Traveler's Tales

I’m Taking My Vacation at the Mall

by Karen Palmer

Photo by Heidi Sandstrom / Unsplash.

Sometimes a vacation is all about the life-changing experiences, heart-stopping escapades, and mind-bending encounters. And sometimes it's just about pleather at Zara and spinach dip at The Cheesecake Factory. Let's hear it for the easy anti-vacation.

PASADENA, California – There was no way Susie and I were going to leave Pasadena without ordering the spinach-artichoke dip.

It was just after 8 p.m. one Friday night this March, and we were eating at the bar at the town's one and only Houston's. My friend and I had tossed around some other, more "local" (read: better) restaurant options for dinner, but a familiar chain — and its warm, creamy, delicious mess of a dip — felt more appropriate.

After all, it's not like we'd come to Los Angeles to scope out the up-and-coming restaurants in Culver City or to find vintage gems in Palm Springs. Nope, we were spending a couple of days in what felt like a Los Angeles suburb, so it didn't make sense to make dinner any more complicated than it needed to be. As soon as Susie said "Houston's," I was in, hook, line, and French dip.

But perhaps more importantly, why was I, a longtime city dweller — and one who lives across the country in New York, no less — on vacation in affluent Pasadena by choice? The easy answer is that Susie wanted to check out the LA enclave as a possible place to move after spending eight years in San Francisco and invited me to tag along. This was not a journey of discovery but rather of practicality. (Pasadena isn't technically a 'burb because it's within the confines of Los Angeles, but it has a suburban feel — and isn't usually tops on must-visit lists in the LA area.)

I could tell you that I bought a plane ticket to support my friend, but that's only half the story. Escaping to the suburbs is something I love to do: It's an opportunity to revel in the sameness of it all, to thumb through tees at the Gap, or glaze over as I wander the aisles of a Target as the Chainsmokers play on the speakers, without one ounce of shame or guilt that I should be doing something better — with my time, with my frequent flier miles, with my brain.

Let me be clear: When I say "the suburbs," I'm actually talking about "the mall" more than anything else.

I grew up in New Jersey, so mall culture is in my bones. In middle school, my friends and I hung out at my one-horse town's outdoor mall, which didn't have much more than a Shop Rite, Sound-A-Rama (where we would stand in line for concert tickets), a Hallmark, a video store (remember those?), and an odds-and-ends local department store of sorts called R.J. Mars. "Big" nights out involved driving to other, more substantial malls like Rockaway or Bridgewater to catch Daniel Day-Lewis in Last of the Mohicans. Heck, even my favorite restaurant was in a mall: Luigi's, the type of Italian place where you automatically got a house salad with your penne alla vodka. To this day, I might be at my most relaxed in malls: They're the Real Housewives marathons of mental stimulation (that is to say, very minimal).

For the past eight years, I've lived in Manhattan. In Chelsea, specifically, a gorgeous part of town that's become increasingly overrun with tourists. (Thanks, High Line!) New York is a city that pushes against you constantly. My life is a daily Venn diagram of purpose and frustration — I mostly reside on the thin middle sliver of superior-feeling annoyance. Subways break down or switch lines. (If the A is running on the F line and the D is running on the C, where does the E train go?) The weather can be, and mostly is, oppressive. From the neon lights to the crowds of people on the sidewalks to the occasional crazy person screaming in the subway, New Yorkers live in a constant state of over-stimulation and irritation.

We also, if we belong to that certain class of New Yorker, feel a constant pressure weighing on every decision. To find the cool new thing, to be successful at work, to keep up with friends, to keep up with the rent. Never, ever to stop. 

Relaxation and life balance always feel so close, yet so far away: Even on the days when I'm mainlining Bravo on my couch, I feel guilty about not taking advantage of the city. Out I go — and the purpose-frustration complex starts all over again.

But despite having just about anything I want at my fingertips — all-night bodegas, any regional cuisine you could name (and some that you can't), a taxicab on every corner, endless art, music and culture — I actually like visiting the suburbs. Because although my last trips have seen me in Nashville, Cap Ferrat, and Dubai, sometimes when I travel, I don't want to think all that much. Sometimes I want a vacation from over-stimulation.

In the suburbs, that blanket of pressure is lifted, revealing nothing more than sweet, uncomplicated air to inhale by the boatload. When I lived in San Francisco years ago, my ex and I would escape the city, driving north over the Golden Gate Bridge, not to scenic Sausalito or bougie Yountville. No, we'd stop about half an hour away in Corte Madera and stroll around the town's pretty outdoor mall. The Cheesecake Factory was all the scenery we needed.

Susie and I did much of the same in Pasadena. Although there's more to the city (galleries, a killer flea market), we kept things simple. We shopped for sandals at J. Crew, wandered into Zara to try on pleather jackets, and roamed the vaguely Old West-inspired Downtown. Yes, we chatted with a couple of colorful locals during our dinner at Houston's, but not because we were looking for cross-cultural enrichment — just to talk to them. And we ate without worrying about arranging the mise-en-scene into an Instagram. We soaked in the blandness. And it was perfect.

That's not a knock on Pasadena. The Downtown's blandness is what made me love it. And why I'll keep disappearing to the 'burbs when I'm craving ease — and spinach-artichoke dip.


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