Early in the month, I took a much needed vacation to visit some friends who, for business purposes, are spending a year in Bergamo, Italy. They served as “expert” tour guides, traveling around with me as their schedules permitted, pointing out all of the important sites of the country. Whenever my friends were unclear of a particular landmark, they merely proclaimed it to be “very old” and often identified it as a “courthouse,” knowing good and well that I would not realize the difference. I played the role of the typical, rude American tourist: camera around my neck, constant complaining about the local customs and the cold weather, communicating in very loud and pronounced English to those who did not speak my language. I feel certain that I embarrassed my friends (and myself) on many occasions.
To say, I could have been better prepared for this trip would be a dramatic understatement. Though I severely over-packed (as usual), I did not bring enough black attire that is quite common throughout the fashion capital of the world. Actually, I do not even own anything black (besides my dog). I was ill-prepared for the frigid temperature and was forced to buy gloves and a scarf once I arrived. (I’m sure they will get much wear back home in Houston.) I had not established even a tentative itinerary, assuming I would just figure out the travel plans once I arrived. (Who could have anticipated that 24 hour train strike that almost left me stranded in downtown Lecco?) Finally, I do not speak one word of Italian. Since Bergamo is not a typical tourist city, very few locals speak English. Such crucial tasks as asking directions and ordering dinner became quite frustrating (for them as well as me).
A COMEDY OF ERRORS
Unable to read a menu, I would attempt to ask the waiters for clarification using a combination of charades and really loud talking. Twice, I thought I had ordered a pasta with meat sauce only to be brought some dish with raw bacon strips on top. (I rarely eat cooked bacon, so raw bacon would not have been my first choice.) On another occasion, I was pleased to see “fungi” (or something similar) on the menu, and felt certain my spaghetti would be swimming in a delightful mushroom sauce. Unfortunately, I did not recognize another word in the description, and instead received a pasta with mushrooms and a large scoop of blueberries. (I’m sure the waiter and chef were in the kitchen laughing hysterically and slapping high fives, while I ate their outrageous concoction.)
I did not fare much better on the travel front. I chose to hit all of the top beachfront resorts in the dead cold of winter. I arrived in Bellagio, a town so amazing that Steve Wynn modeled a luxury Vegas hotel after it, only to find that it was off-season and the resort was virtually closed until late March. (At least, I think that’s what the one guy who spoke English was saying; he too was laughing at me.) Likewise, I traveled on three trains and a bus over a three hour period to see beautiful Porto Fino on the Italian Riviera. When I got there, it was pouring down rain, and once again, I was the only tourist in the entire community. (At least no one was laughing.) Despite my lack of planning and these over-exaggerated mishaps, I had a wonderful trip and am extremely envious of my friends’ year-long experience.
THE REAL VACATION PLANNING
All the planning in the world could not fully eliminate the unforeseen situations that are sure to accompany any vacation (especially abroad). However, the most crucial preparations should occur in the workplace (prior to departing), to ensure that your absence will not create any major difficulties for your business and your clients. All of us like to perceive ourselves as indispensable, believing that the major operations will all but shut down once we take a few days off. In reality, the business typically survives without us and most clients may not even realize we were gone. Still, a little pre-planning at work can go a long way to providing some peace of mind to best enjoy the time away from the office.
First of all, try to get ahead as much as possible prior to leaving. Take note of all upcoming deadlines and attempt to complete such tasks well in advance. While this may entail some late nights and weekends at the office, you will enjoy the vacation much more, knowing that you had done everything necessary before departing. Notify clients, co-workers, and management through formal written correspondence of the days that you will be out of the office, and make sure you have satisfied all of their demands. Remind them again of your pending vacation a few days ahead of time. Establish a contact person for your clients to call in case of emergency. (Just make sure that individual is less competent than yourself so that your clients do not choose to continue the relationship with them even after you return.)
DO NOT DISTURB
Bear in mind, telephones, fax machines, and e-mail work outside of your office. Most hotels offer such services for their guests. Though no one wants to be bothered while on vacation, leave such pertinent numbers with that one trusted officemate, so you can be contacted in case of an absolute emergency. Perhaps, even schedule in advance one designated time to call the office to check on things. (Don’t forget about time differences.) In some cases, it may be nice to drop certain associates/clients a post card or bring back some little souvenir from your vacation spot, just to let them know you were thinking of them. (Then again, this gesture must be weighed against the possibility that you will be rubbing in the fact that you were on vacation while they were at work.)
Unfortunately, all good things eventually come to an end. Be prepared to put in some extra time around the office, catching up from those days off. Undoubtedly the mail will pile up, e-mails go unread, and certain less desirable projects will be waiting for you upon your return. And that excuse, “but I was on vacation” will not really go over very well with anyone. Hopefully, those memories of a great time away from work will keep you going through the tough catch up period. For now, my great memories are quite vivid and I’m just trying to find a good recipe for pasta and blueberries.