When I was little, I wanted to be Samantha Brown.
You know her — the blonde-bobbed, spunky Travel Channel host who visited places around the world and showed them to viewers at home in their living rooms. She made every place seem incredible, and I wanted to be just like her. Actually, I wanted to be the next her — the next Travel Channel host.
I kept lists of all the places I wanted to visit. I hung a world map on my bedroom wall and printed out pictures of beautiful destinations to pin around the border. I imagined myself an explorer, a traveler to whom every place was a new adventure.
Eventually, I spent a semester abroad during college, and another summer in Europe after I graduated. On each occasion, I visited new cities every weekend, new countries every few days. Both experiences were chaotic, gorgeous messes in so many ways. But, in the midst of it all, my expectations got in the way.
See, like anyone else, I had fanciful, perfect visions of these places. Given how much TV and how many movies I watched, how many books I read, and how obsessed I was with travel, it was inescapable.
The Colosseum wasn’t as big as I had imagined it would be. The streets of Paris stank, and the Catacombs gave me an eerie feeling I never wanted to experience again. Austria was gray and rainy, Parc Guell was full of tourists, and Germany wasn’t the fairytale I’d envisioned it to be.
The world hadn’t lived up to my expectations, and I didn’t know how to deal with it.
In a perfect world, we’d book trips and travel to places without any preconceived notions or expectations, our minds completely free of any ideas about what we’d find when we arrived.
But the world isn’t perfect. In the technology-saturated age in which we live, it’s all but impossible to visit a new place without having any idea as to what it’s like. The very act of planning a trip embeds expectations into our psyche — standards of what things will look like, which experiences will be better than others, what the food will taste like, and how the people will act.
And there’s nothing we can do about the existence of such expectations. But this reality begs the question: How do we experience a new destination free of bias? How can we have rich travel experiences without that thing called ‘comparison’?
The answer: We can’t.
Comparison may be the thief of joy, but it shouldn’t steal pleasure from your travel experiences.
Expectation exists. There’s nothing we can do but lean into it.
When I studied abroad, many of my travel companions chose to experience the world through rose-colored glasses. They subconsciously refused to acknowledge the bad — the ways in which things didn’t “live up” to their expectations — and chose, instead, to consider every place as equally “amazing” as the last.
Maybe it’s because they knew how lucky they were to be traveling in the first place, and they didn’t want to appear unappreciative. Or, maybe it’s because, deep down, they didn’t know how to deal with the discrepancy between their expectations and reality.
I’ll admit: it’s a gap that can be hard to understand sometimes. When I first visited Rome and experienced my initial disappointment at the Colosseum, it took me weeks to work out my feelings. But when I finally deconstructed my tangled web of expectations, I stumbled upon a truth I hadn’t expected.
I realized that the gap between expectation and reality is the very reason we travel in the first place.
With each new place, each new “gap,” we further expand our understanding of the world.
Being taken aback by the size of the Colosseum didn’t diminish the awe I felt as I stood inside it, taking in the ancient arena. The smell of Paris’ streets didn’t take away from the peace I found while eating macarons on a park bench near the Champs-Élysées with my mother. Austria’s monotone skies didn’t affect the night I spent with some good people in a hole-in-the-wall wienerschnitzel restaurant.
Being sick as a dog in Morocco didn’t reduce the impact Marrakech had on me after I left. Dealing with a bout of depression while I was in Budapest didn’t stop me from getting lost in the hidden corners of the city. A hectic day of travel from Greece to Italy didn’t stop me from soaking up all that the Cinque Terre had to offer. And, as we often say in my family: terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days can happen anywhere — even in Australia.
No place is perfect. Even those that exceed our expectations, and unexpectedly surprise us, do so in ways we’d never see coming.
There will always be a gap of some size between how we expect a place to be and how it is in reality. But we travel to discover what lies in that gap, to see what we can find in the space in between.
In order for that discovery to happen, though, you must be willing to acknowledge the gap. You must admit that the gap exists, and leave yourself open to the possibility of disappointment. And you must be ready to put in the work to understand that disappointment when you encounter it.
You must embrace your expectations to discover what’s really out there. At least, that’s what I’ve learned.