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When traveling to a new country I highly recommend minimal preplanning of destinations and events.  Of course it is necessary to prepare for money exchanges and make sure you don’t book a place in a crime infested neighborhood, etc.  But get to your initial destination, and then go with the flow.  Walk about with no agenda.  Get up in the morning, look at a map and see what strikes your fancy – and go.  Hop on a train, use the subway, snag a bus – mingle with the local people.  Go into a store, museum, or tavern just because it interests you at the moment.

Many people travel by tour with preplanned meals, lodging and destinations.  There are others that even though they are travelling solo or with a small group, will plot out where they will go, what they will see, and what they will eat down to the last detail.  Not only is that boring, but it removes the chances for one of the best reasons to travel: unexpected encounters with fellow travelers that can lead to unbelievably pleasant experiences.

A couple examples might prove useful.  I will post one today and another in a day or so.

I was travelling in Europe with my closest friend Scott and his girlfriend Tam.  We had spent a couple days in Amsterdam followed by a few days in Paris.  In Amsterdam we had gone to the Rijksmuseum (which I highly recommend if you like art) and walked the canals and the famous red light district.  We also had a drunken night with some Australian tankers on leave from their army.  But that’s another story.  In Paris we had gone to the Louvre, the Musee D’Orsay, Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower.  Pretty standard touristy fare, but Tam had never been to Europe before and, as an artist and painter herself, she wanted to see some of Europe’s famous art and architecture.

Our next stop was to be London via ferry out of Calais.  We had tentative plans for some sightseeing in there before heading to Scotland.  Scott and I were of course intending to hit as many English and Scottish taverns as possible to sample some of the finest in European beers and ales and stouts, as well as get in some dart matches.  Both of us played darts competitively and Britain was said to have the best dart players in the world.  We wanted to test our skills among the locals.  The players in Amsterdam had not been much competition.

So we found ourselves getting off the train in Calais at 8 in the morning and had been walking about trying to find reasonably priced lodging for our overnight stay.  Usually that entailed getting a mile or so from the train station.  Scott and I were both wearing cowboy hats (and boots) which screamed American! In 1990 this was usually a good thing and the overt American look had helped break the ice with many fellow travelers.  Americans were well liked at that time.

“Hey Yanks”!  “HEY YANKS”!!

Obviously someone was trying to get our attention.  Just as obvious was the fact they sounded quite drunk.  And as we got closer to the source of the shouting, they looked quite drunk as well.  No matter.  Drunken Brits in northern France are not an uncommon sight.  The philosophy being that if they toss the ale down too extravagantly, the French just ship em’ back across the channel.  At home in England they face a higher risk of arrest for their exuberance.  So it was not with complete surprise that we came across a group of 6-8 Brits winding down a long evening out on a patio area in front of a small inn/tavern.  The clanking of mugs and the sound of laughter carried to us as we headed their way.

“Come have a pint with us Yanks”, offered one of the celebrants.  Others echoed the offer.

“Why not”, we said, despite the early morning hour.  They seemed like good cheerful Brits and meeting new people is really half the fun of travelling.   Besides, this kind of encounter is one of the only ways I know you can catch a buzz early in the morning and people say, “yeah, of course – makes sense.”

It turns out one of them was getting married.  We had come upon the tail end of a bachelor party.  So we knocked back a couple pints and began a friendly conversation with a man named Terry who was the least drunk of the batch.  During our chat with Terry we found some common ground in a mutual passion for the game of Darts.  He played in a league in his home town.  As I mentioned, Scott and I played competitively as well back in Columbus, Ohio.

All in all it was a fun pleasant way to start the day, but after an hour or two they said their goodbyes and headed for the ferry back to England.  Terry encouraged us to give him a ring if we came and stayed in London as he lived just north and east in Essex.  He offered to take us out to a local pub for a round of beers and some darts.  It was the kind of polite chit chat that in America you know means, “I’m just saying this, I don’t really expect or want you to call me since you are a complete stranger, but I want to seem friendly.”  But we had the sense Terry was being genuine.

We made our Ferry the next day and spent a day going to the Tower of London and various other traditional London sights.  Not really enthralled by London, we called Terry the next day and, on his suggestion, made our way to Essex.  He picked us up at the station and drove us to his flat, insisting we stay the night.  His hospitality was surprising in its generosity.  We went out for some dinner, beers and pleasant conversation.  The next morning we intended to pack up and take a train to Scotland.  But as Terry was getting ready for work, he handed us a key to his apartment, told us some places we could go, and that he would be back around six in the evening when he would take us to a private club for a dart tournament.  It seemed we would be staying in Essex a little longer.  Who does this?  Who offers three near strangers met once at a French inn at 8 in the morning a key his apartment?  I sincerely doubt I could be that trusting, but I’m glad he was.

Well that evening we went to a private drinking club and drank beer and played darts for hours.  Terry introduced his Yank cowboy friends to all his mates and we had a grand time swapping stories, shooting darts, and laughing.  The next night we went to another of his favorite pubs and did the same.  There seemed to be no hard feelings that the “Yanks” went 14-3 in our dart matches.  Just think, a random chance encounter in France led to three days in Essex, a place we had no intention of visiting.  But it was one of the most memorable parts of the entire vacation because of the people we met, especially Terry.  We went with the flow.  No agenda to keep.  Lots of memories.

While not everyone would want to travel wearing a cowboy hat, every traveler can be open to a less rigid travel schedule and reap the benefits of just seeing what surprises life will present when you get away from a plan.

As thanks, when we got home we shipped a cowboy hat to Terry.  I like to think it brought him some luck in his dart matches later.