Over a year ago, I pledged to teach myself how to pack light when traveling. Bringing only a carry-on suitcase limits you considerably; you have to think through every thing that you bring. A classic thing that “over packers” do is plan for every possible contingency and bring all sorts of things that seem simple and small, but add unnecessary weight, bulk, and clutter in their suitcase. Life’s little emergencies do happen while you’re traveling – so what to do? Answer: Buy it over there! It’s fascinating!
The photo above is a variety of items I have purchased while abroad. In addition to lightening your load, shopping in grocery stores, pharmacies, book stores and other commonly visited places by the locals is one of the best ways I know to experience the unique culture of a location. These are places we are familiar with and go to frequently, so it easy to compare and contrast with different products, services, modes of delivery, layout, attitudes of shop clerks, etc. Bringing too much from home not only weighs you down but could also shrink your experience to the tourist type of places only. My favorite travel stories are those I have collected, like the items above, from those ordinary places that are around every corner in far off places.
When in Leipzig, Germany, I knew I was in trouble when I felt the tell-tale horrible gurgle of my stomach when walking through downtown. There was a Pharmacy (Apotheke) very nearby so walked there and even though I speak very little German, I said “Immodium AD bitte, schnell!” I think everyone knows what you use Immodium AD for… so the shop clerk, produced it post-haste, took a few tablets out of the package, pointed to her tongue and I followed suit. Problem solved (well, as much as that kind of problem can be solved). A few hundred Vielen Danke and Danke Shoen from me later (okay, maybe 10), I was on my way. During the whole episode, there were giggles and sympathetic looks from other customers which helped my exasperation. Lesson here – even if I had brought something like that all the way from the States, I likely would not have had it on me so it wouldn’t not have done me much good there. Plus, I now have a funny story and a great memory (the shopping part, not the stomach trouble part). It’s the little things.
On another occasion during a different trip to the UK, I went to a Boots in London looking for some Hydrocortisone cream for a rash I had on my left leg (old razor I had used before I left – bad idea). Turns out you have to ask for it at the counter and have a good reason to use it.
Shop Clerk: “are you going to use it on your face?”
Me: “uh, no…?” (thinking to myself, is this a trick question? Why would anyone use it on their face?) Equipped with a very detailed explanation on application, I was walking out the door with the product and an interesting story. The shop clerk was unfailingly polite and very interested to know why I even thought that a product like this would even be on the shelf in the first place! Turns out he has a cousin in Chicago he wants to visit. Again, little things…Did you know that Acetaminophen is called paracetamol in the UK? Fascinating!
I love, love, love shopping in Grocery stores. Talk about cultural immersion! In Italy, the sausages and cheese counter is a sensory masterpiece. In Germany, their chocolate aisles (yes, plural) rival our junk food and chips aisles and go on for days. As a lifelong chocolate lover, it was an exquisite form of torture to have to choose. In France, I saw baby food made out of horse. In the UK, their tea aisle is HUGE and is broken down by type (green, black, herbal, mint, fruit, etc.). Most European grocery stores have an extensive array of bottle water, both still and mineral so you can pick and choose. Try a different one each day?
In the photo, there is a pot of Rose-scented hand cream that is one of my favorites. I bought this in a gift pack, 3 for 8 pounds I believe. I bought two gift packs, kept one hand cream and gave the others as gifts (another blog post?)
Books and Bookstores
I always travel with a book and typically buy one in the airport before I leave. However, I will abandon my book easily if I can find something in a bookstore abroad. If you are in the UK, most of the selections will be in English. If you cannot speak another language when in a non-English speaking part of the world, then head over to the English language section of the bookstore. If there is none, look at the magazines, and look for greeting cards… oh wow. I’ll leave it to your imagination the differences you find there. Anyway, you can find some amazing books that are simply hard to find here in the States. The Barbara Erskine book, “River of Destiny” in the picture was found in the sale bin for 5 pounds. I read it this past summer – it was perfect beach book reading. I cannot find her books over here so I’ll be looking for more from her the next time I am back.
Corner Convenience/Hardware/Thrift stores
This is a supreme place in which you can find the things that even the over-packer won’t bring. I have purchased tea towels and mugs for my hotel room (to be recycled later and used as gifts), umbrellas, notepads, pens and pencils, envelopes, etc. Lots of great little gifts to be found here that are cheap. They are not “tourist” items so therefore, not marked up. Their unique qualities make them great gifts for friends and family back home.
Culture outside of a museum
I hope I have opened your mind about not to bring when traveling. Leave it home and go have an adventure in a grocery store, a pharmacy, a book store, etc. “Culture” isn’t exclusively found at museums – it is waiting for you to discover in your neighborhood corner store!