The artistry in travel writing is in how deftly one can dance between two seemingly disparate things. We must disappear into our new surroundings while maintaining the detachment that is required of the observer. Travel writing is about immersion, but it is also about being a stranger and an outsider. The task is to absorb and be absorbed, all at the same time. When we land in a new place, we instinctively peg the awareness needle to high. Our senses are on, and we use them like sharpened tools. The sun on our neck has a revelatory new heat. The clatter of spoons on coffee cups at the café has an unfamiliar din. As our feet propel us through the throng on the boulevard, we blend in while we simultaneously stand out. From the second we land in a new place, it is that 360-degree sense of discovery we seek. This is obviously a sensation we can never experience at home. Right?
This surprising truth was revealed to me when, recently, I had to cancel a longed-for solitary escape. At the last moment, the need to stay put superseded the need to travel, though the latter was certainly all-consuming. In northwestern Connecticut, the segue from winter to spring was (literally) glacial. Snowdrifts hung around on my lawn throughout April and pockets of ice lingered in the walkway cracks well into tulip time. It had been the season of turning inward, of driving to Boston to check in with aging parents, of pressing forth on a book tour despite weather that repeatedly worked against me. I had been socked in physically and emotionally. There was always work to do, meals to cook, cars that needed oil changes, and spring had ushered in a long, costly to-do list. Chips of paint the size of dinner plates tumbled from the house, and my yard was a wreck.
I was ready to break loose. So, one reservation at a time, with the anticipation exciting me to sleeplessness, I planned my escape to Portugal, a country I last visited in 1991. Then life intervened, as it does, and I cancelled the whole trip. (note: ALWAYS get travel insurance)
Events had pushed my hand but I turned this into an opportunity. Rather than feel trapped or thwarted, I decided to bring the same journalistic curiosity – the engine of all my travels – to my own neighborhood and daily routine. Senses pegged, I pretended to be on assignment, and on alert to all manner of discovery. The fact that I lived here meant that I easily submerged into my immediate surroundings, so the first task of the travel writer was automatically covered. The second one was my challenge: to gaze on my world – the one that seems so small to me – as a visitor from Portugal might. I wanted to be an outsider in my own realm.
How had I never felt the onrush of spring? If I had been writing from France or Russia or Norway, I would have gushed about the aroma of lilacs or the swaths of tulips that lined the country roads. There, great clouds of apple and cherry blossoms would have seemed different and surely better than the ones in my own backyard. It seems I’d never given this place a chance. I thought I could only see the world from elsewhere, but I marveled at the same things I apparently was blind to at home. Silver birch and giant pines – had they always been here, right beyond my driveway?
I was so proud of this earth and its brave recovery after the frozen devastation of winter. I walked and walked, taking in my small town as if I’d just landed there for the first time. Sometimes I took my dog, other times my daughter joined me, others I met friends I love and we kept our chatter low as we faced the rushing river at Steep Rock.
For once I read the menu at the bakery, where I order the same muffin and coffee every day. The scent of cinnamon and yeast was as intoxicating as any patisserie in Paris. I closed my eyes and inhaled, the sense of newness magnified by the reality: this is home. Daylight filtered through the young and still pale leaves, but the trees were filling in quickly. Lots of growth sprouted along the river, the one I had never before approached. A man asked me if I was looking for morels. “I come here every year to pick them,” he said.
Gold forsythia and rich earth. Violets that blanketed the low, damp crevasses. The lake, blue and at last unfrozen. My husband’s sculpture released from its burden of snow. The sky over my house as night fell. My jacketless daughter, strengthened by another winter in New England. We are hardy. All this beauty erupts each year, and I had never even noticed.
This is what happened when I brought my curiosity home. It was so simple to watch and to finally see. Travel writers are naturally attuned to details, so this is an exercise I recommend to everyone who observes for a living. Always be prepared for amazement, because it’s everywhere, even at your own front door. You don’t need an airplane to carry yourself forth into this spinning world.