Leave Home Without It

Tom Swick: Contemplating and celebrating the world of travel

02.19.09 | 10:07 AM ET

St. Petersburg, Russia. REUTERS/Alexander Demianchuk

Years ago in Cappadocia I was given a lift by two Americans—a mother and daughter in a rental car—and shortly after I had settled into the back seat the mother turned around and offered me a bag of Pepperidge Farm Milanos. I happily took one, but the presence of that familiar package—in such an otherworldly landscape—was disconcerting. It seemed not only odd but somehow inappropriate, almost blasphemous. Why bring cookies to the land of Turkish Delight?

I feel the same way about music. In ancient, pre-iPod times, a friend headed to London for vacation regaled me with a list of the things he was taking, which included numerous CDs he couldn’t live without. Again, I was caught off guard. It had never occurred to me to fly someplace with my own music. It was not just (in those days) the added weight, but the unwanted reminder. One of travel’s great gifts is the opportunity it gives you to step out of your life—so why bring along its soundtrack? Any good trip will provide its own.

The Milanos, I think, were an extreme example of a homesickness cure; music is not. Technology has made it so easy to pack your favorite tunes that they’ve become as essential as pin numbers to many travelers. Americans who wouldn’t dream of eating at McDonald’s in Prague see nothing contradictory about listening to Lil Wayne as they cross the Vltava.

Music stays out of my carry-on not because I have no use for it; on the contrary, it’s an important part of my life—and journeys. Its absence is due, first off, to my love of surprise, which is—or should be—an integral part of travel. I keep CDs in the car, but most of the time I listen to the radio. I’d rather surf the channels on a plane, not knowing what I’ll find, than hear a song I downloaded myself. If I catch something I know and like, I appreciate it all the more because of the serendipity. If I chance upon something new and enjoyable—Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “English Folk Song Suite” graced my takeoff from a college summer in Europe—I get the thrill of discovery.

And an unfamiliar piece of music becomes indelibly linked to a place, or a moment, in a way an oft-heard song does not.

Flying to Paris a few years ago I stumbled upon a children’s chorus singing traditional chansons. It didn’t make me want to buy the CD, but it put me in France hours before we landed there.

This is the main reason for traveling with open ears: nothing conveys the spirit of a place like its music. There are cities that are pretty much defined by their music: Buenos Aires is tango, Rio is samba, Lisbon is fado, Chicago is blues. You can’t know, or even fully appreciate them without hearing the rhythms that are built into their fibers.

Music is such a fundamental element of a culture that on the road you should seek out that which you would never listen to at home. Driving to Nashville, you really need to find country on the dial. (It isn’t difficult.) And whatever your musical tastes, it will sound better than it ever has—because it connects you to your surroundings. My wife usually has to leave the house when I put on Polish mountaineer music, yet when she’s in Zakopane she finds it agreeable, a proper ingredient to the whole experience, as important to the place as the smoked sheep cheese and the wooden churches and the fluffy white guard dogs.

Trebunie-Tutki, now playing raucously in the living room (Hania’s at work), is one of many cherished CDs I might not have acquired if I traveled with headphones. People like Mariza, Beny Moré, Ewa Demarczyk, Nana Caymmi, Mighty Sparrow, Marta Sebestyen, Khanh Ly, Georges Brassens, Lidija Bajuk, Sezen Aksu, Bulat Okudzhava now enrich my collection the way they once enriched my journeys—the memories of which, in another sweet continuum, their voices help perpetuate. Whenever I hear a Swedish fiddler, which isn’t often enough (though it happened a few years ago on Key West’s Duval Street), I am transported to a nightless midsummer in Rattvik. You can’t listen to bluegrass without thinking of Appalachia, or klezmer without imagining a vanished Eastern Europe.

Found music can elevate a travel experience (in the same way a judiciously used movie score can heighten a scene). Driving around Monterey last summer, researching a story, I came across a classical station out of Santa Cruz. (My preference for the radio becomes the law when I’m on the road.) They were playing Gregorian chants, so I headed down to Cannery Row. Two days earlier I had sat in Ed Ricketts’ old lab and heard from a historian that the Steinbeck hero would unwind in the evening by drinking beer and listening to music, often Gregorian chants.

The hour was late, the street was empty, I pulled in front of the dark wooden lab which huddles now next to a luxury hotel. Then I rolled down the windows, turned up the volume, and let the monks’ chants fill the sea air. It was an impromptu communion that moved me in a way tourist towns rarely do. I didn’t put it in my story, but its emotional wallop infused every word.

Tom Swick

Tom Swick is the author of two books: a travel memoir, Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland, and a collection of travel stories, A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler. He was the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for 19 years, and his work has been included in "The Best American Travel Writing" 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2008.

16 Comments for Leave Home Without It

Amy Graff 02.19.09 | 1:59 PM ET

Great story. Makes me think of a recent trip to Waikiki. The highlight of the trip was the music. All over Waikiki—at the beach, in the hotels, shopping malls, restaurants, parks—locals were playing music. I was traveling with my kids who insisted on stopping and listening every time we passed a band, a hula group, a ukulele player. The biggest highlight was the Royal Hawaiian Band playing a free concert at the Royal Hawaiian Band. My 3 and 5 year old were enthralled for the full hour.

Sophia Dembling 02.19.09 | 2:18 PM ET

The soundtrack for our yachting vacation in Greece in the ‘90s was what my husband came to call, “the traditional Greek racket”—1970s American pop music broadcast over tinny speakers.

That and “Never On A Sunday.”

charlotte safavi 02.19.09 | 2:35 PM ET

Truer notes were never played…  A nice piece about what it means to travel and fully experience a place with all of one’s senses.

wandringi 02.19.09 | 4:27 PM ET

I disagree with a lot of this. I think it is quite possible to fully experience a place with your own music- provided that’s not all you listen to. I think music intregrates many experiences in life so that rather than having everything compartmentalized, it all comes together in a series of connections through memories and associations. The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” reminds me of some great nights I had in college, of one of my favorite movies, and also of my time spent in Vietnam. All connected by this one thread, yet all unique and special in their own right. I could not have done that without my iPod, and that song has now become one of my most cherished. It also reminds me of why I travel- to constantly reinvent myself through new experiences. Musical taste is a big part of it. I have rediscovered a lot of music through the process of travel.

Conversely, there is much to be said for exploring music in your new surroundings or happening upon songs by chance. Additionally, there is a time and a place for silence. I see nothing wrong, however, with bringing some of what you love into your new experiences; just as long as you allow space for new things to come in as well.

daniel 02.19.09 | 7:36 PM ET

“...not untill you’ve listen to Rakim on a rocky mountain top
have you heard hip hop
extract the urban element which created it
and let a open wide country side illustrate it… “
-Saul Williams

Peter Daams 02.20.09 | 7:26 AM ET

Yes and no.

Yes, because new sounds are an integral part of any journey and indeed they are a great thing to discover while travelling. Cheesy Spanish pop songs, buskers, Italian serenades - it’s all beautiful and interesting and you need to be unplugged to get a feel for that.

No, because your own music brings its own flavour to your journeys. And your travels can make you feel entirely different about your own collection. The absolutely fantastic thing about this is that when you return home, you can be reminded of your travels just by listening to your favourite songs! Sure, I could bust out some Spanish pop music from time to time, but let’s face it; that’s only interesting when you’re in the moment.

One of my fond memories is listening to “Paris Train” by Beth Orton while being on a train in Paris. The lyrics; “Now you’re sitting on a Paris train ... Laughin’ at your own jokes again” are forever linked to that moment.

I love listening to new music, but I also love listening to old music in new places.

Jerry Haines 02.20.09 | 8:52 AM ET

I’m not cool enough to own an iPod, but I do have an old Sony headset radio, which is so unstylish I have dubbed it the “Geek-o-tron 3000.”  I take it on most of my foreign trips so that when jetlag wakes me at 2 a.m. local time, I can listen to the local gamelon, oud or zither music.

American popular music also clearly has been embraced by radio stations all over the world, but it’s dismaying that they seem to choose the crappiest examples of current or recent U.S. chart hits.  (E.g., Cher warbling, “Do you be-leeeve…”)  Or perhaps it’s part of a diabolical plan:  “Do you hear how bad their music is?  Aren’t you really happier living here?”)

Frank 02.20.09 | 1:35 PM ET

I totally agree. I haven’t traveled with music for years, and always try to buy music on the road.  I think it’s gotten all too easy to not really leave the place you left.

Michael Yessis 02.20.09 | 3:50 PM ET

Love the piece, Tom.

But I’m with wandringi and Peter. I think there’s room for traveling with your own music—sometimes I just want the feeling that comes with listening to a certain song, or I want to share a song with someone I’ve met—and finding new music along the way.

Robbie Reid 02.21.09 | 10:47 PM ET

I always buy local music too. And I’m still kicking myself for not picking up the Vladivostok metal band ‘Masters of Defecation’ from the CD shop there last summer.

mary 02.22.09 | 3:30 PM ET

Right on!
When traveling I like to stay at local hotels, not international chains; eat native foods, not things I can get at home; and, like Peterman, listen to local radio stations. Sometimes I forget the radio and listen to the street sounds—that is truely the “music” of the place.
Why travel if you are just recreating your own environment someplace else?

Roger 02.23.09 | 4:37 PM ET

I like Tom’s take on this. Last summer we rented a car in London, drove up to north east Scotland and back, mainly listening to the radio. All the different regional BBC stations carried a satisfying mix of pop, techno, and soul music, with a British twist, talk, and news. This was better than I expected it would be. I’d brought my mp3 player, with only a cassette player-type sound adaptor, and the car didn’t—as it turned out—have a cassette player. With the radio, I definitely got a feel for what was popular in the UK, and I have to say—I liked it.

Marie 02.23.09 | 5:20 PM ET

This story was absolutely right on target, as I too have found the music of the land to appropriately fit the setting. I also make sure I take Jimmy Buffett CDs to Key West trips, so as we drive down to the southernmost point, we are truly ready to enjoy the atmosphere. The same with John Denver and our Rocky Mountain trips. There is a reason these songs were written, and there is nothing better than to see the landscape the songwriters are singing to you about.
Good one Tom..as always.

Ben 02.23.09 | 7:30 PM ET

I still treasure the cassette tape I picked up in San Pedro Sula back in 2000—disfrute la alta fidelidad del mejor sonido, it reads on the case—and can’t help but smile when I remember that this humble plastic artifact was my introduction to reggaeton.

Liz Schelper 03.09.09 | 10:25 AM ET

I agree about traveling with an open ear and without the preprogrammed music of a personal take, ipod or what have you.  I like to buy the local music as a keepsake of the locale, and will do so whereever I go whether abroad or here stateside.

I have been doing the reverse of late however when traveling in the US.  Let me explain.  All the radio stations play the same music over and over. You either have to hop a lot of stations to get a variety, and then after a while even that song list will repeat. I don’t have HD radio, nor satillite radio to choose from.  More and more radio stations are adding talk time, which is purely political, or religious propaganda.  So I have been going through my old collection of CD’s and mixing my own, only I don’t go by genre, I go by random genre.  Sound tracks and country, and hard rock, and world music, progressive jazz, folk and classical, all mixed up.  It has been refreshing of late to hear old familiar tunes in a totally different environment.  It has been like hearing them for the first time with the added benefit of no commercials!

Aurora 03.13.09 | 12:34 AM ET

I have to disagree with this piece.  While music can shape our perception of a place, I feel that the author of this story makes the fatal mistake that so many well intentioned travelers make when they search for “authenticity.”

What is the right music to listen to?  The author uses that example of the Pepperidge Farm Milanos, but in condemning them as a travel impurity he makes the mistake of trying too hard to achieve some sense of authenticity.  There shouldn’t be rules when it comes to travel and there shouldn’t be any kind of test for how “authentic” our expeperiences are since that is really a futile effort; we simply have to let ourselves be open to new experiences.

When I lived in Cairo, one of the few CD’s I owned was a compilation of Louis Armstrong.  I have vivid memories of spending afternoons walking the backstreets of Islamic Cairo listening to Louis.  Should I have been listening to Nancy Ajram or some other arab pop music that was new to me?

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