The Way Back Is Shorter

People do it all the time. I know that. And yet our 8 hour flight to Europe was one of the longest and most difficult journeys I’ve ever taken.

It was hard on the mind and body to fly all night, trying to sleep while sitting upright, then finally landing in a bustling major airport in a foreign country. You’re tired, sluggish and disoriented. The signs don’t make a lot of sense. Everyone’s in a rush, but it’s unclear what they are rushing toward, or away from.

You’re here! Figure it out!

When we arrived in Lisbon, it took us at least 20 minutes to figure out how to buy a train ticket to our apartment. How hard can it be? Money can only go in so many slots, after all. But the first decision in a new country takes on a ridiculously huge importance. I’ll easily blow five euros on the wrong drink on Day 10, but spending a euro too much on the first train is not allowed.

Thank goodness for adrenaline. The physical fatigue of a sleepless night is more than balanced by the excitement of a new adventure. On the way out, pure adrenaline goes a long way to getting you where you need to go.

After the first few days, we’re settled in to a new routine. Get up, eat, walk around. Every few days, move on. It’s a wonderful, invigorating, sustainable groove.

However, as soon as our route faces home again, a switch flips in my brain. Living in the present is no longer enough. Thoughts of home and the future flood in and time speeds up. When we returned to Amsterdam for our final leg of our trip, I felt like I was killing time until our plane left in four days.

I don’t know how, but this had me thinking of home.

And time just kept speeding up. That same eight hour flight home felt like a drive to Saskatoon, except with two meals. Just like that, we’re home.

But this new accelerated pace is all in my head. I’m jacked up, I can’t sleep, but all around me is slow. The grass grew, but not that much. That pile of laundry is still sitting in the hamper. There’s nobody out on the street. It’s hot like an August scorcher, but the peonies haven’t even bloomed yet.


It’s taken a week to get over the time travel and match the pace of the world around me. To get a good night’s sleep; to not just bolt up at sunrise and pace about. To hang out in the afternoon like the dog and the cat.

And then, in the evening, to plan out the next trip.

*Hat tip to the wonderful Carolyn Mark for inspiring the title. I sing her songs often and with gusto.

Pack Light. Pack Lighter! Lighter!!

One carry on bag plus daypack. That's it for 3 months!
One carry on bag plus daypack. That’s it for 3 months!

If there’s one thing that every single travel guidebook mentions over and over is to PACK LIGHT!  Pack the bare minimum and leave half of that behind.  And really scrutinize the half you keep to see if you can take more weight off.

There’s something to that, you know.

Our last “Big Trip” was two weeks to Vancouver, Seattle and Victoria in 2014 and that was a dry run on the whole “carry everything on your back” approach.  We borrowed travel packs that Ben and his buddies had taken to Europe.  Filled them to bursting, checked them at the airport, then swore every time we had to take the pack from the plane/train/ferry to our hostel.  It was brutal.

This trip is much longer and we’re going to visit many more places.  And that means more days lugging our packs.  I don’t want to say ‘lugging’, even once.

So, here’s the plan:

  • One carry on sized, wheeled travel pack per person.
  • One light day bag.
  • Minimal, easy to wash, quick to dry clothes
  • Very little paper (my books and journals often weigh more than my clothes!
  • 10kg (22lb) limit per person.  9kg is better.

The weight limit is really important. There will be days we’ll need to carry all our stuff and hey, I’m not 20 anymore.  10kg is half a bag of flour so I should be able to carry that without too much grumbling.

All the stuff. I still wish it was a little less
All the stuff. I still wish it was a little less

Bag: Last year I invested in a really good carry-on sized wheeled backpack, the Osprey Meridian, based on the recommendation of the very smart owner of Robertson Outdoor Store in Victoria.  She travels the world, from Poland to Peru and the Meridian is the only bag she takes.

One cool feature is the Meridian comes with a zip off daypack.  When the daypack is off, the big bag meets carry-on restrictions.  Zipped on, I can wheel or carry everything in one streamlined unit.

I’ve taken a few small trips with my Meridian and it’s a dream as a wheeled bag.  This will be the first trip where I use it as a backpack too; I’m curious to see the proportion of wheeled use vs. backpack use.

Clothes:  I’m really trying to conserve weight here.  Lightweight pants, 3 shirts, socks and underwear, 1 pair shorts and 1 pair swim trunks.  A fleece and a raincoat.  Shoes and sandals.  We’re going in spring so thankfully won’t have to carry a heavy coat and mitts, etc.

Electronics: The splurge (money and weight) is my iPad and keyboard setup.  I’ve got travel guides and maps pre-loaded, plus I can blog on the road and FaceTime home too.  It’s worth the weight.  Lots of cables and electrical adapters making the trip too, though.

Cindy’s carrying her point and shoot camera.  We’ve got an adapter to hook the camera up to the iPad so we can share pictures from the road.

Paper:  I can’t get to zero, but I am being strict here.  Two bundles of Field Notes books for journalling/lists, a watercolour sketchbook, a travelling paint set, pens, pencils and brushes.  I am extremely tempted to take a second sketchbook but will fill the first one and buy another instead!

Cindy made her own travel guide / journal from the pile of guidebooks we borrowed from the library and is still holding out hope that Patrick Rothfuss finally publishes his new novel before we get to Paris.

Other Bits:  I’m banking on Europeans shaving and brushing their teeth, so am taking minimal toiletries.  I’ll buy more when I run out.  And we always seem to collect plastic cutlery, etc. when we picnic, so I’ll get a spork for the next adventure.  A lightweight pack towel was my only splurge here.

And it wouldn’t be a Mark and Cin trip without our Gin Rummy book and a deck of cards.  We’ve had a running game going since 1990 or so.  🙂

That’s it.  It all fits in the carry-on bag with lots of room to spare.  But hows the weight?

Total Weight

Mark’s bag: 23lbs (10.4kg) Argh.  Too many Field Notes?  Too many socks? That iPad+Keyboard put me over the limit a touch.

Cindy’s bag: 21lbs (9.5kg)  Pretty darn good.  She can carry the toiletry bag.  🙂

Time will tell.  If we’re carrying the packs a lot and it’s too much, we can either chuck some stuff, mail it home, or get in better shape…


Do You Need A Strict Itinerary For A European Tour?

Part of the fun of planning a long trip is figuring out where to go and what to do.  But do you really need a strict itinerary?  I don’t think so, especially for a trip to Europe.

When our son Ben and his buddies went on a six week tour two years ago, they had the trip fully planned before they left Saskatchewan.  All rooms were booked in advance:  Two nights in London, a week in Rotterdam, a week in Lisbon, etc.   They didn’t want to be stressed out finding accommodations while on the road.

Ben’s trip worked pretty well.  One AirBnb host cancelled in the middle of the trip but they had time to rebook.  So they were never searching for rooms.

The biggest problem they faced was that they couldn’t adjust their plans on the fly.  Bordeaux was boring for four young men, but they had paid for five nights accommodations, so they stayed.  Lisbon was awesome and they’d love to stay longer, but their Barcelona apartment was paid for and waiting for them.

For my trip, I want to avoid too many commitments.  If Evora is amazing, I want to stay longer.  If we get invited to a village bakery, we’re going.  I don’t want to say Sorry I can’t go if an opportunity presents itself.

But still, it helps to have some idea.  So this is what we’re doing:

  1. I built a calendar for the 93 (!) days we’ll be away.
  2. I inked in the two fixed dates:  Arrive in Lisbon, depart via Amsterdam.
  3. We marked in key dates from the Real World.  When’s Easter? (Expect southern Spain to be packed Easter week.)  When are any cool festivals we want to see?
  4. I used pencil and sticky tabs to block out week long blocks, going forward and backwards.  At the start of the trip, we want to have time to visit more of Portugal than Lisbon, so that gets two weeks.  At the end, we want time to cycle in the Netherlands, so that gets a week.  We want to linger in Paris on route to Holland, so another week there.

The first run through is like a filled chocolate:  semi-firm on top and bottom, but soft and gooey in the middle.  For example, we really have no clue how we’ll make our way from northern Italy to Paris, although we know we’d like to be in Paris by May 10 at the latest.  And we know that if May is approaching and we’re nowhere near Veneto, we had better re-think things.

As we read through guidebooks and get ideas from our friends, things may firm up a bit.  What’s happening so far is that we’re finding more and more things we want to see. That will increase for sure once we land in a few weeks.  But there are a few people we want to visit so it’s good to at least commit to the month that we’ll be in their country!

Our approach is to go slow and deep into the places we visit, so the lack of a fixed itinerary will help with this.  We’ll need to make a lot of decisions as we go, but that’s part of the fun.

We already know we won’t have enough time to see everything we want on this trip.   Unless we sell the house.  Our kids have instructions of what to do if we call with the “sell” code.

My Kingdom For A Guidebook

One of the advantages of temporary unemployment is there is plenty of time to plan this trip.  

As our route slowly takes shape, I’ve been getting guidebooks from the library.  And as I read through them, I’ve been putting more books on hold.  We’ve got quite a collection at this point. 

One thing I’ve learned so far is that there is way more to do and see than we can fit in a single trip.  So we’re not going to try.  We’re going to go deep in fewer areas, rather than doing a Rick Steve’s “two days per city” whirlwind tour.  

The approach has served us well when travelling in Canada.  Our two weeks in Prince Edward Island is half a lifetime compared to the guidebooks – they’d have you on and off the island in 48 hours.  But there is joy and wonderment in the little villages as much as in the famous cities.  

As for the guidebooks?  I tend to lean toward Rough Guides, even if we’re not going to be staying in hostels very much.  Fodors and Frommers tend to be for people with higher budgets than we have (at least that’s the sense I get.). Lonely Planet might be a good fit but isn’t available at the library much so I haven’t formed an opinion.

WIth our ‘go deep’ strategy, the individual country or region guides (Portugal, Paris, Andalucia) are a better match than Europe in 500 pages.  The regional books have room for smaller, quirkier places in addition to the big names.  

The “general overview” books have been helpful too.  Rough Guide’s “First Time Europe” or Rick Steve’s “Europe Through the Back Door” get you in the right frame of mind for travelling, rather than talking about where to eat and what to see.

But all this book smarts can only give us the basics of a region.  I can hardly wait to get there and see Europe with my own eyes, meet new people, and follow my nose.