Don’t Expect Benevolence When Traveling

Benevolence: 1. disposition to do good 2. a. an act of kindness b. a generous gift.  

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

I’ve recently completed planning an upcoming trip to Spain. I’ve inevitably said it before. I love Spain. Specifically, I love Barcelona and Catalonia. One day, I plan to own property and spend as much time as possible under the Catalan sun. I could drone on and on about it, but I’ll spare you. This post, rather, is a story of lessons learned in the pull-no-punches world of travel.

March 2 or February 3?

It all started with the date. My birthday is March 3. My better half and I tend to travel on or around my birthday. This past year, we opted for other locations rather than our beloved Spain. It has left a hole in our hearts that we aim to fill post haste. So this year, we’re headed back. As a huge football (soccer) fan, and having chosen FC Barcelona in 1978 as my club of clubs, we prioritize games at Camp Nou. We’ve been many times. We’re accustomed to searching the schedule and selecting games. We know, for instance, that European dates are written as Day-Month as opposed to Month-Day. Or are they? Earlier this year we looked on the website and saw the schedule that Valencia will be in town to face our blaugrana on 2/3. Perfect! I haven’t seen Valencia play in person and its a day before my birthday. Except that it isn’t. When we recently logged in to buy tickets, we came to realize that the website had transposed the dates for us American folk and Valencia will in fact be playing not on 2-Mar, but on 3-Feb. Of course, the game has now moved to 2-Feb because of other midweek fixtures, which will highlight my next point. But not so fast. Instead of playing a home game on 2-Mar, the current rendering of my childhood heroes will be on the road playing their bitter rivals Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu on 3-Mar. So if I want to see the game – and of course I do – we now have to travel to Madrid, which we weren’t planning to do.

Moving Targets

Having realized our folly, my wife and I shared a laugh. It really didn’t matter. We weren’t changing the dates of our travel just to see FCB play a home game. And, come on. If we can make the budget work, we’ll get to see another El Clasico, this time in the Bernabeu, which we have never visited. On top of that, we LOVE traveling by train in Europe. We often figure out how to visit another city simply to enjoy the train for a few hours. So, we checked our budgets and figured out how to get the tickets for the big game. Tickets now procured for the big game on 3-Mar (happy birthday to me!), it was time to get train tickets. I dutifully logged into Rail Europe and bought tickets at a great price. I was more than two months out, so tickets are quite manageable. I opted to not double the cost of the tickets with insurance because, come on, how could the date of El Clasico change? I then logged into Airbnb to find us a spot near the stadium for the night. It was a night game and we knew we would want to sleep in Madrid instead of chancing a busy night train back to Barcelona. I found an incredible little place at a great rate within a few blocks of the stadium. I am lucking out! It was available, which Airbnb tells me is a bit rare for game weekends and it auto-books as soon as I hit the go button – no negotiations. That is about the point where it all started to fall apart.

To my utter dismay, we got an alert from the ticket agency. Due to a midweek match in the Champions League, the date of El Clasico was moving from 3-Mar to 2-Mar. For any American readers who don’t appreciate European sports, this is like moving the NFC playoff game from a Sunday to a Saturday. Simply unheard of. Yes, yes, the European club schedules all have the asterisked liner note *subject to change*, but seriously? Who changes El Clasico? LaLiga, that’s who. With one stroke of the pen, my Airbnb reservation and my fast-on-the-draw train tickets were rendered useless. Surely not. There is plenty of time, and I know my way around the negotiation table. I’ll make short work of this. It is a simple change of the date for reservations that are more than a month away. Just a few more conversations to take care of. Minimal complications for an experienced traveler.

Not so fast Mr. Negotiator

First up, the train tickets. I logged into the website to figure out the contact point. Often European travel companies such as the rail system have a US number so you can call and talk to an actual person. But I see they’ve added Live Chat as an option. Perfect. I’ll state my case, strike a fine balance between self-deprecation and skillful logic, and voila, we’ll have new tickets issued, perhaps for a minimal change fee. If I’m on my game, I could even negotiate my way out of those pesky fees. After all, who changes the date of El Clasico? As things would have it, I apparently was not on my game. Not only did I fail to get my reservation moved by a day for a change fee, I had no success whatsoever. I asked what they would do with the now useless tickets we had purchased. Did they need me to at least confirm that they would not be used so someone else could buy them? No, my delightful little chat agent told me, “Simply, don’t show up. We don’t track how many tickets go unfulfilled.” My inner Process Engineer was balking at the waste in this process. But all for nought. My indignation and roughly $150 were able to purchase a new set of tickets at a time when we’d be able to actually see the game. Ok, unlucky at cards, lucky with the bed. I’m certain I’ll do better with Airbnb.

Airbnb is different. It isn’t some cold hotel employee who could care less about your silly needs. Airbnb is run by people – real people like you and me – who will appreciate the scrambling caused by the date change of El Clasico. And besides, this is Spain, where they run the Teleferico for an extra 90 minutes after closing because people are standing in line. I’m sure my Airbnb hosts will have a good laugh with me and we’ll get this all sorted out. Simple date change and we’re good to go. After several back-and-forth messages, here’s the deal that I was offered: “Good morning Troy, March 2 is available but it’s needed booking 2 days or more and it’s more expensive for the match and weekend day so we understand if you don’t want to book.” So instead of simply moving the reservation by one day at the same price, I now needed to book at least two days and pay a higher price per day than the one day I had previously reserved. In this case, I did not take the bait. The Airbnb host and I mutually agreed to cancel the reservation (for a minimal fee, of course) and I did business elsewhere.

The universe does not care about your silly travels

I have to admit that I was feeling a bit daunted by this round of failed negotiations. I’ve been extra busy at work and simply committing the time to make the adjustments was a fairly big effort. Figuring out new days and times, where to be and when, how to coordinate with other plans during the trip were all complications before the matter of money hit the table. A few weeks ago, I observed in Why We Travel that we travel so the uniqueness of the new experiences will pull us out of our routines and to challenge us to think differently about the world around us. I think this is part of that very same message. I’m not special. The world doesn’t owe me anything. If anything, I should thank my lucky stars that I’m privileged to have these complications. My attachment to the way things should be is just unskilled thinking. In the end, it will all work out. So far it has cost more time and money than we wanted, but we’re still going to have a great time. And the uniqueness of this new experience has pulled me out of my routine and challenged me to think differently about the world around me.

Wishing you great travels filled with less folly than mine.

Cheers!

Looking back on 42

42. That is the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. At least according to Deep Thought, the supercomputer in Douglas Adams’ seminal work, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it is. Those who have read The Hitchhiker’s Guide… will already be snickering with this reminder. Those who have not, should. Having recently completed my 42nd trip around the sun on this tiny blue planet, I’ve decided to have a look back on my Ultimate Year.

  • It was my first full year without my Dad. He died in 2016, and looking back, his death has had a huge impact on me. Most notably, the circumstances of his death had a profound influence on my mindfulness practice.
  • A year of seniors. My son is now a senior in college, my daughter a senior in high school. My, how time flies.
  • I ran my first marathon. And my second, and my third, and my fourth. I can be obsessive.
  • My first full year of eating a plant-based diet. Inspired by Scott Jurek and Rich Roll, I’ve got better health numbers now than I did in most of my 20’s and all of my 30’s.
  • It was a good year for my career too. I want to keep my career separate from this blog, but it was a good year following a promotion to a leadership position. I have a fantastic team full of amazing individuals. I wouldn’t trade a single one.
  • My mindfulness practice tipped – in a good way. I read several insightful books this past year, but two of the best were The Power of Now by Eckart Tolle and Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. Gaining insights and simply fumbling my way through it, I have taken control of my emotions and want for almost nothing. I would by no means call myself enlightened, but it is a fascinating state of being.
  • I supportted my wife as she pursues her passion: a Master’s of Psychology from Harvard University.
  • I fell in love with trail running. Previously, I had only pounded the pavement. In my 42nd year, I ran several trail races locally and, perhaps most life-altering, I got the chance to run the petit balcon in the French Alps near Chamonix. This is where I took the lead picture of this post.
  • I was able to go whale watching. Surprisingly, this was the highlight of our trip to the Massachusetts beach house in Marshfield. I expected to like seeing whales. I didn’t expect to be mystified.
  • We finally took the trip to Montserrat. After years of traveling to Barcelona and always thinking about it, we finally took the day trip to Montserrat. The monastery houses the Black Madonna and my Mom was speechless. The views from the mountain are stunning.

As I wrap up this short post, I find myself in a state of complete gratitude. My wife and I both hail from small towns (I’m not even sure “town” is the right word for these places) in the Appalachian Ohio Valley, home of economic backwaters and the opioid crisis. Sometimes we look at each other and just shake our heads in awe of what the Universe has provided. The views at 42 were pretty grand.

The view from the Marshfield, MA beach house:

Whale Watching on Cape Cod

James and me (right) in Chamonix before heading up into the Alps

My homemade veggie paella

Looking down from Montserrat

Traveling with a Parent

Sunset over Valencia

Traveling can be a great way to share fun and exciting experiences with a parent by following a few simple rules.

The Backstory

I must get my adventurous spirit from my mother. She had always wanted to travel with Dad, but his declining health after retirement made it impossible. Sadly, he passed away about 18 months ago. After allowing herself ample time to grieve his passing and after getting things settled, I’m grateful that she accepted my invitation to go to Spain. So about 8 months ago, my wife and I took Mom to our adopted home away from home, Barcelona and added on a brief stay in Valencia. While in Spain during a casual conversation at dinner, Mom listed off her dream travel destinations: England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. I lovingly pointed out that all of her dream destinations have the English language in common, to which she replied, “Oh, I didn’t even think about it, but I guess that’s true!” Oh Mom, I love you. Anyway, I got the message loud and clear. This year we’re headed to Ireland.

Planning the Trip

There were definitely some lessons learned from the trip to Spain. Most of it went very well. But through a little trial and error, I settled on some general rules for traveling with a parent.

Rule 1 – No third wheels

My wife and I love to travel, but taking others along with us can be tricky. I credit my wife with the stroke of genius to invite her “aunt” (actually a very close second cousin) to go with us on the first trip to Spain and now again to Ireland. My mom and her aunt have a fair amount in common.

IMG_0905
Four of a kind on a train in Spain

Like Mom, my wife’s aunt is also a recent widower and a retiree. They’re both very much involved with their adult children and grandchildren and are active in their communities. My wife’s aunt is a year ahead of my mother’s widowhood, so I think it also helps Mom see the light at the other end of the tunnel. At any rate, having a fourth person in our party means that there are no third wheels. If I want to do a specific activity with just my mother, my wife and her aunt are perfectly happy to go off on their own little adventure. Likewise, this is my valuable time away from work, so my wife and I enjoy sneaking away for a walk on a beach or the a glass of wine in a romantic setting. So it’s nice to not feel guilty about leaving any single person behind. In Spain, the retirees skirted off on their own adventures from time to time, and they really developed a nice bond. So – as I will repeatedly say over the course of this blog – my better half got it right. Thankfully, my wife’s aunt will be joining us again during our trip to Ireland and there will be no third wheels.

Rule 2 – One big thing per day

My wife and I try to stay in decent shape. So when we travel, we’re quite active. It isn’t that uncommon for us to log 40,000 steps or more per day while exploring a new spot. I want to recognize both Mom and my wife’s aunt for their fitness as they age, but these ladies can’t – and probably don’t want to – move around at that pace. So we’re scheduling “one big thing” per day with the option for mini-excursions before or after a main meal. For example, early in our trip to Ireland, we’re going to take a bus tour to the Cliffs of Moher. The term “bus tour” doesn’t exactly elicit the idea of strapping on running shoes and breaking a sweat, but there are several on and off bus stops along the way with roughly 90 minutes to explore the Cliffs on foot. The terrain isn’t paved and it will be somewhat taxing. The six-hour tour will be done by 5 PM and, if my wife and I were on our own, we’d certainly line up something else afterwards. But that’s not the trip we’re on. So we’ll leisurely make our way back to our Airbnb and either eat in or find a quiet spot for dinner to reserve our collective energy for the next day’s one big thing.

Rule 3 – Everyone needs her space

We’re a social bunch, but when away from home for a significant period of time, it can be taxing on the mind and body. When traveling with a group it can be tempting to skimp on space and double up on bedrooms or to have someone sleep on a pullout in a common area. That might work for college age folks, but we’ve each had enough time and life experience to get into our routines. Therefore it’s important that each of us have some personal space. That means renting places with 3 bedrooms (my wife still agrees to room with me) and 2 bathrooms. It’s obviously a bit pricier in places like Europe where space is a premium, but it’s pretty important to give everyone some down time to keep the peace over a two-week long, cross-country trip.

Rule 4 – Find the adventure in things that everyone likes

My wife and I are relatively adventurous. As examples, we rented bikes for our main transportation in Sevilla, Spain; we waltzed out into a chilly Lake Michigan in Traverse City in late September; and I was in my element trail-running the petit balcon in the French Alps near Chamonix. These are not things I will plan to do with my mom. My mom is more comfortable having a quiet moment in a cathedral or sipping coffee in a cafe. That can work out great too. After several years of traveling to Barcelona, we finally took the train to Montserrat on this most recent trip with my mom. We were treated to an up close view of the Black Madonna. In Valencia’s central cathedral, we saw what the Catholic Church claims to be the chalice used by Jesus during the Last Supper.

 

In both cases, I wasn’t even aware these exalted artifacts existed until we prioritized visiting cathedrals to help suit my mom’s travel tastes. So… Rule 4 was born. Pick an activity that suits everyone and commit to finding the adventure.

In summary

My lovely Mom and me

Both Mom and I have found it to be extremely rewarding to travel together and we’ve shared experiences that will last the rest of our lives. Importantly to me as well, I’ve also shared these experiences with my wife, so we’re able to maximize our vacation time and make memories with loved ones. By following these few simple rules, I’m confident that we can keep going for years to come.


All pictures in this post were taken by Troy Gregory