Blogs by Hilary Hopkins

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May 24, 2013 / Making the Familiar Strange, and Vice Versa

Maybe you’ve heard of a system called Synectics, which is used sometimes by businesses or others to enhance creative thinking and problem-solving.   The idea is to try to make the familiar seem strange and the strange, familiar.   It’s a way of attempting to see without prejudice, without expectations, in order to find something new.   I used to teach this technique, years ago, and we would have fun with it in our classes, pondering, say, In what ways is this problem like a doorknob, or a zebra.  Or whatever. 

How could that work when traveling, to enrich one’s experience?   Here, let’s try it.  Start with a very familiar place, something you see every day.  Maybe you can just look out a window from where you are right now.  Probably you’ll see a place you are so familiar with that it’s even fairly boring (a word I loathe and detest with all my soul!). 

OK, now, in what ways is that deeply familiar scene like your childhood box of watercolor paints?   Push past the obvious and see if you can think of at least three similarities. 

Suppose you are an alien from far beyond our little solar system, what would you notice first about the place, and what might alarm you, and what would you find surprising?

You could imagine your utterly familiar place in prehistoric times.   Or try closing your eyes and listening rather than looking.  Make a tiny opening with your curled-up index finger and look at your scene through it.  If you walk in your place, and you usually look down, try looking up instead, or vice versa.  If you don’t mind appearing a bit unusual, smell things as you walk by them—leaves, telephone poles, whatever.

Thus you can make your familiar place strange, new, even exotic. 

How about making the strange seem familiar?  I wrote about this a little bit in two previous posts, called What Can You Learn From Travel?  But I will tell one story of an experience, treasured now for many years, in which the very strange became very familiar.

Picture a tiny settlement along the banks of a tributary of the Sepik River, in Papua New Guinea, quite some years ago.  Perhaps there are a dozen homes, on stilts, and a few local folks going about their affairs among them, and our little group has been invited to stroll around, too.  At this point in my travels I had not had any experience with places such as this, seeming so very remote from my own. 

As I walked about hesitantly, past some stilt houses, a quite small child, perhaps two years old, came into view.  Wandering along disconsolately, he was absolutely bawling his little head off.  At almost the same moment behind him appeared a woman who had to be his mom.   As she scooped up the howling child, our eyes met.  At the same moment we shrugged, raised our eyebrows, and smiled wryly.  “Kids,” we were both thinking. 

In that exchange of glances and gestures we shared all the experience of motherhood—across half the world and what would seem to be an enormous cultural gap.  Thus the strange became utterly familiar.  And now, from a far more mature perspective, I understand that for the mother, also, the strange (me) became familiar (another mother).  I’d lay a bet that she remembers our encounter, too.

On this website I often write about travel to places very different from my own--but maybe not so different.  And our travels need not be exotic to be stimulating and marvelous--your imagination is your only limit.

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