The Nature Corner: Travel tips

Published 8:26 am Friday, June 25, 2021

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By Ernie Marshall 

Now that there is some promise of having COVID restrictions eased and the summer travel season is upon us, folks may be feeling an achy foot, a yen to go to places afar.

Me too. So in musing about this, I decided to share a few thoughts on the subject.

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First, a few disclaimers. Most of what I offer is common sense, so I will focus on traveling abroad, since that can be trickier than getting about in your own country, and on venturing some on your own rather than with a tour. (In fact, I will draw my anecdotes from a trip I took to Italy in the summer of 1981.)

This is not, however, to say that I favor Europe and elsewhere over traveling in the good old U.S.A.

So tip number 1: See America first, especially if you are like me and prefer beautiful landscapes over castles and cuisines. Traveling your own country is less complicated, less expensive and a heck of a lot closer. The 3000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, if you go west instead, will get you all the way to the Pacific Coast and all the sights in between.

Tip number 2: If the native language of your country is not English, memorize some basic “courtesy words” such as for “thank you,” “please,” “excuse me” and “hello.” If you bump into a stranger and do not say “excuse me,” you will probably be considered rude rather than just lacking in their native tongue. By the way, these are words we should use frequently every day. It helps lubricate the social machinery of life.

A trip I took to Italy in 1981 was to attend an international conference and present a paper in Cortona, Italy (in Tuscany, 50 miles south of Florence). That took only a few days, but I had plane tickets and a Eurail Pass for a month’s stay.

So after exploring beautiful Tuscany, I headed south. I thought I would take the ferry to Greece from Bindisi, on “the heel” of the Italian boot on the Adriatic Sea. But I was a day short for the trip to Greece and did not want to go through the hassle of changing my return plane ticket. So I got back on the train and headed on to “the toe of the boot” and the ferry port to Sicily.

Fast forward to my wanderings in Sicily to see ruins of ancient temples, amphitheaters and such. Athens for several centuries had an important colony in Sicily. Indeed, Athens lost the Peloponesian Wars to Sparta mostly over defending her beloved colony. So I sort of had my trip to Athens, Greece without the tourist crowds and costs.

I visited the site of Naxos, the earliest Greek colony, founded about 734 B.C. It was it sight of Mount Etna, the largest and most active volcano in Italy. It literally smoked all day long like the proverbial chimney. My favorite memory, however, is of roaming alone one moonlit night in the ruins of a Greek temple, haunted by shifting shadows and shimmering light on the marble columns and rich ancient history.

All my walking, however, had worn a painful blister on my heel. Next to the ancient ruins was a village where I had a room, so I sought out the local drugstore for a Band-aid for relief. (It was easy to find, small village, big sign, “farmacia.”) I had no idea what “Band-aid” was called in Italian, so I thumbed through my Italian dictionary.

A small crowd had gathered, trying to help. We finally figured it out and I got my Band-aid. “Band-aid” is a brand name, so it is not in the dictionary nor the locals’ vocabulary. There was the Italian version of “high fives” all around, grins and pats on the back. I made some friends in a foreign land that day. Lesson: Folks like you trying to use their language. Don’t you?

I need to amend my advice about learning a bit of the language with a warning about becoming overconfident. On my way south on the train, I sat next to an Italian family. They were chatting away and then turned to me to ask about the cast on my left forearm. I had broken my arm playing softball earlier that summer. I responded with a hopeful, “Lei para inglese?” [“Do you speak English?”]. They answered with a head shake and a “No mi dispiace.” [“Sorry, no.”] By the way, you cannot assume everyone around the world speaks English. Depends on the country and other considerations. I was then a few hundred miles south of Rome and other common tourist destinations.

So, with my woefully inadequate command of their language, I tried to explain. Very quickly I realized I was in over my head. It seems the topic of the discussion had shifted and gotten animated. I threw out something like, “e cosi va,” a flippant “and so it goes,” or whatever. I had hoped thereby to exit the conversation and I certainly did. There was stone silence and odd looks exchanged among them.

Later a newspaper caught my eye, something about the Pope being shot. I recalled in our conversation the word, I thought, for “Dad.”  No, it was the word for “Pope.” They differ only in whether the accent is on the second syllable (Dad) or the first (Pope).

Only a week into my trip and I had broken the first rule of traveling in Italy: Don’t insult the Pope, mention the Mafia or refuse wine with dinner.

Sorry I got sidetracked by my reminiscing, rather than delivering on my title/topic. So in what is left of my column space, here goes.

Tip number 3: Keep your valuables safe. Thieves can be clever. Muggers are fewer in Europe but pickpockets abound.

Tip number 4: Keep your luggage light. It gets heavier to lug around by the day. Consider a backpack, so your hands are free in getting about.

Tip number 5: Pick up a map of the city you are in. If you have to ask directions, having a map on which others can point out the way helps.

Tip number 6: Don’t miss the view by having to figure the cost of everything. Budget an amount for each day and have fun.

But you knew all this already? OK, final words for your trip, “Fai un buon viaggio.”

Ernie Marshall taught at East Carolina College for thirty-two years and had a home in Hyde County near Swan Quarter. He has done extensive volunteer work at the Mattamuskeet, Pocosin Lakes and Swan Quarter refuges and was chief script writer for wildlife documentaries by STRS Productions on the coastal U.S. National Wildlife Refuges, mostly located on the Outer Banks. Questions or comments? Contact the author at