Finding the everyday in the exotic

To travel is to encounter the unfamiliar and strange. But not always. 

Zina Saunders

Nothing is more place-intensive and grounding than dairy farming. And nothing is more freeing than opting out of it when the right time comes. 

In the past 10 years since retiring from the twice-daily demands of milking 20 to 30 cows, I have traveled globally from the Midwestern United States to New Zealand; Fiji; London; southern Germany; Zurich and Basel, Switzerland; and Barcelona, Spain. I’ve also been to the national parks in California and Utah; northern Michigan; upstate New York; Washington, D.C.; Virginia; and Connecticut. (Chicago hardly seems to count, though I love that city; it’s just a four-hour drive from my home in Indiana.) I anticipate Iceland, Barcelona (oh, again and again), and Chile. My son tends my dog and the two remaining farm animals when I’m away.

All that travel sounds exotic, and so it is. Leaving behind the milk room and the farmhouse with its front porch swing to explore the beaches and reefs of Fiji, the Gaudí architecture and tapas patios of Spain, and the lanes winding through Europe – designed for losing one’s bearings and all sense of direction and place – is an enormous transition from the geometric grids, plain styles, and palettes of the Midwest.

Still, I have found that every travel experience is ultimately grounding and evocative of home in some way. It might be a bird, like the New Zealand fantail, so reminiscent of the Carolina wrens nesting on the farm. It might be a field of cows grazing in the Alsace. It might be a nature trail anywhere, or a quiet, rainy morning.

In Barcelona recently, the reminder of home habits and rhythms arrived with the simple need to do some laundry. It was a daily chore when I farmed, now done on a weekly basis and a more flexible time frame, particularly when traveling. 

Midway through my two-week stay in Spain I bagged a bundle of clothes and spent a futile morning following directions to venues that supposedly took in dirty clothes and presented them clean and folded a few hours later. But all were dry cleaners, as hand gestures and arched eyebrows soon made clear. (I am not conversant in Spanish.) 

Eventually a helpful clerk at my hotel found a local woman who would pick it up and deliver it the same day. I set out afoot for some shopping that day, relieved in the knowledge that my duds, stuffed into the colorful vinyl tote bag I’d bought in Switzerland and left behind the counter in the hotel lobby, would be dealt with during my absence. 

Minutes later, while exchanging some money at a bank, I spotted a woman at a nearby clerk’s window doing some transaction of her own. Her tipped-over bag was enormously familiar, the picturesque chalet and mountains right out of a deeply evocative Alpine landscape. I eyed the plastic bags of jumbled clothes, half in, half out on the floor, and suddenly realized it was all mine. 

My laundry was exactly in the disarray it might have been in had I gotten distracted en route to my basement washing machine. I collected my euros and exited forthwith, knowing she was depositing her just-collected payment for my wash. I did not approach her; something about her stalwart demeanor and no-nonsense posture reminded me too much of the Midwest, which I had briefly escaped. I simply left and hoped for the best at day’s end.

Barcelona suddenly seemed a lot less exotic for a moment. You might even say homey.

Best of all, freshly washed and perfectly folded clothes awaited me that evening, and that is more than I can say would have happened under my own steam back home. 

Sometimes the exotic is just that, in unanticipated ways.

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