I love to travel. Following some winding street in a foreign city until I have no real idea where I am, just because I liked the way the doors looked, or the way the light reflected off the windows, or for no reason at all except that I wanted to see where I’d wind up, makes me feel alive. I’ve climbed ruins and looked out over the rainforest, amazed to know that the world looked pretty much the same from there a thousand years ago.
The smell of a place. The sound of people chatting in their language as they pass by. The taste of food I’ve never tried before. That moment when I realize that I am really there. Someplace utterly strange, and indescribably wonderful.
At that moment, I feel like yanking on someone’s shirt and saying, “Can you believe it? We’re here! This is REAL!” I don’t, of course (I am from New England), but I have a hard time wiping the ridiculous grin off my face. I close my eyes and breathe.
Back in my working days, I used to fantasize about what I would do with a whole year off. Gazing at my dusty pink cubicle walls, I would imagine myself in India, in France, in Spain. Egypt. Peru. I’d soak in the culture; I’d forget about deadlines and e-mails. I’d meet new people—maybe even have some kind of tryst. I would be changed. Then the phone would ring, or someone would show up at my desk needing something, and the fantasy would come crashing down. I’d be back in dusty pink hell.
With dusty pink hell a memory, I found my traveler’s feet even itchier than before. Temptation to blow every penny on a vacation nearly got the best of me when my severance check arrived in the mail. Just buy a ticket! Worry about everything else later! I couldn’t travel for a year with the money, but I could have a hell of a time seeing how far I could get.
Sadly, I’ve gotten a bit wiser as I’ve gotten older. I deposited the check and resolved to stretch it out as far as it would go. That meant staying home.
Wherever I am, though, my wanderlust leads me into interesting nooks and crannies. Years ago I came across a dusty old paperback copy of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek at a secondhand store. Reading it made me more sensitive to the wonders hiding in my own backyard, if I bothered to look for them. While I’m not sure what Ms. Dillard would think of taking that curiosity to urban streets (I suspect she wouldn’t approve), I do sometimes think of myself as a backyard pilgrim. The image always makes me laugh.
My backyard wanderings took a different direction after I met a new friend at a networking function. (A note on networking events: I have yet to get much work out of going to these things, but I have made a number of new friends. If for no other reason, I recommend attending the schmoozy shindigs.) Relatively new to Boston, this friend had purchased a number of books with self-guided walking tours, and she asked me if I cared to join her on a stroll around town.
We met up at the Park Street T station one day early this past summer. While I was waiting for her to show up, I spoke with a guy hawking pickles from a cart and with a woman from New Zealand about what she had done while she was in Boston. My friend showed up, and we hit the books. I was a little skeptical that I’d learn anything new but figured that I could use the company and the exercise.
Before taking off, we established a few ground rules. We agreed to be genuine tourists for the day. That meant reading the descriptions in the guidebook aloud and being sure to look up and point at things. We made up names and backgrounds for ourselves (I was Louise from Kansas), in case we got embarrassed. We joked around about forgetting our sun visors, fanny packs, and white socks.
Then we headed for Chinatown. Chinatown’s my favorite place for cheap food, and I’ve wandered around after eating many a time, so I wasn’t sure if I’d get anything out of the tour. Thanks to the guidebook, however, we learned new things about the area and saw a few sights we hadn’t seen before. We got mooncakes and ate them (well, part of them anyway—we should have split one) in the new park, as we read about the significance of the plantings and the water feature.
Thorough though it was, our Chinatown tour didn’t take long, so we decided to take the Harbor Walk/Greenway tour. We gawked at the seals in the tank outside the Aquarium, along with all of the other tourists. We played on the metal sculptures and tried to figure out what they were (we decided that they were cosmic laptops). We checked out the view of the city from the US Courthouse. We laughed at kids playing in the fountains along the Greenway. We skipped through the arbor at Christopher Columbus Park.
Still having a good time, we then walked over to the Financial District, where we learned about the history of the buildings. We walked into Bond and stared up at the chandeliers shamelessly. Overpriced drinks? We don’t need no overpriced drinks! We’re just here for the view. We strolled around Post Office Square, taking time to sit in the park above the Garage Mahal. Look! There’s where William Lloyd Garrison wrote The Liberator! I wonder what’s in the Verizon building—let’s check out the lobby!
There were a lot of giggles that afternoon. It turned out that we didn’t need our aliases, and we ran into a number of other staycationing locals. Worn out from all the walking, but happy, we parted ways determined to take another stroll soon.
Since then, we’ve done several more walks, hitting the pavement from JP to Charlestown, checking things out that we would never do if we were really on vacation (we don’t wear sun visors and fanny packs in faraway lands). When they were here, we viewed the Tall Ships. We got a great tour of a synagogue in Beacon Hill from a friendly guide who didn’t seem to mind that we had two dollars between us to donate. There’s a statue in the Public Garden dedicated to the discovery of ether. I’d passed it countless times and never knew what it commemorated. George Washington’s sword is fiberglass, because it has been stolen so many times. If I were you, I’d skip climbing up the Bunker Hill Monument (the last time I climbed that many stairs, it was to reach the top of Brunelleschi’s Dome in Florence. That was worth it). Not much of a view from up there, but the beer at the Tavern on the Water is cold, and the boat ride from Boston is cheap and fun. I want one of those Victory Gardens in the Fenway. We have avoided Faneuil Hall like the plague. There are standards after all, even when you are playing at being a tourist.
Our little tours haven’t taken away my desire to take a real trip. Just the other day, I pulled out my passport and tried to see if there wasn’t a cheap flight somewhere interesting. Alas, no. At least not cheap enough for me. Our wanders have filled my need to explore, however. If you stop rushing and take the time to look up and point, it changes your perspective. Once in a while, I’ve even had a glimmer of that delicious shock of the new in my own backyard.
It might not be Paris, but it should be smashing nevertheless. I am planning on taking one of those super-cheap bus rides to New York in the next week to meet up with a certain waiter while he’s on this side of the pond. Now that will be an adventure.