On being reluctant to travel in my own country

I’m from the United States, and I’ve lived here my whole life. Even though the country is huge, you’d think that in the past 23 years I would’ve seen a fair amount of it. Not true.

The view from Blowing Rock in the mountains of North Carolina.

The view from Blowing Rock in the mountains of North Carolina.

I’ve thought about this off and on since my first dip into international travel six years ago. It’s puzzling, for sure. Why have I been to five other countries’ capitals but not my own? It’s certainly easier and cheaper in many ways to travel within the US as an American, but when I think about “traveling,” my mind automatically jumps to foreign destinations. I’m sure I’m not the only one who does that.

I think two basic mentalities contribute to my thinking:

“More of the Same”

I’ll admit, I find it much more thrilling to visit a new country than another state. There are different languages, currencies, modes of transportation to experience. Usually there’s a long flight, which to me conveys, “Hey, we’re actually going somewhere!”

Traveling domestically is the opposite of that. The people speak the same language, there’s no currency exchange, and you’ll see the same chain restaurants and stores (mostly). It can seem like a new location is way too similar to wherever you started out from, and that’s just not as exciting.

I travel internationally to experience new things and get out of my comfort zone, and sometimes a trip across the state border seems like it can’t deliver that.

A unique take on the Mona Lisa at the North Carolina Museum of Art.

A unique take on the Mona Lisa at the North Carolina Museum of Art.

“Family Vacation Blues”

Growing up, most of our trips were family vacations, either going to visit relatives or the four of us heading out on our own. We also traveled a lot for sporting events, like me and my brothers’ swim meets. The sports left me too tired or busy to do any exploring, usually, and I don’t really count those as trips.

Family vacations to visit relatives in New Jersey or Florida were spent hanging around the house, preparing meals for the group or maybe going to the mall. Occasionally we went to amusement parks, the zoo or the beach, but I don’t remember exploring the cities or visiting many tourist attractions that had any “cultural” value.

Sightseeing was not the main focus of these family vacations, which is fine – I feel very fortunate to see my extended family fairly often – but I think that contributed to this notion I have that domestic travel is somehow sub-par to international travel.

I’ve been trying to dispel that notion. Now that I’m older, with a car and a (meager) income, I can head out on my own for some fun. My husband and I are fans of weekend getaways – we love Living Social for that. Our recent trip to San Francisco was the first trip in a while my family took to a new destination just for fun – no extended family to visit.

Inside the Currituck Beach Lighthouse.

Inside the Currituck Beach Lighthouse on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

I’m making a personal resolution (starting now – who needs New Year’s?) to begin thinking like a traveler even when I’m at home in my own city and country. It’s certainly easier to travel at home. No passport, no customs, no language barrier, and usually airfare is much cheaper. Maybe I’ll visit the state Capitol Building, which I haven’t been to since a field trip in the second grade, or I’ll plan a getaway and explore a side of my own country I’ve never seen before.

I’ll be putting this vow into play with an upcoming belated birthday trip to Asheville, a city in my own state I’ve never been to, which is renowned for its natural beauty, fun-loving atmosphere and artistic scene. And beer.


Recently read: ‘Burnt Shadows’

Yesterday I finished reading Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie. I actually bought this book in Oxford, England about 3 years ago, and forgot about that until I noticed the price on the back was in pounds.

I enjoyed the book, which explores the relationships between a Japanese woman who survived the bombing of Nagasaki, a bright, young Indian man with dreams of becoming a lawyer, an upper-class British family experiencing the collapse of an empire and a marriage, and their children. These relationships endure despite conflict between nations – Japan, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States – in pivotal points in history. It was quite fitting that I finished the book on Sept. 11, as the novel progresses through the aftermath of 9/11.Burnt Shadows, Kamila ShamsieIt was an educational book for me as well; aside from the United States, I don’t know much about the other countries that are central to the plot of the book.

Shamsie writes beautifully, I think. Within her writing there is wonderful imagery, and I would definitely read more of her novels.

Overheard in San Francisco

Everyone knows San Francisco is the quirky city by the bay, but I heard some strange things while I was there.

Dang raccoons

[Possible homeless woman approaches me, my husband and my mom as we walk on the sidewalk.]

Woman: Have you seen any raccoons? (This is particularly funny because my husband hates raccoons for some reason.)

Husband: No, not today.

Woman: But you have seen them?

Husband: No, sorry.

Woman: Okay, thanks!

That was one of the best sidewalk interactions we had in San Francisco.

The Presidio, San Francisco

Oh, children…

[Kid, about 7 years old, riding the 5L bus with his mom and younger sister toward Golden Gate Park.]

“Mom, make up a joke to send to Dad. Here’s one: Why did the bus go through the red light? Because there was no red light!”

Reminds me of a Louis CK joke about a joke his daughter made up.

Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

Sing it, Elton

[A man walked by us on Pier 39, where a tour boat called Rocket Boat was docked, singing to the tune of “Rocket Man.”]

“Rocket booooaaattt…cruising on the bay like every day…”

And that was the best thing that happened on Fisherman’s Wharf.

Telegraph Hill, San Francisco

Decisions, decisions

[A couple walked by us at the Ferry Building Farmers’ Market debating one of life’s important questions.]

“Should we get a little thing of potatoes or a thing of little potatoes?”

I would have gone with little potatoes.

Ferry Building, San Francisco

I’m not a big talker; I can easily go all day without speaking a word to another human being. I much prefer listening, and I’m so glad I caught these gems during my trip.

New places, new books

I think some of the simple pleasures in life include walking around a book shop until there’s a crick in your neck from reading the spines, cracking open a brand new book and smelling the woody, dusty aroma of a good read. So when I travel, I make a point of heading to local book stores. Even chain book shops in other countries are something new to me, so I like visiting those too.

Book store in Oxford, England

Harry Potter books for sale in England. I love that the cover art differs in each country.

I’m not picky with book stores. I have visited and enjoyed a modern, minimalist store with a small but excellent selection of hand-picked books and a focus on poetry; a small cottage-turned-shop tucked away from the street, oozing Southern charm, with comfortable couches and tables with spindly legs struggling to support the weight of the owner’s favorite hardcover; a neighborhood staple that has been around for decades, where not much has changed because it’s already as close to perfect as you can get; an unassuming used book shop in a strip mall, with creaky, repurposed wood crates as shelves that seem to stretch back for miles. Pretty much anywhere I can buy, borrow or read books, I’m happy.

The books I buy in other countries don’t necessarily have to be about whatever place I happen to be in. Re-reading that book is enough to remind me of my trip. In France I took advantage of my expanding language skills and bought Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in French. The book store I purchased the books from, Furet du Nord, was amazing – eight stories, located right on the Grand Place. I worked my way through the wizarding tale I knew so well while I studied abroad.

Browsing books along the Seine? Yes please.

Browsing books along the Seine? Yes please.

Recently I purchased Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore at The Book Passage in San Francisco. My husband actually picked it out (I think the glow-in-the-dark cover caught his eye) and it was a great read. I finished it the next day on the flight home. A sort of modern-day fantasy adventure set in San Francisco and New York City, it involves a secret society, the “magic” of technology and a dash of mystery.

Which book stores have you visited on your travels? Do you have any fond memories of the books you picked up along the way?