Watercolor by Poppy and Pinecone
I was recently talking to a friend about all the places I still want to go in Europe, worried about what would happen if my time as an expat came to an end and I hadn’t checked everything off my list. In the midst of lamenting that I just couldn’t seem to squeeze a trip to Italy into the foreseeable future, and wondering aloud whether I could “really go home after living abroad for two years and never making it to Venice,” she interjected to point out that she was born and raised in England and had never been to Italy.
For me, this caused a re-examination of a very valuable question: where is the line between quantity and quality when it comes to travel? How do you see it all and still create an authentic travel experience?
During my time abroad, I’ve had people come to visit me as well as joined up with others on their own journeys, and while I admire the zeal of those with a plan of action, I don’t have much patience with these plans when they feel forced.
People often keep too much of an itinerary and don’t let enough simply absorb. There is often too much focus on what you do when you’re away, and not enough focus on what you ultimately bring back with you.
Obviously, I am not talking about airport souvenirs when I say this.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who has ever returned from a trip completely excited by the potential of where I’ve just been, yet somehow also frustrated because it didn’t seem like I was quite able to tap into the essence of that place. In retrospect, these are usually occasions where I simply tried to fit too much in, causing me to have to cut my time with some great discoveries short in fear of missing something else.
Over the years, I’ve tried to train myself to be more selective about what’s worth my time and what isn’t. As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you can’t see all of it in a day either. It’s better to choose a few worthy activities and focus fully on those than to whirl through a city at such a pace that you later have to try to recall it through photos that you barely remember taking.
Pick activities that focus authentically on culture and connection. Leave days open in your travel plans. Avoid the typical tourist information booths that will label every fee-collecting historical site a “must see.” Generally just try to explore any new place the same way you would your own hometown: pursue the things that interest you, and ignore the rest.
The point here is not to devalue organized travel; days where you do suit up and set out to make a hundred check marks in your Lonely Planet guide are great. But ambling out in flip-flops with no destination in mind at all is how I’ve found most of my favorite cafés, park benches and shops. I sometimes even come across something I absolutely love, only to later find out its actually well known. But there’s a sweetness in discovering these things on my own. By all means, if you’re in Paris and you want to see the Eiffel Tower, plan for that. But don’t forget to leave some breathing room to simply sit in a café smelling the baguettes as well.
Remember that you don’t experience the nuance of a culture by collecting knick-knacks with a foreign flag on them. You do it by clearing your mind, consciously becoming a blank slate, and allowing that place to make an impression on you.
Another important way to do this is to make an effort to interact with the locals. It’s easy in an unfamiliar place to seek out your comfort zone, but Starbucks is not the place to make cultural memories. In Prague, I lit up at the thought of having the double shot soy latte I would’ve had at home, but after a moment of hesitation I ended up crossing the street to a small local restaurant instead. There, I had a thimble sized cup of the world’s strongest espresso, sitting in a dimly lit room choked with smoke (as of 2010, smoking inside restaurants was still permitted in the Czech Republic), and had a conversation in broken English with a very bored waitress who was eager to talk to an American because of her dream to save enough money to move to New York and become a model. During a sudden downpour on the same trip, I ducked into an antique clock shop and was offered a cup of tea by the owner.
Those are not the experiences I expected to have, nor sought out. But now when I think of Prague, I remember the smell of foreign cigarettes, the taste of bitter coffee and the sound of two hundred clocks ticking at once. Those experiences gave that place much more true agency to me than another dime-a-dozen tourist photo taken of Charles Bridge. Although I of course have one of those, too.
Also, when traveling, remember to give and not just take. Think about what you have to offer and do so, because the benefits are always reciprocal. If you’re reading this, you’re an English speaker, and your worth abroad is infinite. Spain holds a special place in my heart because of the time spent volunteering as an English teacher, and all the fantastic people I met as a result of it. A week spent talking to Spaniards taught me more about that culture and country than I ever could have learned walking around Madrid on my own.
Which is not to say that I didn’t spend the weekend following the English program at the Reina Sofia, because I did.
The point, going back to the conversation with my English friend, is that if I never make it to Canterbury to walk the Chaucer trail, or never pose with a Beefeater in front of Horse Guards and Whitehall, will I really have experienced less of England?
The days that I’ve spent both as a student and a commuter, standing in queues at tea time, trudging through the rain and colliding umbrellas with everyone, complaining about the heat on the Tube in summertime: those will be my quintessential British experiences because they are borne of the authentic nature and behaviors of this place. And the same is true of anywhere.