The Things You Can’t Export

The world is getting pretty good at exporting the experience of itself. Between eight hundred cable channels giving us the sights and sounds of the wildlife and resorts and foodstuffs of every country in the world and travel blogs <ahem> sharing photos and firsthand stories from every single place we go, whether it’s down the street or four thousand miles away, it seems like you can sit at home on your couch and see and hear everything that the world has to offer. If you live in any reasonably sized town, you can probably also order in some delicious, authentic food from one of those places, too, made by people who came to where you are from wherever they used to be and who brought the techniques and recipes and skills of their home fairly accurately along with them.

But there are a couple of things that aren’t so easy to export, a couple of reasons why you have to get up and take your body to other places instead of waiting for those things to be delivered to you: smells and textures.

Yes, you can see that this zucchini is comically large, but you don’t know what it smells like.
Naschmarkt, Vienna, 2002

One of the most powerful memories I have of my first trip abroad is walking up to the Naschmarkt, an outdoor market in Vienna, and being suddenly hit by the green smell of fresh vegetables, the bite of Turkish spices, and the rich, soothing bitterness of hot coffee. I wish we had better words for smells–I always wind up comparing a smell to a color or taste or just the thing that made the smell, which I don’t know is very informative. This is why I say, you have to go for yourself. It’s one of those things that no one can take home to you, that can’t be captured in a picture or a story.

I will also admit here a very embarrassing fact: I am a tree hugger. I have literally hugged dozens of trees. Partly this is because I have a secret hippie pagan side, but a lot of it is because I like to feel the actual texture of the bark. You can sort of see texture in photos, but you don’t really know what it’s like until you feel it for yourself. For example, on my recent trip to Oregon, I saw starfish.Based on how they were coiled and flopped around each other, I assumed that they were soft and pliable, but when I touched them, they felt hard like a shell. Similarly, I assumed that anemone tentacles were just floaty things carried along by the currents, but then I ran my finger along one and felt it grab onto me, and that feeling made it real to me that these are living, thinking, acting creatures and not just seaweed-like bits of flotsam.

anemones, Cannon Beach, Oregon, 2012

And this is true for non-nature things too. I almost always put my hands on very old monuments, castle walls and church banisters, because there’s something about the worn, rough stone that’s been touched by hundreds of years of other human hands that feels special and powerful to me. It’s in those moments that I know, I am here. Others have been here before. Others will come after. We have all been here.

Smells and textures are not always pleasant, I’ll grant you. But they are unique. The trash-and-urine stench of Manhattan isn’t particularly enjoyable, but each time I step out of the subway upon arrival, I know exactly where I am and remember the first time I smelled that for myself, when I was just fifteen years old with a head full of punk rock and Beat poetry. The thick, gritty air of Budapest in August almost killed me, but I’m glad that I was there and know for myself exactly what that feels like, because there’s no decent way to describe or explain it to someone who didn’t have to walk around in it, lost and alone with the beginnings of a fever.

If travel was just about seeing the great monuments of the world or eating strange cuisine, we would never have to go anywhere beyond our living rooms. But travel is about knowing the entirety of the world, and that means using all your senses. Next time you’re watching Anthony Bourdain touring a cattle ranch in Argentina or watching Rick Steves take a boat ride down the Mosul, remember that you’re not getting the full experience. You have no idea what those cows smell like. You don’t know how fast the boat is moving and if the water is smooth or rough. There’s only one way to find out.


One thought on “The Things You Can’t Export

  1. I love this.

    One of my most vivid memories about my time studying abroad is a combination of the smell and temperature of the air. There are certain fall mornings, even 10 years later, where I step outside back here in Chicago, and the air is just so that it brings memories of that trip flooding back.

    You certainly don’t get that with a Rick Steves’ video!

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