Travel by Design

The journey is about more than the trip

Experience Time Span (iversity.org)

I recently took an online class called “Design Thinking” through iversity.org, a platform for Massive Open Online Courses based in Germany.  One lecture sparked an interest in designing user experience and made me think about travel.

The simple visual above perfectly describes my travel experience.

Stage 1 is The Vision.  When I know that I will be taking a trip, I begin to imagine the experience as I plan activities.  Anticipating the journey, I am already experiencing it in my mind.  I can almost feel the cobblestones under my feet, smell the sea breeze or hear the animated chatter in the marketplace.

The next phase is The Experience.  While I’m traveling, I tune into the moment with intensity.  Unfamiliarity sharpens my senses, as I notice every detail around me.  Colors seem brighter, tastes more memorable and sounds that might go unnoticed at home form a cacophonous symphony.  I feel awake and alive.

The 3rd stage is Reflection.  When the journey is over, I return home and reflect.  Instead of being just a checklist of tourist attractions, each experience becomes embedded in my psyche and changes my perspective.

The final phase, which may last a lifetime, is The Story.  This is the memory that becomes a piece of well-worn quilt that I wrap around my shoulders.  Over time, the memories may lose intensity, but they are still colorful tiles in life’s mosaic.

Thinking about the entire process makes me realize how wonderful it is to incorporate design thinking into the trip.  When I become the creator, each journey is unique and the experience is entirely mine.  Instead of standing behind the crowd that glances at the Mona Lisa and heads to the next destination, I turn around and discover a joyful masterpiece on another wall.  Walking the streets of a German town, we happen upon a tiny printing museum and are treated to a leisurely private tour with a knowledgeable master.  On our way to the Alamo, we take a detour and find the peaceful garden at the Spanish Governor’s Palace.  Allowing time to get lost and time to explore, we discover forgotten paths and hidden treasures.

Experience design means paying attention to the details and thinking about the entire process – before, during and after.  When it comes to travel, it means creating a loose plan and allowing plenty of time and opportunity for exploration and serendipity.  Planning means that I know the address to plug into the GPS, the names of cities I’ll visit and the place I might sleep.  But the time in between unfolds as it unfolds.  I design the experience, do my research and plan the “ingredients,” but how it all comes together is something totally unexpected and memorable.

 

Around the World #1: Germany and Swabian Apple Bread Pudding

The journey begins where it ended this summer:  in the beautiful Black Forest and Swabian Jura of Southwestern Germany.

While in Stuttgart, we stayed at Campingplatz Cannstatter Wasen, a convenient site wedged between the Neckar river and a vast fairground to the east.  All was quiet when we visited in June, but now it’s festival time and in September and October the Cannstatter Volksfest is in full swing.  The event started in the 1800’s as a one-day harvest festival, but has evolved into a three-week celebration considered to be the second largest beer festival in the world after Munich’s Oktoberfest.

Cannstatter Volksfest near Stuttgart

Cannstatter Volksfest near Stuttgart

It was in Stuttgart that I met Silvi and family for the first time, and when we said goodbye she presented me with a small gift – a cookbook that featured traditional Swabian recipes so that I could remember our visit.  In honor of new family and fond memories, my first recipe is a perfect way to celebrate autumn’s apple crop.

Swabian Apple Bread Pudding (Ofenschlupfer)

4 apples

3 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon rum

1 teaspoon cinnamon

6 bread rolls or 4-5 slices white bread

1½ cups milk (approximately)

4 tablespoons butter

5 eggs, separated

3 tablespoons sugar

pinch of cinnamon

1/4 cup raisins (optional)

1/4 cup breadcrumbs

3-4 tablespoons ground almonds

butter to garnish, or 2 egg whites and 3 tablespoons of sugar

Ingredients

Preheat oven to 375°.

Peel, quarter and slice apples.  Mix with 3 T. sugar and rum and leave to allow flavors to blend.

Remove crusts from sliced bread or slice rolls into thin slices and moisten with milk.  Beat butter until fluffy and then blend in egg yolks, remaining sugar, cinnamon and ground almonds (I use a mini food processor).  Whisk egg whites separately until stiff.  Fold apple slices and raisins and egg white into the butter/egg yolk mixture.  Grease an 8″ square oven proof pan with butter or cooking spray and sprinkle with bread crumbs.  Layer the bread slices and apple mixture and dot with butter on the top.  Bake the apple pudding for 30-40 minutes at 375° until golden brown.  Serve with ice cream or whipped cream if desired.

Apple Bread Pudding

 

A Taste of Home and Distant Lands

One of the most enjoyable things about travel is the opportunity to try new foods in the places you visit.  Each flavor becomes a reminder of a particular moment or place.

I remember sitting at a long table with a new acquaintance and a room full of locals at Pizzeria Bella Napoli in Verona, Italy.  The decor was unremarkable, but happiness brightened the atmosphere.  With every bite of the pizza from the wood-fired stove, we ingested the joyous spirit of the family gatherings and graduation celebrations taking place in that back street eatery.  Our new friend was a colleague’s cousin whom we had met only that morning and she had graciously guided us around the city.  She was pleased to share secret spots such as a wishing well and this well-loved pizzeria.

Other meals have also imprinted upon my memory:  a breakfast of migas in Mexico; simple black beans with Salsa Lizano at Moon Shiva in the cloud forest of Monteverde; our wedding feast, surrounded by family and friends who had lovingly cooked their favorite dishes from countries around the world and brought them to be shared by all.

On our recent trip, I discovered Alsatian and Swabian regional specialties such as Tarte Flambee and Maultaschen Soup.  The Tarte Flambee was a simple French version of pizza with a paper-thin crust, a variety of toppings such as smoked salmon or fresh vegetables and sprinkling of fresh cheese.  Maultaschen is a Black Forest favorite similar to ravioli with a spinach and pork filling in beef and onion broth.  This soup will always remind me of a special day in Stuttgart, spent with a long-lost, newly re-found “cousin-in-law” and her family.  At the end of our trip we met once again and my new cousin presented me with a special gift:  a book of Swabian recipes to awaken memories of our first meeting and to celebrate our new friendship and the beautiful Schwarzwald that she calls home.

Salmon Tarte Flambee

Salmon Tarte Flambee

Schwäbische Maultaschen

Schwäbische Maultaschen – A Black Forest Tradition

At home,  family food traditions include Pizza Fridays, waffles on Saturday, Papa’s pancakes on Sunday.  My daughters look forward to dinners when they return home and enjoy inviting friends to share from time to time.  My regular shopping safaris take me to supermarkets in Chinatown, the family-owned Lebanese deli, the local farmer’s market and the large specialty grocer to hunt for new and interesting ingredients.  And sitting down at my table is a journey to distant places and a celebration of a small circle of family and friends at the same time.

As we traveled through Alsace, we stopped to visit a winemaker that is a fervent devotee of biodynamic viticulture.  Surprisingly, the showcase at the entrance highlighted each variety and vintage, proudly displayed with a glass container full of the rocky soil that the grapes had grown in.  Biodynamic growers use very specific and spiritual growing methods and interfere as little as possible with the natural fermentation process.   As a result, the wine becomes a unique expression of a particular place and growing season and biodynamic viticulture views the vineyard as an interconnected, living system.

Food and wine, family and friends – an interconnected, living system.  I like that.

The Camping Way

Camping Langenwald, Freudenstadt Germany

Beautiful Black Forest campground – Camping Langenwald, Freudenstadt

Years ago, in exasperation at having to pack up camp and move on yet again, our eldest daughter muttered, “What is this, the Montes Family Traveling Circus?”  Frustration quickly turned into laughter and the name stuck.  This year the Montes Family Traveling Circus World Domination Tour was live on 3 continents at once, as 3 of us visited Germany, Switzerland and France, while Daughter #1 returned to Egypt for a year and Daughter #2 spent the summer in Kyoto.

The European Contingent traveled in camping mode, a.k.a. “Hotel Room in a Bag.”  Baggage restrictions make this a challenge, but we have pared down to lighter equipment and bare essentials.  This is the fourth time that we have experienced family Eurocamping and each time the process becomes more refined.  It’s not as easy as getting on and off the tour bus, but the time invested means that you shape and own the experience.

Here’s the process:

  • Initiate and commit:  Stop resisting and book a flight and a rental car.  Look for a car with decent trunk space or a station wagon-type that has a cargo cover.  GPS is a must.
  • Map the itinerary:  You have a ticket and a car, and know the place and time of your arrival and departure.  The rest is up to you. Chart a circuit and try to minimize driving hours and campsite changes at first to minimize exhaustion and conflict and maximize time for exploration and fun.  Check out sites like VirtualTourist.com or TripAdvisor.com for ideas and list interesting destinations in the places you plan to visit.  Your itinerary can change on the go, but a list is a good starting place.
  • Research:  Time consuming, but it can be fun.  Think of it as extending the mental voyage.  Investigate your local library for current travel guides and mine the internet.  If you’re interested in camping, there are many good sites with campground listings complete with gps coordinates, a full list of amenities and customer reviews.
  • Gear up:  Research and buy the basics – tent, sleeping bag and pad, small camping stove compatible with locally-available fuel like Campingaz, lightweight cooking and eating gear and utensils.  Decide what to bring and buy at your destination.
  • Pack:  Leave plenty of time to pack and decide what to leave at home.  Work with your baggage limitations.
  • Documentation:  Make sure your passport is up to date and valid for 6 months after your trip.
  • Travel:  Air travel isn’t much fun, but relax.
  • Explore:  Be receptive and open to new experiences.  Know when to be an observer and when to jump in and interact.  It’s revitalizing to wake up knowing that the day is full of possibilities.
  • Memories:  Take lots of pictures, blog, journal, sketch – you’ll appreciate it later.  Laugh at the hardships – they make great stories.
Camping Breakfast

Breakfast spread

This year’s journey was different because we were not all together for the first time.  A little sad sometimes, but exciting knowing that each person was somewhere interesting, learning and growing.  The Montes Family Traveling Circus 2.0 – alive and kicking!