I didn’t travel all that extensively as a child. There was a trip to visit my grandfather in Milwaukee when I was 4, the only thing about which I now remember is that my step-grandmother made me a snack of canned pears decorated to look like mice. There were numerous trips to the house in North Carolina that my parents built in the late ‘70s and to various beaches along the Gulf Coast. There were day trips in Bay St. Louis, and once, when my mother realized I’d never been on a train, she bought us Amtrak tickets to Hattiesburg, Miss. None of these places were particular tourist hot spots, but it didn’t matter: I knew what tourists looked like by virtue of growing up here, and at an early age, I knew I was never going to be caught dead wearing a fanny pack and snapping pictures at a popular landmark.
When I went to Washington, D.C., on a class trip just after eighth grade, I learned I was not alone. The kids from New Orleans were crammed on a tour bus with kids from Omaha, Neb., and Boise, Idaho, and we all rolled our eyes as they took group shots in front of the Washington Monument and bought souvenir T-shirts. When they started excitedly pointing at things, we snatched at their shirttails and hissed, “Stop it! You look like tourists!”
Bewildered, they said, “But … we are.”
And of course, they were right. We were the ones who had begged our parents to pay for this trip so that we could look bored, the ones who wanted to see new things just to pretend like we’d seen them a thousand times before, the ones who denied ourselves the thrill of discovering something in lieu of acting like we’d always known about it.
You’d think I might have learned my lesson then, but I didn’t. I lived next door to St. Louis for a decade but have never been up in the Arch. I went to L.A. to act like I’d lived in L.A. my whole life. I went to Vegas to avoid going anywhere near the Strip. I went to Chicago to scoff at people who wanted to eat deep-dish pizza and go up in the Sears Tower. And then I went to New York City.
I was visiting my best friend for a couple of weeks, and I’d packed an enormous suitcase, yet when I stepped off the plane, I decided that taking a taxi would be “touristy” rather than “sensible” and “sane” and “what anyone who’s not a complete moron would do.”
And so I and my enormous suitcase took a bus and then the subway –– without a map because that would make me look like I didn’t know what I was doing –– to Midtown. Had I a map, I would’ve known about express trains. Instead, I ended up getting off and on the same train about six times, wondering why I kept missing my stop. I did eventually break down and ask someone for directions, but my arms hurt for two days from carrying that goddamn suitcase, and I certainly didn’t prove anything besides the fact that I’m frequently both stupid and stubborn.
My scorn for touristy activities didn’t stop me from having a good time in New York, but I still can’t say I’ve seen the Statue of Liberty, and I don’t have any snapshots of Times Square or Central Park to go along with all of the ones I don’t have from D.C.
Several years later, when my husband and I honeymooned in Mexico, I was at it again, lobbying to eschew the planned trips the resort had set up for us in favor of navigating the public transit system and having what I insisted would be “adventures.” Jamie calmly pointed out that I know maybe a dozen words of Spanish and have an appalling sense of direction, but I was still gung-ho –– until he played to my weaknesses for warmth and alcohol by suggesting that we drink piña coladas in the hot tub instead. And thank God, because I would probably still be wandering around in a sketchy part of Cancun saying “piso mojado” and “buenas noches” and “perro verde.”
I really don’t know if this –– oh, let’s call it a quirk of mine is a function of my personality or a direct result of growing up around annoying drunk tourists, but I don’t seem to be growing out of it.
I love to travel, but I have zero desire to go someplace just to go there. Disney World holds no appeal to me; neither does the Grand Canyon. I want to go to Seattle and San Francisco, but it’s to see my friends Bryan and Tommy, not to see the Space Needle and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m denying myself the fun of it all just because I’m obnoxiously self-conscious. I watch my father-in-law, Jim, who is one of my favorite people in the world mostly because he is so unapologetically himself, as he drinks Hurricanes in the French Quarter and mispronounces “grillades” and “Tchoupitoulas” and takes a hundred pictures of Jackson Square and drive-through daiquiri stand signs. He looks like a tourist, yes, but he also looks like he’s having the time of his life. And then I imagine myself on the verge of tears, lugging a suitcase through a subway system I didn’t even begin to understand. Because he does it all with good humor, everyone is happy to help Jim get unlost or find a good meal or to take his picture on Bourbon Street. Because I won’t ask, I waste more than an hour going in circles underneath New York.
I don’t have any immediate travel plans, but I’m hopeful that I might finally be learning the lesson I flirted with learning when I was 13. I know I’m not ever going to be the type of person who gawks at the Hollywood sign or goes on a carriage ride in Central Park, but maybe, just maybe, I can set aside some of my disdain in favor of a little bit of wonder.