As we head into a long, dark winter, I find myself thinking about my travel motto: “Jams Are Fun.” That means making the most of a bad situation, rolling with the unexpected, and finding humor, joy, and meaning in the chaos. Here’s one example, from a recent trip to Croatia.
One time, in the scenic beach town of Rovinj, I parked my car at one of the big lots just outside the historic center. When I went to get my car a few days later, the parking lot had become a huge outdoor market and carnival zone for the town’s big patron saint festival. The space where I’d left my car was home to a rickety tilt-a-whirl.
At the parking booth, I showed the attendant my ticket. He shuffled some papers around and asked for my license-plate number. Then he said, matter-of-factly, “OK, so we moved your car.”
“What?! But you don’t have my keys. Did you tow me?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head and wagging his finger. “Not tow. Not tow. We pick up your car… with…” And he pantomimed a crane lifting up my car and placing it gently on the back of a flatbed truck.
“Where is it now?” I asked. He pointed at the overflow lot, all the way across the bay. “Over there,” he said.
I protested that I had no idea there was a festival planned. “Don’t worry,” he reassured me. “You already pay for the parking. We just have to move your car. You can just go and get it, and drive away.”
I trudged 15 minutes along the grubby waterfront to the overflow lot — packed with hundreds of cars in town for the big festival — and started pressing the lock/unlock button on my key fob. Finally I heard my locks click. Sure enough, there was my car, none the worse for wear, just waiting for me… about a half-mile from where I’d parked it.
By the time I drove back into town to pick up my wife and our luggage, I was already chuckling about all of this. “What took so long?” she asked.
“Well, you know how it goes,” I said. I laughed and shook my head. “Jams are fun.”
My wife’s Great Aunt Mildred was a remarkable soul. She traveled far and wide, at time when such a thing was unheard of for a single woman. And after seeing more of the planet than everyone else in her small Ohio hometown combined, she penned a travelogue about her experiences. The title: Jams Are Fun. What really stuck with Aunt Mildred wasn’t the castles and cathedrals; it wasn’t the museums and the monuments; it wasn’t the grand scenery and the fine meals. It was when trips went sideways — memorable snags in perfectly laid plans, which forced her to scramble for creative solutions.
When I encounter fellow travelers on the road, the ones who impress me the most are those who have this same “Jams Are Fun” approach to life. They come alive as they tell long, meandering stories about a missed connection or a canceled reservation or getting hopelessly lost. Athletes call this “playing loose” — being prepared, but willing to improvise and respond to the situation as it unfolds (or unravels). Problems aren’t problems. They’re opportunities to create vivid memories.
Thinking back on this — many months into a pandemic, and more than a year since I last set foot in Europe — it strikes me that “Jams Are Fun” isn’t just a good philosophy for travel. It’s a helpful attitude for dealing with whatever life throws at you, including and especially during a crisis. This doesn’t mean minimizing or trivializing real problems. It means looking for silver linings.
My personal challenge through all of the anxiety, sadness, and disappointment has been to find moments of peace and joy: making progress on those do-it-yourself projects; mastering some new recipes; finally writing that book. I find that I’m in better touch with faraway friends than ever before. And one of my favorite work-from-home perks is when my friend and his seven-year-old ride their bikes by my house every afternoon so we can hang out on the front steps.
We’re entering what experts agree will be an especially challenging phase of this pandemic. We’re all fatigued. We’ve had enough. Those fun little things we did early on — putting teddy bears in our windows and doing Zoom happy hours with co-workers — aren’t quite so fun anymore. But now more than ever, it’s important to stay the course, stay positive, and try to find the fun in the jams. Like Sisyphus rolling his rock up the hill, we’re in this whether we like it or not. So we might as well make the most of it.
I’ve been collecting my own “Jams Are Fun” travel stories for the last few years on my blog. If you need a little inspiration (or just a few laughs at another traveler’s misfortune), check some of these out. And in the Comments, share your own favorite “Jams Are Fun” stories.
One time, in the North Atlantic waters around Norway, my cruise ship hit some incredibly rough seas. I lived to tell the tale.
On the back roads of Bosnia-Herzegovina, I got pulled over by a pair of corrupt cops and shaken down for a bribe.
Researching a guidebook on Italy’s Cinque Terre, I found myself embroiled in a community-wide dispute between rival gelato makers. I managed to escape, but the crossfire was delicious.
Finishing up a busy trip in Rome, and very ready to get to the airport and fly home, I discovered how hard it is to get a taxi when it rains.
When producing a TV episode in Bucharest, the Romanian Parliament told us that we could film inside. Then they changed their minds. And then…they changed their minds again.
In Salzburg, my guidebook research responsibilities required me to take two back-to-back Sound of Music sightseeing tours. Not one of my favorite things.
In a bizarre sequence of events, I made plans to meet up with an old friend at what we expected to be a quiet rural airport…only to find it was hosting a Europe-wide air show that very afternoon.
As a very light sleeper, I worry a lot about nighttime noise. So imagine my joy when I showed up at a hotel just as a wedding band was setting up in the lobby.
On Scotland’s remote North Coast, my fuel gauge dipped to “empty” just as I was pulling up at the only gas station for many, many miles in either direction…which had just closed for the day.
And, really, the entire experience of driving in Sicily. (Pro tip: Just go numb.)
What about you? What are some of your favorite “Jams Are Fun” memories?