Dec 11, 2016

Airport disease

Luggage, by Rob Faulkner
You have seen them! People in airports lugging huge travel bags and suitcases. As I travel quite a bit, both for work and leisure, they are literally in my way quite often.
At first they let me feel annoyed, because they were so heavy, so slow. But now annoyance rather gives way to puzzlement: what can they carry inside those huge bags?
Sometimes they are obviously on their way to or from a beach vacation, meaning they will be wearing only swimsuits during days, yet they feel the need to pack a houseful.

Someone else will write about the philosophy of luggage. They will probably explain that bringing a lot of stuff makes people feel safer. Why is it that, on the contrary, carrying things makes me feel awkward and insecure?

Now, the travel-savvy have usually been exposed to the perils of lost luggage. And they avoid checking bags. Of course, you should. Always. But this is not enough.

Carry little, carry less, carry too little. That is my travel motto.

I want the smallest possible bag. (Notice that this specific point already makes me a deviant: airline travel regulations limit the size of your carry-on bag. Therefore people will strive to buy the largest possible suitcase allowed.) And I want that small bag as little filled as possible.

This blog is not to speculate about the Why? but to explore the How this can be done. This blog is partial, personal, arrogant. Enjoy it, criticize it. Improve it.

Dec 10, 2016

Back from Germany

Practical case
Here is everything my backpack contains upon returning home after 9 days of travel, namely one week on business as well as the preceding and following weekends.

The basics
A few items live in the backpack permanently, so as to always be at hand, even when not traveling. I have just been told this is called an Every Day Carry... When the moment comes to pack for a trip, an added benefit is to reduce the number of decisions to take (and to avoid forgetting).
The basics therefore consist of:
- a small silk neckscarf  (see the magic objects section);
- an A5-size transparent pocket containing various documents: a printed address and phone list, a photocopy of my passport and driving license, the numbers to call in case of credit card loss, a 50 euro note, a personal check, 2 ID-size photographs. The plastic pocket is from Japan, with pictures of the dreadful gods of wind and thunder;
- ibuprofen (see the magic objects section),
- emergency food, currently 3 packets of nuts, stolen from an airport lounge,
- chewing gum,
- a pencil and a pen,
- earphones,
- phone charger.

The topic of clothes requires thinking. When packing, this is actually the chapter where I find the most difficult decisions need to be made. For now let us just count: this time, I will be wearing a business suit and an overcoat when traveling. In the bag we have:
- a pair of slacks,
- a business shirt,
- a necktie,
- 2 white t-shirts (see the magic objects section),
- a pair of underpants,
- a pair of socks, woolen because this is December, in Germany.

Winter stuff
This occasion was special because I also had to be ready for an outdoors mystery "snow" activity. So we find:
- a pair of ski socks (which were also perfect to wear while walking my legs off throughout freezing Berlin),
- a pair of woolen gloves and a pair of undergloves,
- a ski hat.

At home, the toiletry bag is always ready. The bag itself is one of those regulation transparent plastic bags suited for the x-ray scan. This removes the need for a dedicated toiletry case and saves space. The contents:
- a toothbrush and a mini toothpaste tube,
- a razor and a bottle of shaving oil (see the magic objects section),
- a small roll-on deodorant,
- ear plugs for air travel,
- a European social security card,
- a mini EU to US plug adapter,
- a 12V to USB in-car power adapter,
- medicines: ibuprofen, melatonin, anti-diarrhea, cortisone spray,
- a small tube of body lotion.

Work stuff
- a laptop and charger. Although it is a lightweight model, this is still the heaviest item in the whole kit;
- a folder with notes, documents and a printout of my calendar.

What loot? In such a tiny bag, can you fit anything more than the very basic necessities? Well, yes. Returning home we have:
- 4 bags of German candy, plus a marzipan loaf, a bag of chocolate-covered gingerbread hearts, a little box of chocolates,
- 2 packs of German string sausages,
- a football magazine in German for my son,
- a keepsake German witch doll,
- 2 miniature liquor bottles: Jaegermeister and Braunschweig-made "Mumme" liquor,
- a tube of Aronal toothgum care toothpaste (only found in Germany).

To be complete, here is the contents of my coat pockets:
- smartphone,
- wallet,
- leather gloves,
- hat,
- reading glasses (non-breakable pair).

Oct 1, 2016

Choosing the right bag...

What suitcase will I take?
This question can definitely lead you on the wrong path. If you start with this question, then the answer can likely be something like:

"I am traveling far away so I need a large suitcase."
This is a kind of subconscious logic that I have often heard people follow. But after all, why? If you are going to spend your whole holiday at the beach in a swimsuit, you hardly need to bring anything! There is definitely no relation between distance traveled and suitcase size!

"I have a 50lb luggage allowance so I will fill my suitcase to the limit".
"I am entitled to a 22"x14"x9" carry-on luggage so I will make sure my bag is not an inch shorter".
"In addition to my carry-on bag, I may take a small handbag or computer case so I will".
I think you see my point by now: do not let external contingencies determine the size of your bag.

"I will be away a long time so I need a very big bag!"
Hmmm. And, pray, why is that?? Try to be sensible: if you will just carry this bag for five minutes, then yes, it may be OK to have a big one. But what if it is going to follow you a whole week? or a month? Do you want to be carrying weight around all the time? Of course not. You want your luggage as small as possible, not big.

Try reversing the logic completely:
"Bag? I don't need any bag!"
If I'm traveling for a day or two, I can surely survive with just a toothbrush and a phone charger. Does that fit in my pockets? Yes. Aha! Bag stays at home!

"What did you just say? Toothbrush? I am pretty sure they give toothbrushes at that hotel!"
Aha! Toothbrush stays at home!

At that point, you can almost hear all your stuff screaming: "How can you possibly do that to us???"

Be strong! Resist the urge! The first time may be hard but afterwards you realize the obviousness of it:
YOU are traveling, not your stuff. Regain control!

Let us be realistic, there will be occasions when you will want to carry a bag. In that case, make sure you are still the master. Select a good, small travel bag and work from there: how much fits in there? What doesn't fit will stay home, and you'll probably survive.

My bag is a small sports backpack.
Backpacks are far better than suitcases:
- they leave your hands free while walking, meaning you can walk faster and even ride a bike with your backpack on (or go to the bathroom),
- they let you use staircases rather than crowded escalators in airports and malls, so that you get ahead of everyone,
- and it is much more comfortable to carry weight on your back than to lift a suitcase. Roll-on suitcases are OK in airports or for short distances. But on the rough pavement of exotic cities, or in the wild, backpacks are the only realistic choice.

Regarding the size, my criterion is: must fit comfortably under my airplane seat (behind my legs). This way:
- I never have to fight for carry-on space,
- I also make sure my bag does not get too heavy, even when full. And when empty, it hardly weighs anything. I guess by now you have found out: I hate weight.
My current bag measures 16"x11". It could be a bit larger and still be OK. And it is quite extensible in thickness: when completely filled and deployed it can reach almost 10" and that gives quite some room.
The other good thing about a small bag is that it routinely exceeds the 20lb weight limit for carry-on luggage on planes, but it looks so small that nobody ever cares to check.

I know it looks a bit flabby and worn, but please use a little respect: this little guy has probably traveled close to 200 000 miles, and it is also my everyday bag to go to work. But yeah, it sure is nearing retirement age...

The nice thing is that, despite its small size, the storage space is well divided, including:
- a main pocket (actually divided in 2), where I will usually store clothes and my laptop,
- a middle pocket for toiletries, underwear, laptop charger and small stuff,
- a smaller front pocket for travel stuff which basically stays there all the time,
- side flaps which come in handy to keep a bottle of water or a hat, etc.

Sep 1, 2016

Magic objects

Cashmere sweater

The magic: light, warm and classy. Even suitable for most work situations.

Silk neckscarf
The magic: takes up zero space and gives you extra warmth in all seasons.

The magic: cures everything - pain, headache, fever, sunstroke, bruises, sprained joints, cold.

white cotton t-shirt
The magic: all-purpose shirt for casual moments. Doubles as undershirt (with V-neck to wear under a shirt). Triples as pajamas after wearing it a couple of days.

shaving oil (in a tiny Muji spray bottle)
The magic: takes up no space, gives the smoothest shave and lets you shave under the shower. It also extends blade life (prevents oxidation) compared to using shaving foam. I use baby oil because it sprays well, but almond oil is also good, and I suspect any oil can do.
Tip: shaving with oil has one drawback: hair mixed with oil tends to clog the razor, so you need running water to keep the blades clean as you go. If they really get clogged, then just use a little soap on the blades.

mini laptop plug
The magic: plug in the laptop charger directly into the power socket, leave the bulky AC cable at home. (Bought on the internet, look for "IEC320 C5 plug" for 3-prong or "CEE7/16 to IEC C7" for 2-prong).

Aug 1, 2016

Shirtless in Beijing

When people worried about my tiny bag, I used to jokingly reply that the worst thing that might happen would be to need someday to buy a shirt in Beijing. And it did actually happen! I usually pack at the last moment. One year ago, I was in such a hurry that I forgot to carry a shirt with me. So on a Sunday afternoon, I needed to buy a shirt in Beijing for my appointment on Monday. Such an adventure, huh?

Of course, buying a shirt in Beijing is ridiculously easy, not to mention inexpensive, and somehow fun. To the point that it would even make sense to forget one's shirt deliberately in order to buy one there.

The takeaway is that it usually carries no penalty to carry too little luggage. Imagine: you're traveling to Thailand on vacation and you forgot to pack a beach towel. Do they sell beach towels at the beach in Thailand? Ya betcha! How much will the price of a towel weigh, relative to the total price of your vacation? Zero! Now make your choice: should you bring a towel from home in that situation? My take: no. On the contrary, by all means buy one there:
1) you travel light,
2) you can bring home a new towel full of nice memories,
3) if you finally decide not to bring it back home, then leave it there and make someone happy!

Another exercise: you're traveling to London for 3 days on business. Should you bring an umbrella?
My take: again, no! If you answered yes, perhaps you were fooled by the word London. It does not always rain there. And if you're on business, you'll probably be indoors all the time. The only chance to get wet would be during the ten seconds between your taxi and the hotel lobby.

By all means, only pack an umbrella if you're sure that it will rain most of the time, AND that you will have no choice but be outside for a while AND that it will be real rain, not just a couple of drops AND that you will have no way to borrow one AND that you will have no way to buy a flimsy one there for 2$. That means: practically never.
Disclosure: yes, I do buy flimsy umbrellas while traveling. Last time was in Moscow and the conclusions are: it was extremely easy; you do not even need to know the word umbrella in Russian; and it ended as a gift to the hotel maid.

In case you're wondering, I still have that Beijing shirt. I really like it, and every time I wear it, it takes me back to that Sunday afternoon in the big city...

Jul 23, 2016

The clothes issue

Packing clothes is still very much an open issue. Suggestions are appreciated. I have found no magic bullet there, but a combination of techniques that help: "the 4 R's".

First, the obvious: in order to travel light, the main point is to bring as few items as possible, and the most compact ones. This entails:
- thinking about what you will really need,
- checking the weather forecasts,
- bringing light clothes and just one warm layer made of top-quality wool like cashmere,
- wearing the bulkiest items on you while traveling,
- showering twice a day in order to extend the useful life of your clothes (my aim is 2 days; 1 week for pants),
- having a good deodorant,
- being extra careful not to stain your clothes, especially when eating.

When going out for more than 3 days, I prefer not to bring full changes of clothes, but rather to rely on washing and rotating. Higher-category hotels often provide a laundry service. This service is not cheap, but not expensive at all when you relate it to the overall cost of traveling.
If no service is available, just be ready to do your own washing in your room. A small can or bag of washing powder occupies no space at all. Be sure to plan in advance the sufficient drying time.

Sometimes luggage space constraints are tough to manage. For instance, you travel for work but you would really like to bring running shoes as well; or you want to keep space to be able to bring back stuff on the way home.
A way to handle those cases is to bring stuff which is nearing retirement age. Bring you old running shoes, and tell them in advance that their ticket is one-way only.

Conversely, you may deliberately keep your bag empty in order to buy new clothes at your destination.

I used this technique a lot in the past when packing shirts. Shirts are often a requirement for business occasions but they wrinkle so easily. There is no way to pack a shirt in a small bag without it ending wrinkled. But, to some extent, you can direct where the wrinkles end up. And actually, what matters is that the shirt front and secondarily the sleeves are smooth. The sides and back may be crumpled and usually, no one will care.

Here is how to roll a shirt to minimize damaging wrinkles:
1. spread the shirt on a flat surface;
2. bring the right-hand front over the left-hand one in diagonal;
3. if you bring several shirts, pile them up, with the one you want to preserve best beneath;
4. if you bring more clothes, add them on top, it will help protect the shirts;
5. fold the shirt arms and bring them smoothly in front;
6. starting from the bottom, roll up the clothes carefully but tightly into a bundle; fasten into position with a rubber band.
The result cannot compare to a freshly pressed shirt, but it is frankly surprisingly good, and you can wear the shirt straight away after unpacking. As a finishing touch, if the hotel can't lend you an iron, you can improve the effect a bit by drenching your shirt in the hot shower and then letting it dry on a hanger.

Bottom line?
The bottom line is that, in addition to the clothes that you'll wear while traveling, you can live without problem with 0 or 1 pair of pants and 1 or 2 shirts. I often don't bring spare pants. That's fine, except for the fact that it leaves you totally vulnerable to that rogue ketchup bottle (I love the thrill).

Apart from that risk, rejoice: it means that you can travel for any length of time with the smallest of bags!

Jul 15, 2016

Why do we hold on so much to our stuff?

Science says: it has to do with culture. I knew I was adopted...
After witnessing the “violent rage” shown by babies whenever deprived of an item they considered their own, Jean Piaget – a founding father of child psychology – observed something profound about human nature: Our sense of ownership…

Jul 1, 2016

My little international trade

Things you find in one place in the world and nowhere else.

Here we're not talking art trade or large-scale business. Not really souvenirs either. Just small things that you like to bring back home. Of course, with globalization, this is becoming narrower and narrower. Quite often, the things that you've carried across half the world can actually be found at an exotic shop near your home... How frustrating.

There is one category which still gives plenty of room for discovery: candy and treats.
I believe that what defines peoples is what they consider a treat. Is it candy? candied fruit? dried squid? Even within the realm of western food, shapes, tastes and brands wildly differ from one place to another, perhaps more than any other item...

Here is a selection of my global shopping sample.

From China
Green tea marshmallows
Okay I'm still not sure of the origin. The packaging is definitely Japanese in style, but I think I remember they are made in China. Anyway, my source is at the Shanghai airport shops.
Imagine a marshmallow with green tea flavor and a mellow heart inside. Mmmmh.
Also exists with black sesame flavor, equally good.
Update: they can also be found at Miniso mini-stores.

Chinese medicine.

桂林西瓜霜 Guilin's watermelon frost: nothing frosty really, and it doesn't contain watermelon, but it is an effective cure for pharyngitis.

贴膏 Plaster with ointment, against back pain.

Tea drinking bottle (with filter inside)

From India
1469 T-shirts (at Connaught Place, Delhi)
Quirky embroidered t-shirts

From Spain
Ham (jamón), cured pork loin (lomo)
Pan de pipas, Rosquilletas
Aniseed "oil crackers" (tortas de aceite), ideal for Sunday morning breakfast

From Mexico
Wrestler masks

From Germany
Aronal toothgum care toothpaste

From the US
Pretzel nuggets, crunchy and filled with peanut butter, mmmh.

From Korea
Magic neckties (zip-on) from Dongdaemun market

From Sweden
Candy! Eating candy is like a national sport, candy shops are found at every corner. Family favorites: wasabi crunchies and "blueberry" hard candy.

From the Czech Republic
Kafka wafers. Nice, crunchy and chocolatey. Plus they bear Kafka's portrait, which makes them highly desirable.

From Japan

Bowls! Even when mass-produced, Japanese bowls can be really nice and of high usage value.

From Belgium

Fresh waffles and fancy chocolate!

From Italy
Pecorino con zafferano (saffron-flavored cheese)

From Tunisia
Tunisian pastries !

Jun 1, 2016

Surviving jetlag

I envy people who do not suffer from jetlag. It can be so painful, that stinging feeling of intense weariness. You get so tired it hurts and almost leaves you trembling. And jetlag is treacherous, it can leave you in peace the first day or two and then strike back, keeping you awake at night and lifeless during the day. Admittedly jetlag is fiercer when traveling from West to East, for instance going from America to Europe or from Europe to Asia. When you travel westward, you can absorb a time difference of 6 hours without trouble: you go through a long long day and in the evening, you are tired and just sleep. But toward the East, what happens is that 2 entire days collapse into one. It is easy to lose your sleep references and end up at your destination in the morning, dying to go to bed. At that point, your internal clock is off by 12 hours. It can take days to offset that.

Some choose to ignore jetlag, claiming they adapt naturally. Others, for short stays, choose to keep their internal clock synchronized with their home place. It is feasible, although it constrains your activities. Otherwise you need a way to adjust. My strategy is to use a combination of steps to minimize the impact.

1. Get some sleep
The single most important aspect (and the trickiest) for adjusting to jetlag is to get enough sleep during the trip, all the more so as long flights are often night flights. As a rule of thumb, I aim at getting at least 6 hours of sleep. Night flights are good as they avoid wasting away a day sitting in an airplane, but unless you fly first-class, getting some sleep is harder than in a true bed.
Some preparation helps: prepare an eyemask and ear plugs, as airlines nowadays do not always provide them. An inflatable neck pillow takes little luggage space and can make quite a difference. Another unexpected ally are socks: leg discomfort due to poor blood flow can ruin your sleep. Pharmacies sell special socks but if you want to save money, compression socks for running, found in sports shops, are perfectly good.
If you have money, buy yourself a pair of noise-canceling headphones. If you do, make sure you buy the good ones. From what I have tried, cheap versions are no good at all.
Besides, there is a miracle drug to fight jetlag. It is called melatonin. It is actually not a sleep pill, but rather the hormone that the body releases naturally when it is time to sleep, giving the brain the order for system shutdown. Taking a dose of melatonin in the evening (2mg typically) tells your body it is time for bed, even if your internal clock does not feel so. Melatonin gets degraded by external light so make sure you take the pill shortly before you close your eyes for slumber. And of course check before for any counter indication.

2. Aim at the destination
As soon as you board the flight, set your watch to the destination time. After all, that is the timetable you need to adjust to. Then set your activities accordingly. If it is time to get up then get up, take a few steps in the plane, rinse your face with cold water, have a drink, eat something, expose yourself to light. Conversely, if it is night, then by all means get some sleep. If you are traveling East on an evening flight, it means that the urgent thing to do right after boarding is SLEEP: at your destination, it is probably the middle of the night already. Unfortunately, airlines do not make it easy for you because, for a reason obscure to me, the schedule of meals and activities on board is based on the time at the place of origin, rather than that of destination. To get some sleep, you will need to surrender your apéritif, dinner and evening movie. But that is the right thing to do. Otherwise, by the time you set yourself to sleep mode, the night is already over!

3. Anticipate
It helps to prepare yourself a few days in advance. If during 3 days you are able to get up really early, then you start gnawing at the time difference. It does have an impact because adjusting to a 4-hour change is significantly easier than a 6-hour one.

4. Adjust your gut clock
Equally important to adjusting your sleep clock is adjusting your digestive clock. From the day you travel, and possibly a day or two before, shift your meal times to match your place of destination. That means skipping dinner if you are going East, or skipping breakfast if you are going West.

Long-distance travel kit
Still with the idea of not forgetting anything, here is the contents of my long-distance travel kit, always ready at home:
- compression socks,
- inflatable neck pillow (do not buy the cheap ones, they leak far too easily),
- eye mask,
- ear plugs,
- Europe to US mini-adapter electric plug,
- melatonin pills,
- a few wet wipes (individually packed).

Good luck! Do you have more tips? Please share!