Big news–I had a vacation!
I think this was my first actual vacation as an adult, unless you count the road trip up to NY for spring break my second year of university, which was a rather long time ago. I’ve got a lot of stressful stuff coming up this autumn and who knows what will happen in my professional and personal life next spring and summer, so I figured it was time to take advantage of the opportunity and the vacation time of my first-ever Traveling Companion! It turned into a bit of a romantic getaway, so we picked two Mediterranean cities we thought would supply plenty of affordable wine, good food, and sunshine with beachy views, in that order of importance. We flew to Barcelona, Spain on a Monday afternoon and then transferred to Genoa, Italy, the next Monday, arriving back home in Helsinki late the next Friday evening for a total of 12 days. We ended up having the most interesting series of flights I have ever had in my life–relatively tame compared to all the possibilities but still, several delays, two very rough landings, and the dramatic arrest of one drunken lavatory smoker.
We didn’t have much of a plan, which was fine. Instead, each day we figured out what we felt like doing and had talked about the day before. There was a lot of walking around, which is typical for me traveling–in fact, we walked about 140km (88 miles) the whole trip! We really did get to see most of the districts in Barcelona. Our hostel was in the Gothic district, which is pretty touristy but retains a lot of old world charm with tall, old buildings and narrow alleyways hung with Catalan flags, laundry lines and various decorations.
We also spent a lot of time wandering around Gracia, an area that reminded me a lot of Kallio where I live in Helsinki. There was a big covered market there, lots of local cafes, some bars and ethnic restaurants, and it seemed like a really arty, hip sort of place. It was also more open, visually, than the Gothic district, and less touristy. Most of the buildings were kind of sandy brown with colorful art and some plants added in, and there was more open air.
We discovered quickly that siesta is a totally real and fascinating thing, and that they’re not kidding about the mealtimes. We often found ourselves overly hungry before lunch, having only had a coffee and a croissant all day until 2pm, and then not able to do anything but digest after lunch because of the heat and the fact that sangria and lunch beer are things that you can have. Eventually we realized that it was better to have a ‘second breakfast’ around 11 of a small sandwich and another coffee, and to have something around happy hour before dinner, making more like five small meals.
I was mostly surprised at the food. I don’t have a lot of experience with Spanish anything–my exposure to the language comes through Mexican-American culture, so experencing it as a European thing was very different for me. I knew there would be paella and seafood, and I’ve had ‘tapas’ before, but in situations where it basically meant hors d’ouvres. What struck me most was the lack of variety, and it wasn’t for lack of trying. It seemed that every low- and middle-range restaurant had the exact same menu: for lunch it was five or six versions of paella, small baguette sandwiches called bocadillos, grilled sandwiches called bikinis, or a selection of meats with fries and ‘salad’ on the side, always the same–one or two types of fish, fried or grilled, fried calamari, some kind of steak or veal, or grilled chicken, all very diner-esque.
For dinner there was either the same, or ‘tapas’ and beer with small plates of patatas bravas, which are fried potato wedges served with aioli, charred green peppers, anchovies in oil, fried calamari, etc. In the more expensive range there were tapas menus for 25 euros, usually the same assortment of fish, sausages, charred peppers, potatoes with anchovies and pepper, sometimes octopus, sometimes croquettes. We did spring for this option one night and ended up splitting the dishes along meat/vegetarian lines, which meant that I got jamón ibérico, a really delicious beef paté, grilled pork, and three types of sausage for dinner. There were also tuna croquettes, potato salad with some kind of cream sauce, anchovies, and sauteed mushrooms, and a very nice house red wine.
And with everything, bread. White bread and potatoes and meat and oil. There were plenty of vegetables in the corner shops, but somehow they never seemed to make it onto our plates. Paella had tomato in it, and some onion and occasionally a bit of pepper, but the salads were all iceberg lettuce with a sprinkle of canned corn and shredded carrot, with no dressing to speak of, just oil and vinegar provided at the table (and not the best of either…).
Yes, we could have gone to more expensive restaurants. Yes, we could have gone to the few vegetarian restaurants we saw. Yes, I am complaining a little bit even though I subjected myself to this experience. It’s just one of those things that was a decision based on principle, and sometimes it’s better to stick out the experience.
One of the final evenings we were too tired to face yet another dinner out, so we stopped by a grocery store to pick up some basic munchies–bread, cheese, wine. A bag of plain green salad that we ate by the handful, just to get some vegetable fiber. We found one bottle of wine in the entire store that had a screw top (no corkscrew!) but could not find the bread. It was a moment of feeling absolutely bizarre, a lot like the first time I tried to find olive oil in Finland, looking through all the middle aisle of canned things and jarred things where it usually is in the US, and finally finding it next to the salad. We looked through the entire store probably four times, and then resigned to some sliced white-bread-looking bagged stuff from one of the aisles, until we came to the cash register and there, at the side wall right before the till–fresh baguette. Because of course it would be there, not next to the cheese counter or the cured meats counter or with all the other packaged bread. Or on an endcap or with the fresh produce. It’s at the till.
We did a lot of climbing hills and exploring. At one point we stumbled across a botanical garden of cactus which was exciting although it took several hours to find and then un-find, in the heat of the day and right before lunch. We walked through the park near the Gaudi museum and got a good view of the city, and we listened for a moment to a jazz band playing versions of the Game of Thrones theme song. We spent a whole day on the beach and got moderately sunburnt, which was unintentional but another check on the vacation cliche list.
The sand on the beaches was brilliantly, homogenously white and clean, and the beach sloped downward steeply at the edge of the water. My main contact with beaches has been the Outer Banks in North Carolina with long, gently sloping beaches, sand flowers and sea oats blowing in the wind, and stepping on burrs and tiny crabs and patches of seaweed. Other than that there was San Diego, too cold to swim in the winter and very grey and dirty, Brighton Beach in the UK–also too cold to swim in the summer, but we did it anyway and got bruised feet from clambering up slippery rocks, the beach in Paphos which was basically just rocks and water, and beaches in Helsinki, which are mainly rocks and seaweed (but we swim anyway). In Barcelona, the sand was beautifully clean, almost sterile-looking, as was the brilliantly blue water. The slope at the water’s edge led along a narrow shelf that sloped again dramatically, so that if you were only a dozen meters out from the edge of the wet sand you’d be in the water over your head. It was perfect for swimming, so we took turns in the water and reading on the dry sand.
In the morning there seemed to be a lot of locals, but then around lunch and siesta time they were replaced by tourists. It got a bit gusty in the early evening so we packed and had a beachy cocktail treat before heading back. I got fairly lightheaded before dinner, I think because as someone who doesn’t swim regularly, I didn’t realize how much energy it would use up and the late dinner times had my eating schedule all wonky. But dinner that night was good–we both had sea bass, I think, cooked whole in a metal pan with oil and potatoes and tomatoes (what else?!). The restaurant was really cute, decorated kind of like a crazy fishmonger’s grandmother’s house. It had nets hanging from the ceiling and bits of broken porcelain teacups and pots and saucers attached to them, and some funky art.
Everywhere in the tourist areas of Barcelona there were street vendors with white sheets spread out with rows of keychains, sunglasses, straw hats, bracelets, and umbrellas displaying earrings. They were present, in advertising, but they weren’t aggressive. On the beach and along the park walking paths they would walk around selling water bottles and cold beer, and in the plazas they had these glowing blue and purple toys that they would throw high up in the air and catch as they drifted down slowly, spinning. I guess those are the modern version of glow sticks.
I was kind of unsettled by the language at first, not realizing that Catalan would be so prevalent in not only the spoken language but also all the signage. We learned some food phrases–café con leche in Spanish is cafe amb llet in Catalan. I managed to try both xurros amb xocolata (churros with chocolate) and orxata de xufa (horchata made from tigernuts) and learned that I find any food spelled with an ‘x’ to be simply delightful, though the cafe workers can be a bit intimidating. I was really trying to hold out for gelato in Italy, but we ate a bit of ice cream and fruit popsicles that were everywhere–mine was mojito flavored and delicious although the sugar crystals exfoliated a layer off my taste buds. I had a ‘crema catalana’ flavored ice cream, which is I guess a Catalan version of creme brulee but tasted like eggnog.
The last night we took a sunset walk along the promenade on the harbor, and it was nice to have just a moment that seemed a bit quieter and more relaxed being out of the throng. Of course then we managed to find the one small restaurant terrace overrun with Americans and eavesdropped on all the conversations. They were to a person louder than everyone else and telling more personal stories in more emphatic tones than anyone else. I keep thinking there should be a name for this feeling of reverse culture shock within an environment of a different culture…it’s like the turducken of culture shock. It feels invasive and offensive, like I’ll be held responsible for their behaviour, and I want to hide and make friends with them at the same time.
I think this feeling is part of why I avoid Americans abroad, because sometimes I’m tempted to fall back into the comfort zone with them, and then we end up isolating ourselves from our environment and the people there. But then with others who have been outside of the US for as long as I have and longer, it’s an even more different feeling that we should be able to relate to each other more, but we don’t, because even though we share the trait of being expats, we’ve had our own very different paths in different places and have different reasons for how we got here. So in that sense I feel most comfortable in a more diverse group, knowing that any national cliques that form will necessarily be small and unsustainable and non-exclusive, and that everyone brings their own personal story to the table that no one else can invalidate.
That next Monday was a long day of travel. We ate some overpriced airport food and took a plane, a bus, and a train to the central station in Genoa. It was hard to find the BnB at first because some of the streets are not labelled well and it’s difficult to tell how far or long it will be from the map, which has odd shaped winding roads. We realized when we arrived that it’s because the roads are switchbacks; since Genoa was built from the harbor and creeping up the mountains inland. The easiest way to the BnB ended up going through an alley, up several winding back paths in a residential area , a block or two down a road at the top of one part of the hill, and then up the final hill… and then up two flights of stairs to get to the building. And then the elevator to the third floor. All in all, it was nearly 200 meters above the harbor, so we immediately decided only to come and go once a day.
Our ‘BnB’ turned out to be a charming large, Victorian-style apartment suite owned by an elderly lady and named for an old grey and white long-haired cat who had an expression on her face like she owned the whole city. The signora had a few extra rooms that she rents out to travelers, and she provides breakfast in the mornings. The place fascinated me, like a throwback to an earlier time, and was probably the one thing in Italy that really superceded my expectations for adventure and romance. She spoke only a few words of English, but we were able to get by. Like a stereotypical Italian grandmother, she was intent on making sure we ate pizza and visited her favorite spots in the city and was in the middle of baking a really delicious stracciatella cake when we arrived. She even called her favorite restaurant to see if they were open on our first night. Breakfast was at 8.30 every morning and she provided the cake, yogurt, cookies, and some dry toasts that came in a plastic package and we ate with butter and jam.
Her kitchen was my favorite part. She had a vintage yellow refrigerator and blue cabinets–that farmhouse country blue–and a collection of really interesting teapots and сafetières, magnets from all over the world, beautiful decorative plates on the walls, porcelain owls, and painted tiles behind the gas stove. It was airy and bright, mainly because there was a small terrace directly adjoining the kitchen and she always had the door wide open in the morning. Cactuses and succulents and tropical flowers and herbs and regular foliage plants took up most of the terrace; the rest was taken up by a plastic lawn chair where the cat would sit when we came for breakfast. The cat liked to eat with us, but when she was finished, she would take her seat again on the terrace. If you stood at the front of the terrace you could see out to sea and across the whole city to the mountains on the other side of the bay. It was a really homey and lovely way to start each day, and I decided to retire there and have one of these rooftop gardens with a brick pizza oven and host cocktail parties. I’m only sort of joking.
Our morning walks took us along the coast several blocks inland toward the old town. There was a financial district with huge Baroque buildings that had been turned into banks and others into galleries and small museums. One day we discovered that the Castello d’Albertis was only about a block from our BnB. From the inner wall it looked like a small garden and some brick, and there was an advertisement for the museum, but inside there were winding walkways with stunning views over the city and the harbor and fantastic architecture. We didn’t go into the museum, but it was a popular destination for school trips and dog walkers, and the grounds are nice enough that we didn’t feel like we missed too much.
I always like to check out parks and gardens–like markets, they feel centered and familiar. So one afternoon we went to check out the park of the Villetta de Negro, which turned out to be up a steep hill lined with stone, with stone walls to either side. When we got to the park entrance, there was a sign with some paragraphs and pictures about local trees, but no real historical information. There were a few trails leading even farther up, with very artfully designed wooden trellis railing along the paths that reminded me of elves or Ewok villages. As we wound our way forward, I noticed a lot of interesting plants, the kind of things I hadn’t seen before and which seemed to have been put there intentionally, but with no labels. There was on one side a tall, old-looking rock wall that had probably been some kind of reinforcement, and the trail wound around it heading upward. We came around a bend and saw what looked like aviary cages and caves in the rock wall that had been boarded and chained up, and it gave the area a kind of creepy aura. As we went on, we started to realize that this artful woodwork was not actually wood, but concrete dyed three different shades of brown and sculpted to look like realistic but stylized railings. Moreover, the natural rock wall coming off the stone fortification was not real rock either, but up close it looked like a set from Indiana Jones. There were plants placed strategically in cracks and holes, there were paths through the rock large enough to walk through that reminded me of children’s adventure zones. There were even shelves cut into the rock that looked just like they should be holding some booby-trapped relic.
At this point I was feeling very weird about this place. I get uncomfortable when things just don’t make sense. It’s one thing for decisions to be made based on what is easy, or cheap, or cobbled together from things already there. But in this case someone had to have made some deliberate decisions to do things the hard way, and it wasn’t really clear why these decisions had been made.
We came around another bend and found a manmade waterfall coming off the fake rock, some beautiful pink flowers I didn’t recognize that oddly smelled exactly like vanilla, and a sign which stated that this part of the park was dedicated by some guy to the Native Americans. Remember, this is in Italy. I still don’t know what connection this park has to Native Americans, but I thought that might explain the Indiana Jones theme.
A few more bends in the road, another hill, and we came to the top of the park. There was a little lookout gazebo again made of the concrete woodwork, some tall pines and a large open area with benches that was popular with loitering teens and dog owners. In the center of the open area was what looked like a fountain, with a statue of a naked cherub throttling some small animal, possibly a snake or eel (baby Hercules, perhaps??), but the pool part of the fountain was filled with decorative glass stones and three large half-dead potted plants. In another corner there was a bust on a pedestal, which sent my sense of unease into overdrive. The bust has its eyes burned out and the engraved phrase ‘la morte civile‘ on the pedestal, which Google tells me refers to a pre-19th century European legal practice of stripping civil rights from people convicted of a crime. It had a few names and dates engraved on it which were mostly unreadable.
Coming down the other side, we found a few more interesting plants, a few more statues, and a very unassuming long, narrow building in front of which was a terrace looking out over the city. Below I could make out a Roman garden with beautifully manicured fruit trees and stone mosaic walkways built into a gigantic lower terrace made of stone. I really wanted to check it out, but there seemed to be no way to get there. The long building turned out to be the Oriental botanical garden but it didn’t seem very popular. At the very end of the path there was a pond with some cute turtles in it and a big sign, again with no useful information.
Later I tried to do some reading about the park and wasn’t able to find much. I gathered that the large stone wall was in fact some very old city fortifications which had been the site of a botanical garden in the 1700s. I’m happy to see that the interesting plants are still there, but I wish there had been some information in the actual park. Apparently during one of the world wars the area had been bombed, but in the 1970’s it was rebuilt as a menagerie (so the aviary was in fact an aviary) and styled as a ‘fairy garden,’ which explains the odd design. And now it’s a very weird public park. I’m not sure why it made me so uneasy. I guess it was the combination of all these efforts that seemed to be important but that had been abandoned with no explanation.
The walking was always tiring, and one day we ended up a bit lost in a residential district. The inland part of town is sort of built on many different levels all jumbled together, so you can be on a ground floor but higher than the upper floor of the apartment next door. The roads twisted and wound up and down these hills in switchbacks cut through with pedestrian staircases, but I was never quite sure where we were going to end up. It must be a nightmare to drive, and after reading about the demographic of the city being in large part elderly people involved in the financial industry, it made sense that they had installed elevators at different parts of the city with convenient connections. It made for some stunning views though, the apartment blocks and rooftop terraces layered in interesting ways, and the mountains in the distance.
If anything in Genoa convinced me to plan on going again, it was the market hall, and the idea that I could rent a flat with a kitchen. It didn’t look like a market at first, just a long, tall building in the same style as the big financial buildings nearby–a combination of Victorian and neo-Baroque architecture. But inside there were cheese counters, stalls of meat both fresh and cured, fishmongers with beautiful octopus, huge marlins and steaks of swordfish and tuna, bream and mackerel and piles of fat sardines; there were sprawling tables full of vegetables and fruits that are expensive or unavailable in Finland–fresh corn on the cob, big green beans and yellow wax beans and speckled cranberry beans and purple long beans, eggplants of every size and shape and color, huge bulgy tomatoes, fresh ripe peaches and grapes, melons, herbs. Then there were the fresh pasta counters. They had big bowls of fresh pasta behind the glass, all shapes and colors, at least half of which I had never seen before.
I took a photo of the banner outside but it never occurred to me to take one inside. I’ve never taken a photo inside any of the other markets I’ve been to either. For me, markets are sacred spaces of humanity where people buy and sell things that everyone needs, they keep in touch and catch up and eat and drink and walk and learn and trade. They are the great equalizer.
When we were in Barcelona, one day we ended up in a district called El Born and wandered around the Center of Culture. It was a big, old-looking metal-frame building with a sunken floor in the middle, so you walked around the edges on a sort of permanent scaffold. There were a few extra installations, like an exhibit about the history of censored album art which was interesting, mainly just to see the different reasons for censorship based on what else was going on in the world politically and socially. In the middle of the floor several meters down was an archaeological dig site, and around the platform there were multiple large signs explaining the history of the area. It turns out that this site was an old part of the city which was demolished in the early 18th century because of war. The market hall was built in the late 19th century and survived as a wholesale market until the 1970’s. Some construction projects were planned in the early 2000’s but they discovered the ruins and decided to excavate the site and use the original iron market hall structure to protect the site and serve as a space for exhibitions and cultural events. I was just amazed at being able to be in the space that people had been going about their business, in such a different world and yet knowing they had the same thoughts and worries, essentially, as I do.
I had this feeling again in Genoa as we explored the old town and did our own research, reading that the harbor area dates all the way back to the Etruscans, and later, the Greeks in the 5th and 6th centuries BC. It gave me shivers to walk through those streets and know that people have been using these same walls and streets and shops, that people have been buying and selling and chatting and living in this same space for thousands of years. I loved seeing the textile shops and shoe shops and tiny bakeries and little fruit stands, even the graffiti on crumbling painted walls and buying a woven cotton towel or a snack. I loved feeling that these basic human things, to trade and work and socialize, have been happening in this place for so long. Sometimes in old places, or places where something important has happened, you can just feel it–it feels like there are memories attached to the setting. Maybe we dress differently and speak a different language, but we’re all people, and they were people just like us. I loved feeling like I was adding my own little bit of history to the place, even if it was preserved only in my memory.
We found the house and garden of Christopher Columbus after walking past it accidentally. It really doesn’t look like much and is mostly covered in plants, but the square with columns in the backyard was almost unreal–it looked like a set from a high-budget play. Even in photos I thought it looks more like an oil painting than real life. It was like a metaphor for traveling: not finding what we set out to find, but stumbling across things that are beautiful in really unexpected ways.
There were, thankfully, more vegetables in Genoa (and not only in the market!), but what struck me there was the conspicuous absence of basil. We had enough pasta and pizza to last a lifetime and only in the famous Genovese pesto was there any basil at all–in nothing else, not even in the caprese! To someone who equates basil and tomatoes and mozzarella with Italy, it came as a surprise. We did eat a lot of pizza, and it was good, but it really wasn’t my favorite. We tried several different styles and the toppings tended towards meat and salty cheese or veggie and bland. I had mainly pasta for lunch; most places had a first course of a small serving of pasta and a second course of something else that was hot, like meatballs or grilled chicken with vegetables, or fish. I had some really delicious ravioli once with tiny prawns, and a similar filled pasta with pesto, and arrabiata and carbonara and penne alla bolognese. It was all extremely simple, no added vegetables, no garnish at all–nothing fancy or even Instagrammable. To the vindication of my countrymen, finely grated parmesan cheese was served on the side (but still, please grate fresh rather than using that shake bottle!). But the pasta was my favorite just because you could tell the difference between the fresh, handmade pasta and the dry supermarket brands in the shops. Fresh pasta has a different texture when cooked al dente, more of a toothiness to it without getting overly starchy and without retaining that awful crunch of dry pasta cooked a little too al dente. And I think it takes the sauce better than dry pasta, since the starch is still fresh and active on the surface of the pasta–it mixes better and makes a silkier texture.
And of course we had gelato a few times. I think my favorite was one that I don’t remember the name of, but it was kind of a cream flavor with different kinds of dried fruits and tiny chocolate chips mixed in. I’m also partial to the nocciola (hazelnut) flavor. I got a surprisingly fancy affogato one afternoon, which had been something on my to-eat list. One evening wandering through the old town we stopped for an apertivo and got a tray of small snacks. There were regular potato chips, which seemed common, but also some small round almond-flavored flaky pastry with tomato sauce and olives, and some focaccia with tomato. My favorite was this spinach and cheese torta, very similar to Greek spanakopita but done with a puff pastry instead of phyllo and made into a round pie shape, then cut into several bite-sized pieces. I could have eaten about five of them. The last morning we stopped by one of many focaccia shops on the way to the train station and got a chunk of plain focaccia as a traveling snack. Even after having basically eaten just refined carbs for a week and a half, I really enjoyed that bread.
But I think what struck me the most was just the realization that there is no magic to Italian food, any more than there is some exotic magic to the country itself. I think we Americans tend to romanticize the unknown–I’ve heard many people say they would love to visit or live in Paris, in Venice, in London. It all does sound very romantic and it’s easy to have only the pretty pictures from the brochure (and social media) in your head. But life is not a resort no matter where you are, every city has its romance and its gritty bits, its old-world charm and new-world innovation and a sense of boredom and cheapness. Behind the beautiful photos are people begging on the street, dirty alleys, dark winding paths, sweat, disappointment, commercialism, and artifice. Just like relationships are never as perfect as they seem, neither are lives in their entirety, or even vacations. I really think it’s important to remember that.
The magic, I think, is made within the self. For Italian food, it’s just about the quality of the ingredients and mastering a few simple techniques. You need good olive oil, good bread, good fresh pasta. Good tomatoes. And some salt. And that seems to be about it. Don’t overcook things, don’t try too hard. Respect the ingredients. Respect yourself. And don’t expect the magic to perform for you.
The best travel memories I have are from the simplest things, when I wasn’t expecting the magic to happen. In Paris, I wrote about the best meal I had in a tiny cafe on a back road, simple, honest food. In Cyprus, I wandered along the beach kicking at stones and watching the sunset, chatting with a guy who was doing the same. We never exchanged names. In Iceland, I had two cups of tea made from lichen and herbs, to cut the richness of smoked trout and cream and to warm my hands. In London, sipping a mediocre cappuccino with a book in Southbank, looking out over the Thames in the autumn and watching the trees change color. In Beijing, I shared a pot of tea in a shop with the girl who sold me my yixing tea pot and cups–sweating in the heat and with no language in common but a love of tea. In Helsinki, the simple joys of summer after a long cold dark winter, sitting silently with friends eating sweet peas and wild berries and breathing the fresh air, smelling rye bread in the morning. And in Ohio, knowing the gently rolling hills, the fields swaying with corn stalks and tobacco and beans, the thin treeline borders, the strong late summer grass smell that fills the air and reminds me of back-to-school season. All these things are magic than cannot be performed or demanded, photographed or really even described properly. This kind of magic is never disappointing because it’s never expected, and it’s unique because it’s meaningful only to you.
I’m always reminded when I travel of how different it is to visit somewhere and to live there. When you visit, even for weeks and months, you have a wall put up around you, a sort of social and cultural bubble. You don’t have to deal with immigration, you aren’t dependent on that country for your life and livelihood, and you probably aren’t really dependent on it for anything else, either–not shopping daily in the local grocery or seeing how the people there live. I keep being reminded in Finland that no matter how long I live somewhere, I never stop being surprised by new things to learn about the culture.
In the search of the authentic experience I think sometimes we fall into the trap of trying too hard to realize our own fantasy expectations. It’s not reasonable, or ethical, to demand that the people we are visiting perform their culture for us, for our amusement. In some ways we don’t deserve to see it, if we’re only tourists and our only motive is to have the social cred of having experienced something authentic. Tourism is an industry because it tries to boil down a culture into easily swallowed, mass-produced bits, and while that makes it less special, it doesn’t really make it less authentic. And as global cultures modernize, what is authentic becomes more about the small differences and about paying attention to what people really do, how people really live, even if it means that they’re incorporating this international culture. Even if it means it’s not the experience you expected, which is why it’s so important to find your own magic.
I try to be conscious of this kind of tourism when I travel. I try not to look like a tourist, both for my own safety and out of respect for the privacy of the locals, and I think in return I get a more everyday experience. In many places I don’t take any photos at all, because it puts up that wall around me. It feels like intruding on a private space of life, something that can be shared with me only if I record it in organic, rather than digital, memory. There is something about being in front of a camera that makes it a performance, and something about being behind a camera that makes you a spectator, not someone interacting in the moment.
And mostly, what I learn time and time again is that people are the same everywhere, even underneath what can feel like, in the moment, a new and sometimes unsettling experience. We stopped by a grocery store one evening to get some water and snacks, intending to sit by the harbor to watch the sunset. While we were waiting at the cheese counter, a drunk man came up behind us and started a lively conversation with the woman at the cheese counter and the man who was ordering before us. The cheese woman seemed to know the drunk man and gave us a knowing glance, and after some friendly banter she managed to get him to move along. While she was packing up our cheese, she leaned forward conspiratorily and told us, in Italian with enough hand gestures for us to get the point, that this Paolo was a local character who had apparently had a good deal of wealth at some point but had wasted it all and now spends his days drinking. She was glad to gossip with us and the man buying foccacia before us, and as we turned away she was shouting to one of the cashiers across the shop.
It was one of those moments that makes me feel like people are just people. I could have been in Helsinki in that moment, talking to the cheese ladies in Hakaniemi, or in Cleveland at West Side Market, or at Findlay Market in my hometown, or Borough Market in London. Or I could have been anywhere in the world–the language, the details don’t matter. The details are different, but cheese ladies are the same everywhere.
As always when I travel, I’ve been thinking a lot about the self. This trip has been very different both because it’s the first real trip I’ve taken for no other reason than to vacation–no conferences, no family to visit, it wasn’t a stop-off on the way to somewhere else, and I had no reason to choose the places I went other than I wanted to go there. But it was also different because this time, I wasn’t alone.
As someone who travels alone (almost) exclusively, it was a very different experience. Luckily my traveling companion is like-minded and likewise low key, in addition to being great company, so it wasn’t a struggle to decide on activities. I think the most impactful difference wasn’t even really about traveling, it’s just an effect of the way I approach cooperative work and it highlighted to me things I need to work on.
One of my biggest professional struggles is group work–it always has been. When I was younger I was even more of a control freak than I am now and I would take over projects, comfortable with doing more than my fair share because I knew my best work would earn the highest grade. I couldn’t take the risk of trusting groupmates who might not hold up their end of the work. In hindsight, this is really a terrible approach to cooperation and closed me off to a lot of learning how to work together with people who have different skills and ideas than me. In college I realized that the most efficient way for me to cooperate was to delegate. If we split up the duties ahead of time, I can do what I’m responsible for (and the work that has my name on it) and you’re responsible for your tasks, and they contribute to the same project goal but the work and credit are kept very distinct. This isn’t ideal either, and as a result, it’s difficult for me to work simultaneously on the same task while figuring out how to work with someone else’s different style.
In this case, I found myself either wanting to take total control of a situation, like deciding where to eat or keeping track of travel times/tickets/etc. or completely not keeping track of anything relating to that particular situation. It’s easier to just mentally check out and let someone else figure out the details than it is to actually work together, doublecheck times and train stations and make decisions together. And I realized that was because this working together on tasks I usually do myself felt invasive–it brought up the opportunity for disagreement.
The self is the hardest thing to hold on to because it’s always changing. It’s like trying to watch the landscape from a fast moving train–easy to believe that the things close to you never change because they’re just a blur of color, while the things far in the distance take form and organization that makes sense. When I’m traveling alone I think I put on an adventure face and I’m in charge of everything. And I have a lot of time to myself, in my own head. I spend a lot of time noticing things and thinking, and figuring out how I fit in to this new part of the world that I’ve discovered.
I do sometimes get lonely traveling by myself, and wish that I had someone with me to experience the same things. But I didn’t realize until now that I also kind of relish the fact that my stories and pictures are only my perspective of the things I’ve experienced, and in a way, I get to be the expert on them. They’re special because it’s only me, only that one time, and that event is unique in the universe. I can wander based only on my own intuitions, and that means I can take credit for the things I discover.
One of the most important parts of my identity, to me, is my ability to be alone. I’ve always been more introverted and a more independent thinker, always a fan of going on adventures and scouting ahead. In adulthood that has manifested in moving abroad alone and frequently traveling alone. It is something I enjoy and while it is difficult, it’s something that I’m proud of being able to do and proud of getting good at it. Some of that is just my nature to be attracted to novelty, and some of that is a groundedness that I’ve tried to cultivate in myself to deal with stress and anxiety. It’s taken me a long time to develop this self that is very comfortable being alone and feeling complete in who I am, alone.
So having to depend on another person in these situations made me uncomfortable, like I was losing part of myself. Losing control, losing the part of myself that makes me most confident. Traveling with company means I need to listen to someone else’s intuitions, share experiences with someone who might have a different perspective than me, or even worse, who might not feel the same way about those experiences. They become something that we share, and just like anything else that’s shared, it can be damaged or have bad energy attached to it. You lose some control when you share things.
But, I’m learning, you also make things more powerful when they’re shared. You do things you might not have done alone. Some experiences become even more special, more memorable. Stories become more interesting, souvenirs become more meaningful. Not all of them, not everytime, not for both of you the same. But when there is something special that’s shared, I think there is some unexpected magic in that.