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029: travel : Europe : exploring daily life anywhere and everywhere


image of an outdoor scene in Stockholm, Sweden, by A.E. Graves



I have friends who have visited five countries in six days. They were determined to do this, and they did it. They have photos of themselves in each country, which was one of their goals. They don't really know anything about those countries, but that wasn't the point for them: they had a list, and they had to get it finished at all costs!

I'm not that kind of traveler. I prefer to settle into a place and get to know it. I'm not out to collect photos of myself, I'm out to collect experiences, and those experiences are not centered on winning a most-countries-visited race.

Experience the World Every Day

The way I travel is similar to the way I spend my free time when I'm NOT traveling, actually, and I mean that in a GOOD way: I behave like an experienced tourist in my own hometown. What do I mean?

My days off are precious, and I don't seem to get enough of them. I value free time almost obsessively, and have ever since my days of working full time in a law firm WHILE SIMULTANEOUSLY attending college full time on weekends, an intense, stimulating, year-long, hard-slog-to-the-degree that required that I work hard nearly every waking moment. Without those kinds of obligations, free time is something to celebrate! So I celebrate it with activities that I enjoy, wherever I am. Since I live in San Francisco and explore it actively, I seek out new experiences, and revisit old favorite places as if I'm new to town. (Sometimes I work so much, I do feel like I am just visiting!)

I go to art museums and take in new shows, look at how other artists solve the kind of problems of visual expression that I am trying to solve, and give in to temptation in the museum gift shop's book section.

I take long walks around scenic parks, especially around lakes, riverbanks, and seashores.

I sit in cafes - the idea of unstructured leisure was a fantasy during my work+college days - and linger over almond milk lattés while watching people come and go.

I take photos of interesting buildings, dramatic shadows, and interesting clouds. (Some of these scenes are of famous landmarks, some aren't - I'm collecting these photos for my own satisfaction, not to mark off a list of someone else's "must-sees.") Since I travel on foot and by transit, I have plenty of opportunity to look up and around.

I wander through residential neighborhoods, admiring the landscaping, and wonder if I would enjoy living there.

I choose a nice restaurant, and enjoy the specialties of the house while eavesdropping on conversations around me, reading a local paper, and sipping local wine.

If the mood strikes and I want to look like a local (and have money), I may buy some accessory or blouse of the local style.

I keep a journal of the highlights of my day; if my day includes a train ride, I keep live notes during the ride of items I see in the countryside.

Exploring at My Own Pace

I have learned from experience how best to enjoy myself. This involves avoiding crowds and mob scenes unless I'm in the mood to deal with them, getting enough background information to make specific associations with a place (history, famous events, special event timing), choosing either independent walking tours or small-group, professionally guided walking tours, and pacing myself so I am tired in a satisfied, rather than run-down, kind of way.

Pacing is key. During my first trip to Kyoto, Japan, I had a very long list of historic buildings I wanted to see, but wasn't sure how to squeeze in time to see them all. A British girl at my hostel warned me that I might wind up suffering from NAFT Syndrome. NAFT stood for "Not Another F*ing Temple," and the idea was that poor pacing and hazy goals could destroy any tourist's ability to enjoy these visits. Why try to see so many? What are you hoping to achieve? Are you just rushing from one to the next for no reason? Will you be able to tell them apart in your memories (and photos) later? These were worthwhile questions for me to ask myself. When my sightseeing got out of hand, I slowed down, asked myself why I was rushing from one place to the next, and paced myself a bit better.

Be Aware of the Points of Interest, Without Being Controlled by Them

Older European cities offer similar tourist temptations and hazards. Yes, the historic center of each place has:

You can see the risk of succumbing to something like NAFT, yes? Or having all the charming European old towns run together in your mind?

I am not a slave to this list. My priorities remain as firm as they are at home: a pleasant walk near water, a cafe to watch people, a contemporary museum, and photographs of interesting architectural details. My independent priorities serve as a filter, which can save me from trying to see everything or from following the same tourists around town all day. I may wind up seeing all of those things, but I will not be upset if I instead spend my time enjoying my lunch and the museum.

Knowing When to Rest

There are times when I am too exhausted from long flights and longer workdays to sightsee. My secret on those days is... not to sightsee! Or to sleep in, have a leisurely breakfast, and only go out and explore in the afternoon, staying close to the part of town near my hotel, and sticking to "easy" goals (small museums, nearby gardens, adjacent neighborhoods, more cafes).

If You are the Writing Sort, Write About Your Day

I'm both 'the photographing sort' and 'the writing sort' of traveler. My memory is limited, and sometimes I fell like my memory is just full. Photographing allows me to remember certain visual things, which is valuable since I don't usually have time to sit and DRAW all of the details I want to remember. Writing about my day is satisfying in a different way, and allows me to record little details - some wonderful local meal, a funny encounter I overheard on the streetcar, the name of a painting that I loved, but which I'd never heard of or seen before - which would otherwise slip from my memory. These notes enhance my memory and enjoyment of the visit.

I am a Fellow Traveler, Not a Guide

As I write on these pages about my recent trips, you'll see that I am NOT writing a comprehensive travel guide, or a list of all the Points of Interest of a city - there are guidebooks and apps for that kind of information, which is up-to-date and useful for planning your trips.

I'm just writing here about what I enjoyed and learned from visiting a place. If you share my interests, you may enjoy those things also!


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images and original text Copyright © 2013 - 2015 A. E. Graves

(posted January 2, 2015)

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