When I travel, the first few days in a new place are magical. My senses—from sight to smell, feel to sound—are on their game, alert to anything outside my normal pattern. Within 48 hours, many of them start to become “normal” so I try hard to capture the magic while I can.
I usually keep a small notebook nearby to jot down unexpected gifts of newness—words on signs, infrastructure differences or products that I don’t normally run into. Right now, I’m in Denmark, trying to track new ideas and images.
A few of the images and products say something about the culture. One of the first that jumped out was the “family friendly parking spaces” in large box store parking lots. Painted on the ground is a dad, mom, child, and pram in spaces next to ones for the disabled. It completely captures much about what's important in Denmark—work-life balance.
Another, somewhat frightening product is the robot grass cutter that moves around outside my university office window: the size of three pizza boxes, this robot is a low profile automatic roamer that trims the grass and startles me when I see it bump against the courtyard walls. But in an enclosed space, it makes sense and does its job rain or shine.
I also can't miss the hundreds of bicycles leaning against buildings throughout the city, most of them unlocked, since crime just isn’t a big factor. In Copenhagen, where 50 percent of the workforce commutes by bike, there are even two story bike stands just beside street intersections.
When I see such differences, I try first not to judge—or assume that one way is “better” than another, that “we” or “they” do it right. The key to being in a new place is just absorbing, letting the wonder run over you at first. Later comes the time to figure how why it works or does not.
And that’s the same way that creativity and new ideas so often happen.
We experience something, just taking it in, and then later start to evaluate what it means or whether it has use or value. Now this process is clearly in a new setting where differences are much more noticeable. The challenge at home, which is frankly much harder, is to look as closely and judge as lightly.
Of course there can be a drawback of encountering magic in a new place: the “old place” loses some of its charm. When observing home from a distance—I more easily see flaws and differences, especially ones that generate gut-punch reactions in comparison to where I am. So I have to remember that judging goes both ways—I can jump to judgments in a place I don’t know well and see all the “good” about it; I can likewise jump to assumptions and see negatives about a place I know very well.
The joy, though, is realizing how much richer a place or life can be when it incorporates the new and especially the magic.