On travelling and returning home
When I travel I feel that I don’t belong, that I’m foreign, something other. I’m unknown and unseen. It is only when I break the unspoken but mutually understood codes that I find myself in the glare of the locals. It can be something as innocent as walking on the wrong side of the footpath. It took me travelling to a land where the traffic drives on the right not the left side of the road that I discovered pedestrians too are expected to follow the same directional flow. I couldn’t comprehend why everyone seemed intent on walking at me. Observations undertaken across a variety of countries have reinforced this notion that pedestrian traffic flow more or less is dictated by the motorised traffic direction.
Crossing a street takes multiple swivels of the head left and right before I’m sure that it is safe to cross. Walking in New York City, and many other American cities in fact, takes things to the next level. I’ve had people walk right into me as I stopped at the edge of the footpath – sorry, pavement – in observance of the red don’t walk signal facing me. Only fools and foreigners wait for the white walk signal apparently.
As a visitor to a new city, I’ve also crossed boundaries into no-go zones, or the wrong side of the tracks. Sometimes I’ve sensed a subtle change in atmosphere or appearance of buildings. Other times it’s more overt like the frequency of daylight drug sales. When conversing with locals later on, I’ve heard more than once ‘oh you didn’t go there, did you?’ The names of these areas can sound so nice as well – Tenderloin, Mission District, Kings Cross, Sunshine.
As a traveller, I knowingly and actively cultivate my role an outsider. I eavesdrop on conversations in cafes or on public transport. I like to pick up the nuances in the way language is used differently to what I am familiar with. Instead of the phrase ‘take-way’ when it comes to meals, I now know ‘take-out’ or ‘box it up’ if taking home the leftovers of a meal in the States. The words are the known but appear in new constructions. In Australia, an entrée is the first course but in America an entrée is the main meal. All the more confusing as I seem to recall that entrée in French means entrance which makes sense in referring to the start or entrance to a meal.
I vacillate between mimicking the local accent and phrases, and swinging right back into a strong Aussie vernacular. I find it incredulous that some people don’t pick me immediately as being from somewhere else. Others jump in and say ‘of course, you’re from Australia. I meant where in Australia exactly?’ before telling me about the time they spent three months in Byron Bay twenty years ago.
I like to ask waiters and bartenders where they like to eat or drink and what dishes should I try before I leave their fair city – it’s always ‘their fair city’. My travels are mostly defined by the food I eat and what and where I drink. I couldn’t imagine a trip to New York City without a slice of thin crust pepperoni pizza eaten off a too small paper plate. New Orleans now will always require a plate of fried crab claws, shrimp and oysters then a beer drunk from a plastic cup as I walk the French Quarter enjoying the street music.
So what happens when I return home? Exactly.
This time round I’m choosing to walk new streets and drink coffee from new cafes. I’m thinking of pretending that I’m from somewhere else and ask waiters and bartenders what I should do, try, eat, and drink in my home town of Melbourne. One the joys of travelling is returning home and finding yourself and your town the novelty.