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How to Turn 'Mundane' Into 'Exotic'

by Corey Breier Mar 11, 2013

There’s a common escapist fantasy that includes dropping all trappings of your current life and moving to a foreign city “to become a writer” or whatever creative vocation. It seems to stem from the notion that your creative endeavors would flourish if only you lived in an exotic city, where the constant exposure to new and unfamiliar surroundings would certainly inspire you to crank out greatness every day.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that after you live in an exotic place for a considerable amount of time, the amusingly high-pitched police sirens, slimmer green crosswalk men, or food composed entirely of the same three staples stops being novel and starts to become, for lack of a better word, nothing more than your habitat. There’s no avoiding it; when you see it every single day, even the beautiful becomes mundane. It’s like pain sensitivity with rats — at first, they flinch in response to a small electric shock, but if continuously subjected to this low voltage, their brain becomes inured to it and it will require larger shocks to stimulate a flinch. The phenomenon works with pleasure as well as pain — a shot of serotonin to the cerebral cortex will at first be wonderful, but after repeated exposure, it will barely register and they need more, more, more to be satisfied.

Sorry to break it to you, but we aren’t all that different from rats. You could argue that a panoramic view of the Swiss Alps is a higher pleasure than a shot of serotonin, but scientifically speaking, even intangible emotions like awe and wonder boil down to chemicals in your brain. Repeated exposure to the same visuals, however awesome, will continue to trigger this reaction, but you can never match that initial experience. I’ll never forget the first time I came upon the Sagrada Familia towering above the surrounding city blocks like an entrenched alien spaceship from a modernist world. I still marvel at it now, but more often than not it’s simply an easily visible mark of locational reference.

Scientific jargon aside, there’s another, simpler explanation for this — you stop caring as much. When you only have three days in a foreign city, you’re going to squeeze every experience you can into your wide-open, obligation-free limited hours. When you live in that same city, your days become more plentiful, yet filled with errands and obligations. Grocery runs must be made, bills must be paid, dates must be kept; these trivialities come to the front and push out the small wonders that seemed all around you when you first arrived. You say “Oh, I’ll go see that sight later. I have to buy food right now.”

Somewhere around the world is a would-be traveler that wants nothing more than to see or experience your daily routine.

Now, just because you checked the big attractions off your to-do list at the beginning of the stay doesn’t mean they no longer hold interest. To me, Barcelona’s La Rambla is nothing more than my weekly route home from the gym, but if I stopped and rested on one of its many benches, I have no doubt I would still be hypnotized by the seething mass of tourists, street performers, prostitutes, and food vendors competing for attention. But the needs of the mundane take precedence — at the end of my workout my stomach is growling louder than the many squat bulldogs being walked alongside me, and I know the sandwiches in my kitchen are far cheaper and larger than those of the tourist traps here.

Your ‘exotic’ surroundings may be different, and your daily obligations certainly are, but we all have them in some form or another. Yet somewhere around the world is a would-be traveler that wants nothing more than to see or experience your daily routine. The friendly late-night convenience store clerks intrigued by my heavily accented Spanish universally swoon on hearing I hail from California, and inform me that it’s always been their dream to go there. Likewise, the Stockholm girls who reacted similarly couldn’t understand why I’d left the Golden State and come all the way to their northern city; to them it was nothing more than cold, dark, and far removed from the rest of civilization.

Don’t dismiss your life — if you’re bored with it, it’s probably just because it’s yours. Know that even if you realize your dream of moving to the exotic destination of your choosing, after sufficient time there you’ll start to feel the same hint of the mundane you felt before.

Luckily, there’s an easy way to rebel against your routine no matter where you are — just take one step out of it. You’ll be surprised how much excitement both your surroundings and your daily schedule can permit. For example, one slow day after class I decided to take a different route home from school and ended up in an entirely new neighborhood, replete with wacky green buildings constructed from giant panes of refracted glass, and dirtier streets where I only encountered people every few blocks, giving the whole scene a Wild West feel, with dusty strangers tipping their hats as I passed. It felt like an entirely new city, when in reality it was just a result of taking a right instead of my routine left.

The next time you weary of your daily life, remember the exotic lifestyle you’re dreaming of overseas is someone else’s daily routine, just as your mundane is someone else’s exotic. You get out of your day what you put into it — no matter your GPS coordinates.

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