I realize how late this blog has come in the series. That is partially intentional and partially a matter of “real life” getting in the way. It’s much easier to blog when you’re on the road without commitments – at dinner by yourself, on a beach, on a train – than it is while working and settling into a new city. But I also wanted time to reflect, gather questions that remained, and I was waiting for the travel sickness to set in. That has indeed happened, but I’ll get to that later. The following is a collection of thoughts from my journal abroad that didn’t necessarily have a place in a narrative, answers to questions I received upon my return, and some thoughts on travel. While it isn’t full of facts and pictures, the insight is interesting all the same and I promise there’s a good story or two.
On Being Alone:
“There is a need to find and sing our own song, to stretch our limbs and shake them in a dance so wild that nothing can roost there, that stirs the yearning for solitary voyage.” – Barbara Lazear Ascher
I constantly had others express fear in the idea that I was alone. But really, I wasn’t. I made friends almost everywhere I went. I will say I felt more alone (and out of touch with the English language) in Switzerland, but it didn’t bother me much. Solitude is refreshing in the mountains. I reveled in a quiet snowy train ride, a hot chocolate at a cafe while blogging, or on a day hike in the fresh air. In every other place, I made great friends – friends I still keep in touch with and plan to visit. I don’t think I would have had the pleasure to meet so many interesting people had I not been alone. So I certainly don’t regret it! And, funny as it may seem, I found it really is the people that make the place. When friends would leave before me, the city I was in would lose it’s lore. It was the shared moments that really made the experience. I can’t say I’ll ever turn down a trip but I will be happy to embark on a solo journey whenever the opportunity presents itself.
On Being Scared:
“What gives value to travel is fear. It is the fact that, at a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country … we are seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits … this is why we should not say that we travel for pleasure. There is no pleasure in traveling, and I look upon it more as an occasion for spiritual testing … Pleasure takes us away from ourselves in the same way as distraction, in Pascal’s use of the word, takes us away from God. Travel, which is like a greater and a graver science, brings us back to ourselves.” -Albert Camus
I was asked if I ever felt afraid on my trip. The truth is I was on one occasion. I was sitting by the docks of Split, Croatia, one afternoon after just booking a night train to Zagreb, the capital. From there I’d be taking a 6 hour train to Vienna. All-in-all, the journey would be nearly 24 hours. I had just informed my dad of this while using the cafe wifi and I made arrangements to check in with him when I arrived. While sitting there, I noticed an older man that was all too interested in me. At first, he just walked up to the counter near me to order a sandwich. For some reason, my instincts told me he was someone of which to be afraid. I distinctly remember telling myself that such thoughts were silly, but then I remembered reading a particularly insightful book that said when you’re instincts sense something you are nearly always right. I tucked that thought away and tried to find the reason why I thought this man was odd. He didn’t smile at me funny or say anything, but maybe did he look too long in my direction? I went about what I was doing – trying to Google what to do in Split before my train – but the man took his sandwich and sat at the table right next to my window. If not for the glass we’d be sitting side-by-side. I calmed my nerves and pretended not to notice. Then, he returned to the counter to order a soda. Again, nothing strange but maybe a look that lasted too long. He took his soda and sat at the same table as before but this time facing the wall. The window was still between us but he was catty-corner to me and I was all there was to look at. Panic set in, but I tried not to let it show. Fifteen minutes would pass before he stood up, and just as I thought I was in the clear, he was at my table. He told me his name and that he and his German buddy were riding their motorcycles around Europe. He asked, several times, whether I was alone and what he should do in Split. I stayed calm and thought quickly. I told him I was meeting friends shortly but needed wifi for a bit as I quickly hid my train ticket under my iPad. I recommended a few places I had already visited that were far out of the way, and all on the side of the city I knew I wouldn’t be going to. Even though he had just told me he was waiting for his friend to meet him there, he asked if I’d go for a walk with him. I declined, saying I really needed to be getting to my friends. At this point, my instincts were screaming – red flags, exit signs, and the giant words “GET OUT” were flashing in my head. He told me goodbye, but the problem was that he lingered and I had no friends to meet. At first he walked to another nearby cafe where I could see him watching me. Then he moved closer to the front of my cafe. Then, his friend came. They both ordered drinks and then took their map to a nearby table. Shortly after sitting down, they became engulfed in their cellphones and I hitched a plan. I packed up all of my things, made sure my movement hadn’t caught their attention, and made a break for it. I knew the way to my previous hostel – it was only about a 5 minute walk – and it was through a giant market where I could easily lose anyone that tried to follow. My heart was racing, and truly I doubt they even noticed I had left. However, it was a scary event. I kept thinking that if something had happened, it would have been 24 hours before anyone knew. I didn’t know anyone in that city. My parents had gone to bed and expected me to arrive in Vienna the next day. Sure I had my phone, but how helpful would it have been? I’m not saying it was something to stop me from wanting to be on my own, but it certainly made me more aware. But more important than one moment of being a little nervous (and to be honest this happens in the U.S., too), I was able to think on my feet and handle the situation. Plus, I was very aware of my surroundings, knew the city, and was careful what information I gave. At the hostel, I actually ran into friends I’d met in another town and we enjoyed the day together. Two of them even booked the same train, so I wasn’t alone for the journey either.
On the Pep Talk:
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Lao Tzu
I know I brought this up a few times, but I wanted to go into a little more detail. Something I learned about myself that I was surprised I didn’t already know is that I frequently need pep talks. I give them to myself all the time, but I never really noticed. There were a few times these made all the difference.
First, I have social anxiety. I always knew I hated walking into full classrooms or meeting a bunch of new people at once and I frequently worry what people think. I didn’t know I had such bad anxiety that I would be scared to make friends. I’m serious. On more than one occasion I was terrified to meet anyone. I got better, which is why I wasn’t so lonely after Switzerland, but it lingered. I remember distinctly the moment I was in Croatia when I locked myself in my room and for over an hour tried to convince myself to just go out and meet the people in the common room. I knew I would make friends and be happier, but I was frozen in fear of the thought of doing that! When I finally left, after I thought everyone else had too, I struggled to lock my door and was approached by the nicest guy in the world. He helped me with my door while I frantically explained my irrational fear to him. Then, he chatted with me for a while about travel, told me to meet his roommates later (which I did) because they were great to hang out with, and sent me on my way feeling much better. But I still cannot tell you how difficult of an hour that was telling myself to just do it.
I felt similarly on multiple occasions. It happened on creeky, metal staircases suspended in what seemed to be midair, in clock towers with wooden floors, on spiral, stone staircases that made me claustrophobic, on days I felt alone, in frantic moments when I really needed a bathroom but couldn’t find an English speaker, in times when my pack was too heavy and it was too hot, in times I thought “what the hell am I doing here,” in hours on abandoned train platforms in Slovenian border towns, in moments of sickness on Czech bathroom floors. I constantly heard a voice telling me I couldn’t do it. And I constantly had to convince myself I could.
Now, I realize convincing yourself to push on and travel in a gorgeous foreign country may seem like the smallest feat of accomplishment in the world but I promise it’s not. It’s a lesson I learned and use frequently – when in doubt, give yourself a pep talk.
On Things I Would do Differently:
“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao Tzu
There isn’t much I would change about my trip. I loved every moment of it, and while I wish it ahd lasted longer or included more places, there was no place I wish I hadn’t gone. Each step led me somewhere else and meeting someone new. I always think how grateful I am my path crossed with so many amazing people by complete coincidence. But if there is one thing I would change, it would have been my pack. I loved my backpack – it was us against the world – but it was really heavy. I gained serious shoulder muscle on the trip. I wish I would have slimmed down on the camera gear some and left my bulky chain lock behind. I also wish I’d packed those extra socks. Trying to find a place that sold boot socks in Vienna was surprisingly hard.
On Favorite Foods:
“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it.” – Mary Oliver
I had a few favorite foods this trip. The best sausage was the käsekrainer in Vienna. I could eat one with mustard every day. My favorite dish was meat stuffed pierogi in Poland. They were so buttery and delicious. My favorite dessert was gelato in Milan. Yes, I had gelato for breakfast and dinner in that city. My favorite drink was hot chocolate in Switzerland. My favorite candy was Michaszki in Poland – I’m actively looking for this on more than one online candy site.
On the Best Thing I Did:
“Ten times a day something happens to me like this – some strengthening throb of amazement – some good sweet empathic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest, and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.” – Mary Oliver
The best thing I did was spontaneously deciding to jump off a mountain. Did I mention I’m afraid of heights?
On the Regret:
“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” – Gustave Flaubert
I do regret not staying for a while in Krakow. Half a day was not enough. Getting sick in Prague was a close second, but that wasn’t a choice.
On my Favorite Thing About Traveling:
“But that’s the glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned. I don’t want to know what people are talking about. I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.” -Bill Bryson
The best thing about traveling is being out of your comfort zone. It’s an adrenaline rush in every moment. And you find the minute, daily tasks of others to be enlessly interesting. Suddenly, laundry or ordering a coffee are immensely interesting and strange accomplishments.
On Travel Sickness:
“Every dreamer knows that it is entirely possible to be homesick for a place you’ve never been to, perhaps more homesick than for familiar ground.” – Judith Thurman
I mentioned this in the introduction. I haven’t ever written about it, but it would be unfair not to considering it’s equally part of the journey. This happens usually a few months after returning home. Itinially, you experience culture shock in the reverse. You then talk to your friends and family and get to relive the travel memories. You eventually settle into reality. And then, suddenly and unexpectedly, you wake up one morning and you’re overcome with sadness. Sometimes it lasts a day, sometimes a week, but it comes and goes. It’s an overwhelming feeling of missing being abroad, missing the adrenaline rush, missing the moments that blew you away and changed the way you saw the world. It’s homesickness in the reverse.
This came for me about a week ago. I was expecting it. I still have these feelings about Asia – which usually leads to pho and the film version of “Eat Pray Love.” It’s equivalent to a high school girl needing a pint of ice cream and a rom-com after a break up – the only cure for a hurting heart. This time around, I’ve been treating it with equal parts photo binging and planning my next excursion.
Traveling is my passion and I believe it is completely possible to fall in love with a country. Why else would you need typical break up therapy when you’re apart? Furthermore, it’s a sinking feeling that what you love is out there – so close you can feel it – but so far that it’s an expensive plane ride away. It’s hard. I think back to those places and I yearn to be there. And I think of all the places I haven’t been and I yearn to be there, too.
This isn’t just me. Plenty of travel bloggers and writers that I follow experience the same phenomena. I guess that’s part of what makes us travelers. We are constantly called back – even with the food poisoning, heat, crowded hostels, and lack of hygiene – we want to go back. When you really love something, you accept the good and the bad. This is probably why I have no problem living cheaply to be abroad (my bar soap doubles as shampoo and even toothpaste sometimes; it’s vegan and minty!). I will stay in any common hostel room, use any questionable public toilet, and happily eat anything put in front of me if it means I get to see the world.
That being said, I leave you with one last thought. This may be the last blog in this series, but it won’t be the last of them all. I’m planning, and will always be planning, my next big trip. And I can’t wait to share it with you.
“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” – Jack Kerouac
“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.” – Anïas Nin