“He who does not travel does not know the value of men.” Moorish proverb
I want to dedicate this post to all the people who have made this trip what it is so far, the chance encounters and new friends made along the way. I know I haven’t made a post in a while, and that is partly because I’ve been spending more time making connections than alone in my room writing. It’s a different kind of traveling when you stay up late drinking with newfound buddies from the hostel rather than rising early in the morning so you can sight-see and be back in your own hotel room by ten.
Human interaction is sometimes much needed when you are traveling alone. For me it was not always sought after but almost always rewarding to meet someone from another culture or place in life. Or as odds would have it, the EXACT same culture and place. I sat across from a total stranger in a bierhaus in Germany and he ended up not only being from my state, but my hometown and went to my high school. Small world, huh? I met two other Americans from good ‘ole New Orleans, Andy and Brian. I have already mentioned them in a previous post, describing how we whiled away the night drinking at the Hofbrӓuhaus. You don’t usually want to find yourself sitting beside fellow countrymen in a case like this, but meeting these two made me realize how big my OWN country is and how much more exploring I need to do domestically. Fellow travelers create bonds much more quickly than you would with a total stranger back home – something about being abroad frees your inhibitions and makes you want to live life to the fullest; and that means making fast friends to have a fun night, not wasting time with shy introductions. Now next time I visit New Orleans I have a place to stay four blocks from Bourbon Street.
I alternate between a confidence born of solitariness and a jealousy of others for their companionship and apparent comfort with surroundings. In today’s social media-driven world, it takes a special breed to be completely okay with being alone most of the time. Take Stuart Thorpe. He is a Brit who has been living in Greece for decades. He runs his own photo tour on the island of Naxos (but I believe that’s mostly an excuse to live in paradise). I was lucky enough to visit his beautifully sparse home at the top of a mountain. With only the sea breezes for company, Stuart still rarely feels the need for trips into town. I can only admire someone who chooses to leap into the unknown, away from country and family, to live and support oneself without aid or companionship.
There is also the lone Norwegian kid I met in my hostel in Pula, Croatia. We began a conversation over his newly touched up tattoo, a whole forearm of black ink with ‘PAIN’ written on his knuckles. A little intimidating on sight, but a surprisingly shy guy once you got to know him. I wonder how many people his appearance frightened away over the course of his travels. But still, he has been gone from home for three months and seems none worse for the wear. Would I be okay after being alone three months? I was already talking aloud to myself after a week. By now I’ve learned how long I can go without companionship. How long it takes for me to stop enjoying my solitude and to long for human interaction. How long I can bear hearing someone’s voice over the computer before I break down with want and need.
And then I see the kids who hang out at the hostel on their computers the whole time, who have traveled all the way to a foreign country and are wasting it by being too afraid to leave what is familiar to them – namely Facebook and the inside of the hotel. These times I feel contempt, perhaps followed by the traitorous rush of longing for something familiar myself.
I do my best to fit in and feel a sense of pleasure when I know I am put into the ‘European’ category by strangers. I get a secret thrill in my stomach when I ask for literature auf Englisch and get a surprised look from the bookstore proprietor or lady at the museum counter. I am always elated when I make it through a whole conversation in German without the other realizing me for the poser I really am. Although everyone in Germany speaks English, I hate to feel like the indignant foreigner who expects everyone to speak his language; who is upset when things aren’t what he expected or he can’t be understood. It is as if people expect that they’ve done enough just by stepping onto a plane and stepping off again in another country, thinking that the hard part is over.
I’ve encountered those who have shown me kindness, like the son of a Belgian diplomat who walked me to the train station in a new city. And I’ve seen kindness in others, giving change or food to the homeless. I really have realized how fortunate I am on this trip, especially when I see people digging around in trash cans for a bottle worth 15 cents. There are so many beggars and gypsies in Europe; you get used to their presence after a while. Lately I have forgotten the sentiment behind the Pura Vida tattooed on my hip; always there, but out of sight = out of mind, much like the homeless. I had almost forgotten in the intervening years to be thankful for what I have because there are always others less fortunate; to live in the here and now to get the most enjoyment out of life. Traveling is a nice reminder of such things.
From others on this trip I’ve learned how to haggle and how to make a frappe. That Greeks don’t smile with their teeth and British police don’t carry guns. That I want to make Asia the destination for my next adventure and that Italians love Obama. That it is possible to live and thrive in a foreign country, whether alone or raising a family in Anger, Germany. And that people are usually just as lonely and eager to make friends as you are.
The point is, I have met people who have made me think about my purpose and what I want out of life. And they didn’t even mean to. Travel is an adventure in and of itself, and the people you meet along the way only serve to enhance the experience.
“I met a lot of people in Europe. I even encountered myself.” James Baldwin