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.