Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Silhouettes of Strangers Who Became More

My memory has never been linear. Europe has been a litany of experiences and people that somehow melded into one as I recounted that journey westward, a Dejas-vous of all the things that have touched my life. Some remembrances are crystal clear; others are blurry and indefinite as things that seemed to have never happened.

I had encountered Kyle, an army officer on leave while on tour of Dachau. Afterwards, the English speaking group gathered for a drink and I joined them for typical peripheral small talk. The group dissipated except for us two, keeping each other company before our respective trains, his destined for Vienna or Salzburg and mine destined for Prague. It seemed military men were extremely lonely. I thought nothing of it when he asked for my email address, but he consistently wrote me long emails for months afterwards. He even wished he had kissed me, but perhaps the romantic fancies are far more potent than the reality. He had a rather pleasant, clean-cut face with chiseled features, and I would altogether not have minded kissing him. Then again, looks could be deceiving and he might have slobbered all over me.

There was Jasmine, an independent Greek girl studying towards an economics degree in Zurich. We walked all over the city and sat in cafes, lamenting her love life, since she apparently had a successful, doting boyfriend whom she loved not. I watched her justify why she should be with him while sensing she longed to unfurl her wings and fly in a different direction. I wondered if she would be relegated to the status of luxurious wife with this fellow, or if she ever had the courage to break free. I never knew, except she introduced me to soft gingerbread cookies encrusted with chocolate, which became my daily staple in the midst of expensive Switzerland. The Swiss believed that one should pay for the quality of fresh fruit and produce; therefore everything was exorbitantly priced for us American bargain shoppers. Even the idea of bargain shopping is considered an anomaly in Switzerland, as good quality needed to be properly reimbursed and why would you not want to pay for it? Nonetheless, gingerbread cookies typically bring me back to La Suisse.

Then there was Sophie, a Quebec student who traveled through Europe by the labor of her hands. She picked grapes in Provence and Tuscany, did odd jobs like waitressing and cleaning in Paris, Berlin,and Milan, any place that welcomed a cheap and migrant labor force and international worker's permit from Canada. She told me that being on the road was often lonesome and that she tended to become much more easily infatuated with friends on the road than back home. And I wondered if it was that exciting newness, of being able to grow and to reinvent yourself, of becoming more of the version of yourself you have always wanted to be, in this itinerant lifestyle that causes you to be more open to love. Or the idea of love, since these amorous liaisons rarely last. But you find yourself inevitably changed.

Sophie also alerted me to one of the best kept backpacker secrets: This free service concerns itself with matching a backpacker who needs a place to stay in a given city and the host who offers free accommodations in their home(i.e. a couch). She was currently sleeping on someone's couch as we spoke. In the backpacker world, there is an unspoken law of hospitality and mutual help without thought of gain. We were all traveling on a budget, hoping to see the world and willing to rough it. It brings out the very best in human nature, this egalitarian sense of giving what you can and taking what you needed. Non-institutionalized, completely voluntary, and without exchange of any currency. What would the world be like if money was abolished?

Of course, I couldn't forget Raphael, a German Christian socialist who was studying engineering or physics in Zurich. He was in his early twenties and intense, with smoldering eyes and a very particular manner of speaking. I felt sure he would become a politician, and he didn't deny the ambition. I don't know if it was the intensity or the ambition that attracted me more, but after the exchange and a few espresso, it seemed I had been conversing with someone who would change the world. I met him on my last day in Zurich, and he kept trying to arrange subsequent rendezvous even after I had left the country. Perhaps he will remember me, perhaps not, but someday he will hold the reins of power, when the European union has become an archaic institution.

Then, there were the shadows of Matthias, with whom romance fizzled and David, with whom it was never kindled, both of whom surfaced in and out of my journey.

Perhaps they were individual people in certain times and places, but I remember them like a long line of ghosts, people whose details fade, but for the indelible imprint they have made on my life, the gifts they gave me, the things they taught me, the joy they brought in making my existence richer and fuller. For that, I will always thank them.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Olivier and Instinct

Somehow I dragged myself back from the metro and into the incredibly warm bed of the hotel. The next day, it was snowing. Heavy feathers floated from the sky and dissolved onto the black pavements. I crossed the Charles bridge over the Danube on the way to the train station. Sick as I was, I still toyed with the idea of going to Poland, even though the weather was well below freezing. Then my better senses took over and then I headed to the platform for Munich. Then I turned towards the train destined for Krakow. If there is one thing I have learned, it is better to make a decision, any decision, even if it is the wrong decision, than to remain in the throes of indecision. I scurried back and forth between an ideal and the needs of my ailing bones, like a chicken that lost its head. Well, I lost my hat. In the last minute dash between platforms, I lost my well-insulating, furry hat that covered my ears. Great.

I arrived in Munich, back at the eventful Euro Youth Hostel where I got sick in the first place. I longed to take a nap, but I wound up sharing a room with a young Arabic man who seemed polite enough. I had never seen anyone so closely resemble a pirate, from that dark swarthiness to the brusque mannerisms in which he handled his bags. Somehow, he seemed sinister and a horrible feeling spread from the pit of my stomache. Too uncomfortable to stay in the room (we two were the only occuppants that night), I went to the lobby.

I was still there 3 hours later. As backpackers went back and forth going about their business, I wrestled with the ideals of being safe and being mean. Rationally, my Arab roommate had done nothing to offend me, he hadn't even proven himself inconsiderate. It would be unfair, premature, and judgmental to assume that something would happen to me after the lights went out. But I was scared despite rhyme or reason, and could not bear the thought of going back into that room.

To distract myself, I struck up a conversation with a long-haired PHD physics candidate from Holland named Olivier. He was from a small town outside Amsterdam called utrecht. He had kind, gentle eyes and his pale visage was of the fine European facial construction seen in portraits of Jesus. He had the calmest demeanor when speaking. He was here for a conference, to present or gather information for his dissertation, and leaving for the Netherlands the following day. We spoke of many things, travel, Europe, life and circuitously arrived at where we were at that very moment. Yes, it was an existential conversation. I also confessed the reason I was hiding out in the lobby.

"So switch rooms," he suggested.

"I can't do that," I protested. "It would be rude."

"There is a reason for your instincts, even if you dont know what it is."

I must have looked unconvinced as he sought to persuade me to listen to myself.

"The worst that can happen if you change rooms is that you feel rude. But if you don't and something does happen, you will regret it because you knew."

He was right. Somehow, his reassurance was exactly what I needed to trust myself. There were plenty of vacancies and not at all an issue for the hostel. Perhaps nothing would have happened if I stayed in that room. Perhaps I avoided a catastrophe. I will never know. But there is a peace, a transcendence from worry, when you listen to that innermost voice.

Needless to say, I slept soundly that night.