Somewhere along the lines I think my name blended into Alice, and I just rolled with it. Sawadee ka! I bowed my head to my pressed palms.
It’s the same as going to Evanston or Fort Collins or Asheville or Berkley and finding out you’re talking to a college student: well of course you are, how could you not? That’s nothing surprising and nothing new.
This world I’m entering? It’s just as obvious as that. To those back home, it looks exotic and interesting.
It’s easy to be impressive when you’re the only one doing something: owning a successful business, building your house from scratch, running a marathon or five, performing for a paying audience.
But when you’re surrounded by people all doing the same thing, it’s a little less sparkly.
Most certainly, there’s a camaraderie: an instinctual knowledge of depth and breadth and love and fear. It’s easy to dive in deep about nuance and common ground.
But you’re not the special and different one when you’re surrounded by people just like you. You become boring.
Today I become boring.
Today I become just like everyone else I talk to.
Oh, you’re just another Working Holidayer.
No big deal, been there, done that.
Just another American abroad.
Just another twentysomething deciding if I’m running towards or running away from something.
Today I become boring.
Today I become that predictable.
Everyone has been elsewhere.
Everyone is on the adventure of a lifetime.
Everyone lives in a van on purpose.
Everyone is chasing passport stamps.
Everyone is choosing this life instead of a house and kids and financial stability.
Today I become boring.
Today I’m just another expat zorbing.
Today I’m just another Midwesterner realizing the difference between artificial sweetness and genuine kindness.
Today I’m just another kid walking the balance between panic and elation, homesickness and sick of being home.
On the road, in the hostel, on the mountain, in the campground, I see my soul reflected on every face.
There’s nothing interesting about me here. Today, there is nothing unique, nothing that catches your attention and makes me different.
Today, my words become my own again. Among those who speak my language and feel my heartbeat, I am my own person. I am not “the traveler” – we all are. So who I am must be richer and more fulfilling, not resting on the easy reputation of being a globetrotter.
So much time to finally discover who I am meant to be when my default is stripped away.
Today I become boring.
Today, I become an expat.
“I can’t leave this,” I tell myself. “I’m too afraid. This isn’t fun, but it’s comfortable. This isn’t right, but at least I know where I’m sleeping and how to get around. I’m afraid to go again. I should stay where it’s safe.”
My first marriage proposal took place in the wee hours of the morning on the streets of Florence in April 2012.
I was wandering around Europe after my semester in Germany ended and found myself tagging along with some near-strangers to a new city in Italy. On that first day, I was able to get a hostel but was warned that it was booked the following night. “No matter,” I thought to myself and began to sing, “Just a small town girl… living in a LONELY wooooorld. She took the midnight train going aaaaaanywheeeeeere.”
Eleven o’clock rolls around, and my mobile phone hasn’t been allowing me to make calls all day. We wander back to the hostel, exhausted, and I go to check if there are any rooms available. No. Well, my friends have a private room. Can I pay to stay there? No. Are there any other hostels in this area? You don’t know. Okaaaay…
I picked up my bright red suitcase and made my way on foot to the nearest train station, only to discover that the tickets to purchase machines were locked inside the building. With no smartphone and little sense of direction, I began an hour and a half trudge in the dark hours of a Saturday night towards the main train station, getting turned around, staring at bus maps, and starting again. I stopped at several hotels along the way, but everything was full. Finally, the main station came into sight and my relief quickly turned to horror when I realized that not only was I locked out of the building, but out of the tracks.
The homeless population was lined up along the side of the building, so I double checked that all my money and forms of ID were separated and hidden, and laid down to try sleep outside. A construction worker woke me up after a few minutes because he needed to work at my wall space, so I shuffled further down. By this point, I had been awake for about 20 hours, so I quickly passed out again. This also didn’t last long, as a woman woke up and started yelling at me in Italian. Bewildered, I stared at her and she shuffled off. I lay back down to sleep, and was once again awakened by a small, middle-aged man, also yelling. He, however, realized that I didn’t speak Italian.
“Oh, oh, uh, sprechen Sie Deutsch?” he pleaded.
“Ja!” I responded, ecstatic. German, I could get. Sort of.
The man, clearly homeless, went on to tell me that some young men had been trying to steal my suitcase. “But I told them, ‘no’! You leave her alone! I’ll call the police!” Sleep-deprived, when he told me that we needed to get away from the train station, I thought it was a good idea to follow him. After about two blocks, I finally realized what I was doing and that I was about to get lost.
“I’m going to find a hotel,” I told him, still mumbling in German, and knowing full well that all the hotels were booked. He argued with me, and kept offering to carry my suitcase or backpack. I shook my head and went to the nearest hotel, praying he wouldn’t follow me.
“It will be expensive!” he argued, and looked altogether too pleased when I was turned away.
“Look,” I told him. “I’ll be fine. Please don’t follow me.”
“Are you and your boyfriend fighting?” he changed tactics. “Is that why you’re traveling alone?”
At this point, I was single, but as many women in our culture often do, I quickly invented a fella who was stationed abroad – naturally, this is why I was traveling alone.
My Italian guide looked crestfallen. “Oh,” he sighed, and continued, “You see, my wife and I are divorced, and I was hoping you would be my frau!”
With this tempting offer under my belt, I quickly excused myself and found a rank, shadowed corner on a one-way street and huddled up until the train station opened a few hours later, whisking myself off to Venice and leaving the memories of my night on the street behind me.
Over the next 18 months, I also was proposed to by a man from Ghana wanting a green card, an American soldier jokingly wanting to get married so the government would give him more money while he was deployed, and a Brit who wanted an American passport. Apparently I just have one of those faces that looks gullible enough to get married for fraud. But in case it wasn’t obvious – I never said yes.
“I’m not trying to hit on you or convert you,” the rabbi assured us as he amiably gathered up his things. “Are you from around here?”
Mel grinned, her curly blond hair flouncing as she turned her hair to look at the gentleman who had been sitting at the next table over. “I am.” He glanced at me, then. “I’m from out of town.”
“Nice to meet you,” he responded. “I’m the rabbi at the synagogue right around the corner and my wife and I just came for a coffee. I just wanted to say hello!”
Nodding his head in a final farewell, we watched him disappear out of Zanzibar.
For half a beat, we tried to return to our conversation that had been interrupted.
“Nope,” I said. “Gotta talk about that.”
“I love everything that just happened there,” Mel agreed. “Absolutely everything about that.”
That’s one of the best things about travel, I’d say: simply the people you meet along the way.
In seventy-six hours, I traveled an absurd 1274 miles visiting with friends that I have known ranging from six months to seven years. I once couch surfed through the formal website, but this was my favorite style. A futon one night, a wooden floor the next, a proper couch the next. The temperature soared from the 60s to nearly 100, and my mind was happily engaged in audiobooks about science and history.
Three days, four states. Friends who love languages, friends who love nature, friends who love aviation, friends who love Des Moines, friends who love wanderlust. People with souls that are larger than life.
We sat outside new restaurants and watched the sun go down. We watched meteor showers from untouched observation decks and plotted the (un)likelihood of a tornado that day. We drank coffee. I chuckled at my Polish friend’s disgust at Americans’ use of ice in their drinks. I successfully navigated Kansas City, but hit a snag in Des Moines less than a mile from where I’d spent a summer (it’s okay, I forgive your directions!). We laughed, we were serious, we learned from each other and of each other.
It was a whirlwind, and even though I am utterly exhausted (and will not try to do such a long trip by myself in such a short time frame again), it was worth it. It makes me feel so alive.
travel always does.
January 18, 2013
One form of loneliness is to have a memory and no one to share it with. -Phyllis Rose
As I was watching a clip satirizing experiences on public transit, I was struck by a sudden sense of sadness… because I was entertained by the video. In my wanderings around Europe, I have lived through many similar situations, but nearly all of them have been alone.
I have shared some of my more dramatic mishaps with friends and family, and on occasion will share a less exciting one that relates to my current situation.
But this second hand experience does not compete.
When I first went abroad, I was with a girl named Jordyn. Now, we hadn’t interacted much prior to our trip to Poland, and after a few months, our paths diverged again. But one of the most beautiful things that Jordyn and I had was that a year, two years later, we were able to sit down and talk. We shared memories, dusted off old jokes, looked at pictures and reminisced.
A similar situation happened this last spring break, when my fellow RYE student Amanda and I were back in Nitra, four years after we had lived there. We retraced our steps, visited our old haunts, made new memories in this place we’d once called home.
Every movement we make leaves a trace of ourselves.
I have no problems traveling alone.
But it does leave one… lonely.
No one with whom to recollect the Munich train station when we made a fifteen minute change to go to Rome.
No one with whom to share the excitement of the Parisian train station when it appears in Hugo.
No one with whom to laugh about accidentally riding to the end of the line in Amsterdam and being kindly mocked (and then helped) by the tram drivers.
No one that strolled through airports all over Europe, getting stamps in passports, buying a beer simply because that was the only word you KNEW was the same so that you could use wifi at a pub in Croatia, begrudgingly taking a taxi, then realizing how impossible it would have been to walk this time.
Memories litter my soul.
My words, written across emails and journals, scraps of paper and facebook posts. Sometimes I am afraid that those words are the only thing convincing me that it was all real.
So as my retro suitcase sits unused in my closet, I shrug my shoulders.
It is rather lonely, but I still wouldn’t trade it for the world.
August 31, 2012
Because I have far more important things to think about, the world wide web is treated to the introspective ponderings that have been plaguing me for the last several days so that they will stop hounding me.
Following so far? Good.
I’m just a well-dressed wreck
I’m just a made-up mess
Working hard, trying to keep everybody impressed
All the while, falling apart on the inside
Stephen Curtis Chapman — Broken
I despise the question, “How are you?” Several of you have been treated to my venting sessions regarding this statement. In American culture, this phrase means little more than, “I acknowledge your existence, moving on…”
In some ways, this question turns us into the biggest liars.
“Fine, how’re you?”
I ask it sometimes at work to my customers. Sometimes they give me a, “Good, I’ll have a tall classic mocha.” Sometimes they say, “I’m alright, how’re you? I’d like a grande dark, no room.” Sometimes they are surprised, take a second to blink, answer and order. Other times they completely ignore the question.
I tend to fall into that last category, even in real conversations.
See, the thing is, people ask it but don’t mean it. Most of the time, they don’t even realize they have asked a question. It is acknowledgement of existence, much like, “Where are you going?” or “Have you eaten?” in Chinese culture.
In conversations with people, it is my habit that I will not ask the question, “How are you?” unless I have both the desire and time to hear a legitimate answer. If both of those are in place, I tend to push for more than a knee-jerk answer. Otherwise, what’s the point? I’m guilty of following the same pattern, but I try not to.
Life isn’t easy.
We are too busy. Too distracted. Too focused on ourselves. What I have to do next. Where I have to be. My world extends to my fingertips, and we view our fellow man through foggy glass. They are there, but not clear enough to care about what is going on beneath the surface.
This makes it very easy to lie.
Have you ever thought about that? Seriously? Why do you ask people this?
It’s moments like that when I’m honest. It really isn’t that hard to get me to open up.
The thing is, no one ever asks.
And most of the time when they do, it is easier to deflect the conversation, redirect it. Or answer, “Fine, how’re you? No, really, how are you?”
Then I’m safe. My soul stays tucked away. No worries about actually answering that question. No actually having to think about life, analyze it, and be honest with myself. At least not today.
Because when someone actually does ask, then I go into psychoanalysis mode and I ponder the question for days.
Now, back to our regularly scheduled programing. Acoustic and Articulatory Phonetics, you’re next in line!