How my mother made me a better traveler

Posted on
May 5, 2011

Mother’s Day is just around the corner, and I couldn’t think of a better way of celebrating than by paying tribute to her on my blog. Which, really, could almost be rephrased as an insult: “Really? You couldn’t think of a better way of celebrating than by writing on your blog? Seriously?”

She also taught me to not poke myself in the eye. A bit too late.

And no, seriously, I couldn’t imagine a better way.

I’ve mentioned my mom before on the blog – her antics on Facebook, her long-standing war with Rick Steves, the way she trolled me and my brother for Christmas – but I don’t know if I’ve ever discussed the skills she’s given me that help make traveling the world so much easier. So, in honor of Mother’s Day, and because we so rarely have the opportunity to say thank you for this sort of thing, here are the ways my mother has made me a better traveler.

  1. Suspect everyone. Okay, fine, so my mom’s paranoia hasn’t exactly benefited me in every aspect of my life (until I was about 15, I would panic every time I walked by a large hedge, because my mother had explained that there were likely murderers hiding behind them, who could jump out and kill me). But when traveling, it’s always good to have your guard up, especially if you’re in a place that’s unfamiliar and new. I always stick to well-lit streets, keep my purse close to me, avoid flashy jewelry, and try to be wary of my surroundings … especially hedges.

    Also, everyone is a potential kidnapper, so keep your babies close at all times.

  2. Demand your money’s worth. The setting: Universal Studios, Florida. The year: circa 1989. The scene: my mother, angered at the number of broken rides and malfunctions we were forced to endure after shelling out money for expensive tickets, leads a revolt of dozens of tourists, who manage to get their tickets prices refunded. My family and I use the money to gorge ourselves at the usually-prohibitively-expensive Red Lobster. The lesson? The (politely) squeaky wheel gets the Chesapeake Bay cheddar biscuits. 
  3. Carry a huge purse. My mom’s bag, as a child, was a thing of magic. Full of pens and important documents, hair elastics and lipsticks, enormous packs of mint gum and plastic-wrapped fortune cookies left over from lunch at a Chinese restaurant. From her I learned that the satchel on your shoulder was designed to get you out of any jam, solve any problem, and didn’t necessarily need to match your shoes. Forget the towel – when the end of the world comes, I want my purse.
  4. Bring a sweater. I can also attribute this one to my lovely Auntie P., who insists I take a cardigan with me in the middle of summer in San Diego (as much as I believe this maxim, that is insane). In nearly every other instance, though, I agree: you can always take layers off, but you can’t put them on if you don’t have them. Air conditioning is unpredictable. Plane temperatures are fickle. And hotel thermostats are designed by sadists. Take a sweater.

    If you can't find a sweater, a totally sweet crocheted sweater vest will do just fine.

  5. Don’t let a language barrier stop you. My mother speaks English and Italian fluently, and a smattering of German. This has not stopped her from struggling her way through Polish, French, Spanish, and a handful of other languages. As soon as she discovers that a person doesn’t speak a language she knows, I see her eyes light up. Challenge accepted. And she almost always succeed in getting her point across (and making a new friend). It’s made me fearless when I try speaking another language (including the one she taught me as a child. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to thank her enough for that one.)
  6. Haggle. This trait of my mother’s, which full-on MORTIFIED me as a child, is one I’ve picked up (the mortification has been passed on to my husband). I’ve seen her talk down salespeople on the price of something at a retail store. Travel can be expensive. Odds are you’ll never see the person to whom you’re handing over money ever again. So why not ask them for a discount? At most, they say no. And at best? You might have money left over for Red Lobster.

    Then again, people might just do whatever she says because she's pretty.

  7. Ask a lot of questions. Maybe it’s my mother’s inherent skepticism of everything, or her desperately short attention span (thanks, mom. That one is totally hereditary and – ZOMG J CREW IS HAVING A SALE! Wait, what were we talking about?) but she is constantly trying to clear up things – why buildings were constructed, what the sauce on the special-of-the-day is, whether or not the ticket price is refundable, etc. Taking a page from her, asking tons of questions has made me a more informed consumer and traveler. Plus, I am now a trivia powerhouse.
  8. Don’t over-think packing. My mother’s suitcases has never made sense to me. Ever. She apparently does a load of laundry, and regardless of what it is (all darks, and lights, towels, intimates, whatever) shoves it into a bag and leaves. THIS IS PURE INSANITY. And yet, she always seems to come out relatively okay (there is some minor panicking involved when she finds she has no shoes to wear for the wedding she is attending). While I can’t follow her devil-may-care ways when filling up my luggage, I’ll admit that there’s a bit of brilliance to this idea. Don’t think about it. Just pack and go.

    "Come on - you look great. Let's go."

  9. Keep things in different compartments. It seems foolish, while traveling, to put all your eggs in one basket. Having all your money in your wallet, or all your clean clothes in your luggage (which you then check) is just risky. My mother tends to have money, clothes, and valuables spread throughout her bags, so if one is lost, she isn’t entirely out of luck. Of course, this is mostly due to a mix of paranoia and disorganization than any planning on her part. But still – it works.
  10. Accessorize with abandon. Wearing lots of flashy jewelry while traveling is never a good idea (it makes you look like a wealthy target). Cheap costume jewelry, on the other hand, can dress any outfit up, without taking up too much room in your suitcase (and no one will confuse it with the expensive stuff). Pass the bangles.

    She's going to kill me for this. Let's just hope she never sees it.

  11. Play to the camera, even if no one else does. It will make all your vacation photos that much more entertaining.

    Damn straight.

So that’s it – just some of the ways my mother has influenced how I travel. I’m sure you have your own lessons from mom, and I’d love to hear them – please feel free to share in the comments section below.

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