By Susan Keats, Contributor & Seize-the-Day Propagandist

Hindsight Tips For Your Traveling Future and a Side of Fries

The stuff was yellow. It was dripping, slowly, down the shoulder strap of my small pack which contained my passport, my money, my camera.

I hadn’t noticed the stuff, (was it mustard?) except for a nice gentleman who pointed it out to me as he passed by.  I looked up at the building I was leaning against. Had it dripped on me from somewhere? The nice man produced a napkin, and though I couldn’t understand his language, it was clear that he was being helpful. He started wiping at the stuff. Wiping it away, wiping, wiping….

Hey. Wait a second. I mean, one wipe would probably have taken care of the problem. This guy was being overly zealous and now he was trying to remove my pack, still wiping.

“I think it’s clean now.” I said, looking him straight in the eye. “You’re NOT getting my backpack.” I was holding onto it tightly. At this point, the endless wiping was ridiculous. “You’re not getting my backpack,” I repeated.

“What’s going on?” One of my backpacking buddies was sauntering toward me. A tall, guy from California.  “Everything ok?” Within a second, the man was gone. Dissolved into a crowd of people. Oh.

Up until that moment I had been a happy-go-lucky traveler, but from then on I saw myself differently. I was gullible. I was a great target. I’d better be careful.

That was one of many lessons I learned while traveling almost 25 years ago. These days, I figured that I knew just about all I needed to know to get by while wandering another country.

Well, turns out, that’s not quite true. A recent family excursion to Barcelona proved I still had more to learn, particularly about traveling with my family. Here are a few things we all should know:

Don’t Leave Home Without It

“I’ll only be gone for 30 minutes” my husband said, lacing up his running shoes. We were staying in an apartment with other family members, but at this point in the morning, everyone else had left for the day, along with all sets of keys.  But that was fine because my kids and I were just showering, dressing, and getting ready for our day.

It wasn’t until we were all ready to go that we realized an hour had passed and my husband wasn’t back.  It was 12:30.  Only then did I begin to think…did he have a map? The streets of Barcelona are ancient and confusing.  Did he have money? What if he got lost? He could just take a cab home if he had…did he have a phone? No. I had the only international phone. We had to pay extra for it and in order to save ourselves an extra $60 plus bucks we had decided to just bring one. All of a sudden that seemed pretty stupid.

Just the day before my husband had stepped off the curb after carefully looking both ways for cars, only to be nearly slammed into by a bicycle. “SEÑIOR!” the cyclist had shouted before screeching to a halt. Then he peddled off muttering things I didn’t need to speak the language to understand. Hey, there’s something important to be aware of.  Bike lanes.

What if my missing husband had been hit by a bike and was being taken to the hospital with a concussion…or a…a….or….

Now it was 1:00.

Who would I call? The entire family was out and even though I could reach them by phone, what could they do?  How do I call the police in this country? How do I call the hospitals to find out if my husband is there?

I won’t panic until 1:30 I told myself. At 1:30 I will call the people who own the apartment and I will ask them how to call the hospitals. I will ask them to help me…

“He’s here!” my daughter said pointing from the balcony. “I see him!”

“I’ll kill him!” I muttered.

“I got lost!” he said, panting, covered in sweat. “I’m SO sorry!”

So, long story short: If you are traveling with family or friends but heading off on your own, be sure to carry a map, cash, an ID and best yet, a working cell phone. Also, watch out for bike lanes, ask for one extra key and know how to contact emergency services. Just in case.

Keep a look out

We were on a train going up a steep hill on our way to the Miro museum. The car was mostly empty except for five guys who didn’t look at all like they would be interested in going to a museum. Something about them made me watch more carefully.  I noticed a slight head gesture from one of them, and they nonchalantly spread themselves into the four corners of the train. One guy remained in the middle. They looked around the train blankly. Another slight head gesture from the guy in the middle and one of the guys closest to us started looking my husband and I up and down. It was fairly subtle, but we were being sized up.

When it was time to get off the train two of the guys hung back and walked behind us, two walked ahead and the last one stood in the station looking nonchalantly at the ceiling. We were pretty creeped out, but we had seen it all.  Keeping an eye on them, we followed a small crowd of tourists out of the station, but because we were watching the scary men, we lost track of where the people had gone to, and ended up following a sign that pointed to a foot path.

Eager to escape the men who…were they still following us? They didn’t seem to be, but we couldn’t be too sure.  Soon we realized we were alone. We didn’t know where we were or where the path was going, but we trudged on, not wanting to go back down the hill. If we had been followed, we would be in a great place to be victimized. No one else was around.

It was nearly 20 minutes before we found our way to the museum which turned out to be about 1/2 block from the train station. If we had REALLY been paying attention, we  would easily have made it to the museum with less anxiety and with more time to spare.

Hindsight lesson:  Sure, keep your eyes open for pick pockets and bad guys, but also pay attention to where you need to go, because getting lost and isolated while being stalked is not smart.  Pay attention, stick with people, ask for directions. Duh.

Americans aren’t the only ugly tourists

I’m always telling my kids not to be an “ugly American” when we are traveling. We try to observe how people behave around us and act accordingly. When you are in another country, you represent your own, and bad behavior reflects on how you are perceived. We’ve had many cringe-worthy moments while observing our fellow country men and women abroad.

I wish people from other countries would also take a good long look at themselves.

We were enjoying our last night as a family in Barcelona, dining in a charming little restaurant. A couple walked past the window, slowed down and contemplated the menu outside. Thumbs up, we indicated, waving our thumbs in the air.  Great place! The couple took our advice and came in. They were seated right next to us.

Immediately I saw them picking at their food, pointing, commenting to one another. They did not care for it.  We struck up a conversation with them.

“This food,” the man said making a face. “This food is for American and British people. Not for people from Belgium.  In Belgium, we live to eat! We don’t eat to live.”

We felt mildly uncomfortable because we had given them the thumbs up after all, and now they weren’t happy that they had chosen to come in. He proceeded to go on and on about his country. It is beautiful, the people are great, there is lots to see and do there. We should go.

Belgium sounded great. I was interested, but I noticed this man continued to tell us about his country while at the same time, putting down ours.

“I lived in Florida for a few months,” he said. “It was ok.  No big deal. People there don’t know what good food is.  People in the United States don’t understand good food.”

I was becoming annoyed. We all were.

“Yes,” my husband piped in. “We all prefer McDonalds.”  (I knew he was joking, but to our annoying friend, it just confirmed his hunch about Americans.)

My mother-in-law tried a different tactic. Noticing he hadn’t asked us a thing about ourselves, she spoke up.

“Well, we’re from Chicago” she said. “Have you ever been there? We have a big lake, wonderful museums, great universities…”

“Ah…in Belgium, we have all of that too. But we don’t have to brag about it.”

Oooh. Ugly European!

Why bother exploring other parts of the world if all you can do is compare where you are to your own home country?  What is the point? Why leave home at all if you expect other places to be just like your place? Where is the fun in that?  Enjoy wherever you are for all of the differences you encounter. Relish them all. Have an amazing adventure.

Coming home always delivers a delicious feeling of Ahhhhhhhh…

Reviewing our recent trip in my mind, I have to admit that some of the scary stuff just adds to the grand adventure of it all.  Provided we remain safe and unharmed, sometimes it is the accidental stuff that ends up making some of the best memories. Still, I prefer my mustard on my hot dog.

Yes Belgium, I LOVE hot dogs!

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