Have you been to ______?

Sometimes it’s easy to know what countries you’ve been to. You spent a week in Spain or lived in Brazil for a year or traveled through Asia for 3 months. Those are countries you’ve “been to.” Some people use the verb “did” (ie “I did Vietnam last year.”) but I’m not a big fan of that terminology. A lot of travelers count the countries they’ve visited and in these cases it’s easy to know where you’ve been.

Even this way is a little crude. I can spend one night in Athens, drinking grappa until I can see several Parthenons and I’ve “been” to Greece in the exact same way that someone who lived there for 5 years, learned the language and explored the country has. So it’s going to be broad brush strokes no matter what. Even our limited relationship language (itself far too didactic) is better. You could have your one-night-stand countries, the countries you dated casually, the countries were more serious, the countries you were engaged to, and so on. This level of granularity is obviously ridiculous and not going to happen but it illustrates how much room there is to distinguish different kinds of visits.

And this says nothing of countries you’ve visited twice, thrice, or even more times.

Other times it’s less clear even than that. What if you take the night bus from Norway to Denmark and pass through Sweden? Technically your body has been there but you saw nothing other than maybe an Ikea or two gleaming in the night. Or if you fly from San Francisco to Seoul and have a layover in Tokyo. Have you been to Japan? These countries are exist in a liminal state of visiting. You’ve technically been there but had no meaningful experiences.

To combat this, some travelers develop their own metrics. “You have to leave the airport,” is a credo many travelers live by. Presumably you can substitute airport for train/bus/car. I’ve talked to some who believe you haven’t visited a country until you’ve pooped there.

I’m here to propose a new way to measure. I think once you have learned something without meaning to about a country is when you can say you’ve properly been there. This precludes checking wikipedia for history or duolingo for a phrase. It’s when you learn a word just from hearing it or witness a custom different to your own. It’s when you talk to people from that country and learn something of the history or culture. It’s when you learn something of the politics: who the president is, why people are marching, what this holiday that you didn’t even know existed is all about.

This moment might take a day, might take a week, maybe a month. But until you’ve gleaned something new about the place you’re in, you might as well have never left the airport.

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