If you know me well, you know that I have a tendency to romanticize. And I don’t mean romanticize in the “rose colored glasses” sense that you might be thinking of. It has more to do with what I associate with certain actions, like how riding an elevated train at night can make you feel a certain sense of meaning, a certain sense of the infinite, even though you’re alone in a metal box charging past skyscrapers and apartment rooftops. Or the act of stepping on a plane bound for another continent with nothing but a backpack and a couple of books; how it makes you think about how many other people have done the very same thing before, and how they probably felt so bold and so vulnerable at once, and how joining in that tribe is both exhilarating and slightly cliché. I guess what I’m saying is that I tend to think that certain choices, certain images, are somehow meaningful because they possess some romantic, or even poetic quality about them.
With this in mind, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that I very much romanticize the idea of travel. And even though I’ve done it quite a bit, whenever I get away from travelling for a while, I always come back to that image and I can’t quite shake it: The wide open spaces, the foreign voices floating through a thrumming market, the trains, the vulnerability of being alone and amazed.
So as I sit here at my desk in the home where I was raised, I’m trying to reconcile these romantic notions with what actually transpired. I could sit here and tell how you should not think the way I do. That you will be disappointed, so you should keep your expectations low, and that yes, you probably will feel bored, tired, unenthused, and cranky even though you’re standing at the heart of a city whose cobblestone roads alone are ten times older than America, just like you will feel those same things in line at the DMV in your hometown.
But I wouldn’t do that to you. I’d rather tell you about what I’ve learned amidst some disappointment, because I shouldn’t have to tell you about the inevitability of feeling let down.
I came back with very little from my trip. Aside from a few postcards from the Van Gogh museum which I tacked above my desk and some Belgian chocolate that I consumed very quickly after getting off the plane, I’m empty handed. On the second to last day of my trip, my phone was drenched through my raincoat during a downpour in Amsterdam, and all the selfies I took in front of the Pantheon and the carpets of green on the Irish coastline are lost forever. And after wanting to repeatedly punch my own face for a couple days, I’ve realized that this is exactly how it should be. I stepped on that plane seeking experiences, conversations: real life. I wanted beauty, not pictures of it. We spend so much time attempting to prove it to ourselves, or others, that we’ve done something. We want the assurance that we’re not wasting our time, so we cling to whatever material proof that we can get our hands on, even though we know that a tiny plastic model of the Eiffel tower will only fill us with regret for having wasted 10 whole Euros that we could have spent on a crepe.
If there’s one thing that travelling can teach us very quickly, it’s our transience. When we’re safe in the comfort of our homes, we begin to believe that we have a place to ourselves, that we have roots that can never be dug up. But even at home, there is still that deep sense that we can never fully hold onto where we are, that we can never fully grasp the beauty or the power of this life. Some call this wanderlust, or, perhaps, the human condition. And when we give in to this desire to go out and seek, to see things and places, we hope that we might somehow gain a deeper sense of connection, that our rambling might give way to some sense of palpable purpose.
So we leave our homes in the hope of holding something beautiful and find that yes, the beauty is unending. I can’t tell you how many moments on my trip, whether it was standing front of Van Gogh’s sunflowers (below), or reading David James Duncan’s The Brother’s K (not to be confused with Dostoevsky’s Karamazov) on a bench in Italy at sunset while an old man on his balcony shook his bed sheets in the wind, that I wished I could somehow hold those moments. That I could somehow make them more than memories.
Before my trip, I booked the flight with the vague satisfaction that I was most certainly “Grabbing the Bull by the Horns.” But as I look back, I’m learning that this is, quite simply, impossible. Indeed, at times it felt a lot like riding on the back of some powerful creature, charged with energy and unpredictability. But I’ve come to think of the experience as less like trying to grab hold of an angry bovine, and more like grasping for those little white cotton things that blow in the wind on sunny days. The ones that if you try to grab, they just swirl around your hand and drift away.
You know the ones.