"Vacations aren’t just about going to theme parks or sunny beaches, but about visiting places that feed your soul and nourish your curiosity."
Adam H. Graham is a travel journalist and regular contributor to the New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, Wall Street Journal, and several other publications. After working for ten years in NYC publishing, he moved from Brooklyn to Zürich in 2010 and now spends his time popping over Alpine borders on trains to Italy, France, Austria, and Germany. But he also visits Japan for a few months every year where he encourages travelers to get off the beaten temple path and experience undiscovered Japan.
Essentialist: Why Zurich? How did you come to live there and what is something you love about the city?
Adam H. Graham: My husband is Swiss. I was living in Brooklyn when we met and we dated long-distance for a few years, but after a decade of NYC’s dollhouse-sized kitchens and general lack of life quality, I was ready for a change. Switzerland was love at first site, but austere Zürich took some getting used to. Eventually, I came to love it and am so grateful for the city’s civility and hyper-functionality. Nobody tries to cheat or beat the system here, because everyone is paid a livable wage.
E: What was the first trip you took where you thought…I’m hooked and want to do this more?
AG: I was raised in a sunny Florida town with perfect white beaches, wild dolphins, and hot surfers. Everyone said it was paradise, but I hated it. One summer when I was about 12, we took a family vacation to the Smokey Mountains and I was mesmerized by the mossy, cool, verticalness of it all. So, there in Roaring Fork, Tennessee I had an epiphany: vacations aren’t just about going to theme parks or sunny beaches, but about visiting places that feed your soul and nourish your curiosity. Though I’ve since grown to love Florida, I still prefer mountains over beaches, which drives my Swiss husband crazy.
E: What is the first thing you like to do when you have landed in a foreign country or a new city?
AG: Scope out restaurants! When other people are shopping, sightseeing, and relaxing poolside, I’m walking around cities and judging potential lunch and dinner spots. I’m not a fussy eater, but I’m extremely choosey about where I dine. My ideal restaurant should have a casual atmosphere, loads of local color, and menus highlighting regional cuisine you can’t get elsewhere. I prefer to find these places in person by eyeballing them on walks rather than searching online. Learning to trust my own restaurant instincts, instead of following the lists created by Michelin, Lonely Planet, and increasingly Netflix, has become an especially edifying part of my job as a travel writer.
E: What is a place (city, country) that you could go back to a million times and why?
AG: I get this question a lot. There are several, but less as I age. Japan is my obvious first choice. I’ve visited 12 times, to 38 of its 47 prefectures, staying as long as two months at a time. And still, I find it the most exotic, kindest, safest, wackiest, rarefied, most delicious, poetic, and heart-stopping place of the 100-plus countries I’ve visited and reported on. It’s also the least English proficient, which means I spend more face time with locals negotiating with gestures and Janglish, and thus, tune out the daily cycles of negative news, which is a real luxury. Tied for second place are Mexico, Italy, California, Scotland, Taiwan, Switzerland, Denmark, Bhutan, Namibia, Laos, French Polynesia, Papua New Guinea, and Thailand. If you can find a common denominator, please let me know!
E: What are two essential items you carry with you on all trips? (besides your passport and wallet!)
AG: I’m a birdwatcher, so the first is a pair of bulky binoculars, which I lug with me everywhere I go. The colors, songs, and behaviors of native bird populations have inspired so much culture, literature, and art over the millennia, but sadly, birds are disappearing from the world, often due to house cats killing them. Since many endemics live on just one country or island, seeing a native species is a way for me to add a unique experience, with distinctive colors and sounds, to a trip. It’s also become a form of meditation to me since bird-watching requires silence, focus, and being in the present. Because eating is my biggest occupational hazard, the second thing I always carry is Seirogan, a Japanese stomach illness medicine made from beach-wood creosote that works like a charm to treat food-borne illnesses.
E: Any secrets for battling jetlag?
AG: Don’t fly! Or at least fly less, and travel by rail and car instead. I actually dislike flying, for its heavy carbon foot print and an irrational fear of crashing. To make matters worse, I generally don’t sleep on planes, even in the cushiest biz-class seat, so I especially struggle with jetlag. I recently flew the 787 Dreamliner to Korea, and was impressed by how little I was jetlagged the next day, evidently due to the plane’s carbon-fiber reinforced polymer body, which allows for higher cabin pressurization, better light control and air circulation systems. I also try not to eat fatty meals or drink alcohol on long hauls, unless the wine or sake is really good. Also, being in sunlight helps reset your body clock to the current time zone, so when I land I try to get as much sunlight as possible.
E: Backpack or roller suitcase?
AG: Typically, I only use my backpack for walks and hikes. Travelers who brag about never checking luggage, then stuff everything they own into a VW-sized backpack, knocking over old ladies on trams and airplane aisles along the way, drive me nuts. Also, I believe that any self-respecting foodie should stuff his roller full of olive oils, honeys, local wines, cheeses, and other edible goodies and liquids unavailable in their own country. If you’re not bringing a liquid home, you’re kinda missing out.
E: In your bag: Books or kindle?
AG: I made the switch to an e-book reader a few years ago, and love it. But I still enjoy buying physical books, especially cookbooks and vintage travel writing.
E: Any upcoming trips on the agenda?
AG: We’re doing a rosé-inspired road trip from Zürich to Italy’s stiletto, Sicily, and the Aeolian Islands in late May. In June we make our annual pilgrimage to Art Basel. This July, we’re doing a long weekend in Naxos and Mykonos for a friend’s 50th birthday. Every summer, I do a handful of a day hikes or weekend getaways to the mountains to swim in alpsees, buy Alpine cheeses direct from dairy farmers, and admire the cows, wildflowers and quiet nomadic way of life that still plays out in the Alps. This fall, my dad turns 80, so I’m crossing the Atlantic by ship, and after the party, embarking on my first ever US cross country road trip, from Florida to Seattle. I’ve seen more of the world than I have of the US, so this trip comes from a desire to understand my own country more.
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