1. Introductions, 2. Arrival
Twain’s comedic excitement with the simplicity of the road brings images that are reminiscent of Whitman’s poetic song where he too comments on the simplest things that he sees along his journey. They both comment on things that you and I pass everyday but do not take the time to truly notice and what one might wonder is why? What prompts these two men to notice such minute details and expand them like Twain did above? For Whitman it is that he is on this quest to be on the road and get away from everything he has known to seek wonderment that fulfills his soul. For Twain it seems as if the mystique of the unknown of the western frontier makes everything along the way appear new, different, and magical.
The only faux-pas I noticed in his work is that it seems to only dwell on his own thoughts and reactions to his experiences and observations and does not mention how others around him react. Granted it is a narrative but still, that was a bit surprising because unlike Whitman, Twain has a whole travel journal to expand even more. But in the same token this might go back to the notion that the road is a symbol of individualism and quest for oneself. Therefore, it may be why he focused only on his own thoughts rather than others’. This also brings the notion that although Twain provides us as readers a vivid image of his journey we can not truly feel what he felt because each person’s journeys are different and are individual.
Moreover, one might wonder what the point of this journal is. Based on this notion of the simple life and individualism, I feel like Twain is showing us the surreal journey that he experienced to almost lure us into taking our own road trips to experience it for ourselves and to feel at peace with oneself in the simple world that does exist.
Simply put, the themes of the simple life and individualism seem to pervade the motives for taking a road trip in America.
I didn't look forward to this semester at all. Not that I was constantly dreading it (though there were moments) but more that I avoided thinking about it seriously until the very last second. I applied for the program very early in the spring and left it in my mind as this vague unconfirmed concept until around the week before I left. Obviously I made preparations, buying plane tickets, etc. but other issues were far more prominent in my thoughts for the last six months. It never felt real and I never really got excited. I never even bought a spanish-english dictionary (which i immediately regretted--among other things). Honestly, I spent the time I should have been preparing, both mentally and logistically, dealing with the constant crises that the last year has been for me.
In the spring (around the time I was accepted into Study Abroad) I decided firmly that I needed to leave NYU. I figured I'd spend my last semester in Buenos Aires. I applied to escape New York but realized it wasn't just the city I was tired of (I grew up there) but particularly the NYU institution. After spending most of the last year protesting, and most of the spring protesting NYU specifically, I realized I could no longer justify the fistfuls of money I have handed over to a university that completely ignores the needs of students, faculty and the community in general. I've paid them over 150k to teach me how evil the fact that I've had to pay them 150k is. Not that I've been miserable in New York or at NYU, just that my own personal politics can't fall in line with the values of NYU as an institution.
I decided to move to the west coast. I thought about California and Oregon and ultimately settled on Portland because I'd lost a boyfriend to that amazing little city's allure in the winter (which was a significant aspect of my unhappiness in the spring). By summer, we were back together and I had a plan to move to Portland, transfer to Portland State Honors and live with him and his crazy poet roommates. But I couldn't pass up my vague dreamlike trip to Latin America to run off with a boy.
I don't regret that decision but it makes this semester into a sort of beautiful purgatory. Everything that goes wrong feels like a punishment, especially after a very difficult year. Everything that goes right goes right into an email to my boyfriend. (I'm not that lame, I swear). I am enjoying Buenos Aires and having a lot of fun here but there is an added level of frustration when I am counting down to another serious move (across the country to a city I've never been to with a guy I've only spent 2 weeks with in person in the last 9 months). I feel like most of the people in my program, and in study abroad in general, are looking for something or running away from something. I originally planned to run away but now the oasis has moved to spring in Oregon and Buenos Aires is a frustrating and isolating challenge to deal with in the meantime. I'm not trying to escape to Argentina, and I'm not really looking for anything here. Yes, it's great to be learning spanish and immersing myself in culture, but it's hard to be excited about that when all I want to do is finally get out of NYU, be with my guy and drink coffee in an anarchist bookstore while I watch hipsters bike past. This dynamic makes me feel removed from my peers and frustrated with myself (I did pick Buenos Aires for a reason, after all) but it's impossible to ignore the fact that the real change I am waiting for isn't to be found on Study Abroad.
Funny how that works out… If you had asked me on the morning of Thursday, September 6th, (the morning of my arrival in Paris) how my journey to Paris went, I would tell you the horrifying story of how my first attempt to leave the states ended in one last night in NYC after nine hours of “travel” without ever departing from LGA, my origin. I would go into elaborate detail on the days leading up to my departure feeling “homeless” in NYC, couch-surfing from friend to friend, as my sub-let had expired, and it wasn’t quite time to take-off. I might have even told you of my Crohn’s disease, anemia, and hypoglycemia to invoke your sympathy as I described my strife in lugging my luggage all over Paris before finally moving into my apartment late Thursday night (after a four-flight walk-up, mind you). But today, when you ask me how my journey to Paris from the United States was, I look back to those chaotic forty-eight hours from eleven days ago, and recognize they feel like they belong to a different world completely, and I must say, “I was a woman who flew into Paris from New York, and moved into her apartment, and it was fine,” because in retrospect, the events that have taken place since are far more worthy of expliqué.
J’adore mon appartement! It’s spacious, and cozy, and I kid you not, right down the street from the Eiffel Tower. I don’t know how I lucked out, but NYU has “done me right.” The best part about my location is that it takes me less than thirty minutes to walk to La Grande Maison, NYU’s campus in Paris. This walk entails walking directly underneath the Eiffel Tower to cross a bridge over la Seine. There is something to be said to the wonder of the Eiffel Tower. People of all descents will bash it left and right, and no one seems to hate it more than a true Parisian. Call it ugly, call it grotesque, call it what you will, but to me it is magical. I don’t think I will ever grow jaded to the awe evoked in me by that structure. More still, I’m not sure anything will ever make me feel more Parisian than walking under the tower at least twice a day through the tourists, and past the gypsies, just following along my beaten-path. It certainly was the first moment to make me stop to pinch myself, because I really am in Paris—this is still kind of surreal.
Now, I am studying at NYU Paris. It’s the start of my third year of college, and my arrival at a third new campus; it is my third “beginning,” my third “fresh start,” my third “something new.” Thinking about this both excites and saddens me. Sometimes this makes me feel adventurous and fiercely independent, which I love. While at other times, this makes me feel lonely and restless. I’m forced to recognize that I may be missing out on the typical college experience which produces lifelong friendships, as my only sticking around in one place for one year rarely constitutes enough time to harbor an unbreakable bond, and I’m left questioning myself as to why I can’t seem to stay put, why I’m always craving that “something new.” That being said, I love meeting new people, making new friends, and exploring new environments. Studying abroad has always been something I’ve planned on doing while in college, no ifs ands of buts about it. Both of my parents studied abroad, through a “Semester at Sea.” It’s all they talked about when I was young, and I grew up thinking a semester abroad was an academic requirement, and to my parents it is, even if it isn’t in the form of a “Semester at Sea.” I love them for this! (Note: I love them for many reasons and have a wonderful relationship with each of them). But, I especially love them for this. From a young age my parents instilled in me a great love for travel and exploration, and from them I have developed my own unquenchable thirst for that “something new,” that “someplace different.”
Now, I’ll admit, though a semester abroad has always been on my to-do list, a semester in Paris has not. I’ve never been all that interested in France. I spent 5 days in Paris when I was 13, and I left with an array of lackluster sentiments towards the city. It was cold (in February), difficult to navigate, smelly, the people were rude, and the food was only alright because I couldn’t eat enough pain au chocolat at least 3 times a day for five straight days before it became too much (I’m happy to report my taste buds have expanded to welcome many new flavors). So why in the heck did I choose Paris?? In all honesty, for over a year now, I have been planning on my Spring 2013 semester in Ghana as my semester abroad. But then, I got to thinking, and I started to worry that maybe a semester in Ghana would leave me feeling like I “missed out” on that European study-abroad experience, and then just like that, within twenty-four hours of the inception of this train of thought, my application to NYU Paris was signed, sealed, delivered! So yes, I chose Paris because I want to let loose, I want to “live it up” in Europe, I want to take advantage of the fact that I can legally drink, and I want to have “one of those study-abroad experiences,” but I’m not crazy, and all that being said, in the ten days I’ve been here, I’ve been out drinking one night. More than anything, I wanted to do something spontaneous. I wanted to do something unwritten in my fifteen-year plan, and to not know what I will be doing next week or maybe even tomorrow. Also, French fluency will prove to be incredibly useful when I’m working as an international human rights attorney in West Africa, and when I attend UN conferences. Maybe I will even be invited by the UN to be a guest lecturer for my specialization regarding the recognition of women’s rights and human rights, which I will be able to deliver in both French and English. Although, this probably won’t happen until after I’m married at age twenty-nine and settled into my cozy home with two Great Danes… Did I mention I was a planner? (Please note there are moments of sarcasm in that final spiel—I’m not overly attached to Grate Danes, though dogs are non-negotiable).
Oh, and P.S. Paris is nothing like I remember at age 13. I absolutely love it! And the people are so nice. Maybe New Yorkers have left me jaded, but Parisians are seriously friendly.
By exploring without any particular plan in mind, one is forced out of a state of mental autopilot to observe their surroundings and to be much keener to detail. I have noticed the intricate detail and brick laying of old buildings, often wondering the history behind the peoples that built them, or wondering what life would have been like walking the same streets a half century ago. Such details would often go unnoticed or only appreciated in superficial levels by merely going to and from a tourist destination; the travel experience mandates spontaneity, leaving the maps behind. By necessity, one must then pay more attention to not only street signs and traffic lights, crosswalks and detours, but become a traveler truly in and of the city. Thus, less is more.
The less direction one is given, the more possibilities for exploration and adventure arise, so I have found in my second week in the Big Apple. Growing up as a child in Indiana, my only exposure to Manhattan came from television and the movies. I would envision one day seeing line after line of yellow taxis stuck in traffic, business men dressed in fine suits walking to and from work in the financial district, and I must admit, the opportunity to see two of my childhood heroes in real life - Batman and Spiderman. While I have been able to experience many of the sights and sounds I had anticipated hearing and seeing in New York (yes, even Batman and Spiderman who I had the pleasure of befriending in the Times Square McDonalds), many anticipations fell short.
As a lover of baseball, I thought for sure New York would have been a baseball heaven, yet I find only the occasional pickup game played in Central Park, the random Yankees jersey on a fan in the subway, or the once-in-awhile game shown on the television in a bar near Astor Place. Perhaps I am looking in the all the wrong places, or perhaps I am finally coming to terms with my romanticized childhood fantasy of one day playing for the Yankees in the memory of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in a baseball obsessed city. And then again, maybe it's just not October yet. Similarly, I had imagined from the movies seeing hotdog vendor after hot dog vendor, lining the streets with your option of an array of fresh condiments. To my surprise, you can find these vendors - they just sell their hotdogs alongside your choice of lamb or chicken with rice at a Halal Cart.
As naïve (or lucky!) as it may sound, I have found the city be much more safe than I had anticipated it being. I had come with the stereotype that I need to have one hand on my wallet at all times and both eyes scanning the streets for potential dangers. Yet, that has surprisingly not been the case. Perhaps my midnight raids to the local frozen yogurt shop at St. Marks are a poor representation of nightlife in the city in general. However, I feel that if I ask where the rough areas of town are, I would be biased against exploring these areas at night time, robbing myself of the rather exhilarating experience of finding myself in situations that I could not possibly wind up in back home in Indiana where I live down the street from an alpaca farm (nothing personal against alpacas, they are indeed cute and fluffy, just boring and all-in-all not that thrilling - and if you in fact find yourself in danger vis-a-vis an alpaca, well…). The point is not to actively seek out danger, but rather, to become in and of the city by exploring and living it - not avoiding it or restricting myself to the nicer areas - for what it really is. That is the potential danger of not being willing to take risks and exploring the host city in it's entirety. I don't want to look back on my time in New York and only have seen NYU's campus or the upper east side of Manhattan. I know that the New York experience cannot possibly be this part of town, where for the overwhelming majority of those walking the streets, that night's choice of dinner is not where to eat, but what to eat, and not in the sense of taking advantage of the city's amazing nightlife and fantastic restaruants. I want to diversify my experiences and see the rougher areas, to walk through the projects and witness all that I have read and been told about, gang violence and drug deals included. And why not? Why not venture to areas that others are hesitant to visit? Riskless travel is for old executives; what joy or spiritual uplifting or enlightened purpose in life really derives from visiting Rio De Janeiro or New Delhi and staying in the Ritz Carlton? It's inauthentic, superficial, disingenuous, and I feel one is committing a grave disservice to oneself in the process by labeling such experiences as travel, much less it be considered the art of travelling.
Here is to adventure, the breaking out of the bubble, and the many stories to come!
However, the building in Sydney where I live is modern, with multi-colored panes of glass as windows throughout the building, and the vibe feels sterile to me. My bedroom came equipped with a lime colored comforter, plastic hangers in my closet, and a blank cork board. After a few days of moving in, I went to a shop on King Street in Newtown and bought a thick, pastel blanket and pinned polaroid photos on my wall of friends from San Francisco and New York. Within the polaroid instax wide photos are photos of my past homes - images of my friend Ally in my Williamsburg apartment, my writing teacher and friend, Carley, sitting in a bookstore in Fort Greene in Brooklyn. These images remind me that I have stable homes spread out, in different cities and sized homes.
I have been finding moving homes, too. Recently I found a kid's sized, hot pink bike from China at a Croatian woman's apartment. This past weekend, I have been riding around the suburb of Marrickville, inhaling the scent of whisteria flowers in the park, Jasmine coming into bloom, passing children playing on swings, and by rivers. On my bike, I feel at home because I ride my bike through Brooklyn and New York and to school, and this feeling connects me with the landscape no matter which city I am in. The vantage point on a bike enables me to see Sydney at a different speed - I am able to cover more land and experience the waves of hills, which are similar to the hilly terrain in San Francisco.
Friends and family alike didn’t understand why I wasn’t bubbling over with excitement at the thought of leaving for Abu Dhabi, and my explanation didn’t really make them feel any better. Abu Dhabi is on the other side of the world, and I had no idea what it would be like. It could very well, as they said, be amazing, but it could just as easily make me miserable. Either way I knew it would be worth doing, but I didn’t want to go into the experience with any preconceived notions of what it might be like to live here.
Because I wasn’t expecting, I experienced very little of the anticipatory feelings that de Botton so relishes. While he focused on the romance of his destination, I focused on those details that most people could do without dwelling on. Would my suitcase be too heavy? Too large? Was it more important to bring a sweatshirt or athletic sneakers? Could I pack my nail file in my carry-on? Will I end up sitting next someone with no sense of personal space? That is to say that my anticipation was tinged with stress, not longing.
For most NYUAD students, travel was a part of the reason for choosing this school. Travel is a part of the ethos here, such that it isn’t uncommon to hear “when I was in Beirut…” and “I really want to go to India” in the course of every-day conversation. There is an archetypal student who is always popping off to nearby countries on long weekends, grabbing every opportunity to be somewhere new.
Personally, I’ve never felt this kind of wanderlust. When friends talked about studying abroad or travelling, I’d often say that I’d go if life took me there, but that I didn’t feel particularly compelled. Part of it probably comes from the fact that it wasn’t a part of my upbringing. We spent family vacations close to home, and my memories of hunting for snails are no less fond because they’re from an island off the coast of New Hampshire rather than Italy or Spain. Even now, when the world feels so accessible, I see the emotional, physical, and monetary expense of travel more than I see its potential.
Still, life has taken me to a place that is deemed middle (for better or worse) for a reason. Northeast Africa and Southwest Asia are suddenly accessible, and all I need is a reason to go. I welcome any suggestions.
My philosophy has always been to have no expectations, so there won't be any disappointment. In other words: don't think, just do. However, this isn't the most realistic for a neurotic, over-analytical New Yorker. While I managed to keep to my philosophy at the surface level by avoiding specific thoughts about the kinds of people I would meet, how my apartment would look, or the sights I would see on my walk to school- I instead fantasize about how I would feel once in Madrid. I imagined a clear-headed me, in love with a new city and all its adventures, able to see from a distance exactly what to do with my life, how to fix my idiosyncrasies. At this distance, I could easily make all decisions I had brewing over for years now: what my major would be, what career path to focus on, how to conduct myself properly when dating, and how to be completely independent and contented without anyone else's guidance or assistance. As De-Button points out, you usually fall short of these things. I have not become instantly decisive and confident. Instead, I find my mind wandering to mundane worries about roomates while touring Segovia.
However, I have managed to notice one funny thing about Madrid; none of my biggest problems seem to consume them. No one here my age can relate to the heavy pressure I had attached to my carry on. When I murmur my plan of study is sociología, they smile vehemently as the hand me another drink. I wait for someone to ask with a furrowed brow- "and what is it you want to do with that?" It never comes. With a youth unemployment rate of 50%, no one wants to talk careers. As for proper dating etiquette, couples make out vehemently in parks, on street corners, in the metro... And my constant need for independence? The young adults of Madrid often stay at their parents' home until they are thirty.
As De-Button points out articulately, the anticipation of travel, the journey itself- is often easier than the being there. It's most difficult when you are forced to finally unpack, including those problems and characteristics you were hoping wouldn't make it through baggage claim. Perhaps it was a mistake to think of Madrid as the perfect place to make huge life decisions; instead, Madrid has taught me to revel in the uncertainty.
"Our capacity to draw happiness from aesthetic objects or material goods in fact seems critically dependent on our first satisfying a more important range of emotional or psychological need, among them the need for understanding, for love, expression and respect." (De Botton, p. 25)
I can explicitly recall several moments throughout the last couple of month where I thought to myself, “It’s ok. I’m leaving all of this behind soon when I go to Madrid.” Whether brought on by stress at work or dim-witted people around me, the thought of being abroad became an escape of my present reality. In those moments I had little sympathy for those people I was soon leaving behind and the projects that were to be left incomplete. Madrid was going to be a whole new adventure, where I would be starting with a clean slate. Although I had my expectations of Spain and the Spaniards, nothing was defined. Similarly, they wouldn’t know who I was nor what I had been working towards in New York. The plane ride would basically be the metaphorical “clean break” from home. This apathy towards the life I had been living now seems selfish and dark.
However, De Botton’s The Art of Travel: On Anticipation definitely opened my eyes to why I allowed myself to feel this way. By my interpretation, to allow myself that inexplicable hunger for travel and “apathy” (now in quotations) towards what was being left behind, I had to know that everything I was leaving behind was going to be ok without me.
Such “apathy” was a result of my knowing that my bonds with family and friends were strong enough to resist the distance I was choosing to put between us. That my parents had one another to lean on, and as a result could care for my siblings well. That my academic career had been conducted so well that I could give myself the luxury of taking a light school load while abroad. That I had created strong connections with leadership positions within the university that would facilitate a strong return in January. That even though I wasn’t going to be there, everyone I cared for would be able to function without me present. Nothing was going to fall apart the second I climbed onto the plane. This isn’t to say that I think that I’m insignificant, but that I chose to surround myself in a stable life structure that isn’t coming down anytime soon.
By being able to leave my emotional and communal needs satisfied at home, I am able to open myself completely to what this new place has to offer. I can calmly take pictures of scenic views, travel to a different country every weekend, or sit at restaurants for hours at a time. I’m not worrying myself over quarrels left at home. I am abroad and at peace.
(Photo is my own.)
There is nothing like a drastic change in scenery, lifestyle, and companions to make you feel so acutely the core of who you are--the mere fact that everything around you is different only serves to emphasize just how much of yourself is the same.
I did not come to Paris to escape myself, but, much like De Botton, I did not factor myself into the equation when I imagined my semester here. I thought about it in vague ways: I knew I would want to get involved with something political, probably a feminist group, or else I'd feel as though I were wasting my time, but I did not think about the realities of that. My French is definitely serviceable--even good, at times when I'm particularly well-rested and alert--but is it enough to sit in an organizing meeting and understand native French speakers? Maybe, but I'm skeptical. I knew that I would miss my friends at home, but I also knew that I would make new friends here. What I did not think about was how disconcerting it is to be constantly surrounded by people who know nothing about me, who cannot reflect myself back to me. I've always loved the opportunity to go to a new place alone for precisely that reason: It is the ultimate freedom to be allowed the space to create yourself. But now, I have to reconcile my new Paris self with my real self, the one I cannot escape even by travelling over three thousand miles across an ocean.
Yesterday, I logged onto Facebook and saw that many of my friends back in New York had posted a video from a peaceful rally they held at NYU earlier this week. The rally was organized by NYU's Student Labor Action Movement, a student/labor solidarity group, and it was meant to draw attention to an ongoing labor dispute between SEIU 1199 NE, a union representing healthcare workers, and CareOne/HealthBridge, a nursing home company owned by Daniel Straus, an NYU Law School Trustee, that has refused to bargain in good faith with its workers who are now on strike. This is a campaign that I've been involved in for months, and I have covered it for both NYU Local and The Nation. So when I clicked on the video's link on Facebook, I was appalled by what I saw: footage from the rally in which anti-union thugs hired by Straus were harassing and threatening NYU student organizers, many of whom are some of my closest friends, on NYU's campus. Watching the video was a shock, both because of its content and because it instantly took me out of my Paris life and into the heart of my New York life. I should have been there. I should be writing about this. I shouldn't be messing around in Paris when there's real work to be done at home. These thoughts have been running through my head since the moment I first watched that video.
And yet, when I allow myself to compartmentalize and lock those thoughts in a sealed part of my brain, I know that I should also be in Paris, that I should be writing about things in Paris, that there's real work to be done here too, and that messing around during my first week in a foreign country is natural. I cannot escape myself in Paris, nor did I expect to be able to. But when I thought about this experience in hypothetical terms, back in New York when Paris was just pictures on a screen and a list of courses, I thought I'll go for a semester, experience something new, improve my French, and then return to New York to continue my real life. But "real life" is just that--real. It follows me wherever I go, and four months in Paris is not a break from it but four months of it--time, too, is inescapable. Perhaps De Botton said it best when he wrote, "But we never simply 'journey through an afternoon'," (De Botton, p. 14).
As I sat in my rough cloth seat aboard a flight from New York to Madrid, breathing in stale air and praying that my two seat partners would not take up more than their 1.5 cubic feet of space, the gravity of my trip suddenly weighed upon me. I was about to leave my country, my language, and my customs behind for three months as a stranger in a strange land. Though I never listen to the in case of emergency spiel at the beginning of flights, I found myself removing my headphones to listen to the Spanish presentation, a desperate attempt to reassure myself that I still spoke some semblance of the language. This was an exercise done in vein, and one that proved to be more panic inducing than not. I quickly threw my headphones on and tried to become simply an accommodating part of the world around me. This was an overnight flight, and once dinner had been served and gathered, the lights were dimmed, the bathroom lines filled up, and the entire airplane entered a trance like state. Speaking was heavily frowned upon, and those poor souls who could not sleep, were forced to watch the reruns of failing TV sitcoms as reparations for seats that accommodate no human form. Solitude was of paramount importance, as is true of most flights. This was a solitude that allowed me to establish some personal space while in transit. It is very important to process travel at least a little while it is happening. I was forfeiting a home, and family, and friends for something that up until now had only existed to me in my head. I had literally bought the ticket and was on the ride.
I safely landed in Madrid, and while I had time to stand around in the airport, I never found the same level of personal solitude I experienced on the airplane. This was a good thing because it did no afford me the time to turn my acceptance back into panic. Meeting new people in the airport and at school allowed me to realize one of the major perks of traveling. While De Botton found himself unable to completely disconnect from his internal thought process and monologue, I realized that this new trip has forced me to be more willing to experiment with new things. From new kinds of food, to new hours the culture of Spain has forced me to push my personal boundaries. This shifting of comforts has allowed me to willingly push these borders towards ridiculous things like buying a skateboard for transportation, something I never would have done at home, or renting a car to drive six hours to a beach town to surf. Traveling has thus far taught me that though you can’t escape yourself, the jarring experience of a new life-style can force you to reinvent yourself if only for a short while. It is easy to fall into a routine, just as University Place became passé so will Calle General de Perrón, but that does not mean that the mentality of travel has to become obsolete. De Botton may have found himself haunted by his old mentality superseding his aesthetic appreciation, but thus far, I have found myself willing and somewhat able to allow for a cultural and aesthetic change to trump my mental concerns… at least until tomorrow.
In terms of romanticizing diners, motels, and roads, I thought about the authenticity question: When are we truly seeing a place? Now, unlike Des Esseintes, who understands and resides more in a culture when at a museum, I like to go where the "natives," or at least "smart travelers" go. Walking across the Charles Bridge to get to my favorite Bohemia Bagels, I grow as resentful as I would in New York, partially because it is a bridge, meant for getting over the river, and yet people stand right in the middle of it. On the other hand, I know that I have to lighten up, get this "get out of my city" NYU mentality out of my head, and go to the bagel place contently. Once I'm there, I could be in a Think Coffee in New York, and there wouldn't be much of a difference in terms of food and atmosphere. But, something is different, and I guess it's my mindset. When I'm there, I'm a local. I can speak enough Czech to the cashiers and also notice only my classmates and a couple of ex-pats eating around me. Thinking back to Iyer's four types of tourists, I think I am a second-order tourist at these restaurants, streets, and diners. I am still touring nonetheless, but in a weird way, it definitely is "off the beaten path," at least to me.
When I was little, before I moved to America, I pictured the country as a carousel, all lights and colors and sounds. I had no idea what it would actually be like, because I had never been there, and I had only advertisements for Gap jeans and Mary-Kate and Ashley books to base these things on. I told my parents that I looked forward to moving, because I was sure our new life would be magnificent. It would be full of adventure and warmth, and I saw myself, at the ripe old age of six, on the cusp of a new beginning.
America, of course, is not a carousel, though I was happy to discover a month or so later that the country did in fact have more than a few to its name. The reality of our move soon set in, however, especially as I stood in front of my new classmates' blinking eyes. But even though they may distill entire countries down to amusement park rides, kids are remarkably sharp and thus resilient, and I soon became just another pair of eyes, ogling the next new student just as I had been ogled.
That idea never left me, though. When I dreamed of the places I would run away to after fights with my parents, when I applied to college, and when I pictured the cities I would live in, they all morphed into the carousel I dreamed up when I was six. They retained the same glow and promise, and made me think of all the ways I could start over.
Maybe I thought starting over would be easy because it was a simple task as a six-year-old. Of course, it gets much more difficult as one gets older--relationships get messier, ties become stronger, to places and people and things. It becomes much harder to leave somewhere entirely, because a good deal of our identity is tied up in the place we spend the most time in. Even in a new and different place, it's a tricky thing to leave everything behind.
Prague has been a good way to understand that. It's certainly affected the way I act and think, and in many ways it's already changed those things. But it's also done just the opposite: it's brought out certain parts of my identity that weren't as evident at home or at school. In a nutshell, it's made me more aware of myself. Traveling has a tendency to do that; it brings out your weaknesses and your strengths, and it can tell you a lot about how you react to things. So while we may do well to imagine ourselves as different people in faraway places, we may do just as well seeing how much we stay the same.
See, I prepared for autumn. My closet is brimming with sweaters—beige and brown, alpaca and wool. Every hanger is occupied by either a jacket or a cardigan. My coats suffocate the empty space below my bed. The weather has been sundress-appropriate. On a recent excursion to Hampstead Heath, I witnessed people swimming in a pond. If I were to imagine a large park in London approaching the autumnal equinox, I would envision dogs in sweaters, not children in bathing suits. This weather—the type I would expect from my hometown—paints a misleading portrait of London. Every day, I walk outside to stale summer air and see cityscapes that seem suspiciously cheery. Since I have arrived, I have been floating through a theoretic version of London. A London that doesn’t exist anywhere but in the Fodor’s Guide I have perched on my bookshelf. I haven’t been able to tell if I’ve really been here or if I’m still on Google Maps at street view, searching for 26 Mecklenburgh Square. Where is the grey? Where is the rain? Where is the cold? London has been looking too ideal and it needs to stop.
Professor Gavin Stamp stands for the real Britain that I have yet to experience. With a pallor complexion and a long face, he towers with a knowledge containing--but certainly not limited to--the complete history of London’s architecture. On Monday, he whisked us away to see the Wren churches in the City of London. And so, for three hours, we listened to his dreary and comically practical demeanor speak of grandiose structures that have been standing since the Great Fire of London in 1666. We followed his monotonous speech, we climbed up endless stairs, and it was on the top of St. Paul’s dome that I finally realized I was here. On a gloomy day, being led by a quintessentially British professor, I finally felt the air of London. Back in New York, my friends would always sarcastically say, “We live here!” when passing by the Chrysler Building or buzzing through Herald Square. Well, my friends, that moment hit me in London. I live here.
Image is my own, from the top of St. Paul's
While I have traveled to unknown, exotic places before in my life, these trips are very scarce in comparison to my other travels. The act of travelling for me never truly elicits the same anticipation and nervousness as it does for most others. Perhaps this is why I experienced an incredibly heightened anticipation for my travel to Prague.
The two chapters of Alain De Botton’s The Art of Travel that we were assigned to read this week, “Anticipation” and “Traveling Places,” depict a wide array of emotions and experiences that one does or does not feel while traveling.De Botton begins his piece by referencing several anecdotes of his own personal experience as well as the experiences of others. He starts off by explaining that traveling requires being uncomfortable and stepping out of one’s element. We must enter a new routine filled with change and the unfamiliar in order to experience something new.
This feeling is what scared me the most about my travel to Prague. I am truly a creature of habit, and become incredibly uneasy at the slightest notion of change. I learn to grow comfortable with it but at first my mind gets caught in a frenzy of how to adapt myself to this new environment.
The morning of August 28th, 2012, my alarm rang at 4 am informing me that it was time to get up and time to move to Prague. My bags were packed and ready or not, it was time to study abroad. I was in a complete daze on the way to the airport. The mixture of excitement, anxiety and nerves caused my mind to completely shut down, and I stared out the window as the Florida highways passed me by.
The most intense moment of the entire flight to Prague was definitely taking off. “There is psychological pleasure in this takeoff, for the swiftness of the plane’s ascent is an exemplary symbol of transformation” (De Botton 38.) As the plane’s wings ascended higher and higher, the world I knew grew smaller and smaller beneath me. In that moment I felt trapped and had no choice but to arrive at my destination. At the same time however, I feel safe in the air: thousands of miles away from stress and the daily musings of the everyday world. And then, once I feel comfortable in my small seat on the airplane, and used to my surroundings, the plane lands and I must suddenly adapt once again.
I have been in Prague for three weeks and am certainly still adapting. My anticipations and expectations were light-years away from what I am actually experiencing. But I feel that there is a beautiful twist in this, I am surprised every day by something new, and smile at the unexpected. Studying abroad is teaching me how to adapt to the Czech Republic as well as adapt to adapting.
(The photo is my own, taken while flying to Prague.)