Travel's little magic moments

JILL SCHENSUL
Last updated 05:00 15/12/2013
Overrated tourist traps

DING DONG: The Prague Astronomical Clock is an amazing sight, but sometimes it's the little things that really make your trip.

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When we think back on our travels, it is the headliners that usually come to mind first: The sinuous chasm of the Grand Canyon; the 600-plus-year-old astronomical clock in Prague.

I, for one, keep forgetting all the little reasons I love to travel.

The everyday things, the details - standing in a line, opening a door - that bring their own surprises and frissons, just because they happen somewhere else.

Here are some of my favourite things.

Standing with the masses in line at security screening, not understanding the words of all the foreign languages, but just listening to the music they make.

Going through the security scanner and not having anything beep.

Putting my shoes back on, zipping up my laptop bag and heading forth - let the travelling, finally, begin!

Getting money from an ATM in a foreign country. Not only can it be a little like a slot machine (if you're not sure of exchange rates, you could just have to take your chances on how much money you're asking for) but the graphics are often entertaining.

The muster on a cruise ship. I was sorry to have discovered that not every cruise begins with a safety drill. OK, it feels sort of silly to stand there in those big orange life vests, but it's like... a ritual.

Part of the ramp-up and the shoving off. Literally bumping into - and bouncing off of - fellow cruisers, getting the first whiff of the cruise atmosphere from the manner of your muster leader, all the little cues and hints that come with this first gathering that everyone grumbles over, they also remember.

It is a beginning of an adventure. And the blast of the ship's horn. And the low rumble, the powerful whooshing of the water, and the slow slipping away of shoreline. Well, a safety drill has never been so inspiring.

Oddly translated tourist information. I don't read these museum guides, performance playbills, instructions for using coffee makers or hotel room information for using the phone or sightseeing and think: "Man, can't they speak English?"

I don't think that because I would then need to ask myself what my translation into their language would look like to them. No, I just love looking at the logic behind the mistranslations.

I love the effort put into the communication. They provide not merely information about places, but the people who wrote them.

That moment late in the day when you

r feet are barking to the point of snarling, yapping, or, to mix metaphors, threatening to spontaneously combust. Just in time, you see that place with the little cafe tables under the awning, and there's a seat with your name on it, and you shrug the camera bag and the souvenirs bag and the handbag and the brochures onto the other seat and sink down into a blissful position requiring nothing at all of your feet.

Restaurants with waiters who don't mind being waiters. For instance, in the above situation, the waiter who comes by with a menu and is friendly and doesn't mention that given the way you look, the kindest thing to do is shoot you.

The waiter who is well trained in the fine art of timing so he comes back exactly when you have decided what to eat, then brings a little basket with bread because he knows if you don't sink your teeth into something ASAP, you will keel over or maybe strangle someone.

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Coffee made by someone who shares the waiter's ethic - it arrives at your table and strikes you, not like something to drink but something to simply appreciate visually, like a work of art.

Foam twinkling in the sunlight, perfect tiny sugar cube or, even more amazing, a piece of chocolate on the saucer with a cute tiny spoon and the name of the cafe in some appropriate font on the cup so that when you look at the photos, even years from now, you'll remember where you were and can even salivate all over again.

Saying something in another language, and being understood.

The little flourish of the purchase. It's a transaction, sure, but there is something so cool about you handing over your method of payment and the shopkeeper/owner handing you your purchase tied up with a bow or custom-made box or wrapping paper sealed with a sticker bearing the shop's logo.

The wrapping can turn out to be more memorable than the wrapped; I still have the rough cord used to tie up a bouquet of flowers from a street vendor in a little town in Hungary and the feathers and ribbons with which the maker adorned a box of homemade pralines purchased at Jazz Fest in New Orleans.

The kindness of strangers. A waiter who is warned, at the outset, that you only have X amount of money, and then encouraging you to order what you want, including dessert, and finally bringing your bill which comes to exactly what you told him you could spend.

Or the local who doesn't just give you directions, but takes you there.

Forgetting a hairbrush, needing some plasters and buying tonic for your mini-bar may cut into your official sightseeing time. But stepping into the foreign equivalent of the corner dairy is always, in the end, an adventure.

Do a little "compare and contrast" exercise between your current "here" and home. Sometimes you'll even find an epiphany with the plasters.

And, one more: Finally clearing customs back home, seeing that big melting pot of cultures in the crowd of people waiting just beyond the doors at the arrivals terminal.

Hearing the whistle that I know is uniquely my husband's. Homing in on the sound. And remembering once again the little things that make you love wherever you are - especially home.

  - MCT

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