At home in any city

The mystery of travel is that at some point on the journey, when I can pause long enough to breathe in the air of a place, I will feel at home – even for a brief moment. When I was walking along Cape Town streets, heading toward dinner on a now-familiar block, I felt it. When I spent an entire summer in Chile and knew how to order only one thing in Spanish from my favorite lunch spot, I felt it. And when I was standing at a tram stop in Amsterdam, telling the Italian tourists how to pay the fare when the train came along, I also felt it.

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Street life in Amsterdam

I think one of the tricks, or maybe results, of a lifetime of world travel is the ability to quickly become familiar with a new place. Part of this trick involves careful studying of maps before any departure – easy for me since I’ve always been fascinated by maps of foreign places. But it also involves a willingness to be uncomfortably lost long enough to become comfortably lost. Because then I’m not lost at all, only wandering streets at will until I decide to return to where I first began.

Every city has a different beat, an unseen pattern to its own madness. Sometimes that beat changes from neighborhood to neighborhood, but the chorus stays the same. Finding out what drives that beat means getting to know a city in an intimate way, through the less-trafficked streets, the small shops and street vendors; even the largest art museums and popular cultural attractions add to the rhythm. They are all things a city can be proud of, and the people tend to reflect that pride.

Being “at home” doesn’t mean I feel like a local, or even pretend that my American clothes and accent don’t stand out immediately to everyone. I realize I look every part the tourist most places I go, with my giant backpack and camera clicking away. But that doesn’t mean I can’t also feel a sense of familiarity and comfort in a new place, even if it’s only the few blocks around my hotel. It’s looking for the familiar in unfamiliar places that keeps me traveling.

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Steel, concrete and nature align in New York City

I’ll Always Love You, New York

It’s never easy to visit a place you’ve heard about for your entire life. There are so many opinions and impressions already in the ether, you feel your own experience will be just a version of someone else’s trip. At least, that’s how I felt about New York City.

As a distinctly west coast girl, New York City was always the magical place that could transform dreams into reality, pass you over like lightning and break you down to your core. It was raw and honest, and always, always…out there somewhere. It took armour of many sorts just to survive, or so I thought. I was prepared to meet this city with my game face on.

When I finally touched down, I felt a welcoming I didn’t expect. That first afternoon of arrival, I walked through Central Park, felt the springtime warmth and saw the beauty in the nature and humanity huddled there. The rest of the trip was like a whirlwind, but I felt at home. I could handle this city, with its grid-like neighborhoods, status-leveling public transportation and a surprise around every corner. This city could be mine, if I wished it so.

The full heartbeat of New York City cannot be understood in just a few days time, I am certain. But I did catch a glimpse of the openness, the wide-open acceptance to come as you are, and the feeling of belonging people must have felt for generations. It’s true, the city does break you down to your core, but that is where we are all human and just like one another. I think that’s what makes the city easier to handle – because however marginalized we may feel in other parts of our lives, in this city, we can live, just as we do everywhere.