Travellers, Not Tourists

“The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.” G.K. Chesterton

Castle of Grinzane Cavour, Piedmont, Italy

I grew up in a place inundated by tourists every summer so have always tried to avoid being one myself. Travelling to specific destinations was never a priority for us. I’ve always been anxious in crowds and shied away from visiting cities. Our travelling consisted mostly of family camping vacations in New England and eastern Canada, or visiting family. 

Several years ago, I attended a day of meetings for work. We started with an icebreaker. I really don’t like icebreakers as I don’t do well when put on the spot. I had to tell everyone in the group where I have always wanted to go. I blanked. I stood there stammering while my much younger colleagues looked on. I was the older woman without a bucket list. I saw the pity in their eyes. Finally, a wise young man came to my rescue. He said that it sounded like it wasn’t where I went that was important to me but who I travelled with. I agreed, mostly to end my ordeal, and we moved on. I remember telling my husband that night how this young man had summed me up so well. For a long time that’s how I saw myself as a traveller. It was about spending time with family and experiencing things together. 

Then the kids grew up and we started venturing a little farther out of our part of the world. I tried to conquer my worries and be open to going to new and bigger places. It got easier for me but we still didn’t have a bucket list of destinations. We picked popular destinations at first. We walked on the Golden Gate Bridge, saw Yosemite, took a gondola ride in Venice, did the Sound of Music tour in Salzburg, and stood in Wenceslas Square. They were all amazing experiences but we learned early on to include some less touristy places as well. We got used to being asked, “What brought you here?” We never really knew what to answer though. 

Three years ago we were in a town in the Piedmont region in Italy and I had another one of those moments of self-realization brought on by a stranger. The owner of the inn where we stayed asked that all too familiar question, “What brought you to Alba?” We clearly weren’t the foodies or wine experts that he was used to staying with him. He was used to dealing with a different clientele. He then called us travellers, not tourists. We had never heard this phrase before. I know, we’ve led a sheltered life. I didn’t fully appreciate the meaning of this at the time but I liked the sound of it. We are still discovering what being a traveller means to us. 

So what is a traveller? According to the internet, it means experiencing the people and their culture, not just the sights. It is a simple concept but seeing myself this way has made a huge difference for me. When I focus less on specific sights, I am better able to enjoy the experience of being somewhere outside my comfort zone. Sometimes we just have to be part of the crowd, especially since we have done most of our travelling in the summer so far. That was supposed to change this fall but, well, COVID. What I have learned is to try to take a step back to enjoy the experience and not just take in the view. We walk as much as possible, partly because of my fear of public transportation, but also because we see more that way. We sit and people watch. We balance the major destinations with a few days in quieter places. I’ve learned to conquer some of my fear of crowds to see what we want to see but we also don’t feel bad if we skip some things that just don’t interest us. 

So that’s it. We are learning to be travellers. We were hoping to venture to some new countries this year but that’s on hold for now. In the meantime, we are enjoying having our daughters back with us as we ride out this crazy pandemic. We have a vegetable garden, thanks to our girls, and are now enjoying our first harvest. I dug out my recipe box and started baking more regularly. We’ve also tried some new dinner recipes, mostly pasta. I’ll save the reason why we eat so much pasta for another day. I’ve also started sewing again. All my friends and family have lots of masks. I’m trying to enjoy things for now but looking forward to the day that we can board a plane again and continue in our journey as travellers.

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