Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Grand Tour 2014: Some Post-Mortem Navel-Gazing


It's a nice callback to the beginning of this trip that once again, it's on a plane where I'm doing some of my writing. Unlike the common perception of an airplane (a fast, straight line), I'm sure this blog entry is going to meander all over the place. My hope is that I might somehow manage to keep it roughly inside the lines, and the final result might look a little like our plane's course on the map, a long, curved arc that still ends up where it intends to go. Fair warning though: this is all stream-of-consciousness, and there is no auto-pilot, so be prepared for a bumpy ride.

We're flying over the ice fields of Greenland right now, huge glaciers squeezing between perilously steep mountains, all covered with a sporadic sprinkling of clouds. From this altitude it looks like a vastly exaggerated version of home, a reminder that snow-capped mountains are just a few hours away. Behind us in England we leave two very good fellows: one who showed us everything London had to offer, and who had the willingness to indulge our pedantic questions about anything and everything; and another who showed us uncommon patience and kindness, but who was willing to set aside politeness in the exact moment when a lack of manners was the greatest friendship he could offer. They both helped make England a far better experience than we would have managed on our own. Neither of them can truly be considered 100% "British", the former due to a circumstance of birth, the later due to truly earning the label "well-traveled". In spite of that, they both were a testament to the country they call home, and we were lucky to have them looking out for us.

In an hour or so we'll head out again over the North Atlantic, before smoothly sliding down into the northern reaches of Canada. It's the first "foreign country" I visited in my life, but I never really appreciated the place until I made friends with people there. Like most Americans, I saw it as a weird, slightly backward version of America, and for the most part I didn't usually think about it at all. Once I made friends there, though, that all changed. I can't say "I understand Canada now", since that's just presumptuous as hell, but I can say that I've begun to see why it's a place that inspires such fierce pride in its citizens, even if they do get a bit embarrassed and apologetic whenever they start feeling too patriotic. Hell, I teared up a little when they played "Oh Canada" before the exhibition soccer game against the Seattle Sounders, and then immediately felt mildly embarrassed about the outburst of emotion.

I'm sure you might be asking at this point, "what the hell does Canada have to do with your trip to New York and England?" It has everything to do with our trip.

After a few years of visiting Canada once or twice a year and befriending Canadians I met there, I started to think that maybe, possibly, it was someplace I'd want to make home someday. Even after John McCain lost the presidential race, I'd play with the idea in my head. I really loved Canada. After visiting Thailand, I had a brief period of desperately wanting to move there, to experience all the amazing food and incredible weather and beautiful temples. Thankfully, Thailand was an easy love to shake, since the idea of moving that far away seemed crazy and unreal. But Canada? That seemed possible.

But then it happened: on our way back from Canada, we visited Manhattan for two days, and I fell in love all over again. Here was a city that had the huge buildings and dense downtown of Toronto times ten! It's a city that never stops moving, with a million things to do or see, and a million more are invented by the time you've seen half of the first batch. After spending the first week of our current trip in New York, I was even more convinced. Canada is amazing, it's true, but this is a place I could see living in someday!

Then we arrived in England.

No, I did not fall in love with England, although if I had visited it before one of the other two, I would have been immediately smitten with the country. No, it was England that made me realize something about why travel is so incredibly valuable, why I'm beginning to think that it's almost essential if you value your mental health.

I've mentioned before the saying that there are two types of people in the world: the first type see the world as a dangerous place to be feared, full of people out to victimize and attack you. The second type see the world as an amazing place to be enjoyed, full of people who generally just want to be healthy and happy and content. The punchline to the saying is that because of the way they approach the world, both types of people get exactly the world that they expected.

I'd like to think of myself as the second type, and England made me realize that the love I felt for Canada and New York and England was the love you feel for amazing places you've visited. It doesn't mean you need to move there, but it does mean that when I sit at home in Seattle, I can feel happier knowing that all those wonderful places exist out there in the world, even if I'm not there right then. I can think of the pub in Callander where we ate haggis and talked to the day-drinkers, and smile with the knowledge that the charming drunk lady we met is probably sitting there right now, smiling and reminiscing about her teenage trips to Blackpool and all the ruckus she used to raise. I can remember the great little diner in Greenwich Village, with the broken payphone and the yellowed menus, and smile with the knowledge that they're still slinging that amazing hash and serving those delicious, generous piles of bacon on the side. I can think back to the waiter in Quebec who took it very seriously when we asked for "really good poutine", and the night market vendor in Bangkok who looked at me like I was crazy when I asked him if the $5 Gucci cufflinks were authentic, and the Olympics "ambassador" in Vancouver who made very sure that we were having a good time in his country. I can remember having to climb a wall of ice (it was a very short wall), and stomp through deep snow (it wasn't that deep) to visit the statue of Nicola Tesla at Niagara Falls in Canada, or think about dodging taxi cabs on a mad dash bicycle ride in Manhattan, or having a celebratory pint of cider after visiting a video game company that was adamant about not having time to talk (but whose employees were generous and friendly, and who spent over an hour chatting with me).

Maybe that last paragraph doesn't make sense. In fact I'm almost positive it doesn't make sense. The argument I'm trying to make is that part of the reason to travel is to build up this mental library of neat places you've seen, not just to say you've seen them or to cross them off a list, but to fondly remember how great those places were, and to realize that they're still out there right now, just constantly... well, being great! Maybe as you see more and more of the world, you start to feel that in spite of its many flaws, the world is actually a pretty amazing place, full of great people and cool things and amazing food and incredible art.

Or maybe that's all bullshit, and none of this makes sense to anyone but me. But if that's the case, my only regret is that I can't convey the idea well enough for you to believe in it. Whether my day is going great or is shaping up to be a complete wreck, I can always sit back and close my eyes and smile, knowing that all those incredible places are out there right now, waiting for me to visit again, or discover them for the first time. It's waiting for you too, whether it's England or New York or the town twenty miles down the road that you've never visited, but heard that they have great pizza. The world is an amazing place, and knowing that makes life back home a few percentage points better.

And that, that extra few percent, is more than worth the price of admission.

1 comment:

  1. As someone else who has seen much of the world this all makes perfect sense. And there is a certain wisdom in what you say here.

    Damn that was deep of me. =)

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