“So, what do you like to…do…when you travel?” my mother asked me recently. She posed the question with a slightly furrowed brow, in the sort of dubious tone you might typically reserve for quizzing the man next to you on the subway about why he’s wearing a lime green mankini and clutching a jar filled with human hair and toenail clippings—except, of course, that you would never speak to that man, or even look him in the eye.
You see, my mom is not an especially avid traveler, having endured numerous road trips trapped for 14 hours in a car with two whiny children and three Siamese cats (one of which was always inevitably in heat—the cat, that is). So it was a fair query, and it should have been easy enough to answer.
But to be honest, I had to think about it. I’m not a keen collector, so I’m unlikely to spend my days bustling between boutiques searching for the perfect addition to my “Cities of the World” limited edition ceramic thimble collection. Nor am I a real “culture vulture.” I get hives if I spend too much time in a museum—particularly if it’s a sunny day—and, I’m ashamed to say, I fall asleep at the opera and the ballet.
“Well,” I finally admitted, “I guess I just like to wander.”
When I’m in a new city, I enjoy simply stepping into a strange street with a map and a short, scribbled list of recommended restaurants and cafes (and bars, of course), and then…getting lost. That last bit happens quite naturally, because I have such a poor sense of direction, I wouldn’t know up from down if it weren’t for gravity.
I’m a sucker for a narrow, winding cobbled lane. I’m always sure it will lead somewhere interesting. Usually, it does, and when I find whatever that is, I have my camera at the ready.
I come back from every trip with hundreds of photos. A wall of graffiti. An imposing door. An intriguing sign. A gargoyle hunkered in a sunbeam atop the roof of a cathedral. Two grown men, inexplicably clad in diapers, loitering beside the Seine.
Although I’m never going to melt my credit card in a buying frenzy, if I see a shop that’s particularly unusual, I’m not averse to crossing the threshold.
Istanbul’s labyrinthine Grand Bazaar, for example, is an absolute must. Not only is it an Aladdin’s treasure trove of hookahs, mosaic lanterns, Turkish rugs, tasseled slippers, belly dancing outfits, designer underpants and the occasional axe and chainmail, but it’s also cheap entertainment–if you’re not intimidated by the aggressive sales pitches of the proprietors. My favorite? “Excuse me, lady. May I sell you something you don’t need?” It was so cheeky, it almost worked.
I’m also a huge fan of cemeteries, which might seem morbid, but I think of them as big, leafy parks filled with intriguing sculptures. In many cases, they also provide your best opportunity to get up close and personal with celebrities (albeit dead ones) without having a restraining order issued against you.
The first time I visited Paris, I dragged my poor beleaguered husband to every repository of human remains in the city, including the granddaddy of them all, Pere Lachaise. There you’ll find Jim Morrison, his grave marked by flowers, empty liquor bottles and tiny plastic cups filled with…well, how the heck do I know? I certainly wasn’t drinking from them. But the true rock star is Oscar Wilde, buried beneath an Egyptian effigy that is covered with red lipstick kisses everywhere. EVERYWHERE, people.
My other great indulgences are ruins and castles. Give me a ruined castle, and I’m in heaven. There’s just something about meandering along crumbling walls and imagining the scenes witnessed by those centuries-old stones. The whispered conversations by a fireplace. The secret assignations on a spiral staircase. The arrows that might have flown from those window slits. The…oh crap…did I just step in a wad of gum?
And so, sometimes, Mom, I also find myself shopping for a new pair of shoes.