A few months ago I had a short conversation- in the comments section of one of my blog posts- about what it takes to check a country off your list. I have this scratch-off map of the world, and as I start to do more traveling, I’m wondering which countries I can scratch off, and which ones I need to spend a little more time in.
I think this is probably an interesting conversation on its own, and I’d be very curious to hear opinions on the topic. If you’re spending a 2-hour long layover in an airport in Belgium, does this count? I think a lot of people would say no, and yet, I had a friend who vehemently believed that setting foot in a country- in any way and for any amount of time- “counted”.
And then, how much time is enough time to feel like you’ve gotten to experience a place? Can you experience a place in 24-hours? A few days? A week? A month? A year? All of the above?
It depends, of course. I spent 9-months studying in France, and a month walking through Spain on the Camino de Santiago. In both instances I felt like I was able to experience the culture of these countries, in a much more intimate way than I have on any of my other travels. But then I think about Italy, where I just spent a week, and I feel like I don’t really know the country. I was even able to stay in someone’s home and chat with some locals and see a few places off the beaten path… but to know Italy, to try to understand it, I need more time. I’m still checking it off my list, still scratching it off my map, but there is more I want to experience there.
And what about Iceland and Denmark, the two countries I “visited” on long layovers at the beginning/end of my travels? I’ve been wanting to write about this idea of the long layover and more about my experiences (and I probably will, in a future post), but for now, I just want to consider the idea of whether I have actually visited these countries.
Some have said that you need to have a unique experience in a place to say that you’ve been there. So I think about Iceland, about my two long layovers: busing out to a hotel at 4am and peering out the window to see a light sky. Sleeping a disjointed few hours in a comped room and then meeting up with a few people I’d met the day before for lunch. Wandering through Reykjavik, touring the Hallgrimskirkja and going up its tower to see a panoramic view of the city. Buying a warm bowl of soup from a food truck, drinking strong coffee in a cafe and writing a blog post, walking along the old harbor. On my second stint in Reykjavik I again walked along the water, for a few hours (I was just coming off the Camino, so walking was the only thing I felt like doing); I found another coffee shop and I ate a hot dog and I could get around some parts of the city without my map.
Then I think about Copenhagen, and I’m not so sure I can check this off of my list. I was in Copenhagen for less than 24-hours; I slept in a hostel and I toured an art museum, but does this count? When I was on the train heading back to the airport, I thought: “I’m in Copenhagen, but just barely.”
And yet, traveling gives you these unique moments and experiences that feel like something. They are so much bigger than the moments in my typical days because they are foreign, because I am far from home, because I got myself on a plane and on a train and down a street in a city in a different part of the world. I had a few moments like these in Copenhagen. They were so regular, and yet, they were also strikingly different. I was walking down Stroget, the main shopping street of the city, and so many people walked down the street with me, bundled up in long puffy coats and thick scarves and wooly hats. The street opened onto a small square and a man sat on a chair strumming a guitar. The music drifted down the street and as I listened to his voice and walked past bright window displays, I saw a large, full moon hanging low in the sky, just in front of me. I had to stop walking, I had to stop and stand against a building and consider where I was. The music and the people and the moon and the fact that I was walking through a city in Denmark.
Later, I wandered through Magasin du Nord, a large Danish department store. I ended up eating dinner in the cafeteria area on the 5th floor; it was a good solution for a (shy) solo-traveler on a winter night. I saw a few ladies sharing a small bottle of wine so I bought one for myself, and as I ate my meal and drank my red wine, I laughed a little at myself. Shouldn’t I be having a different kind of experience? I justified my department store meal with the knowledge that Hans Christian Andersen had, at one point in his life, lived in a small room in this very building. So after my meal, and feeling nice and warm from the wine, I set off to find the room. Except I couldn’t. I think I had the wrong building (I had the right department store… somewhere in Copenhagen there is a Magasin du Nord that has a room that Hans Christian Andersen lived in, I am sure of it). I explored every nook and cranny of that store, convinced that the room must be tucked away in some obscure corner, but finally gave up (I had a similar experience on my first visit to Paris, when I spent several hours hunting for Jim Morrison’s grave in the wrong cemetery).
So, is this an experience? Of course it is. I can’t say that I know Copenhagen and I certainly can’t say that I know Denmark, and yet, I’m always going to have these memories. Of a beautiful voice and a busy street and a full moon. Of wandering around, a little fuzzy from my department store cafeteria wine, searching in vain for Hans Christian Andersen’s room.
For now, Iceland and Denmark “count”. But the great part about traveling is that you get a taste for more. If I never make it back to Copenhagen, then at least I have a story about the time I drank wine and wandered around a department store looking for an author’s room. But now I have a reason to return: among all of the other things to see and experience… I need to find that room.
I know what you mean! I was in Belgium and Monaco for only a few hours and it feels like stretching it too far if I say I’ve BEEN there. But then again, I’ve been to Singapore maybe 4 times, for 4 to 7 days each time, and I still feel like I haven’t really BEEN there in the same way that a local IS there. And, you know, I live in Cebu, but there are many places that tourists have been to here that I haven’t visited myself. So…I don’t know. Maybe it doesn’t matter. But for purposes of practicality, I would say: as long as you ventured at least a little bit outside the airport or train station, you can scratch/check it off your map/list. (I don’t know why I just can’t bring myself to say I’ve been to Taiwan although I spent hours in the Taipei airport. It seems a bit like saying I’ve been to the US just because I’ve been to the US embassy in Manila, which is, technically, US soil.) –> A very unhelpful answer haha!
Shelley @Travel-Stained says
Lol, this is a hotly contested travel topic for sure! I read an article once where someone called those people that “count” countries by stepping foot in them, “passengers,” rather than travellers. I tend to agree…you do need more time to know a country than a few hours, or a stop in an airport. I also think that it really depends on the place you are visiting. I agree with you about Italy. I’ve been to Rome on 4 separate occasions (AND I had my Italian speaking, ex-Rome resident hubby as a guide), and it was only on my last trip there that I felt that I “knew” Rome. On the other hand, we spent a day in Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay, and that was plenty. I def feel like I knew the place in that short amount of time.
See? THIS is why I love your writing, Nadine. So thoughtfully said, so thought-provoking.
Lately I’ve been having conversations with people in my life about the topic of presence. What I’m coming to know/learn/remember is that I’m most content when I’m conscious of where I am, who I’m with, and how I’m feeling in this moment. Even when the specific circumstances are challenging, when I’m where I am (physically and metaphorically) I can both feel at peace and see possibility. Presence means I am here – mind, body, soul.
By this definition, you could most certainly count places you’ve “been to” and felt really present – like your experience in Denmark – regardless of duration. Conversely, I wouldn’t be able to scratch off some map sections of my own home or property by this definition. I am a zombie a lot of the time.
I think that’s why I’m drawn to travel and adventure. I want it to wake me up, snap me out of my sleepwalking, and help me tap into the beauty in people and in the world around me. The amazing thing is, I can do that here, right where I am.
Nathan Mizrachi says
Jennifer nailed it–it’s all about presence. And that goes for every moment, not just while we’re traveling.
Yup, you guys both get it, and it’s the on-going struggle… capturing these moments and being completely present and attuned to beauty, energy, adventure, etc right where I am. In the every day.
I think it takes at least 3 solid days to say that you’ve come to “know” a city. Truth is, you never really know a city until you’ve lived there. But you can do a city very well in 6 hours. I did Copenhagen in 6 hours or so. But it’s a great walking city. I think it’d be great to live in Copenhagen – expensive, but great.
Once you’ve travelled to enough cities, you “know” which city is for you and which isn’t. And some cities you used to love, no longer is the city for you because you’ve seen new cities that you want to visit! It’s all part of the adventure. I put it all on my TripAdvisor map, even if it is just the airport I’ve visited. Just for fun. Just to see how far I’ve travelled from my hometown.
Tom Karel says
Nadine – I love the photo of the department store dinner! Your post reminds me of our trip to Arkansas and Tennessee a couple years ago. We were so, so close to Oklahoma and Mississippi that I was tempted to cross those state lines just to say that “Yes, I’ve been there.” But I guess that really doesn’t count. – Dad