The longer I’m home, the more I realize I’m guilty of something I suppose is not unique to me as a traveler: a casual disregard for the familiar, the safe, the practical. I perceive the things, the places, that I know or simply think I know as less worthwhile than those I’ve never seen or heard of, simply by dint of their convenience or proximity to me.
I have a long history of thinking this way. I knew at the age of nine that I wanted to learn French instead of the vastly more useful Spanish I’d grown up hearing every day in California. I ignored the stellar public university system of my native state to go to college in Massachusetts, about as far as you can get from my hometown without a passport. When I lived in Boston, I never bothered to walk the Freedom Trail; despite the fact that I spent most of my 20s in New York City, I never went to the Empire State Building or Ground Zero. And when I left New York, my “exotic is better” mentality played a significant role in my decision to live in a country I’d never even visited rather than trying out a new city in the States.
There are plenty of arguments to be made for this type of thinking, of course, and I believe in them all: “The familiar will always be there to go back to.” “You should get out and see the world while you’ve still got the flexibility and drive to do it.” Even my own seemingly impractical decisions — to learn French instead of Spanish, to go to school on the East Coast, to work in customer service in New Zealand rather than pushing on with my career in New York or Chicago or San Francisco — have not only served me well, but have proven to be some of the best choices of my life. But still, I wonder sometimes if I go overboard in giving the familiar short shrift.
So for the next few days, I’m conducting an experiment in my own backyard, so to speak, and playing tourist — or traveler — in San Francisco.
I was born in San Francisco, and my parents tell stories sometimes about leaving me under the supervision of the neighborhood grocer while they ran errands; or about how I’d reel in passing strangers in the park , tricking them into cooing over me by dropping my toys, repeatedly and without shame, at their feet. I have no memory of my first years there, but when I was a teenager I still used to whine that my parents should have kept their rent-controlled Cow Hollow apartment rather than moving us to the suburbs when I was two and my sister was on her way. In elementary school I’d go on class field trips to the Exploratorium, and later, when my friends and I got our licenses, we’d occasionally drive out to a mall on Market Street because any clothing purchased in “the city,” we reasoned, was cooler than what we could have gotten at home.
So while I’ve always found it convenient to think of San Francisco as familiar to me; while I’ve always referred to it as simply “The City” as though we were on some sort of buddy-buddy terms; my basis for knowledge of the place is appallingly slim. As soon as I graduated high school I wanted something more “unfamiliar,” so I took off for the cities of the North East. Then, rather than returning home, I gambled on the South Pacific. These days, any associations I have with San Francisco are evidenced only in childhood scrapbooks. And today I’d be more confident walking map-less around Hanoi than I would San Francisco. When my parents try to give me directions by saying “head towards Powell Street” or “it’s right by Pancho Villa’s taqueria on Mission,” I stare back as if they’ve just asked me for the square root of 792.
And over the years, it’s all started to bother me. It’s made me feel… myopic. When friends come home from a West Coast vacation and tell me San Francisco is their new favorite city, I just shrug my shoulders and say, “Yeah! San Francisco’s great! It’s really… pretty!” I pride myself on actively avoiding cabs when traveling, but when a friend invited me to a Christmas party in the Sunset a few years ago, I got so utterly lost that I had to hail a taxi. And now, when friends and family ask me why I look for new places around the world to live rather than trying out San Francisco, I don’t have a great answer for them.
So my plan for the coming days is simple: to make the supposedly familiar into the actually familiar. To develop even a modest sense of direction or place of being in San Francisco. To wander until I get lost and then figure out how to take the streetcar back. To explore the neighborhoods I’ve never even heard of. To stay in my first American hostels (oh yes, I still love hostels). And, most of all, to finally get to know the city that I’ve overlooked for so long.