The Novelty Inherent in the Familiar

Discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes. –Marcel Proust

Downtown San Juan Capistrano.

Downtown San Juan Capistrano.

There is no beauty that is impervious to complacency. Seeing something every day, whether it be a loved one’s face or a rocky, foam-studded coastline, often causes us to lose the ability to “see” it in its truest form. We become accustomed to its presence and we begin to take it for granted. It loses all novelty, sometimes all interest. Once in a while, we might be reminded by chance of what we are lucky enough to have, but more often than not, it takes our removal from our normal surroundings to make us appreciate them again. It takes the sudden absence of a familiar face to remind us of our love for them.

I’ve been home for almost six weeks now, and some of the softness my body had lost to the weight of backpacks and wandering has come back to settle at my hips as a sign of the contentment of coming home and being welcome there. Though the crystalline edges of my joy have dulled somewhat, I have so far held on to the ability to see my home with eyes, if not new, than at least the eyes of a long-absent devotee. While descending into L.A. the day I came home, I excitedly pressed my face to the window and surprised my seatmates by yelling “look at it! It’s so organized and beautiful!” After cities like Bogotá and Guayaquil, cities whose infrastructures seem to lag eternally behind their quickly creeping expansion, where neighborhoods and commercial areas seem to metastasize out from the cities’ centers, continually blurring and altering the topographical shape of its borders, the sudden clean lines and grid-like appearance of Los Angeles were a welcome sight, despite the fact that I had never thought of it as beautiful before.

It’s not L.A. alone that has taken on a new sheen of beauty for me.  I can see the allure of other places now, other backdrops of my past, without their being dulled by privileged complacency. Downtown San Juan Capistrano, the city I grew up in, with its railroads and jacaranda-lined streets, its anachronistic insinuations of a time when cowboys and Indians and robed padres walked the same streets that house Starbucks and the Swallows Inn today, holds a charm for me now that was previously obscured by the mundane normality of seeing it all the time.

Even San Francisco, which I admittedly loved more consciously than my hometown, is enveloped in the shininess of novelty: its chilly splendor, its districts like an extended family, exceedingly unique, each to the other dissimilar except in their shared connection, its windswept coast and patchwork citizenry — everything is somehow sharper, more vivid, now that I’m seeing them again. Coming back to San Francisco made me feel almost instantaneously as if I had never left, but at the same time I was aware of how what I had experienced abroad had made me infinitely richer (although not in the way that would allow me to live here again). Even the virtually featureless expanses of middle California that I saw through my windshield on the six-hour drive from one end of the state to the other were suddenly beautiful to me, as if having gone away had unlocked my ability to see what had always been there.

It is one of the greatest curiosities of humanity that we are so adept at turning what was once new and exciting into the visual and emotional equivalent of elevator music. Traveling is a foolproof way of bringing the familiar back into focus, to remind us of why we live where we live, do what we do, love whom we love. And although I obviously think travel is one of the most valuable and enriching things one could possibly do, perhaps if we were only aware of our tendency to normalize our daily lives (and thus cause them to lose their brilliance) we could consciously choose to see our own tiny pieces of the world with like-new eyes without ever leaving them behind.

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