15 life tips for the unitiated, or, how to flourish as a stranger in a strange land.

Thirty years ago, my grandpa’s girlfriend found out he was still married, to my grandmother, who no longer lived with my grandpa. So upset at that initial “I’m married’ confession to even hear the details, this woman, who later became the woman I called “Grandma,” climbed on a bicycle and rode from his house in a rage. In tears, she pedaled furiously down the gravel driveway, and crashed. My grandpa fetched her, told her the rest of the story, and shortly after, married her, right around the time my parents married.

That was in California, near San Diego. Meanwhile, thirty years later, in San Jose…

I got a call from my mother, who had ridden my dad’s bicycle from his apartment in San Jose, pedaling furiously, also because of a confession about another woman. She was riding around town, beside herself, determined to stay at a hotel and fly back to Buffalo the next day. It was late afternoon when she called me, and after I heard her out, she said, “I’m going to go get some dinner.”

Imagining her riding back and forth between downtown San Jose and its airport, knowing my mom well enough to also know she would not return to my dad’s apartment that night, I asked her if she’d found a hotel room yet. She said no. I said, “Mom, get a hotel room. The first rule of survival is to make your shelter, even before you find food.”

She reconciled with my dad a day and a half later, but in the meantime, had a place to stay.

You’re not going to believe this, at least, not if you’ve heard me ranting about hunting, fishing, and camping, but I spent one hour of every day of my senior year of high school in a class called Outdoor Living. I needed a science credit and couldn’t fathom chemistry, so while I spent half my day surrounded by fellow over-achievers in AP English and History, I took another class with the kids who were destined for management positions at Wendy’s: the slacker science class. My teacher spent an entire unit on survival skills, and even though I hated the class, I remember a disturbing amount of it.

I hadn’t thought about it until that class, but the idea that one needs shelter more than food probably stuck in my head because I wound up later living in a lot of different, alien places. I don’t move to new cities with a boyfriend and an SUV, I move with a couple suitcases and a willingness to walk. And after doing so in Seattle, Portland, various parts of New Jersey, New York, Brooklyn, southwest England, Barcelona and now Austin, Texas, I can authoritatively call myself an expert on surviving in the non-wild wilderness we call the civilized world.

Some of the things I’ve learned, most people don’t and shouldn’t have to, because they give themselves “luxuries” like cars and familiarity. Other things, everyone should know, especially every woman, and I’m continually astounded how many don’t. So here’s a mixture of both.

  1. No one judges you for doing something alone. It is usually more fun to eat, shop or travel with good company. But the self-consciousness and fear that prevents most people from acting alone is largely imaginary: no one cares, and as long as there are other people within shouting distance, you’re probably safe.
  2. Rely on the kindness of strangers. Anyone who works at a bar, hotel, or any form of public transportation, knows from experience how to help the lost and confused. Elderly people and parents with small children are also usually trustworthy. It doesn’t matter whether you’re going to the fair or flying to Guam: tip the bartender well, trust the bellhop, and be kind to the curly-haired grandmother sitting on the bench. Also, just because you didn’t stay at that hotel doesn’t mean you can’t ask the bellhop to call you a cab like your suitcase is upstairs in room #321.
  3. Conversely… if you’re female and alone, it is never rude to be rude. Most well-adjusted men know where it is and is not okay to engage a strange woman in conversation. The ones that don’t are the ones you probably shouldn’t get to know, even if their biggest crime is general cluenessness. Safe zones include: Bars, hotel lobbies, Toys R Us, and gas station pumps with at least one car between you. If someone approaches you outside one of those settings, feel absolutely free to respond in one sentence, smile politely, and turn away.
  4. If you’re worried someone’s following you, take some advice from a Wiccan book I’ve kept for the past ten years, and turn all the way around instead of glancing furtively over your shoulder. If someone actually is following you, he might be alarmed by your confrontational pose, you won’t look as scared as you would if you kept glancing, and you’ll be in a better position to fight back. And if it was just your imagination, the only people who’ll see you do it are the pigeons.
  5. Lost or overwhelmed? Find a restroom. I don’t know about Morocco, but in the US, even the worst parts of town have a crowded bar, grocery store, Starbucks, or McDonald’s. Head for the stall and get your bearings. It may sound gross, but no one is going to notice you studying your map or digging frantically through your purse in the bathroom. Collect yourself and then return to the fray.
  6. Reminding yourself that “you can always take a cab home,” takes the stress out of most situations, as long as you keep cab fare with you, and have the number of a cab company stored in your phone.
  7. Don’t drink unless you can accept the worst case scenario if you have one too many and your judgment flies right out the window.
  8. It’s okay to go home early.
  9. Don’t be afraid to get lost. Some of the best love affairs, creative epitomes, and undiscovered coffee shops have been discovered when I was lost. Just be aware that it all gets a lot more stressful after dark, and/or in ouchy shoes.
  10. Keep the following in your purse at all times: Antibacterial handwipes (Purell won’t do it if you have actual dirt on your hands); an iPod with cheering comfort music on it; almonds (to avoid costly emergency meals when you’re too starving to take another step); and if it makes you feel better, pepper spray.
  11. If you look sexy, you’ll get admiration, and (maybe) sex. If you look competent, you’ll get a job, the trust of strangers, entrance into any building you want without question, and that fabulous rent-controlled sublet. I’m not advocating women hide their feminity. I’m just saying that if you look like you’ve got money in the bank, a husband, and a full three car garage, you get access. Think J. Crew instead of Victoria’s Secret.
  12. Pay attention to landmarks. Navigating any new place is much easier if you note the tall building that looks like an owl (Austin’s got one downtown) and the big billboard with a salon advertisement on it.
  13. Most bus systems can’t give change, and most bus drivers are friendlier than they look.
  14. Regardless of what I said earlier, it’s always okay to show a little cleavage and a big smile, if you need some help and attention.
  15. Serendipity is your best friend. Planning the entire experience sets you up for disappointment, and you’re liable to miss the local treasures the guidebook missed. Leave the house with one planned destination or event and leave the rest up to chance. It is very, very important than you have time to pause for the shop, restaurant, or conversation that just seems to “catch your fancy.” Following those whims creates about 97% of the magic any individual will ever need in one lifetime.

Bilbo Baggins will tell you that every good adventure is scary by definition. The important thing is to find the wizards, dwarves and enchanted mini-swords that give you the courage to take it.

2 thoughts on “15 life tips for the unitiated, or, how to flourish as a stranger in a strange land.

  1. The hotel I stayed in was a nice Comfort Suites, but located on a sketchy boulavard. When I pushed my bicycle into the lobby and unslung my backpack, the young desk clerk looked askance at me, but politely listened to my room request. Sizing up my makeup, beautiful haircut, and unblinking stare, he gave me a room, but he didn’t want to. He just didn’t have the balls to refuse someone who gave the impression of a real person who just happened to ride to the hotel on a bike. Rule C: arrogance and confidance can smooth over a lot of tricky situations!

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