Wherever you go, there you are

Who first observed that “wherever you go, there you are”? Buckaroo Banzai? Confucius? While it may sound like Eastern wisdom, it seems to have a Western origin:

So, the cross is always ready and waits for you everywhere. You cannot escape it no matter where you run, for wherever you go you are burdened with yourself. Wherever you go, there you are.—Thomas à Kempis, Imitation of Christ, ca. A.D. 1440

For many of us, Labor Day marks the end of summer. Students and teachers return to the classroom, leaves change color, and the summer travel season ends.

A walk sign in Santa Fe, NM, has a distinct Dia de los Muertos vibe.
Even the signs in Santa Fe can make a cultural statement. Photo: Rachel Detwiler.

This year I’ve made a point of going to visit friends I haven’t seen since the pandemic, as well as revisiting favorite places on my own. One such place is Santa Fe.

How to get there

In my family, we always noted with great interest how different people give directions. It’s a quick and surprisingly good way to see how they think. Engineers will almost invariably draw a map. IT people will give you a step-by-step algorithm. My uncle Torsten, a retired ship’s pilot, would get out his navigation charts and explain which signals to follow from which buoys.

It can be interesting to see what sorts of landmarks people give to help you find your way. It tells you what they notice—a clue to what’s important to them. A geologist friend of mine, for example, cites landmarks that will still be there 1000 years from now: “Turn right at the terminal moraine.” A former classmate giving directions to her house navigated exclusively by shopping centers.

It’s frustrating, though, when the directions include landmarks you can’t see at the time you’ll be going there. For example, a purple house that’s conspicuous in daylight isn’t all that visible at night. I’ve even had people tell me something is near where a particular landmark used to be—not helpful when I’ve never been there before.

And there you are

While some people crave the familiar, I prefer to see, hear, and taste things I couldn’t easily find at home. I enjoy experiencing something characteristic of the place and its people. Admittedly, it can be uncomfortable to be surprised all the time. Having lived and traveled outside the US a fair amount, I know that sometimes you just want things to be recognizable. But on the whole I prefer to see what there is and get to know it. I find the sameness of chain stores and franchises discouraging. Why travel if everything just looks like it does at home?

It helps to find out something of the history, culture, and even language of the place before you go. That sets a context that helps you appreciate what you’re seeing. One of my mother’s friends used to read up on a place during the year before she traveled there. I usually just find a book with an appropriate theme or setting to suit the place.

A dialect with an army

I studied Norwegian for two years before my postdoc in Trondheim. Despite the prevalence of English throughout Scandinavia, learning Norwegian enhanced my experience tremendously. Indeed, not everyone there speaks English. Kids don’t learn it until they’re in school. Before the end of World War II, people learned German, not English, as their second language. Some people aren’t that good at languages, and others have forgotten what they did learn. Or they may have the vocabulary for work, but not for social situations. Mastering Norwegian was a struggle, but it made it infinitely easier to communicate with lab technicians, shop for groceries, and follow the evening news. It also helped me connect with people outside of work.

A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.—Max Weinreich

As a bonus, I could speak Norwegian with my Swedish relatives. My uncle Torsten, once fluent in four languages, had lost enough of his hearing that he struggled with spoken English. But he could share his sea stories with me in Swedish. When I traveled to Denmark, I could read everything and almost understand what people were saying.

Learning even a few expressions in the local language also sends a better message than insisting on English. On a 10-day trip to Nigeria, I made a point of learning the basic greetings and as many names as I could. I had the privilege of attending a wedding while I was there. Before the ceremony, the pastor introduced all the guests. Most got collective introductions—the bride’s cousins, the groom’s classmates—but the American guest got her own. When I stood and greeted the other guests in their language, there was a collective sigh.

Wherever you go, there you are. Learning the language—even a little—makes the whole experience better for everyone.