This has been a time of firsts. First transatlantic flight, first long-distance bus, train, and ferry rides, first time truly traveling alone, first time seeing the great cities of Europe, places I had heretofore only known in pictures, or, more likely, dramatized and Romanticized in books. However, this is no book, it's real life, and real people, often normal, everyday, non-intellectual people live here, obviously, and go about their daily business, amidst the ghosts of history, mostly not stopping to think about the things that I've waited for years to see. It's a strange contrast.
As I expected going in, this trip has taught me much, and changed me, perhaps irreversably. The suprise has been in exactly what it has taught me, and how changed me. Rather than the great metaphysical truths and human questions(if I've learned anything regarding them, it's that they're basically the same all over, and most prefer not to talk or think about them), this has been all about the small things.
The essentials, the tiny beats which often seem so insignificant in isolation, but when taken together, make up the rhythm of life. The rituals and habits of life; eating, drinking, sleeping, grooming, &c. The things I have so neglected in my mind, and executed only when absolutely necessary, and thus haphazardly, for so long in my ever-increasing abstraction. This minute-to-minute existence under constant uncertainty has invested them with an immediacy, and thus, a degree of meaning, that I don't remember seeing in them heretofore.
This was by no means a vacation. It was one of the most stressful and difficult things I have ever been through. In many ways, it has been a supreme test of my greatest perceived weaknesses. I, who am an inveterate homebody, and have become more of one as I have grown older; I who am often afraid to go to the grocery store when it's crowded, or to call up strangers on the phone and make reservations or inquiries; who puts off errands and appointments constantly out of a fear and loathing of the simple social interactions required to fulfill such obligations. I who cannot deal with uncertainty in anything crucial to the comfortable continuation of my unchanging surroundings and routine(such as it is) decide to go to Europe for the first time, all alone, with very little in the way of pre-planning or framework. Brilliant. Obviously, I did not quite think this through.
But that's been a good thing, in the end. It's good to be challenged, especially in areas where you have demonstrative weaknesses. I've had to do many of the things I most dread and fear and avoid on a daily basis just to get by, have food and a roof over my head, while at the same time dealing with all of the barriers and complications that foreign languages and cultures provide. And though it's been difficult, and not always fun or enlightening, I've pulled it off, time and time again, because I've had to. I, and probably many other people as well, can do just about anything when I have to, when the chips are down, as it were.
Everyone I've run into(except for the few other hardy souls doing the same) thinks I'm pretty hardcore for undertaking this all alone and on so ambitious a scale. And while I don't often feel that way in the midst of all of the mess and uncertainty(more like an anxious, scared, lost little boy than a would-be brave adventurer,) at the end of the day, when I've once again managed to provide myself with food to eat, a bed to sleep in, and/or the means to move on to my next destination or see and do things I want to at my current one, I'm for once rather self-satisfied. Strange, for me, to find satisfaction and confidence in such concrete, and usually ordinary, things.
And, it's going to seem awfully silly when I get home to shirk, say, going to the grocery store, because it takes so much expenditure of social energy. Meijer is a piece of cake compared with trying to buy things you really need to live, in three or four different, scattered, stores(pharmacy, grocery, tobacconist, bakery, produce stand, etc) in a strange city, when most of the labels are in French and the shopkeepers often speak little English(and you, of course, even less French.) It'll seem even sillier to avoid making simple phone calls to take care of business, when I've called hostels and train stations and tried to convey my needs and wishes vis a vis reservations or scheduling in languages that I don't really know very well, or at all.
And one of my constant biggest(and stupidest, basest) fears, that of coming off as ignorant, or not knowing what the heck is going on, and being afraid to ask for help out of deference to my ego(to the point of even forgoing many things, places, and experiences that I can't figure out for myself immediately), is just irrelevant here. I've had to totally let go of that, because I never know what the hell is going on, and there should be no shame in that, as long as I'm willing to try to learn(which of course, I am, and for someone who supposedly loves to learn, this whole complex is rather transparently ridiculous, because it basically amounts to being afraid to learn if to do so, I have to admit that I don't know something. But, I digress.)
And talking to strangers(another thing I'm just horrible at, to my detriment), who back home will be at least reasonably sure to speak English and have some sort of common experience with me, should prove way easier than the Herculean(to me, anyway) social efforts I've forced myself to undertake to meet people and stave off the potential isolation of a month alone on the road.
This is also the first thing in a long time that I can say I truly gave all of myself to, that I can stand behind as a product of my best effort and all the passion and fortitude I could muster. I was beginning to wonder if I was capable of that kind of effort anymore, what with my constant regression into dispassionate mediocrity in my college experience, despite many attempts to right the ship. It looks like I still have it, I only require the right challenge to bring it out of me. Perhaps it's a flaw that I cannot summon it independently of external circumstances, but it's reassuring to know that I still have such reserves to draw upon, should I ever be able to, by luck or skill, place myself in the sort of situation that demands them. Those are all good, confidence-instilling pieces of information to remember in times of self-doubt and depression.
Of course, I've also had my perspective broadened in at least some of the more predictable ways I expected ahead of time. I've met and conversed, often in-depth, with people from all over the world... Britain, France, Spain, Italy, Singapore, Australia, Pakistan, Germany, Brasil, Mexico, New Zealand, Liberia, and of course, other Americans, at least the small proportion of them that aren't over here solely to party and get laid(not that there's anything wrong with either of those things, in moderation, it's just that I don't really see the need to come all the way to Europe to do what you can(and do) presumably at home, especially when there's so many strange, new, and wonderful things all around to see, do, and learn from. But, perhaps that's just me, stodgy old-fogie at 23 that I've become.)
I certainly travelled like an old person, all museums and historical sites and art and culture and so on. I didn't run into many people my age when I was out and around town, except at the most obvious places(like the Louvre.) I was met with blank stares when I explained that I would spend my last day in Paris on a walking tour of old existentialist and expatriate haunts on the Rive Gauche. I was often going to bed when everyone else was just getting started with their night. Seemingly everyone(regardless of whether their motives for travel were self-improvement or debauchery) was just gaga over going clubbing. It seems to be the main trend of my generation that I just have no facility for or enjoyment of whatsoever.
All of this has reaffirmed my faith in and love for individuals, and my counter-ambivalence toward people as a whole. I met many wonderful, intelligent, open-minded, creative people in my travels, but for each of those, fifteen more who disappointed me greatly passed through my life. I was astounded at how frivolous, superficial, party, clothes, clique, and sex-obsessed so many of my fellow travellers were. I already knew that of my peers at college, but I thought that people backpacking Europe would be more of a skewed sample, and that Europeans in general would be more serious and intellectual than the average person back home. Not so, not by a longshot. Yet more illusions added to the ever-mounting refuse pile.
But, for better or worse, I'm different. I'm serious, I'm intellectual, and I accept and embrace that, regardless of what others my age decide(and in the end, I'm no wet blanket; I can still party hearty when I want to, but limited time, money, and company of friends in this case steered me away from such adventures.) In that vein, many new avenues of interest(as if I honestly needed any more of them) have opened up as a result of all I have seen and done in the past month or so. I'd like to work on learning a couple of languages(French, and maybe German or Russian) and on perfecting my Spanish beyond its current, survival-skills-and-reading-only state. I'd like to learn a lot more about art, architecture, and European history than I already know. And, I'm seriously considering finding a way to come over here and live, somewhere, someday, for a more extended period of time.
So, what did I think of Europe? Well, I was surely disabused of any illusory notions of it as some sort of intellectual, liberal paradise. That process was already in motion going in, as doing my homework pre-trip, combined with the prominent rise of the ugly rightist political elements all over the place there did a lot to shake my views of the Continent as a quasi-Socialist paradise, as everything I'd like America to be someday. They seem to have just as many problems as we do, and many of them just as ugly... they're just less open about them, less willing to air their dirty laundry quite so freely than America tends to be.
The people didn't seem much more overtly intellectual, or interested in the world around them than the average American. They aren't so proud of willful ignorance as some Americans can be, and they do know a little more about the outside world than most of us do, but I think that's more out of necessity due to geography, and luck due to the better quality of their news services(of course, on the down side, you've got lots of just blatant tabloidization passing as news that would never go over at home) than any inherent differences in the societies. Same goes for the languages issue, though I found myself wishing I had been similarly educated, so as to be able to get more out of my own experiences here. I do think public education is a little better here... people seemed on the whole at least more well-spoken and read, if not much more politically or globally aware or intellectually curious, than we are.
As far as day to day life goes, well, I was suprised in some ways. I didn't expect creature comforts and conveniences to be common going in(I was prepared for cold showers, at-times dirty or extremely uncomfortable accomodations, and so on, though I never really experienced those things in the end), and I was correct in that assumption, in some ways. Lots of things Americans take for granted, like air-conditioning, public restrooms, short lines for services, convenient business hours, free places to sit in restaurants/cafes/bars and along the street(park benches, etc) are often nonexistent. Prices are generally higher, and goods more difficult to come by. There is no such thing as a true, Wal-Mart/Meijer style supermarket here, at least in the major cities.
The small discomforts are in part the tradeoff for pretty good general infrastructure... efficient and fast rail system, excellent public transportation in most cities, less unsightly development and chain-store ubiquity and homogony, public health care, bike paths, and so on. I think it's a decent tradeoff in the end, though it takes a little getting used to.
I found myself to be really quite limited in a way I didn't really expect coming in... conversationally. I didn't realize just how much of my conversation(and especially, whatever meagre portion of wit or charm I am privy to) is based on obscure wordplay, slang, pop-culture reference, obscure metaphor, in-jokes, words and expressions that myself and my friends have invented, and a whole myriad of other things that people who don't speak English as a first language, and in many cases, even people who don't speak American English, just don't get. I found my speech slowly evolving into simple declarative sentences, so as to avoid having to constantly explain myself, or being embarassed when a joke fell flat, or wasn't even noticed as such. It was quite a humbling challenge, for someone like me who puts so much stock in, and has his identity and ability so wrapped up in, words.
One of my greatest strengths became a liability of sorts; I found what I consider to be my most precious gifts and most finely-honed tools to be of little use most of the time. Humbling, and another important warning to heed against the rather one-dimensional abstraction and intellectual cocoon I have slipped into over these past few years.
I was suprised that Europe wasn't more green, both in the political and the natural sense. There is much less recycling going on than I expected to see, and traffic/pollution in the cities is a lot worse than I expected, even with the good public transport, though the bike-friendly Netherlands and parts of Germany seem to be exceptions in that area. Littering seems pretty rampant, as is, annoyingly, dog shit all over the sidewalks in most cities. The latter owes partly to lack of good regulation on pet owners(I don't think there are leash laws either, judging by what I saw) and to the aformentioned lack of green spaces. Besides the requisite few parks(and in some cases, like Rome, not even that), in most cities, you see very little in the way of grass or trees. That's something this country boy really missed, and a great asset that America still has... its natural beauty, even in many of the larger cities. I didn't get to many outlying areas, so I can't really judge how well-preserved they are, but I can at least that nature is certainly much less well integrated into most European cities than their American counterparts.
People in general are kind of paradoxical. More kind, considerate, and personable in some areas, most notably commerce, where it's still customary to treat the customer as a person(and at least it seems, to own your own shop or restaurant, and thus give more of a crap about what the customer thinks of you and the service.) Much more rude and unheeding in others, mostly crowded public places, like subways, lines(there's no such thing as a line in the south, it's more like a constant game of cat-and-mouse one-upsmanship. Perhaps a symptom of the rather off-putting macho, at times misogynistic take on masculinity often exhibited in the south, though I suppose in the end, it's no worse than the American fratboy flavor of alpha-maleism.) Open, thunderous public displays of flatulence don't seem to faze anyone either, a phenomenon about which I'm still trying to decide between disgust and amusement at the lack of inhibition. Also, of course, there's the legendary BO issue, which I certainly did notice much more often than at home. Europeans would say that Americans are Puritanically concerned with cleanliness, and I would respond that I personally just don't like being odoriferously assaulted(or inflicting similar treatment on others), and we shall finally simply have to agree to disagree. I also never figured out the etiquette on sleeper trains... I was very reluctant to wake up someone who was sleeping in order to get a seat if there was any way I could avoid it(and I found that there usually was,) while most had no compunctions of rousting you out of your slumber and taking the seat opposite you, even if the train wasn't full. Don't count on sleeping much on trains if you do this, at any rate, unless you shell out for a sleeper car.
Most of these phenomena are, I would hazard to guess, linked in some way to the much higher population density over there. You tend to be in crowds and crammed in small spaces with lots of other people fairly often, and I bet that out of expediency, lots of the pleasantries and regard for others goes out the window over time. I started to get more used to it by the end of the trip, though I do think that if people here could make more of an effort to accomodate and regard one another in these tight quarters, things would be a lot more pleasant for everyone involved. All in all, I am extremely more polite than the average European(and probably the average American as well, fwiw, but Europeans are definitely more brusque and unheeding in general) in public situations when dealing with strangers, and extremely less polite and formal with friends and acquaintences and in private. It's as if the formality polarity is switched over here, and that takes some getting used to. I did also sorely miss my alone time and personal space more often than not. It's just a fact of life over here that it's going to be rather difficult most of the time to get away from people, and that's not something that agrees too well with my at-times solitary nature.
Much as in other arenas and eras of my life, I found myself struggling to strike elusive balances... between my intense desire to travel, and my inherent incompatibilities with the life of a traveller, but also between being wide-eyed and gaping rudely, between experiencing and documenting, between being a tourist and trying to pass for a native, between respecting local customs and maintaining my individual values, between social effort and physical effort, between openness and caution, between reflection and action and a whole myriad of other things.
Par for the course for me... changing geography doesn't change my own complexities and their various battles with one another, it simply changes the arena, and amplifies or reduces some set of them depending on the situation at hand at any given time and place. Emerson talks about the same thing in "Self-Reliance"
I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe, for the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence, so that the man is first domesticated, or does not go abroad with the hope of finding somewhat greater than he knows. He who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself, and grows old even in youth among old things. In Thebes, in Palmyra, his will and mind have become old and dilapidated as they. He carries ruins to ruins. Travelling is a fool's paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.I don't think you can run from yourself or change yourself to any predetermined end through travel, so if that's your aim, you might as well stay home and save yourself the money and trouble. Travel to learn, to broaden your horizons, to experience strange and wonderful new people, places, tastes, and customs, but not to look for something new outside of yourself, to find yourself, or fill an emptiness, Robert Cohn-style. That's just not how it works.
I also notice that here, and in many of my other travels, I have spent a lot of time chasing ghosts, paying homage to and following in the footsteps of my intellectual and other idols, searching out the haunts of the Transcendentalists of Concord, the Beats of Greenwich Village and Haight-Ashbury, the Group in Bloomsbury, The Existentialists and Expatriates in the Rive Gauche, Kafka and Brod in the Jewish Quarter of Prague, and many graves in many cemetaries. Looking for the places where everything once went down in the world of arts and letters, but finding little in the way of real inspiration or activity in their wake. All of them, lifeless, or over-touristed, or just ordinary, full of regular people living their workaday lives, perhaps rightfully heedless of the history around them, of the tall shadows in which they walk everyday. Where's it all going down now? Where are the people who will remake the world with images and words as those who came before, who I seek out so avidly in search of some small hint of their secrets? That's what I'm really looking for, what I hope to have some small part in someday, but all I find are ghosts and dust and a few humble markers and plaques in commemeration.
Is the answer really the web? Do I just not take it, and the wonderful things many brilliant people are doing with it, seriously enough? It could be. I think the talent is there, and the will is there. But, it disappoints in key ways. It seems to lack legitimacy, and perhaps more importantly, intimacy, somehow. It's too scattered, too individual, almost too big and unlimited. I don't like the elitism of a cabal, but in a place as big as even the small corner that is the personal or weblogging web, it's still hard to bounce ideas seriously off of other people, to carry on real, complex, earnest dialogue, to focus. There are too many demands, too many voices, too few ways to sift the wheat from the chaff(and to tell of which your own efforts are mostly constituted), for better or worse.
There needs to be more collaboration, both online and off, more community, more dynamism, more criticism, more big dreams, big projects, big ideas. We, and I, need to take ourselves seriously, if we're ever going to make something to equal what those who came before us, now revered ghosts who unfortunately offer little in the way of guidance, once did.
Regrets? Well, the main one I can think of is that I wasted too much opportunity and energy being too self-conscious. I was so worried about not coming off as the Ugly American to anyone, that I often rendered myself meek, and perhaps at times insincerely polite. I wasn't entirely myself, out of fear of giving offense. Next time, I'm being myself(which should be more than kind, polite, and considerate enough, unless I'm a much worse person than I, and people to whose honest opinions I'm inclined to give weight, think I am,) impressions be damned.
I remember particularly one episode where this syndrome reached a ridiculous extreme... right after I crossed over into Spain on the way from Paris to Madrid, I had to change trains. My train wasn't up on the departures board, and with about ten minutes to go before it was scheduled to leave, I was getting a little nervous. So, I went to information, and asked the woman there, politely, in Spanish, if she spoke English. She glared at me, and barked "A little." So I asked her my question, whether the ___ train to Madrid was on schedule, and she answered incomprehensibly. Ok, no problem so far, I'm used to this... so I tried in lousy Spanish, making sure to include the "Por Favor's" and "Gracias's," and she still bit my head off, and provided no useful information(her ostensible job) to boot. I eventually just ran out on the platform and jumped on the train that arrived at the prescribed time, and luckily, it was the correct one. But, I felt horrible all day, fearing that I had offended, that I had simply reinforced the already existing stereotypes, and thus deserved the treatment I got.
You know what? I did nothing wrong. I was polite, patient, said my pleases and thank you's, didn't just assume she spoke English, tried to use the local language when I ran into difficulties(and I know enough Spanish to know that I didn't accidentally say anything offensive) and that dreadful woman bit my head off, not because of anything wrong with my conduct, but because she was a spiteful old harridan(or more generously, perhaps because she was having a bad day, or has to deal with entirely too many clueless tourists. Still, that's no excuse, to my mind.) Not because I was being an Ugly American, but because she was being a raging bitch. Anyway, point being, I'm never letting myself be ashamed of myself or limit myself simply because of my nationality again. Lesson learned. Next time I go abroad, people are getting the full brunt of my existence, for better or worse. Anyway, at least I didn't pretend to be goddamned Canadian(with no offense meant to all you wonderful Canucks out there), like half the other Americans over here.
As far as my treatment as an American traveling here, it was for the most part fine. I'm not exactly your average American though, as I live a rather European(or what I thought to be European before I came here and saw for myself... I turned out to be rather mistaken in my overly-positive views about many things, to my disappointment) lifestyle at home; I ride my bike everywhere, care about environment/recycling/conservation, am not really into consumer culture, am much more liberal and tolerant than the average American, dislike American foreign policy, etc, etc. I know more about geopolitics(and many other things) than most Europeans(and Americans, of course... to be exceedingly modest as usual.) I'm here to learn and expand my horizons, not just to party, I did my homework before I came here, and I was determined to live like a European, try to speak the local language and follow local customs when possible, and all in all be the best representative for what's(in my opinion) right with Young America® that I could.
I found myself in the role of apologist quite a bit, but tried my best to defend my country in the long term view. Europeans seem to view us a bit askance, with a mix of jealousy, suspicion and fascination. They're annoyed with us more often than not, but they really would like to be us as well(with a few alterations, of course.) All in all, it was strange, and instructive, and I don't regret at all (somewhat)proudly admitting that I was an American whenever I was asked. I got snubbed overtly only once, by an older Austrian man in the metro station in Vienna, who wanted to help me with my difficulties with the ticket machine, until he found out I was American, which prompted him to promptly turn tail and leave. You know what? Screw him.
My other main regret is allowing too much of the intrusion of the primary negative character trait that has marred nearly everything else I've ever undertaken... my excessive perfectionism. I chastised and kicked myself entirely too much for every little mistake I made... every time I gave in and spent more money than I should have on something, for the sake of convenience, but out of exhaustion, not sloth, more often than not; every mistake I made that caused me to lose precious time; every important site or attraction that I somehow missed seeing; every small social or cultural gaffe; basically everything that didn't go according to plan(at least insofar as I could be said to have a plan).
I know it's ridiculous... any endeavor this new to me and on this kind of scale is bound to be fraught with error. Even if it wasn't, it'd be too orderly, too boring in the end. But still, I can never silence that little voice in the background that strives for unrealistic perfection, that thinks I should know it all ahead of time. I probably wasted as much time and energy lamenting my mistakes as I did making and correcting them. Something to work on in the future, this level of unreasonable expectation of myself.
Mistakes / Advice
There were certainly plenty of(mostly logistical) mistakes made that I'll strive to correct next time around, just to save myself the grief and time wasted. I'll make sure to be really on top of the whole making reservations process if I do this again. I was under some rather mistaken impressions going in that things would be much more fluid... hop on and hop off the trains where you like, walk up to a hostel or maybe two if you're unlucky and find a bed for the night anytime, etc. In reality, it's a lot more rigid. All but the most inconvenient and slowest trains require reservations(and are often booked full in advance), and most hostels in any kind of a desireable location are booked solid in the summer, with the exception of a few walkup spaces they set aside, for which you must arrive at a place by 9am at the latest to have any shot of landing one, a proposition which is often difficult due to the aforementioned train constraints.
By the end of the trip I had adjusted and pretty much had it down cold. All it took was a little bit of foresight and legwork to avoid a whole lot of hassle. I was booking my train out when I arrived at a place, and calling(after I got over my usual phone phobias, and quit trying to use the web exclusively, which only works if you do it at least a week ahead of time for most places, because they have lousy systems integration and third parties handling their online bookings for the most part. I'd love a crack at fixing the hostel system's web presence someday. It's pretty deplorable, and makes lots of obvious mistakes as it is now. But most of you probably don't care about obscure details of information design and systems integration and so on, so I digress yet again) ahead for reservations to avoid hiking all over town with my pack, losing half a day(and effectively the whole day, due to the resulting exhaustion), and being under a lot of stress and uncertainty. That's something I just really do not deal with well at all... not knowing what the fuck is going on when it comes to crucial things like the roof over my head or how I'm going to arrive at its door. Again, a character trait not very conducive to backpacking, but one I can at least be a little more able to accomodate having learned the difficult lessons this time around.
I would also most definitely try to do this about two months earlier in the year, especially for the southern countries, in order to avoid the tourist crush, and the heat, and all kinds of other attendant miseries. Better to go in April and May, after the cold, but before the masses come and the museums and attractions get overwhelmed to the point of being difficult to enjoy, the lodgings get booked full, and the locals get jaded and (at times) exploitative. It would also be nice to have a bit more money per diem... you can see lots of things on 35-45 bucks a day, but you end up missing out on a lot of opportunities(in my case, Opera in Vienna, Gondola rides in Venice, good food almost everywhere but Italy, going out at night very much at all, and so on and so forth) in order to keep from breaking your budget. 60-80 a day would be ideal, as you could go comfortably well under that a lot of days, and then be able to splurge on cool experiences and go over budget on other days. You'd also have a lot fewer nickel/dime worries and deal with unexpected misfortune a lot better under those conditions than you might when you're dealing with such a narrow margin for error. You can pull it off the way I did, but just be prepared to hardly ever be relaxed, and to miss out on some stuff you'd like to do.
Well, was it everything I ever dreamed it would be? In some ways, yes... others, not so much. I certainly had my fair share of illusions shattered, and my own maxim, something to the effect that; "any over-Romanticized activity or experience is certain to involve a lot more bullshit and drudgery than anyone will ever let on" reconfirmed for the umpteenth time.
But, as stated above, I learned a lot about myself, enlarged my world and perspective, met some very interesting(in ways good and bad) people, put a lot of faces and images to a lot of places and names, and above all, challenged myself and emerged better for it. Not too bad, for a first effort.
For those of you who are thinking about similar adventures, here is a list of the most useful stuff I found on the web in my preparations for this trip...
Art of Travel
European Railway Server
St. Dept - Bckgd Notes
St. Dept - Travel Warnings
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