In Bratislava, there's a guy who sells real Soviet pins and badges and awards. His shop is the size of a closet. He's somewhere in the old town, but he's hard to find, because streets are all twisty there. His hours are more or less unpredictable. My friend Vic alerted me to his existence; I finally found him the last day I was there. I bought two pins: one was an award for "best lawyer", one for "best builder," and spent the trip back wondering which one my dad would like better.
There's an area of Tokyo called the "Golden Gai." Not quite secret (it's in the Lonely Planet) but it felt like it. There were a bunch of bars with room for about 8 people each. Most of them were closed. In the center of skyscraper city (near Shinjuku I think?) this little city block of old-looking sorta-shabby little old houses still survives. Thanks to Ram, we both had a great time there. And some terrible drinks. (Pickled ume in a drink? Really?)
London! You might be stumbling around right smack in the center of your Underground map, by like Holborn and Covent Garden, and you might find yourself in a place called "Neal's Yard," and all of a sudden the London grayness (or rather, "greyness") vanishes and you're in this flowery colorful courtyard! With vegan hippie restaurants and stuff! Maybe this is a well-known place even, but I did not at all know it, and I dug it for its unexpectedness.
In Boston, there's an alley with a ton of pictures of saints. I guess if you get there at the right time, a guy who lives there will come out and talk to you about them. 's about all I know.
But these places might help me answer a question that always has confounded me: what do I want when I travel? I mean, authenticity, of course. Seeing a place like the locals do. Real connections with people. But there's two things about that: 1. I don't know how, and I don't know anyone who knows how, to do it well in a short time; and 2. I can't shake the feeling that it's a little gawky-weird*. So in lieu of, and in addition to that, we have experiences like the four above.
* so I don't really want to get into this, but it seems a little weird, like imperialistic even, to talk like this about "the locals". Who are you, that they'll want to hang out with you? Sheesh. Granted, if someone met me in Seattle, and wanted to talk to me about what it's like to live in Seattle, I'd be thrilled and honored! But I can't help feeling so very white everywhere I go, and that my desire to, say, strike up a conversation with a guy at a roadside stand in India would be met with confusion at best. Maybe this is just my insecurity talking, and this is kind of a discussion for another time. Anyway...
What do these four experiences have in common? They're awesome, they're unique, and they're hidden. It's sort of like why I'd rather live in Pittsburgh than in New York City. If you meet someone in some random place and start talking about Pittsburgh, it's great! If you're from New York, well, sure, everyone's been to New York. If I talk to you about the Eiffel Tower, because we both saw it and it is big and stuff, meh. But if you also saw that dude in Bratislava, and talked to him in broken English about Soviet prizes, then we have a connection.
But it's not just for the talking-about-it that I like these things. There's something more there, and I can't quite put my finger on it. Something like "I am seeing this, and not many other people are, and it's amazing. I have discovered an untouched corner in the world. Neat."
So! You should come visit me. I'll try to show you some hidden parts of Seattle. And then I'll come visit you, and you show me the awesome hidden parts of your city. This will be so much better than going up in the Space Needle.
EDIT: I forgot, I wanted to include this in the discussion. I hope I find a Toynbee Tile someday.