Alexi Surtees // New York
Words to live by: “This is it!” Many great words to live by, this is a short one I often find inspiration from.
Currently listening to: “Halcyon on and on, by Orbital”
I always travel with: pen and paper; also often an apple.
Book recommendation: Hmm… Oh the places you’ll go, by Dr. Seuss
We met at a coffee shop, Williamsburg, mid-Sunday afternoon, put in touch by a mutual friend living in London. Simone is a wonderfully thoughtful conversationalist. “Thank you for inviting me to reflect on your questions. I look forward to many shared adventures in New York and beyond.”
“What makes you travel?”
Coming from generations of cross-cultural marriages – wonder (or wander) may be my fourth passport. Most of my memories involve movement. “Alexi, where are you going?” I can barely stand and push at a rickety cart piled high with fresh Greek lemons, “to China!” We built secret passages to “Timbuktu.” We were always going somewhere, back to one place or for the first time to another. At four, my sister lays out her clothes by outfit, insisting on shoes bought too big. I pack only my favourites, returning outside to climb trees. If I close my eyes, I remember the movements.
Running across sand, dirt clinging on the back of my legs. The succinct passing of house, tree, street we might have lived. The outward hands we were introduced to, the hugs and kisses shared warmly by strangers. At home we read “We’re Going on A Bear Hunt” putting on our wellingtons, we squelch through the mud and rain. I travel, because that movement is how I learned to say hi to strangers, be open to experience, play games without cards, make feasts without recipes, awake with curiosity and excitement.
“What has been your favourite exploration or travel experience?”
I lived outside in Mexico for 78 days. Outside as in a sleeping bag, stars, no tent. 15 of us, we didn’t see people for 21 days at a time. That’s a very intense, all-encompassing experience. I had never felt such strength in my own legs and mind. You become hyper aware of every sensation.
“What is it like to travel to a place you are from?”
I think it tends to be more introspective, I used to try to see myself through these places. How my mannerisms may be rooted from one part of the world or another. How my love of being outside is evidence of Swiss heritage, or my depreciation British. I have become less interested in trying to place myself geographically now. I would rather enjoy the place and my experience with it.
“What is it like to return to a place you have travelled to so many times?”
Going back to a place over a period of many years, among the familiarity are elements of new. It’s similar to deepening your relationship with someone you thought you know well. My family is partly Greek, so my one constant has been returning to this special place each year. One year, we create a flower book dry-pressing each volcanic flower. Another summer, we write a story inspired by the sea anemones, which later appeared as a family dining table. Some years, running and cliff diving are everything. Others, it’s all about understanding the stars and playing marathon charades. We are constantly wandering, sometimes going far. Other times learning more about one place. Really the question is “how do you become really good at seeing more?”
“You live in New York now, do you enjoy it?”
Moving to New York a year and half ago was the first time I felt a continued sense of home. I can create a space to feel like a temporary home, which I had done over and again. When I continued to wake up in New York morning after morning, I felt this profound sense of home. Describing to a friend I felt encouraged by its consistency and its challenge. Also for the first time, I felt surrounded by people who were for the most part displaced in New York too.
To me, home is a place in which you can grow – continually. It also has an element of consistency. Here, there are constants among the chaos, faithfully there will be people, and cars, and smells. Among this crowd is some of the most incredible compassion I have witnessed. I love the people in New York. Sometimes, I wake up and spend the day as a tourist in New York. That is also enjoyable.
“A lot of people share their travel stories, do you document your experiences?”
I enjoy reading stories. Interestingly, I don’t typically share my travel stories and am sometimes hesitant to document. During longer trips with lots of movements, perhaps staying a different place every night or so, documentation allows for a continuation of experience. I tend to feel so absorbed by the day that I often choose sleep. In some way the experiences become part of my dreams. There is a book I read during my undergraduate studies, White Noise by Don DeLillo. He writes of “the most photographed barn in America”, describing how “no one sees the barn” they “only see what others see.” The accessibility of sharing writing and photography, has changed our experience of places and this passage really made an impression on me. I do my best to place that new experience first.
A goal during my second year in New York is to document more because it can be interesting to see what others see.
“How do you keep exploring daily?”
On a daily basis I walk a different street. I walk the same street a different pace, looking at people, the buildings, the numbers, the colors. It’s an exercise in just actually seeing. Sometimes, I don’t look, I listen. Or smell. Or only watch listening to my own music. Sort of a meditation of space. During the first 12 months I lived in New York, I didn’t want to document. I wanted to find the soul of place.
I ask a lot of questions, too. Inquiring is inspiring. When my mind feels limited, I ask others. Exploring is a collective consciousness, so I love to also learn how other people are discovering new places or reflecting on adventures.