Sorry… no interesting pictures, amusing stories, or fancy travel advice today. This post is all about me!…kind of, it’s actually more about my life on the road. Where I go, where I stay, how I get there, etc.
Earlier this week I hit the four-month mark on the road and started thinking about all the places I’d been. That thought grew into a whole list of things, places, people, etc. and eventually into this post. So as of Sunday August 4th I had traveled/done/seen/visited/met…you get the idea.
I’ve watched bull fights in Spain, major championship golf in Scotland, and live Fado in Portugal.
I’ve been to the top of Cathedral bell towers in three countries, the top of mountains in two countries, and the top of the 199 Steps in Whitby, England.
I’ve dipped my toes in the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean and North Sea, swam in the Caribbean, and surfed in the North Atlantic.
I’ve drunk cheap and awesome local wine in Spain and France, four different brands of Irish stout in Ireland, whisky and whiskey in Scotland and Ireland, respectively, Real Ale in England, a Belfast Bomber in Belfast, and moonshine adega wine in a Portuguese Adega.
I’ve slept in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles…and buses.
I’ve learned to think in Celsius, Euro’s, British Pounds, kilometers, and the 24 hour clock.
I’ve randomly been in cities that had some of their biggest yearly festivals and events when I was there but also been to places that had absolutely nothing interesting going on. Both situations have been great experiences.
I’ve been on walking tours, bus tours, museum tours, castle tours, and pub tours (pub crawls).
Travel by numbers:
16 UNESCO World Heritage Sites
1 Cruise Ship
37 Different Beds
1 Cruise Ship
1 Cable Car
6 Subway Systems
14 Trains (plus a few I’ve forgotten about)
22 Buses (plus several I’ve forgotten about)
Met and Talked With People From
2 Sporting Events
…and this is just the stuff off the top of my head. I’ve seen and done all of this in only four months….and I’m just getting started!
From the beginning part of my travel planning has always been to travel slowly…to get to know an area instead of seeing few sites everywhere I stop and breeze through on a whirlwind tour. Another part of the planning was to find ways to cut travel expenses. In my research I found many work-in-trade programs where a host and traveler work out an agreement which is normally a set amount of work hours over the course of a week in exchange for room and board. Stumbling across these programs was an awe-inspiring moment and I immediately knew it was something I wanted to do. It would allow me to stay in locations for longer periods AND cut costs. Win, win!
There are several different programs out there; one of the most well-known being Worldwide Opportunities On Organic Farms. While I have nothing against organic farming I wanted other opportunities also and decided to join a site called Workaway (workaway.info). This site has a variety of work types literally all across the globe. From help with childcare and household chores in Paris to helping learn English in Brazil to helping at a center for abused women and children in Tibet to helping with renovation projects in Canada to …well, you get the idea. Below is one of my Workaway adventures. Enjoy!
I’d been wanting to visit Brittany since seeing some travel show host visit there a few years ago (probably Anthony Bourdain), but it’s been so long I don’t remember what about the show drew me to the area. Nevertheless, when Philippa contacted me about coming to work and stay with them in Brittany I jumped at the chance for two reasons.
I knew I wanted to see Brittany
I needed something to refresh my memory as to why
I thought being there was the best way to figure that out. About 48 hours after arriving I’d fallen in love with the small towns, like nearby Josselin, and smaller villages like the one I was staying in, and the countryside. I assume that’s because I’ve traveled for over 3 months now and in a way the area reminded me of where I grew up. After realizing why I loved the area I also realized that it WAS NOT my initial reason for wanting to travel to Brittany. The travel show host was on the coast, not in the countryside. So the next time I’m in Brittany maybe I’ll go to Brest. Being the largest city in the region, and on the coast, it should be a totally different experience. Maybe there I’ll find what drew me to Brittany in the first place.
Enough of all that…
I woke up early on the day I was to travel from Paris to Brittany, talked a few minutes with my new friend, and one night hostel roommate, Glennise, and left for a walk in the rain. After a 5 minute walk, about 30 minutes on the subway, over an hour waiting for the second train going west that morning (though I was there on time I missed the first train…it took me 3 ticket windows, all for the same train company, to buy my ticket!), 2+ hours on the train, an hour waiting for a bus, almost 90 minutes on the bus, and 15 minutes in a car…I was in a small village in the center of Brittany, France.
It’s a quaint French village, smaller than the small Kansas town I grew up in, but big enough to have a tall church (Europe does tall churches like Kansas does wheat fields; they’re everywhere!), small general store, pâtisserie and even a bar/restaurant. I was there to stay and work with Philippa and Allan, an expat couple from Yorkshire, England, just north of where Stilton cheese comes from. They normally live alone but along with me, there was another Workaway visitor, Dave, Philippa’s oldest son James visiting from Germany, her teenage twins and one of the twins’ friends, all from England. So instead of their normal two they had eight people in the house. Luckily they have a big house. Actually it’s not a house, it’s an old barn. A very old barn; over 300 years old.
Initially, while still living in England, they bought only part of the property, which is almost a third of the building, as their holiday home. Soon enough they bought the rest of the property and turned the other end of the barn into a holiday rental gite, where Dave and I were staying, and a few years ago they moved to France full-time. Us Workawayers were there to help with the renovation work on the main part of the barn, which will be Philippa and Allan’s house when it’s completed.
I filled most of my sixteen or so days with helping James build a decorative stone wall in what will be a sitting room. I use ‘helping’ very loosely here because I was basically the apprentice to James who is a trained stone mason (and the week Dave was there James had two apprentices). I would bring stones (mainly sandstone or granite but also a few chunks of marble) inside for him to choose from, mount anchors into the existing wall, mix mortar, and clean up the scrap…basically a gopher. But by the time the wall was nearly finished I could help James pick out stones and even set a few myself. Watching James work was very impressive; he’s truly an artisan. And actually an artist as well; he’s an accomplished painter and sculptor.
I also spent several hours punching a hole for a new doorway, which will connect the gite and main barn, in the 300 year old wall. It was over three feet thick and, for something mainly made of dirt and grass, amazingly hard to break with the jack hammer. There were also various small jobs I helped Allan and Sean the contractor with. Basically I was a laborer for five to six hours a day.
In my downtime I did a lot of writing and visited several nearby, and not so nearby, towns. One of those, Josselin, is a beautiful medieval town with an old chateau and every Saturday an outdoor market. I love markets and was glad we went both Saturdays I was around. All told I think I spent about seven hours walking around Josselin (which included a terribly embarrassing walk into a church for Dave and I) over three different visits. It is a little touristy but awfully cool nonetheless. We also went to a vide grenier (flea market) one day. Amazingly the same junk that’s sold at US flea markets gets sold at French vide greniers. And some of it was the EXACT same junk; I saw the same old American movies and records, and half-broken Stanley tools you would expect to see in the US. There were also a lot of interesting ‘French’ things, but for the most part it wasn’t too different. More nights than not we spent with a glass (or bottle) of wine enjoyed over a hard-fought card game.We had a couple different BBQ’s, went to a trivia night contest at the local bar, went to a classic small town French restaurant with a 4 course meal, and I spent a couple of hours one afternoon walking around the countryside.
All of that is what I was expecting. I knew I’d love Brittany (even though I wasn’t sure why). I knew I’d be helping with a renovation project and I like to do that kind of stuff. I knew they lived in a rural area so I was anticipating small towns and fields and open spaces. What I wasn’t expecting was meeting so many British people. Based solely on my small sample size, 90% of people living in Brittany are British! Even while writing this more than two weeks after leaving Brittany, off the top of my head I can think of over 35 Brits. And those were just Brits we ‘ran into’ and close friends of Philippa and Allan. My second day there I had already met about 15 people, all British, and made a comment that I felt like the only foreigner in France.
Philippa and Allan’s good friends Sean, Donna, Sally, Julian – British. The electrician – British. The plasterers that got the job (and the one that didn’t) – all British. The six or eight people I met at Trivia night (plus the 10 I didn’t meet) – all British. A guy named Gator that gave me some great advice about meeting women in England, more friends, etc. etc. – ALL British.
I really had a great time in Brittany, mainly because Philippa and Allan, their family, and all the Brit expat community I got to know for two weeks were fun and entertaining and crazy and made me feel at home.
I look forward to, if when I go back to Brittany, figuring out why I wanted to go there in the first place. But mainly I look forward to stopping to say hi to my new friends Philippa and Allan, playing cards, and making sure that wall is still standing!
The Paris subway system is a behemoth! It’s vast but efficient and apparently you’re never more than 400 meters from a subway stop. I thought it was great! Easy to understand and navigate ….and a good value.
In Brittany the church bells ring a lot…even during funerals.
The French people are not as PC as I thought. While in Paris there was a huge demonstration against the newly passed law allowing same-sex marriage. The authorities
estimated over 150,000 people but the promoters claimed it was closer to one million strong. I happened to walk through the area as they were setting up in the afternoon. There was a big stage and for a quarter-mile there were several video boards, and cranes with speakers hanging from them. I thought it was for a concert or I would have taken some photos.
It’s possible to spend two weeks in Brittany and only hang out with expats from the UK. My tally for the 16 days in Brittany: I met 2 or 3 French people and about 45 Brits.
Notre-Dame is quite amazing even when there is a zoo of tourists (like me) roaming through in the middle of Mass.
If you followed the Unmapped Travels Facebook page back in mid May, you may have known about the first Unmapped Travels Postcard Contest when I asked for suggestions of where to travel on my way to Brittany, France for my second Workaway gig. It turned out my brother Matt had the lone dissenting opinion of all the comments and his reasons were solid so he won the contest. His intended prize was a postcard from Bordeaux.
From the beginning of my travels I knew one drawback to the way I’m traveling (on the cheap while not planning routes and accommodations far in advance) could be occasionally hitting a situation that doesn’t fit into my budget. It’s a risk I’m willing to take to allow more room for spontaneity. I ran into such a situation on my way to Brittany through Bordeaux (Matt’s suggestion). I was in San Sebastián, Spain looking for a place to stay in Bordeaux, France and to my surprise, there are next to zero budget accommodations in Bordeaux, and zero hostels. So I went to the train station in San Sebastian and instead of buying a ticket to Bordeaux found a decent priced ticket to Paris. So the drawback led to me SPONTANEOUSLY going to Paris. For me, a nice consolation to Bordeaux, and for my Postcard Contest winning brother a nice consolation Brittany postcard.
Travelers and tourists…tourists and travelers. Are those terms synonymous? Some say yes and others no.
I believe, and I’m not the only one, there are similarities and differences between travelers and tourists. Obviously both love to travel but tourists often have a cookie cutter experience in the places they visit; full of chain restaurants (they could dine in at home), guided bus tours, and tacky souvenir gift shops. Conversely, true travelers tend to make wandering off the tourism tract a priority. They want to spend time in the lesser known travel gems (think Burma and not Bermuda or Split, Croatia instead of Sydney, Australia). To make a long story short, in many ways, tourists see the places they visit through rose-colored glasses and travelers have a better chance at having an authentic experience.
Here’s an example: About 18 hours after arriving in Paris I walked down a regular neighborhood street. The kind of street locals do their everyday shopping. It’s full of small specialty shops; the charcuterie, the wine shop, the fruit and vegetable markets, etc. With the smells wafting onto the sidewalk from the fromage shop (cheese) and the crowds filing in and out of the bakery to get their daily baguette, walking a neighborhood like this can be quite fun and interesting on its own. Not something you see all the time when visiting a new city.
But I also shopped. I bought a small jar of expensive sardines at one, a baguette at the bakery (half for lunch and the rest for dinner), a salmon and tomato sandwich (delicious!) and a macaroon (equally delicious!) at another. Twenty minutes later I’d set up a fantastic picnic in the Champ de Mars (a big park) between the Eiffel Tower and the Ecole Militaire which is a big military training area. For a moment, staring at the Eiffel Tower while surrounded by dogs chasing Frisbee’s and parents playing football (soccer for those of us across the pond) with their kids, I felt I was having the most authentic Parisian experience of any traveler in Paris. It was the BEST picnic ever…and sadly the only one happening in this park. During my hour-long lunch break there were at least 50 people who walked by and looked to see what I was doing, locals and tourists alike. The locals smiled and a few said bon appétit (that was cool) and the tourists thought I WAS a local (I think someone even took my picture). While the tourists stared at me, I stared at this:
Maybe this post should be titled ‘Be a Traveler AND a Tourist’ because I think to get the most out the places you visit you need a mix of both.
Don’t sacrifice seeing the important sites just so you can say you traveled off the beaten path. If you do you’ll miss out on some very cool stuff. I mean, (most of) those places are popular for good reason! To prove my point I’ll tell you what I did 45 minutes before walking down that street and buying my picnic lunch. I went to the top of the Eiffel Tower! Like a typical tourist I stood in line to pay the 14.50 euro (I couldn’t find a place to get my ticket in advance) and took the elevator all the way to the top. It was a cool morning (especially that high up) and breezy and fantastic and crowded and cliché and absolutely the right thing to do. If I’d just looked at the Eiffel Tower from ground level through a camera lens and while eating sardines across the park it wouldn’t have been as memorable a day.
The opposite is true too. Don’t skip out on being more of a traveler just to stay in tourist mode for too long a time, or worse; for your whole trip. To keep the Eiffel tower analogy going a bit longer, being a tourist AND a traveler, literally in the same morning…at the same site made it a special day.
So try to have balance in your day or your week. That’s what I do. See the sights and stay in the tourist areas but also mix it up with the natives…locals who don’t work in the tourism economy. If you’re visiting Lisbon and Porto, stop for a couple of days in between at Coimbra, a less popular tourist area (and my favorite city in Portugal…so far). Or break up the trip from Barcelona to Madrid and spend the afternoon in Zaragoza. Take an hour bus ride from any big city and you’ll surely find a town without a tourism budget to attract flocks of people or a village without a popular attraction. These places make great day trips and will inevitably give a more realistic peek into the lives of the people in the area you’re visiting.
There are opportunities like this everywhere I go and everywhere you’ll travel also. We just need to seek them out and take advantage when they come along. It’s not always easier but many times its more fun and more memorable.
And as always I try to relate things back to the bottom line. It’s cheaper to eat, stay and BE in the local neighborhoods and not the tourist areas, in the smaller towns rather than the big cities. So be a traveler, not a tourist.
I was an idiot today. I made a HUGE travel mistake. Actually it wasn’t a travel mistake as much as it was just a stupid thing that happened because I wasn’t paying enough attention. If I was French or had known the local customs it wouldn’t have happened. If I was paying more attention to my surroundings it wouldn’t have happened. And I wasn’t alone.
My WorkAway friend Dave and I were walking around this little Breton village and saw a nice tall church (all the small villages in Brittany seem to have a nice tall church). We were in the back and saw a sign in French that roughly translated to ‘free church tower visits’. Like any good traveler I like to check out the old churches I come across, especially those that are free. After a couple of hours walking around the village and taking pictures we found ourselves walking in front of the church and noticing a few people walking out we decided to take a look at the inside.
There were only a few people inside, all in front, and it looked like they were talking with the priest. I sat down, as I normally do in big churches to get a good look around, and Dave was wandering up the center aisle. I began looking at the pamphlet on the pew next to me and upon looking up saw the people at the front turning to leave with a small casket. That’s right….it was a funeral.
I’m sure you’ve all seen or heard of the movie ‘Wedding Crashers’. At the end there is a scene about crashing a funeral. That’s not exactly what we were doing, but close enough.
I immediately got up and we swiftly left. After getting out the door we saw what should have been noticed while walking in…the 45 or so people standing outside in black, and the hearse waiting with back doors open.
We accidentally walked in on the funeral of a French child!! At least I hadn’t pulled out my camera and started taking pictures yet.