Don’t Be Afraid: Taking the Bus in a Foreign Country

I once got lost on a bus. Where, you ask? Navigating the streets of Nairobi, maybe? Perhaps the cold, unforgiving lair of the London tube in rush hour? Rio? Shanghai? The windy country roads of the Cotswolds, surely?

Nope. In San Francisco. Where I lived. Heading back to my own house. Of nine years. From a class I’d been taking. In the same location. For six straight weeks.

If there is such a thing as directional dyslexia — and I think I can safely guarantee you that there is — I’m pretty sure I have it. But humor me: I’d just gotten out of one of my first meditation classes ever, the one when I finally got that transformational sense of calm and inner peace that brought me a glimpse of oneness with the universe and all beings. Afterwards, I calmly boarded the bus I’d arrived on, and after a full 11½ blissful minutes, snapped into consciousness, looked around, and realized that bus was still going in the same direction as it had been before, which meant I was now two more miles away from my house.

You goin' my way, sailor?

Where am I going? And why do I need an oyster? I have a good clam chowder recipe; does that count?

Taking the bus in a foreign country can be scary. For me, it flat-out is scary. I’ve been a travel writer and guidebook author for 16 years, and I have to work up the courage to use public transportation in a new city. In a new country, I need no less than three good-size hugs and maybe even a ‘there, there’ before I even think of boarding a bus or metro by myself. Taxis, walking, hop-on/hop-offs … they’re all much easier and I will readily, happily take them if I don’t have the time or energy to learn the bus system.

But, as I wrote about in a previous post on travel minimalism, I truly believe you don’t need much when you travel besides one thing: challenging yourself. (Vacationing is a totally separate thing; for that you need mai tais and a paper umbrella.) And there is nothing like standing in the freezing rain at a bus stop in Amsterdam for 30 minutes wondering where the hell the tram is, or sharing a ride on a manure truck in Western Kenya, that will not only challenge you but give you a window into experiences you wouldn’t have had any other way. Or, so I’ve heard.

External reasons to take a bus

If you’ve read previous blog posts, you’ll know that I secretly love nothing more than to tangibly experience what it’s like to live day to day in a new culture. And you know what people do every day, in every place around the entire world? Take the bus.

You see it all on public transportation: teenagers being teenagers, grumpy businesspeople, smiley babies, families interacting, the way a society treats its elderly and most fragile members. When I lived in Guatemala for three months in 1996, twice I brought enough snacks to share on long bus rides. I shared them with several seatmates each time, most of whom I found out had never tried cheddar cheese or a chocolate chip cookie. Maria de la Flor told me what it was like to raise 12 children, and I got to hold and pet a four-week-old puppy.

Riding with amblers, school kids and moms in the Cotswolds.

Riding with amblers, school kids and moms in the Cotswolds.

Personal reasons to take a bus

You know what else I secretly love more than almost anything? Sitting on my ass while somehow being propelled forward by a power greater than my own two legs, luxuriating in having the time to sit back and just watch the world pass by while I think, observe, write, play iPhone Scrabble. The slower, the better. There’s a certain thought process that seems to take place only when the universe is playing out around me.

Also, look at it this way: Doing this most basic act is courageous but easily attainable in — literally — almost every single place on the entire planet. Take public transportation in a foreign country, and you are instantly awarded twelve points of traveler cred.

How to take a bus

Taxis, walking, hop-on/hop-off tours … they’re all easier than taking the bus. You’ll never see any 68-page guidebooks on how to hail a taxi. But you very well might have to sift through pages or websites full of maps and schedules and holiday times and dates just to get from one place to another by public transportation. But like most things worth having, the extra effort you put in will be rewarded back to you. Times three.

Is there anything better than taking a bus in Argentina? None!

How many experiences are better than taking a bus in Argentina? None!

 

1. Start small. Don’t plan on traveling overland from Guinea Bissau to Djibouti in the rainy season on your first go. Metro systems like the underground in London or Shanghai are always easier than city buses, since there are maps everywhere and everything eventually connects.

2. Pay attention. Whether or not you’re required to pay attention is, for me, the dividing line between traveling and vacationing. When you’re taking public transportation, especially alone, you need to pay attention constantly. Have a paper map with you. Keep an eye on street signs. You’re here to observe daily life. Take out your headphones and be there.

3. Go without an objective. I once spent about a week and a half living with a model and one-time extra from Baywatch in Venice, Italy. Not surprisingly, she found a boyfriend within a day. I found the vaporetti. On several occasions, I purposely got lost and spent the rest of the day getting back to our apartment.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask — the driver, passengers, locals near bus stops. You don’t even need to speak the language; a paper map and pointing will do. You might look silly. People might stare at you. You want that traveler cred, right? Be prepared to make monkey sounds if it’s the zoo you want.

5. Read up in advance. Last week in Helsinki, rather than take a hop-on/hop-off, we took a DIY tram tour. Granted, I cheated and brought a card-carrying Finn with me, but found out later the tourism authority publishes their own tram tour guide of Helsinki. I’ve seen great blog posts on taking the bus in places like Panama, and Lonely Planet publishes a ‘Getting Around‘ page in every guidebook and on the website on public transportation in every country in the world. There is something wonderful about the serendipity of travel, but there are ways to prepare for serendipity.

 

UK vs US: A Cage Match

I consider myself somewhat of an expert on being American. Case in point: I’ve bet on a race between a pig, a goat and a duck at the Washington State Fair.* I learned what an interjection was from Schoolhouse Rock. And I once pulled in $85 on a Vegas 21 table. At 6.30 in the morning, on a road trip, on Route 66.

Over the past 20 years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the UK and have developed an affinity for life here. I once wrote a Lonely Planet chapter covering the western half of England. I’ve had swans as neighbors, twice: once in a converted barn in the Cotswolds. In the past month, I’ve visited five manor houses, four castles, nine gardens (including Prince Charles’) and had seven cream teas. (Double parental visits might have been involved.)

Here is my totally and completely unscientific survey in a who-wins-and-why cage match.

Kinda begs a story, doesn't it?

Kinda begs a story, doesn’t it?

City Names

The UK: Tiddleywink. Crapstone. Fittleworth. Spithandle Copse. Elephant and Castle. Great Cockshill Wood.

The US: Springfield, Missouri. Springfield, Illinois. Springfield, Ohio. Springfield wherever the Simpsons live. Boring, Tennessee. (Or Maryland. Or Oregon.)

Point: UK, by an imperial mile.

Street names

In the United Kingdom’s history, street names were often very descriptive of their goings-on. (Gropecount Lane has added a very key ‘o’ since the Middle Ages.) In London, you can walk through history by street names alone: Pilgrims Mews, Gallions Way, Poultry Road, Roman Road, London Wall, Old Jewry, Dockers Tanners Road

US: Elm St, Main St, First St, 119th Avenue, G St.

Point: UK

Politeness

UK: Oh, I’m terribly sorry and I don’t mean to bother you, but could you possibly just move your bicycle a tad, dear chap? I’m afraid my prize roses aren’t quite up to the task of keeping it afloat. So sorry!

Translated: Move your bloody bike, arsehole.

US: Move your fucking bike, you fucking douchebag.

Translated: Would you please care to move your bicycle when you have a moment? Thanks ever so much!

Point: US

Talking to Strangers

UK: “Aaaack! Did you just talk to me? Are you insane? You must be literally insane to speak to me in public.”

US: “You’re from Seattle, are ya? Me and the missus, we were in Washington once. Got stoned out of our gourds at a music festival in the Olympics back in ‘79. That medical marijuana just passed there, didn’t it? We might-could just go on out there again to take advantage of that. Haven’t smoked a doobie for 25 years, ever since I started making seven figures doing Ivan Boesky shit on Wall Street in the 80s. God, those were the days. Blow off a hooker’s ass, for real. Well, hell, lady, now that I’ve got ya here, is that medical marijuana any good for erectile dysfunction, do you know?”

As much as Brits think I’m nuts, point goes to the US here. Plus, science has my back on this one.

Most people who do talk to you on public transport in London, by the way? Clinically insane.

And this is just the McDonald's. You should see the Burger King.

And this is just the McDonald’s. You should see the Burger King.

Architectural aesthetics

UK: Honey-colored stone cottages draped in misty lavender wisteria. Half-timbered Tudor pubs dating to the 16th century. Manicured flower gardens.

US: New Orleans French quarter. San Francisco Victorians. Strip malls. Parking lots. Lots of parking lots.

Point: UK

Architectural functionality: plumbing

Dear All of Europe: Please make a shower a short person can turn on without getting soaking wet. Just one? Kthnx.

UK: Environmentally appropriate levels of water in toilet bowls. Water pressure brought to modern acceptable levels only by noisy water pumps. Separate hot and cold taps which sometimes require a ‘Warning! Hot water is very hot!’ notice in public loos. No electrical outlets. Open doors on most bathtubs.

US:  Hot and cold water join together in solidarity, creating a pleasant non-scalding tepidness. Pressure is excellent, water doesn’t get all over the bathroom, you can blow dry your hair somewhere other than the kitchen.

Point: US.

It looks like my cage match has ended in a tie. I’m not surprised; I’ve always loved the history, tradition and progressive attitudes of the UK and Europe, and I am unabashedly a fan of the US and its innovation and authenticity, charity and friendliness. Whenever I’m on one continent, I miss certain things about the other. But I guess this is what happens in our new globalized world.

But, seriously, what’s with two taps thing, Britain?

 

* Who would have thought a goat could beat a pig?

Meandering Through the Cotswolds Countryside, Motherfuckers

Here, try this: Move to the quaint English countryside Cotswolds for your partner’s job. (I’ll wait.)

IMG_8190

Becoming a thatcher (the non-Margaret kind) is a booming business in places like the Cotswolds, Wiltshire or Devon.

Okay, done?

Next: Stay there, perhaps alternating between Tetbury in Gloucestershire and Malmesbury in Wiltshire, off and on, for the better part of a year. Do an awful lot of ambling. Maybe some meandering. And, if you’re feeling really brave, some rambling. If possible, do as much as possible in a pair of Hunter green Wellies.

Make sure much of your ambling/meandering/rambling is through 500-year-old villages with thatched-roof cottages, on public footpaths that run past fields of sheep enclosed behind honey-colored Cotswold stone walls (try to make sure these walls are at least 150 years old), or through meadows that are so ridiculously filled with wildflowers, your eyes and heart will hurt from the unbearable quaintness. This shouldn’t be terribly difficult.

To spice things up once in a while, take a stroll around Prince Charles’ garden – because it’s there and, if you book far enough in advance, you can; hope that you chance upon, say, the spoils of the village quail hunt night at the Vine Tree pub near Malmesbury; or spot naughty sculptures in the Abbey House Gardens, a modern take on a folly garden run by a nudist couple known as The Naked Gardeners.

IMG_9481

And then, after at least seven months of this, decide you would like to take in — as you once heard the West Country ladies call it  — a ‘picture show.’ Be sure to enjoy their entire conversation, had over pursed sips of tea in between discussions of church gossip, the merits of cinnamon, and just war theory.

There is no cinema nearby, so you will need to take the 29 bus to the ‘big’ city of Stroud (population 12,000). You’ll need to plan ahead; this is the countryside, so your bus runs every two to three hours.

Board said bus directly outside your hotel. On the days you’re not cruising past the single best view in the entire Cotswolds, spend your days writing in their restaurant and hanging out with your new friends Steve, the local recently-unseparated-but-still-overly-flirty son of a headmaster; Ginny, the American international property flipper who owns 16 of something called a ‘fractional’; and Pete, the Cornish handyman who wants nothing more in this world than to road trip in a convertible along Route 66.

Arrive in Stroud, amble your way past art galleries, boutiques and cafes, slack-jawed this area is relatively undiscovered by Cotswolds standards. Why do people jostle their way past tour buses in Stow-on-the-Wold or Moreton-in-Marsh when they could have the wool village of Nailsworth or the view over the Stroud valley all to themselves?

Sigh.

Buy one ticket for 22 Jump Street. Enter.

Proceed to watch one hour and 52 minutes of dick jokes, drug-induced psychedelic trips, beer-bonging and twerking spring breakers in ‘Puerto Mexico,’ and Ice Cube caustically yell-barking ‘motherfucker’ and ‘bitches’ rather exceedingly often. Add in a few more dick jokes for good measure.

And then, on your way back home, sit behind a rosy-cheeked schoolboy and a grandmother in sensible gardening shoes and take in the scenery. Wind up the hill through scenic overlooks with views of endless rolling hills and ancient rose-draped cottages.

After an outing such as this, there is only one choice.

It’s time to leave the Cotswolds and head back to the USA.

 

Minimalist Travel: 6 Tips to Getting What You Really Want from Your Travels

Hiking the Appalachian Trail with a hobo bag and some buffalo jerky. A three-hour Slow Food meal at an Italian restaurant (in Italy or your own town). Two days in a local luxury spa with a twice-daily pedicure, a Civil War reenactment, or a naked sweat lodge at an eco-resort in Costa Rica.

What do all of these experiences have in common? Depending on the traveler, each one could be considered minimalist travel.

Minimalist travel is not about packing light, reusing towels or denying yourself anything. So, what is it?

Whatever. The. Fuck. You. Want.

Travel will never be an eco-friendly hobby, so let’s just break that myth right now. Venturing to Antarctica by Russian nuclear icebreaker is cool, granted, but its carbon footprint is a tad or two larger than a weekend in New Orleans (and both are infinitely larger than staying home).

While minimalist travel can be naturally slightly more eco-friendly than even eco-tourism, it can also be about having a deeper understanding of a culture, putting quality over quantity, or getting rid of agendas both internal and external so you can enjoy the serendipities of travel.

Travel brings the world closer together. Vacations rejuvenate us. Plus, travel drives 9.2% of the global economy. We learn, we grow, we relax, we become more aware of the environment we want to save. We’ll chat about ecotourism another day, but for now, let’s focus on personal minimalist travel.

http://www.saioassisi.it/

Three hours picnicking at Saio Winery (with a backdrop of Assisi, Umbria) wasn’t long enough. http://www.saioassisi.it/

1. You don’t have to go big.

Ten years ago, my book club got a double motel room in a nearby business park for a night. We brought beer and wine, a toaster oven and pre-packaged cookies, and ordered pizza and chicken wings. We never even made it to to the pool or hot tub, we were having too much fun. The weekend cost us $45 a person and, well, after 14 years of being an international professional travel writer, here I am, waxing on about a night at a Holiday Inn Express in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.

2. You don’t have to go for long.

You know what blows? Airports. Getting to airports. Security at airports. Packing. Forgetting to pack medicine. Dogsitters. Arranging days off work.

I don’t know who invented the rule that you have to go away for weeks at a time to have a ‘real’ vacation or holiday. In the US where we have zero mandated vacation days, most of us don’t have that luxury. We assume travel is too expensive and time-consuming, so we don’t even start.

Consider the two-day mini-trip. Flights? Pshaw. It might not be the most far-flung travel experience, but you can have one hell of a vacation, or even a mini-adventure. Stay at a B&B in the country and do a nearby farm tour. Take public transportation to a ritzy downtown hotel and order room service while watching a movie in bed. Do a two-night cruise (they leave from everywhere: New York City, Seattle, New Orleans, Norfolk, Miami, LA). Spend a night at the nearest luxury spa. Find all the campsites within two hours of your house and pick one.

A mini-trip can be no longer than 36 hours, so here’s the secret: you have no choice but to enjoy every minute of it.

3. You don’t have to see or do anything specific.

I love me some Bronze Age archaeology, but wish I hadn’t wasted a day at Stonehenge. The Leaning Tower of Pisa taught me nothing about Italy. (But a cooking class in Tuscany did, and I loved having the stone circles of Castlerigg almost to myself.)

Instead of asking yourself what you’re supposed to see, ask your yourself what you want to feel or experience. Do you want to understand the history of a place, see nature, meet locals? Or try out a new hobby, go on a quest, relax, have an adventure, eat, hike, aim for a spiritual awakening?

Try this: Write down 10 of your favorite travel experiences. If they mostly turn out to be inside museums, consider a career in art history. If not, look for themes. Apparently, I can be incredibly dull when I travel; I love experiencing day-to-day life. So now I look for ways to stay in one place, take public transportation, find local hangouts.

B&B, farm tour, Sunday lunch at Celebrity Dairy near Raleigh, NC. http://celebritydairy.com/

B&B, farm tour, Sunday lunch at Celebrity Dairy near Raleigh, NC. http://celebritydairy.com/

4. You don’t always have to go far.*

No, my Lonely Planet guidebook-author self is not rolling over in her grave right now. I’m intensely proud of how Tony and Maureen Wheeler — LP’s founders – encouraged millions of travelers to experience more of the world in ways we never thought possible.

But that doesn’t mean you have to fly to Mali or the Maldives every time you want a change of scenery. I’ll be pilloried for this by the ‘Oh, you haven’t injected homemade yak butter in a reclusive Nepali village yet?!!’ travelers, but I have nothing against tourist magnets like the Costa del Sol, Cancun, Orlando, Phuket. In the same way cities are far more environmentally friendly per capita than suburbs, putting large numbers of travelers together in a structured tourist region is more ecologically friendly to the surrounding area.

If you want an immersive cultural experience, go far. But if you need to relax for a few days on a beach, go to a nearby beach.

http://www.voyageurquest.com/

Packing light quickly becomes easier when a canoe is your only transportation. http://www.voyageurquest.com/

5. You don’t need a lot.

True story: I once ended up in Belem, Brazil with nothing but the pajamas I’d slept in the night before and a toiletry bag.

Sounds horrible, right? Because of that fiasco, a) I taught three clothing shop clerks to do the YMCA at a Brazilian mall; b) they then convinced me to buy an exceedingly bright yellow-and-orange flowered polyester dress; c) and I made out with a sexy Brazilian architect all night on the airplane ride back to Miami. (Clearly, due to the Village People and that dress.)

Give it a try on your next trip. (Underpacking, I mean. Unless you can find a sexy Brazilian architect.) If you are going on an adventurous journey far from home, you’ll appreciate the lightness. When I went on a year-long sabbatical in my mid-20s, I got rid of almost all my worldly possessions, even my hair (have you ever weighed shampoo and conditioner? Seriously, that shit is heavy). You don’t have to be that extreme, but lessening your physical burden does — literally — free you up to have more of those serendipitous experiences.

6. You do have to challenge yourself.

Sometimes I wonder if travelers-to-be focus so much on the former five they miss out on this sixth concept. Travel is all about going far away for a long time and seeing as much as possible, right? Of course, the magic of travel actually happens when we encounter the unexpected, no matter the circumstances, but how do you prepare for serendipity?

We’ll get to that another day.

 

* Sometimes, you should still go far. Very far.

How Not to Write About Travel

The sun shimmers in the golden sweat of the sun’s cacophonous setting of the sun. A feather, a cigar, a swan. Floating by in the darkness of the ethereal sky. The breathtakingly awesome abode nestled in the ancient land of contrasts beckons.

My best guess as to 'nestled' under 'dappled' sunlight.

My best guess as to ‘nestled’ under ‘dappled’ sunlight. (Salvador Dali’s house on the Costa Brava, Spain.)

I lift my head up. The sun beats down on my forehead. It is 40 degrees celsius (about 100 degrees fahrenheit, give or take). That is really hot. I was in Darwin, Australia once when it was 48 degrees (celsius, not fahrenheit, because that wouldn’t be very interesting, would it? hahahahahaha!). And this one time, I got a heat rash on my inner thighs from going horseback riding on a beach in Vietnam on a really hot day. It was all red and got kinda oozy. I’ll detail it thoroughly in my next article.

But this was okay, because it was totally breathtakingly awesome.

Seven droplets of sweat glisten down my face, down my nose, onto my chin. Four fall immediately, washed like a dirty sock into the washing-machine-like chicken quesadilla my friend Chris ordered but decided he wanted a vegetarian burrito instead. “Hold the sour cream, please! And do you have diet Coke? No? Diet pepsi? WTF is wrong with this country? I’ll just take a 7Up. Fuck.” Three wait for a moment, and then crash to the kind of stone floor that was everywhere in this country that had some weird historical significance (you could probably look it up on a Google search) beneath my dirt-encrusted sandals. The ones that I bought six months before from Enrique, the friendly local in Ecuador who rollicked at my Birkenstocks sanctimoniously while we guffawed charmingly, neither speaking the other’s language, but an air of understanding each other’s souls wafted in the dappled light between us.

Biting into the chicken quesadilla. Expectations rampant.

And then I meet her. She is exotic. And foreign. We interact clumsily. She says something deep. Profound. I have no idea what she is saying in words, but it is noble and spiritual. Then she spits. I am deeply changed by this experience.

And then, dropping ecstasy at the Full Moon Party. Swedish House Mafia, motherfuckers!!1!!

Later. Swimming with the dolphins, a stranger glides me through the dark, sweaty waters. I gasp. Beauty is above me. I never knew. The stranger is the dinghy I stole from the bar owner’s fisherman son when I was wasted, and the water is, like, life and stuff. My boat capsizes, and I suddenly realize we are all one.

Dreams.

Going towards the goal, not knowing what will happen. A Rooster crows. There is still time.

60 Minimalist Gift Ideas

From the royal family to pig butchery, minimalist gifts don’t have to be dull.

If you read my minimalist vow blog post last week, you know that I think we’ll soon be entering a post-post-consumer culture. Imagine possessions as fat and sugar. As they become almost too easy to amass and overwhelm us with stuff-diabetes, so will — so should — our relationship to giving and receiving gifts change.

My definition of a minimalist gift is simple: it must be psychically biodegradable. By that, I mean the gift is intangible, experiential, consumable or useful beyond a reasonable doubt. They don’t need to be 100% eco-perfect, and they might even take more time, effort or thought. We know there’s a disconnect between what gifters like — and feel it’s appropriate — to give, but we also know what giftees want to receive. Next week, I’ll publish a blog post about the philosophy and research behind minimalist gift giving.

One of the best gifts I've ever received: a hand-painted card, taped to my front door at midnight.

One of the best gifts I’ve ever received: a hand-painted card, taped to my front door at midnight.

Here are 16 categories, and dozens of specific ideas. Please add even more in the comments. If you’re giving an intangible gift, all you need to do is add a greeting card with a corresponding image and whammo, you’ve got a way to present it.

Gift Gift certificate
For Anyone who has ever spent, or might spend, money
Why Approximately 12 billion surveys report people love getting them, so I think we’re ready to allow them to be more socially acceptable. You can often get digital ones, making them even more minimalist-friendly.
Ideas Their favorite clothing store or local farmers market. Any online store that delivers. For a new move, anywhere that sells sheets, flatware or shower curtains. Gas/petrol or restaurant cards for broke students.
Gifter Hint Enclose them in greeting cards with a heartfelt message, or create a cute DIY card holder they can use for business cards.
Giftee Hint Tell the gifter what you eventually bought. People like having a connection to a gift, so I think the more we do this, the more gift cards will become part of the gift-giving culture.

Gift Food
For Anyone who eats
Why Spend time with your giftee, show love through food
Ideas A home-cooked meal delivered to help offset bad news. Birthday dinner at a new restaurant. Brunch. Offer to make the cake for your giftee’s birthday party.

Gift Ingredients
For Anyone who cooks, bakes or eats
Why You’re not the only one who drools over that $22 bottle of olive oil
Ideas Honey from a farmer’s market. A favorite ingredient chocolate-fied: from bacon to chilies. Madagascarian vanilla bean paste. Slovenian sea salt. Wine, of course, with a thoughtful twist — from a favorite area, or with a label they’d like. (Yes, I do often choose my wines like my racehorses)

Gift Donations
For People with hearts
Why This one is ridiculously easy and fun, and everyone feels good. Even William and Kate set up a royal charity wedding registry.
Ideas A deserving project in any country the giftee has ever visited (or wanted to visit). Support Malala’s Fund for girls’ education around the world, UNICEF, clean water, children, hunger, health, state or national parks … anything that coincides with the giftee’s interests. Unfortunately, it turns out you can’t really name a star in someone’s honor (so disappointing) but you can gift a pig in their name.

Gift Relaxation
For Anyone who’s ever felt any stress in their lives
Why I think we’re good here, no?
Ideas Massages. Spas. Reflexology. Pedicures. A night at a B&B — most B&B organizations offer gift certificates valid for one year at hundreds or even thousands of properties near and far.

Gift You
For Anyone who loves you. Or even likes you a lot.
Why If you have more time than money or a skill a giftee might appreciate
Ideas A night of babysitting. Help moving. Rollerblading lessons. Teach an older relative how to use Skype or Google Hangouts so they can chat, maybe even with English students in Brazil. (And I love me some chatty Brazilians.)

Gift A tangible object related to their interests
For People who have at least one interest in life
Why I debated putting this one on the list, but if you need to give a tangible gift, consider buying it from a business  the giftee enjoys or supports. Do they read The Oatmeal comic faithfully? Did they love their visit to the Met in NYC?
Ideas A running shirt from their favorite online comic strip. An object ordered from their favorite museum’s online catalog, local artist or jeweler, or charity gift shop. Prince Charles’ Highgrove shops, where purchases also support the Prince’s Trust charities. Gifts bought through websites that support local schools.

Gift Wedding, honeymoon, baby, housewarming registries
For Anyone about to change their census status
Why I’ve heard people say it’s boring or predictable to get someone a gift from a registry. Huh? Someone has just told you *exactly* what they want and that’s not good enough? Sure, be an iconoclast; just not now.
Ideas Anything – literally — on the entire list in front of you. I also love new honeymoon registries where you can gift breakfast, a couples’ massage, half a romantic cruise or 1/20th of their honeymoon suite.

For Valentine's Day, Jarmo got me two weeks of Spanish classes on a work trip in Rosario, Argentina.

For Valentine’s Day, Jarmo got me two weeks of Spanish classes on his work trip in Rosario, Argentina.

Gift Experiences
For People who leave their house
Ideas Vouchers for the symphony or a local movie theatre. Bungee jumping school. Cheese-tasting class. Baseball tickets. Lessons: piano, computers, cooking, tango, languagepig butchery.
Hint This is where the card-with-related-image idea works especially well.

Gift Help
For Non-hermits
Why This is one of my favorites to give, but requires a good amount of familiarity between the giver and recipient.
Ideas A housekeeping session for a stressed-out giftee. A personal organizer for a friend who’s about to start working from home. A week of homemade meal delivery service after a surgery.

Gift Homemade anything
For People who appreciate DIY
Why You love to create and share
Ideas Cookies. Vodka infused with homegrown lemons. Sugar scrub. Quilts for new babies.

Gift Digital
For Owners of any electronic, computerized device
Why Like gift certificates, these can feel boring to give, so  a greeting card with a related image on the front
Ideas A year’s subscription to Evernote. A backup digital data plan, which would have saved this Buddhist monk. Language apps for travelers. Kindle books.

Throw ‘em at me. What did I miss?

A Vow to Minimalism

For years — decades — I’ve had an idea on my mind. In the next few months, I plan to make it official:

I am a minimalist.

Don’t get me wrong; I have no interest in sack-wearing, homegrown-kale-eating voluntary simplicity. I want some of the effluvient messiness that just comes with a full and rich life well-lived. I actually like that my memories — and, in the past, my shelves and closets — have been lined with the detritus of dresses I wore once, aborted hobbies, books I’ve loved. One of the best things money can buy is the ability to make mistakes.

For a couple of millennia, possessions — literally — meant civilization. And it wasn’t just being materialistic; owning stuff represented freedom, health, time. Imagine what it must have felt like in 488 AD to own a comb. (“Hey, Bob, your kids still covered with lice? Bummer for you, dude.”) Or ink and papyri. Or, god forbid (heh heh), religious icons. Visit prehistoric or ancient tombs and you’ll see wealthy landowners buried with their grave goods — beads, gold, a few thousand terra cotta warriors — the equivalent of being buried in a modern-day Ferrari, perhaps.

Stuff is a bit like fat or sugar. In the era we needed to hoard it, nothing was more important. Now that we have too much of it, the excess is what’s hurting us.

A cultural shift

Here’s my theory: In the developed world, we’re maybe a decade or so away from a post-post-industrial society. When your personal 3D printer or an Amazon drone can get you just about anything within the hour or you can rent everything from artwork to a funeral casket, ‘stuff’ just won’t hold the same status and value it once did.

My favorite Happy shirt and my grandparents' travel map, covered in mesothelioma.

My favorite Happy shirt, my rollerblades, and my grandparents’ travel map, covered in mesothelioma.

After a long career in travel writing and then losing 80% of my stuff in an asbestos-laden house fire 1½ years ago … and then moving internationally via three Fedex boxes (where two of us live on one income in a tiny flat), I’ve become very mindful of what I don’t need, and how much I value what I do have.

A philosophy of minimalism

Being able to choose minimalism is an incredibly privileged position. I will never forget the first moment after the fire when I was physically, uncomfortably cold because I just didn’t own enough clothing to keep me warm. In my life, here’s what I want my possessions to give me:

  1. Utility
  2. Health
  3. Growth
  4. Joy
  5. Aesthetics
  6. Serenity

For me, possessions are not about:

  1. Overwhelm
  2. Obligation
  3. Status
  4. Fantasy (well, unless they’re for that kind of fantasy)
  5. Beholdenness

Before the fire, I’d been banned by my physical therapist from rollerblading. My rollerblades sat in my closet, eye level, for eight years. I felt sad and a little guilty every time I opened my closet. I just checked Craigslist, and there are a dozen pairs of rollerblades for $20 or less — some $1 or free. If I magically am able to rollerblade again, I could buy or rent them.

The vow

My partner Jarmo and I have a goal. Once we set up our new house this fall, we want to aim to own no more than 100 possessions each: 100 for him, 100 for me, 100 for ‘us’. It’s our vow, which means we get to make our own rules. The 100 number is a loose way to make sure all of our possessions are in our home mindfully and deliberately.

Recycling good; avoid better.

We’ve decided lots of categories count as one possession — workout clothes, underwear, cutlery, the refrigerator magnets we’ve bought everywhere we’ve ever been together.* Since we’re fully in the digital age (which I entered only after I lost all my books and CDs in the fire), all of our media are now on Kindles or laptops. We understand we will be almost impossible to buy gifts for, but we’re both of the mind that giving a gift should never be out of obligation. (That’s another post.)

What I’m hoping to gain is a sense of fully appreciating and valuing what I have, and knowing that every one of my possessions serves at least one of the six purposes above, preferably two or three. I grew up feeling like many people around me put possessions above connection, health, or joy, and I’ve seen many a gift come with a side dose of beholdenness. Jarmo grew up in Finland, where even neighboring Sweden’s Ikea was considered a little flashy, clutter-wise.

What I want to lose is that feeling of being held back by stuff. Of owning holiday items that get used for one day or two weeks a year. Of having 20 skirts when I only wear four. Of holding onto a piece of artwork that reminds me of a time I’d rather forget. Staying in London where most flats come furnished has also made me rethink stuff. Most people move with a few boxes in one taxi ride these days.

Here’s what I don’t want to lose: Hobbies. Richness. Beauty. Taking chances. Leaping into the abyss. Expensive sushi dinners when I can afford them. Knee-high boots in black and, if I can find them in my size one day, brown. I bought, and donated, a calligraphy set once. I was sure I’d love it, and I don’t regret the initial hope or the disheartening realization that I have the artistic patience of a six-year-old. There’s a big difference between fullness and excess, and I’m hoping to aim for the former.

 

* If you’re stopping by Girona, Spain any time soon, let us know. The one magnet we’re missing is from the city where we met.