Few things can make my eyes glaze over faster than looking at other people’s vacation photos. I’ll never forget the Christmas when a friend gave her husband a video made from home movies of his graduation trip to Europe thirty years before. After a long, wine-soaked dinner, we settled into soft sofas to watch endless footage of our much-younger host standing stiffly in front of one monument after another...after another... I was asleep within fifteen minutes, and would have spent the entire night there, snoring away, if one of the other guests hadn’t had the presence of mind to exclaim, “Well, this has been lovely. Thanks for sharing those wonderful movies!” And that, thank goodness, brought the ordeal to a close.
What is it about travel that makes us so determined to show our photos to one another? After all, you know what I look like, and you know what the Eiffel Tower looks like, and seeing a photo of me standing in front of the Eiffel Tower is pretty low on the thrill spectrometer. It's pretty clear this urge to display our travel pix has little to do with others' desire to see them and everything to do with why we chose to take that particular journey.
If you ask people why they travel (and I often do, usually late at night in bars) you generally hear either “to get away from it all” or “to see the world.” If they’re feeling particularly honest, or tipsy, they may confess it’s to have something exciting to post on social media. Friends who run a glamping (glamorous camping) website say the choice of vacation destinations and accommodations is now increasingly driven by the desire to post cool photos on Facebook. And let’s face it, a tree house in France stands a better chance of going viral than that picture of you in front of the Eiffel Tower.
All those are real and valid reasons, but I don’t think any of them is the main reason. I believe we travel to change ourselves. Sometimes it’s the simple need to relax our bodies and minds on a beach or entertain ourselves at Disneyland, but often it’s a deeper desire to reconnect with the world. “It’s easy to think in terms of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ when you’re watching TV,” my husband, Rich, said recently. “But when you are out there in some impossibly remote location, and you meet people who are essentially no different from everyone else you know, you realize there is no ‘them.’ It’s all ‘us.’”
Seeing new things makes us look with fresh eyes. And when we return, often we find that everything we know is infused with new meaning. As T. S. Eliot famously wrote: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” If we’re lucky, we’ll also know something new about ourselves as well.
Coming home transformed, perhaps in ways too subtle to identify or describe, we often have a vague yet powerful feeling that we must – must! – share this with our closest friends. But how can we do this without leaving them glassy-eyed, stealing glances at the clock, or snoring on the couch? Here are three strategies that may help.
1. Never show anyone more than three photos at a time. (OK, maybe four or five, tops.) Pick the ones that have real meaning, the ones with stories behind them.
2. When you tell those stories, put a bit of “ouch!” into them. Tales of crystal blue water, golden sand, waving palm trees, umbrella drinks… I’m sorry, I dozed off for a moment. Where was I? Oh, yes. The best stories are about things going wrong – the snake in the bed, the AirBnB disaster, the worst haircut ever – and how you coped.
3. Relate your stories to theirs. “It was almost as bad as the time your car broke down in the blizzard…” And then invite them to tell their stories.
You might even ask to see their pictures.
Do you have a vacation photo from hell? Come on over to my Facebook page, post the photo and tell us the story behind it. Or just describe it in the comments below and we'll use our imaginations.
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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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