Travel Spring Training: Marvels & Misadventures
photo courtesy of the girl & the fig
A veteran travel editor recently wrote an article entitled “I’ve Taken Two Trips Outside the Bay Area and Realized We’ve All Gotten Hilariously Bad at Packing.” In that piece she recounted how, for her first post-pandemic trip to Mexico, a quick four-day jaunt, she had packed three pairs of sandals, no walking shoes, and “a bunch of socks.” “Nothing screams vacation like wearing socks with your sandals,” she wrote.
Under the headline “Rusty Travelers Regain Their Sea Legs,” a recent New York Times article reprised this theme, describing a normally “supremely organized traveler” who forgot to pack her kids’ sunblock, hats, and rash guards on their first post-pandemic trip. The author went on to relate the tale of a business traveler who recently arrived to check in at a hotel he had visited frequently on business before the pandemic. “Do you need help with your bags?” the front-desk agent asked. The traveler looked around—and realized that he had left his bags at home.
A flight attendant’s quote in that Times article summarizes the generally unprepared state of travelers post-pandemic: “When people get on board,” the attendant said, “they seem to have really forgotten how things work. People are staring at the overhead bins a little longer and trying to figure out, ‘OK, how do I sit down? Will this bag fit up there?’ We’re all so used to sitting on the couch.”
I can relate. I experienced my own misadventurous variations of this phenomenon, which I call travel spring training, on a visit to the Sonoma Valley last month.
On an earlier trip to the town of Sonoma, in March, I had made a reservation to eat at a delightful restaurant called the girl & the fig. But at that time, after making the reservation in person, I had looked at all the people dining in close proximity at sidewalk tables, and fifteen minutes later, impulsively decided to cancel the reservation. I just wasn’t ready to be so close to so many strangers yet, and I ate a take-out lunch in the park instead.
On this June trip, however, I was ready! I happily booked a lunchtime reservation for an outside table at the girl & the fig, and on the appointed day, I strode up to the maître d’ with a giddy excitement. I’m eating at a restaurant!, I thought. She escorted me to an outside terrace with about a dozen socially distanced tables, all shaded from the blazing midday sun by festive sun umbrellas.
All the tables were full, with diners ranging from singles to multi-generational families of eight. There were couples enjoying a romantic escape and foursomes celebrating being able to get together again. The mood was buoyant, with lots of hearty conversation and laughter and evident enjoyment of the cuisine and the occasion.
I studied the menu. Throughout the pandemic, I had been ordering from online menus with a click of the mouse; I hadn’t held a menu in my hands for more than a year. Ordering in person, surrounded by people, with a waiter standing at my side—suddenly this all seemed supremely daunting. So many choices! My mind swam with all the options.
When I finally decided what to have, I signaled for the waiter—how do you do that again?—and placed my order. Everything went smoothly until we got to the drinks. The menu featured a sparkling rose by the glass, and that seemed the perfect way to celebrate. When I triumphantly told the waiter that’s what I’d like, his face saddened and he said apologetically, “I’m so sorry, sir. We don’t have that today.”
In 2019, I would have simply said, “Ah, what a pity!” and then ordered the other champagne that was available by the glass.
But this was 2021, and instead, I went into total brain-freeze. What to do?
My mind became a static-screen, like a TV when the programming has stopped for the day.
I sat and gaped at the waiter for an uncomfortably long time, until he cleared his throat and said, “Uh, sir, might I suggest a replacement that would be quite similar?”
“Oh, yes, that would be great!” I said, as my brain snapped back to reality and relief flooded through me.
He brought me the restaurant’s signature Fig Royale, like a Kir Royale but using a house-made fig liqueur, and it was delicious. In fact, it was so delicious that I ordered a second, and as I sat on the terrace, eating my quiche lorraine and savoring my second Fig Royale, exulting in the convivial atmosphere and the soothing, sultry air and the soaring sun umbrellas, I began to feel like I had been transported to one of my favorite restaurants, La Colombe d’Or in Saint-Paul de Vence, France.
Who needs a sparkling rose when you can have a Fig Royale?, I thought, lifting my glass to the Mediterranean that I could almost see glinting in the distance.
The intertwining of marvel and misadventure continued that night, when I boldly decided to have my first inside-a-restaurant meal since early 2020. For this landmark feast I decided to eat at the Glen Ellen Star, a beguilingly intimate eatery in a beguilingly intimate town. For dinner, I met two friends who are longtime locals. When we stepped inside the restaurant and were seated at a table, I felt like we had stepped through a portal into the pre-pandemic past; suddenly we were in an enclosed space, with patrons to the left of us and patrons to the right of us!
Even though the tables were artfully arranged at a pandemic-appropriate distance from each other, this was still vaguely unsettling.
Then the waiter handed us menus, and again I went into brain-freeze. How do you decide when there are so many enticing options? Fortunately, my friends offered to do the ordering, so I could just sit back in anticipation. But still, as the pizza, feta salad, wood-roasted branzino, and brick chicken arrived, I felt like someone who had been isolated in a cave for a year. How do you properly hold a knife and fork again? How do you make conversation and eat at the same time? How do you converse with waiters?
When wine was brought to the table beside us, I marveled as the waiter poured a tiny taste, then the diner swished his glass, smelled the bouquet, and took an appreciative sip. Holding the wine in his mouth for a moment, he sighed, then nodded with a smile at the waiter. Ah yes, that’s how it’s done!, I thought, recalling a far-off world shrouded in mist.
When the restaurant’s chef-owner, Ari Weiswasser, stopped by our table, I mentioned this out-of-practice feeling to him. “Oh, yes!” he replied, “We’re all feeling it!” He talked about how all the staffers had to relearn the intricate choreography of serving food inside, how they were narrowly avoiding mishaps every night as servers dodged and ducked around each other. It’s evident in the customers too, he continued, describing a trio of pre-pandemic regulars who had dined at the restaurant for the first time a week ago. At the end of their meal, he said, they had simply got up and walked out into the night, forgetting that they needed to pay.
As the night—and the wine—flowed on, the alchemy of stimulating conversation and delicious cuisine became an enchantment, and my earlier feeling of unease simply evaporated. How splendid it is to dine among strangers!, I thought. Each table’s enjoyment enhances that of all the others!
It was only when I got to my car that I realized I had liberated one of the restaurant’s napkins as a souvenir.
For me, the crowning example of spring training misadventure occurred when I checked out of the Sonoma Mission Inn. Trying to remember the steps, I walked to the front desk and said to the clerk, “I’ve had a wonderful stay here, but I’m afraid I must leave now.”
“We’re sorry to see you go, sir. We hope you’ll come back soon! Would you like to review your charges?”
“Yes, I would. Thank you.”
She handed me my bill, and I looked it over carefully—This is all coming back to me!, I thought—then said to her with a smile, “This all looks fine.”
“Great!” she said. “Would you like our valet to get your bags?”
“That would be wonderful,” I said.
“Excellent. Please meet the valet at the valet station outside the hotel,” she said, gesturing at the half moon-shaped driveway where cars unloaded their luggage.
I went to the valet station and waited. And waited. Where is he?, I thought. I had assumed we were going to go together to my room so that he could get my bags. After all, I had the key.
So I was more than a little shocked when the valet suddenly approached, pulling a trolley with all my bags on it.
“Oh!” I said. “So, you went to my room and got my bags?”
“Yes,” the valet said, looking at me a little uncertainly.
This is where I began to feel like I was in a comedy, hearing myself speak and desperately trying to stop the words from tumbling out, then mentally doing face-palms as each sentence left my mouth.
“Ah, well!” I said, looking over the bags intently. “It looks like you got them all….”
“Uh, yes,” the valet said, studying me.
“So,” I continued, looking at the distant self-parking lot where my car awaited, “I guess you don’t want to bring the trolley to my car….”
The valet looked at me. “Uh…”
“I guess I’m supposed to bring my car here.”
Silence hung in the air between us.
“That would be great!” the valet finally said, his face a mixture of please-don’t-say-anything-more and when-will-this-be-over!
I walked to my car and drove it to the valet station, opened the back, and watched sheepishly as the valet quickly loaded my bags.
Hoping to re-establish some credibility, I said, “I really loved my stay here. This is a wonderful hotel. I hope I can come back soon!”
No doubt he was thinking, “Take your time!” but what he said was, “It will be our pleasure to welcome you back!”
“Thank you so much!” I said. Then I pressed many bills—double the amount that I had originally intended to give him—into his hand.
“Thank you, sir!” he said with a smile and a wave, before retreating as hastily as he could.
Now that’s how it’s done, I said to myself, as I steered slowly into the new world.
Yours in abiding spring training—and wanderlust!
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Have you had any misadventures as you’ve resumed traveling? We’d love to hear them! Please share your stories with us in the Comments section below as we celebrate the marvels and mishaps of our collective return to travel. Thank you!