Cash cab

IMG_5768My little miss is heading to Germany for a month this summer. She’s super excited to stay with family friends who will “treat her like a person, not a kid.” And she wants to do it all by herself; Momma has been instructed not to fly over with her. This kiddo has something to prove: her independence.

She reminds me a lot of me, but better. Way better.

I hope so. Little Miss’s upcoming trip brings back memories of my own trips; in particular I’ve been thinking of my arrival for my second stint in Germania. I was 19 years old, and ready to take on the world–or so I thought.

After I landed at the Stuttgart airport, I needed to make my way to Tübingen, a town about 20 miles to the south where I would spend my junior year in college. That should have been a piece of cake. Airport-bus-train-destination. I had read and re-read every piece of information I had gotten from both colleges–my American one and its German partner–and even though there was no internet back then, they had very thoroughly laid out all the steps on volumes of paper.

But I froze. In spite of five years of German classes and a summer exchange program a few years earlier, my exhausted, jet-lagged self was afraid to open her mouth and ask to be pointed in the right direction. I was afraid to look like another American ingenue. Add to that my Midwestern lack of exposure to public transportation, and I felt utterly overwhelmed. So with a pocket full of the D-Marks I had already exchanged at home, I did the only thing that made sense to my addled brain: I hailed a cab.

Yep, I hailed a cab. To take me to a town about a half-hour’s drive away. A cab that had little chance of scoring a return fare–after all, who would be so stupid as to take a cab when all those beautiful, efficient trains were regularly rushing back and forth between the two cities? As you might imagine, I paid a pretty penny for that cab ride, close to $100 in 1989 money.

I laugh about it now, but you know what? I don’t think it was all bad. Sure, it was expensive, and people–especially my German friends–have laughed about it for years. But the thing is, I got it done. I didn’t know what to do and I still found a way to get it done. It may not have been the cheapest or the most efficient way, but I proved I could take care of myself.

Of course, I learned a couple of lessons along the way. Besides the obvious do-what-you-gotta-do exercise, there’s this: sometimes you just have to put yourself out there. You might get where you want to go without asking questions, but chances are, it’ll cost you. By asking for help along the way, not only will you move toward your goal, but you’ll also learn what you need to get you there the next time.

So, Little Miss, when you get to the other side of the pond, do what you gotta do to find your way. I just hope it costs less than cab fare.

Complicating the issue (again)

In honor of last weekend’s forward leap into Daylight Savings Time, I’m resurrecting this post from May 2011. Thanks for indulging my recent need to revisit the old stuff!

Mondaine_model_30335Until very recently, my home state (Indiana) did not observe Daylight Savings Time. The magical days in the spring and fall that shift time on its axis were simply not part of my consciousness. That explains how I missed a flight in my sophomore year of college when returning from spring break. It was the day time sprang forward, and I arrived at the airport thinking the I had plenty of time, when in fact my plane had just left.

Since that time, I’ve become a much more seasoned traveler and I know that the protocol that follows missing a flight is pretty straightforward. The airline puts you on the next available flight and you go on. You might be late getting where you’re going and you might have to adjust your plans, but you adapt and keep moving.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite that equanimous back then. When I talked to the agent at the counter, I was rattled and she could see it. She saw me as easy prey. Suddenly, she spun my missed flight into a big deal. The process of rescheduling and rerouting me became a Herculean task, one that would have been insurmountable by a lesser gate agent. She, however, deftly jumped the hurdles caused by my ineptitude, and through her own superiority, solved my problem.

New ticket in hand and calmer, I was on to this woman in minutes. She was one of those people who makes things more complicated than they need to be–or at least seem more complicated–so she can be a hero when she facilitates resolution. She didn’t give me anything that wasn’t already mine (or my right) and didn’t add any value to the transaction, though it initially seemed as if she did. She made me think I couldn’t live without her.

We all know people like that, but I hope I’m not one of them. Why spend my limited resources and energy complicating the simple when I could use it instead to move forward? I don’t want to try to protect my job by adding false importance where it’s not appropriate; I want to add real value.

You know, a reassuring smile and a don’t-worry attitude would have added more real value, Ms. Gate Agent. It doesn’t always have to be hard.

Next time

IMG_0305A local radio station is giving away a vacation package to the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas, complete with concert tickets and backstage passes to see Michael Buble. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip,” they say.

Friends and family look at the pictures I share of travels near and far with my kids. “What a great experience! That was a once-in-a-lifetime trip,” they say.

Once in a lifetime.

I’ve begun to hate that phrase.

Granted, the stars will never again align in a way that conjures up exactly the same experience. From that standpoint, pretty much everything happens only once in a lifetime.

But if you’re talking about a trip to Paris or special passes to a performance or walking across the Brooklyn Bridge at night, I see no reason those things must be constrained to only one time in someone’s existence. Sure, it might take some planning, saving, creativity, and ingenuity to make things happen, and they might not happen often. But what doesn’t take some ambition? Some deliberate action?

The phrase once in a lifetime has gotten stuck in my craw. It leaves me thinking that people have resigned themselves to whatever their circumstances and that they have (or take) no power to change them. Anything momentous that happens has been bestowed upon them by Kismet, and they have no control over whether it happens again. That makes me really sad.

I’m hungry. I’m always hungry for more. When I experience something I love, I start thinking about how I can make it happen again. And when I do it again, how can I make it better? What will I do next time?

Next time.

I’m always thinking of next time.

When I take my kids somewhere, what I really hope to do is whet their appetites for more. For crying out loud, they’re still in middle school. If all the things we’ve done are truly only once in a lifetime, what’s left? I’d like to think instead that they’ll be intrigued, eager to learn more, curious enough to go back and do it their way, rather than my way. I’d like to think I’m just opening a door to next time.

There are truly experiences that happen just once in a lifetime, but I’m pretty sure there aren’t as many of them as we think. We have power over our lives. Whether we experience something once in a lifetime or there’s a next time is our choice.

I prefer to deal in next times.

Culture clash

tammy at brownI’ve always possessed a healthy dose of wanderlust, so tackling a study abroad program in college seemed like a natural fit for me. I filled out the application, Dad wrote the check, and a couple of terrific professors provided recommendations for me. When I received the program’s acceptance letter, I was off and running.

Having completed a summer abroad program during high school, as well as having hosted an exchange student in our home for a year, I had this nailed. I knew the drill and figured that a mature, intelligent, worldly, 19-year-old college student like me (cue wry humor) had nothing left to learn; just give me the plane ticket.

The university insisted on a rigorous orientation to the program. Sessions were mandatory, including one that took place all day on a Saturday–a SATURDAY–starting early in the morning. Although that’s akin to collegiate sacrilege, I knew the school had the upper hand and dragged myself over to Wilson Hall to dive in.

One exercise still sticks with me today, twenty-some years later. The specific details are a bit fuzzy, but here’s generally how it went:

The class was divided into groups of four or five. Each group was given a description of attributes specific to our simulated culture. One group might have received something like: Everyone always smiles. No is not an acceptable answer, so answer every question with yes regardless of your intent. Don’t ever shake hands. Another group may have received: Direct eye contact is offensive. Never speak unless directly addressed. Smiling implies a kind of intimacy, so avoid it. Still another group may have been told: It is customary to shake hands with your left hand. Be as direct as possible when asking questions, but do not reveal any personal information about yourself. There was some goofy stuff, too, just to keep us all on our toes.

For the next hour, we had to mingle around the room and get to know our peers. We couldn’t tell anyone what was on our lists; we simply had to demonstrate those qualities. At the end of the time, we regrouped and tried to list the attributes of each group.

I loved this exercise. It emphasized that even when someone speaks your language (or you speak his), you can still get really off track. You can offend, misunderstand, or be misunderstood. So much of our “real” communication takes place outside of our words. Cultural constructs affect not only our own behavior, but the way we perceive others’ behavior. We approach things differently and we make different assumptions. We always have to be alert to the non-verbal cues of others.

This really hit home with me because I was headed to a very Westernized country. People looked the same, dressed the same, and even enjoyed the same economic standards as my fellow Americans. It would have been easy to assume that except for the language, we were all one big happy family. Thankfully I learned my lesson early, and though I sometimes had to re-learn it, it helped me navigate many situations with less arrogant bumbling.

Even if you’re not a world traveler, the lesson remains the same. Forget nationality; look around at your peers. Family cultures, educational backgrounds, and economic situations differ for everyone. We’re all the product of our collective experiences, and that collection is different from person to person. We can’t assume that everyone sees things the way we do. And actually, I’m glad about that. It is exactly that diversity that enriches our lives. We just have to recognize it first.

Playing chicken

Years ago when I lived in Germany, my mom came to visit me for a couple of weeks. In an effort to expand her horizons and feed my wanderlust, we ended up in Belgium for a few days. (How that happened is a whole other story.) After luxuriating in the hotel bath followed by a jaunt around the Grand-Place in Brussels, we decided it was time for dinner. We ducked onto a side street and began to evaluate restaurant storefronts as we cruised along with other pedestrians.

Mind you, since neither of us spoke French or Flemish, “evaluating” meant assessing the looks of each place, not reading the menu.

About halfway down the street, a couple of employees standing in the doorway of a reasonable looking restaurant started a conversation with us. After they realized we couldn’t speak French, they continued their entreaties in broken English. “Come in to our place. Is good! You like seafood? We have the best!”

Even though I love seafood, my mother doesn’t, and she expressed this to our eager new friends. “No. No fish! I don’t like fish,” she said, throwing in a dramatic shake of her head for good measure.

“No problem!” said one. “You like rooster? We have rooster!”

Thinking we had found a solution for both of our palates, my mom and I let them lead us to a table inside. We ordered, talked, observed the other patrons, and talked some more. In short order, our food was presented: the fish I had ordered, and raw oysters for my mother.

My mom sat in stunned silence as I tried to contain my snickering. I don’t think there is anything she likes less than raw oysters. I could practically see her fighting back the gag reflex as she looked at her plate.

In a rare moment of good daughter-dom, I recalled the waiter and tried to explain our plight. With some creative language and a bit of arm flapping, we finally made him understand that my mom wanted chicken. After a moment of consternation, he told us it was no problem.

As we resumed our conversation, I noticed another restaurant employee speed out the front door. Ten minutes later he was back, and three minutes after that our waiter placed a steaming plate of chicken in front of my mom. To my utter amazement, I realized that these guys were so eager to satisfy their customer that instead of telling us they didn’t have chicken, they bought it from another restaurant down the street. I don’t remember anything about my own food that evening, but I don’t think I have ever appreciated another meal quite as much.

Words matter, but so do actions.

I apologize for my lengthy silence. My work travels got the better of me, and I should have given my readers a heads-up!

Wanderlust

Not long ago, I realized something pretty important about myself. If home is where the heart is, then my home is on the road. I’ve felt that way as long as I can remember, but I’ve never been able to categorize it so succintly. I just knew that I was always ready to go. In fact, my ex used to tease me by saying that the perfect gift for me would have been an airline ticket. It didn’t matter where, as long as I got to go.

Even though I always find myself in the throes of planning my next trip, I didn’t think much about my wanderlust itself. During a recent conversation with a colleague, however, I had an epiphany. Many, maybe even most, people feel as if their real selves are the ones who sleep in their own beds and run errands and go to work and make dinner. For them, returning from a trip means getting back to “real” life. Traveling often means leaving their “real” selves at home while they explore, so it makes sense that eventually they’re ready to get back to being real.

Here’s the epiphany: I’m not that girl. The real me comes alive when I’m on the road. When I come home again, I feel as if I have to pack her away. She gets antsy going about her daily routine, biding her time until she embarks on her next journey. Coming home from a trip, with rare exception, feels more like the end of the line or a resumption of duty than returning to myself.

Now that I understand this about myself, I can work with it. It no longer has to be an unseen drag on my line as I cast about; I can work with it, shape it, accommodate it. More importantly, the better I know myself, the better I can relate to others. Understanding our differences is just as important as understanding our similarities.

E = mc2

For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction.

Yesterday I wrote about an outstanding customer service experience at my car dealership; today I’m going to address its alter ego. Sadly, I recently had a hotel experience that was as bad as my car experience was good.

In a nutshell, I arrived late at night at a hotel where I had a reservation. In fact, not only did I have a confirmation number, but upon making the reservation, I had also coughed up a one-night deposit toward my stay. Check-in should have been nothing more than a perfunctory swipe-the-credit-card-hand-over-the-room-key process.

Alas, it was not to be.

As soon as I gave the night clerk my name, she told me that the hotel no longer had a room for me. They had, as she brusquely told me more than once, “a head in every bed.” After a few minutes of flabbergasted and indignant conversation, I had no choice but to move to the alternate hotel where she had placed me for the night. Note that even though said hotel was a 20-minute drive and I did not have a rental car, the clerk did not even offer transportation.

After my night in exile, the hotel manager called me to make amends. She offered an apology and to pay for my entire stay. She said all the right things and even offered to send the hotel shuttle to pick me up when I was ready to check in to my original room.

She worked hard to make sure I knew she was serious about making things right. When I arrived at the front desk for round 2, the clerk was prepared for me. She called me by name and set about making me feel comfortable. I ended up with an upgraded room, free internet access, a fruit and cheese tray, and lots of apologetic smiles. I hadn’t asked for any of it, but I appreciated the effort to make up for the hotel’s mistake and considered the bad situation rectified.

Until the bill came on the day I was set to check out.

The room that was supposed to have been comped was now charged to my credit card. That wasn’t what the manager had promised, so I sent an email to follow up with her once I was back in the office. She politely but firmly told me that I was mistaken, that she had never agreed to comp my room.

I know I wasn’t mistaken. I never asked for a free room, but she offered it. I even repeated it back to her when she originally called me to make amends. In fact, she had even made a point to tell me that I would get my HHonors points, even though I didn’t have to pay. I didn’t make this up.

Throughout the trip, I had planned to blog about the situation as an example of a bad experience turned good in a customer service win. Instead, by not making good on her promise AND telling me (her customer) that I was wrong, the manager unraveled all the good work she had done.

The sad thing is, I doubt she has any idea.

Think small

Walking through Madison, Wisconsin, hungry and hot, I stopped in my tracks when I came across what looked like a giant bird house next to the sidewalk. Through its glass door, I saw that it contained a small collection of books. Intrigued, I moved in for a closer look.

The sign on the box said Little Free Library. It offered a simple, grassroots vehicle for sharing books. Borrow one, add one, whatever. What most warmed my bookworm heart, however, was the placard which read, “This Little Free Library is a gift from friends who wanted to PAY IT FORWARD. They hope you will do the same!” Books AND an anonymous good deed? Wow!

I visited the website, littlefreelibrary.org, to learn more about this effort. There’s no big explanation, no grandiose vision for the world–just stories of individuals and libraries, punctuated by how-to tips. It really is just a grassroots effort to pay it forward. There’s even a locator to find all the spots where people have placed Little Free Libraries (more than 3000 around the US!).

You may wonder why people would do this when most cities have their own public libraries. I can think of lots of reasons. It brings people together. It creates a sense of community and a way to give back. It accommodates travelers like me who don’t have credentials at every local library around the country. People can access these whenever they want. They can grab a book to occupy a busy toddler before entering a restaurant or borrow one to pass the time in a park. People can share books they love with others or explore a text they might not otherwise have discovered. Shall I go on?

In any case, I think this is a wonderful idea. Not only does it appeal to my aforementioned bookworm heart, but it also shows that it doesn’t take a grand-scale effort to make a positive contribution to a community. Even if books aren’t your thing, I challenge you to use this example to consider ways you can pay it forward. Like the Little Free Library, sometimes thinking small might be the way to get there.

Wandering aimlessly

I traveled to New Jersey last week to recoup a training session I had missed in early June. It was a one-on-one session, so we flew through the material and wrapped up by 2:30 in the afternoon. Since my return flight wasn’t scheduled to leave until the next morning, I found myself staring at free time–and the NYC skyline.

Faster than you can say “Big Apple,” I jumped on a train bound for Penn Station, giddy at the prospect of spending not just any evening, but Friday evening, in Manhattan. I had nothing but time, bustling sidewalks, and city lights stretching in front of me.

Somewhere in the getting-there process, I had the fleeting thought that I should have a plan–not a rigid plan, but at least some vague idea of what I wanted to do and see. Quickly dismissed by my urgent need to GO, I found myself on the sidewalk in front of Madison Square Garden faced with endless possibilities. Quite literally, I didn’t know which way to turn.

My foodie self decided to head to Chelsea Market to poke around the food and cooking shops. (Secretly, I also hoped some famous chef would stumble out of the Food Network studios located on the building’s upper floors.) I pointed my feet south and started walking.

I spent more than an hour in Chelsea Market just taking it all in. I loved smelling the freshly baked bread and handling exotic produce. I was delighted to find a few fruits I couldn’t name. I even texted my brother that I thought I would die from joy.

Then I came to the end of the market–and the end of my so-called plan. I still had five glorious hours left to spend in the city, but the sheer number of possibilities shut down my brain. So I turned my feet south and headed farther downtown, with no clear idea of where I was going.

I rambled through Greenwich Village and poked around Soho. I eventually ate dinner and wandered back to midtown and up the Empire State Building. Mostly, though, I just walked. For all those hours, I walked. Without a destination. And while I loved soaking up the sights and sounds and smells of the city, eventually it began to wear on me a little. I couldn’t help thinking that if I had added just a couple more destinations to my dance card, I might have had a little richer experience. I didn’t need a tight schedule, but a couple of anchor points wouldn’t have hurt.

They would have transformed wandering aimlessly to walking with purpose.

Wings to fly

I hate to fail. Really, I hate to fail. In fact, I abhor it so much that sometimes it keeps me from taking advantage of the resources I have at hand. Sometimes, for example, I refrain from delegating because I want to be sure something is done right. (Assuming “right” equals my way.) I don’t like to fail, so I don’t give others room to fail.

The problem is that a person has to have room to fail in order to have room to grow. Room to fail brings with it the opportunity to explore new and different ideas, to approach problems from a different perspective, to find creative solutions to complex challenges. Having room to fail keeps us moving forward because it lets us try new things.

I wrote about the importance of having room to fail months ago. Apparently, however, it is a lesson I haven’t fully learned, because every time I see this principle in action, I stand in awe.

Case in point: my recent trip to France.

On the morning after our first night in Paris, we woke up to find that we had slept through the hotel’s breakfast hours. Not wanting to squander any more sightseeing time with our Parisian family, I considered my options. I didn’t have a lot of choice if I wanted to meet my cousin at the appointed time, so I handed my son a 20 Euro note and told him to find a bakery and bring back three croissants.

Yes, my son is thirteen years old. He doesn’t speak French, this was his first time in Paris, and he didn’t know his way around the busy Place de la Republique. As soon as he walked out the door, I wondered what the heck I had been thinking. There were so many possibilities for failure in this equation, not the least of which was that he could get lost and I’d never see him again. Oh, help me!

When my son returned twenty minutes later with three croissants, the change from my twenty, and an air of self-reliance I hadn’t before seen in him, all of my doubts vanished. He had done it! Not only did I have my breakfast, but my son also gained the confidence of knowing he could handle the basics in a foreign country, all by himself. And even more than the successful outcome, the faith in him that I demonstrated by sending him out alone boosted his countenance to a degree I hadn’t anticipated. I make a lot of parenting mistakes, but I think I hit a home run this time.

Here’s the thing. When you give someone–including yourself–room to fail, you also invite the possibility of wild success. You have to give someone wings before he can fly.