A Home in every Culture
Like explorers, it is crucial to establish your base camp before attempting the next adventure.
As the son of a global businessman, most of my childhood lessons involved travel, culture and finance. Foremost among these, even though I didn’t fully understand it at the time, was my father’s insistence that in every city in which you arrive or visit often, “you should first establish a base, where you can retire to when feeling overwhelmed or host meetings on home turf.”
I never understood why he would frequent the same places every time we were in Paris or Milan or even the Virgin Islands. It seemed almost counter-productive to the benefits of travel and cultural immersion. In my father’s case this seemed especially true given that his version of ‘home base’ always involved 5 star hotels, Michelin guide restaurants and ‘sole meuniere’.
For me, our lives meant being able to discover something new every day: new culture, new food, new music and especially new personalities. Why then would you regularly return to the same places; worse yet, the same genre? It seemed so impoverishing to me.
My father died three years ago and it pains me to admit it, even now, he was right. It is so important that I have even taught my daughters the same lesson, if not in execution then in theory at least. The rationale is quite simple:
Travel is disruptive
Just the act of travelling is exhausting. A Chinese proverb states that whenever we leave our home for an extended trip, it takes our soul at least 72 hours before it finds us again. Merely the act of travelling from one location to another causes us to feel ungrounded; if there are complications we often feel like a dired leaf in a wind storm without any anchors to hold on to. Finding a base is the act of creating something to hold onto or hide out during the worst of the storm.
Cultural exploration is tiring
Too often, we spend our holidays satisfying bucket list dreams: idyllic destinations or cultural adventures we must experience at least once in our lives. The intent, in itself, constrains our experiences to the extreme…hardly relaxing. Add to this mix, a body and mind that is reeling from the travel required to get to any destination and you find yourself the equivalent of a very hungover, slightly numb entity attempting to immerse in all of it. We feel surrounded by a vague liquid insulating us; no wonder we don’t feel any connection.
Cultural immersion activates all your senses simultaneously
Sights, smells, sounds, tastes and textures invade us from the moment we exit the gate of any airport. From that moment until we find our center, our senses are overwhelmed by the slightest novelty. Consider a blind man who has just regained his sight: everything is new and raw; he has no filters to focus his sensations; and emotions attach to everything he sees. Despite being a fantasy come true, it would be exhausting. Sensory overload is common to travellers.
Local contacts have the home team advantage
With all the first three reactions in full bloom, try to have an honest or authentic encounter with someone new or and old acquaintance. While the other person is in their own element and near their base, you are barely a caricature of your whole self. Your entire day is filled with extremes and your serene, confident self is a recent memory. More often than not, we find ourselves reacting to the expectations or program of the other party rather than follow our own voice.
In times of stress we all need community
It is a clichè derived from the hit TV series ‘Cheers’, that everyone needs a place where everyone knows your name but honestly this is true. Whenever we feel lost, out of sorts or invisible, returning to a favourite bar or cafe provides more than familiarity. Connecting with the owners, staff and regular clients validates your existence and provides us with a temporary community in which to belong. “What did you see, today,” quickly replaces “Where are you from?” With community comes much needed sense of arrival and will provide more insight than any guidebook could.
Often the best way to get to know a new culture is to merely sit in it
Cultures are different, manners are different, offences are different; that is why we travel, no? We want to experience different ways of life and, even in some small way, empathise. If, however, we arrive tired, dive in with both feet having never taken the time to understand where we are or how things work, we are judging everything based on our own culture. We do not even have the insight to know what is true and what is merely promotion. We are chum for every shark that swims by.
My daughters know that wherever I go, the first thing I do is find a cafe that makes a good espresso, has an open square or park in front, is sufficiently central to provide ample people watching and has some measure of quite or peace. Whether for work or life, I will spend my first day or two predominantly at this ‘new home’ absorbing the culture I awoke in.
If I am there for work, whether paid or not, I always arrive on my own a day earlier in order to find my home and my center. This is the secret that answers the questions I get often, “How can you move around so much? Where is your home? Don’t you get tired of travel?”