Not everyone likes being invisible, but I often find it refreshing — and convenient, especially when I’m on the road. As “a woman of a certain age” — too old to require construction workers to launch into catcalls, too young to inspire Boy Scouts to assist me across the street — I can choose to slip quietly through the world without a fuss, observing rather than being observed. “I am never happier,” notes British journalist and author Storm Jameson, “than when I am alone in a foreign city; it is as if I had become invisible.”
Becoming invisible isn’t terribly difficult, as the authors of this famous attention test discovered.
Under ordinary circumstances, I find (spoiler alert!) dressing up in a gorilla costume doesn’t actually help you go unnoticed, but my point is that in a busy atmosphere, it’s not that difficult to fly under the radar. Surrounded by people clamoring for attention, often simply avoiding extremes of behavior and dress is enough to let us fade comfortably into the background.
“We live in a time and culture that value display and are largely indifferent to the virtues of passing unnoticed,” writes author Akiko Busch. “If we don’t get the interest, attention and recognition we think we deserve — whether we are men who have retired, women of a certain age (over 50, like me) or millennials who obsess over their brand visibility — we tend to file grievances. . . Which makes me wonder if it is time for all of us to reconsider the beauty, elegance and imagination that can come with being unseen.”
One of the small, peculiar pleasures of my Seville life is walking past the nearby high school when the kids are outside on break. They gather in small groups on the sidewalk, chatting and flirting and flexing their muscles the way kids do. To them I am completely invisible; I can walk through cluster after cluster of kids without anyone glancing at me or seeming to know I exist. And yet, as if alerted by radar, they part before me like the Red Sea, rippling apart to open a path and flowing back together when I’ve passed. One day I stepped forward just as a kid making a point flung out a hand, and he smacked me in the chest. He leapt a foot in the air, turned white then red, and regarded me with open-mouthed shock, as if I had just materialized out of thin air wearing a gorilla suit.
Breaking the illusion of invisibility can be startling, as actress Mindy Kaling discovers in this popular Superbowl ad.
Travel is one of the best opportunities to practice being invisible. You’re in a strange place where no one knows you, so you’re unlikely to be dragged back into the limelight by running into someone you knew in high school or met at a conference last summer. If you’re lucky enough not to speak the language, nobody is going to attempt to engage with you for very long. And that leaves you free to watch the world unfold before your eyes, visible in all its splendors, rich in nuances that for once you have the time to appreciate.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain, to which I've just returned after a 16-month absence due to the pandemic.
As I resettle in Seville, my favorite city on the planet, I'll keep you posted on how the pandemic has reshaped the landscape and where to go to find fun, adventure, and great food in this quirky, engaging city.
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