Harold Smith-Franzen is an American man living in Paris. He is an entrepreneur and strategist who is also a frequent philanthropist and fundraiser for animal and human rights causes.
How many countries have you been to?
113 UN countries and that excludes places where I have only been to the airport. If you add airport stops, I’m at 116.
How many days have you approximately travelled?
That is a tough question. I know I’ve spent about 6,900 hours, equivalent to 2,6% of my adult life, sitting on a plane. I’ve also spent ~600 nights at my preferred mass hotel chain, but I don’t usually stay with them. My guess would be the equivalent of 6 or 7 years, so let’s say 2 000 days. I’ve never taken off a dedicated period of time to travel, but I would really like to someday.
What are three of your favourite countries and why?
I’ve chosen to live in both Japan and France. I have a special connection to both. They are both gracious societies that are culturally rich and have extraordinary food. That said, if I had to pick three, I’d choose three that are less well known or appreciated as tourist destinations.
It is one of the friendliest countries on the planet, and it is particularly misunderstood in my
home country, the US. Travelling there as an American is a huge eye-opener. You leave realizing you’ve been deceived your entire life.
The DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo)
It’s stunningly beautiful. The history and current instability are tragic, but North Kivu is
one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Virunga National Park is an incredible place, and the work that Emmanuel de Merode, the park’s director, and his team do is really inspiring. Trying to sleep on the edge of the crater at Mt. Nyiragongo is something I will never forget.
São Tomé & Principe
I almost don’t want to mention Principe. It’s completely unspoiled and the food is delicious.
Are there any countries you don’t enjoy travelling?
I find something I enjoy in every country that I visit. I don’t particularly like travelling in South Africa. The racism and income disparity there are still extreme, even if apartheid is over. It is a beautiful place, but this makes it a place I don’t particularly enjoy. You see income disparity in a lot of countries. South Africa is particularly problematic for me because, as a 40-something white man, white South Africans think it’s okay to say racist things to me. It isn’t.
I also don’t love Costa Rica or Aruba. They are so overrun with American tourists that they have, unfortunately, lost a lot of their inherent charm.
What are three of your favourite cities, and why?
New York, Tokyo and Paris
I’ve chosen to live a significant amount of time in all three. They are endlessly fascinating and full of adventures. As someone who lives to travel, it is nice to live in places where there is always something new to discover. These are also incredible places to eat.
What are three of your favourite hotels or places you’ve stayed and why?
The Sukhothai, Bangkok, Thailand
Friendly staff, elegant design, and spectacular food. This is my favourite hotel in the world, no questions asked.
The Four Seasons Sayan, Bali, Indonesia.
Secluded luxury and the constant soothing sound of the river.
Mombo Camp, Okavango Delta, Botswana
Nothing like trying to sleep through a hippo fight with nothing separating you from them but a thin sheet of canvas.
What are the three worst places you’ve stayed?
I’ve had terrible luck with Airbnb. With a little effort, even a dump can pull off a few nice photos and a seductive description. I’ve also had some wonderfully distinctive experiences with them, but I don’t like the uncertainty, and I’m not a big fan of their business model. I’d much rather book directly with a local business or person.
I had a terrible villa rental experience at a place called Casa Blue Wind in Costa Rica. I’ll also never forget a sleepless night in a room constructed of plywood and chicken wire near the port in Phuket.
What are three of your favourite restaurants and why?
Stunning atmosphere. Exceptional service. Remarkably reasonable prices. Gorgeous dishware that is handmade in their own studio.
Noodle Pudding, Brooklyn
The garlic bread and cacio e pepe are incredible. Friendly staff who
remember you. A local spot untouched by tourism.
Le Troisième Café, Paris
This cooperative community restaurant was established to offer an
affordable dining option to residents of one of Paris’s most gentrified and increasingly expensive neighbourhoods. The place is full of heart, and everyone is welcome. They provide affordable or free meals without taking the dignity of their most vulnerable customers.
What are three of your favourite travel moments, and why?
Arriving in a new city for the first time
New sounds, smells, being slightly disoriented, and knowing I need to figure things out. Cities are particularly good for this. The more chaotic and visually stimulating, the better.
One of my favourite arrivals was in Jaipur, Rajasthan
It was as if I was seeing things in colour for the first time. I’ll never forget the bright colour of the saris against the desert backdrop.
If you live in a large city, it is easy to develop the habit of avoiding or even being sceptical of strangers. Some of my favourite travel moments are those in which a stranger has shown unexpected kindness to me. I’ll never forget being invited to participate in a wedding party in Luxor. It is an Egyptian custom to invite strangers to wedding parties, but I hadn’t expected it. We ate, danced, laughed, and had a fantastic time as if we were part of the extended family.
It is easy to forget how loud it is in a city. Sitting still and enjoying the silence of an evening in the Atacama Desert in Chile, on the banks of Lake Assal in Djibouti, or on a Phinisi schooner sailing on the Flores sea is pure magic.
What are three of your worst travel moments, and why?
Being in a taxi when it hit a dog in rural Egypt
It broke my heart. I love dogs more than people.
Being elbowed by a fellow frequent flier who wanted to get past me to board early not realizing that I was waiting to allow a handicapped person to board the plane. The sense of entitlement that frequent fliers have in the US is really appalling. Unfortunately, this type of thing happens quite often.
Being on a Korean Airlines flight from NY to Seoul when the engine caught fire
This was a long time ago and the crew did not make announcements in English. There was a terrible sound, flight attendants were running up and down the aisles, and I could see fuel being dumped. The passenger next to me drew a picture of a plane on fire on a napkin to tell me what was happening. Honestly, the situation wasn’t really dangerous, but I was terrified, and so was everyone else. This was one of my first long-haul flights, and I’ve never had anything like this happen again.
What are three of your best travel tips?
Do something that is out of your comfort zone
Eat something you think you’ll hate. Visit a neighbourhood that others might think is “dangerous.”
We stagnate when we stop doing things that make us uncomfortable.
Travel alone sometimes, even if you are married. I prefer to share my experiences with a travel partner, but travel is different when I am alone. I meet more people when I am on my own, and it is a great time for self-reflection.
Do you have any little known travel tips?
I always travel with a Uniqlo Ultra Light down jacket or vest
They are remarkably compact and make for a great pillow or extra layer when you need one.
Don’t check a bag, ever
You don’t need more than a small bag and not having a checked bag saves time, money, and gives you a lot more flexibility if there is a flight delay or cancellation.
If you go to Afghanistan, don’t tell your husband until you are home
You can follow Harold at @ny_paris_tokyo on Instagram.
-I’m not very active on public social media. I used to love the travel portal Gogobot and contributed a lot of content. Unfortunately, they were acquired by a larger company and then I lost interest.
Published by Henrik Jeppesen. I have met and travelled with Harold Smith and he has made a big difference in my project of visiting every country in the world. I thank him very much for this and sharing some of his best stories with my readers in this article.
Interview: November 2020.