Anywhere you go that isn’t home, you’re officially a tourist. Whether you’re there to sightsee, or just passing through, if you need to study the map, or ask directions, you’re a tourist. Thanks to the internet, it’s hard for any new destination to feel new once you arrive. You can simulate the neighborhood stroll on street view, and practically taste the entrees from the luscious pictures someone has posted of the restaurant you’ll try tomorrow. You’ve seen a slide show – and reviews – of everything notable there. Fortunately, real life is a bit different, delightful, and surprising.
We’re visiting Madison, Wisconsin and are finding it a beautiful, walkable city. Downtown near the capitol it’s hilly with beautiful views of the two lakes that hug both sides of the isthmus. It’s clean, with little traffic, and blessed with clear skies and low humidity. The home of the University of Wisconsin, I’m sure this town feels very different once school starts. We strolled past the row of fraternity houses, and shuddered to imagine a busy football weekend. But for now, it’s quiet. There’s a wedding, and a bachelorette party, but nothing to disturb us.
Our pre-trip research told us that Madison has a large farmer’s market, but that didn’t prepare me for the endless tables of vendors set up all around the capitol building; the gorgeous produce, the crowds of strolling shoppers, and the families relaxing on the capitol lawn. I looked around for the camera crews – surely this picture-perfect market was a movie set? Next we climbed to the dome of the capitol building where we could walk outside, see some of the dramatic sculpture up close, and look out over the geography formed by glaciers.
Years ago I visited Paris. First time there, but to a French student who has pored over French history, and maps of Paris and its landmarks, it felt familiar. I knew from the top of the Arc de Triomphe I’d see the spokes of streets radiating to the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and Sacre Coeur. Yep, all of Paris was arranged as it should be. Down at street level, there was so much more to see. The width of the sidewalks on the Champs Ellysees, the glittering pastries, the sprawl of cafe seating.
I’ve learned that preparation makes for a good trip, so that you have somewhere to stay and some ideas for good meals, but it’s also important to be open to the experience of a new place. Poke around, stroll aimlessly, find its humble offerings. Then you go out in serious search of cheese curds.