Finding the Fascinating in the ‘Hood
Your back yard is boring only to you
It’s easy to notice the unusual when you are traveling. Everything is new, fascinating, noteworthy. That’s one of the reasons why I love to travel: when you don’t know what’s around the corner you greet each new experience with a new and deeper sense of appreciation.
And yet — that patisserie just down the street from your B&B in Paris, the one with all the fabulous mini strawberry tarts, chocolate eclairs, and Napoleons arranged in such a way that it seems a shame to purchase one because you’ll destroy the patterns of shape, texture, and color that create the marvelous display — that patisserie to a local resident is just another shop to pass on the way home after a long day at work.
That window display may catch your attention so fully that you stop, pull out your phone, snap a photo and post to Facebook, an act that draws oohs, ahs, and likes because to everyone else who doesn’t live on that Parisian block, the sight of a pyramid built of violet macarons is swoon-worthy.
It’s harder to pay attention and take note when the shop window is the one you pass every day back at home on your way to work. But to someone living in Paris, Istanbul, or Fort Lauderdale chances are that there’s plenty in your hometown that is actually pretty interesting. We are just so used to our surroundings we become blind to them.
Hone Your Skills With Practice Observations
The work of the writer is to train our sense of observation so we move through our everyday lives as if we were newcomers to town.
I went on a walk with this in mind the other day and took a moment to stop outside a tea shop. Weirdly, even though this shop is only a couple of blocks from where I live (and I love tea), I’ve never been inside. The shop was shut (so I still haven’t been inside), but I paused to look in the window and actually pay attention to what was on display.
Turns out that window is a treasure trove of oddities — a green teapot in the shape of a tractor, so long and angular I found it hard to believe one could possibly pour tea from the spout sprouting from the gill between the headlights. A plump bullfrog teapot was a better shape in the body, but would the tea pour smoothly from between its pursed lips?
If I were a travel writer on assignment in our small town in the mountains, there’s more than enough material in a 5 km radius of our house to fill several articles. (Note to self: why haven’t I pitched some freelance pieces to in-flight magazines yet???)
Chronicling the new in the ordinary requires that we set aside our assumptions that we know what’s around the corner. And that, generally speaking, means we need to slow down. The reason why I’ve never stopped to examine the teapots in the window is because the location of the shop is en route to various other places I’m likely heading — my favorite coffee shop, the bank, the library, the grocery store. It’s a waypoint, not a destination. That’s one of the main differences between wandering around in your home town and exploring a new place when you travel: when you are on a journey, everywhere you look becomes a destination.
Because we happen to live in a tourist destination, it’s a fun exercise to follow the tourists and take note where they stop, where they point their phones, what they comment on. There are obvious points of interest — the Big Head sculpture, for example, but there are less blatantly interesting things to take note of as well. A surprising number of tourists stop to take photos of the wooden building that was once the RCMP headquarters long ago. No surprise, but when I had a quick look through my photos, I don’t have a single one of the RCMP cabin.
Stop and Chat
While the sights are one thing to pay attention to while you meander around your town, the people you come across in the neighborhood are also worthy of being approached. Walking home one afternoon I came across two young guys bashing the heck out of each other using a variety of weapons — swords, clubs, axes and the like.
Understand that I am, by nature, an introvert and my first inclination was to walk a little slower, try to figure out what they were doing, and continue on my way. The writer in me, though, started jumping up and down in my brain screaming, “Stop!!! Ask them what the hell they are doing!”
So, I did. We had a lovely chat about their involvement with a historical reenactment group and how they were testing shields, weapons, and padding. This was followed by a demonstration of a vigorous walloping. One day, I should really write something more about this fascinating sub-culture of people dedicated to bringing the distant past into the present.
I’m going to toss down the gauntlet and suggest that you go for a walk or take a leisurely bike ride around your neighborhood. Stop often. Take photos for reference. Make notes. Pretend to phone someone but actually make a voice recording on your phone describing in great detail what you see and hear. Imagine that you have never been around your block before and describe what you find to someone who lives on the other side of the world.
Then, post your local journey and throw a link down in the comments below so we can all take a virtual visit to your corner of the world. Do this often enough and it will become second nature, so by the time you take your next actual trip to somewhere far away, you will be used to capturing your observations of someone else’s stomping grounds. Practice now and your future travel writing is likely to be that much more vivid and memorable.