Places and the Moments in Between: Perspectives from Traveling

It’s 11:00PM and the ticket counter at the Luxembourg train station is closed. Doors shut, no attendant, ticket dispensing machines locked behind the sliding glass. I try not to let the panic set in as I start to wonder if I’m going to be able to get back to Nancy, France.

I didn’t buy my return ticket ahead of time because I wasn’t sure when the concert I was attending was going to end that night. I take a deep breath, head towards the designated platform with the intention of getting on the train anyway. At the last minute I spot an automated ticket machine on the platform, buy a ticket, and hop on the train with only minutes to spare.

From Luxembourg to Nancy
Monday, December 5th, 2016

It’s 1:30AM and my first time in London. A delayed flight and a missed train has gotten me into this situation. The city has an unfamiliar energy. It’s too dark and too alive. Liverpool Street Station is buzzing considering the hour and to me it’s overstimulating.

The night tube won’t get me to where I need to go. I guess I’ll take two night buses for an hour-long ride from the east side of London to the west. At first I can’t seem to find the bus stop because I’m disoriented by the direction of traffic. Eventually I find my way onto a red double-decker. I clutch my backpack hoping nothing goes wrong and thankfully nothing does.

From London Stansted Airport to London
Sunday, December 18th, 2016

In the last four months, I’ve lived my life in various forms of unstructured chaos. Sure, I have my job teaching English, but other than that I have no commitments. No one in France knows much about who I was before I got here, let alone expects anything from me other than for me to prepare my lessons. It has been simultaneously liberating and completely terrifying.

This level of autonomy makes me feel like I’m constantly walking an existential line between overindulgent joy and paralyzing despondency. One minute I find myself jumping on a train to a brand new city, ready for adventure and the next I wonder why even bother going through all the effort of planning when it’s just me. Is seeing another famous landmark really going to change my life? Is posting one more picture really going to give me any more satisfaction or validation?

I’ve never felt more like Meursault. But not to worry, I still feel in touch with general societal expectations and attempt to evaluate their influence on me accordingly. No nihilist tendencies yet. Living in France has definitely given me lots to think about.

For instance: Travel. Why do I do it and what am I learning from it?

Between the rise of travel blogs/vlogs, AirBnb, and digital media in general (shout out to #wanderlust) I feel like my current state of vagabond existence is a middle class cliché. Am I just living out the stereotypical privileged millennial dream of a gap year abroad where I try to “find myself” before returning to the pressures of the capitalist American grind?

Even calling it a gap year implies that my time here is temporary, just passing, not really part of my real life. It implies that at the end of this experience I’m going to go back to the States and start something more concrete (work, graduate school, fellowships etc.). And I hate that mentality. Because to be honest, that kind of thinking makes me feel like my travels–and everything associated with it–is just a folly.

But I know this cannot be not true. Or maybe I just need for this not to be true.

Either way, traveling has given me affirmation that this period of my life is not wasted. Not because checking a city off a list gives me any particular joy–in fact, the more I travel, the less I care about destinations–but rather, traveling has taught me that the things I fear are not insurmountable and it’s also given me clarity about the things I value most in life.

Let’s start with the idea of fear.

If you had asked me what my biggest fear was before coming to France, I’m pretty sure I would have said something like fear of uncertainty. Heights make me nervous, but only if I don’t know what kinds of safety measures are in place. The wide open spaces of Wyoming give me a bit of anxiety, but only if I am under prepared for roughing it in nature. Bugs freak me out, but only if I can’t figure out if they’re a threat.

This summer, I was dealing with what I felt like were my biggest uncertainties to date. What am I doing with my life? And in which direction should I go? These were the two questions I wanted to be able to answer without a shadow of a doubt after graduation.

I had hoped that traveling would give me the miraculous answers to these questions, but surprise, surprise, it hasn’t. In fact, I’m starting to give up on the idea that I will ever be able to answer those questions without at least a hint of reservation. Instead, the most important thing that traveling has given me is a repeated exposure my greatest fear, uncertainty.

Since coming to France, I’ve mostly traveled alone. This was both a choice and a necessity. I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to see something that I wanted to see just because I couldn’t find someone to come with me. I’ve met up with friends along the way, but I’ve definitely gotten used to being a one-person operation.

From booking transportation and lodging to researching things I want to see and eat, I’ve learned to do it on my own (with much help from the internet of course!). Armed with the random assortment of knowledge that I’ve accumulated throughout my life, I’ve managed to keep myself alive in unfamiliar places and in unfamiliar languages.

Sharing a room with a bunch of strangers? Cool. Bring flip flops, earplugs, an eye mask, and perhaps a nose plug…

Transportation delays and missed connections? No problem. I always have an audiobook on my phone.

Currency exchange issues? Well…you live and you learn.

Getting last minute tickets to sold-out concerts? Yeah, sometimes it’s more possible than others.

Luggage size restrictions? Learn to live with less.

Unexpected closures? Assess the situation, create a plan b.

The list goes on, but the heart of the matter is that repeated exposure to uncertainty has given me a confidence in my ability to cope with unknown variables. I’ve learned to let things happen, to stop trying to predict the future, and to react quickly to change.

In traveling, the stakes might be smaller than in making important life decisions, but the concept of not being held back by my fear of uncertainty still applies. If I embrace this idea, uncertainty of the future seems less and less intimidating. I know that I might never get that eureka moment that tells me exactly which direction to take my life, but knowing how to proceed forward in spite of it all is a skill I’ll happily take.

Now, moving on to things that I value.

It took me a couple of weeks of prolonged heartache, long periods of silence, and several rambling phone calls to friends for me to pinpoint why I was feeling so unsettled in France. At the end of it all, I’ve realized something very important about myself.

I am not cut out for a prolonged vagabond existence. There I said it. I’m going to own it.

I am not cut out for it, not because of physical, intellectual, or logistical reasons, but because the last four months have taught me that the thing I’m missing the most from my current lifestyle is the sense of shared progress that is cultivated by community.

Of course, there is the community of travelers that I meet from place to place. The internet has made it easy for me to find them and we share lovely moments together, but I can’t help thinking for what reason? At the end of the day, the month, the year, we move on to another place, never really planting a seed and watching it grow.

Also, I know it’s not the “culture shock” of being in a new place that gets to me. My Asian American background has made me into someone who feels comfortable trying new foods, modes of transportation, and in general doing things differently than those around me. That’s been my mode of life for as along as I can remember. I can and am willing to adapt.

What bothers me is the feeling of rootlessness. The feeling of floating from place to place with the only objective being to see new things. I don’t want to ever feel like I’m just traveling to collect experiences to show off as if my personal memories are treasures in a museum. The places and cultures that I’m going to aren’t things waiting to be “discovered.” Their existence is a part of something bigger and more enduring than my passing photo could ever be.

I’m starting to realize that it’s not about the places I want to go or the things I want to see, but rather the people that I want to meet and the things I want us to share together. I want to feel like at the end of my time somewhere I have made a connection with someone or something in a way that makes them part of my story and me part of theirs. I want to feel like we’ve worked together to get us both closer to our next steps.

In this way, developing genuine relationships has emerged as one of the most important things in my life. It is through relationships that minds are changed, ideas are implemented, and cultures are formed. It is what keeps me from veering into nihilist no-man’s land. The most amazing part of it all is that there are no shortcuts for them. Even if the internet succeeds in introducing us to strangers more quickly than ever, I’m not sure it can ever replace the time or energy that is necessary to develop a genuine relationship. And while I know not every relationship is meant to last, to me, the energy is worth it.

So, long story short. Over the last four months I’ve traveled a bit. I’ve worked a bit. I’ve burrowed into my apartment a bit. I’ve spent a lot of time alone. I’ve spent a lot of time with strangers. I could recount all the places I’ve been and post pictures of all the things I’ve seen, but that’s not what matters to me. What matters to me are the things I realized in the moments in between. While I definitely don’t have all the answers, what I have realized is that I have grown from the fears that I’ve felt and the anxieties I’ve pushed through. Traveling is my continual drive not to let my uncertainties diminish my voice and my way forward.

In 2017, that journey continues.

It’s 2:00AM and I’m walking through a biting December fog for a bus bound for Luxembourg then a flight bound for Berlin. It’s a 40 minute walk to the bus station through the deserted streets. The silence only makes every flicker of light and sound even more pronounced. I feel a twinge of fear when I see a large group of drunken men blundering, yelling, and taking up the entire sidewalk. To circumnavigate them, I cross the street and take a different path towards the depot.

I remember thinking, this is one journey I won’t tell my parents about until I’m safely back in my apartment. When I get to Luxembourg, I am 3 hours early for my flight with no proper place to sleep. It’s another 7 hours before I make it to Berlin.

From Nancy to Luxembourg to Berlin
Wednesday, December 28th, 2016

It’s 8:00PM and I’m waiting in Luxembourg because the French train system is on strike. The only response I can get from the Luxembourgish railway worker is that the next train might get me to Metz (because they don’t know for sure if it will actually go that far) and after that they don’t have any more information. Once again, I find myself worried that I might be stranded at the train station. I should be used to this by now.

Taking a leap of faith, I follow all the other French travelers onto the next train, hoping it takes me to Metz and from there that there are connections to Nancy in spite of the strike. It pays off. I make it back to Nancy in time to eat a late night döner kebab.

From Berlin to Luxembourg to Nancy
Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s