A question we are frequently asked by friends and family is how we will handle the language barrier in other countries, particularly in places like China where we won’t even be able to read the street signs. Will we try to learn the language before we go?

In the past we’ve tried practicing a new language with the Rosetta Stone and were not impressed by it. We’re a little dubious of a learning package that is so aggressively marketed to the point that you find it at mall kiosks right beside customized coffee mugs and the latest stuffed animal craze.

Since we will be traveling around the world and encountering so many languages (even within China there is a different dialect between Beijing and Shanghai) it would be impossible to learn the language of every destination.

It turns out that Michael is not very good at languages anyway, heck, he’s still working on English, while Larissa seems to absorb up enough of the local dialect on the short hike from the airplane to the baggage carousel. She also has a pitch perfect ear for picking up accents while Michael is basically tone-deaf.

Michael took four years of Spanish in high school but the extent of his knowledge pretty much prepared him for understanding the emergency exit signs on the New York City subway system; and even that was several decades ago.

Learning some aspects of the local language is more important for Larissa since she is allergic to many different types of shellfish. Whenever we have traveled throughout Europe she has written the words for what she can’t eat. This will be much more difficult with the characters of Asian languages.

What we will do is make sure we understand some basic phrases for each country before we arrive. Saying “please” and “thank you” go a long way. We also learn how to say, ‘Excuse me but I don’t speak your language.” The ability to pantomime helps so being a former Charades champion would be a definite plus.

In Mandarin the language consists of four different tones, so the word for “mom,” said slightly differently, could mean rope, horse or scold. No phrase book in the world will help the visitor decipher those subtle variations. Last week we asked a waitress in a Beijing restaurant how to say “please,” she walked us through it phonetically and made sure we had the right tone, in this case a rising inflection.

Whenever we ask people how to speak their language properly we always get a positive response. Just showing that you are making an effort to learn goes a long way toward breaking down barriers.

The best way to learn a language is to live in the country where it is spoken, even during the course of a week-long visit you will pick up enough words and key phrases to get by. Our impromptu language lesson from the Beijing waitress shows there is no substitute for on-the-spot learning from a local.

Michael has already written a few posts about getting rid of our stuff and how we are going to pack for this year-long trip.  Based on our prior travels I’m a pretty efficient packer.  (Truth be told, this all started when we were getting ready for our honeymoon almost 25 years ago. Michael watched me preparing a different outfit for every day and declared, “I’m marrying you, but not your luggage. If you pack it, you carry it.”)  So I’ve gotten pretty good at the whole mix-and-match wardrobe thing.

Larissa packing for a yearThis is it for luggage for a year of travel

But I’ve never had to worry about packing for a year so I’m wondering about a few things, like . . .

Will I have the right clothes for every occasion?  Probably not.  We’re not planning on climbing any mountains or herding yaks on a regular basis so we won’t be bringing clothes for those activities  Therefore anything we might do that requires specialty clothing will likely be a one-off experience. So we’ll either buy what we need or make do with what we have.

My more immediate “fashion concern” is whether I will have the right items for strolling around a city, going out to dinner or a light hike in the countryside.   I’m packing mostly multi-purpose garments; basic black separates with a few splashes of color here and there.  I don’t need to look like a fashionista everywhere I go, but I don’t want to look like something the cat dragged in either.

So my preliminary solution:  “accessories!”   I’m counting on sturdy pants, shorts and shirts that can take some abuse, with some costume jewelry and a scarf or two to dress up an otherwise mundane ensemble.  I’ll also be relying on my “miracle sundress” that I can dress up or down.  (Will this be enough?  Not sure.  Stay tuned for an update somewhere on the road.)

Will I get tired of the clothes I bring?  Probably.  (Will I get tired of Michael? Possibly.) No matter how many permutations I might try to create with this set of separates, I am bound to get bored with them by week five or six.  I am not going to ditch everything and start over, so what’s my plan?  Again. . . “accessories!”

In virtually every country I’ve ever visited I’ve found a market or bazaar that sells inexpensive trinkets and baubles.  This includes the US where they call it Target. They are not the best quality, but it won’t matter to me, since I will probably replace them in a month or two.

What about shoes?  A true woman’s question if there ever was one.  This is one topic to which I’ve given much thought.  No matter where you are, trudging around in uncomfortable shoes can tarnish an otherwise great experience.  I’m bringing shoes that are sturdy (but not ugly—I don’t like ugly shoes), comfortable and can multi-task.  After much deliberation, I’ve narrowed the selection down to 4 pairs:

Low-heeled loafers:  black patent leather, which will go with everything I wear, closed-toe (for bad weather, and visiting religious sites where open-toed shoes are considered offensive).

Hiking sandals:  good for city or country walking, waterproof.  I like the ones made by Keen—super sturdy and comfy.  (Michael thinks these are kind of goofy looking because of the black rubber cap toe, but I think they have a sort of nerdy charm.)

Flip Flops:  I have a pair of Fit Flops, which are really comfortable for walking, will be great for using at the beach or pool, plus they’ll work with a casual dress. I can also use them as slippers

Mid-heeled sandals:  (my big indulgence) Let’s face it girls, I can’t go away for a whole year without at least one pair of heels.  I’ve tried this pair out; they are comfortable for walking and dress up any outfit just because of the heel (I guess they sort of fall into my “accessories” category too)

The points I make above are based partly from experience and partly from what I think (read:  I hope) will work.  I will be reporting back from time to time on just how well (or poorly) I planned, and will highlight particularly useful (or useless) items.  And no smart remarks from you, dear reader, on seeing me in the same outfit twice!

See you from the road. . . Larissa

Related post: Our favorite travel accessories and gadgets

Click the link to see if Larissa made the right choices with her shoes: review of women’s travel shoes.

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Part of me feels fortunate to be taking a year off to travel around the world at this point in my life. The other part of me can’t believe it took me so long. I see all those twenty-something backpackers out there traveling long-term and wonder why I never did that.

After putting myself through college I worked for a financial services firm in New York. Whoop dee doo. I was more focused on paying off my education and climbing the corporate ladder. But was my life really enhanced by any of that? Of course it wasn’t. After a few years of the grind I did manage to backpack through Europe with my best friend but we could only go for a few weeks.  Had to get back to work after all.

They say the best time to plant a tree is ten years ago and the second best time is today. Barring the invention of a time machine, that analogy holds true for travel too. Go now. See the world. It will change who you are and it will change who you become–for the better.

I encourage anyone within the sound of my keyboard who wants to travel to drop what you are doing and go now. I mean it. Just go already.

Why are you still reading this? Go make those plane reservations. We’ll see you on the road.

When we tell people about our plans for a year-long trip one of the first questions we are asked is, “What are you going to do with all your stuff?”

It seems that there are two camps out there: “Pack Rats” and “Tossers.” To determine which camp you belong to ask yourself one simple question, “After you read a book do you get rid of it or put it on a shelf, to remain there in perpetuity?” (Probably right next to your high school chemistry textbook that you never opened then, so you’ll certainly never open it now.)

Since we get most of our books for free from the library we can’t hold onto them, nor do we want to. We are firmly in the Tosser camp so downsizing our home was a relatively painless experience.

Fortunately we knew for over a year that we would be taking this journey. In preparation for it we sold our suburban house and moved into a rental townhouse in Philadelphia that was less than half the size of our prior home. That forced us to make some of the tough decisions about which possessions really mattered to us. You know what? It turns out that most stuff is replaceable. We figured if it’s something we can get at Target we’re not going to pay to put it in storage.

Craigslist postings for free stuff proved highly effective for getting rid of things. Whatever we posted that day was usually gone by that night. It was a great year for twenty-somethings to know us as we got rid of much of our furniture and ended up furnishing a few dorm rooms and starter apartments.

The wide-screen TV went to a young physical trainer who did us a favor in return by taking some of the heavier pieces of furniture that we had no inclination to move. When the moving truck pulled up to our house they were surprised (and somewhat pleased) to see how little there was for them to haul.

This next move will involve even more culling through our stuff. At this point what’s left of what we own will fit into a 10′ by 10′ self-storage facility. Maybe at some point we’ll even ditch that and it will show up in a future episode of Storage Wars.

As comedian Steven Wright says, “You can’t have it all, where would you put it?”