a tree branch tapped against the window? Reading The Man in the High Castle or The Diary of Anne Frank, didn’t you find yourself calculating ways to survive if the Nazis invaded your town? I’m not saying these books made me paranoid, but back in Ohio, Rich and I built a bookcase on hinges to hide a secret room in our attic. Because hey, you never know. My point is, books alter the way we think and feel. And much as I love the holidays, especially here in laid-back Seville, at times I find the hustle and bustle discombobulating.
“I think books are like people,” Emma Thompson once said. “In the sense that they’ll turn up in your life when you most need them.” Wise words. So what books do you most need right now? For recombobulating, I often start with a cozy read, the literary equivalent of a comfy armchair and a nice, hot cup of tea...
BOOKS THAT BRING COMFORT & JOY
Statistics show that in the USA the biggest complaints about the holidays center around stores being overcrowded and starting to play Christmas carols too early in the year. These are legitimate annoyances, to be sure, but they are far from the worst nightmares life can throw at us. I’ll never forget my stark terror at reading The Martian and imagining myself stranded in outer space with nothing between me and certain death but my math skills. Yikes! Stories like that really make us appreciate the little things, like food and air, and help us keep our daily worries in perspective.
STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE WHO SURVIVE STAGGERINGLY GHASTLY CHALLENGES
Long lines are another pet peeve about the holiday season. But I find that if I’m deep into a twisty-turny mystery novel, my mind is fully occupied trying to work out whether the fourth bathtub drowning is a copycat crime, how and when the widow’s twin sister disappeared, why the doctor burned that letter (if he really did), and what the author was thinking when she made the baby a hermaphrodite. Trying to unravel these kinds of knotty conundrums provides a pleasant pastime you can enjoy at your leisure while everyone around you is tapping their feet, snarling about sluggish lines, and glaring at the frazzled cashiers.
MYSTERIES TO UNRAVEL WHILE WAITING IN LINE
One of the toughest things about the holidays is their relentless insistence that you should be happy. I find Europeans are a bit more realistic on this point, but in the US, the pressure to be merry, to have one adorable Hallmark greeting card moment after another, can become exhausting and demoralizing. Sometimes the holidays aren’t about dreams coming true but about being alone, suffering through excruciating family dramas, going to grim office parties, and wishing desperately you were somewhere else.
ESCAPE WITH A TRAVEL MEMOIR
ESCAPE WITH ONE OF MY TRAVEL MEMOIRS
“To acquire the habit of reading,” W. Somerset Maugham once commented, “is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.” Stories help us weather life’s storms by transporting us out of ourselves. “Books are the plane, and the train, and the road,” said Anna Quindlen. “They are the destination and the journey. They are home.” And in that lovely sense, we can all take comfort, knowing that we truly will be home for the holidays.
Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I don't accept sponsorships of any kind. The books mentioned in this post are personal favorites I included because I thought you might enjoy them. My travel memoirs are available in paperback and e-book editions on Amazon worldwide.
Do you have books that you'd recommend as part of a holiday survival strategy? I'd love to hear about them!
There’s nothing quite like basking in the afternoon sun, sipping sangria, and knowing that back home your family and friends are trudging through knee-deep snow, stinging sleet, and/or the bitter winds of serious winter. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t enjoy the idea of my loved ones suffering. It’s just that after 20 years in Cleveland’s snow belt, I appreciate every deliciously warm, sun-drenched day I spend in Seville — especially in December, January, and February.
The climate here isn’t tropical; only the most die-hard sun worshippers will want to strip down to a bikini or seek out one of Andalucía’s topless beaches at this time of year. But if you don’t mind throwing on a sweater or jacket, you can have all the fun of exploring this magnificent old European city without the sweltering heat, high-season prices, and ever-increasing crowds of tourists found here in the summer months.
Here in Catholic Spain, December is naturally all about the run-up to Christmas. Although Santas and decorated trees are creeping in, mostly the season is about the magnificent Nativity scenes (known as belenes, from the word “Bethlehem”) which you can visit for free at various churches, businesses, and government buildings. Sevillanos feel the magnitude of the occasion requires far more than just a stable; many belenes include hundreds of figurines, the entire town of Bethlehem, Roman ruins, and (as a backdrop for the flight into Egypt) pyramids and the Sphinx.
If you look closely in the dark corners, you may discover a crouching caganer, a figure who is clearly defecating. Yes, you read that right. This earthy realism is meant to remind us that we don’t have to be perfect to be part of something miraculous. The tradition has launched a side industry of celebrity caganers, from Darth Vader to Madonna (the singer) to political and sports stars. Belenes can include other quirky elements; I’ve seen a shepherd “urinating” real water, a donkey giving birth, and streams with live goldfish swimming in them. Then there are the heavenly belenes made entirely of chocolate…
Sevillanos take great delight in their belenes and deplore the increasing commercialism of Christmas. However, if you don’t count the Nativity scenes, it seems to me that the entire city of Seville has fewer holiday decorations than you’d find in the average American shopping mall. December in this city is festive, but the emphasis is on parties rather than shopping for gifts, which are exchanged on January 6. But first, there’s New Year’s Eve, and for that you’ll need red underwear and a dozen grapes.
Here in Seville it’s de rigueur to ring in the New Year wearing bragas rojas (red underpants) beneath your street clothes. Don’t have any? Not to worry; you can find them in every clothing, department, and discount store throughout Seville, in every conceivable style from nice to very naughty indeed.
Dinner with the family is also a mandatory part of New Year’s Eve, and virtually all restaurants are closed; you’ll want to secure a reservation at a hotel dining room or buy picnic supplies early in the day. And while you’re shopping, be sure to pick up a dozen grapes. Take them down to Plaza Nueva shortly before midnight, where locals gather to ring in the New Year by swallowing one grape for each bong of the clock. It’s harder than it sounds, as you won’t have time to do much chewing. Fresh grapes need to be peeled (best undertaken before you open the champagne), or you can buy a can of 12 pre-peeled, juice-saturated grapes sold in markets for this purpose. What happens if you don’t get them all down on time? Bad luck in the year ahead. Pure foolish superstition, of course. But why risk it?
On January 6 the Three Kings (Reyes Magos) bring gifts, and on the eve of that happy event, a parade called the Cabalgata winds through the city for hours, with crews flinging 176,000 pounds of candy from 33 glittering floats. There are many splendid vantage points; I usually watch from opposite the Church of the Magdalena, which provides a gorgeous backdrop for photos.
The holiday celebrations are splendid fun, but if your travel schedule doesn’t overlap with any of them, remember that the real star is Seville itself. This city has been a favorite with international travelers since the days of Julius Cesar, and every generation has left behind its share of treasures: the world’s largest Gothic cathedral; the tomb of Christopher Columbus; the Moorish-style Alcázar palace and gardens, which Game of Thrones fans will recognize as the Water Gardens of Dorne; the controversial modern Metropol Parasol; the hottest flamenco scene anywhere; and so much more. If you’re looking for someplace to escape winter’s icy grip, here you’ll find mild weather, plenty to see and do, and 3000 uncrowded tapas bars waiting with open doors. Yes, winter is coming. And I can’t wait.
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“How do you deal with fights with your husband while you’re traveling?” It was the first question asked by a member of a book club I was Skyping with last week, discussing my latest memoir, Adventures of a Railway Nomad, about our three-month train odyssey. “You don’t write about any arguments in your book, but there must have been some.”
As it happens, Rich and I are both blessed with easygoing temperaments, but yes, of course there were the odd moments of disagreement and discord during our 83 days on the road. But during our 31 years together, we’ve worked out strategies that help us avoid allowing minor differences to escalate into major explosions. These strategies may not work for everyone, but they make it a lot easier for us to live and travel together amicably.
1. Discuss trip parameters in advance. Do you want a vacation or an adventure? Are you dreaming of five star hotels or funky Airbnb apartments in the bohemian quarter? Would you prefer to take it slow and easy or see everything you can possibly cram in? As familiar as we are with each other’s travel styles, Rich and I always spend at least one evening, preferably in a congenial pub with low lighting and good wine, refining our vision for the trip.
2. Debate issues on their merits. Rich and I have this crazy idea that if you each lay out the facts as you see them, often you’ll arrive quite naturally at a mutually agreeable solution. Say you’re in Bari, Italy, trying to decide whether to take the ferry to Croatia, Albania, or Greece. A little Internet research about each destination, some honesty about your preferences, a bit of give and take, and you’re likely to be on your way. On the other hand, you may be stuck in Bari forever if the discussion involves rehashing every controversial decision you two ever made about home equity loans, the kids’ education, and that investment in your old school chum’s start-up. Sort out the ferry on its own merits; rake over the past later if you must.
3. Agree to respect a veto. If one of us is keen to do something and the other cannot abide the idea, we agree from the outset that the veto will be the deciding vote. One person’s whim shouldn’t force the other to do something truly excruciating. For instance, last time we were in Boston, I was mildly curious to see the new Frost Ice Loft, the world’s largest permanent bar built entirely of ice. However, it struck Rich as a gimmicky tourist trap, and he wanted nothing to do with it. A veto allowed us to break the impasse without a fuss and move on. Vetoes should be rare occurrences; if they become frequent, it’s time to revisit point #1.
4. Allow each other the occasional beastly spasm. In an old Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, the famous sleuth makes a mildly infelicitous remark to his love interest, then instantly retracts it, saying, “I beg your pardon. It was a beastly spasm. Won’t happen again.” He gracefully defined the moment as a personal lapse — a reflection of his own failings, not Harriet's. Now, when one of us utters a cranky remark we know to be unfair and uncalled for, it can be annulled and forgotten by simply saying, “Sorry. Beastly spasm.” It’s a sort of linguistic “no harm, no foul” ruling.
5. Accept setbacks with as much grace as you can muster. A wise reader once wrote me, “Never chase a missed train … get a pastry and wait for the next one.” In a crisis, often the only sensible thing to do is regroup over coffee and pastry until your perspective is restored and you're ready to cope. This goes double when the crisis is your companion's fault. Did you miss the train because somebody took too long in the shower or got confused about the schedule? Then you have the high moral ground; don't squander it by throwing a hissy fit. Be nice. The other person will feel guiltier and try harder to do better in the future.
6. Rest when you’re tired. Traveling is fun but it’s also hard physical, mental, and spiritual work. Pressing on when you're exhausted and overwhelmed can turn the trip into a series of beastly spasms, arbitrary vetoes, and ad hominem attacks. What fun is that? When you feel yourself flagging, suggest taking a break. If your companion is eager to carry on, let him or her go solo for a few hours while you relax with a book on the beach or the porch of your B&B.
Traveling with others makes us up our game, often calling forth greater strength, patience, and generosity of spirit than we believe we possess. We are reminded that the people we love don’t have to be perfect to be convivial comrades, and that luckily, no one in their right mind will expect us to be flawless either. Our faults and imperfections make us who we are, lead us into adventures, and send us home changed in ways that will linger long after the photos are posted, the laundry is washed and folded, and the suitcases are stashed in the attic, awaiting the next journey.
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My husband — as he’ll be the first to admit —has a serious luggage fetish. Over the years, our closets and attics have become jammed with suitcases, backpacks, daypacks, duffle bags, satchels, stuff sacks, and zippered pouches of every configuration. In times of stress, I can always divert Rich’s thoughts to a more cheerful direction by uttering the magic phrase, “I saw a suitcase today that might interest you…”
Paradoxically, Rich’s goal is to travel with less luggage. We both love the greater freedom and mobility of packing light. But having tested this to the limit in our recent luggage-free travel experiment, we accept the fact that most journeys require more clothing, toiletries, and electronics than we can carry on our persons, even when we’re wearing the kind of outerwear equipped with upwards of a dozen pockets. So our quest continues for ever-better, more minimalist options. In case you’re considering downsizing your luggage, here’s what we’re using now and exploring for the future.
The Ultra-Light Roll-Aboard Suitcase
One heft of the IT World’s Lightest Carry-On — a mere 3 lbs. 8 oz. — and we were hooked. We bought the original model measuring 21 x 13 x 7.5 inches; current versions are slightly larger. We’ve dragged these bags everywhere, including three months of train travel, and they’re still going strong. There are other bags worth considering, many in the 5 lb. range; when they exceed 8 lbs., you’ll want to consider carefully whether they’re worth the weight.
You’ll also want to make sure your purchase meets current airline regulations for cabin baggage. These vary widely, but a safe bet would be 22 x 18 x 10 inches including wheels. And you’re going to want wheels, unless you’re tremendously young, fit, and hell-bent on proving that being cool is more important than moving about comfortably. The four-wheeled models are great for smooth terrain such as major airports but tricky to maneuver on cobblestones or rough pavement; two wheels, spaced as widely apart as possible, provide better stability on uneven ground.
The Roll-up Bag
This week a friend wrote me about the Rolo, a flat bag you carry rolled up like a yoga mat, then unfurl and hang up on arrival. While the roll-up design makes it impractical with the small laptops we often carry, for some shorter trips Rich and I are thinking of trying a Rolo for our combined clothing and a daypack for the electronics. I’ll let you know how we like it.
If we do tote our electronics about in a daypack, we may need to consider something along the lines of the Pacsafe Luggage Venture Safe 25L GII, which comes with elaborate security features including anti-slash wire mesh embedded in the fabric and RFID-blocking technology to keep thieves from stealing your data. Right now, my valuables are generally tucked inside my 17-pocket Scottevest, so I carry a discount-store daypack that sends out a don’t-bother-it’s-not-worth-it vibe. In the unlikely event it gets stolen, the thief will be disappointed to discover it contains little more than snacks and bottled water.
Whatever luggage you choose, you’ll want to secure it with a padlock that has a combination you set yourself. Many newer models display a TSA logo indicating they can be opened by the US government’s Transportation Security Administration, allowing them to search your baggage. (Don’t get me started on the kind of world we live in, where having strangers authorized to open your bags while you’re not present is defined as a safety feature.) We carry a metal cable for attaching bags to fixtures in hotel rooms, and fit our daypacks with zipper clips, which require sufficient fiddling and tugging that you’ll be alerted to any attempts to get them open. Our big, colorful luggage tags discourage thieves (who prefer to make off with anonymous bags so if caught they can claim it was “an honest mistake”) and contain contact information that might help us get them back.
Exploring the world of luggage design is a never-ending journey. And this is a good thing. Because just a few minutes ago, Rich suffered one of those ghastly data losses that plagues the life of every computer user from time to time. Luckily, this occurred just as I was about to send him the link for the high-tech daypack. I know he will cheer up immensely when he sees the subject line “luggage that might interest you…”
Have you found any luggage or travel gear especially useful on the road? I'd love to hear about it!
Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I don't accept sponsorships of any kind. The products mentioned in this post are here because I thought you might find them interesting. I haven't tried every one of them, and I welcome your input and feedback.
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Our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour
I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. Right now we're on our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, exploring the world's favorite cuisine to discover more about European culture.
Get updates on the journey.
See comfort food recipes and videos.
OUR CURRENT LOCATION:
Skopje, North Macedonia