Travel expert: preparation key to getting most out of travel

DOWNEY - Natalie Compagno, who with husband Greg Freitas owns and runs the Traveler's Bookcase located at 8375 West Third Street, just a little to the east of La Cienega Blvd., where, as she likes to put it, "West Hollywood and Beverly Hills meet," spoke last month about her favorite topic and area of expertise, travel, at the invitation of the Friends of the Downey City Library.

To her credit and much to the edification of the audience, the 41-year old travel expert and world traveler did not immediately pontificate on places a traveler ought to visit, the do's and don'ts of travel, etc., as an unimaginative and boring speaker might do.

Instead, Compagno, who says she has traveled to 83 countries around the world since getting the traveling bug early on, went right ahead and engaged the members' interest by asking such questions as, "In your opinion, what is one benefit of travel?" or "Think of a country that you'd want me to describe assuming of course that I've been there."

Hands shot up so fast in response to the first question it was fun to watch.

"Meet new friends," said one. "You're headed for a new adventure," said another. A third chirped: "You get to see new art, new music, whole new cultures." A fourth: "The food."

"Which are all true," said Compagno, reinforcing the notion that travel is as subjective as they come. "In my case, travel made me feel a completely new person. I became a new, changed woman. And when conversation turns to travel to some exotic place, it feels good to be able to say, 'I've been there.'"

By fielding a good number of such questions, Compagno, because of her observant ways and obvious intimate knowledge of places she's visited, became a believable purveyor of certain interesting insights, such as: "Ireland is a beautiful country with beautiful people; its coastline is lovely, and there's music everywhere"; "Imagine the Bay Area meeting Colorado-that's New Zealand, with no billboards and a third of the people inhabiting the place: with all the sophistication and yet providing a farm-to-table ambience ('I fell in love with the place, and wanted to move there')"; "Zimbabwe's population is so desperately poor yet the people have so much passion for everything and anything the world can offer (it has magnificent wildlife, too)"; "In India, you can get sick"; etc.

Having captivated the audience with her lively and witty delivery, Compagno offered caveats. In Germany, she said, their legendary punctuality is religion: if you arrive one minute late for your train or whatever, you can "forgeddaboutit."

Then she narrated a scary story when she was fresh out of college and was backpacking with a couple of girlfriends through Europe. At the time, she said, bed-and-breakfast lodging was all the buzz, that bunking with a family instead of staying in a hotel would be a smart move.

Well, the move backfired, and the result could have been worse. If you have seen the movie, "Taken," their experience contained some of its elements. In Compagno's own words: "We decided to take an offer of a home stay after debarking the train in Prague (from another country).The woman who offered her home then figuratively took us on trains, planes, and automobiles. Finally, after a long trip, we came to an apartment on whose walls hung gun posters; naked women posters were everywhere, and limp, drunken men often blocked passageways. Many of the doors were locked, and there was this indescribable smell, and there was yelling in the other room...How we were able to get out of there I have no idea (oh, yes, the fact that we already paid the woman probably had its effect, but the real reason why we were able to escape was we stole the key to get out of the apartment and then break back in to leave the key for the tenants). We then ran to the nearest safe hotel." In an aside, she said, "I don't think I've ever told this story to my parents."

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Compagno has a degree in communication and French from USC. Prior to opening Traveler's Bookcase, whose clientele ranges from backpackers to celebrities and mainly local community members "who support and love our knowledge of travel and books," she says she worked in fashion marketing and PR in San Francisco and New York City. She has also written for travel publications and dabbled in acting internet copywriting, as well as co-owned a clothing store in LA.

She has a 'must-see' list for others (Paris, Nicaragua, Zimbabwe, Japan, Singapore, Beirut) and for herself (Iceland, and probably Antarctica). She says one must not forget the many attractions the U.S. itself offers: the Grand Canyon, Hawaii, Alaska, Chicago, etc.: "People from foreign lands travel here to see these fascinating places. One way to really see America is road-tripping."

It goes without saying, she said, that in planning a trip, one must not take things for granted, that one must thoroughly prepare for it, since nothing is foolproof.

What has traveling meant to Compagno? "It has made me a better person-calmer, more interested in politics and cultures, and more fulfilled as a person," she said. "I think that travel is one of the most important things a person can do to improve themselves even if it is just local travel in their own city and reaching out to multicultural groups in their community."

The travel expert's planned next trip? "It's local," she said. "To the Orchard Hill Inn in Julian after Christmas. Then in January, I'm off to St. Lucia for a culinary tour!"

********** Published: Jan. 9, 2014 - Volume 12 - Issue 39