Natural Habitats

I am a friendly person. As such, I am blessed (and cursed) to have friends all over the world. The blessing, of course, is that I enjoy these diverse and enriching friendships immensely. The curse is that I miss these friends more often than not. Some of these friendships were forged when I travelled, and others while living in various places on three continents. I am great at staying in touch, even when some of these treasured friends are not (I say this with love, and a wink). For these reasons, much of my travel involves visits to places where friends live.

A tourist can get into a city and explore its nooks and crannies armed with nothing but a guidebook, but to visit a place where a friend lives is to get to know the place – and the friend – in an entirely new way.

Last September Ben flew into Sydney, his first visit to the southern hemisphere, let alone Australia. And in September, Sydney shines. It did not disappoint me, or him, for the days we were here together. Blue skies, puffy white clouds, and warm, salty breezes. On the second day Ben asked, “Why can’t you take me somewhere pretty?” We were in Bronte, about to walk the cliff-side path to Bondi. He was being ironic. On the third day, after seeing the coast, Circular Quay, Botany Bay, Taronga Zoo, Sydney Harbour and various other attractive hotspots, he asked if there were any ugly parts of Sydney. I replied, “There must be somewhere, but none that I know of.” I had a glint in my eye when I said it, and he knew that, for this time I was being ironic. I wanted him to fall for this city as much as I have; he knew that too.

However, when we love where we live we often take it for granted. When I knew Ben was coming, it forced me to view Sydney through fresh eyes. I had to forget the day to day stuff, the traffic and the rude, impatient drivers, the huge piles of rubbish on the side of the road right before the councils do their quarterly ‘clean up’, the abruptness of sales assistants, the nightmare of parking – anywhere.

I had to go back to the roots of my love for this city, which was born about 8 years ago. I had to ask myself, “What made me pick up, and pack up, and move my stuff from the west coast to the east coast, without a job or a home to come to?” I cast my mind back, and I created a list of the must-sees and must-dos. In a week of exploring the city, my beloved Sydney, we worked our way through approximately 1/4 of the list. It’s a start. And on a selfish note, I fell back in love with this city with renewed passion and verve, and made a promise to myself to get out in it more.

I need to remember that the salt air along the coast is revitalising, and summer or winter, can shake me from a slump or a rut. I need to remember how much I enjoy the buzz and energy of a city filled with parks and waterways, and a passion for the arts, a city where the dozens of different cuisines are authentic, because dozens of nationalities reside here.

In essence, I became a traveller in my own town. Ben bore witness to this; seeing me in my ‘natural habitat’, and the passion I have for it. It was a way for him to get to know a different facet of me.

Similarly, I get to benefit from this dynamic when I visit cities where my friends live. They want to show it off, they want me to love it, and see it in its best light. So, I can toss the guide book in the bin as I know I will see the highlights and the hush-hush stuff that natives are not supposed to tell you. My friends in Seattle almost whispered when they told me that it doesn’t really rain 9 months of the year there. This is a fallacy perpetuated to ensure that ‘OTHERS’ do not head to the north-west in droves and ruin the delicate balance of their fine city.

In my recent trip to the US, Ben got to reciprocate. We flew together to Minneapolis/St Paul from Vegas, where we’d just spent Christmas with my family (a whole other story and fodder for a separate blog post). From the sunny skies of Vegas to the grey skies of Minnesota – not to mention it was -5C outside – it would seemingly be a hard sell. Not so. Ben is a Minnesota boy, born and bred, and with my impending arrival, he penned his own ‘to do’ list. And through his eyes I easily saw beauty and light through the cold and the grey.

My favourite thing on his list was, ‘walk across a frozen lake’. When Ben told me he was really looking forward to doing this with me, I said, “I’ve never done that before.”  He replied, “I know.” That it would be my first time made it all the more special. ‘Firsts’ are things we try to do as much as possible.

I had packed my ski pants and jacket for Minnesota, because I knew it was cold there, and that he wanted to do the lake thing. I did not wear these big, heavy pieces at any other time in my 5 week trip, but it was worth packing them, just for this outing. We suited up. Now, I should mention that Ben is hard-core when it comes to the cold; he can bear really cold weather. I cannot. So, when I saw that even HE was layering on the clothes and reaching for the serious gloves and boots, I knew this would be serious cold. Would the running I had done from the house to the car, and the car to the restaurant prepare me for being outside long enough to walk across a frozen lake? I crossed my fingers inside my mittens.

We put Spot, his room mate’s dog, on a leash, and I am not sure, but I think he was even more excited than I was. A few short blocks of walking along shovelled walks – people are so considerate in the mid-west – and we were there. There had been a fresh dump of snow not long before, so we could only see the ice when we cleared the snow away, but it was a lake, and it was frozen, and I was standing on it.

There were little ice-fishing huts dotted along the other side of the lake. I ensured Ben that would be an activity I would never participate in because it combines two of my least favourite things: fishing and being freezing cold for a very long time. I took photos of the bare landscape and houses across the lake, because it was all so beautiful. Even the ploughed streets with their shovelled walks were beautiful. I said so, and Ben just shrugged his shoulders, “Yeah, I guess so.” Could he see it all through my eyes? The beauty of a familiar place? I hope so.

Other outings included the Walker Art Centre where we saw a Kandinsky, and an installation by Warhol, and nearly a collection of Kahlo (it was a two-hour wait and I was hungry – I know, we may regret that someday). We made the obligatory excursion to the Mall of America, which did not disappoint. How could it? There is a roller-coaster inside – and a Ferris wheel! Just in case you finish shopping and you suddenly realise that you needed to ride a fairground attraction that week – there they are, handily right in the middle of the mall!

We also headed to ‘Uptown’ in Minneapolis, the Soho of the twin cities, where we ate at Ben’s favourite restaurant ‘Chino Latino’. As the name suggests the menu is an eclectic mix of Asian and Latin food – including Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Spanish and Italian. It is a funky place, with hip waiters, groovy decor, and a diverse crowd. I liked it off the bat. That it is a favourite for Ben and he got to show it off, made me like it on a different level. It was part of seeing him in his ‘natural environment’. As too was visiting his parents in the home where he grew up. But again, that is a topic for another day.

Sometimes, when you go to visit somewhere and a friend lives there, they tell you that you must come and live there too. My friends who lived in Sydney long before I moved here from Perth would say it to me every visit. Years later the switch flicked in my head, and I made the move. Mostly, when I visit these places, it is about seeing the friend. The added benefit for us both is that the place becomes another character in our story. We interact with it, we draw on it, we see it – both of us – through fresh eyes. In addition, we are given a context for that person that we didn’t have before. When we’re apart, we will always be able to picture them in their ‘natural habitat’.

And that is a truly great thing.

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