Author Shelly Biswell and her husband, Ken, on a “less-travelled” street in Madrid, Spain.
Over the last couple of months, I have attempted to replace “should have” with “next time” in my language. So, instead of saying, “I should have planned my visit to Segovia so that I could attend Titirimundi (the International Puppet Theatre Festival)”, I try to say, “The next time I’m in Segovia…”
It’s subtle, but “should haves” keep me up at night, and somehow “next times” just heighten my excitement for the days ahead. One represents duty, the other represents possibility.
The poet Robert Frost was right, of course, “way often leads on to way”, so I may never get back to places, but the spirit behind our overseas experience is to live life with fewer checklists. To appreciate where we are and not focus so much on what’s to come.
As part of that, we’ve also learned that instead of trying to hit all the must-sees, it’s better to take a more indirect approach to learning about a place. Unintentionally, house-sitting has helped hone this skill, as the homes we stay in are usually far from well-known destinations. If anyone needs suggestions on what to do with 10 days to spare in Hatfield, England, for example, drop me an email and I’ll fill you in.
Even in places like Paris or Dublin we’ve found that just taking a side street can make a remarkable difference. In Dublin, we dutifully bought our Book of Kells tickets online because next to the Guinness Storehouse (which we didn’t do) that’s where tourists seem to flock. As the line weaved its way around Trinity College’s Old Library and tour bus after tour bus unloaded, we started to wonder if we’d made the right decision. We hadn’t. Whatever awe-inspiring experience we would have had seeing the 9th century manuscript was counteracted by being jostled from one room to the next with dozens of other people.
On the other hand, a local friend recommended a trip to Marsh’s Library, which turned out to be an amazing experience. Aside from a few researchers, we had Ireland’s first public library, which opened to the public in 1707, to ourselves. On top of that, a very knowledgeable librarian generously gave us a “private” tour.
Aside from our own personal fulfilment, there’s also the reality that we tourists are loving many cultural and environmental wonders to death. Ken and I have attempted to operate in a low-impact and respectful way, but I recognise that our mere presence at many sites means we can easily become part of the problem, especially during peak tourism times.
Sidebar: As I write this, Aotearoa New Zealand is considering a tourism tax. I know it will take time to get it right, but it’s a good first step in raising funds to offset some of the costs associated with tourism, as well as reminding people that they are accountable to protect and value the sites they come to see. A tax is something I would gladly pay as we travel from country to country.
For our trip, research and talking with people who know an area has helped us plan more creative excursions. I’ve also learned that I need to let go of my inner twenty-something self (fear of missing out) when it comes to must-sees. Sites such as the Eiffel Tower or the Matterhorn rightly serve as international shorthand for what’s amazing about this world, but they only hint at the depth and beauty of our planet. One really doesn’t know what’s around the corner. Although, as Robert Frost wrote:
“…I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
-The Road Not Taken
When not on her OE, Shelly Farr Biswell works as a communications consultant in New Zealand. You can follow her on Instagram (shellybiswell).