Cultural immersion, sans the passport

Jun. 12, 2014 @ 05:00 AM

Immersing yourself in another culture is perhaps the best way to gain an understanding of the world. Yet, it is not necessary to jet set on an airplane or sail across oceans to experience cultural immersion. It can be found right here in America in our local backyards, neighboring towns and bordering states.

While my passport boasts the stamps of various foreign nations — England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Italy and Belgium, to name a few — I love exploring American soil. Oftentimes the richness of American hometowns, whether large or small, is enough to keep even the most frequent traveler busy and inspired.

As an avid traveler, I enjoy exploring new counties and states leading me to stumble upon unfamiliar cities and towns. My favorite aspect of traveling to new destinations is submerging myself in the area's culture and lifestyle. It is always so intriguing to learn new things and experience how others live, from their customs and language to their beliefs and simple way of life.

My latest opportunity for cultural immersion was during my inaugural excursion to Nashville to visit my younger brother. Having moved there just a few short months ago, my brother already knows where to find true local flavors, unique shops and vibrant markets.

We opted for walking as our major mode of transportation, allowing us to really get a feel for the energy and vibe of the city. Each of Nashville's neighborhoods provide a unique atmosphere complete with shopping, dining and nightlife options that offer locals and visitors alike a taste of the city's eclectic diversity — from hipster to ritzy all on the same block.

Music has been the common thread connecting the life and soul of the city and its people, and diversity plays a key role in the city's past, present and future as different cultures, religions, ideas and customs come together harmoniously in Music City. In a way, Nashville is a model of the American "melting pot."

Downtown Nashville is the hub of entertainment that defines Music City, where everything comes alive with exciting live music, great food and elegant hotels. Within blocks of each other, we encountered the Frist Center for Visual Arts displaying world-class art, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center where the city's Grammy award-winning symphony performs and the Bridgestone Arena hosting world-class concerts and events. And the legendary Ryman Auditorium, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and the Johnny Cash Museum are within walking distance of one another.

South of downtown's honky tonks and neon lights is an area called SoBro, filled with the new Music City Center convention center, hip new restaurants and trendy hotels. The Music City Center stretches six city blocks and houses the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Right next door is the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which is home to the largest collection of country music artifacts in the world. The building also houses one of my favorite Nashville sites, Hatch Show Print, one of America's oldest letter-press poster print shops that is still in operation.

After a meal in SoBro's culinary scene, we walked over the Cumberland River on the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge, which offers magnificent skyline views and serves as the gateway to East Nashville and LP Field.

No visit to Nashville would be complete without a stop by Opryland/Music Valley, an area known for outstanding entertainment, activities and shopping. We took our time exploring the notorious Grand Ole Opry and nearby Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center.

While these three areas fulfilled my desire to play a Nashville tourist, it was four other smaller neighborhoods that fed my cultural appetite — Edgehill, Hillsboro Village, 12South and Germantown.

The trendy urban neighborhood of Edgehill with its loft apartments and chic boutiques offers a variety of unique, casual restaurants. Our favorite was locally owned and operated Taco Mamacita, where made-from-scratch and super-fresh eats are served up in a fun, laid-back setting with some of the best customer service.

Edgehill is close to the famous Music Row, an area home to hundreds of businesses related to the country, gospel and contemporary Christian music industries. Walking through the area we spotted numerous record labels, publishing houses, recording studios, video production houses and radio networks.

In nearby Hillsboro Village, a collection of specialty shops, boutiques and restaurants make for a perfect afternoon stroll. Comprising a four-block radius, the quaint neighborhood has rejuvenated the community and attracted young professionals with eateries like Jackson's Bar and Bistro and the Pancake Pantry, both must-sees in the village.

While the village may seem small, its one-of-a-kind stores abound like the BookMan/BookWoman Used Books offering more than 150,000 used volumes.

In the 12South neighborhood, one of Nashville's newest neighborhoods, we found everything from art galleries, music stores, coffee shops and cafés. In a neighborhood that I would call "hipster," in one afternoon we grabbed brunch at Frothy Monkey coffeehouse, enjoyed gourmet popsicles at Las Paletas and perused multiple old gas stations that have been refurbished and transformed into apparel stores, salons and home goods shops.

And it would be remiss not to mention Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams, a small chain that builds its ice creams from the ground up with milk from grass-grazed cows and whole ingredients that the staff blends, bakes, peels, chops, pulverizes and blowtorches themselves. They use no flavorings, chemical dyes or off-the-shelf ice cream mixes, and you can really taste the difference.

Out of all the areas in Nashville, if I moved to the city I would relocate in the neighborhood of Germantown. Lined with beautiful Victorian buildings and homes, Nashville's oldest neighborhood has quaint restaurants and stores interspersed throughout the area. The neighborhood boasts more than 100 species of trees and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

On my final day in the city, we stopped by the new bakery and sandwich shoppe, flour. sugar. eggs., to indulge in a few fresh-baked pastries on the sidewalk patio.

By visiting so many different areas of Nashville during my trip, I was given the chance to experience a variety of customs and lifestyles. Each time I travel I realize the importance of embracing the destinations I visit and the significance of cultural immersion.

Whether trekking across the pond, over to the opposite side of the country or a few hours to visit my younger brother, traveling is always a great adventure.