Leave Home Without It
Tom Swick: Contemplating and celebrating the world of travel
02.19.09 | 10:07 AM ET
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.