I close my eyes in Fort Greene park, flanked by the far-away whisper of a Tuesday night block party, tree shadows, and a resting bicycle. Summer life moves slowly past me while I float outside of myself, inviting the weight of the day to sink out of me and the tension behind my eyes to release. I try not to think about anything, searching for silence in my mind, but the image of a man and his pistachio-colored eyes, and the memory of his fingers pressed softly over mine kept creeping into my thoughts. It's not the first time he's walked in on my meditation—when I surrender to moments of pure relaxation and comfort. The park is a good place to feel this way: a neighborhood place, a tranquil place, a lets-not-leave-quite-yet type of place, a place to forget about your day job or your anger. The park is that distinctive place that smells of a friendly BBQ in the early evenings, where joggers move up hills and across cobblestone, where my sister reads her book on Saturday afternoons. It's where I ride when the sweetness of the late summer night speaks to me and tells me to sit and be still.
Ever having moved from Chappaqua, New York to his new apartment in Manhattan, Grandpa always put the word out he was looking for company. Wanted a reason to escape his own thoughts. One afternoon, having exhausted my time sitting in the park, I phoned him on his landline to inquire about a wine or conversation about jazz. "Who is it? he asked twice, having not heard clearly the first time. "Simone, Grandpa," I said again."Oh yes, yes dear. How are you?"
I tell him I'm near, I think, on the corner of 5th Avenue and 69th Street. "Oh yes, yes dear. I'm just finishing dinner. Please come over."
I walk toward 72nd street, taking in his neighborhood on the Upper West Side, to his building flanked by basic necessities: a sushi restaurant, a bar, the 1, 2, 3 line. Charging into the lobby, I am eager to wrap my arms around his generous belly and feel the comfort of a hug that reminds me deeply of my Father's. "Miss, I'm sure that's not the apartment number you're looking for," the doorman tells me. "There's a much older man who lives there." His unsolicited remark is met with a smile. "Why yes, that's exactly who I'm looking for."
11 stories up, Grandpa waits with his heavy laughter, dressed in a hoodless blue sweatshirt with the words BROOKLYN in bold, white text. He welcomes me in, past a decades-old cd collection stacked five feet tall. With the New York public news station playing on the TV, I try to remember the last time I watched cable television. Grandpa gives me the special family tour of his entire [modest number] square foot apartment, un-phased by the uncleanliness -- an empty frozen dinner plate sits out on the kitchen counter and work papers grow without order next to an old computer screen. He keeps a picture of my sister and I, ages 4 and a half and 9, respectively, on the wall, next to the wedding photos of his four children and that famous one of Dad and his brother taken in their childhood backyard in Iowa. Together we admire the stationary bicycle next to his bed, the one for daily 7 A.M. rides.
Grandpa and I sink into the couch and into conversation. He tells me about his journey to reach London in the 50s, coming and going via the Atlantic because boat rides were cheaper than flights and the girls were plentiful, about the jazz publication he writes for although the editor stopped paying him many years ago, about the late afternoon phone calls exchanged with an innocent old fling from the West Coast to help ease the memory of his late wife. He asks a few questions, but mostly he talks. I like that: he makes me rich with his favorite memories so I can carry and nurture them into the future. I start to get the impression this is what growing older looks like: moving somewhere small and anticipating people will come to visit and listen to your stories.
I leave when Grandpa grows tired, and we agree to meet more regularly than once in a blue moon. He bends over and kisses me on the forehead. "Be well, dear. Please come back soon." "I will, Grandpa, I promise."
Where do you live - Brooklyn, NY
Favorite local restaurant - Talde (from Chef Dale Talde) is my absolute favorite. Get the guacamole, whole grilled branzino and crab fried rice for one of the best meals in New York. Cocktails are great, too. In the city, it’s a little spot called Lovely Day. It’s unpretentious Thai food in a very cool setting. If you go, make sure you sit downstairs. (It’s hidden). I also love to eat anything prepared in my own kitchen.
Did you travel when you were young - Always. My parents are huge advocates for family vacations. We camped a lot, traveled to Costa Rica, Montreal, Europe, New York (by way of California). We all used to love Hawaii - I think we went six or seven different times when I was younger. When business was really good for my Dad, he would surprise us by having a limo pick us up and take us to the airport. As girls, we used to love that. Now that both my sister and I are grown up, we travel more modestly, or at least differently from vacations that are solely for relaxing. We’re very lucky because all four of us enjoy the same things: a hotel room with character, hiking, museums, a nice meal and bottle of wine, and blues music. This past year, we went to a Blues Festival in Portland, Oregon, danced all night in New Orleans and went to multiple shows in San Francisco. We love to have fun together: I feel very fortunate.
Favorite airport - Can’t say I have one. I like the ease and familiarity of San Jose airport. Once I get my bags from the carousel, I know I’ll be home in less than 15 minutes, where my Mom will have already decorated my bedside table with a bouquet of flowers and left scattered newspaper clippings for me to read. Nothing really beats that.
Least favorite airport - JFK over the holidays can be a headache, but I’m not great with airports in general. I remember one time, flying home from living abroad in Paris, I got stuck for half a day at Charles de Gaulle. It was December 19th, the day after my 20th birthday. I had stayed out at a club until 6am, then came home to collect my suitcases and left straight to the airport. I might have been a bit drunk going through security. A massive snowstorm hit and delayed the flight by six hours. I don’t know how, but I managed to make my connecting flight in Chicago by only a handful of minutes. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to hug my parents.
Gadgets - Nothing much, really. As long as I have a book, a journal, a magazine and music, I’m perfectly content. It’s good, because technology adds a lot of weight to your bag. Though, I suppose books do too.
Favorite apps — Again, I don’t use many apps. I wholeheartedly believe in disconnecting when I travel. At home, I’ll browse Twitter to get my news and prefer email to keep in touch. I post photos to Instagram after my trips, once I’ve had time to process and re-live and appreciate the places for myself. I don’t understand the current fascination with Snapchat. It feels like it gives us an excuse to stay less in touch, because we already know what people have been doing. Who knows...I still write and send letters, so maybe I’m just old school in that sense.
Travel routine — I don’t have one! That’s the beauty of travel for me. I think the best way to get to know a city is to walk it, and walk it alone if you have the opportunity. Being on foot, by yourself, requires you to be hyper-aware of your surroundings, from the street names to the smells to the colors of the trees. I also always ask the people working at the front desk for their favorite local spot to eat with friends. I do love the research process before a trip - talking to people, reading independent guidebooks - because it gets me excited by possibilities. It always allows me to have a more holistic understanding of the culture so as not to arrive ignorant.
Travelers you admire — Anyone who takes the risk to travel alone. Obviously, traveling with a partner is deeply rewarding in its own ways, but traveling alone takes bravery and tenacity, and shows a certain level of open-mindedness. People who travel with a purpose to volunteer, or to learn a new language or work abroad: vacationing is easy and it takes experiences for one to learn that travel has a lot more to do than the seeing of sights. I admire everyone who has an understanding, or an interest in understanding, that it is necessary to immerse ourselves into a culture in order to develop a deeper connection to the people and the land, and have an experience that is greater than ourselves.
Where are you dreaming of now — So many places! Cape Town, Canada, all of South America. I’ve been a pescatarian for almost five years now, and I’m looking forward to going to a country famous for its meat to taste it again for the first time (e.g. devouring a steak in Buenos Aires).
Country you would most like to return to — it’s a difficult question for someone who is always wandering toward a new place, toward the unknown. With so many places left to explore, I love the idea of continuing to seek out somewhere completely foreign. Though, there is something romantic about returning. While the destination is the same, the way we remember a city might be different. We as an individual, as well as the circumstances will be different, and so we can create entirely unfamiliar memories. When I went back to Paris for three weeks after living there as a student, I suddenly had my own budget to savor the luxuries I bypassed years before. Plus, my sister was traveling there at the same time, so I was once again captured by the delights of Paris but with fresh eyes. Going back to the original question, I recently returned from Guatemala and feel it could lure me back for years to come.
Where to, next — I spent last year planting my feet in New York, creating a home and developing my professional life. But travel is really more of a mindset in how we engage with the world, rather than a checklist of places. So my mentality this year is ambitiously imagining a trifeca of balancing home, career and travel. This year, I’m planning to take a lot of adventures in the US, to get to know the great cities of the country and find out what makes them so “great.” Hopefully somewhere in South America, like a trek through Colombia. Also, I’ll be traveling with my family to Indonesia and Southeast Asia.
Home is — someplace warm, with artifacts that inspire you. Los Gatos, California. A fire in our fireplace during wintertime with my family around the coffee table. The sound of my Dad playing piano in the living room. Newspapers and lots of books.
Travel is — both difficult and incredibly rewarding.
Your alarm went off 40 minutes early this morning, but only because you anticipated sitting with your thoughts longer than usual. You lit a candle and let it flicker next to your mat while the rest of the house stayed sleeping. It was a silent practice, just as you like it — just as you craved it above the clouds in Guatemala. This December 18th in New York is much like any other December day in New York, but you don’t mind that it doesn’t feel out-of-the-ordinary. In fact, it feels quite nice to appreciate the sameness.
You paint your lips a deep red and pack your body in layers. It’s one of those brisk winter mornings that the peaking sunlight is deceiving and the air chill wakes you up in all the best ways. The streets outside are reasonably quiet, save for the first Brooklyn commuters leaving their apartments. ‘Just get me through today,’ their faces say.
You walk one block West to the same coffee shop you go every other day that you wake up early, though you don’t particularly love the coffee. In fact, as of recent, you’ve stopped drinking coffee altogether. But when you write — and you love to write — you need a reassuring sense of predictability: you awaken your imagination through familiar smells and background sounds. Today, you use a credit card to buy a black coffee with no room, to-go, please. The words come out and the card slides and you can’t stop from ordering something you know you won’t drink. But changing up the routine will be good for you today. Today you are twenty-five.
At 25, as much as you love to write, you also love the process of figuring out the story itself. When your mind needs a break from words and screens and thoughts, you find riding your bicycle deeply gratifying. Never underestimate the power of the wind, the cold, the heat or the humidity to wake you up.
At 25, you are still experimenting in learning to cook. At 23, you hated it; it caused you angst and anxiety. Today, few things would give you as much pleasure as discovering a new recipe, and thoughtfully, meticulously preparing it with, and for, friends. You always hope friends would like to contribute a piece of themselves as well, since sharing a home-cooked meal is one window into another’s soul. Chewing to taste is something you aspire for, though of course, it’s not always an easy thing to do.
At 25, you strive to be kind and inclusive, above all. You value humility, selflessness, fairness, spiritual and material balance, compassion, integrity. You welcome people into your life who share the same values.
You feel inspired by the women in your life, for they are empowered, thoughtful and highly remarkable individuals. These women have drive like you’ve rarely known from friends, with passions and talents to back it up. Cherish these relationships. Honor them, too.
At 25, you have aspirations, but you’re not afraid of taking your time to achieve them. You are young and can pursue the deep passions of your life as they continue to present themselves. For most certain, your greatest passions will shift and evolve as you continue to look inside and discover what gives you intrinsic satisfaction, and fills you with excitement to wake up in the morning. Tikkun Olam is one of those things; always keep that desire to give a part of you.
Not only are you young, but you still feel young, too. You feel reliant (emotionally) on your parents. I think that’s okay no matter what age you are. That’s what family love is for. Your mother once told you that “family love is all-encompassing and essential to your well-being.” You feel excited to offer your parents the same nurturing and all-encompassing love, and for further growth in the future.
At 25, you are a ‘creative professional,’ loosely defined. You value, admire and respect your work peers. You call them peers because that is what they are, though they are also professional, intelligent, articulate, creative individuals. Even if you really love your job, you should always question what it is offers you in return. While you question, celebrate the things that you do enjoy about it. Appreciate your continual desire to be challenged; what a treat in life to love to be challenged! To want to learn everyday!
More importantly, at 25, remember that work is only a modest part of the journey even though it will define a large part of you for a very long time. Make sure it gives you more than just contentedness: it is vital for work to provide you with enough reward to be happy, to feel stimulated, to experience self-growth and education. When you think about who you are, you are not your work. You can think about some of these things instead:
“I am 25.”
“I am kind.”
“I always have more to offer than what I am currently doing for the world.”
“I am a woman with a voice and strength and ideas that I want to turn into stories that are read, by myself or by others.”
“I am a traveller because it makes me feel more alive than anything. I am a traveller because it builds me up, it knocks me down, it makes me fearful, curious, hungry, satisfied and whole.”
“I am mindful, and mindfulness should be coveted.”
“I am sensitive to the criticism of others.”
“I am indecisive.”
“I am always learning, from myself and from those around me.”
“I am true to myself; I am unsure of my intentions for the next five years; I am confident that everything will be okay then, too.”
On your birthday, remember this: 25 is not a peak, nor a conclusion, but simply a steady transition into another unknown phase of opportunity. Recognize that you are on a new trajectory from any year before, and remember to check-in often to make sure you’re still following the right path. (And that sometimes the wrong path is the actually the right path, and vice versa). If at any time you feel lost: turn around, or go in another direction entirely. Don’t be afraid to see where the new route leads you, for you will certainly discover something, or someone, ever more fulfilling in the process. Think of it as one great adventure, and darling, you love adventures.
Alexi Surtees // New York
Words to live by: "This is it!" Many great words to live by, this is a short one I often find inspiration from.
Currently listening to: "Halcyon on and on, by Orbital"
I always travel with: pen and paper; also often an apple.
Book recommendation: Hmm... Oh the places you'll go, by Dr. Seuss
We met at a coffee shop, Williamsburg, mid-Sunday afternoon, put in touch by a mutual friend living in London. Simone is a wonderfully thoughtful conversationalist. "Thank you for inviting me to reflect on your questions. I look forward to many shared adventures in New York and beyond."
“What makes you travel?”
Coming from generations of cross-cultural marriages - wonder (or wander) may be my fourth passport. Most of my memories involve movement. “Alexi, where are you going?” I can barely stand and push at a rickety cart piled high with fresh Greek lemons, “to China!” We built secret passages to “Timbuktu.” We were always going somewhere, back to one place or for the first time to another. At four, my sister lays out her clothes by outfit, insisting on shoes bought too big. I pack only my favourites, returning outside to climb trees. If I close my eyes, I remember the movements.
Running across sand, dirt clinging on the back of my legs. The succinct passing of house, tree, street we might have lived. The outward hands we were introduced to, the hugs and kisses shared warmly by strangers. At home we read “We’re Going on A Bear Hunt” putting on our wellingtons, we squelch through the mud and rain. I travel, because that movement is how I learned to say hi to strangers, be open to experience, play games without cards, make feasts without recipes, awake with curiosity and excitement.
“What has been your favourite exploration or travel experience?”
I lived outside in Mexico for 78 days. Outside as in a sleeping bag, stars, no tent. 15 of us, we didn’t see people for 21 days at a time. That’s a very intense, all-encompassing experience. I had never felt such strength in my own legs and mind. You become hyper aware of every sensation.
“What is it like to travel to a place you are from?”
I think it tends to be more introspective, I used to try to see myself through these places. How my mannerisms may be rooted from one part of the world or another. How my love of being outside is evidence of Swiss heritage, or my depreciation British. I have become less interested in trying to place myself geographically now. I would rather enjoy the place and my experience with it.
“What is it like to return to a place you have travelled to so many times?”
Going back to a place over a period of many years, among the familiarity are elements of new. It’s similar to deepening your relationship with someone you thought you know well. My family is partly Greek, so my one constant has been returning to this special place each year. One year, we create a flower book dry-pressing each volcanic flower. Another summer, we write a story inspired by the sea anemones, which later appeared as a family dining table. Some years, running and cliff diving are everything. Others, it’s all about understanding the stars and playing marathon charades. We are constantly wandering, sometimes going far. Other times learning more about one place. Really the question is “how do you become really good at seeing more?”
“You live in New York now, do you enjoy it?”
Moving to New York a year and half ago was the first time I felt a continued sense of home. I can create a space to feel like a temporary home, which I had done over and again. When I continued to wake up in New York morning after morning, I felt this profound sense of home. Describing to a friend I felt encouraged by its consistency and its challenge. Also for the first time, I felt surrounded by people who were for the most part displaced in New York too.
To me, home is a place in which you can grow - continually. It also has an element of consistency. Here, there are constants among the chaos, faithfully there will be people, and cars, and smells. Among this crowd is some of the most incredible compassion I have witnessed. I love the people in New York. Sometimes, I wake up and spend the day as a tourist in New York. That is also enjoyable.
“A lot of people share their travel stories, do you document your experiences?”
I enjoy reading stories. Interestingly, I don’t typically share my travel stories and am sometimes hesitant to document. During longer trips with lots of movements, perhaps staying a different place every night or so, documentation allows for a continuation of experience. I tend to feel so absorbed by the day that I often choose sleep. In some way the experiences become part of my dreams. There is a book I read during my undergraduate studies, White Noise by Don DeLillo. He writes of “the most photographed barn in America”, describing how “no one sees the barn” they “only see what others see.” The accessibility of sharing writing and photography, has changed our experience of places and this passage really made an impression on me. I do my best to place that new experience first.
A goal during my second year in New York is to document more because it can be interesting to see what others see.
“How do you keep exploring daily?”
On a daily basis I walk a different street. I walk the same street a different pace, looking at people, the buildings, the numbers, the colors. It’s an exercise in just actually seeing. Sometimes, I don’t look, I listen. Or smell. Or only watch listening to my own music. Sort of a meditation of space. During the first 12 months I lived in New York, I didn’t want to document. I wanted to find the soul of place.
I ask a lot of questions, too. Inquiring is inspiring. When my mind feels limited, I ask others. Exploring is a collective consciousness, so I love to also learn how other people are discovering new places or reflecting on adventures.
. . . On saying goodbye to the little things
The paper cup was barely the size of my palm, but large enough that my fingers could grip around it comfortably. The espresso inside was a dark roast, both strong and potent in its aroma and taste. I knew drinking it at 4pm, even on a lazy Sunday as it was, would keep me wide awake with thoughts of California. Seated on the one of two benches available in the coffee shop, I took the first sip. I added a pinch of brown sugar cane powder from the wooden condiments shelf: it tasted more pure than white sugar and somehow felt healthier, too.
The shop was also small and comfortable, with bare brick walls illuminated by filament bulbs. Three circular top hats hung behind the man in a plaid top and denim apron who took my order. At that time in my life, I should have been conscious with my habitual spendings, but still I forked over 4.5 dollar coins for the drink. All of it — the simplicity of light, the smells that make you happy to spend, the artisanal everything that are not considered artisanal, but rather normal — is typical of Melbourne. Of which there are many, these qualities are just a number of the things that I loved.
I didn’t plan to sit there for an hour, carelessly lost watching as customers walked in and out. Most of the people who came and went carried colorful, heavy bags filled with produce purchased just outside at the Queen Victoria Market. I remember this vividly because I, too, carried colorful, heavy bags that I would later bring home to prepare for our weekly Sunday family dinner.
It was never my favorite coffee shop in Melbourne, nor was it one that I frequented, but on this day I enjoyed it all the same. On this lazy Sunday in particular I realized how special it was: I sat and savored my espresso slowly, thoughtfully, knowing that in just a few days I would be on an airplane home.
Enjoy life instead of clinging to it or pushing it away. If you can live like that, each moment will change you. If you are willing to experience the gift of life instead of fighting with it, you will be moved to the depth of your being. When you reach this state, you will begin to see the secrets of the heart. The heart is the place through which energy flows to sustain you. This energy inspires you and raises you. It is the strength that carries you through life. It is the beautiful experience of love that pours through your whole being. This is meant to be going on inside you at all times. The highest state you have ever experienced is simply the result of how open you were. If you don't close, it can like that all the time. Don't sell yourself short. This can go on all the time - unending inspiration, unending love, and unending openness.
- Michael Singer, The Untethered Soul
Most recently back from London and New Orleans, among other heat-filled locations, one destination still sits at the core of me, bursting for attention. To reach it one has many options, such as to fly direct to the town’s single terminal that services both domestic and international flights, or to spend twelve hours in a haze of discomfort on an overnight sleeper bus. For land travel, guide books warn the faint-hearted to take precautions before attempting the rutted and sleepless journey engrained within the transport system. There are ‘VIP’ bus offerings that are not in fact ‘VIP’ but rather the foreign business man's attempt to squeeze an extra $20 out of the easily-connived traveller. Alternatively, you can arrive by way of boat — a wooden, less-seats-than-passengers, ramshackle boat— that passes through the natural mountainous regions of the north of Southeast Asia. I opted for the latter of the three choices to reach Luang Prabang in Laos, convinced by travelers’ preferred route of a multiple-day, whiskey-fueled expedition down the Mekong River.
Imminently upon boarding, boat passengers replaced their young Thai coconuts with the nighttime poison of Lao-Lao and began to share longwinded stories about the people they were back home. Joey the frustratingly confident middle school film teacher; Michael the artist and party supplier; Carrie the recent divorcee, with blue eyes like diamonds, trying to make sense of a broken relationship. On the first leg of the ride, I sat next to Steve, an overly apprehensive American traveler who, despite his apprehension, offered a form of comfort in the familiar. Steve and I listened, and we told our own stories. He, the 28-year-old banking consultant who one day woke up fearing life would pass him by; me, the writer naive to many things besides kind strangers and the comforts of my affluent upbringing.
There were no windows or rafters on the boat. All of the backpackers in too-loose fitted pants swung their arms and legs over it's wooden edges and murky mist splashed on their shoulders. When the sun exhausted, we reached our half-way destination. Anticipating our arrival, every local family from the single-road town waited at the dock. The $1.50 guest room fee to stay at one of their guest houses fueled their entire economy -- the clothing and technology weighing down my backpack had never felt so trifling.
We eventually reached colorful Luang Prabang. Those vibrant colors drew me more than almost anything, along with the Laotion attention to flavor and artisan tapestries. My quest East, guided less by inner transformation than I hope to admit, was fueled and fulfilled by a desire for new sensory experiences. At the night market, come 5pm, every night of the year, the city’s main street of attraction came alive against its dirt backdrop. Women line the road with exotic red and orange stalls, all of them selling the same paintings as the vendor two stalls down from them. The goods for purchase are unchanging but are regularly frequented, likely because it is one of a small handful of evening attractions. The vegetarian all-you-can-eat buffet — tucked down a loud, potent alleyway — being among the others. Halfway through the market, if looking closely enough, you can find a hidden entrance to a long hike of stairs that leads to Wat Poissy. The top of the temple, it seems, overlooks the entire country. Everything in the town moved slowly, but I felt neither lost nor restless — two attributes history has long associated with reason for movement — for being lost or being restless are deep curiosities that propel us outside of life's regular routine.
On one Saturday in November, the low-hanging clouds splashed gray in all directions. The sun had not yet risen and I basked in the extraordinariness of the fog and the eery silence. An older woman with tired, kind eyes whom I purchased bananas and rice and a bamboo-crusted mat told me to kneel opposite of the embankment and wait patiently in anticipation for the early-to-rise monks. The cuff of my jeans were stained dark from kneeling on the asphalt. Three minutes became fifteen until a dozen monks, in their unlaundered orange robes, reached my peripheral. Here I was in Laos, this ordinary young woman, alone on the edge of the embankment, watching these beautifully aged and slender bodies grow closer and closer. When their feet eventually reached me, I passed my offerings dutifully — and as quickly as they appeared, they disappeared into the early morning.
These are all just feelings that I have, not defined memories. Remembering the sheer mysticism and the remarkable details of this place and this past life, I feel compelled towards the simple act of movement itself. I have always been impressed anew by the range of movement that life can offer; we can move and be moved physically, emotively, geographically, gravely, quickly, in fleeting moments, in passing. Almost three years have gone by since I stepped foot in Asia, and in that time the fast-paced, almost anxious movement that was once my defining feature has subdued and subsided. Now, more than ever, I prefer to hear the sound of my feet on the pavement when I walk as slowly as ever, wandering back across the ocean to these places in my mind.
If you have 48 hours in any major city, the following rules will apply:
1. Pack just enough.
2. Familiarize with native language/slang/transport system.
3. Ask locals to recommend their favorite spots, and then seek them out.
4. Walk across a famous bridge.
5. Rent a bicycle as preferred mode of transportation when possible.
6. Research the best bookstore and allow time to get lost inside.
7. Trust the chef.
8. Trust the bartender.
9. Sleep for only as many hours as your body needs to function; You will be back home soon enough.
10. Let serendipity be your guide.
My parents always believed that travel was a necessary part of my upbringing. From family trips to Montreal just when the tree leaves turned from green to pastel to a cruise ship tour across Europe to island hopping in Costa Rica, we seemed to do it all. There was the time (and time again) we swung through the treetops of Maui. Or when we rented an open-air jeep to ride the windy roads of Corfu. And the miles of hiking through Australia's Blue Mountains with only the sound of mist and our own laughter. My sister and I, we took it all in and we loved it. We loved it all.
I even remember the trips I wasn’t old enough to remember. “We used to always take you girls camping. You don’t know it, but we did,” my mother would tell us over dinner table conversation. She’d somehow think she needed to convince us of a once loved past time, although we already knew it to be true. These places and moments came to define how I perceived the world around me, with an eager and ever-present curiosity.
Because travel is in my blood, I find falling in love with a city an easy thing to do. Maybe that’s why I move frequently — from San Francisco to Paris to Melbourne to now, New York. But a true Explorer knows that to be 'well-traveled' does not come from number of destinations lived nor number of cities/villages/towns visited. What makes one worldly is in actuality the ability to compare cultures from one another, and use that knowledge to create more meaningful exchanges. This is the reason I dream of visiting London.
Among these great monuments - the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State, the Golden Gate and the Great Ocean Road - are the ones I've never seen - London Bridge, Big Ben, Hyde Park. I had picked up on what London might look like for a traveler: a fast-paced ecosystem of old, Victorian architecture, high fashion retail, groomed men with striking accents, covert cocktail bars, interactive theatre and gastronomic experiences that leave one satisfied three times over.
My flight leaves JFK headed to Heathrow at 11:30am. I allow myself just 48 hours to get lost — hopelessly lost and potentially, intoxicatingly in love. The whole thing is amusing novelty.
I go in style, packing my essentials from practical to posh: an activity tracker to visualize my cosmopolitan adventure using data, an unused journal to ask strangers for hand-drawn maps and sandals because I’m desperately hopeful for sunshine. The clothing in my bag is versatile and functional, neutral colors with bold patterns, a wardrobe for all occasions.
At arrivals, I hail for a Hotel Hoppa, this brilliant little system that transports you directly to your accommodation for just 4.50 pounds. My driver is an older man with burly, white hair and a hearty laugh; his age translates into historical wisdom of the city. The tour starts before I even drop my bags as we exchange conversation about well-known architecture and royal parks. I offer him an extra few dollars for his shared knowledge and he bids me adieu at the entrance of The Artist Residence, 52 Cambridge Street in Pimlico, just 5 minutes from Victoria Station. The bespoke hotel is more chic than I pictured, a modern vibe mixed with rustic aesthetics. There are 10 bedrooms across three floors, each individually decorated. I am assigned to door number 7, an intimate room flanked by brick walls and vintage leather seats. ‘Eclectic luxury’ offers a more personalized, familiar stay: the concierge service more like an uber-chic in-the-know British aunt who raves about all the places simply not to be missed.
But, I’ve also done my research. I know that Borough Market offers a sensory overload of delicious sweets & treats in London Bridge; Electric Coffee Company is an outstanding place to get caffinated; St. Paul’s dome is worth the hundreds of odd-steps for a view on a sunny day. I also know that cocktails here often come with art because everything is a conversion of sorts, like the museum that hosts late-night experimental shows.
I consult my Wanderlist, a catalog of hidden gems curated from well-esteemed London experts: friends who once lived abroad, the most respected New York Times travel journalists, and Londoners themselves. According to the experts, if I eat, drink and play according to their recommendations, I’ve by-passed the most hyped-up venues and discovered the most memorable and authentic highlights, where one can people watch and enjoy the most delectable Sunday roast.
As any traveler venturing to new land, I pool information from these collective networks to gather ‘locals-only’ insight.“Doing what the local people do when I’m on the road comes naturally. To do anything else would seem silly,” Alfredo Gangotena told AFAR Magazine in 2014. I always keep back issues of travel magazines stacked along my bedside because even as travel becomes increasingly ‘digitized’, the fundamentals always stay the same. Gangeotena's words resonate as I re-read the old content, flipping through pages of ideas that remain relevant however far they are from the past. Just one instance of the power within travel is that perspective remains critical no matter how we age and change with each new country discovered.
But enough of all that. It’s morning now, and I want to see the city proper in the very early morning, the day and the night. Into the streets we go.
I orient with a map at Monmouth Coffee Company, any ardent coffee-drinker’s mecca in Convet Gardens; The potent, strong roast floods me with memories of sitting alone at my favorite coffee shop in Melbourne and immediately I am filled with a sense of nostalgia. I allow myself to be fully consumed by sights and flavor.
Most eloquently, London’s ex-mayor once told the New York Times that “um, visitors should hire a bike and ride through the park.” And most naturally, I’m inclined to. I rent a bicycle and ride through Hyde Park; later I walk slowly through Kensington Gardens for comparison. And then, I continue walking — across the Millennium Footbridge, through Trafalgar Square and its four surrounding plinths, and everywhere that tourists are sprawling but not imposing. I take the mandatory writer’s pilgrimage to the city’s oldest bookstore, Hatchards, where I am completely absorbed by books I can read anywhere yet set amidst an environment that inspires me. I purchase keepsakes for my home; I hope to preserve this foreign memory for years to come.
London has an old legacy of art and architecture. The museum buildings are impressive structures in their own right. The Victoria and Albert Museum is a place that culminates both crafts, the world’s largest museum of decorate arts and design filled with fashion, photography, multimedia and objects. But even more, I am mesmerized by the content of the British Library: drawing inspiration from Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketches, Alice’s Adventures Underground and a Gutenberg Bible. Digital images can’t ever give you the physical sensation of what it feels like to stand in front of this type of history. Like synagogues for prayer and museums for viewing, libraries elevate the experience of reading, which is possibly why we feel uplifted in the presence of old books and ancient artifacts.
By night fall, everything is just divine. I take this time to rate the city’s culinary and drinking scene to that of other major cities. My controls are a number of characterful new and legendary destinations discovered on a self-led grub-crawl. Polpo, a stylish Italian tapas restaurant group occupying three unique spaces around the city, all of which received the Michelin Guide’s Bib Gourmand for five consecutive years; the Blind Pig, an sultry speakeasy serving cocktails in a wood and leather flanked setting; Cahoots, a 40's swing bar nearly disguised from the street; The French House, a classic always-packed, always serving pub in Soho; and Duck & Waffle, for 24-hour cuisine on the top of a skyscraper. I can certainly get used to pre-theatre/post-theatre thrill of excitement — the buzz in the streets and the smell of bourbon long after dark. The energy of the city is unshakeable and slightly seductive, or so it seems this late at night.
Breakfast is equally rich with options, such as Wolseley, a name among the critics for old school english service and tea. Then there’s the full english breakfast destinations, The Delaunay or Electric Diner, but since everywhere serves the classics, I choose the Riding House Cafe to manage the morning after like the locals. The modern all-day brasserie offers greater context while seated among fellow diners at the communal table. I fancy a conversation with a charming English man, and this place seems to afford the most fortuitous encounters.
The gent seated next to me wears a dark blazer with dapper leather shoes. His two front teeth have a slight gap. As with almost everyone I’ve met here, he’s congenial, rather entertaining, slightly charming and eager to please. I tell him we can meet later, and he can be my tour guide (rule 3, 10), because I am deeply curious about East London, and left with just twelve hours before I spin the globe once again.
My own reflection process mimics Ben Franklin’s two daily questions that I admire. To introduce the virtue of goodness into his life, every morning he asked himself:
“What good shall I do today?” In the evening he asked, “What good have I done this day?”
Franklin followed a daily practice guided by actions rooted in consciousness. Through habitual reflection, Franklin developed a pattern and lifestyle bound by the value in which he wanted to live.
I aim to live bound by genuineness and sincerity, and innately, I aim to be happy and fulfilled. Traveling will fuel the soul to desire these qualities and also help to realize our potential to obtain them. When I embarked on a past journey, spending two years away from my home, I was young but not running away from the problems of adulthood. Rather, I ran straight towards the unknown while the opportunity afforded. Elsewhere in the world, I walked with a shield of conscious energy, guided by the warmth of a community of people who inspired me to become a better, more mindful version of myself. In another home, another country my daily reflection of happiness developed organically. I couldn’t decipher if it was good fortune or karma or hard work rewarded, but each day I savored the balanced lifestyle that a new city afforded, if only for a fleeting moment in time.
When I eventually returned to the childhood roof of familiarity, I followed suit of the daily questions, developing a habit of reflection that made me more aware of how my actions influenced my overall state of being. I set conditions that, if followed, would provide me a ubiquitous state of happiness and sought to achieve that balance elsewhere. The fight was relentless but always came back to the very nature of reflection, an action with the power to transform the ways in which we think, work, play, communicate, live. I knew I needed to take the advice I was giving out to others: to reflect often on the positive rather than the negative in order to gain better perspective on the experiences left behind. Because change is synonymous with new opportunities and personal growth, but only when we accept it through such a lens.
We should strive to make reflection a habit rather than saving our reflections for transitions, milestones, holidays, new years, new homes. It allows us to carve out a part of our day where we can celebrate the things we have right in our lives and reveal the pathway to our larger values and goals. We can assess the principles that guide us towards embracing change, and be happy to do so. When we break down our days — by hour, by routine, by the people engaged, by city — we remember to take small changes in the present rather than large, overwhelming transitional changes. It would take this experiment in habitual reflection to appreciate the present — the home city, home country—where in fact I celebrate many successes.
Whatever the conditions of the values that guide us through life — goodness, happiness, integrity, kindness, honesty, creativity — the simple act of conscious, habitual reflection serves a greater purpose of recognizing our physical and mental space. If anything, reflection allows us to pause and appreciate the air around us. Sometimes we realize that everything we're searching for is waiting where we least expect it; We see that everything we feared moving on from is in actuality, very much, ingrained within us; We must strive to become the most mindful versions of ourselves wherever our life journey takes us. After all, happiness is a warm place to come home to.