Friday, June 24, 2011

More on Hosteling

The last time I stayed in a hostel, it was 1977 and I was 22. Well, actually, that’s not quite true. There was that time we stayed at The Pink Palace on Corfu when we backpacked with the children in 1999, but more on that later... Hostels are not a uniquely European idea, although they did begin in the early 1900s in Germany as a means to get young people out of the cities and into the countryside. These clean, simple accommodations that appeal primarily to travelers and backpackers on a budget are now all over the world, including the US. The rooms are generally dorm-style, often with bunk beds, and bathrooms, showers and eating areas are shared. Some hostels now have private (or “family”) rooms for couples and families traveling together. Most that are affiliated with the international hostel association have curfews and strict lights-out policies -— both of which are welcomed after long days of wandering. Hostels may not ooze local charm (Joe commented that if you add armed guards they could be mistaken for prisons), but they’re sanitary (sterile?), safe and cheap. And staying at hostels for a few nights a month will free up the needed funds for treating ourselves to some magical castle hotels along the way. If past experience holds, I often got my best travel tips from fellow hostellers. Where to get the best fondue or prix fixe meal, how to get to a secret, secluded beach and when to visit a museum for free were often common topics over breakfast (almost always included in the price of the bed) at communal tables. And the opportunity at hostels to meet and speak with folks from all over the world can’t be beat. You automatically have traveling in common and I never encountered anyone at a hostel who wasn’t eager to share his or her experiences, both good and bad. I’m looking forward to some hosteling stays to see if much has changed in all these years.

So, just a quick couple closing comments on our stay 12 years ago at the infamous Pink Palace. It technically is a youth hostel (and they let us in at the age of 43 with two adolescents because we had cash and they had empty beds) but no international membership card was needed since it was outside the “official” network. Let’s just say that our children were introduced at early ages to the notion of global partying – not by us – but by the bronzed pink palace youth. When we arrived on the ferry from Brindisi at 6:30am with the sun barely over the horizon, most of the hostel residents were just coming in off the beach for breakfast. I’m afraid we may have permanently scarred Chris (15) and Caroline (12) by exposing them to the young man in a toga passed out, face down, on the beach. He appeared to have run out of steam just short of the stairs to the breakfast room. I recall one of the kids asking, “is that guy dead?” Of course, we replied that he was just sleeping after a night of being over-served, but I’m sure our perceptive children figured out the real story. We stayed two nights at the Pink Palace and at $12 a head including a full, hot breakfast, it was a bargain. We’re not planning for similar hostel experiences this time, but you never know...

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Senior Year Abroad

We’re officially over the hill. Yesterday, I signed us up for membership in Hosteling International USA and received our first ever senior discounts. Now, while I was thrilled to save $10 each off the individual annual fee of $28, I have to say that I was less than enthusiastic about the reason for the deduction: those 55 and older receive a “senior” rate. Are we seniors? Really? It’s for others to judge just how far along we look and act, but we sure don’t feel like seniors. I’ve noticed, especially since we both turned 55 in March, that most senior discounts have moved up to 65+ years. Again, I’m happy to accept the gift of the reduced price but should 55 really be considered senior? Maybe it’s all in how you look at it. Becoming a senior in school was definitely a positive and being a senior manager/director/teacher/whatever, is generally better than being a junior. Maybe I should just accept the discounts, be happy with the senior label and move on. After all, senior can mean experienced, wise and clever. It means you’ve been around the block, know yourself reasonably well and aren’t quite as naive as you once were, right? A former colleague suggested that rather than call our year away a Gap Year, we call it our Senior Year Abroad. I have to admit that it didn’t grab me at first, especially since I was a youngster of 54 when he offered the comment last year. But the term is growing on me, especially now that I’m a “senior” member of Hostelling USA. Junior Year Abroad includes living in another country, exploring unchartered territory, experiencing adventure and ongoing learning. We’ll be embracing all those things during our twelve months away, so maybe Senior Year Abroad is the better term. We’ll just be doing it at 55 instead of 21 and if we’re lucky, there’ll be many more senior discounts in our future. I wonder if Relais & Chateaux hotels offer reduced rates for seniors?

Monday, June 13, 2011

An Important Weekend

This past weekend was a big one since it led to writing an actual departure date on the calendar! We booked our flights to Paris as well as an apartment for our first month abroad. In my past-decade daydreams, I always imagined leaving for our gap year the day after Labor Day – the minute the post-summer fares dropped – and that’s exactly what it turns out we’re going to do. It didn’t take long on Kayak to determine that departing on Tuesday, September 6 on Icelandair was the best and cheapest one-way choice at $467 each. We’ll wave goodbye to the U.S. from Dulles and say hello to Europe at Charles DeGaulle after a brief stop in Reykjavik. The stopping-in-Reykjavik option was the cheapest way to Europe back in the 70s and early 80s, but somehow we never took that route back then. So, we bought one-way tickets, not knowing exactly when we’ll be returning, although it should be in late August/early September 2012. Let’s just hope we can make it through the visa appointment at the embassy with one-way tickets in hand! They actually may have cause to worry. Will we actually want to come home?

We plan to arrive in Paris and pamper ourselves to start by staying at a hotel for three nights to settle in and catch up on some sleep. We’ll then check into the studio apartment we booked for a month. I hate to admit it, but it takes us longer than it did in years past to bounce back after the overnight flight. It was entertaining to browse the apartment offerings on the Vacation Rentals by Owner (VRBO) site, imagining life in the various and very different properties and weighing the pros and cons of each. The first big question was which arrondissement to choose. On our last couple of trips to Paris, we stayed in the 6th – St. Germain des Prés – and loved it, but something kept drawing us to the 7th, home of the Eiffel Tower. Perhaps it’s because the Tour Eiffel is Joe’s favorite site and let’s be honest, what could be more romantic than a daily view of this gorgeous, latticework structure? In all my times in Paris, going all the way back to my student days, I’ve never stayed even close to the Eiffel Tower, so I did everything I could to hunt down something in the 7th, or the 15th, just a bit further south. We pored over listing after listing: this one’s too expensive, that one’s in an ugly building (yes, there are some, even in Paris), that one has no wifi, this one’s all decorated in red (don’t really want to feel like we’re at the Moulin Rouge for a month), that one’s not available for our dates, this one’s on too busy a street and that one only has a pull-out couch... After sending a slew of emails we finally found what we hope will be the perfect pied-à-terre on the Avenue de Suffren, one block over from the Champ de Mars. It’s well within the budget of $100/night at $2,350 for the month and somehow, it just feels right. It’s on a gorgeous tree-lined street on the ground-level of a Haussmannian building and opens on a small courtyard. Despite the fact that it’s a tiny 25 square meters, the Eiffel Tower is in its backyard and the Seine is just down the street, so how can we complain? Maybe it was the warm lighting in the pictures or the fact that its hardwood floors, beiges and taupes make it look like a place I would have decorated, but something about this flat reached through the computer and grabbed us. The “Eiffel Studio” is now ours from September 10 through October 10 and at long last, our fuzzy reveries of living in Paris finally have a tangible mise-en-scène

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Are We Going on Vacation?

If you quit your jobs, put all your worldly possessions in crates in the recesses of a warehouse, and leave the country for a year to explore Europe, do you still call it a vacation? Not once since we started planning our gap year have I ever thought about the time as a vacation, but just last week I had a few people say, “If I don’t see you before you leave, enjoy your vacation.” The first time I heard it, I did a double take. What vacation, I thought? Oh, I guess she means our gap year... But will it be a vacation or something completely different? Yes, we’ll be away from work; yes, our days will belong to us to do as we please; and, yes, we’ve sold our home and are “vacating the premises” – indeed, the country. But don’t you need an employer to grant you a specified period of leave during which you continue to be paid in order to call it a vacation? And isn’t the time you take for a vacation painfully brief? (We’re not European, after all...) We plan to devote significant time to relaxation, introspection, discovery and pleasure – all of which are worthy vacation pursuits – but just because we’re temporarily unemployed, does that mean we’ll be on vacation?

We are taking a gap year but the recent “vacation” comments have me thinking: perhaps I should start referring to our time away as “going to live in Europe for a year,” thereby implying that we’ll be engaging in more of the day-to-day routines that go along with “living.” Our trip to the supermarket may become a walk to the local open air market, the bed we sleep on may not be our own, and the daily commute may result in a different trip every day, but there will be much time devoted to simple, everyday living. So then I go back to my original question, are we going on holiday for an entire year? And would that be so bad? Maybe I should just throw away my Puritan guilt and say yes, we’ll be away on vacation for 12 months; but that just doesn’t ring true. Perhaps being on vacation requires a specific frame of mind:

·      a willful (but fleeting) detachment from the work you left behind?
·      recognition of just how short the time away is?
·      an attitude that says, it’s our vacation, we might as well splurge on this, that, or the other thing?

In our case, we’ll definitely be detached from work since neither of us will have a job waiting at home – and that’s way too scary to think about in depth right now... We’ll certainly be aware of time, but I suspect that having a full year ahead will allow us to slow down much more than we usually do even on vacation. There’s always that time clock counting down and saying: we only have a week or we only have 15 days and we’d better make the best of every single moment. I always used to claim that I work so I can go on vacation and that I pay my travel fund before I buy food (not far from the truth). As a result, there’s always been a lurking pressure on vacation to make sure it’s as memorable as possible to justify the other 50 weeks of work for the year. And while there will definitely be splurges, like lunch at Le Grand Vefour and the Tour du Mont Blanc hike, it will be hard to rationalize daily indulgences when the finite budget has to last for a year. 

In the end, I’ve decided that our gap year will definitely not be a vacation. There will be way too much that differentiates it from a standard holiday. We’re going to Europe to live for a year and our mindset really will make a difference.