For most of my life, especially my teen years in rural North Carolina, I worked really really hard to make sure people knew that I was "different." I didn't want to blend in, (though I did want to blend in with the freak kids), I didn't want to be thought of as "from around here," and I rejected anyone who wanted any of these things.
But when I travel, I desperately want to be thought of as a local.
I'm writing this from an apartment in the Central Business District of Melbourne, where I am lucky enough to be staying for two weeks while my husband makes Aussies laugh. And it wasn't until today, as I strolled through a Melbourne grocery store, eagerly pawing through detergents, that I realized something: going abroad activates some strange need in even the most non-conformsit, punk rock country kid to blend in.
Maps are tossed in exchange for wandering aimlessly around, getting lost and never making it where I intended. Restaurants are decided on based on chatting with locals and where I end up. Taking pictures of cool things is a huge no-no, museums are explored furtively and apologetically, and never, ever would I be seen purchasing a knick knack emblazoned with the name of the place I'm visiting. The result is that I return home with reminders of my trip that are less photo album friendly -- ticket stubs from public transit, detergent.
Visiting New York while planning to move there, someone asked me for directions and my heart nearly exploded. It took all I could muster to not scream "I did it, I'm passing!!!" and instead point to the nearest subway.
Years ago, on a trip as with some friends, I ended up in a cafe alone in Boston when it started raining, and as I sat in the window seat, reading the local free paper and sipping coffee, staring out into the night, appreciating the way the rain made the city lights all smeary, I thought "This is what I'd be doing if I lived here."
From then on, I wouldn't dress for long days of walking the city, in layers and comfy shoes, but rather in whatever funky ensemble I could put together from a suitcase. I would go to drugstores and buy things for my hotel, like dishsoap, that may not be altogether necessary, in order to appear as a savvy boutique employee on her lunch break. I would blend the fuck in. It's how I travel now: I role-play as a local.
It's part foreigner's self-consciousness and part fantasy. The idea of leading an "everyday life" in a strange place is so deliciously seductive that I find myself attempting to blend in every city I visit. I miss out on a lot of mandatory sight-seeing this way, but the result is often that I see a different part of a place -- a smaller one, like the grocery store.
I have learned that soap comes in very exotic scents in Scotland, I have pet housecats walking around suburban Atlanta neighborhoods, I can point you to the coffeeshops with free wifi in Montreal, and I've learned the complete history of Portland through the eyes of a friend of a friend.
When I travel, I have accepted the fact that, like a serial killer, I like to hollow out the city and wear it like a skin. I like to become a different person- the version of me that ended up in [insert city title here]. And that girl just has too many errands to run to make it to the aquarium.