The Art of Travel, Part I: Temporarily Lost

I remember reading somewhere that it’s extremely difficult to build robots that resemble humans because it’s near impossible to teach them how to walk. We think walking is a fine-tuned process of moving our legs forward. But in reality – and this is what robots have trouble with – we simply sort of lean forward when we want to go somewhere. This make us fall forward a tiny little bit, and we are in constant danger of toppling over, except our legs are there to swing in front of us and brace the fall. Walking is a series of constantly aborted falls more than anything else.

Not so for a robot. For a robot to walk, every tiny movement has to be programmed ahead of time, every bump needs to be foreseen, and still catastrophe can strike at any moment.

What I’m here to tell you is that traveling should be approached the same way a human learns to walk.

Unfortunately, many of my fellow Americans prefer to program that robot, so to speak, when it comes to traveling. A friend of mine (of Australian and Scottish origin living in the United States) tells this anecdote: 

“Where is a good way to eat in Edinburgh,” she says friends will ask.

“Ummm, everywhere?” is typically her answer.

But Americans – forgive my generalization here; If it makes you feel better, I count myself among them – love nothing more than being in total control when traveling. 

It’s understandable. In the U.S. we get much less vacation time than the average world traveler, so we want to make sure that we see everything in the allotted time. I mean EVERYTHING! And to make it all happen, things need to be planned like Eisenhower’s invasion of Normandy. Nothing can be left to chance. Your tour guides must be vetted before signing up, restaurant reviews must be scrutinized like your life depended on it, and pictures must be snapped with cold-blooded efficiency.

There is not really a problem with this approach. It usually works remarkably well. No one can take Europe by storm like a determined American storming through six cities in ten days. 

But I would posit that most of these tourist warriors don’t end up really seeing the country they’re in at all. What they go home with is the pictures they’ve already seen a million times. The Eiffel Tower. The Louvre. Notre Dame. But did they really experience France and, more importantly, the French?

As you might have deduced, I have the privilege of staying in Paris at the moment. I’m here to drop Sunshine, now 17, off at an exchange program where she’ll attend language school. It’s been a bit of a mixed bag. These families hosting students do it for the money and don’t much integrate them into their families. But this has an unexpected upside: My daughter, overprotected like every American teenager, suddenly finds herself with the freedom to roam the streets of this vast city all by herself, as long as she gets home by 9 pm.

Initially, she was terrified. What if I get lost, she wanted to know? 

“You can’t get lost,” I explained to her. “You can only get temporarily delayed.”

She knows her address and her Metro stop, and in Paris that’s all you need. Her unlimited Metro pass has been worth gold. Reluctant at first as a bird not wanting to leave its golden cage, she has slowly embraced her newfound autonomy. There are still small moments of panic when finding herself on the wrong train, but once a level head is regained, the problem can typically be solved very easily.

What works for the goose works for the gander. These past few days, I have been wandering the streets of Paris rather aimlessly, letting myself drift in one direction or another. Each street corner poses a slew of possibilities. Does this way look promising or that? What are the signs pointing out? Where might I find a shady bench to sit down for a while to read my book? Again and again, I have let myself get lost by simply following a group of people, the glimpse of a church spire, or a pleasant scent. 

street sign in Paris
Where to go? So many possibilities…

Easy for her, you might say. It’s true – I have the luxury of poo-pooing my fellow travelers’ rush to see the Mona Lisa in a throng of ten thousand other people because this is not my first time in Paris. It also helps that I’m traveling alone. No need to consult with anyone or cede to their – no doubt stronger – opinion. My camera roll shows none of the iconic sights of Paris, but I’ve discovered the loveliest corners. La Place des Vosges – one-time residence of Victor Hugo – in the late afternoon, when families come down with young and old to mingle and relax. The Jewish quarter in the Marais where one can find Paris’ best falafel and pastries right next to each other. Le Café Procope, where one can see Benjamin Franklin’s portrait in the window right next to that of Robespierre, butcher of so many. 

Place des Vosges in Paris
Place des Vosges
Sacha Finkelsztajn storefront in the Jewish quarter in Paris
Iconic store front in the Jewish quarter of Paris
Cafe Procope in Paris
Cafe Procope in Saint-Germain-des-Prés

You’ll be amazed what kind of detail you take note of when you are not hastening to the next stop on your agenda. It reminds me of my childhood, when traveling to a foreign country was so deliciously exotic that even a visit to the toilet provoked a sense of wonder. 

I have never been this relaxed on a vacation. I have no stress, because I have no places to check off my list. I have not exhausted myself waiting in long lines. And I have enjoyed nothing more than returning to my tiny apartment over the rooftops of Paris in the evening and sitting there by the window, letting the street noises waft up to me. And through all of this, I have fallen in love with Paris more deeply than ever before.

In front of Centre Pompidou in Paris
One of my favorite places in all of Paris was in front of the Centre Pompidou where modern meets medieval in a wonderful harmony of colors and shapes.
Man feeding pigeons at Centre Pompidou in Paris
On my way to the banks of the Seine, I came upon this scene and was reminded of the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
La Conciergerie in Paris
La Conciergerie
medieval area of Paris
Medieval Paris
Street corner in the Marais neighborhood of Paris
The neighborhood of Le Marais, a historically gay-friendly area of Paris
Repairs of Notre Dame cathedral
Repairs of the roof of Notre Dame in full swing
Rue Nicolas Flamel in Paris
Harry Potter fans will appreciate what I came across here

If we give up our need to control everything and just let ourselves drift a little bit, we get to experience a new place very differently. Perhaps this can be said of life as well?

Just consider: If you didn’t make a plan, you can’t be disappointed if things don’t go according to it. Everything feels right. You’ll never have any fear of missing out. You’ll never have time pressure. You’ll simply drift along and absorb the wonders of a new and exotic land.

I challenge you to give this a try when you next touch down in distant lands. Practice the art of getting temporarily lost. 

Start with living where the locals live (Airbnb is your friend). Ditch TripAdvisor entirely. There simply isn’t a need to ask others were to eat. Nothing has poisoned the joys of discovery more than TripAdvisor, even though I admit I’m a regular contributor. 

apartment in Paris
My rooftop apartment on the Rue de Chateau d’Eau was absolutely perfect.
street corner in Paris
Street corner near my place on the way to the Saint Denis Metro stop

Throughout all these years of traveling, my fondest memories of meals I’ve once had are exclusively of places I knew nothing about until that moment: The little pizzeria in the Trastevere region of Rome just 5 minutes from our place that we stumbled upon, ravenous and ready to sit down, never matched again in atmosphere and quality of food for the rest of our Italy vacation; The hilltop restaurant in Lisbon recommended not ten minutes earlier by our taxi driver who was not lying when he said it would be unforgettable; the little tapas place in Barcelona – where there are thousands of tapas places to choose from – that I only picked because of a promising window bench where I could slouch down and read my book. Any prior research would have been exhausting and pointless. Just like in Edinburgh, you can eat everywhere in Rome, or Lisbon, or Barcelona. Don’t let your need for control and perfection spoil the joy of spontaneous discovery.

Perhaps, next time you travel abroad, you will try my approach. Tame your need to research everything ahead of time. Stay longer, rather than shorter, in a given place. Don’t plan out your days. Instead, just walk out the front door every morning, turn your head to see which direction looks good, and simply start walking.

I promise you, good things will happen.

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