Skimming the Surface

A friend of mine once pointed out that humans, as a species, are weird. Her evidence: our interest in observing other species that we don’t intend to eat.

During my recent trip to Greece it occurred to me that tourism is kind of odd in this same way. I used to think that visiting other countries ought to profoundly affect me, but recently I’ve decided that in Europe, at least, you mostly look at old, beautiful stuff and eat good food (and hear people say “mama mia”).

I’m not talking about living abroad for an extended period of time, getting to know a people and a culture, letting their values influence your own. I’m talking about the kind of travel most of us do most of the time—there and back, a week or two, a variety of locations.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful I got to see the Parthenon, which definitely fits into the old and beautiful category, and eat genuine moussaka and baklava, which fit into the seriously yummy category.

Perhaps it is the lack of connection that seemed odd to me. Tourism is largely an experience of surfaces.

I learned a guidebook page’s worth of information about the sights we saw. Just at the point I’d start to find a point of reference in a town, we’d move on to the next. The Greek people were kind, welcoming, and friendly, but I’ll probably never see any of them again.

Of course there is always the possibility that one of these things will hit some deeper chord and lead to a new interest, a new direction in life.

Or maybe I’m over thinking this. After all, who doesn’t want to look at beautiful stuff and eat good food? One day we followed the GPS to a tiny seaside town we picked more or less at random off the map. It turned out to be one of the most picturesque places we visited, and the sole taverna in town served platters of small, perfectly deep-fried fish whose English name I never learned.

Perhaps, as with so many things, both are true: it does feel like taking the shortcut through someone else’s backyard in order to have these experiences, but it’s also a lot of fun.


First, thank you to Anne for her wise guest blogs. Those hard-to-begin apples came to mind as I sorted through my accumulated emails. Second, this is your blog on some serious jetlag, so I’m going to keep it short. If it doesn’t also come out sweet, I beg your indulgence until my brain and I are reconnected in the same time zone next week.

I was in transit for a few days, which gave me the odd feeling of being location-less. Place began to slip away at the fancy airport hotel that lacked any hint of Greece except the stuffed grape leaves at the buffet. It disappeared altogether during a surreal sprint through the Vienna airport—picture any dream you’ve had about trying to get somewhere and failing, give it to Kafka for rendering, and you’ve got a good idea of being between terminals in Vienna. And finally, I spent a night in New York City but a New York City without subways and almost without sidewalks as my cousin picked me up from the airport and a car delivered me back to it at 4 a.m. the next day.

All of which made me grateful that I belong to a certain spot of Earth. The oak trees on the hills began to place me during the drive from LA. While I was eating lunch on my first full day back, a hummingbird came by to check out the Mexican sage by my bench. Greece and California look a lot alike, but I didn’t see any hummers while I was there.

So to all the people, creatures, and plants, the smell of the air and the feel of the soil, the ocean and the hills, and even the In ‘N Out hamburger joints, thank you for making this place home.