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Monday, August 22, 2011

In which I discuss expectations … and offer unsolicited travel advice

“I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list” – Susan Songtag

As far as I’m concerned, expectations, like rules, are best experienced broken. There are few things as disappointing as having my expectations met precisely. I want to be surprised. Pleasantly, if possible, but unpleasantly works too. I want to pick up a book and discover something I wasn’t expecting even if that “something” is that I don’t like it whilst everyone else did, or that I loved it whilst everyone else did not. I want to watch a movie and be incapable of guessing the ending (it doesn’t happen often). I want to travel and have my expectations of what I’ll experience utterly shattered. In fact, one of my favorite parts of traveling is arriving somewhere that exceeds or deceeds my expectations.

“Deceeds?” you ask. “First of all, I’m not entirely sure that’s a word, Steve. And second, why in the world would you be happy discovering a place that is less than you thought it’d be?”

Excellent question, persistent voice in the back of my head.  First, “deceeds,” while not yet a widely accepted term, is gaining footing and I, like Shakesphere, am a vocabulary trailblazer. As for the second question: When a location exceeds or deceeds expectations it’s proof positive that the only way to really know a place is to visit it. Allow me to share one experience of “deceeding expectations” with you – one that might come as a surprise….


Ah, Venice. Even from that small picture it looks magical, doesn’t it? It’s the image I had of Venice before I arrived. Buildings partially submerged by azure water that look so inviting you wonder if one could just swim from one place to another, or at least take a quick dip should the heat become too much. Perhaps you imagine smells of savory dishes wafting across the canals from restaurants and cafés – a sublime aromatic masterpiece impossible to describe with mere words. No doubt there’s a Gondolier just outside the frame steering his boat down the narrow waterways whilst serenading a pair of love-struck tourists with an Italian opera.

Indeed, I had high expectations.

Now, I’m not saying this picture is a fake. Nor am I saying that people who come back from Venice with such a description are liars. It’s just not reflective of my experience. Don’t get me wrong, Venice is awesome and the canals are amazing whether you explore them by boat or on foot. But if, by some unfortunate happenstance, you fell in, you’d not laugh, nor frolic (unless you’re using “frolic” as a euphemism for “panic”). When I was in Venice the canal water was a brown sludge that smelled as through raw sewage had been pumped directly into it from the surrounding buildings. So, if you go to Venice and fall in the canals, my advice would be as follows: Find yourself a syringe filled with enough antibiotics to treat a promiscuous water buffalo and stab it directly into your heart.

Furthermore, while Gondoliers do serenade their passengers, most boats I saw were filled to capacity, so it’s hardly romantic. Should you splurge for a private ride there are still so many boats on the canals that it looks more like a crash-derby, or an Italian version of “bumper boats,” than a relaxing float. Oh, one more thing, since the Gondoliers are all singing different songs, it can, at times, sound as though you’ve just stumbled into an aviary built specifically for angry baritone birds.

“Well that doesn’t sound good, Steve,” you say. “I think I’m going to scratch Venice off my list of places I want to visit.”

Don’t do that! Despite all that I just described, Venice is one of the most remarkable places I’ve ever been. It’s just not at all what I expected. I mean, sure the smells aren’t thrilling, and you might be underwhelmed by your gondola ride, but you won’t regret the visit.

Here’s how I’d describe what you might expect of your first day in Venice (based on my experience): You’ll find your hotel, unpack and go for a walk. The streets, you should be aware, are designed to confound the world’s greatest maze-runner, so be warned, it won’t take long before you’re completely and hopelessly lost. Just when you’re frustration level is reaching its limit you’ll take a right, or maybe a left, and suddenly find yourself in a plaza surrounded by centuries old buildings. In the center will be an ornate stone fountain where locals and tourists alike are taking a break. A dozen or so pigeons will be pecking at crumbs and two or three amateur painters – who seem anything but amateur – will be seated behind easels, painting the very image that you’re experiencing. At the far edge of the plaza you’ll see a street musician – a violinist – who pulls the whole experience together with a piece of music you’re sure you’ve never heard, but which still feels familiar somehow.

The stress will melt, and soon you’ll be on your way. You’ll stumble upon several other plazas while you explore. They’ll be similar, yet different enough to inspire a break. The streets will twist and turn. The stench of the canals will fade into the background and before long you’ll hardly notice it. Hungry, you’ll happen upon a restaurant that doesn’t look all that special, but will serve the best pasta, or pizza, or seafood you’ve ever had. And just when you’re almost back at your hotel, you’ll stop for a scoop (or four) of gelato.

I loved Italy. I loved Venice. I loved that it wasn’t at all what I expected. Go there if you get the chance, and when you do, I sincerely hope your experience is different than mine. In the meantime, read a book that someone insists is the worst book ever, or one they insist is the best. Watch a movie with awful reviews. Try a food that everyone says is awful. See if you agree.

I hope you’re surprised.  

PS – if you’re looking for a bit of food that people either love or hate, might I suggest a durian. To me, it tastes (and smells) like a sweaty pair of gym socks that have been chewed upon by a diseased camel with chronic halitosis, but I know people who swear it’s the best thing they’ve ever tasted.


Avery Olive said...

I think--you've just scared me from travelling you know, I was all good until the end.
Food that tastes and smells like twice chewed gym socks, and don't forget that they were chewed by that camel with chronically bad breath! *shivers* That's just not right!

April said...

Well, I don't see myself going to Venice anytime soon, and it's not exactly on my top list. My husband is the reason - unless we could go cheaply, and he could bring his fishing pole...we would be happy. But he's not one for roaming the streets and sightseeing, so alas, foreign trips are probably not on my agenda unless we hit the lottery, and I take a girlfriend. Even husband's also very protective, and I'm not sure he'd feel comfortable if I went abroad without his manliness by my side. LOL

Sarah Pearson said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it, and that you were surprised. That doesn't happen often enough these days :)

Cynthia said...

Sounds like a wonderfuly surprising ezperience.

Anonymous said...

I usually get ripped off at some point whenever I travel, which has now become an expectation. When I start to get that longing, like it's been a long time since I've been taken advantage of, then I know it's time to take a trip. Then if I don't naively give an unassuming tuk-tuk driver $20 to take me around the block while I fend off a mob of his high pressure sales buddies- it's a bonus. And, I guess, if I end up loosing everything and have to spend the night in a hovel with some diseased camel with chronic halitosis who eats my socks, then I will be surprised. and, after some counseling, I will appreciate my trip for the adventure that it was! haha :)

linda said...

Hahaha I love your description of Venice! I prefer being surprised to being able to predict the ending of a book or movie as well, but sometimes I don't mind knowing the end if the journey is fascinating.

Yeah, I'm not a fan of durian. I do like stinky tofu though, even though a lot of people can't stand the smell!

Carrie Butler said...

Your blog never deceeds my expectations, Steve. :P Oh goodness. Having just typed your name, I realize that I referred to a unicorn named Steve in my post today. Don't worry. It's not you. lol

Rambling aside, I enjoyed this post! I'll probably never see Italy, but I like the way you described it. :)

Steven Whibley said...

@Avery - LOL - I didn't mean to scare you. You can buy durian in your local grocery store - it's the fruit that looks like it could double as a weapon - you should try it, I'd be curious to hear if you'd be one of the people who love it!

Steven Whibley said...

@April - I've traveled a lot, and I can tell you that Italy was one of the most expensive trips I've ever taken. It's not the accommodations or food or entrance fees to various sights. Those are actually quite reasonable. But traveling within the country is very costly. I'd say 70% of our budget was spent on trains.

If you're looking for a place that's cheep, safe, and where your husband can do some fishing, might I suggest Thailand.

Steven Whibley said...

@Sarah and @Cynthia - Thanks for the comments. Being surprised really doesn't happen too often, does it? I do tend to seek out books and movies that people hate, just in case i don't agree. But even that happens rather seldom.

Steven Whibley said...

@Anonymous - HAHA! I've never spent the night with a diseased camel, but that would indeed be an experience :) I've been ripped off several times too. I know they have tuk-tuk drivers in a few countries, but I'm going to take a stab and say you're talking about Thailand. If you ever go back, here's a tip: Those Tuk-Tuk drivers get paid 400 Baht if you stay in one of those shops for 15 minutes (regardless if you buy something or not). Tell them you understand the score, and that you'll stay in for 15 minutes but that you're not paying for the ride and they only make one stop. They go for it every time.

Steven Whibley said...

@linda - I've never had stinky tofu, but it sounds ... um ... interesting? Is that really the name? "stinky tofu?" sounds like it might be an acquired taste :)

Steven Whibley said...

@Carrie - don't feel bad, I look surprisingly similar to a unicorn. You named yours well ;)

Lola X said...

Absolutely fantastic blog!!! Glad I found it! Love it!!!

Lola x

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