Backward Travel: The Strength of Truly Seeing Home

Sometimes you're actually able to travel far afield and see new sights, visit places that have always been on your bucket list, and meet strangers whose un-exploredness makes your heart thunder, swell, and leap toward a shy, "hello," in a language you're absolutely no good at, not even a little bit.

These experiences are truly like no other and even one trip "abroad" furnishes one's mind with more memories to thumb through during "boring" days later on than almost anything else of which I can think. But other times you are land-locked, held in your own place and your own habits for what seems like too long.
That's me this month. I crave to be up and away and going someplace new. I always get to this stage because for three years in a row, I left the country this time of year and spent two weeks in Romania on a missions trip. This will now be the third year in a row that I have not been able to spend time with those friends I made across an entire ocean and a significant part of me feels like being in America during the month of May is just unbearable.

But May is beautiful and May in Norfolk, Virginia, is a thing worth knowing. Our region just hosted the International Tattoo which is an event that has nothing at all to do with actual ink tattoos and everything to do with the military bands of various nations gathering together for a huge musical event. For one glorious weekend our little city fairly burst with people from far-flung places across the world. My sister and I spent Sunday afternoon in downtown Norfolk, sitting at the wooden bar outside Lamia's Crepes, strangers behind us, strangers around us, strangers on the street before us. And as we watched knots of soldiers, sailors, and dancers from foreign militaries amble by, I had the weirdest experience of - for a fleeting moment - viewing my city as it must seem to someone who was visiting for the first time: fresh; artistic; sunny; rooted in East Coast tradition, yet growing into something quick-paced and modern. I was proud of Norfolk, and fond of it, and honestly a little overcome by what a spectacularly nice place it was to be on a warm afternoon, late in the spring.

When I can't travel to some far-off place (which, let's be real, is nearly always), I find endless delight in "going abroad" in my own town. Two days a week I work in Norfolk and am not called for till 11 AM. I like to go into town early and choose one thing I haven't done before, or one thing I love but haven't done in ages; the only rule is that I have to do it alone, and I have to do small, aimless, everyday things. I might park near the docks in Chelsea and wander down to the Bakehouse for one of their carefully-crafted pastries and meet a handsome corgi on my way. I might drop by the Chrysler Museum of Art and visit the latest exhibition, or walk all the way down to Waterside and watch someone tie a knot in the rope mooring his boat. I might wander through Slover Library with no other aim than to be in the presence of books; I might wander down Granby Street and if I'm very, very lucky the pianist at Gershwin's might be practicing before the evening crowds - ebullient jazz spilling out onto the sidewalk for construction workers and parking ticket-ers and me. And I don't know that I could enjoy it anymore if it was a Spanish sun on my shoulders, or Greek fishermen tying those rope-knots.

For this is the part of traveling that feels like travel: becoming so absorbed in the mundane, commonplace, everyday culture of a place that you forever remember how a Thursday morning in Arad, or Shangai or London or Nofolk feels. 
Why is it that when we travel, we don't necessarily want to be doing anything? I feel gypped, honestly, if every moment of my trip is scheduled and there is no time to walk into the city and watch people go about daily lives I know nothing about. Three years post-Romania, I still have vivid mental pictures of the old woman perched in front of me on the light-rail train, or the baggy old man waiting to cross the street, or the lovers sitting in the park under a constantly-shifting play of light and shadow from the tree above them. Those memories are more alive in my memory than some of the scheduled things we did - the things that "travelers do." If the everyday is where the truest culture of a place is seen and learned, then the everyday of our own time and place is something we can learn to appreciate as well, isn't it?

I admit, that going for a walk through Downtown Norfolk for the fiftieth time this year is not - cannot be- as intoxicating as stepping out of the airport in Budapest into universally cheerful sunlight and knowing I will soon be on Romanian roads, riding in the wrong lane into oncoming traffic as we barrel past eighteen-wheelers. But I am saying that something shifted into focus for me as I basked with my sister in that a spill of sunlight. We watched other people learn our place with that particular brand of wide-awake that belongs solely to the adventurer, duty-bound to keep his eyes open and his heart more open still. Why do we want to travel afar if we haven't even truly learned the everyday culture of the place we were bred to? Of course the foreign and unknown is exhilarating and yes, I would literally fly out of the Norfolk airport in a heartbeat if it meant I had the chance to go abroad again. But there is, surely, some odd strength in being able to view the place that bred you with the same wonder with which you view the place that bred someone else. Don't forget - you, the one who was bred here - will be taking You with yourself wherever else in the world you might go. We must be careful not to neglect the soil that nourished our roots before we were ever grown enough for globe-trotting.

Can you do something for me? I'd love for you to take a morning, or an afternoon, or a snip of the evening sometime soon; go to a place you've been a hundred times before, without an aim to do anything in particular. And I want you to stand in the presence of it - the sidewalks whose cracks you know as intimately as the smile lines on your own face, the awnings that have faded from the bright red of your childhood to a vague, Nantucket color. Would you look around as if you'd just paid a $1,200 airline ticket and traveled fifteen hours to get here? What do you see that you've never seen before? What do you walk slowly by that you've always stalked quickly past till now? What ornate, finishing touches on the corners of buildings exist in your city, and aren't they as worth marking as the same cornices would be, should you happen to see them in Berlin? What intricate people are waiting for the crossing light beside you? That woman has a life of her own and you know as little about it as you do of a Bolivian grandmother's, or a Ukranian businessman's, or a German student's.

Let that not-knowing enchant you. Memorize it as if your time here - in your own "boring" city - would end in a few days and you'd have to go home and leave it behind and, maybe, never choose to travel all this way to this place ever again.
“No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, or happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than man could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast; and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.”
― John Ruskin


  1. Very lovely. There is value in slowing down and enjoying everything about life, not just the "exciting" parts. ♥

  2. Beautifully written, and something that resonates very well in these warm spring days. The itch to travel comes on at certain times for sure, but to be honest leaving a home place would mean missing out on enjoying that season right here, right now, and a loss of the special types of everyday moments of beauty captured as a hometown "tourist." :)