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Thursday, February 26, 2009

The reward of rituals when we travel

Don't you love a good ritual? I do. And some cultures are just so good at doing them. Middle Eastern cultures especially. Take the carpet buying ritual with its unfurling of rug after rug over countless cups of tea. The Italians are do rituals well too, from the late afternoon aperitivo, essentially cocktails somewhere in the sunshine with complimentary snacks that these days verge on a buffet meal, to the passeggiata, that see-and-be-seen evening promenade when the whole community comes out in their best threads to do laps of the town and socialize. When I'm normally at 'home' (we've been on the road three years now!), I love my rituals. And none more so than my weekend ritual in Dubai (and before that Abu Dhabi), which for me was the only way I found worked best to wind down, and that was to relax with a Morrocan mint tea (the pot jammed with fresh fragrant mint) and a dish of sweets (either baklava or Turkish delight, whatever was around), perched on the bench by my window where I could look down and watch the action in the neighbourhood street below. One pot of tea and all was right in the world again. The thing I love about identifying and adopting rituals when I travel is that they make me feel at 'home'. And I don't mean Dubai, or even Australia, but they make me feel at home in the city we're staying in, especially if we're there renting an apartment for a while. Joining the locals in their daily rituals is, I guess, just one way of trying to live like a local, and that's partly what travelling is about for me. What about you?


Anonymous said...

Definitely agree with you there! Traditional Rituals is one of the things I look forward to when I travel. And frankly, my favorite ritual of all, is eating! lol. Great Post!

Anonymous said...

I think when you travel you become disconnected with your daily life. Not necessarily a bad thing, but on longer trips it can be disconcerting. My ritual (and you're going to hate this) is to go to a McDonalds at 10 a.m. at least once on a vacation and have fresh, hot french fries. The smell and taste always remind me of home and the people watching can't be beat.

Anonymous said...

@Travel Muse, I do understand that it can feel great with familiarity abroad, but I would never ever recommend anyone to go to McDonalds during a vacation. (Or any time at all for that matter, but that's another thing.) It feels so much better to eat at local restaurants you haven't heard of, where you can experience something new. But then again, I went to Starbucks A LOT during certain trips in Europe which is similar to your McDonalds rituals.

Lara, I completely agree with this:
"The thing I love about identifying and adopting rituals when I travel is that they make me feel at 'home'."

One of the best things with visiting a new destination is developing new rituals. And you don't always know before what the rituals will be, that's exciting. And sometimes they change; the first time you visit a certain place you develop one ritual, and the second time you adopt an entirely different ritual.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Travel Blog! Thanks! Couldn't agree with you more!

Although Travel Muse, while I appreciate you sharing your rituals with us, you're dead right I'm not impressed one of them is morning fries at McDonalds! ;) I always wonder what kind of people - other than hungover ones - eat fries at 10am? So they make you homesick, hey? But that's not the point of a local ritual? They're meant to make you feel at home... ah, I think I feel a post coming on... thanks!

Lara Dunston said...

Erica - I agree with you on McDonalds - but shame on you then on Starbucks! I see Starbucks and McDonalds as being exactly the same. Don't you think they do the worst coffees in the world? Those big dreadful weak milky things? Yuk! And so expensive! I would much rather throw back an espresso at a coffee bar standing up with the locals. I just don't get why people need to carry around this gigantic cardboard cup of coffee with them everyone. I see it on American TV shows and I don't get it.

Totally agree with you about developing new rituals... it's exciting not knowing what they'll be, although there are ones we can predict. We know if we're going to be renting a place somewhere in Italy for a while, whether it's Venice or Milan, that we're going to be at the local markets every day buying some fresh seafood, fruit and vegetables, cheeses and cold cuts... we're going to be joining the locals on the passaggietta and we're going to be heading out for aperitivo. But I love going to places I'm less familiar with and finding out what their rituals are.

Thanks for your comments! They were great!

Anonymous said...

First of all I'd like to say that my ritual does not involve mcdonalds... I promise! But, no, seriously... I think my own rituals are simple ones... the thing for me is that travel (itself and some of the bits associated with it) hardly ever feels all that foreign anymore after years of doing it. But adopting the rituals of that place depends a bit on where I am. Tea in England sounds right... coffee in America sounds right too... but they are already what I do in my everyday, and they don't feel like either enough of a reinforcement of my own ritual or an adoption of theirs for it to work for me. I think my capacity to adopt a ritual from another country (specially when it comes back into my own everyday experience when I come home), sadly, is a bit about how much I recognise that ritual from my own suite of experiences.

But some examples of rituals that have worked to make me feel like I belong (that I have also brought back with me) were:
real breakfast experiences, which I find are still foreign to me in my Australian experience. But I think you can see people acting in a very specific way at brekkie that you don't see them doing at other times... so I love, for instance, the ritual of going to a daggy breakfast place in the US (Waffle House!) and people-watching... in ways that I think I just never do in Aus. And it does make me feel a bit like a local, but also reminds me I am far from a local.

This is a bit sad, but I think the big things for me are about food and about shopping. Going to a local market and not a tourist market is a real bonus... often the market will KNOW I'm not a local, but its one of the nice things about having a kitchen in a place you're staying at, that you can make food that locals might make. So it feels like a local experience, and in some ways it also feels like a transplanted and transposed ritual... because I go to those markets at home, and those markets belong in that community. And it does completely ground me, so I think it works in the way that you talked about here.

But then there are some other grounding things not associated with destinations, but with travel... like the familiarity of a hotel room (varied as they are, especially with my meagre research budget and the exchange rate), and... this is McDonalds-sized sad... but the buffet experiences (or sangers and bad coffee) of the Qantas Club lounge.

The carpet/tea ritual that you talked about, Lara, is a bit foreign to me... not that I didn't do it while I lived in Dubai of course... but it never felt like anything other than simulacrum to me. It always felt like I was not local with it... which might speak to my own comfort zone, but also that idea that you can somehow engage with the culture in a way that really reflects the local experience... I'm not sure.

But, really, all cultures have rituals... all travel destinations have them, but do we only recognise them as rituals when they are super different to our own, or do we only recognise them when they are actually really similar to our own. I know for me, it's actually both of these. It's a funny old thing, isn't it? I do love watching the rituals though, if not always engaging them... so May/June for me in the US should be full of Waffle House moments!

Lara Dunston said...

Hey Sandy

Thanks once again for such thoughtful and insightful comments! Really. I'm glad your rituals don't involve McDonalds.. But American coffee? My American friends will hate me for saying this, but isn't that just as bad? I'm sorry, but it's only Italian coffee (or Arabic/Turkish/Greek) for me.

Breakfast... oh, that's so interesting... I thought cafe breakfasts were still big in Australia...? Having breakfast out was a huge part of our weekend ritual when we lived in Potts Point and before that Balmain in Sydney (gosh, over a decade ago), whether it was Eggs Benedict at a favorite French place where we would all line up for a table (and no matter how long it took it was always worth it!) or a Moroccan-inspired brekkie at one of our favorite regular spots, Fez. It was reassuring to see familiar faces, and I guess the whole ritual of taking the newspapers and so on screamed 'this is the start of your weekend!'

Shopping the local markets always becomes a big part of our other city rituals wherever we go too. But, Sandy, even though they know you're tourists, don't you love it when you've been in a city long enough and they get to know you and remember you? We were renting an apartment in Milan for 6 weeks last May/June and would go to the same food markets once or twice a week, and I swear after a few times their eyes actually lit up when they saw us and they almost nodded their heads in approval when we started to remember the names of certain proscuittos or bresaolas, and they noticed our Italian was improving. Or maybe I just imagined that, but let's at least say, it's nice to be remembered and to get a warm greeting... but I really think they appreciated that we were participated (and loving!) their rituals.

The carpet buying ritual may simply be foreign to you because you didn't do it enough. Our apartment, much to Terry's disappointment (he prefers a minimalist style) was beginning to look a bit like a carpet shop. I would buy carpets at every opportunity - usually every time a friend was in town because they'd give me a big discount if my friends bought a carpet or two. So I had my favorite carpet shop and they greeted me like an old friend and bought out the tea and put on the hospitality for my friends and it was all wonderful! And of course it made me want to come back for me!

I think you're right in that when we travel we recognise rituals that are familiar to us and notice those that are foreign and we choose to adopt and/or observe depending upon our own unique interests and experience(s) and our degrees of comfort.

I once shared a room in Mexico City for a while with a young Austrian called Adelaida and she would go down and dance on the zocalo with her indigenous Mexican friends each day. While I would have been happy to learn in a dance studio or some place that was certainly beyond my comfort zone. However how is that different to the all the foreigners who go to Buenos Aires en masse to learn the tango and then dance in the square... is it different because it's a traditionla social dance rather than a traditional indigenous dance?

However, in Mexico City I found a cheap worker's cafe that tourists never ever ventured into and I'd go there for breakfast most days and also occasionally in the evenings, if I didn't have anything else to do, and I would sit and read (I was there doing research) while I ate and have a beer or two. I got to know the waitresses and some of the regulars, and became perfectly at home, and that was my very enjoyable ritual.

Now the familiarity with hotel rooms and Business Class lounges and the rituals those bring is an interesting one because that's about being a jetsetter, my dear, rather than a local... now that's a post I'm going to have to do! Thank you!

Michael Esposito said...

When I worked in Philadelphia I used to like to go to the corner street vendor to buy a hot dog or a kielbasa sausage. The vendor, who was Greek, went through the same ritual every time he moved his arms to go to his various bins for the hot dog or the sausage, then the bun, then the topping. I used to say that you paid not only for the food but for the show as well. My colleagues said that there was another vendor who used to be at that same corner who did the ritual even better!

Anonymous said...

Lara, Starbucks do sell expensive coffee, absolutely! And yes, some of their coffees must be among the worst in the world. Since I've been there so often in the past I've basically tried all of their coffees. I got totally addicted to Caramel Macchiato with whipped cream. Fortunately I managed to get over my coffee addiction for good in 2007, now I go for quality rather than quantity. So much better!