Sloane Crosley is the editor of this year’s edition of The Best American Travel Writing, which is out today, and features essays by William T. Vollman, Gary Shteyngart, and other notable authors. If you’re not familiar with Crosley’s writing, you should check out I Was Told There Would Be Cake and How Did You Get This Number — two books of personal essays that will make even the most hardened cynic chuckle.
To honor her new editing gig, Crosley wrote some key travel tips for those who are vain, budget-conscious, and notoriously lazy. So get ready to take a short tour of the area outside your neighborhood; you will need some walking shoes and the illusion that you are elsewhere.
If you can’t sleep, which I often can’t, pretend you’ve been on a 12-hour flight in Coach Class. Add the works — someone kicking your kidneys, a crying baby, an armrest hog, a person in front of you who seems to have a different understanding of the physics of his seat than you do and demonstrates his special understanding by leaning on it as if it’s a brick wall when he gets up to go to the bathroom… then pretend that for no discernible reason you have been upgraded to First Class. Just yanked on up there. Business Class? Um, no, I said “First.” Only the best for you. Pretend that your muscles have just been allowed to relax, that you’ve been granted the legroom of your dreams and that it’s quiet because you have nice headphones and there are no crying babies up here. Works every time. Ignore upstairs moving furniture. There is no furniture in First Class!
Speaking of sleep, eye masks. Learn to love them. For a long time I associated them with feathered slippers or the movie Overboard. No one with a good heart in ’80s movies wears eye masks. I have no idea why that is. Maybe they don’t sleep well because of all their evil mischief-making. Well, I don’t care if it makes me evil or good or unattractive (it definitely does that), eye masks are a dream. Especially if you can get the fancy ones that allow for REM and don’t press down on your eyeball. It kind of feels like waking up in an MRI machine or being buried alive but with at least half the panic. At least.
Become your own urban planner and your own GPS. How many times have you been in another country’s underground system and found yourself perplexed by a tomato red train line versus a cherry red train line? Generally these train lines overlap and their final destinations differ by, say, one letter or accent. Sometimes I look around the subway and see a white bent arrow that sorta kinda suggests I walk around a staircase or a sign for a group of subway lines clustered right next to an “EXIT” sign. I see these things and think: If I didn’t speak English, I’d be pretty screwed right now. This realization has helped a lot with my directional sense both here and abroad, if only because I’ve loosened my “take it literally” policies when it comes to such signs and tried to trust my instincts when I get lost.
It’s okay to be embarrassed. Trip over things. Pull over and orient yourself. Stop and gawk at what you find impressive. Be stupid. Fake an accent when asking for directions. A bad one. It’s a big city and no one knows who you are so who cares? Plus, as long as you’re not a jerk about it (don’t be frustrated when you start speaking – civilians are not Verizon or Time Warner operators and they owe you less than nothing – and never stop anyone who looks harried or has headphones on unless it’s an emergency) people are usually surprisingly helpful.
Try new restaurants as often as you can. It’s amazing to me to think that there are people in Paris and Tokyo and Johannesburg that have a fallback restaurant where they go every week just because they can’t think of anywhere better to go. If I had a week in any of those cities, I would try something different each night. Unless it’s your absolute favorite and every waiter knows your name, having “had every dish on the menu” is nothing to brag about it. Leave your neighborhood. Shoo. Scat. Go. Now.
Stop being so lazy. I am as guilty of this as anyone, known to get finicky about even leaving my neighborhood. As I type this, I am also planning a trip to the north of France. I have a limited amount of time there and there are a few sights – a cliff here, an old-ass house there – that I am determined to see in just a couple of days. Looking at a map of a foreign country is a bit like going into a very expensive clothing store. What would seem totally unreasonable outside the confines of the store now seems doable because it’s a $100 dollar item and not a $500 item. Same thing with mileage. Suddenly a 2-hour drive to see an abandoned French asylum seems like a good idea just because it’s technically doable. I’m not suggesting you drive to Canada tonight just to see if you can. But The Cloisters wouldn’t kill you.
Eat like you’re trying not to offend anyone when you get there. I don’t eat meat. If you are reading this, chances are you know what that means. But often times I’ll wind up in a place in a foreign country where “chicken” is as good as “carrots.” And “duck”? Duck is like seaweed with feathers. Yet I never have an issue eating in foreign countries but sometimes I do here. This makes no sense. I once lived in the land of haggis for almost a year. I was never a pain in the ass to anyone (when it came to dietary restrictions at least). Why? I would venture to guess it’s because I am constantly assuming the comforts of home when I eat at home. I rarely check menus or allow for the fact that a restaurant might just serve everything in bone marrow cups and that’s that — tough luck. It may seem dorky and lacking in spontaneity but if I researched restaurants for fancy or group meals before leaving the house, I might be able to suggest an alternate locale (sushi, anyone?) and save myself from being backed into an iceberg wedge.