6.26.2011

The one bag report

Ready for packing. Note: I didn't take the netbook on the end table.

Last year, I attempted to travel in Europe with one wheel-less carry-on bag. It didn't go so well.

I was still convinced that light travel was the way to go, but I realized that I needed wheels to make it work for me. So I picked up a lightweight roller bag, and had been quite successful in using it in the United States for trips. This was, however, the first time I got to put my new wheeled one bag travel style to the test in Europe, and also the longest trip I'd tested it on. I'm happy to report that things mostly went very well. Here are some details...

Logistics & Luggage

There are a lot of different reasons to travel with one carry-on size bag. Avoiding checked baggage fees or lost luggage is a popular reason, but it's not why I prefer to travel this way. I like the freedom that comes with traveling light, and it becomes particularly important if, like me, you take a lot of trains and public transport.

Packed-up Skyway. I usually roll items to pack them as it saves space and cuts
down on wrinkles, but still lets you get to things quickly (I had four different
one-night stays), unlike the bundle method, which is also popular among one-baggers.

On this trip, I actually checked my bag — a 7 lb Skyway No Weight wheelie — on three out of the four flights I took. I flew British Airways to London, which was the one time I carried it on and the only time I had some angst about my bag choice (it gets slightly wider at the base, and had to be sweet-talked by the BA flight attendant into fitting into the narrow overhead bin on the 767). But it did fit, and that meant that at least my bag had made it over the Atlantic with me. I flew a Monarch charter flight from London to Greece, which had a 5 kg (11 pounds) weight limit. Plus you were limited to one bag. Not one bag and a personal item, just one bag period.

Some people are capable of making that weight limit, but I'm not THAT much of an ultralight traveler, so I paid to check the bag. Then since I was already going to be checking it, I took advantage of being able to take larger liquids, and picked up a medium size American Cream conditioner, Catastrophe Cosmetic face mask (critical with lots of sunscreen clogging my pores), and Volcano foot mask while I was at the Lush Spa in London, as well as sunscreen from Boots, and some very very good port at Barry Brothers & Rudd, which went down far better than ouzo while we were in Greece.

I brought a large Reisenthel Mini Maxi Shopper tote that could fold up into a pouch, and used this as my one bag on the plane. It held my purse, chargers, toiletries, medication, laundry supplies, and enough clothes to survive on if my "big" bag was lost. A note on the purse — at the last minute, due to neck pain, I decided to leave my trusty messenger bag at home and picked up a Nine West shoulder purse. It was definitely better for my neck but needed to be just a bit bigger so it could hold a larger water bottle, food, and purchases if needed. I've since bought a Merrell Gretta bag that I think is going to be perfect as a travel day bag.

I didn't fill up the Skyway when I packed it, so there was a fair amount of room for souvenirs. I made it all the way to Paris with just it as luggage, but in Paris I bought wine and some gourmet food items, and maxed out the space in the Skyway. So the tote bag came out again as overflow luggage. With the wine in it, even the lightweight Skyway made for a tough lug up four flights of stairs in my last hotel. But then again, those stairs were so rough I was out of breath and in need of a cup of tea ANY time I walked up them.

Overall I was so much happier with wheeled luggage. I never really encountered any cobblestones so it was all smooth rolling (and the Skyway with its rubber telescoping handle and wide wheels is a VERY smooth roller). The telescoping handle was smooth and therefore easy to extend when I got off of trains, and the bag also had a rubber-covered handle close to the top of the bag that I could reach down and grab (with the telescoping handle still up) to quickly handle stairs. Another side handle was key when I needed to lift it into luggage racks on trains.

Clothes & Laundry

When you do one-bag travel as a woman, you typically only have room for 1-2 bras, 3-5 pairs of underpants, 3-6 shirts, and 3-4 dress/pants/skirts, and those numbers include whatever you're wearing. So doing laundry along the way is essential, and it's the tradeoff you make for not being a Sherpa while in transit.

It also means you get a bit obsessed with how fast things dry. If things are taking two days to dry, and you only have a limited number of clothes, well, you run out. And if you're only staying overnight somewhere, and things take two days to dry, you have a suitcase full of wet clothes. Gross. As a result, a lot of places sell specialized travel clothes made of synthetic blends that dry fast. The trouble is, I don't like travel clothes because, well, most of them look like travel clothes. You would never wear any of them in normal life to go to work or out to dinner, and yet you're walking around some major European capital in them, looking like a great big tourist.

I got a pair of travel pants last year, and while they did dry quickly, I didn't like the way they looked or the way I felt wearing them. So this year I made it my aim to only take clothes that looked normal, and I accomplished this by mostly taking normal clothes. My biggest find was a pair of polyester/viscose/elastane dress slacks that had originally been from Express, but I found at a Gabriel Brothers for $5. After repairing a hem (the sole cause of the $5 price), I washed them and was amazed to find that not only did they dry quickly, they also dried wrinkle free, so they never needed to be ironed. And they were nice, normal pants. I've worn them to work in addition to taking them on my trip. In addition to these, I did take a pair of jeans (they take forever to dry but can go several wears between washes), a pair of synthetic yoga pants, and a convertible skirt/dress from Patagonia. This could be worn either as a bandeau-style dress or a side-tie skirt and was quite versatile, but unfortunately slow-drying 100% cotton. If I had it to do over again I'd try to find something similar in a synthetic fabric.

Patagonia convertible skirt/dress, Express poly/viscose/
elastane pants, Express jeans, and across the legs, C9
synthetic yoga pants. Not pictured are a pair of jogging shorts.

For shirts, I found two synthetic tops I liked at Express, but should have left the one with tank top straps home as it was chilly enough in the evenings in Greece that I didn't get the wear out of it I thought I would. I also brought two C9 duo dry cotton-polyester shirts from the exercise clothes section Target, in black and purple. These were comfier than 100% synthetic, dried fast, and looked like normal v-neck t-shirts. I did bring one actual travel shirt, a Merrell Cambia. However, although it definitely has a polyesterey feel, I found it to be comfortable, and more importantly, it didn't look like a travel shirt. It dried very fast and I wore it quite a bit.

Clockwise from the upper left: Express mesh floral top (almost always had to wear layered because it was cold at night in Greece), Express synthetic v-neck floral tee, Merrell Cambia button-down travel shirt, shelf tank top (didn't get much use), purple C9 tee, black C9 tee.

I also brought three outerwear items. The first was a thin shrug sweater, the second a light 3/4 zip fleece (less than $4 on clearance in the exercise section at Target), and the third a military-style trench coat, again from Express. I almost always travel with a fleece, and I am almost always very glad I brought it. This time was no exception, as it got quite cold at night in Greece and our house didn't have heat. But the real star here was the trench coat. I got it on sale for about $50 and loved the style of it, and that it was machine washable cotton so that it could be spot cleaned if needed (and it was needed). It looked good, and I felt nice wearing it around Bath, Paris and London — much nicer than I would have in a heavier fleece or some other sort of travel jacket. I think I got more respect from people I encountered, too, with my trench coat and cute red Skyway, compared to my REI fleece and eBags backpack of last year. A lot of people assumed I was traveling on business, and I don't think that was a bad thing.

Trench coat, shrug, and fleece

A note about Paris, before I delve into laundry. I had been totally freaked out about what to wear there before I went. I'd heard that jeans were an absolute no-no, and had the impression that beautifully stylish French women would be walking around in pants and dresses with their fashionable scarves, judging tourists. This was not, in fact, the case. People were wearing all sorts of things in Paris, including jeans. I will say that there was a higher proportion of scarves, and that everyone seemed to have some sense of personal style, but it was not expressed by everyone wearing Hermes. My nice trench coat was more than enough to make me feel comfortable, style-wise, and as I am not really a scarf person, I should have left the one I brought at home.

Laundry was actually the biggest challenge at our house in Greece. It didn't have a washer or dryer, so we all did sink laundry. Fortunately, there was a clothes line, and anything hung up there dried quickly in the sun and breeze. Unfortunately, rooms in the house were quite damp, and on my last full day there, it poured down rain much of the morning and afternoon, so even with my synthetic clothes, getting things dry was a challenge.

Following Greece, I had a series of one-night stays in Portsmouth, Bath, and Castle Combe, which meant that anything I washed had to dry overnight. But I took advantage of the fans in my hotel rooms in Bath and Castle Combe, and turned them on the items I washed for the night. Everything was perfectly dry by morning. I was in Paris for three nights, and so conducted a larger-scale laundry operation on my first night. Still, although I did a bit of laundry almost every day on my trip, it went quickly, and it was definitely worth it to have a much lighter bag to carry, and fewer things to have to pack up whenever I changed locations.

Best & Worst Gear

Here are some of the things I was super-glad I took:

Merrell Waterpro Sables: All-time best travel shoes ever. I blogged about the shoes I took in an earlier post, so I won't go into too much detail, but suffice to say, these shoes were ridiculously comfortable and versatile. I've walked up to 7 miles in these shoes, submerged them in water, and felt comfortable wearing them in cities (having the trench coat helped with that). Note: the link goes to the Waterpro Crystals, the Sables' very similar-looking replacement.

Express trench coat: Already covered this one, but it's worth repeating. Traveling in May, a nice trench coat was more important for looking good than any other article of clothing, and I loved wearing this one with its slightly aggressive military styling.

Kindle: It probably goes without saying that a Kindle is great for traveling. But it was so key to traveling light, and I loved being able to read whatever book I was in the mood for and not feel like I had to ration books so I wouldn't run out. It was also easy to read while standing in line, and that made lines a lot less terrible. It's a good thing it has such a great battery life, too, because my power adapter was usually taken up by my thirstier cell phone or camera battery charger.

Droid 2 Global: When it came time for me to get a new phone last year, I went for this smart phone that has quad band GSM. Although I had to go easy on my data usage since data plans are super expensive for Europe, it was so nice to be able to check the weather and my email wherever I was. And since it had wifi, anytime I was staying a hotel with free wifi, I could go crazy on the data. It also served as my MP3 player.

Lush Ultrabalm: There was nothing this stuff couldn't do. It served as a lip balm, cuticle cream, and a balm for irritated skin (including, erm, the skin that gets irritated by cheap toilet paper, which you tend to have to use more of when traveling). It took pine tar off of a friend's feet after he went hiking in sandals. And I even used it as a shoe shine for my leather Merrell Brios.

Here are some things that didn't work so well:

Joby tripod: The concept is great, and I think I am going to still get use out of this thing, but maybe not for most traveling. There just weren't really a lot of situations where I needed a tripod. I'm a point-and-shoot kind of girl at heart.

TravelRest pillow: This was a complete fail, because I couldn't get it to inflate on the plane. So basically it didn't get used for my overnight flight, and spent the trip taking up space in my suitcase because I couldn't bring myself to throw it out.

Sea to Summit Drylite Towel: I got one in an extra large size because it needed to serve two purposes. It had to be a light, packable beach towel for Greece, which it managed nicely. It also needed to roll up my washed clothes to squeeze the excess water out of them. This is where it failed. When I washed it after using it as a beach towel, it bled so much blue dye that I didn't trust using it for clothes. And I had pre-washed it as instructed before leaving, so that wasn't the issue. I ended up using the towels at my hotels, and lucked out that I never had a towel shortage. So I need to find a colorfast microfiber travel towel, or bleach the crap out of this one.

Sport nozzle Platypus Platy bottle: I love the idea of the lightweight Platy bottle, which takes up no space once you use it. But I used the same one I did last year, and apparently it was too old, because the nozzle failed and it leaked in my purse (fortunately no electronics were harmed). I'll stick to the screw-cap Platys from now on — less to fail.

What I wish I'd brought:

Steripen: I thought about getting one but then decided against it because I couldn't get a clear answer on why the water in Skiathos wasn't drinkable. Was it the mineral content? Bacteria? Who knew. We ended up buying large bottles of water like the rest of the island, and fortunately the convenience store down the road from our house had recycling. But on the rest of the trip I really could have used the Steripen, especially if my Platy bottle hadn't failed. I was on the go a lot and not quite confident enough in bathroom faucets in public restrooms to fill my bottle there. So I bought a lot of bottles of water, and was not happy with myself about it. If I'd had the Steripen I could have filled up anywhere that had clear tap water and felt good about it.

Neilmed Sinus Rinse: I started coming down with a cold in Skiathos and would have paid very good money for one of these, which is an easier to use and more portable version of a neti pot. But I couldn't find one, in Skiathos or even at a very large Boots in Portsmouth. In Skiathos I ended up MacGyvering one out of a bottle of contact lens solution with the tip cut off, some boiled water, and salt, which was better than nothing. And Boots did have a highly pressurized saline spray that I bought and took to calling the "nose rocket." But neither was as good as the Sinus Rinse. Lesson learned — I'm never traveling that long without one again.

And so that's the one bag report for this year's Europe trip. All in all, I think it went far better than last year, and I think I'll be able to take what I learned this time around and do even better and pack lighter next year. Possibly with a different suitcase, but more on that later.

For now, here's an annotated list of all the stuff I packed. And if you're interested in starting on one bag travel, the One Bag and One Bag One World sites are great places to start. I will note though that my advice is a bit different than a lot of what you'll see on those sites about non-wheeled luggage — it's a personal choice, and you need to think about your upper-body strength and any health issues before you decide to go wheel-less, especially now that there are more good lightweight wheelie options out there. Rick Steves' site also has a nice section on packing light that takes a realistic look at wheels vs. no wheels, among other things.

Jane Austen's England


Bath Abbey at night.

After my negative reaction to France, I got to thinking about why it is that I'm always so happy when I'm traveling in England, when everywhere else in the world can be hit or miss. After all, Paris, Dublin, and New York — all major tourist cities — have never really clicked with me.

And I started thinking that perhaps literature plays a large part. Two of my favorite novelists — Jane Austen and Patrick O'Brian — both set their novels around the time of Georgian and Regency England. London has always held some sort of special lure for me, but beyond it, I find it's the places mentioned in the books of these two authors that I'm often compelled to visit.

Portsmouth features heavily in O'Brian's books (and is seen in a less-favorable light in Austen's Mansfield Park), and I've now been there three times, each a delight. But this time around I wanted to spend a little more time in Jane Austen's world, and that prompted a repeat visit to Bath.

The first time I visited Bath, I hadn't really been an Austen fan. I started trying to read Pride & Prejudice in my early 20s, and bailed early into the book. I couldn't handle the looping, intricate formality of the language back then. Fast-forward through all 20 of O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin books, and it seems natural to me now, and when I tried Austen's books again, I was hooked.

Roman and Regency all rolled in to one.

Bath is the setting for one of my very favorite books, Persuasion, although neither Austen nor her heroine Anne Elliot liked the city, preferring the countryside to a place of so much gossip and posing. I, however, enjoyed myself very much this time around. After a lovely, relaxing evening at the Thermae Bath Spa, I woke the next morning and took an early walk around the town.

A pan around the Crescent.

There are few places so consistently historic as Bath — only the Royal Mile in Edinburgh comes to mind. All of the buildings with their cream-colored Bath Stone facades and their wrought iron details are largely the same ones Anne Elliot would have walked past. My walk took me through Bath's two most architecturally famous features — the Circus and the Crescent — around the gardens, and then eventually to the Jane Austen Centre.

Georgian Garden.

Jane Austen might not have liked Bath, but Bath certainly loves Austen, calling her its most famous resident. And in the Centre, a row house similar to the one up the street where the Austens actually lived, you get both biographical details of her life, and a greater understanding of what it was like to live during the Regency era (including an understanding of just how very rich indeed Mr. Darcy's 10,000 pounds a year made him).

Jane Austen Centre.

After touring the Centre's museum, I went upstairs to its Regency Tea Rooms for a cream tea. If you've never had cream tea, you should — it's a pot of tea, with scones, jam, and clotted cream. Clotted cream is made through some sort of magic performed on regular cream that solidifies it, and if you take the best aspects of butter, cream cheese, and whipped cream, and blend them all together, well, that's what clotted cream tastes like, and it's even more fantastic when combined with jam on a fresh, warm scone.

Cream tea, nom nom.

Moving on, because now I really want a cream tea and alas there is none to be found in Silver Spring. After the Austen Centre, I went to the nearby Assembly Rooms. These were where the Regency semi-elite gathered for balls, tea, and music (the true elite were more often engaged in private parties), and it was strange walking through them because I'd already seen them in movie versions of Persuasion, so they were new and familiar at the same time.

Ballroom at the Assembly Rooms.

The Assembly Rooms contain a quite nice Fashion Museum in the basement, which really covers a full evolution of women's fashion. And as a special exhibit for the royal wedding, they were showing wedding dresses from various years.

Wedding dresses on display.

I did some more walking, back down through the city, but soon enough it was time to take a cab to Castle Combe. If you read this blog, you know I have quite an aversion to cabs, but it would have been more expensive to rent a car (plus the whole driving on the opposite side of the road thing), and there really is no other good way to get there.

Adorable Castle Combe.

Castle Combe is a delightfully tiny little village in the Cotswolds. If I had just come from Persuasion's Bath, then this was much closer to Emma's Highbury, and as Emma is my other favorite Austen book, I was completely charmed. I learned the full story of Castle Combe from the cab driver who took me to the train station the next morning. He explained that it had been full of mills for the garment industry back at its height, but then the river shrank, leaving the mills inoperable, and the town frozen in time.

This could totally pass for Highbury.

There's not a lot to do in Castle Combe, but I had a lovely afternoon and evening there. I checked into my room at the Castle Inn Hotel, and marveled at the exposed beams, crooked walls, and impressively renovated bathroom for awhile. Then I headed out for a walk. This was a full-on English walk, through forests and sheep pastures, over stiles and through gates, along impossibly green countryside.

Walking in the Cotswolds is delightful and sheepful.

Then I cleaned up and washed the sheep poo out of my shoes, went to the pub across the street (the only pub in town) for a pint, and back to the hotel restaurant for dinner. It was there that I discovered I actually do like mussels, or at least I do as long as they're fresh Cornish mussels in a garlic cream sauce.

Fresh Cornish mussels...mmmmm.

I had breakfast early the next day, as I was due to head back to London and from there to Paris. And it was at breakfast that I got to talking to the server about where I lived, and traveling to the United States. She asked about San Francisco, a place she's been wanting to travel to, and as I've been there, I could give her some details about what I enjoyed. Then, to my surprise, she asked about North Carolina.

North Carolina? My sister lives there, so I also had some details to offer, but I was puzzled as to why, of all places, she was interested in North Carolina. Then she offered up that she liked the books of Nicholas Sparks. Ohhhh. I haven't read any of his books, but I knew they were set in the Outer Banks (another place I've been).

And you know what? I bet if she ever makes it to the Outer Banks, she'll enjoy them just as much as I enjoyed Bath and Castle Combe. Because there's something about being in the place of your favorite characters, walking through the scenery you've read so well-described. When you've already connected to a place in a great book, it's so much easier to love it on arrival.

6.20.2011

Close your eyes and think of England('s spas)


The Lush Spa country kitchen.

There were a few factors that tempted me back to the United Kingdom again during this year's trip to Europe, but one of the strongest was English spas.

I'm guessing that when most people think of spas, they think of Moroccan spas, or Turkish baths, or at least an outdoor massage table in some sort of tropical location where gauzy curtains billow in the breeze. But me, I think of English spas. Mostly because of my fantastic Synaesthesia massage there last year, an experience I was eager to repeat.

I didn't want to get the same treatment over again, though (fabulous as it was), since Lush had come out with some new treatments since my last visit. I was especially drawn to "The Good Hour," which is a deeper tissue massage, and is set to sea shanties. Yes, in the strange and fantastic world that is the Lush Spa, they've gotten about as far away from whale songs and Enya as they possibly can and set a massage to sea shanties.

Then the most I started thinking about it, the more I thought I should try TWO treatments. I mean, how often am I in the UK and able to go to the Lush Spa? Not very. And "The Spell" foot treatment seemed to be just the thing for someone with a bum foot. So I booked The Spell for the very beginning of my trip, and The Good Hour for the very end, a nice little set of spa bookends.

I had The Spell the day I landed, which maybe wasn't my best idea ever. My migraine was really throbbing from the lack of sleep, and I was seriously jet-lagged. Before the treatment, I followed my therapist, Sophie, around the shop floor as she picked up all of the items we'd be using. Then we went down to the delightful little country cottage kitchen of the spa, where she gave me an ink pen and paper, to write down something that was worrying me, while she went to prepare the room. I folded up my paper as instructed, and dropped it into a copper kettle, and when Sophia returned, she lit a fireplace match and placed it in the kettle. My "worry" went up in a flash — a bit of theatrics before we went into the treatment room.

The treatment starts with a foot soak and then a scrub, all, of course, with Lush products. Then you get a slathering of Volcano all over your feet. Sophie described Volcano as almost an underdog product for Lush, not the most popular one in the store by far. But I've been using it since it came out and love it — the warming effect feels great on your feet and it really does make them softer. While the Volcano was setting, Sophie did a fantastic head, neck, and shoulders massage with hot stones that had been coated in Dream Time temple balm, so that it not only felt great, it also smelled of relaxing lavender. It didn't exactly get rid of my migraine, but it did help.

Then it was on to the bulk of the treatment, a reflexology foot massage. I've only had one other reflexology foot massage, and this one used a lighter touch (and Pied de Pepper foot lotion). It felt very nice, so nice that combined with the jet lag I found myself fighting to stay awake. The music was certainly a contributing factor — more vocal than that used in Synaesthesia, it's another custom-scored set of English folk centered around a theme of walking.

So even though I was in a sleepy trance for much of it, I really enjoyed The Spell. And with the combo of relaxing spa treatment, a very nice hotel bed, and the jet lag, I slept like the dead that night. Did it warrant the name of The Spell? Well, all I'll say is that my worry did indeed go away.


This post isn't meant to be ALL about the Lush Spa, however, as I did also have an additional spa visit while I was in Bath. The first time I went to Bath, with Eileen and Jeff, we spent some time in Thermae Bath Spa's Cross Bath, which was just the thing after touring the Roman Baths. When I decided I wanted to go back to Bath, I knew I wanted to check out the full Thermae complex.

In the main building, they have two major pools — one on the top of the building with a spectacular view out over Bath, and another slightly larger one on the ground level. Both pools are filled with the same mineral water that the Romans and the Regency gentry bathed in, pleasantly warm and slightly sweet-smelling. There's also a set of four steam rooms, each with a different scent, and a set of bubbling foot baths. I decided to pay for a four-hour session, but wasn't sure if I would end up using all of the time.

Well, I did. Both of the pools were lovely to float in, and they had pool noodles out to make for easier floating. I went in the early evening, and the pools were crowded at first but thinned out as the evening went on. Each pool had water features, like bubbles coming up from the floor, and a high-pressure waterfall that gave a great shoulder massage. My favorite, though, was a lazy river in the ground floor Minerva Bath, made with a series of jets that propelled you and your pool noodle along. I could have done that alone for hours.

I did manage to tear myself away from the lazy river, though, and also alternate among the steam rooms and rooftop pool. It was a bit cold getting out of the water and the steam, particularly on the roof, but that was quickly forgotten as soon as I got into the next warm attraction. It really was a delightful and relaxing way to spend an evening, and I felt fantastically relaxed when I left.


I saved the other end of my Lush Spa bookend, my Good Hour massage, for the day I flew out. I had a late afternoon flight out, which left me just enough time for a 10 a.m. massage (the treatment portions of both of my treatments clocked in at one hour, but I was there about two hours both times).

So the worst thing about The Good Hour is knowing I can't go back immediately and get the treatment again. Synaesthesia might be more of an experience, but The Good Hour really worked. It uses trigger point therapy, which Sophie (again my therapist for this treatment), explained as pressing down on a knot in your muscles and then releasing it so that blood rushes in and it's like restarting your muscle in the same way you'd restart a computer. And it really works. This was the most effective massage I've ever had — my muscles felt like jello when I left.

And there were still some of the signature Lush theatrics. For this one, Sophie dropped a Big Blue bath bomb into water and then poured it over dry ice, creating "sea mist" that rolled across the floor before the treatment began. As for the sea shanties, I can see where they wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea, but I thought they were great, and they really fit with the motion of a deep tissue massage. Speaking of a cup of tea, that was what Sophie had prepared for me when I left the treatment room, complete with an optional splash of rum (which I opted for, because hey, I was on vacation). It was a contrast to the detoxifying post-Spell drink of hot water infused with lemon and ginger slices, but perfectly fitting.


So while Thermae was a wonderfully relaxing way to spend an evening, the three treatments I've had at the Lush Spa are hands-down the most unique, memorable, and surprisingly also the most effective I've ever had. They are delightfully and unabashedly English, from the country cottage decor, to the folk music, to the cup of tea at the end. When you think of spas, you might not think of England, but you should.

Candlelight in the treatment room.

6.10.2011

11th-hour barefoot (a shoe report)

From left to right: Left-behind mesh shower shoes, Merrell Pure Gloves, Merrell Brios, and Merrell Waterpro Sables.

I've had shoes on the brain lately, which is not an unusual thing for me. But it probably means it's time for me to post on the shoes I took on my trip.

I ended up taking three pairs. If you do one-bag travel, this is generally a no-no. Normally, you can do pretty much any travel with two pairs of shoes, as long as they're the right two pairs of shoes. And indeed, up until a few weeks before my trip, I had been planning to take my Merrell Brios and my Merrell Waterpro Sables.

The Brio is a mary jane that is fantastic for walking. Before my trip, I did a five-mile test in these on the cobblestone sidewalks of Alexandria, Virginia, that I never had time to blog about. They stood up, as they usually do — in fact, it was only one excruciatingly long day in Paris, ending at the Louvre, that felled these shoes, and I'm pretty sure it would have felled any shoes.

The Waterpro Sable was really the linchpin of my shoe plan. I needed shoes that would work for the beach, for hiking, and for city walking. Since many of the beaches on Skiathos were gravel or stone, I decided that a good pair of water shoes would be my best bet, and I loved the Sables because with socks, they look like a pair of sporty sneakers, so they'd be far more versatile than flip-flops. And indeed, in a previously blogged walking test, they went well past the 5 mile test for a strong 7 miles.

So I had my shoe plan pretty much down. For kicking around the house and my hotel rooms, I'd planned on taking a super lightweight pair of mesh shower shoes. I'd actually planned on taking these to Ireland, too, but in the last-minute shoe space crunch caused by my needing to take an air cast, they got left behind.

They got left behind this time, too. I've mentioned that I was suffering from an extended migraine before my trip — my migraines aren't as intense (auras, hiding in a dark room) as those some people get, but they can last much longer if I don't take the medication in time. This one was well up over 20 days.

So take that stabbing pain in my head, and combine with a trip to REI for some final travel items. I happened to walk past the shoe section, and they had the Merrell barefoot shoes out on display. As I stalk Merrell's web site on a regular basis, I knew all about the barefoot shoes, but had always assumed that they were, well, like walking barefoot, and would have zero arch support. I was surprised to look in there and see that there was a curve where your arch goes. The heel isn't raised at all, and there's all sorts of room for your toes to spread out naturally, but good old arch support is still in there. So I tried a pair of the Pace Gloves on, and loved them so much I bought them. My original intent was to use them as a walking shoe that would strengthen my bad foot. But then I decided, what the hell, why not try this barefoot running? My foot had largely stabilized by now, thanks to my other Merrell shoes, and what did I have to lose?

So I watched the instructional videos and did the recommended prep work, and then headed out for a combined walk/run. And remember that migraine? It felt FANTASTIC to get the blood flowing when I ran. And rather than being worse for the wear, my foot actually looked better — I'm assuming because running using a correct and natural form was getting the circulation going, and making it stronger.

I did a few more short (less than three quarters of a mile, as you're supposed to build up your feet slowly) barefoot runs and decided I wanted a pair of barefoot shoes I could take with me in case I wanted to run for migraine relief. The Pace Gloves, while my preferred shoe for running, were not exactly very versatile. But the mary jane style Pure Gloves were, so I ordered a pair of those and found that I could also run in them.

Replacing the thin little mesh shower shoes with a pair of full-size shoes was not ideal, given that I was traveling with one carry-on. But I was packing light enough that there was still plenty of space in my suitcase, and the barefoot shoes are so light that there was only about a 4 ounce difference between them and the shower shoes.

So how did they all do?

Well, the Waterpro Sables came in as the linchpin, and boy did they perform. I wore them on the beach, and was glad to have them when I went in the water and lots of little fishes were suddenly interested in my feet. I wore them hiking up to the Kastro in Skiathos, and walking in the Cotswolds. They were already my favorite walking shoe, and with their thick soles, air cushion, and Merrell Q Form, there was nothing I threw at them that they couldn't handle. In fact, I wore them earlier today for a river tubing expedition, and they were perfect there, too.

Hiking in the Waterpro Sables.

If there's one complaint I have about the Sables, it's that when I wore them as a water shoe, if they got filled with rocks, they stayed filled with rocks until I could stop and remove them. This might have not been as large an issue if the plastic buckle hadn't gotten stuck once immersed in salt water. These are both design issues that I'm hoping Merrell fixed in the Sable's successor, the Waterpro Crystal. The lack of ankle support might have also started to be an issue if I'd done more extensive hiking. That said, given the number of things I threw at this shoe and the number of occasions I wore them for, overall I think they were fantastic.

I might have worn the Waterpro Sables every single day but for Paris. I was a bit freaked out in advance of going to Paris because I'd read many articles about what you should and shouldn't wear, and any sort of athletic shoe was firmly in the shouldn't wear category. So I knew I wanted a nicer shoe that was also a tested walking shoe, and my Brios fit that definition. As I expected, they held up mightily, until the day in Paris where I went through the catacombs, the marine museum, and the Louvre all in the same day, with some substantial stretches of walking in between.

With their nice rubber treads, they did quite well on the damp floors of the catacombs, and actually my feet were feeling pretty good for most of the day. But that slow crawl over marble museum floors is a killer, and I just did it for too many hours on top of too many miles. By the time I left the Louvre, my feet were throbbing. Now, in my case, any time BOTH feet are throbbing instead of just my bad foot, I count this as a good thing because it means my feet are behaving normally. But still, I hobbled back to the hotel from the train, and opted for the thick, comfy Sables the next day. I don't really blame the Brios — I think my feet would have been sore in any pair of shoes after that day. But I do wish I'd replaced the insoles before the trip; I wear these shoes to work a lot, too, and I think anything that would have given them a refresh and a little more shock absorption would have been helpful.

So what about the 11th-hour Pure Gloves? Well, they had to fill two major roles in standing in for the mesh shower shoes. First, I needed to be able to kick around whatever my current abode was in them, and second, I needed to be able to wear them in place of slippers at Thermae Bath Spa in Bath (more on that in a future post). They managed both of these, although the velcro may have taken a little longer to deal with than the mesh shoes' elastic strap, and I got it caught on the mosquito net on my bed in Greece an inappropriate number of times.

I actually didn't end up running in the Pure Gloves during the trip. When the migraine started to clear up, I had no interest in running on vacation, although I did start back up again when I returned home. But they did get far more use than the shower shoes would have. They were a better option than either of my other shoes to wear sockless into Skiathos town with a dress, and, more substantially, I wore them to Versailles. I'm not really sure why I decided to test them out in a massive palace and its extensive gardens, but I did. And they held up pretty well. With the thinner soles, I could feel the gravel walks of the gardens more, but I walked a ton, and my feet only started to get sore at the very end of the day. The biggest issue I had with them was that the mary jane strap would start to irritate the top of my foot if I kept it too tight while wearing them barefoot. Not bad for a fairly untested pair of shoes, and ounce for ounce, I got far more use out of them than I would have the shower shoes.

Pure Gloves, dusty from a day at Versailles.

If I had gotten into barefoot shoes earlier, and built up the strength of my feet more, I think I probably could have done this trip with two pairs of shoes, the Sables and the Pure Gloves. The Pure Gloves would have picked up the hiking duties in the Cotswolds, because with a shoe this minimal, lack of ankle support isn't an issue — the shoe can't really turn if you step wrong, and you feel it more instantaneously if you step wrong, so you can make a correction. And the Pure Gloves would have also served whenever a mary jane style shoe was needed. The Sables still would have been my shoe of choice for our boat tour of Skiathos, which had me walking in the water on Lalaria Beach and then hiking up to the Kastro on the same day. Since both shoes have a substantial Vibram tread, I would have had good traction either way.

That would mean leaving home my beloved Brios, which I will always own a pair of as long as Merrell makes them, and will always love, because they were the pair of shoes that made me understand how poorly I'd been walking, in part because of my previous shoe choices. So Brios, even if you get left behind next year, thanks for even getting me to the point where I could walk as much as I did on this trip. Maybe after teaching me to walk properly, and suffering through the Louvre, you deserve a rest.

And now for a place I liked


Skiathos town had no shortage of quaint, cobblestone streets.

Greece.

Just that word in itself conjures images of crystal-clear water, romantic ruins, and maybe a nice slab of feta cheese. And all of those things were on Skiathos, but it was more than that.

Lalaria Beach.

As you'd expect, the water was this amazing clear blue near the shore, clearer and deeper and more vivid even than what I've seen in the Caribbean. It was almost mesmerizingly beautiful, especially in places like Lalaria Beach with its signature rock formation, only accessible by boat. We went there on an all-day boat tour, which is also where I got my share of ruins.

Mosque in the Kastro.

These weren't ruins from Greek antiquity, but rather what remained of a medieval town, built up on a cliff that prevented pirates from ransacking the town. We reached the beach below the town on the same boat tour that took us to Lalaria, but then had to hike up the cliff in order to see the town. The short but sweaty hike made me really feel the desperation that must have led the people of then-Skiathos to opt to built their town in such a remote and impossible place.

As for ruins from Greek antiquity, well, Skiathos doesn't have any. I did feel a bit like I missed out on those in skipping Athens and some of the other sites in my chosen itinerary. But strikes and riots in Athens while we were traveling made me feel a bit better about my choice to skip out on it this time and return in some future trip. And, regardless of how you feel about it, the reality is that many of the treasures of Greek antiquity aren't actually in Greece anymore. I'd already seen some of them, such as the Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles, in the British Museum, and I saw more this time around in the Louvre. But if those are the sorts of ruins you're looking for, you'll need more than Skiathos in your itinerary.

For me, though, spending time on a Greek island like Skiathos was more than that. For one, although I've spent time on many Caribbean islands as part of cruise ship stops, this is the first time I've really stayed on an island for any period of time, and what really struck me was how local the economy, and by extension, the food chain, were.

It really did feel like much of the island's economy existed to support tourism, either directly or — through the agriculture that provided food for the grocery stores and restaurants — indirectly. We were impressed in Ireland at the freshness of the eggs, and that you bought them non-refrigerated from the grocery store shelves. On Skiathos, though, you actually woke up to the sound of a rooster crowing (and then listened to him continue to crow all day, because roosters are, apparently, stupid), and when you bought the eggs off the shelf, they sometimes still had feathers stuck to them.

Greek Salad.

It was abundantly clear that food on the island was based on fresher and more local produce than what we get in the United States, even with the movement to buy more food from local farms. Take a Greek Salad, for instance. Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions, and olives with a nice slab of spice-dusted feta on top. No need for any other dressing aside from maybe a sprinkle of olive oil and balsamic, because the vegetables were so fresh and flavorful combined with the mild, creamy feta. It's not something you can pull off with the hothouse tomatoes you buy in your local chain grocery store.

Seafood, too, was fresh and caught off of tiny fishing boats, not giant trawlers. One evening while we were having dinner at a taverna in town, a fisherman brought in his catch, and it was instant drama. People from all of the nearby restaurants started crowding around, watching the catch as it was unloaded, and then standing around the fishmonger's in vaguely intimidating poses. We watched as one man scored an eel from the fishmonger's, and then walked over by the water and proceeded to gut and slice it in front of an audience of disgusted-but-fascinated tourists.

Drama at the fishmonger's.

If you take all of these fresh ingredients, it's very difficult for things to go wrong, and indeed, Skiathos was the site of many of my favorite meals during the trip. I couldn't stop eating Greek Salads, but most memorable was the Moussaka at Diamond, a little outdoor restaurant down the road from our house. A fluffy but decadent layer of b├ęchamel sauce over a slightly spicy and super flavorful mixture of tomatoes, meat, and other goodness, this stuff was so good we swooned when we ate it the first time. Then we went back again a few days later.

Moussaka.

So the good of Greece was memorable, but so were the people. We'd expected open friendliness in Ireland last year, and not really got it, but here people were always exceedingly kind and interested in us. Maybe it was because we were, for once, a rarity as American tourists instead of British (the island is extremely popular with British tourists, which is why flights out of Gatwick were so easy for me to find). Maybe it was because tourist season was just starting up, and they weren't worn out yet. But whatever it was, the people of Skiathos were a real delight.

As for island living, it suited me quite well for a short period of time. Knowing that I had such an aggressive itinerary in England and France, and coming off of an extended migraine that started to clear up as soon as I saw the view from our house (funny how that works), and got even better once I slept off the jet lag, I was content to just chill out in our lovely house, explore the town a bit, and of course, hit the beach. Oh yeah, and dance a bit when, on our last evening on the island, Tommie, Jeff, and I went out to dinner and ended up staying for "Greek Night," which was unquestionably touristy, and yet still fun.


That's not to say that I wasn't inappropriately delighted when I got back to England and realized that now that I'd left the island's weak plumbing, I could once again throw my toilet paper in the toilet instead of a special trash can beside said toilet. I was. I am fairly sure I was the most giddy person in the women's bathroom at Gatwick Airport. But as much as I love urban spaces and strong plumbing, I had experiences on Skiathos that I never could have had in England or France.

Standing by a bus stop in the warm Greek sun, watching an old man with leathery skin walk by with his old, bony donkey and his most important possessions strapped to the saddle, alongside a large plastic bottle of water that had obviously been refilled many times before, smiling and responding to his greeting of "yeah-sas." That's the sort of thing that only happens on a Greek island, and I think someday I'll be back. Probably not to Skiathos, though — there are just so many more to explore.


6.06.2011

Cluster France


Requisite Eiffel Tower shot.

This will be taking things a bit out of chronological order, but I don't think I can write about my trip for very long without getting this out of the way: I didn't really like France that much.

It's not that the people were rude, which seems to be an unfair stereotype that Americans have about French people. Now, I might have stacked the deck in my favor by at least learning polite phrases and greetings in French (as well as "I don't understand" and "Do you speak English"), which I think people appreciated. But I found everyone I interacted with, whether they spoke English or not, to be quite polite. Polite, but not necessarily nice. There was none of that enthusiastic friendliness of the people in Greece, or even the kindly-under-a-reserved-shell demeanor of people in England, but they certainly weren't rude.

It wasn't that I had a difficult time getting around or communicating, either. Once I got enough change in euros to use in the machines, which were often only coins or cards (and I assumed the card readers were chip-and-pin only), I had no trouble switching the language to English and buying what I needed for the RER (a cross between suburban rail and D.C.'s Metro) and the Metro (subway). In fact, I'd been in Paris about three hours when I was at a ticket machine and the woman at the machine next to me started asking me questions in French. All I could say was "juh nuh com pruhn pah." What I really wanted to say is "I've been here for less than three hours and you speak French, therefore you should be better at this than me." But that was well beyond my French skills.

Paris Metro.

As for communicating, the longer I was there, the more comfortable I felt using my limited French, and I even picked up a few new words and phrases. The waitress at the cafe I ate at switched to flawless English when I asked her if she spoke it, but I think even if she hadn't, we could have muddled through. I do wish I had learned to count to 10 — I could remember a few numbers from the wee little middle school language class they did for us, but not all of them. Still, by holding up a number of fingers and saying the English word if I didn't know the French, I got what I needed across.

I saw some remarkable things there, so it wasn't that it was boring. I already blogged about the creepy but fantastic experience of walking the catacombs. I also saw Versailles, Notre Dame, and the Louvre, did a boat tour on the Seine, and saw an exhibit on the SS France in the maritime museum. And I also drank some fantastic wine (not exactly surprising), ate some brilliant baked goods, and had a piece of goat cheese that might be the best cheese I've ever eaten.

So where did France go wrong for me? Mostly, it was all of the tourists. When I played my favorite France game — tourist, or Parisian? — on the RER or Metro, I generally felt like the ratio was about half and half. Granted, I was visiting in May, but the ratio was not nearly the same when I played tourist, or Londoner? on the Tube. Somehow, London seemed better able to absorb its tourists.

Part of the problem was simply the number of tourists, combined with a healthy share of laissez-faire attitude from anyone working at any sort of tourist attraction. Take Versailles. Having heard that the ticket lines were ridiculous, I ordered my ticket online in advance. You were supposed to be able to print the ticket from a link in the confirmation email they sent. Except there was no link in the confirmation email. I emailed them asking what I was supposed to do, and they said to go to their Internet desk when I got to Versailles and they would print it for me.

So I get to Versailles, and go to the Internet desk, and there is no one there. Fuming, I got into the ticket line, and also on the phone to their Internet tickets number. Fortunately I did the latter, because the woman I talked to on the phone told me just to go to the entrance, and they would print the ticket for me there. Except you don't just go to the entrance at Versailles. You wait, in a line that snakes up and down the giant courtyard several times. After an hour of waiting in line, I got in to the entrance building and handed a man my Internet confirmation, and he did indeed print my ticket. I also saw that the line was pointlessly long — if they had more than two people taking tickets, and more than one x-ray machine for everyone's things, there would be no line.

Line at Versailles.

I waited in a pointless line at the catacombs, as well, this time for more like an hour and a half. There were signs posted that they could only allow 200 people down in the catacombs at one time, so they were letting very small groups in at a time. But simple math says that if it takes 45 minutes to go through the catacombs, and there are 200 people allowed down there at once, they should have put about 400 people through in the time I was waiting. Uh, not even close. And when I finally got down there, I can definitely tell you there were not 200 other people down there with me. I don't even think I saw ten other people. Live people, that is.

It wasn't just the lines, though. Any time you have that many tourists in one place, a certain number of them are going to be idiots, and when you combine that with a lack of enforcement of any sort of rules, you get people taking flash photography all over Versailles and the Louvre. Now, the signs at Versailles were not the most clear about what you could and couldn't take pictures of. But the signs at the Louvre were exceedingly clear, and done with images, so there should have been no language barrier. Yet there were people taking flash photos all over the place, especially of the Mona Lisa, and I never heard anyone tell them to stop. I can't even imagine the amount of damage all of those paintings get over the course of a year. A guard did tell me to put my camera away at the SS France exhibit at the marine museum, and while I really would have liked pictures of the France artifacts, I respected that at least somebody was enforcing something (albeit something terribly sign-posted). They need to transfer that guy to the Louvre.

Mona Lisa paparazzi.

And that was my other issue with France, especially Paris — it seems like a caricature of itself. All of those tourists, dutifully shuffling along with their flashes turned on, crowding in front of the Mona Lisa (a painting that just doesn't really do it for me), looking at a painting because it's the thing to do. The buskers that get on the Metro and RER trains and play "romantic" accordion music. It seems like a city that exists for tourists, a string of cliches and cafes. That might be why the people in Paris are polite, but not necessarily deep down kind. They seemed to have a sort of big city weariness, to be tired of dealing with too many tourists. I live near Washington D.C., and I get that.



Not my video. I feel obligated to give a busker money if I take a picture or video, and I did not want to give any of these guys money. But this gives an idea of what I'm talking about.


But I don't get that sense in London. Sure, it's a city with plenty of cliches, with its Routemaster buses and Big Ben and all that pomp and circumstance. But it's also a city where you see building cranes on the horizon, progress happening amongst the historical sites. It's a city where you can step out of a Tube station and hear three buskers who've taken the trouble to lug out amplifiers and a drum kit covering Cream. It's a diverse city, and a city where normal people take the Tube to work and to the pub after, spilling out into the street with their pints. It's rock and roll and pubs with real ale.

This is my video. Now THIS is busking.

In short, it's still my favorite city in the world. Sorry, Paris, you were no competition.

Some might say that I should go back, and give it more time to grow on me. But on my last morning there, with a late-morning Eurostar train back to London, I still hadn't seen Notre Dame, and I was debating whether to drop my luggage at the train station and squeeze it in. It would have been less stressful just to stay at the train station and stuff my face with croissant and pan au chocolat, but I realized that if I saw Notre Dame, I wouldn't ever feel like there was something I really wanted to see that I'd missed, like I had to go back someday.

So I dropped my stuff in a locker at the Gare du Nord and went to Notre Dame, and now I'm not sure if I'll ever be back to Paris. Not with the lure of London just two and a half hours away.