Category Archives: Travel Planning

Fairy Tales vs Reality

When I was temporarily living in Warsaw this summer I took a weekend trip to visit Krakow. My first thought upon seeing the latter was what a mistake I’d made in choosing to live in Warsaw. Krakow was so beautiful! The old buildings and the winding roads and the park that encircles the city were all a kind of magic. The evening rains just added to the atmosphere and that special je nais sais quois. Less than 24 hours later, I’d reassessed.

Krakow at night

It’s not that Krakow was any less beautiful. It was just that I had seen the entire old town three or four times. It was a great sized city to visit for a weekend, but some of the charm would be lost living there, I think.

Fairy Tale Cities

Since then I’ve seen quite a few more cities on this trip. I’ve enjoyed them all (yes, even Bratislava) but only some fit into what I’m calling “fairy tale” cities. This is inherently a subjective metric that is best defined by the old axiom “you know it when you see it.” Often, in Europe at least, these cities are historic places that almost seem to be good to be true. And in some ways, that’s what they are. Hoisted upon shaky foundations like tourism and consumerism, these cities are almost like a form of Disneyland. As much as I love them, there’s something ephemeral or pretend about them that just doesn’t feel substantial.

These cities exist not just in Europe but everywhere in the world. Look at the pictures below. From afar, Ljubljana and Luang Prabang (which are more than 8000 kilometers away from each other) look like they are the same city.

Having cobblestones and castles helps, but fairy tale cities are as much about vibe as anything else. I’d argue Te Anau, New Zealand, Launceston, Tasmania, Guatape, Colombia Jaisalmer, India and Kuching, Malaysia all fit the bill based on their charm and proximity to nature.

Mundane Cities

Other cities, like Warsaw, like Berlin, like most cities in the world, really, are more mundane. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have a long history and plenty of tourists or that they’re not beautiful. It just means that they are less defined by an imaginary past. There’s more of an emphasis on the present. Some of my favorite cities are like this: Melbourne, Fukuoka, Bogota, and Vancouver BC all fit this description.

I think cities such as Paris, London, Tokyo, Bangkok, Delhi, fit here too. Not that they can’t feel magical, but they’re so big that it’s a different experience. Fairy tales are on a personal scale that megacities overwhelm. That’s just my gut instinct though. Feel free to disagree.

Mythical & Mundane

Now there is third kind of city. It’s sort of one that splits the difference. Your first steps there may feel like walking through the past or a gateway into another world but the longer the spend there, the more you realize how much more there is to the place. Prague has a population of 1.3 million people and receives 8 million tourists a year (at least a million of which you’ll see on the Charles Bridge at any time) at least partially because it’s a perfect fusion of old and new. It’s a living theme park, you could say.

Another place that fits this description is Tallinn, where you walk along 15th century cobblestone streets next to historic Hanseatic homes along side humble food delivery robots.

Do you have a preference for one of these kinds of cities to visit? Or to live in? Where there any cities I left off? Let me know!

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.