Asian Art Museum, Cal Academy of Sciences, de Young Museum, escape, grow, Hockney, learn, Legion of Honor, London, museum, Ocean Beach, San Jose Museum of Art, Saturdays Surf NYC, silicon valley, travel, whogoeswear

The Problem With Using Travel as a Means of Escape

Impact Hub Westminster, London

Last year, a member of my team quit to travel the world. She would leave behind most of her possessions, with only a first destination in mind, and no return date or location.

For a risk-averse, routine-seeking person like me, her news was mostly shocking. I wondered how she would ground her thoughts if she was always on the go, how she would appease the stress of travel anxiety, how she would deal if she got sick, how she planned to find a job upon her return, how she would support herself financially, and most importantly, how she would combat the pressure of making the most of her time. But buried even deeper beneath these “mom” questions, was a worrisome question about myself: Was I missing that special gene for worldly curiosity? I had, after all, no desire to do something similar.

Though hers is an exciting story, it isn’t a unique one in my circle. There’s one whose South American backpacking trip starts this November, one who is currently visiting her third city, two who returned from a year in Southeast Asia, and just this week, I met one who knew only that he was presently in London, with no guess as to when or to where his travels would end.

Extending to travel in the more conventional sense — a weekend trip within the country or a half-a-month trip to Africa — I could say that most people I know use travel as a way to break up their lives.

If it’s right for you, there is nothing wrong with this, with travel for travel’s sake.

Sunset at Ocean Beach, San Francisco

During a conversation early this year, an overworked Silicon Valley employee told me, “Work is crazy. I need to get away so I can rest.” His statement was problematic for two reasons. First, he saw no opportunity to rejuvenate himself in his own hometown, and second he thought somehow the work left behind would disappear before his return. More than a means of exploration, travel, for him, was a means of escape.

He is not unique in thinking this way. For most of us, it is too easy to associate travel’s physical departure with the opportunity for mental departure.

That same overworked guy then asked, “Do you have any travel planned?” When his question was met with a dismissive shrug and “no,” he was visibly alarmed. “So you don’t like to travel,” he decided, clearly wondering whether I was actually alive inside. He was not right, but he was not entirely wrong.

I like to travel, but I do not need to travel, especially for his reasons. Perhaps because I cannot compartmentalize my thoughts, perhaps because I have seen both the good and bad of life’s realities follow me abroad, travel is not my “getaway.” And if travel is meant to inspire, to grow, and to teach, I do not always need to hop on a plane to enjoy its benefits.

***

So far this year, I have made ten museum visits. Eight were in the San Francisco area, where I have lived for the better part of twenty-six years. From the history of Bulgari to the iPad art of Hockney to the pottery of Korea to thing paint strokes of European Impressionists, I have seen the world from my backyard (here’s how I could afford it). And in some ways, it has been less stressful than the museum pressures that accompany travel. Reminding myself that I could always return, I moseyed through each slowly, often by myself, stopping where I wanted and leaving when I needed.

I always left fulfilled.

Hockney at de Young Museum, San Francisco
Levinthal at San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose
Intimate Impressionism at Legion of Honor, San Francisco
Rain Forest at California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco
Gorgeous at Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

***

Print publications of Livefyre customers

This week, I am in London for work. In my first hours here, I accepted that despite being in LONDON, my travel would not be romantic (though I do love meeting with customers). Instead, it would be packed with the everyday craziness of work, the stress of navigating an unfamiliar city, the pressure of learning and practicing local business etiquette, and the struggle of dealing with an 8-hour time difference. It would be business-fun, not pleasure-fun. I still managed a lunch at Borough Market and a knock at Charles Dickens’ door, but there was no “escape” from my day-to-day.

In fact, the absence of escape allowed me to discover London in a way I never would have otherwise.

Entrance to The News UK

In commuting to work with Londoners, meeting with product managers who may as well be product managers at startups in the Valley, and paying for groceries at the self-service kiosks just as I do at Safeway, it was oddly comforting to see how life is not “easier” or “better” just because you live in some romantic European city.

Though work travel does not afford “escape” as an option to begin with, I would go so far (as far as London, at least) as to say that no travel’s purpose should be escape. Traveling for the right reasons — to grow, to understand, to rest, to learn — will move you forward. But travel to escape will only bring you back where you started, problems and all.

Friday night, after three hours on a train and two three hour meetings, I went to the British Museum. Rather than pressuring myself to see it all because “who knows when I will come back here?”, I meandered where my heart took me (the Rosetta Stone). In some ways, it felt like I was back home doing any old museum visit. I welcomed this part of my San Francisco routine with open arms because after this week, the thought of escaping into my own bed is “brilliant.”

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coffee, linguistics, peace, Pearl Harbor, Starbucks, travel, unity, WWII

Lokahi

Freshman year of college, I took a course called Introduction to Language Change. Maybe because the class met immediately after lunch or maybe because our classroom was perfectly positioned to bring in the midday sun, I would often find it extremely difficult to stay focused (as in, awake). My narcoleptic tendencies, however, were no match for my professor’s overflowing passion. Forever ingrained in my memory is one basic fact (and arguably the most important): language changes over time, and in a systematic way. This means that not just one language, but a family of languages and even languages from different families have changed in similar ways, following the same rules, over the course of history. I find this to be pretty mind-blowing, especially given that these languages were native to completely different peoples, cultures, countries. They didn’t have Twitter and Facebook back then to tell each other what’s what.

I’ve been on many family vacations over the years. We’ve done Kenya, Cancun, Barcelona, Singapore, Vancouver, the list goes on.

Africa was about ten years ago. I distinctly remember one afternoon in South Africa, around lunch time, when we were deciding what to eat. I was much younger then, and more stubborn about my gustatory preferences. I want a Subway sandwich. That’s the only thing I’ll eat. (Yeah, yeah, I know. There are starving kids in Africa who will eat anything and here I was being a whiny brat. But also, if you asked me at that moment, I could have said that I was a starving kid in Africa.) Surprisingly or maybe not surprisingly, we were able to find a Subway establishment and all was well in the (my) world.

This week, my family is traveling in Hawaii.

On our first afternoon in Oahu, I not so surprisingly was in desperate need of coffee. I asked a local-looking passerby to direct me to a nice coffee shop. She looked up at me, confused by my confusion (#meta). What do you mean? There is a Starbucks right there. I told her I didn’t want Starbucks. In hindsight, this was rather patronizing of me. I commented to my dad, “I refuse to come here and drink Starbucks. I want Hawaiian coffee. Shouldn’t that be pretty easy to find?” (Kona…?)

That afternoon, we watched music and dance performances native to different Polynesian islands. I appreciated differences among them, but also repeatedly remarked how all of them were so similar to Indian, African, and Latin dance and music (I’m only really an expert in the first, more an enthusiast of the other two). These ancient art forms originated in completely different political and geographical climates, but with an uncanny resemblance.

On Wednesday, we headed over to the USS Arizona Memorial. In reading through the little history boards at the museum (we don’t get conned into those touristy audio tours, thank you), I noted the text to have a slight US-centric, anti-Japan point of view. Makes sense, but given the relationship of the two countries today, I couldn’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable. And also wonder how the multitudes of other, foreign tourists were taking this in. I guess my sentiment was a common one. Before we boarded our shuttle bus to the memorial, a park ranger did a brief introduction. She reminded us that while this site honored those who had served and were lost at Pearl Harbor, World War II, as the name suggests, involved many many people from many different countries. Whether at war or at home, we, as people of the world, were going through similar war-time experiences.

I spent most of high school working with American WWII veterans, never really considering the war from a non-American lens. The park ranger’s introduction was a point of realization for me.

This summer, one of my best friends was in town for an all-too short two months. After meeting in preschool and essentially growing up together, we parted after high school to attend different colleges, then make different post-graduate career choices in different geographies. We haven’t spent huge amounts of time together over the last six years (arguably our “formative years”), but we’ve certainly grown and changed in similar ways. The exact experiences a bit different, but with comparable end results. I don’t say this often, but to me, this is simply beautiful.

It was with her that I traveled through Europe after college. In France, we happened upon several Indien-Mexicain restaurants. A native Indian or Mexican would probably find this to be extremely insulting perhaps even blaming the French for being culturally ignorant or unwelcoming of anything non-French. But if you step back, the cuisines are actually quite similar. Rice, lentils/beans, roti/tortillas, vegetables, meat.

While there is something to be said for appreciating and accepting differences across countries, cultures, religions, what have you, true unity (basically “world peace” but I was trying to be less cliche) comes from recognizing how similar we all are. Not imposing (read: Subway-addict in Africa) or dismissing (read: Starbucks-hater in Hawaii), but recognizing and embracing. From language to entertainment to food to cherishing a $4 cup of coffee-to-go, we’re traveling the space-time continuum as one.

And we should never need a World War to convince us.

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Europe, lessons, travel

“The longest journey a man must take is the eighteen inches from his head to his heart.”

Six months ago, I casually mentioned to a childhood friend that we should travel to Europe after graduation. This was one of many instances in my life in which conceiving an idea was significantly easier than implementing it. What followed was months of anticipation, planning, and drawbacks. At the toughest times, I found myself reevaluating my desire to proceed with the trip in the first place, followed by immediate shame for being unappreciative of the privilege.

As we waited to board our flight to Madrid from the Philadelphia airport, my friend commented, “I can’t believe we’re actually on our way.” The months leading up to the trip had taken a toll on us and we were ready to finally let our hair down. And though, figuratively, we did (the heat made it unfitting in the literal sense), the necessity for us to be on our toes (literally and figuratively) continued until the moment I was back in my home three weeks later.

Traveling is not just about sightseeing. It’s about understanding histories, experiencing cultures, relating lifestyles, opening your mind, being flexible, and most importantly, putting life into perspective. Though traveling inherently distances you from the people and places you know, it also gives you a sense of belonging in a grander sense. I thoroughly enjoyed walking alongside the Colosseum, watching the sunset over Florence (never looking directly at the sun, of course), and taking in the view from Sacre Coeur, but I realize I am neither the first nor last to do so. Still, it meant something special to me, a solely unique feeling that differed even from the person standing right next to me.

This is your only shot. Make it count.

On multiple occasions, we were forced to put the fun on hold to run errands such as making train reservations. In adherence to the theme of unity and shared experiences, there were usually at least one hundred travelers in ahead of us in ticket lines. Unfortunately, a large part of traveling involves waiting in lines. In Italy, two college-aged sisters were within earshot, recounting tales of their travels to a garrulous mother-type behind them. The girls explained that their father had essentially bought them backpacks and put them on a plane. This is your only chance to do something like this he had told them. The girls commenced their travels with a now or never all or nothing mindset. As did we. But we quickly realized that it would be impossible for us to see “everything” in each city, especially given our limited time. Attempting to do so would have only burned us out. Instead we created a manageable itinerary with ample time to wander aimlessly and meet locals and appreciate their lifestyles.

As we continued to meet other travelers, I became convinced that the “sole chance” the girls’ father had preached was nonexistent. I have experienced enough family vacations to know that taking time to travel, to explore the world, is feasible, even when you are working, even when you have a family. While standing in line to enter the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, we met a couple from Sydney. They were doing a hop-on, hop-off bus tour of Western Europe. America. That’s the next one we are saving up for the wife said to me.

During breakfast on my first morning in Milan, I met an elderly couple who had been traveling for four months and had three more to go. Thailand, Vietnam, London, Southern France, Italy…We’re just filling in the gaps said the husband as the wife sipped her cappuccino. Having traveled extensively with their children during their younger years, the now retired couple was spending some time visiting nooks of the world that they had yet to visit.

Mature travelers know the importance of adopting a half-full philosophy. For everything you don’t see or do, there are uncountable experiences you do have. As we went along, my friend and I embraced the childish yet hopeful phrase I need to come back here to see… For me, this list includes the Roman catacombs and the Palace of Versailles.

What is everyone waiting for?

After spending a day walking through Rome under the sweltering sun, we joined hundreds of other people, tourists and locals alike, in sitting on the Spanish steps (gelato was obviously involved). Seeing all these people on the steps, a tourist stopped and asked Is there a show that’s about to start? What is everyone waiting for? An Italian native responded. No. Everyone is just sitting. The tourist was puzzled and taken aback. Just “hanging out?” She asked disparagingly. The native nodded. The tourist walked away in a huff, clearly shocked and appalled at the sheer number of people who had taken to doing, in her mind, absolutely nothing.

Europeans know how to relax, a quality that many Americans (including myself, with the exception of this summer) lack. In Florence, we made friends with a group of locals in their young thirties. They were spending the evening sharing a bottle of wine on the church steps, just, enjoying the summer. Yes, these thirty-something year olds were enjoying summer vacation. As a recent college graduate, I am reminded almost daily that this is the last summer vacation I will ever experience or enjoy. That is, unless I move to Europe, apparently.

While standing in yet another train line, a lady lamented her move from Spain to the east coast suburbs during her late twenties. There’s nowhere to go out for someone my age she complained. My dad is seventy and lives in Spain. He still goes out dancing and has a good time.

It took us a week, but shop closures stopped surprising us. August is the time for vacation our Florentine concierge explained. Boutiques close for the month and owners embrace R&R. Simple as that.

Vous avez le bluetooth?

The social nature of locals is another striking and equally welcoming aspect of European culture. On our train ride from Milan to Nice, my friend and I were seated in a cabin with four other people. When we boarded, a girl already in the cabin was playing music from her phone. Out loud. No headphones. I sat down in my seat next to her and she looked at me. Do you have bluetooth? She asked me in French. Tell me which songs you like and I will send them to you. Not once during my thirty flights to or from Philadelphia did a fellow passenger offer to send me his or her songs. To be fair, I do not share my iTunes on local networks. As Americans we enjoy a more individualist culture.

A couple stops later, a quirky but entertaining Moroccan boarded. She bought a box of cookies from the refreshment cart and passed it around to us, the cabin of strangers.

By the end of the train ride, this random group of strangers was exchanging phone numbers and hugging good bye. The series of events was novel to my friend and me, but was nothing out of the ordinary to our counterparts.

Better to be safe than sorry.

As our trip proceeded, we became lazy. Not lazy in the couch-potato sense, but lazy in the practical sense. We failed to realize that despite being experienced as travelers in general, each city was still a new and different region. As time went on, we stopped confirming train schedules, carrying a map, and in one unfortunate scenario, filling out paperwork. While a fine of 50 Euro on Trenitalia served as a warning, missing an overnight train to Bordeaux and the subsequent twenty-two hours of travel was the tipping point. With a week left in our trip, our mid-day Passport checks and double-checking of train timings was reinstated. It is so easy to become comfortable and overconfident that sometimes it takes monetary and temporal consequences to keep you grounded.

A couple weeks before I left, my former boss, a woman in her mid-forties, took me to lunch. As we were driving back to HP’s campus, she was musing about her post-college trip to Europe as if she had returned just the day before.

It hasn’t even been a month since we departed and yet the individual sights seem like a whirlwind, not to mention, years ago. I am hazy on some of the names of famous piazzas and famous artists. Those are the facts you can Google, anyway. What will resonate with me for years to come are the people we met, the spontaneous moments we enjoyed, and the lessons we learned. I have no doubt that years from now, I’ll be the one telling the stories as I drive my intern home from lunch.

This post is an entry for the Language Learning Blog Contest being hosted by Pimsleur Approach.

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adventure, life, travel

“Nowadays you can go anywhere in the world in a few hours, and nothing is fabulous any more.” -Roald Dahl

J.T. McHart’s Pizza Restaurant is my favorite pizza place in the entire world. I realize this is a bold statement considering I have never been to Italy, the alleged birthplace of pizza. ButMcHart’s is my favorite for reasons beyond the pizza.

My first visit was about eighteen years ago and I am convinced that I fully remember it, down to where I sat and with whom I went. Since then, McHart’s has been the obvious choice for my pizza needs on both ordinary and extraordinary occasions. The owner recognizes me, which is to be expected from my frequent visits, but unusual and refreshing in a large city like mine. Whenever I came home from college, I squeezed in as many meals as possible with as many people as possible at McHart’s.

What is ironic is that this hole-in-the-wall restaurant houses some of my best memories. Memories of the days before college when my entire family was in the same city for more than ten days. Memories of a lazy Sunday evening with a childhood friend. Memories of cliche moments, you know, the “ordinary moments with extraordinary people.” Meals that at the time, didn’t seem at all special, but looking back, I cherish.

I recently watched Up (it’s been a Pixar summer), in which young Russell muses, “Sometimes, it’s the boring stuff I remember the most.” My dad and I discussed this sentiment as we were going for a walk the other night, another “boring” daily activity in which we engage. The thing about “big adventures” is that we expect a lot of them. We embellish and idealize said adventure in our minds and spend days awaiting some specific moment. And when we finally get there, when we finally take a step back and look at our house built on Paradise Falls, we feel a sense of emptiness. It’s all over. A sole moment that has for so long has consumed our minds is suddenly a thing of the past. We almost want to forget it.

There are no stakes in the random and boring moments of our lives. They just…happen. Happen so that we might fondly look back on them.

Last weekend I met up with a friend after several months. She insisted, Tell me about graduation weekend! In a cinema-esque flashback moment, I was flooded with completely random memories, playing Scattergories in my freshman dorm room, DP Dough (that’s for all the Penn readers), carving names in the fresh cement outside our house. That was the adventure. Graduation weekend was ceremonious but that’s all.

In a very paradoxical sense, adventure is all that occurs during our search for adventure. Adventure is a series of boring moments compiled in our memories. As I prepare to blast off on an adventure of the more traditional type, I have promised myself to make the most of the “boring stuff” as well, train rides, for example. After all, those are the moments of which I will likely have the least photographic documentation but the best memory. And upon my return, I will be able to state with absolute certainty that J.T. McHart’s Pizza Restaurant is my favorite pizza place in the entire world.

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bucket lists, graduation, travel

April in Paris, Chestnuts in Blossom, Holiday Tables Under the Trees

A couple summers ago, I studied in Compiegne, a small town in Northern France. But every weekend, I escaped the small town “charm” to enjoy the Parisian glitz and glam. Before each weekend, my home-stay-mate (I’m patenting that one) and I would spend hours painstakingly planning. After all, we wanted to make the most of each three-day chunk; it was Paris for crying out loud and we had great expectations. Our first day was a roaring success — on paper. We walked over ten miles from Gare du Nord to Sacré Coeur to Galleries Lafayette to the Paris Opera House to Champs Elysées to l’Arc de Triomphe to the Eiffel Tower to the Louvre. But by the time I was standing in front of the Mona Lisa and her creepy creepy eyes, I was so overwhelmed that I was underwhelmed. I had crossed numerous landmarks off my mental checklist, but that’s about all I had done.

The thing with traveling is that you don’t want to waste a single moment. You realize that time is limited and before you know it you’ll be back at home, back to the grind. So in an effort to make the most, you try to do the most. Wandering aimlessly while “taking it all in” seems completely inappropriate. But as I realized during a following weekend in Paris, the whole smelling the roses thing is actually unbelievably fulfilling.

As my college days become increasingly limited, creating a bucket list has become more and more tempting. All the cool kids are doing it (yes, that just came from an almost college graduate). It’s as if college, which was once the “back-to-the-grind” has become the “vacation.”

But every time I sit down to pen the list (and by pen, I mean type, because I barely own a writing implement), the memory of my ten-mile walk through Paris haunts me. Because it wasn’t a ten-mile stroll during which I enjoyed the aroma of pastries. It was a ten-mile relay spent passing the baton from one landmark to the next. Check mark. Making a list will only raise expectations. It will force me to think that I want to do things that I know deep down I could care less about. If I haven’t managed to do it in the last three and some odd years, maybe it’s not worth it. Call me a cynic, but when we have unfinished items on a list, we spend more time disappointed about said items than reminiscing about those spontaneous, pre-list experiences.

When we come to “time crunch” moments in our life, rather than introducing that tourist-list stress into our lives, it may be more meaningful to take each day as it comes. To embrace spontaneity while continuing to enjoy those aspects of our routine that we have grown to love and will so dearly miss. In my mind, it’s the only feasible way to grab time by the horns and slow it down. It puts the person, not a list, in control of the day.

We’re never going to be able to do every single thing there is to do. And if we could, would it really be that fulfilling anyway? Don’t force it. Go with the flow, do what you want to do, and most importantly, enjoy it.

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