Sometimes It’s Not You, It’s Me

Meeting a new place is a lot like meeting a new person. You observe. You read their signals. You make judgements. You can’t help it, it’s just how we all process new information. As a travel writer, I try to be objective about every place I go. Some places can be boring, lame, or scary. Or are they? If I come across a city that I just don’t like, I have to wonder, is it the place or is it me?

Paris Makes Me Cry

When I was 10, my parents took my sister and I on the 1980’s equivalent of the Grand Tour. Dad was working at the stock exchange in London, so we came after his business trip. Part of that trip was Paris, and it just happened to be for my 11th birthday.

When we arrived in Paris, my dad went to find a hotel at the train station desk, which was just what you did in the olden days. He found one at a good price…that ended up being over a sex shop in Pigalle. These days Pigalle is a little seedy but in 1985 it was genuinely scary. I remember my mom walking out of the bathroom in that hotel just laughing to herself. She said, “I’m going to let you discover how to flush THAT toilet.”

Paris was not as clean in those days as it is now. Monuments were dirty. The air was polluted. We went to see the Eiffel Tower from Trocadero, and I was mobbed by a bunch of ragged kids my own age, shoving newspapers at me. I was a kid from a nice beach town near LA, I’d never seen poverty like that in my life. But there I was, and the kids opened my purse to grab what they could (which was pretty much nothing, I was 11 after all).

Everything about Paris disgusted me, it was terrifying and dirty. I spent my 11th birthday crying on top of the Eiffel Tower, just begging to go home to have a normal birthday like other kids. My dad tried to console me by taking us out for pizza, which will live in infamy as the worst pizza I’ve ever eaten. Paris sucked.

For years after that, I had no desire to return to Paris, or even France for that matter. When I returned as a backpacker at 20, I spent less than two days, leaving early after being charged $5 for a bottle of water at a Parisian cafe. That may seem like a minor incident but it was pretty major when my whole weekly food budget was $20.

Paris had confirmed that it was terrible. It wasn’t until I started tour guiding that I was forced to give it another chance. I stayed in a better neighborhood. I ate actual French food. I met locals. I tried the language. I still suck at French but you’d be surprised how delighted they are when you try. I needed to love Paris because if I didn’t, I had no business guiding here. And eventually, the City of Light and I clicked.

I am in Paris right now and would really like to consider living here. I love the pace and the quality of life. The recliners in the Tuileries. The cafe chairs lined up facing the street for better people watching. Stinky cheese shops. Cheap rosé being sold by guys with ice buckets on the Champ du Mars. How did I ever dislike this place? It’s gorgeous!

That’s the thing, sometimes it isn’t the place, it’s you.

Malta Malaise

I’m thinking about that this week because I just went to Malta for the first time. Everyone, but everyone, loves Malta. Beaches, museums, sunshine, and English spoken everywhere! I wanted to check it out to consider adding it to the Sicily book next year, but also wanted to unwind a bit and have some alone time.

So….I didn’t like Malta. It’s pretty, that’s true. But Sicily is prettier. It felt overdeveloped in many places and lacked charm. Tourism is a major industry for them and I could feel that. The food was mostly expensive and mediocre.

After four days there, I’m thinking about it still. There was so much I should have liked. But it was hot. Not just a tad warm, but blazingly hot and humid, the kind of heat that melts you to your core and you can’t cool down. I’m pretty sure I had heatstroke two of the four days.

I was there to have some “Me Time” but I was lonely. I missed my kids. I wanted to have someone to chat with and visit the museums with. I tend to be a lone wolf but on that visit I would have liked to have had a companion. It was hard to get to know the locals because almost everyone I met was from somewhere else, so I couldn’t really connect to the local people there either. It was isolating.

My frame of mind was just not ideal for meeting this new destination. I don’t know, but maybe I’d enjoy Malta under different circumstances. I’ll keep working through my thoughts about Malta and write up a quick report to share with you soon.

The point is, I’m trying to learn from my own experiences. Rather than label something as bad, perhaps analyzing myself first is a better idea. Paris had to grow on me, maybe Malta is the same, because it was me, not them, all along. Self examination can really be a useful approach for everything in travel.

My employer has a great way of phrasing it, and that’s what I’ll leave you with: maybe, if it’s not to your liking, change your liking.

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Sarah Murdoch is a tour guide and guidebook writer for Rick Steves Europe. Her blog, Adventures with Sarah, focuses on packing tips, travel stories and advice for planning the best trip possible.

10 replies on “Sometimes It’s Not You, It’s Me”

  1. I, also, had to learn to like Paris. My first experience there was a street sandwich that a pigeon pooped on as I walked. Sums up my first view of Paris. But I tried again and again. Last fall I returned with my husband for his first time. By this time Paris was like a friend. I was so eager to go and meet her again. I will remember that experience and try not to hold on to first impressions…f

  2. Great post and excellent question whenever we are in a place that’s isn’t quite to our “liking”. Thanks!

  3. Sara, one of the saddest things about Malta is the very high amount of corruption, up to the highest levels, apparently. Journalists being murdered for investigating it, rich but dubious people buying Maltese passports to get entry to the EU, protection rackets. They also seem to have bought wholeheartedly into mass-market tourism, and maybe you were picking up on some of that atmosphere. Pity, because it’s got such a fascinating history.

  4. I truly value your open honesty, and I love reading your posts. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, not just about the places, but about your feelings and insights.

  5. Sarah, we’ve only been in Malta for a day (so I’m DEFINITELY NOT an expert), but we really loved it! We’ve even discussed going back for several weeks or months to “give it a real try” before considering a move there. (We’re retired so it could be possible.) The people we met in that one day were lovely and everything seemed quaint and charming and clean. Maybe we were just in the right mood at the right time? (We were lucky – it was autumn – and the weather was perfect!

  6. An important article for travelers to read. And an honest one. I had a very similar experience with my first visit to Paris 40 years ago. It feels like an old, and very charming friend now. I avoided Rome for years. Also now and old and even more interesting friend. Ditto for even NYC here at home. It’s always “you.” I guess you can think of travel as cheap therapy. Well, maybe more scenic if not cheaper.

  7. Loved your description of Paris–You are such a polished writer! I’m recovering from eye surgery so have been listening to a lot of books-on-tape. Am almost finished with “The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin” by Gordon S. Wood, c. 2004. When you are unwinding, pick up this audio or book that highlights Franklin’s love for Paris–What a fascinating read, but also an eye-opening slant on the man himself. My U.S. history classes never exposed these facets of Ol’ Ben! I’m 81, and remember hearing some very anti-Paris/French people comments growing up, even from my world-traveling mother, who studied at the Sorbonne.

  8. I’ve been to Malta a few times and love it. All you say is true, but I found it extremely interesting from a historical point of view. I certainly didn’t like the crowds in some of the tourist spots so avoided those, and going any time other than summer is advisable. I spent April through June there in 2016 and explored a lot that the island has to offer. There is a lot to explore! I will return again and again, I hope. Don’t give up on Malta, just do a little more planning to focus on what is of most interest. There are many, many fabulous museums, churches and charming villages. And the walking along the coastal trail is wonderful. Don’t go in summer!

  9. Your feelings make sense to me. It sounds like maybe you went during the big heat wave that was going on. Maybe another time besides summer. I thought it was plenty hot in Dubai in May, and the hot season was just beginning.

    I have thought about Malta for a long time, since a friend of mine went there in the early 80s’, but maybe I will just do southern Italy and maybe Sicily instead, though I am just (re)studying Italian and I know you speak it fluently.

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