I often find myself in new places for business and because I’m in and out of a city quite quickly, I don’t always have much time to spare. However, when I do get some downtime, whether I’m traveling for work or pleasure, I always do a bit of research before I set out to explore. I like to arrive in a place that I know a little something about, and I’m not talking about its tourist attractions. I’m talking about its soul, its character(s) and its culture.
There’s nothing more thrilling than the flash of recognition you get when you see or visit a place that has some significance because you’ve read about it in a novel or seen it in a movie. There is a familiarity that arises from knowing a place’s “back story”. If you have that, you’re no longer visiting a stranger; you’re visiting a friend.
Let me give you a few examples of books and movies that can help you learn the back-story of specific places as well things you can do when you get there to enhance your experience.
Barcelona – The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlo Ruiz Zafón. The novel includes hand drawn maps that trace the characters’ steps through plot twists and turns so you can follow in their footsteps.
India – A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth. This sweeping epic does a great job of breaking down the early formative politics of the country. Reading it will give you a better appreciation and understanding of today’s India.
Montreal – Forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs sets many of her thrillers in Montreal. I sometimes half expect to bump into her character, Temperance Brennan in one of the many settings she describes.
Rome – Roman Holiday. Follow Audrey Hepburn as she hops on the back of a Vespa with Gregory Peck to see the sights in Rome. Fall in love with both the city and the guy.
Paris / France – French Kiss. Follow Megan Ryan and Kevin Kline from Paris and Province to the Cote d’Azur in this delightful little comedy.
New York – When Harry Met Sally. For me this is the best way to live vicariously in New York.
Having read a book or seen a movie about a place gives significance to the sights in the places you visit. It makes the experience that much richer. But you can also enhance your experience once you are there.
Here are five fun things you can do.
1) Take a class in a “native” subject. Take tango lessons in Buenos Aires, cooking classes in Bologna and an Ikebana class in Tokyo.
2) Attend a cultural event. Attend the local symphony, a dance performance or a concert given by local talent in a club or a restaurant.
3) Take a tour. It’s a quick way to get an overview of a place, after which you can pick and choose your favorite spots to go back to and savor on your own.
4) Treat yourself. Travel can be stressful process at the best of times: standing in long check-in lines, losing your luggage or just getting oriented. Book a massage, facial, or a wash and blow dry at a local hair salon. It lends an air of “normalcy” to a place, and it makes you feel better no matter what situation you’re facing.
5) Sample the local cuisine. Always make it a point to try one local dish, whether it’s pizza in Naples, poutine in Montreal or antelope in Africa.
Finally as a way to relive the experience once you return home, bring back a music CD of an artist or group that you heard while visiting a place. If the music isn’t live, but piped in through a sound system in restaurant or played on the radio in a taxi, go ahead and ask the waiter or taxi driver about the singer or group. They are happy to tell you about the music to promote their country’s talent.
Once home, you can become an armchair traveler and let the music transport you back in time and place to experience those magical moments again and again.