One of the ways to think of planning your travels asks what kind of connection you want to the places you go. It’s impossible to have a “real, local experience” by spending a few days seeing all the sights before moving on, no matter what authentic food and out-of-the way nooks you explore. Two or three days in a place may be enough to sightsee, catching the major landmarks. But it is only by chance that you have an intimate experience of a place you are only passing through. If you do this too much, you are always a stranger, an interloper, a consumer of the local color, not a swatch of it.
On the other hand, the on-the-road whirlwind becomes the trip, the place. You can have many small encounters that keep you from feeling lonely. Meanwhile, your journey becomes the story, the collection of similar but novel experiences of many cultures the place you arrive at in the end.
Staying for longer than a week to a month or more gives up the variety of many places for the presence of the one. The place itself becomes a companion. Repeated encounters with the same faces, whether the shopkeeper on the corner market or the lady walking the sweet bulldog, lead to exchanges that are less cursory and more genuine. Whenever I’ve stayed a month somewhere, I end up finding coffee shop/dog walking/dinner companions. Suddenly I am part of a community: the nurse who’s young husband died suddenly, the man who invites me to a WWII memorial service and reception, the artist with a weakness for giant ice cream sundaes.
We are meant for connection, and so I look for a cafe I like and make a point of going there every day. A market that suits me and so I shop there, chatting with the folks who work there. After a while, they see me as a person as I do them, and we talk about our lives beyond the weather, good or bad, and how we’re feeling today, invariably good.
Staying a month or longer does come with challenges. AirBnB rentals frequently have big discounts, sometimes as much as 50%, for people staying 4 weeks or longer. How could I resist a month in Avignon, a month in Tuscany, a month by the Mediterranean sea? After a few days, sometimes a week, I feel oddly displaced. I haven’t yet found my groove, and so I wander aimlessly. But slowly, the pattern of repetition fills me with the comfort of familiarity. I return for that bread, those cakes, this viewpoint. My neighbor met on the stairs tells me about a place, I tell her how it went after I visit. Slowly, we share the everyday that for me is like an alternate universe from the everyday of my live in Los Angeles or Maryland. It isn’t as ooh and ahhh as packing one’s days with marvels, but it places another anchor in the world that feels like home. It becomes easier to return, easier to see it as MY place, easy to feel that it is a part of my life even while I’m away. This is the reward for the “stay” mode of travel.
Susan diRende travels the world on her own and has been living with no fixed abode since the end of 2014. This twice-monthly column aims to encourage others to try going solo and explores what can be gained from the experience. All photos ©Susan diRende