I'm on the plane from Frankfurt to Chicago. All of the sensible people in first class are either asleep or trying to do as such. But if I've learned nothing else on this trip it's that that's a mugs game for me on a plane. What better time to write my summary impressions of the trip, pending any modifications and edits I may make in the 10 days before this posts.
This post may be really short. Haha, I almost had you there right? But if you've reached this point you know me too well to think you're getting out of this with less than a thousand words and this time there are no photos to break things up.
Let's do this by section?
First Class Air
Wow. Just, wow. Flying first class internationally, especially on a foreign carrier, is just a fantastic experience. Is it worth paying $10000 for a flight from Frankfurt to Chicago - no lie, that was the going price a few days before take-off - no, not at all. Is it worth an extra 30 or 40,000 miles? Quite possibly, yes. In fact it's almost more worth if you're someone like me who is not going to sleep and who is therefore really going to enjoy the extra space and attention. I'm not sure that I'll be able to keep the mileage balances necessary to pull this off again, but if I somehow can I'd be delighted to try international first again.
First Class Hotels
Had you asked me before the trip whether I thought it more useful to stay at a really nice hotel or fly in first, I certainly would have gone with the hotel. After all, you spend a lot more time in a hotel than you do on the flight. And if you're me and you end up in your room by 3 PM you spend *a lot* more time there. But now that I've gotten to try out both, I think I'd be more inclined to spend miles or points on the flight. It turns out that while the extra-special touches of a Park Hyatt are much appreciated, all I really need from a hotel is a safe location, a reasonable level of clealiness, a bed that's a little on the soft side, and free, fast and easily accessed internet.
This was the entire point of the trip, right? Every time I met a new person and told them the coherent theme tying it all together, there was a little voice in my head saying "you know they think you're an idiot, right?" Well, except for when I met Jay, Kev and Angela. I'm sure they were thinking that they wished they could finish the trip with me. But I'm really glad I did it. I think I can now put into words my love of Disney in a way I couldn't before. I know it's not about the characters or the movies, as I haven't even seen half of them. I'm pretty sure now that it's not about the rides, either. It's about the place. It's about it being the one place in the world where I feel completely comfortable. Where the rest of everything - everything outside the walls of the park - doesn't matter to me.
This is a story I've not told many people, but maybe it wraps it all up nicely. A while ago, but after moving to Florida, I broke up with my then-girlfriend. I suppose it was my decision to end it, but there were some really big things between us even then that made it inevitable (pro-tip: if you don't want kids and she does, don't start a relationship!). I couldn't sleep that night and by 3 AM I had just given up entirely on going to bed.
I got in the car and started driving north. I ended up at the Hard Rock Casino over by Tampa. I haven't a clue why as they don't have craps and that's basically all I play. It's a casino, I was a heartbroken young man. Short of giving me a bottle of Bud Light and a pick-up truck, it fit. I ended up playing slots for about fifteen minutes. Won $80 or a $100 and decided to leave.
I wasn't sure where to go at that point and then it hit me. I'd always said that it wasn't possible for me to round that corner onto Main Street USA and not be happy so it was time to put it to the test.
I showed up at the Magic Kingdom and you know what? It worked. It bloody well worked. For a few hours I was sure that the world was full of good people and happiness and that my future would be, too. I had a lot of memories in those parks and it wasn't possible to relive them and not smile. It didn't last of course. Not even a trip to every Disney in the world can help you get over someone faster than you would otherwise. But it was a nice oasis of fun.
That's what I realized on this trip: that for me, a Disney park is home. It's comfort. It's a form of acceptance that I don't feel in a lot of other times or places.
Shit that got deep all of a sudden. Let's turn to reflecting on some of the places I've been:
Disney Part 2
I've seen them all, some in more depth than others. My absolute favorite? Tokyo DisneySea. My favorite resort as a whole? Tokyo. My second favorite park - and favorite of the castle parks - remains Disneyland. In fact, if you gave me 12 hours to spend in any one park I might still choose Disneyland ahead of Tokyo DisneySea. Magic Kingdom in Orlando is a close third. In absolute last is Walt Disney Studios in Paris.
If you are a Disney fanatic and you're in Hong Kong, give it a go. Otherwise pass it on by. If you're even a bit of a fan of Disney theme parks and you're in Paris, give the main park there a day. You won't be sorry. If you are in any way, shape or form a fan of theme parks at all and you're in Tokyo, give DisneySea a day. You can probably skip the Tokyo Disneyland side of things if you're pressed for time.
Things no one cares about but me:
Best castle: Disneyland Paris
Best Haunted Mansion: Probably Disneyland Paris, though it's neck-and-neck with Magic Kingdom
Best Pirates: Disneyland Paris
Best dark ride: Pooh's Hunny Hunt in Tokyo, though Sinbad in DisneySea is still stuck in my head a month later.
Best It's a Small World: Disneyland Paris
Ride that I'd go on fifteen times in a row right now if you'd let me: Mr. Toad. You saw that coming, right?
Absolute Worst Service at a Disney Park: Paris. Not missing a chance to slam Paris again! ;)
Haha, LA, that's a good one. I still haven't seen any of LA outside of Disneyland and Burbank/Glendale. Maybe you should just skip to the next section? Sucker.
What an absolutely fascinating place. I'm sure every guidebook begins with this observation, but it's as true as it is trite: Hong Kong is a city of contradictions. It's about as dense an urban space as you're likely to see, with a gorgeous skyline of massively tall buildings. Yet it feels like if the city ever lets down its guard for a few years nature will come and reclaim its own. It is East meets West but in a way that feels like it's completely unique. If there's one thing I wish I'd done more of there, it's exploring the wilderness. The ride to Stanley Market was incredible but I think the hike on Lamma might have been even better. On a trip that was in so many respects about being alone, I never felt as liberatingly solitary as I did standing on the crest of a hill, looking down on both sides of the island, with not a soul in sight.
I'm not sure that I'm in a hurry to return, though. Hong Kong feels manageable in a few days. I'm not going to pretend like I have some deep grasp on the rhythms of the city, but I feel content with what I've done. Of course in reality I will hurry back, but that's only for those BBQ pork buns. What can I say, I'm a slave to my stomach?
Sigh. I think I've told at least fifteen people since I left Tokyo (always in a joking manner) that I was thinking of just staying there. At what point does it stop being a joke and start being a sincere if implausible wish? In very much the same way that Disney feels like home to me, Tokyo just instantly felt like somewhere that I belonged. It's this incredibly diverse, dynamic place that is still completely orderly and safe.
10 days there only scratched the surface of the city and didn't include any of the rest of the country. I know I'm not the only person who experienced an instant love of the country - Brian and Ben at thepointsguy and one mile at a time respectively both loved the country after their first visit and immediately planned on going back. I'm not sure if I'll be able to get an international trip in this year but whenever my next trip is, it'll be to Japan.
Oh Paris. You all know how I felt about it so I almost don't want to get back into it. I am 100% sure that a return trip would go better, especially with someone who spoke French or had Paris experience. It's certainly atmospheric, so long as you include malodorous smugness as an atmosphere. Yeah, maybe we should just move on?
Japan was the clear winner on this trip, but England will always be my spiritual home. My sport of choice is English. My favorite team is English. My favorite TV shows are English. My favorite authors are English. Favorite stand-up comedian? English. Favorite cuisine? Indian, but pretty much as interpreted in England. Favorite accent is English. Place I'd most likely move to for half the year if I won the lottery? English countryside. So there was no way I wasn't going to enjoy my ten days in England. Sure, I managed to spend yet another ten days in the country and only saw a bit of London. I kind of like it that way. The best part of England, though, and not something that is of any use to readers of this blog, was getting to spend time with friends. I loved doing the rest of the trip alone, but it was great to have that one period where I got to share things with people I care about.
I almost feel bad commenting on Germany given how little time I spent there - and that I spent it in the part of the country that most every German I met said was the least interesting. But I was pretty charmed by the entire experience and I am definitely looking forward to returning to see more of the country. My current international travel wish list looks like this:
1) Japan - Tokyo and then the rest of the country as well
2) Germany - Especially Bavaria
4) England - One of these days I will see an Arsenal match. We'll probably lose it, but I'll be there to watch us lose dammit!
Before getting into the food discussion, let me drop a link here to my friend Lucy's blog. Lucy was responsible for much of the delicious homecooked food I ate in England and in a few weeks she'll be traveling around the US eating the best our country has to offer. She's going to try to keep up a food-centric trip report that I'm sure will also contain the observations of a young Englishwoman in the southern US. Should be quite interesting. You can find her blog here with the travel report section specifically here. I'm getting hungry just looking at it.
Back to best meals. This might be the hardest part of the post. To do this right I am not going to review any of the trip report. I'm just going to go from memory about what meals stand out to me and why. Maybe this biases me towards the recent ones, but let's see which stuck with me over time. In roughly chronological order:
1) Cafe Orleans - I don't know most of you personally but rest assured that if conspiring for your downfall were to lead to me getting some of those pomme frites I'd do it in a heartbeat.
2) Napa Rose - Only for the Chef's Counter. Not a cheap meal, but fantastic for what you get. Even better when shared with friends.
3) Tim Ho Wan - Those BBQ pork buns are the single best thing I ate on this trip. Possibly the single best thing I've eaten in my life. (note: this was before the Copper River salmon and Wagyu beef at V&As, not sure the comment still stands).
4) Andy's Shinhinomoto - Go for the atmosphere, stay for Andy's ability to pick out fantastic fish.
5) Sushi anywhere in Tokyo. Ramen anywhere in Tokyo. Just go to Tokyo and eat, right now.
6) That one breakfast in the Park Hyatt Tokyo, but really that was just because of the eclipse and there's no way I'd pay $40 for the food if they weren't giving it to me for free.
7) Cranberry popcorn in Tokyo Disney - the best of the popcorn flavors on offer during my time there.
8) Toad Hall in Disneyland Paris - Just for the theming. The food was "eh".
9) Macarons at Pierre Herme in Paris (and also in Tokyo though I didn't go there) - Kinda glad I didn't discover these earlier on the trip. That would have been bad.
10) Almeida in London - Everything there looked delicious. The pollock was the best cooked piece of fish I've ever had.
11) Tandoor Indian Grill in Gillingham - Unless you are Phil (hi Phil) you aren't ever going to be in Gillingham. But if you ever are, give it a go. Great Indian food.
12) King John Pub somewhere in Dorset - Heck, just go for the fresh bread. I doubt they'd appreciate it, but do it anyway.
13) Borough Market in London - Bring 50 pounds, spend it all, and leave 20 pounds heavier.
14) That one oyster place in Whitstable and I'm too lazy to look it up. I'd bet any oysters in Whitstable would be delicious.
15) Gino's East in Chicago - Mmmm, deep dish.
16) The various foods around World Showcase in EPCOT - school bread and kaki-gori especially.
17) Victoria and Alberts Chef's Table at WDW - It got its own post. That pretty much speaks for itself, right?
I could also stick some of the homecooked meals I got at Allison's place (including Lucy's desserts) but that seems cruel since those aren't commercially available.
Let's Get Personal
This trip report has flirted at times with being a diary. Well, let's crank Bright Eyes to 10 and go Livejournal for a bit to put the Iliad of trip reports to rest, shall we?
They say that in leaving our own country we learn as much about ourselves as we do others. I'm not convinced about that as I've had too many "epiphanies" in my life to take any of them seriously any more. But I think maybe I learned a few things about myself during all of this.
The first thing that became quite apparent, really as soon as I reached Switzerland, is that I'm just as self-conscious and worried about what others think of me overseas as I am at home. This is utterly ridiculous because when the hell am I ever going to see someone from Tim Ho Wan's again? In some ways that makes me feel better about it all - that I'm still uncomfortable enough in my own skin that it doesn't matter whether it's justified or not.
This was most apparent when it came to transportation and dining. We've covered my thoughts on bus travel several scores of thousands of words ago, but I couldn't help thinking on my first (or second, or third) trip on public transportation in a new country "ur doing it wrong". I went to some lengths in Paris to not have to be the guy who opened the door on the metro until the one time I was alone in the car and coud learn how to do it for myself.
Dining though. Oh dining. I need to get over this because I know I missed out on fantastic meals over my anxieties about ordering in a place where people didn't share a common language with me. I had a lot of dinners that consisted of bread bought from markets. Can't have an awkward exchange when it's just bread, right? Germany turned out to be my savior on this front because absolutely everyone spoke English well enough that I was at ease. Plus I can say wurst so what else do I need to order in Germany?
I got a bit better as the trip went on. In some respects Paris was great for this. By the last day there I couldn't have given less of a crap about what Parisians thought of me and was finally free to just do whatever the hell I wanted to. For a few seconds I thought "this must be what it's like to be Parisian all the time".
Six weeks on the road is a lot. I spent a ton of that time alone, too. I had nine days in England with friends, though even then I managed to get at least three hours a day to myself. Other than those nine days, I had maybe twenty hours spent talking with people I met on the road or already knew (hi Jesse, Sam, Angela, Jay, Kev, "Mo", and "Wendy" if any of you are still reading this).
I like being alone. My favorite moments at home are spent alone in the car just driving. But damn did I get lonely. Hong Kong was the worst. There were all sorts of things happening back home, at work and elsewhere, beyond my control and beyond my reach. It never distracted from the touristy parts of the trip, but since my touring ended pretty early every day that was a lot of time in my head.
Then things got better. Some of that was due to a couple of friends who went well out of their way to keep in touch. A lot was because of two people who I've never even met who became prolific penpals and lifelines to home. It's hard to feel lonely when you're exchanging thousands of words every day with people. Maybe, in some small way (cue the really cheesy music) there was some personal growth from all of this, too.
The last year was a pretty ridiculous one. Six weeks away, even if it was never truly "away", gave me some clarity on what I want out of life. The answer will include a lot more icewine, Timmy Ho's, delicious, fresh foods (I've never been more excited to cook than I am right now), and leisurely strolls by the bay. I'm going to continue to surround myself with awesome, amazing people. And who knows? Maybe next time I won't be on this trip alone...
I just hope she likes waking up at 4:30 AM ;)
That just leaves it for me to thank you for reading through it all. I've got a much shorter trip in August which might go up on here, along with any other smaller trips I take. Hopefully next spring I'll be able to travel internationally again. I'll keep posting any trip reports to FlyerTalk.
May Tin Hau bless your days and may all your trees be loved by Japanese men in pink pants. If you should someday see me rocking my Swiss Air pajamas in a Delta lounge near you, sipping on some melon soda and eyeing the Biscoff cookies, say "hi". Is it likely we'll meet? Probably not. But you never know. It's a small world, after all...