The Displaced Nation

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I’m an explorer — not a traveler

This week, the Displaced Nation is drifting away from March’s initial theme of beauty/fashion tips picked up from world travels. Hardly surprising, given that all of this week’s writers are males! Today’s guest poster, James Murray, a displaced Brit in Boston, is a prime example. The only new fashion he’d like to start would be replacing the word “travel” with “explore.” Sounds pedantic, right? Well, see what you think!

— ML Awanohara

I was never really one for traveling. When all the kids went on their gap years before college, I called them on it: I knew it was a waste of money; a way to delay the inevitable intrusion of the Real World into their lives — in short, I didn’t see the point.

Receiving emails from abroad about how wonderful these experiences were and how life-affirming and eye-opening and incredible the world was, I simply smiled to myself.

How naïve they were, I thought.

Whereas I would be a year ahead; a year closer to a job; a year closer to money, and a year closer to actual freedom.

I did not see work as some black hole into which you pour all of your efforts with no hope of ever getting anything back. On the contrary, I thought it would be pretty good to have a job and a flat and friends and the cash to support a lifestyle I could be comfortable with.

Travel for travel’s sake

I still think that. In fact, I’m not entirely sure I was ever wrong on this point. Sorry to disappoint. And particular apologies to Jeff Jung, whose book on career-break travel was favorably reviewed on this site at the end of last month.

Don’t get me wrong. Yes, I’ve traveled and, yes, I love being “elsewhere,” doing things differently, as much as the next displaced nation resident. In fact I’m a bit of a neophile when it comes to food and culture…

But being enamored of the new doesn’t mean you have to travel.

Travel provides a set of obvious novelties: new tastes; new currencies; new transport; climate; a different view from the window.

But just being somewhere different doesn’t make you an explorer; in order to get that badge, you need to set foot outside your comfort zone, step away from the hotel, the package tour, the guidebook — and look with your own eyes.

Cross that one off the list!

That Facebook app that challenges you to prove you’re a world traveler by listing all the countries you’ve visited irrespective of how long you were there or where exactly you were: what does it really show? It makes a three-day hotel stay in Shanghai look as though you’ve conquered the entirety of mainland China, and it reduces that beautiful holiday in Wales — you know, the one that reminded you what it was like when shops closed on a Sunday — to a complete non-event.

The way we think of travel is all wrong: the political boundaries on the map say that I now live in the USA, but that doesn’t really say anything about where I actually live or the aspects of American culture that I’ve actually experienced.

My life would be completely different if, say, I lived in the desert or the mountains — it would even be different if I lived in New York instead of Boston.

I don’t anticipate ever being able to say that I’ve seen it all.

Explore, for heaven’s sake!

Exploring as opposed to traveling is a question of quality against quantity. I did a lot of exploring in London and Edinburgh that opened my eyes just as much as wandering around Thailand and Romania.

A few curiously exploratory examples:

  • Getting a haircut at a weird little barber’s in Shepherd’s Bush. It was an all-male barber’s, where men could “come along and say what they like in whatever language they like,” as the proprietor put it. I remember being very quiet amid a torrent of very macho conversation. Not a totally unpleasant experience, but I never went back.
  • With my flatmate, laying Russian roulette with the pastries at Vanna Patisserie, a Chinese bakery in Shepherd’s Bush. They were either sugary and delicious or curiously tough with a peculiar secret ingredient. There was no way of telling from the outside.
  • Spotting a Portobello (Edinburgh) art exhibition displayed outside people’s homes that featured, amongst other things, a fat-and-seed bird feeder in the shape of the artist’s head, hung from a tree, where it was gradually and gruesomely pecked to pieces.

These bizarre titbits are the wages of the explorer but not necessarily the traveler, who might see only those accepted “landmarks” to which his eyes are directed.

Avenues for exploration are everywhere. In fact, when I first moved to London, I was so inspired by the tube stops that I wanted to develop a guide to each one.

My idea was that I would use some algorithm to pick a different tube stop each weekend, go there and simply wander around in a roughly spiral shape from that stop, looking carefully at architectural details, stopping in parks and perhaps interviewing the proprietors of particularly interesting local businesses.

I would document these things not so much as a guide for others to visit exactly the same places, but in hopes of inspiring them to look at their own neighborhoods with new eyes.

Exploring the New World

I try to do the same kind of thing in Boston, although I confess I find it a bit harder — there’s the sheer fact that London is 1) massive and 2) very, very old that makes it rather easier to find the gems at the ends of the nooks and crannies.

But I’m not discouraged — I’ve still barely explored the North End with its windy little streets and ample opportunities for getting lost (I don’t have one of those phones that tells me where I’m going).

And just the other day we were introduced to a bar not five minutes down the road, which will make a superb local, with its walls plastered in kitschy tut. I’m sure I’ve passed it before, but, like all the best things, it’s a bit hard to spot.

In amongst these streets are histories, idiosyncrasies and mythologies — of that I have little doubt. Finding them is just a matter of retiring my traveler’s shoes and donning an explorer’s hat.

* * *

So, world travelers — sorry, I meant to say “explorers” — what do you think? Is James right in saying that all of this obsession with the quantity of travel (how many countries, etc.) is misguided? And what do you think of his assertion that Edinburgh can be as fascinating as Bangkok, if you take an explorer’s approach? Please leave your thoughts in the comments…

James Murray is a self-described “itinerant Brit.” After a stint in New Zealand, and some travel in Southeast Asia, he and his American girlfriend — now wife — are practicing “staying put” in Boston, where James is pursing a career as a wordsmith for marketing and fiction, and as a non-professional theatre director. He is also a Utopian idealist and SingStar enthusiast. You can find more about his views by reading his blog, Quaint James, and/or following him on Twitter: @quaintjames.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post by Andy Martin, about a unusual source of beauty in his new home town of São Paulo.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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CAPITAL IDEA: London: A quick guide

LondonWelcome to the first “Capital Ideas”. It is a new feature here at The Displaced Nation. It’s our somewhat idiosyncratic, ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek guide to various world cities, perfect for the ever discerning readership of this blog. We know our readers are always visitors, never tourists (an important distinction).  Do feel free to contribute your own ideas or suggestions in the comments section, we’d love to hear your thoughts, too.

City: London

Where is it? On some damp, mildew-ridden island in the north Atlantic.

Why should I go? Because it’s one of the world’s great cities. An exciting modern city with a diverse population of eight million there’s something for everyone. With hosting the Olympics, 2012 was a great year for the city and infused it with a self-confidence unusual to the British. Quite simply, this is the perfect time to visit London.

So is it true that when a man tires of London he is tired of life? Not if he’s living in Dalston.

I don’t know anything about Dalston. You’re not missing much.

What are the must sees? Well, if you want to be that tourist, you know the one who wears pristine white sneakers and white socks, keeps their passport safe in their fannypack and planned their trip after taking out a Rick Steeves travel book from 1986, then the basic checklist is Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s, Tower of London. You can do all that by popping on one of those tourist trap sightseeing bus tours. You’ll get to sit on the top of a double-decker with other fannypack wearers — it’ll be beautiful.

Hmm, I don’t have a fannypack. Not to worry. You’re a The Displaced Nation reader, you want something a little more “not for tourists,” don’t you?

You know me so well. Tours can be good fun for the visitor limited in time. However, instead of those overpriced bus tours, we recommend London Walks. Brunel’s Thames tunnel, in particular, is one we’d recommend for a fascinating and sadly forgotten part of London’s history — it was once considered the eighth wonder of the world.

What about a walking tour that sounds a bit more “fun”? Well, provided you’re not traveling with kids, you could also do a pub crawl. That fun enough for you?

Absolutely. Any other suggestions? Spend a morning at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. There you’ll be able to visit two fascinating museums that are among our London favorites. There’s the Hunterian Museum (an C18th collection of anatomical specimens including the skeleton of Charles Byrne, known as the “Irish giant”) at the Royal College of Surgeons and across the fields is Sir John Soanes’s Museum (the former home of architect Sir John Soanes, the museum contains his extensive collection of antiquities and paintings). Or, if you’re in the city in the summer then venture to the north of the city and visit Highgate Cemetery. There you’ll be able to get a guided tour of the western cemetery – resting place of Michael Faraday and Christina Rossetti. In the eastern cemetery rests Karl Marx.

What’s a must-do? Spending time on the South Bank. Here you’ll find the National Theatre, the Royal Festival Hall, the Globe and the BFI Southbank (formerly known as the National Film Theatre). So the perfect place to take to showcase the city’s cultural merits.

Is the city easy to get around? Yes, although Londoners like moaning about the public transport, the city is home to one of the world’s best public transport systems. Familiarize yourself with the London Underground (known as “the tube”) and you can travel around the city easily and relatively cheaply. If you are a night owl then you need to remember that the underground stops running trains between 12.00am and 12.30am.

I hear the British cooking is awful. Do I need to pack sandwiches when visiting London? That outdated stereotype. London is home to some of the world’s best restaurants. And don’t forget how I mentioned earlier that London had such a diverse population, that’s reflected in the city’s restaurants. Whatever you fancy, be it Eritrean or Burmese, you can find it in London. Our recommendation is that you take a trip to Brick Lane for a slap-up Indian dinner.

Hmm, my mate John visited London last year and said the food still sucked. Did John stick with the tourist traps? New York is a great city for eating, but if you only go to restaurants at Time’s Square you’re not going to get that impression. One easy tip, never eat in an Angus Steak House.

So the locals don’t all eat jellied eels? No, but if you do want to experience an old cockney-style pie and mash shop, then we recommend Goddard’s at Greenwich. If you’re being really adventurous and want to unleash your inner pearly queen by having some jellied ell then this is the place to do it.

Have you ever tried it? Yes.

Did you like it? Let’s just say it was interesting.

What should I read? If you want to brush up on London, then we’d suggest Peter Ackroyd’s London for a nice, meaty read about the city, as well as his book The Thames. Other books we’d suggest are Iain Sinclair’s London: City of Disappearances, Henry Mayhew’s London and the London Poor and James Boswell’s London Journal. And, of  course, you can’t visit London and not be reminded of Dickens (do make a trip to the Charles Dickens Museum  , at 48 Doughty Street). We think Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend best show off  Dickens’s writing on London.

What should I watch? Notting Hill.

Really? Yes, it’s the most accurate cinematic depiction of the city.

I’m going to say this again, really? It’s so accurate that there’s even now a Notting Hill Carnival. This happens once a year where fans of the film get together and dress up as their favorite characters from the film and reenact their favorite scenes. Our top tip is that if you’re in London at the same time as the carnival, you should dress up as Julie Roberts or Hugh Grant and go up to people and tell them your favorite lines from the movie. They’ll love.

I really don’t think that’s what the Notting Hill Carnival is all about. Hand on heart, it’s true.

Hmmmm . . .

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, a new Random Nomad interview.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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