The upside of standardization

All that is generic and standardized tends to get a bad rap.  Conformity is bad.  Anything prefaced by a Mc is worse.  

To drive across Canada or the United States there is that highway-culture of predictability  There will be the same fast food joints, gas stations and coffee shops. I’d often taken a dim view of this in the the past. Now, while changing cities on a nearly manic basis, things are different.  I am tending to appreciate boring consistency it for what it is – a sure thing.

It’s not always necissary of course.  I got an amazing double espresso this morning in Istanbul on an open-air mom & pop place.  It was very good and they obviously serve up a valuable commodity. Yet, I had a book so I wasn’t too concerned about their lack of another valuable travel commodity — free WiFi.  It’s tough to get in the best of times, let alone a signial that has enough bandwidth to load a basic website within ten seconds.  This is where Starbucks comes in.

Starbucks Vienna

Starbucks in Vienna

I have found that in budget hostels the Wi-Fi is terrible. Well, the performance is at least — it could be just weighed down by heavy usage.  It’s become a pretty valuable commodity for me as well as it’s inexorably linked to planning further travel, staying in touch and writing bad blogs. Enter Starbucks. This coffee chain has bailed me out constantly with free Wi-Fi that actually works. I see the green mermaid and get giddy.

starbucks_austin-powers21

Sorry Austin Powers, I’m not feeling the satirical love

A more European-focused example of constancy is in a pattern I’d noticed in hostels and tours. I’ve stayed with an outfit called Meininger four times in four countries  The first time it was set apart because it was a very civilized place. It is a cheap hostel that buys out low-star (looks like 3 or so) hotels and fills the rooms full of beds.  They are always in good locations and really are far from adventurous but sometimes it’s good to just to get something predictable: no weird smells, overcrowded rooms or lack of lockers and a guaranteed easy place to find if arriving in town late at night.

The final standardized concept was walking tours.  An outfit called Sandeman has a free walking tour in 18 (mostly European) cities now.  I was very skeptical at first (there’s no such thing as free!) but they have enough of a marketing engine in conjunction with hostels to get groups of 20 to 30 out it seems and with an average tip of $10 per person it’s not a economic model.  These free general tours set the stage for the subsequent themed (and paid) tours.  It’s a very good idea.  What impressed me was the the quality is very high — they recruit a lot of theatre and history students who can sell the drama.  I’ve done nine of these Sandeman tours so far in six countries.  All have been excellent.  The tenth tour, in Krakow, was with a different group and was…  not so great.

Sandemans New Europe

Sandeman Prague

My group in Prague

It seems that I was packing up and heading to a new city so often in Europe some degree of predictability became very welcome.  But from here on in: Jordan / Ethiopia / Tanzania / South Africa I have longer stays which will set the stage to venture farther into the unknown and away from the omnipresent green mermaid whose siren song is all too compelling….

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