Chasing familiarity in far-flung places


I’ve been involved in a project looking at recent immigrants’ first impressions of the UK and have been very surprised at what people notice about our country. The sight of double-decker buses, rows of identical red brick houses and the experience of driving on the left side of the road all make a strong impression with many people who come to the UK for the first time.  Yet for those of us who live here these are such an unremarkable part of our daily lives that we find it strange that others find them in any way curious.

But perhaps it makes sense in the context of our travel experiences. When we arrive in another part of the world, the unfamiliarity of our surroundings provides a buzz of excitement that is an essential part of the magic of travel. We eagerly absorb everything and use our senses to see, hear, smell and taste the new world around us.

Yet as we do this it is normal for us to process whatever we experience in the context of our more familiar world. We’ll admire  a tall building in Asia and wonder how it compares to the Empire State Building or London’s Shard; we’ll taste the meat of an animal for the first time and immediately compare it to chicken or beef; even hearing a strange language for the first time, we’re inclined to observe its similarities to other languages closer to home.

I’m reminded of Watership Down, a book I enjoyed reading when I was little. Despite the book being about a group of highly-intelligent talking rabbits, the author Richard Adams makes many references to the human world.  In one paragraph he contrasts the laughter and curiosity of people in a remote African village to their first sight of a horse and cart to their complete indifference to a plane streaking high overhead across the clear sky. While one is an unusual application of familiar animals and objects, the other is so far removed from their normal life that no references can be made and the sight of it cannot be placed into any sort of context. As a result it is simply ignored.

The above is simplistic and clearly written in a different time, yet if we pick through the racial stereotypes there is still a message worth taking out of it for the traveller. When we step on foreign soil we are drawn to the exotic, the unusual and the unexpected. Yet those things that make the biggest impression with us are often the one which allow us to compare and contrast them with more familiar equivalents that we’ve left behind.

What then, is our equivalent of the plane in the sky? What experiences do we encounter on our travels that are so alien to us that we have no idea how to make any sense of them, forcing us to look instead for the more familiar? Or has technology and the pioneering of others created a world where everything is now within the limits of our comprehension?



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Freelance travel writer

6 Responses to “Chasing familiarity in far-flung places”

  1. You are completely right. We evaluate new places based on the context of our own experiences (of course, that is our natural instinct). However, we sometimes overlook the obvious because it is familiar. Yet the obvious may be the most striking thing right in front of us.

    That’s where travel teaches us to see things through the perspective of others. We don’t always have to agree with choices or the way people do things but we get to see life through their eyes. They see things we do not and vice versa.

    While many things we experience may not be new, maybe the key is learning to experience them with all 5 senses.

    May 9, 2012 at 3:40 pm
  2. Not exactly connected to this post, but you should read the book ‘Watching the English’ by Kate Fox – you’ll learn a lot about what people from outside feel (and why they are often puzzled) when they interact with the English! :D

    May 12, 2012 at 9:30 pm
  3. I enjoyed reading this philosophical take on travel as, having come to the travel game relatively late in life ( raising kids and raising money ) I find it to be true that most of us compare such and such to our own experiences. This is perfectly natural as we all want to be reassured that our life, our experiences and our understandings are as good as or better than those we observe in other spheres. We are inherently competitive!

    May 13, 2012 at 12:02 am
  4. This might have been better done as a series of different blogs breaking it down to how different geographic regions or geopolitical groups see Britain or react to its cultural norms. For instance, how various inhabitants of the former British empire see Britain – then I’d have a few things to say. Nice things, mind you:)

    May 14, 2012 at 10:26 pm
  5. Thanks for the great comments folks. Agree with Hal and Abhi that how Britain (particularly its people) are viewed by others makes for a fascinating topic. I’m probably worst placed to write this, being largely blind to these views as a long-term resident. But yes, Britain has left more than enough of a mark around the world to have created some very strong opinions – not always good.

    May 15, 2012 at 8:25 am
  6. This is so true. Me and Nathan talk about this with each other often, trying to remind ourselves not to always compare everything with something similar that we’ve seen somewhere else.

    Like comparing a medieval wall in Germany with one we saw in Estonia, judging which one was “better”, instead of just appreciating what you’re experiencing at the moment and leave it there.

    May 17, 2012 at 1:02 am