Wednesday, October 4, 2017

KARA ABROAD: The Adjustment

When you first go abroad, you're a puppy in a new back yard. You want to see every indigenous creature, smell every flower, snap affectionately at everything that moves, then fall over in a confused and exhausted heap once it all gets to be too much. And, for what it's worth, that's exactly what you should do the first time you visit another country.

Once you get to a stage where you measure trips by how often instead of how many, it behooves you to change things up. When people hear that I took several hours to leave Heathrow after getting through the border check, sitting in for a good span of time to eat a sandwich and watch YouTube videos, and that the "only thing" I did was meet a friend in Shoreditch for tea, they assume the shine has worn off.

Truth is, the shine doesn't wear off. The shine will always be there. That's why, ten years later and a trip every two years, I can pace myself. And not only can I pace myself -- I can move past "forgiving" myself for doing so and instead insisting on it.

I say this with awareness that there are people who will only ever take one trip abroad in their lives, for financial or work reasons. And I also am fully aware that the amount of moving-about I do -- from regular trips overseas to conventions year-round -- probably gives the impression that I'm comfortably throwing money around with no fear.

Sadly, not so. Because coming to the U.K. is such an important part of my life for a variety of reasons, affording the trip became part of my monthly budgeting. Some other time I may talk about how I do it -- which could likely be of help to anyone who has to deal with people telling them to "just hop a plane" without understanding that It Doesn't Work That Way -- but I don't want to stray too far from my (theoretical) point in this entry.

Which is dear God if you're coming back someday (and even if you're not, I guess), don't be horrible to yourself. If you've never been abroad before, I think it's important to allow yourself to run that adrenaline and excitement out. Because you'll have it and you should make the most of it.

But gosh look after yourself. At least try to do a few things.

Avoid alcohol on the plane -- drink at the airport.

I'm doing you a favor. Airplane wine is pretty crap.

Now, if you're in first class and there's a mimosa waiting for you, you absolute bastard, go ahead and drink it. Unless you're dry, in which case congrats, this section doesn't apply to you, move on.

There's a temptation to grab a little bottle of wine on the plane so you'll snooze, but it rarely works that way. Because while you can flag down cabin crew and ask for water, you probably won't. You'll fall asleep at some point, wake up with a dry mouth, and then roll off the plane feeling a bit crappy.

Because no matter what you think, and no matter how many edifying books you bring, there are only three things you will be doing on this flight: eating and drinking, taking in entertainment, and sleeping badly. You may at some point wake up and gape at the view, you may at some point brave the bathroom, but those are your three main things.

If you want to drink pointlessly and be sleepy for the flight, find an airport sports bar and order something. It won't be free, but it'll be better and it'll kick in when you want it to. On the plane itself, I tend to be best served with either tomato juice or water. Either or those (especially the former) makes my body feel a little more alert and healthy and a little less like I'm crammed into 1/400 of the inside of a metal bird waiting seven hours for freedom.

Try to sleep, okay? Just try. You won't, but try.

You know how even half a bad nap helps some? Yeah, same here.

So, here's my long-haul routine: Pick two movies to watch. Before the first one is over, you'll get your in-flight meal. After the coffee and tea come around, the cabin lights are dimmed. I stick on an audiobook of something I've read, or else some chill music, and snooze. It's not a good snooze, but it's a snooze.

Unless you are the heaviest sleeper known to man, you'll likely wake up around the time the lights come back up and the crew comes around with some sort of snack and caffeine. Watch your second movie. Boom.

It's still not enough sleep, but you've at least created a line between your days.

Take Your Time at the Airport

Because you'll have to anyway. Unless a friend is picking you up, in which case enjoy your comfy ride.

Once you're done disembarking and getting asked what you're doing here and getting your bags, find a place to chill. (I recommend Costa if you're in the UK -- it's like Starbucks that cares.) Just sit. Sit. And chill. Seriously. Just sit.

One of the worst things I ever did was a couple visits ago, when I literally did not stop moving from the moment I got off the plane to the moment I showed up at my friends' house. Heathrow to Carshalton. Several train changes.

You're not obligated to do that.

Granted, this takes some pre-planning. You have to be okay with having loose to no plans on that arrival day. You have to be comfortable with public transportation. And if you're staying with friends, you need understanding friends who are okay with you taking a few hours to wend your way.

Set Aside Your First Full Day

Whatever friends you'll be visiting will be excited to show you Absolutely Everything, and odds are you'll be excited, too. But do what you can, if at all possible, to give yourself a day to acclimate.

And yeah, I mean have a boring home-type day. I know that sounds counter-intuitive since you're abroad and Exciting Things Are Out There. But trust me. Take the time. Sleep in, relax, wear frumpy clothes, watch TV, order in. Get caught up with whoever you're staying with. Gossip. Show off photos. Take photos. Write blog posts telling strangers how to use their travel time. Whatever helps you get your head into wherever you are.

That doesn't mean turn away everyone, of course. If you get a low-key invitation for coffee, go for it. But this probably isn't the part of your trip best used as long-form sightseeing. You'll feel Not Awesome.

Find Essentials

Bare minimum, use Google to map out things you know you'll want. Quick eating places, gas stations (if you're driving), public transport (if you're not). Take that little extra time to just learn what's near you when nuisances like needing to eat crop up.

Also -- and this will sound silly -- find the nearest occurrence of an international chain you like. McDonald's, Subway, Starbucks, whatever. The mundane thing you hit up twice a week. If there's one near you, find it. You will want this when you get homesick. Don't get homesick or are pretty sure you won't? Do it anyway.

Make Your Plans

The Day In is a really good day to ping everyone you're hoping to see and start filling out your dance card. That's partly because you're in a good chill mindset to make those plans -- but also because, if you're like me, "wasting" a day is going to feel tough. (Looking after yourself is never a waste but you get me.)

And trust me -- the more people you want to see and things you want to do (or vice-versa, I don't judge), the more they'll start to overlap. Considering the overlap can either be a huge help or a huge hindrance, it's best to be in a situation where you can make it work for you.

Try to Avoid Napping

Note: If you are running on fumes, if you feel absolutely destroyed trying to stay awake, if you recognize the signs of needing sleep right now or else, IGNORE THIS AND TAKE A DAMN NAP.

This is more about that desire to fall into your usual time zone during your first day in. I know. I'm currently battling this very feeling. I get you. But if it's just a desire for a little shut-eye and not your body informing you that you need to Save Game immediately, try to avoid it. No hate if you can't, of course. But the more easily you can sleep and wake up at the "right time," the better a time you'll have.

Granted, if you always have a nap at 4 PM on Saturday and it's 4 PM local time on a Saturday? Have that nap if you want it. That's acclimating right there.

Ignore Any of This That Doesn't Work for You

Because you know what? These are my methods. If a bottle of cheap wine on a flight knocks you out and leaves you feeling like a million bucks when you wake up, have that bottle of airplane wine. If you feel ready to run as soon as wheels hit tarmac and staying in for a day would bore you to tears, get out there.

Like all advice I give, these are starting points for people who need help, not requisite alterations for people who are doing fine. My system likely works best for people largely like me: battling anxiety, reliant on routine, and primarily into traveling for experiences rather than sightseeing. This is how I sacrifice one day out of (usually) two weeks to make the other 13 days as prime as possible.

So far it works. And it might work for others. Because hey, you deserve a good time.

Now I'm going to go make more tea... and plan a visit to Old Father Thames.
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