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Just Be Yourself

Just Be Yourself

Travel broadens us. It can’t be helped. Even if, like most of us, you just hit the tourist attractions – you know, the Empire State Building, the Field Museum, the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China, Alcatraz, Yosemite and the like – you still will find yourself inevitably changed by the experience.

Most of us don’t think of going to a grocery store when we travel, but to me that is one of the most fascinating places to people watch. For one thing, even if you go to the huge chains you get an idea of what’s locally available although it’s far better to go to a smaller market along the lines of a Trader Joe’s or a Fresh Choice. However, the big attraction for me is seeing people living their lives without having them put on their “I’m in a tourist area” face.

I do think we tend to feel more comfortable in a grocery store. We let down our guard a little bit. After all, we’re getting our sustenance. Generally, it’s a pleasant thing to do – although if you are on a limited budget it can be excruciating, particularly when you see someone waltzing out with two fully loaded carts. Still, you get a sense of people in their homes.

It is places like grocery stores, pubs and local burger joints that you catch people in the act of being themselves. Think about it – how much likely are you to be yourself when you are in a place that’s as familiar and as comfortable as your own home, and what fits that description better than the places that you hang out in regularly? Are you more likely to make friends with an out of town visitor at some tourist attraction or sitting next to them at your neighborhood tavern?

That’s one of the reasons I prefer to eat at local hangouts rather than at national chains. Sure, I love eating in fine restaurants with signature dishes and sometimes. an eatery becomes so associated with a location that it becomes something of a tourist attraction in itself (see The Lady and Me in Savannah, or the Carnegie Deli in New York). Still, I like eating where people know each other. Maybe the food isn’t five star but the experience is. It is what it means to be a tourist, to learn something about what people do in other places. It generally isn’t that far off from what we do ourselves but there are some subtle differences.

Catching people living their lives helps you attain a level of comfort you don’t generally reach when you’re doing the tourist thing. It helps you, in fact, to be yourself. Recently while visiting Phoenix we stopped in a grocery store and while I waited for other members of my party to finish their shopping, I got to observe people doing what they do on a regular basis – pick out the goodies they were going to nibble on in front of the TV, the meal they were going to cook that night, the sale items that were too irresistible to pass up. Isn’t that what life is, the little things?

I’m not saying don’t go and see the Grand Canyon, or avoid going to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art, or the Coliseum in Rome. These are things that should be seen; I can’t tell you how my life was changed by experiencing the Great Wall of China or how my perspective was changed by the magnificent Redwoods in Northern California. These things should be part of your trip.

But why go to a place if all you’re going to do is follow a guidebook somebody else wrote? Why not blaze your own trail? Talk to a local and ask them where you should eat, what places you should go, which beach is less crowded or more affable towards children. Guidebooks are helpful but they shouldn’t be your sole source of information. Research shouldn’t just consist of getting on the internet and doing a Google search for  whatever destination you have in mind, be it Atlanta, Alberta or Albania.

The best travel memories I have are mainly of going off the beaten path and interacting with a place that I’m in – not the glittering casinos and fine restaurants of the Las Vegas strip but the hole in the wall that a bartender recommended off in Henderson – and again that’s not to say that my time in those casinos, resorts and fine dining establishments haven’t been memorable but it’s always the real unexpected joys that you always remember.

Our time on this Earth is limited and as it is we spend far more time working than we probably should. We need to see the world. We need to explore new places. We need to try new things. Otherwise, we grow stagnant and stale, like a cake doughnut sitting too long in the shelf. Who wants that when they can have a fresh doughnut with yummy chocolate filling and a pomegranate-citrus frosting?

Travel helps us expand our horizons. It helps us define our worldview and adjust it upon occasion. More importantly, it helps us by discovering the world around us do something unexpected – discovering who we ourselves are. The best thing about travel is that it teaches us how to just be ourselves and what better lesson is there to learn than that?


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