Been there, done that

Despite the fact that I have much to say about my current state of affairs, the post I’m most inspired to write is a tangential one.

I tend to run with people who love to travel.  I suppose that isn’t too hard to do, as most people enjoy the exoticism of hopping on a plane and leaving the world behind for a few days or a week.  I can’t say if my friends travel more than most, I just know that several of my close friends make it a point to take at least one big trip a year, sometimes to far flung places like Thailand and Australia.  I have an uncle who I’ve always known for traveling, and he is making his way across the globe in a lifetime of trips, thoroughly exploring Europe, then South America, now Asia.

I love traveling too.  There is something inexplicably fascinating and freeing about standing in a city you’ve only seen on a map before, or in pictures.  Exploring the hidden corners that never make it to tourist books gives me a real sense of adventure, something that I think is hard to come by in this day and age.

If I was 23 and moving to England, I would have had visitors virtually every week because my friends would have seen it as someplace exotic and foreign to visit, and what’s cooler than having a free bed to stay in in a foreign country?  Unfortunately for me, though, England tends to be one of the first ports of call for Americans going abroad, especially Americans on the East Coast.  By now, all my travelling friends have been to England, and when I half jokingly half hopefully ask if they’ll consider a visit, they all respond more or less the same: Yeah…maybe…I’ve already been to England.

Now I am a very frequent traveler, and I do understand the thrill of exploring someplace totally new.  I would never try to talk anyone out of that.  In fact, I’m not really trying to talk anyone out of anything here.  It’s just that this is a blog, and that means expressing of opinions, and so I offer a counterpoint to always visiting someplace new: why someone might revisit a place they’ve been before.  In addition to going a fair amount of new places in my life, I also tend to be someone who likes to go back.  Before moving here, I’d been to England something like 15 times, at least.  But it wasn’t just England–I’ve taken repeated trips to Paris, Munich, Boston, Berlin, Washington.  Having done both, here’s what I can say in favor of returning:

It is impossible to truly understand a place in one visit.  The first time I went to London, I didn’t even make it to Trafalgar Square.  I breezed through on a tour bus which got stopped for Labour Day demonstrations on the 1st of May.  The first time I saw Paris I saw the Eiffel Tower, walked the length of the Champs Elysees, and went to the Louvre.  Great trips full of iconic visits, but I’ve discovered so much more in subsequent visits, like rowing on the Serpentine, high tea in various hotels, shopping on Oxford street, drinks in Hammersmith, the Imperial War Museum, even Westminster Abbey I didn’t make it into until my third or fourth trip to London.  If I hadn’t lived in Paris, I wouldn’t have known the fun of Galleries Lafayette or seen the Opera House redone in varicolored marble, or even seen the Eiffel Tower explode with fireworks at the millennium.  It takes revisiting to really see all that a place has to see.

In fact if you go back multiple times, an authentic experience is even more likely, especially in big cities.  As soon as I mention I’m from New York, people say they’ve been there, and they tell me about going to Macy’s and the Empire State Building, and Rockefeller Center.  All part of New York, but none of these are things I did with any regularity when I lived in New York.  Even if I walked past the Empire State Building, I’d go “huh.  Cool” to myself if I made any sort of inward comment, and I kept on walking.  Repeated visits means finding a hole in the wall Italian restaurant in Brooklyn where you can cut pork chops with a fork, or a corner of the Metropolitan Museum of Art which has a painting you could stare at for hours, or the fun of having drinks in the Boat House restaurant in Central Park–something I only did this past summer.  If I hadn’t spent a year in Paris I don’t know that I ever would have found the Moroccan restaurant which served the best tagine I’ve ever eaten at the Place de Clichy, or traveled out of the city to the Basilique Saint Denis where all the kings of France are buried.

As a subset of that…

Seeing one city definitely does not mean you’ve seen anything close to the whole country.

I’ve only lived in England for a few months, and already I’m sick of people asking me how London is.  I don’t know how London is.  I don’t live there.  Many times I’ve come to England and not even set foot in London.

I do have some sympathy for this tendency.  I went to school in upstate New York (or central New York, depending on your perspective, but to me everything north of Westchester County is ‘upstate’) and I was the one from the known place, where my friends from Albany or Leroy would seethe at the fact that no one seemed to recognize that there was a whole huge state out there that was nothing like New York City.  But New York City is the world capital–that’s the place everyone knows.

When people travel to a country for the first time, oftentimes they’ll visit the big cities.  Firstly, airlines funnel people into the hubs.  If your plane is landing in Paris anyway, why not spend some time there and make the most of it?  It makes perfect sense.  Furthermore, if you’re going to see a country for the first time, there’s something appealing about going to the iconic places, and standing in places that formerly only existed in two dimensions.  And lastly, let’s face it–the big cities give you the most bang for your buck–they have the most stuff to see.

However, that doesn’t mean that the big cities are the only thing a country has to offer, or even give you a sense of what the country’s really like.  Ask anyone from New York state (including inhabitants of the City and Long Island) if the City is anything like the rest of the state and they will laugh at you.  Inhabitants of the City may say with wide eyes “I think there are horses and actual farms upstate.  I know there are some mountains–that’s where I go skiing.”

England is a tiny country, but I am coming to think the English are even more varied than Americans.  The accent here in Birmingham is completely different from that in Coventry, which is a scant 20 miles away.  In less than two hours I can be in Yorkshire–Liverpool or Manchester, two cities in the same English county which have some very distinct features.  Which is to say nothing of the fact that in a couple of hours I can be in Wales, which has a culture and tradition all its own.  Seeing London and nothing more eliminates all the variety in the country, and it means missing out on the beauty.  Driving around here I’ve come to see that there is something decidedly English about the countryside.  The fields and trees look different and feel different from America.  The little villages with their local pubs are each unique, and arguably more quintessentially English than London, as a world city, could ever hope to be.  I would never suggest that people bypass London entirely, but the rest of England, and Wales, and Scotland, is well worth seeing.

Visiting people you know is very different from visiting as a tourist.

As I hope I’ve made clear, visiting a place as a tourist presents its own sense of adventure, of not really knowing what’s around the next corner.  Even taking the train has its own thrill when back at home the subway is just another boring part of the day.   However, there is something very cool about visiting a native.

Although British people tend to think my accent is pretty cool, I am a bit self conscious about it when I go out in England, because it instantaneously marks me as an outsider.  But if I’m with my husband or my friend, that gives me an ‘in.’  I belong here because I belong to this British person.

Some of my friends have no fear of this.  I have one friend who has this amazing ability to talk to absolutely anyone wherever she is, and it leads her to meet some incredible people.  I am agape with admiration when she just walks up to people and asks whatever’s on her mind and charms them.  Nevertheless, visiting a friend means getting a personal tour of a place.  They know you, so won’t drag you places that you think would suck.  Rick Steves doesn’t know you like that.

What’s more, with a friend living in the area you get a whole new access to a place.  They know the really good restaurants because they’ve eaten there.  They’ll know what events are coming up when you visit.  Sometimes, they have a car and can take you places which are inaccessible by transport.  One summer I was visiting my friend and she drove me to Kenilworth Castle, the ruins of a castle in (you guessed it) Kenilworth, which are really fun to clamber around and very picturesque.  She’s also taken me to the Black Country Museum, which reproduces mining life in England and was fascinating.  Neither of these places are readily accessible by public transport.  Visiting friends unlocks the door to places that would otherwise remain unknown.  While traveling alone means you might, by luck, stumble on something incredible, visiting a friend means you know you’ll find something cool.

And also…

Visiting a friend means finding a home away from home.

I’m pretty certain that few people who love to travel are as lonely and isolated as I am.  I tend towards extreme shyness when it comes to approaching people, and so have taken the plunge and visited several places on my own, but I’ll rarely talk to anyone.

I know most people don’t travel like that and often have great conversations in bars or on trains or something.  But there is still something to be said for being welcomed with a smile, to know that the place you are going to is not only something that interests you, but a place where you are wanted and will be cared for.  Maybe it’s not as adventurous, but it is lovely in its own way to know you have a welcome waiting halfway across the world.

There is also the fun of hanging out with a person who lives far away that you presumably haven’t seen in a long time.  That lends a whole new aspect to the trip.  There is still the fun of exploration, but there is also the fun of laughing at old jokes, talking long into the night , making new memories.  To do this against the backdrop of a faraway place is its own breed of exotic, to come so far and find such familiarity.

Now–if only airfares would magically go down so some of this could actually be convincing to my friends!


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