How To Travel

Differently than the masses with their damn selfie sticks and incessant, narcissistic staged photographs in front of every god forsaken tourist landmark.

Call me hopelessly out of touch. A Luddite. A curmudgeon. A Luddite curmudgeon. Sticks and stones.

Dammit though, when exactly did everyone substitute smart phones for brains?! And my frame of reference was early April, I can’t imagine summer in European cities.

If you live in the US, what would you point a 21st century de Tocqueville to if he or she wanted to understand what life in the (dis)United States is really like? Disney World, the Las Vegas Strip, the National Mall in Washington, DC? If you live outside the US, what would you point someone to if they wanted to begin understanding life in your country in a short period of time?

The trap people fall into is being able to say they’ve seen the most popular places. Others travel in pursuit of good weather, or as a temporary respite from their hectic work lives, or to break out of the mundaneness of their lives.

I’m different, those things don’t motivate me. Not better, just different. I’m most interested in observing and reflecting on what ordinary day-to-day life is like in other places. And then thinking about similarities and differences with my life. I find ordinary aspects of daily life endlessly interesting.

How do parents interact with children? Gently, kindly, absent-mindedly? How much freedom are children and adolescents given? When alone, how do they play together?

Is there much community? How do people create it? In Spain, they go to Tapas bars and eat, drink Sangria, and talk late into the night. No introverts need apply, which probably explains why my application for dual citizenship was summarily denied.

I’d counsel a foreign visitor to the U.S. to skip the big city tourist magnets and instead live for a week or two in a few small to medium sized cities in different parts of the country. Like Marion, Ohio; Valparaiso, Indiana; Seal Beach, California, or Olympia, Washington for example. Attend a school play, get a day pass to the YMCA, attend Olympia’s Arts Walk and Procession of the Species. Go to Vic’s Pizzeria and while eating watch how families interact with one another. At Vic’s, almost always, I’m inspired by the care adults show one another and their children. So much so, I can’t help but think positively about the future. Our politics are hellish at present, but we’ll be okay.

Families—in all their myriad forms—are the building blocks of society, and therefore, a key to understanding any particular place. Whether home or abroad, I’m always eavesdropping on families, in restaurants, in church, in fitness centers, in parks.

How to travel? Go to the world famous museum, ancient city, or cathedral if you must, but resist a steady diet of tourist magnets, instead seek alternative, off-the-beaten-path places as windows into daily life. If my experience is any guide, your life will be enriched by taking the roads less traveled.

Like the Triana farmer’s market in Seville, Spain, where I sat for a long time watching a sixty something father and mother and their thirty something son, cut, wrap, and sell meat to a cross-section of Seville. It was artistry, the way they shared the small space, made eye contact with customers, talked them up, and effortlessly moved product. The son has to take over for the parents at some point, right? He’s a handsome dude with a winsome smile. Does he have a life/business partner to team with? Will he?

Or the small plaza in front of the Sophia Reina Museum in Madrid where school children played a spirited hybrid game of soccer and volleyball while dodging the occasional passerby. Dig that 11 year old girls vicious jump serve. How did she get so athletic so young? A natural. Will she become another great Spanish athlete on the world scene?

Then again, when it comes to alternative tourism, it may be dangerous following my lead. I have 9 pictures from our 11 days in Spain. If someone discovered that at Passport Control at JFK airport in New York, they probably would’ve shredded my passport.

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Another pro tip: always travel with smiley peeps

 

 

 

Still Watching

A follow up to my brilliant “In Defense of Eavesdropping” post from yesteryear. Well, if not brilliant, clever?

I am still watching you.

In particular on airplanes. Think the proliferation of e-readers makes eavesdropping more difficult? Wrong. I’m spying your e-book between the gap between the seats. Steinbeck huh, nice choice.

Too much curiosity to stop.

Based on a quick glance at his iPhone, Skater Dude next to me on the plane was listening to NPR podcasts. Disappointed I couldn’t make out any titles. And come on dude, update your apps already. A fiftyish woman one row up and in the aisle seat is in almost full view. Classy dresser, designer glasses, reading the New York Times Magazine during take-off. A young Diane Keaton maybe? Not even close. Diane Keaton would be reading a script right? Fiftyish Woman played Angry Birds and other stupid games on her iPhone the entire flight. Same with Tatted Up Guy sitting next to Steinbeck Reader.

All this while watching Bridesmaids on Nineteen’s laptop from across the aisle. Add mad multitasking skills to my list of amazing attributes. Eldest was even nice enough to offer up an earpiece for the funniest scenes. And all this people and movie watching while finally finishing up True Wealth by Juilet Schor.

Reading about environmental degradation, economics, and sustainability is a great deterrent to eavesdropping, but our privacy is sacrificed the second we step outdoors (and of course, connect to the internet). Near the end of lunch at the San Luis Obispo California Pizza Kitchen (vegetarian with japanese eggplant) I asked about directions to Art’s Cyclery. On the way out a woman at the adjacent table said, “I heard you asking where Art’s Cyclery is located. They’ve moved. My daughter looked it up on her phone. Here you go.”

Once outside, Sixteen and I spontaneoulsy did a little jig titled “Completely Weirded Out.” Karma is real. What goes around, comes around.

In Defense of Eavesdropping

I can’t help myself.

If I’m waiting for an airplane, eating at a restaurant, walking out of a movie, setting up at a triathlon, I tend to listen in to other people’s conversations going on around me. Awhile ago, when eating out, my better half “caught me” smiling at someone else’s conversation and shot me her elementary teacher “disappointed in you” look. I suspect she would prefer it if I focused lovingly on her eyes all the time, waiting patiently for whenever whatever is communicated. 

But her disapproval is misguided because eavesdropping is a form of curiosity, a positive attribute. 

Admittedly, one’s curiosity in the form of eavesdropping can take publicly acceptable and unacceptable forms. I don’t sneak onto the phone as family members are taking calls, I don’t sneak into their email accounts, and I don’t move closer to you at the airport or in the restaurant so that I can hear your conversation. 

One reason I don’t do those things is I don’t have to. To generalize, relative to many other people around the world, Americans are loud, so a lot of times people consciously make their conversations public. I trust you’ve met Loud Cellphone Person once or twice. “I’M DOWN AT THE GATE! Pause. WHEAT! ONION! GREEN PEPPER! BUT NOT TOASTED!” I’m not as fond of eavesdropping on LCP because 1) the content is usually inane and 2) I don’t like having to imagine what LCP’s friend is contributing to the conversation. It’s like watching Serena hit the ball without Venus on the other side.

Listening to talk radio is a form of eavesdropping. Reading is a form of eavesdropping on other people in other places and other times. When we go to a theater, pay $10 to see a film, we sit down with a hundred other people and in essence say, “Let’s all eavesdrop together, shall we?” Why is listening to the radio, reading and watching film, all windows of sorts into other people’s lives, perfectly okay, but listening into a conversation in the chairs, booth, lobby, or bike rack next to me is not? I don’t think all the people on the radio, in print, and on film have given their implied consent.

When I listen in to what other people are saying, and by extension thinking, I’m expanding my perspective on the different ways people interpret their surrounding and make sense of the world. It’s a natural activity of a social being. 

All of us do it, in different forms and to different degrees.

I’m okay, you’re okay.