I once spoke to a woman who was moving to Layton, Utah from someplace in the east of America. She looked at the map, saw the giant lake (“The Great Salt Lake”) and thought that Layton would be delightful because it’s right there on the edge of that big lake.
The Great Salt Lake, is, as it sounds, a giant salt water lake. While it can be lovely from a distance and sunsets across it are startlingly beautiful, go anywhere near the shores and you are accosted by brine flies and the smell of dying brine shrimp. It is not a recreational lake. I still wonder what that woman thought when she finally arrived in Layton, Utah. I hope she took up skiing or mountain biking.
Both for the better and the worse, here are some of my own top wrong guesses:
“Europe” is a muesli commercial. Before embarking on my youthful, cheap backpacking trip around Europe many years ago, I think my expectation was something like green hills, ancient cobbled villages, and young blond women with braids. Basically some muesli commercial I’d seen on TV. I did see plenty of “quaint” that trip, but I was also surprised to see that so much of Euopre is, like America, roads, big stores, and teenagers acting cool.
India is a romantic National Geographic spread. When I did the bigger, longer, even cheaper backpack around India, I thought, hey, maybe it will also be more like home than I anticipate, but with pretty saris and spicy food. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I have never been anywhere more different in all conceivable ways: showing your midriff is fine but don’t show your ankles or you’ll but called a slut on the street by a 10-year-old; take jam-packed, sweaty, smelly, buses and trains; haggle over everything until your head hurts and you’re afraid to go out again; look out from the never-ending bus ride at a countryside from 200 years ago; become terribly, terribly ill. Thirteen, mostly work-related trips later, I have learned to accept and enjoy India, but it is no less overwhelming and I know I will only ever understand it’s barest edges.
China is an unknowable, frightening place. By the time I knew we were moving to China, I was relatively world-weary. I braced myself for the worst and was very surprised to find it easy. Hey, the taxi drivers use their meters! I can walk on the street as an individual woman and be left alone! I haven’t gotten ill from food! The roads are so wide and look ladies in straw hats are sweeping them! My expectations were so low, that I could only have been delighted (plus I moved to the relatively easy city of Zhuhai).
Australia is “Crocodile Dundee.” No. It’s almost exactly like Northern California (well at least the stretch from Sydney to Melbourne). Beautiful, dramatic coastline, wineries, laid back, beaches, etc.
Cambridge (UK) is just like college towns I know. To me, universities are open, welcoming places of learning. Fancy an afternoon using the library as a second office even though you’re not a student? Fine, no one cares. Wander wherever you like without question and lounge on the green lawns? Also fine and normal. Neither of these things are fine and normal in Cambridge and everyone cares very much if you try to do either of them. Colleges are guarded with big, imposing, wooden doors and stern porters. Don’t even think about asking to enter a library, well except the Wren Library and then only a few hours a day to see the original Winnie the Pooh book and you’d better be absolutely silent. And never, never walk on the college lawns, unless you want to be made to feel like a naughty child.