Have you ever had great expectations for something that weren’t realized? Maybe it was an event you had been looking forward to that got canceled, your dream job that turned out to be a nightmare, or someone you had up on a pedestal who turned out to be very, very flawed? I recently had an email exchange with one of my readers, Barb, in response to my post about New Zealand and how much I long to see the landscape there. She cautioned me not to set my expectations for New Zealand too high. She had spent much time there herself and felt that while the Maori people were worth the trip, we have equally stunning landscapes here in the US. Her email was a timely reminder for me, as I plan my upcoming trip to Spain, not to expect anything unrealistic of my travel experience.
I did that with Paris. I came away from my trip liking Paris, but not loving it the way I expected to, the way others do. It’s hard to put my finger on why I was disappointed. I had little interaction with locals, the weather was miserable, and I wound up catching a cold. Still, the same could be said of other places I’ve visited, yet they didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for those locales. So why Paris?
I think it’s because my vision of Paris, which had been carefully cultivated for a lifetime in my mind, was operating on the level of myth rather than history. Paris is supposed to be the most romantic city in the world. I expected it to be a magical place that would sweep me off my feet. But I didn’t experience the myth that is Paris, I experienced the history and found it to be a city like any other. A beautiful city, for sure, but just a city. As with any time the ideal meets the real, there is bound to be disappointment.
The same thing happened with Mexico. I had thought that when I finally went to Mexico, I would spend my days exploring Mayan ruins and the streets of quaint villages, eat plates of traditional cuisine prepared by friendly locals, and spend my evenings listening to Mexican music in some little hole-in-the-wall. Instead, I found myself at an isolated, all-inclusive resort with no car, too far to walk to any town, surrounded by other vacationers who seemed to only be interested in the all-you-can-eat-and-drink, laze around the pool “culture” of the resort and the Disneyfied Mexican entertainment they trotted out every night for our benefit. I was frustrated that I had come all the way to Mexico, but wasn’t experiencing the real Mexico at all.
So yes, sometimes as travelers, we get these ideas in our heads of how the travel experience is going to be. We set ourselves up with “great expectations.” Especially when it comes to our dream destinations. “This trip is going to change my life,” we might think. Or “I am really going to find myself on this trip.” Or “this will be the trip of a lifetime.”
I think I’ve done a fairly good job at tempering my expectations for my upcoming trip to Spain. While it’s a country I’ve long wanted to visit, I have no preconceived notions about it the way I did France or Mexico. And after my experience in Paris and the cultural and language struggles I went through there, I am prepared to find myself equally frustrated, challenged and exhausted in Spain.
That’s not to say I don’t think I’ll have a good time. I hope I have a great time. But I’ve lowered my expectations. After all, it’s really unfair to put the burden of our lifetimes’ hopes and dreams on a poor, unsuspecting country and its people. So I’m prepared to have language difficulties. I’m prepared for it to possibly rain every day or be unseasonably cold (or hot). I’m bracing myself for potential transportation or lodging difficulties, and for being lonely sometimes.
I think it’s okay to feel disappointment when travel doesn’t turn out the way we hoped. But I also think it’s important for us to take some responsibility for that disappointment and not blame the place. As Shakespeare wrote “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Perhaps our expectations were simply too high, too unattainable, too unrealistic. Temper them, and we might find ourselves deliciously surprised by how much we love a place, in all its dirty, ugly glory.
Have you ever had your “great expectations” for a place disappointed? Where was it, and what happened? Would you go there again, but do things differently?