“Not all who wander are lost”. That quote has a real cheese ball ring to it, TBH. I can instantly see the merchandise available on Amazon: wall art, coffee mugs, journals – it’s the current answer to the office inspo Cat Poster (clinging to a tree, “hang in there!”)
But you know what? Strip the phrase of its “sell-ability” and I remember how true it is. Wandering is the heart of travel, and the antithesis of tourism. Why? You bet your sweet ass I’ll tell you why. With a story.
While living in London (how glamorous!) I did a lot of looking at stuff. I mean, there’s plenty for a California girl to see; as a transplant to the UK I wanted to see it all. I did everything Lonely Planet told me I should, but I never really saw London. After you’ve moved to a place and settled in a bit, you get comfortable. You take it for granted. I knew my way to the Sainsbury’s grocery store up the block, and found the closest train (Tube) stop for work and school (Uni). Lather, rinse, repeat.
What people don’t often realize about moving abroad is that you’re just living your life in a new place. It’s a city, like other cities. There are places to eat, to sleep, and to shop. Places to work. Cellphone carrier stores and traffic jams. Delays on public transportation. You get it.
How embarrassing! Naive-me assumed that I’d discover instant magic when I moved abroad. And why wouldn’t I? The culture was so different from ‘Murica. The country is ancient (Kay, NO, but the 200+ year old USA is a toddler compared to Tween UK. Egypt is a full-grown adult in this analogy.) London was magic when I first moved there – and then it faded.
The answer hit me square in the face while standing in line (queuing) at the post office in North London, four months into living there. Leaning heavily on one foot with 10 people ahead of me in line, I realized it wasn’t that a life-altering discovery is missing when you move abroad - the magic faded because I let it. I didn’t know any more about the fascinating city I lived in than my routines, schedules, and guidebook afforded me, because I wasn’t looking for London.
What am I going to do about this epiphany!? Buy a bottle of Red on the way home and pout about it looking longingly out the window?
When I left the post office, I walked 5 blocks home to my apartment (flat), blasting the happiest song I could think of in my ear buds. I looked up. I looked around. I noticed the weird rusty stains under windowsills from years of rain, and the shape of the trash cans (rubbish bins) along the street - they’re square. Double decker buses that had become commonplace were a now a surprise. What an obnoxious red color…Why is that bus driver so close to the guy on the bike? Eeesh. There are no parking meters…is that the 5th café I’ve walked past in one block?
It was like seeing the world for the first time. I was hooked.
I started walking everywhere I could, whenever I could. I always walked from class to my Place, even in the rain. I walked from one side of London to the other in one day, multiple times. It’s not even hard to do! You don’t realize how small a big city is until you’re willing to walk. What does London smell like? Wet asphalt + diesel fuel with a breeze of fried food, if you’re curious.
I define Wandering as walking with intention and without destination. It’s exploring on foot without an end location in mind; moving through a place in a way that seems aimless to others, but satisfying to the Wanderer. A good kind of time-suck. To benefit from travel, we need to be exposed to scenery, people, and ideas that are fundamentally different than what we are comfortable with, and to live this experience with an open mind.
Wandering London brought the magic back. I was suddenly inspired in my artwork; the world I lived in was full of beautiful contrasts different than my pre-London worldview. I saw details in people I hadn’t noticed before. Just the act of wandering by myself made me a more confident person. I wasn’t waiting for a friend to meet me at the best lunch spot, or finding out on Yelp that the service at a Camden Town coffee shop was “just ok”. I was trying everything and feeling confident because I wasn’t afraid of wasting time anymore. Suddenly, I had recommendations for my friends (London natives!). Going out of my way on purpose untied the knots in my stomach and inspired some of the best playlists I’ve ever made.
Yeah, yeah, OF COURSE it was life changing - you were in LONDON!
True – what an awesome city to wander through. Sure, there are some places in the world that may not be as sexy as London (sorry Nebraska!), but it wasn’t the place that changed me. It was the shift in my perspective.
Fast-forward 4 years later:
I’m living in a 2nd floor apt with my boyfriend in in the City of Angels, more accurately described as the city of traffic selfies + palm trees. Our place is in West Hollywood, Los Angeles (how glamorous!). We live one block from Sunset Blvd (ooo, ahhh!) and directly across from Seventh Veil, a neon-clad strip club with a no alcohol policy and regular patrons. I drive 3 miles to work everyday, walk 2 blocks to the Ralph’s grocery store, and am an expert at parking in very tight spaces. Hello boredom my old friend… Magic, where did you go?!
Cue Epiphany (no, not the one dancing Saturdays at Seventh Veil). Wait a minute. Don’t I live in a place people pay to visit? Like, their entire life savings goes toward a vacation to the city I buy my toilet paper in, and I’m bored?
Then the memories of walking London come rushing back to me. I decide I don’t care that nobody - and I mean nobody - walks in LA. I’m going to walk in LA. I’m going to discover everything I can in this town. Like clockwork, LA is dreamy again. Even the annoying things are appealing. It’s hot, dry and loud. Billboards that assault your senses while driving down La Brea Blvd. seem silly when you pass them at a walking pace. I can’t remember the cross streets of the store I worked about for 2 ½ years, but I remember the “Don’t Pay That Speeding Ticket” billboard vividly. Call 1-800-305-1500, if you want help fighting that dumb speed trap ticket.
LA had personality - it became a place within a place, full of opposites. Cacti grow wildly in front yards of Spanish-style homes with clay roofs…right next to a very shiny, brand new Whole Foods. Whole Foods is directly across from an abandoned lot filled with tents belonging to the homeless, which is a step away from a trendy new juice bar (“upgrade your morning with a chia seed shot!”). LA is alive. It smells like dry dirt, hot sidewalk, smog, and faintly of jasmine flower bushes. It sounds like traffic, and at rare moments between surges of traffic, it sounds like rustling palm leaves high above you. It also smelled like the human poop a junkie left by my driver-side car door one night. LA’s a bitch. She’s loud, sprawling, and filthy. She’s a gorgeous oasis in a desert, an inspiring city filled with creative people and I love her…but I fell in love with her because I wandered.
Don’t just save wandering for the places you travel to, that’s too easy. Wander the place you live, and discover the magic. Don’t be a zombie. Get out of your car, stop scrolling your Insta feed, and look around. You’ll feel alive again. Probably hot + tired + surprised how tired you are - but alive. GO GET LOST ON PURPOSE. LUHV EWE GUYS. #bealocaltourist