Ten Life Lessons I Learned While Traveling

colosseum in roma

This guest post was written by my long term friend, and college roommate for many years, the lovely Olivia McDaniel. Olivia is a fan of all things fashion, craftyness, traveling and (as you’ll see from her post) is particularly fond of lowercase letters. also for the record… I stole all of the photos in this post from Olivia’s Facebook. pretty nice photographer that one is!

i was bitten by the travel bug at the age of seventeen, after a spring break trip to paris with one of my girlfriends.  i had traveled before then, of course, mostly in and around the united states.  a couple of caribbean cruises had expanded my horizons a bit, but in truth i had never in a million years thought i’d be going to europe (at least not until i was a super-famous fashion designer, but that’s a whole other story). i remember that first trip – i loved the idea of being in paris, loved the shopping and the cute boys with cute accents and the wine and the eiffel tower, but by the end of it i was desperate for ice cubes in my six dollar coke and a menu i could read (not to mention some chick fil-a chicken nuggets).  it wasn’t until after i got home that i realized exactly how amazing that experience really was.  and i couldn’t wait to go back.

so several years later i brought up paris when my husband (then fiancé) and i were discussing honeymoon options.  he liked the idea but didn’t seem overly thrilled, mostly because he’d never been and didn’t know what to expect.  he, like me, had had the incredible opportunity to travel to europe as a teenager.  his story mirrored mine; he enjoyed germany but pined for ice cubes and taco bell, not appreciating the full value of the experience until after the trip.

thankfully i was able to talk him into a honeymoon in paris – and we were both changed forever.  we vowed to visit at least one new country every year for as long as we could (finances permitting). what follows is a list of the top ten lessons we’ve learned through our adventures abroad, which undeniably apply to life as well as to travel.

the eiffel tower… the very first night we got to paris

travel lesson #1: you can do it.

that trip to paris was no cake walk.  sure, my husband and i had both been to europe.  but neither of us had been responsible for planning the itinerary or getting around the city or even finding food.  we were intimidated to say the least (and really really jetlagged too).  our first few hours in the city of lights included a traumatic [nauseating] taxi ride, a four-hour midday nap, and croque monsieurs in a disgusting smoke-filled bar. we weren’t getting off to a very good start.

getting around was a challenge.  i had one semester of college french under my belt, but i was by no means a master of the language (and my new husband was no help at all in that department).  neither of us was particularly well-versed in the ways of mass transportation — our first couple of forays on the metro were mildly disastrous, to say nothing of how foreign and confusing the train system was for us.  eating was an unbelievable ordeal – we waited until we were practically starving before we started looking for a restaurant and then we couldn’t read the menus and we could never seem to make a decision.

after a few days, though, paris became our second home.  we mastered the metro system and explored the city on foot.  we ate good food and drank good wine and did all the things that people do in the most romantic city in the world. we conquered paris and all of its bad cab drivers and pickpockets and public transportation (and okay well maybe the bad cab drivers conquered us) but the point here is that we learned that we could do anything.  anything at all.  in any city in the world.

travel lesson #2: do your homework.

i simply won’t stand for the improper use of “quotation” marks.

i am a planner.  some people might call me “anal” or “ocd.”  i can neither confirm nor deny these accusations.  but i do believe that one of the keys to a successful trip (and really any successful venture) is planning.

i spent six weeks planning our honeymoon, mostly because i had just spent a year and a half planning our wedding and i really needed something else to plan.  i read our guide book cover to cover (highlighter and sticky-notes in hand), made flash cards with information on all of the sites (costs, locations, hours, etc.), created budget in excel… i had a seven-day itinerary mapped out for us complete with alternative options and site rankings.

now, i realize that that seems a little extreme.  and it is.  but life will get the best of you if you don’t do your homework.  what if we had taken the train out to versailles on a monday only to discover it was closed?  what if we hadn’t known that we needed a reservation at the galleria borghese? or missed the guernica because we went to the reina sofia on a tuesday?

before i get all negative nancy on you, let me just say that doing your homework is not just about being afraid you’ll miss out on the mona lisa.  it’s about getting the most out of your time (and money).  because we did our homework, we knew to get museum passes in paris and rome that saved us a lot of money on admission prices.  because we did our homework, we were able to witness the traditional catalan sardana dances in barcelona that only happen on sundays at noon.  we got to celebrate our anniversary in madrid at the oldest restaurant in the world and we got to skip the crazy long line at the colosseum in rome.  it pays to do your homework.  that being said…

port de barcelona

travel lesson #3: things are not always going to turn out as planned.

you can make all the plans in the world, but we all know by now that life rarely goes according to plan.  the sooner you realize this and stop trying to resist it the better off you’ll be.  your flights will get delayed.  it will rain six out of seven days of your honeymoon.  you will be short two euros to get into the catacombs because the price has gone up since your guide book was published.  make the most of it.  play soccer in the frankfurt airport.  walk three miles in the pouring rain while singing at the top of your lungs.  pick flowers on your way back to the ancient appian way.  this is your trip.  your life.  the unexpected mishaps can make the best memories (or at least the best stories).

travel lesson #4: when in rome…

you will not get ice cubes in your drink.  you will have to specify that you want your water del rubinetto.  you may have to pay to use a public toilet.  you will probably not have air conditioning in your hotel room. and you will have trouble doing anything between the hours of one and three pm.

that’s just the way it is there. again, you will be much happier if you don’t try to resist it.  learn the way they do things and go with it.  one of the most incredible things about travel is the opportunity to see the way others live.  they might do things a little (or a lot) differently, but that doesn’t make them wrong.  open your mind to the possibility that they might even be doing things better.  but at the very least, just for a little while, do as the romans do.  drink wine at lunch.  eat gelato after every meal.  you get the idea.

post-vatican beer lunch

travel lesson #5: do what you love {and love what you do}.

at this point my husband and i know our travel-selves pretty well.

we love architecture and ancient history.  we like kids’ stuff – amusement parks, fairs, aquariums.  we do the touristy things (because, let’s face it – they’re touristy for a reason, right?).  i enjoy museums and art history, and he pretends to like them for my sake (besides, he has a strange fascination with statues).  we love flea markets and food markets and wandering on foot.

so these are the things we do when we travel.  we’re not into night life, so we skip it.  there’s no sense in spending hours in a museum if you don’t care about art (although prepare to be judged if you make it all the way to paris and don’t go to the louvre).  but life is simply too short to not do what makes you happy.

travel lesson #6: step outside of your comfort zone.

i am a creature of habit.  i love routine.  i like it here, in my comfort zone, where things are safe and easy and…well, comfortable.  but i have found that the greatest rewards tend to lie just outside of that comfort zone.  that the best dining experience i’ve ever had in my life was off the beaten tourist path in a narrow dark alley in barcelona where i had no idea what i was actually eating and our tab was calculated based on the number of toothpicks on our plate at the end of the night.  that the journey to pompeii required us to navigate the ridiculously confusing roman train system and sit next to a crazy french couple with stinky bare feet before getting on the scary thousand-year-old commuter train from naples through some seriously sketchy parts of italy.  it was all uncomfortable, taxing, stressful. but it was all so absolutely worth it.

travel lesson #7: sometimes you just need a nap.

all of this planning and adapting and sightseeing and venturing outside of your comfort zone is exhausting.  make like a spaniard and take a nap.  the world will still be there when you wake up.

travel lesson #8: it’s about experiences, not things.

tired feet in crested butte

i love clothes.  i really do.  i work in the apparel industry, and i understand that when you go someplace like paris or rome or barcelona that the urge to shop will be there.  i’m not saying that shopping is wrong, but i am saying that it shouldn’t be your top priority.

traveling is about experiencing new things and having adventures and meeting people and living life.  it’s about collecting memories, not objects.  {psst! the same thing applies to life.}

when my husband and i travel, we take only what we can fit in a carryon.  we don’t bring home loads of souvenirs (i think our family and friends have learned to not take it personally by now).  i may pick up a cute top or two but for the most part we come home with a camera full of photographs and a single refrigerator magnet from each city we visit.  we never have to worry about lost luggage and we don’t hassle with baggage claim.  we’re not concerned with looking fabulous, only with being present.  it’s completely liberating.

travel lesson #9: trust the experts.

this is something that i have to remind myself to do in all aspects of my life, travel included.  as i mentioned before i’m a bit of a control freak – i like to do things on my own and pretend i don’t need any help from anybody.  i think that’s pretty common within in our generation (but maybe i’m just trying to make myself feel better).

in any case, there are people and resources that can help and you should let them.  the locals.  your guidebook.  your waiter.  your parents. they’re experts in their respective fields and they can offer invaluable expertise and insight.  take what they give you and use it as a jumping-off point – then make your own way and become an expert yourself.

travel lesson #10: home is best.

travel is an adventure.  a transformation.  it is energizing and exhausting and thrilling and terrifying all at once.  i love all of it.  but sometimes the best part is coming home – back to my bed, my kitties, my family, my friends.  i wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world.

o & a’s engagement photos at State Fair of Texas by scottandtemphotography.com

love this? view more from Top 10 in 2010 series or view posts by olivia.

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