I always knew I needed to travel alone. It was never a question, only a matter of time. There came a point when I just knew that it was what I had to do; a driving force that pried at me each night until I boarded that overnight flight to Amsterdam. I had never been so sure of anything in my life. For months, it manifested itself in a reoccurring dream where I walked unaccompanied through the dark, quiet streets of Iceland. Though alone, I was never lonely. I walked and walked, and I was deeply contented just to be.
I needed to navigate a bustling train station in a foreign language, to take myself out to dinner in a distant country, to spend an afternoon people-watching in a cafe far away and wander fearlessly through an unfamiliar city — to be decisive in my decisions. I had to sit next to, across from, in rooms away or at the very same table as new strangers — make new memories. I was compelled to change my surroundings, to unstuck myself. To rent a bike, or not. To walk the streets of the neighborhoods my great grandparents walked; to learn where I had come from in the hopes of understanding where I was going.
In the weeks leading up to my trip, everyone I spoke to seemed to mention my brave.
“I could never do it for that long.”
“Maybe if I was younger, but certainly not now.”
“I can’t believe you’re going alone!”
“I wish I could do something like that. I’m not brave enough.”
Courage is a funny thing.
I’m not wired differently. I’m no bolder than you, no younger or older either. In reality, I was braver only because I forced myself to be. It wasn’t out of character for me. It was there all along, the feeling I couldn’t shake. If I didn’t make space for myself now, when would I? My mind was made up. I couldn’t set my trip aside any longer.
The truth? I felt the fear and did it anyway.
I feel everything all at once — Amsterdam
I can walk alone in the dead of night, and I will be okay. Better than okay. Upon arrival, I will drop my bags off and rent a bike from the lovely receptionist with the multicolored eyes and ride and ride until 1 am — not once looking back. I will ride through the Red Light District after midnight, zooming over lamp-lit canals. I will discover cafes, storefronts, and museums miles away. I will be the only girl in the room, and I will do so with resolute strength. I will feel every emotion all at once not in waves, but in a tsunami. And I will meet others doing and feeling the exact same things. I will welcome each new feeling as it fills my cup each morning and night. I will take to foreign roads with foreign street signs in foreign languages. And I will walk through pitch — I never knew pitch — until I walked deep into the thick of it in Oosterpark late at night on my way back to the hostel. Stubborn as I can be — I will refuse to refer back to my map — trusting that I’ll find my way back with or without light. That is the bold confidence that found me, or perhaps I had to find it. I am so much braver than I believe. I have traveled alone and the scariest part is standing in the airport.
I very much enjoy my own company
I slept in and dressed at my own pace. Replenished, I filled the paper filter with chai tea leaves, and then jasmine and green tea and made friends out on the Nescio Cafe patio. We sat together for an hour, maybe more; then I biked to the floating flower market. I took a seat by the window in Dampkring and savored every last puff of an energizing Jack Herer joint. Guests sipped milkshakes at the front counter. After a brief walk, I returned to pick up another joint and the man behind the bar invited me to the front of the line. I explored new neighborhoods, new streets, an entire capital city; I am restored with new energy every 20 minutes.
“This tea’s on the house, to a fellow American backpacking female.”
Her hair is pinned up as she shows me the proper way to steep my strawberry tea. She loves electronic music, she is from Wisconsin, and she tells me I am her favorite customer.
I led a multilingual caravan in the wrong direction this morning, seated myself in first class, and quickly learned that I was in the wrong section of the train entirely. I moved my bags and sat across from a woman eating a bowl of cereal.
When I arrived at St Pieters station, I walked towards a barrage of bicycles and opened up my Uber app, only to find that Uber didn’t yet exist in Ghent. Challenge accepted. I walked for 40 minutes in near-freezing temperatures with my three bags tightly strapped and secured to me, doubting myself approximately six times along the way. I walked with a kind of kicked into high gear hungrytired determination that presented itself as stone-faced strength. And then I arrived at Hostel Uppelink, and everything else melted away.
I am a series of small victories and large defeats
I spotted a Le Pain Quotidien just down the road from the hostel in a beautiful building called De Post. I am eating at a slower pace than ever before and indulging in each bite. The waiter laughed at me as I poured pink herbal remedy tea from the kettle over the gingerbread man placed in my cup and swan dove towards the cookie in a fast attempt to save him. He did not drown in vain. I am savoring the coriander seeds and fresh mint and cilantro and agave flavors on my tartine and in my tea. Halfway across the world, I’m finding solace in the very same things. I am alone in a cafe, pouring my tea and delighting in my tartine (almost) as if I were back in Rye, finishing my senior thesis on any given Wednesday in 2014. Life is funny like that. My table is not hidden away and I am not slumped behind a laptop. I am perhaps at the most prominent table in the restaurant, squirting citrus on avocado toast, watching the lemon slip in slow motion from between my fingers and plummet to its inevitable death at a table adjacent to mine whose patrons didn’t find it quite as funny as I did. Here I sit, open-faced as the tartine I delicately devoured.
The man with the bubbles
I walked along the streets of Ghent for hours; through the ancient quarter and medieval Gravensteen castle against an unlikely backdrop of H&M and Lush, past beautiful shops and boutiques, churches, bars, and hotels and through the graffiti alleyway. Still, I found myself absolutely entranced, mesmerized by the man with the bubbles. Nothing has inspired me more than this. It is freezing and everyone is bundled up eating outdoors, shopping in Paterschol and running towards, through or away from the bubbles. No one, not the babies nor the pups are fearful of the cold. Schoolchildren, men on their way to meetings, colleagues with briefcases, elderly couples — everyone stops and stares in absolute wonder of the bubbles. They bring a certain magical contrast to this somber weather. A reminder not to take life too seriously, to treat everything living and artifact as art.
And that is why we have art
The ritual of tea is so much more sacred here. The quiet comfort in sipping my tea is something I will never, ever take for granted. The herbs have more depth, the honey pours from its container slower, and it glistens each time. The flow of hot water from the kettle happens gradually, not all at once. Each meal is paced differently, as is each moment, each activity. It is such a new feeling to watch conversations all around me and not understand a single one of them. I am a blissful bystander in this respect, watching social cues and bellowing laughter arising from groups of boys and girls who must be roughly my age. Language is beautiful, it is expressive, it is inclusive and it puts things into speakable words — it creates connections. But, it also stops connection dead in its tracks. That is why we have jazz clubs and art museums and men who blow bubbles on the street outside the cathedral. That is why we have language that transcends barriers in every other way. The further out I travel, the more art as necessity makes pure sense to me. I don’t know that I ever truly comprehended its fundamentality before this. I understood what moved me, but not what moved everyone. What brought and continues to bring people to opposite parts of the world to experience something greater than what home could give them. To feel nourishment in a new light. This is what pushes people in droves out of their homes and onto airplanes and boats — to experience a deeper understanding and connection beyond what language alone can provide. This is only a portion, but I understand it now.
I have stolen each and every moment for myself and I have done so with certainty
I have walked all day and I have been astounded over and over again; eager to arrive at an unlit block with the promise of a new view, a new cobblestone street to saunter down, a new canal or window to daydream in. I walked to the S.M.A.K Museum and ordered a huge bowl of pumpkin soup with a side of fruit at the Soup Lounge. The woman pouring my soup gave me a triple helping of bread. I browsed through aisles of Belgian fashion in picturesque Paterschol and ordered a cocktail at the buzzing jazz club. I feel as if I am dating myself, and I am growing to love it so. I climbed to the top of the Belfry and reached the tallest height of the tower as the bell shook the structure and rang throughout the whole city. While navigating the narrow stairwells of the Belfry, my roommate Name and I crossed paths, and we exchanged ear-to-ear smiles.I am staying at each monument, exhibit, attraction, cafe and shop for as long as I please — and it feels like a dream. Every day that I rise, I am filled with a feeling I could have forever. I am stopping and going at my own pace, and it is all of my own accord. Perhaps that is the most pleasing part of all.
This is religion and art coalesced
I write this from the pews of St Nicholas’ Cathedral, listening to an organ lesson resounding through the building. I notice Nami watching on with the two organ players and she waves at me with a smile. We are all exploring on our own and finding one another along our journey.
Back at the hostel lounge, Nami told me that the organ player was blind and that all of his music had been transcribed into braille by his father. His teacher stood behind him every minute, informing, supporting and encouraging his music. From the seats, all I heard was beauty. His echoed chords, his timing, his passion, and his intensity enveloped each person seated in the pews. The human spirit will stop at absolutely nothing to create art.
The good ones are curious and kind
As I was leaving the hostel this morning, I heard a cheerful, “Goodbye Lindsey!” It was so simple, yet so poignant it nearly made me cry. Nami was checking out and I ran back in, nearly knocking over a staff member to hug her goodbye. The intimacy of a hug, of someone calling your name — these things I never knew how much I loved until I did not have them for weeks. I wished her the safest travels back home, as I was so appreciative for her warmth. Running into her and her infectious smile over and over again throughout Ghent was a joy each time.
I have explored Ghent to the fullest and its city and its people have embraced me with open arms
At the St. Pieters station awaiting a train to Bruges, I can’t help but smirk at the thought of how much I’ve grown in two days. I arrived at this station lost, resolved to walk 40 minutes with all of my belongings — too stubborn to ask for a tram. Now, If I were to board a train going 30 minutes in the wrong direction, I would be happy. I would make the most of the new town I’d set foot in and I would find my way back to Ghent when I had had my fill.
You don’t burn flags, you bury them
As I walked through the park on my way back to the Bruges train station, I saw men strolling slowly in their woolen newsboy caps, stopping briefly to breathe in the scenery and circle through the park once more. The men bundled in coats and plaid scarves, walking with a familiar gait that I loved so dearly. They walked like Pop-Pop, doing laps in the park across the street from our old apartment building. He would have loved it in Bruges. He would have loved Ghent and Amsterdam too. I am reminded of family in different capacities everywhere I go. In Sondra Perry’s video installation on lineage at the Contemporary Art Museum, in pillows and wall hangings, in tapestries and heirlooms and albums, in every version of kin I cross paths with. I don’t know that I’ve ever been prouder to be from New York.
Never judge a book by its cover, and other discoveries while in Paris
When I arrived at the hostel on Thanksgiving, I was uncertain, trepidatious and doubtful of its initial appeal. The first-floor restaurant and bar had huge American flags hung proudly in all the windows. Glossy pictures of movie stars and pop icons adorned the columns of the dining area. A nearby wall read, “Sports Corner,” while laminated posters read, “Wing Night,” “Steak Night,” and “Beer Pong and Fight Night.” The tables and stools had all been made of recycled beer kegs, and ska soundtracks blared from the speakers. A blown-up image of The King of Pop stared me straight in the eye. Who the fuck designed this place?
When you’re thousands of miles from home on Thanksgiving, home is what you make it.
From the corner of my eye, I saw a Thanksgiving menu scribbled on a blackboard and felt more than anything, a tinge of sadness. I was intent on skipping Thanksgiving dinner this year. As it turns out, sitting at the table was the best decision I made in Paris. The white cloth was laid out across a long dining table, and the red wine was free-flowing. To my right, cheerful 20-somethings held hands and said grace, and to my left, international friends cheersed and clinked glasses. I thought of what the beer tasting guide told us back in Ghent — about everyone toasting in different languages with different traditions — but everyone cheersing nonetheless. Zooming past first introductions, we bonded instantly over shared experiences. Shortly thereafter, dinner was served. Turkey, brussels sprouts, green beans, cranberry sauce, gravy, and sweet potato mash — a proper Thanksgiving dinner. I didn’t know it then, but I would go on to spend every day exploring Paris with the gathering of strangers I met at that table.
We traveled together as a family, laughing as we approached each new destination — replenished with youthful excitement and determination to find the best crepes and see the Eiffel Tower sparkle for five whole minutes. We went on a walking tour along the canals, through the Louvre and past the Cathedral of Notre Dame. David led us to the Arc de Triomphe, and we stuffed our faces full of fresh sausages with hot melted cheese and jambalaya at the German markets. We headed towards the Eiffel Tower and thick billowing clouds of smoke formed off in the distance as protests began. Fueled by sausage hoagies, we were dodging police barricades and metro detours to make it in time for the sparkle. Sophie and I perched atop the median barrier of a heavily trafficked street directly across from the Eiffel Tower to get the perfect view. For 30 minutes, we sat cross-legged atop the barrier, hardly able to contain our excitement as we waited anxiously for the show to begin. After some time, we were unsure if it would even happen at all. And then, it happened. For five whole minutes, all of Paris looked up in awe as the entire structure sparkled from bottom to top.
On our last day together, Sophie and I awoke hungover and absolutely exhausted from our late night of dancing. We left for Montmarte around noon, stopping to explore Sacre-Cour and the Moulin Rouge along the way. As we journeyed up the winding streets of Montmarte, we shared stories and fell in love with our magnificent surroundings. We froze each time a brilliant piece of architecture, beautiful storefront, potted plant window or ivy-covered cafe caught our eye. We briefly video chatted with my mom and paused to smile at each breed of dog we encountered. We walked past galleries and live painters and outdoor bistros, and we reminisced about the many artists who lived and created in that very space — Monet, Renoir, Mondrian, Picasso, Van Gogh. There were people of all ages engaging in conversations out on the street. As we reached the top of the hill, we came to a clearing across from the Basilica that took our breath away. It was Paris for miles and miles and miles. The view was unlike anything I had ever seen, and the rain began flooding down from the skies. It all felt like a dream. We arrived at the padlock filled clearing, overlooking all of Paris. Sophie and I stood together, sharing a flimsy umbrella, just talking and talking and talking. She asked me all about America, and I asked her all about Scotland. We discussed sociology and our countries vastly different healthcare systems and the politics of progressivism. We stood and spoke, overlooking Paris in the pouring rain for what felt like hours, and perhaps it was. In that moment, there was no one else I would have rather been with — we just understood each other. We shed tears together. We had experienced so much in just a few short days, learning one another inside and out. Paris was a gift, a crêpe made sweeter by friends like Sophie.
I awoke early, eager to navigate the metro system, visit the Schonbrunn Palace and the Belvedere Museum. I held my head high with confidence as I easily found my direction, my footing, and my flow throughout Vienna. I took subways and busses and floated from one destination to the next, overwhelmed by Vienna’s grandeur, grateful to be alone.
In the days leading up to it, I had prepared myself for any emotional response that viewing Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss in person could elicit. I’d seen the image recreated on canvas bags and calendars, on scarves and pens and bookmarks, but I also had it hanging in my home. I awoke to it each morning and stared at it each night for years, taken aback always by their embrace. I had come to know The Kiss quite well. Another room in the Belvedere held some of Klimt’s additional works, and I felt my heartbeat begin to quicken. As I walked up to the painting, I instinctively let out a sigh of pleasure. It was a feeling like home, and it was perhaps the most beautiful thing I had ever seen up close. The lovers’ embrace was blanketed in gold. Gold leaf embossed the painting and enlivened the work beyond what any replica had ever conveyed. I thought of the poem Gate C22, of the woman with the gold hoop earrings and her lover’s embrace, gazing at her as if she were the first sunrise seen from the Earth. I thought of my mother, and how she would have loved to be there, staring at that very same painting. And I thought of being held so tightly and caressed so closely that nothing else in the world mattered, flowers blooming beneath my feet. I was glued to the painting, my eyes fixed on its radiance. I could not tear myself away from it. I viewed The Kiss from every angle, watching as the gold danced about the painting. I found myself 25 minutes later dreaming to be her. Everyone there did.
The Family of Man exhibition moved me in a way that only art could. Lauded as one of the greatest photograph exhibitions of all time, The Family of Man was created as a humanist manifesto for the equality and peace of mankind. Easily overshadowed by Gustav Klimt’s masterpieces just two rooms over, The Family of Man was not dimly lit by a hanging chandelier or plated in Gold the way that The Kiss was. It was understated — a wall of small photographs from all over the world — depicting the ritualistic traditions, habits, actions, choices, and emotions that we all share. It was all in black and white, photographs taken by over 273 artists. Setting to establish and cherish the sacred common ground in which we all walk, it spoke my language. It spoke everyone’s. It was universal, it was heartbreak and heart fulfillment.
Moved to tears, I slowly worked my way through each of the 503 photographs within the exhibit. I viewed the set of photographs where everyone mourned death in their own way around the world and felt an emotional release. Pictured were individuals from every corner of the earth celebrating, grieving, eating, cleaning, playing — living. Observing each photograph in the series, I felt within me the presence of my family, my heritage and traditions, and those who came before me. I felt whole in that moment, less alone than ever before. My trip thus far felt aptly summed up by The Family of Man — seeking to reveal the commonalities everywhere I’d been. The coming together. The restoring of humanity.
It was a co-living space, with Sheldon and Mara and Andreas. We put up tea for one another, got drunk together and belted out Wonderwall stumbling back from Szimpla Kert together. Andreas bought us all a round of Fireball and we toasted to new friends and new experiences. We drank and laughed about wild memories from previous hostels we’d stayed in and jobs we’d worked in former lives. Sheldon baked us fresh bread and Mara and I watched in disbelief as the guys put back an entire bottle of Sheldon’s famous jalapeño-infused vodka. Sheldon and Ferzi have been in a longstanding competition to see who’s jalapeño-infused vodka can outspice the other’s.
I carry your heart, I carry it in my heart
I arrived at the hostel lost as all hell, uncertain that I’d find my footing at this leg of the journey. Once again, my first impressions were far from the truth. Sheldon and Ferzi greeted me at the door and immediately put up some hot water for tea, showing me to my bed and inviting me to drop my bags down. Sheldon brought out two maps and proceeded to share an hour’s worth of suggestions with me. The building was historic and shared with residential tenants — an opera singer, an Olympian. Nicola Tesla used to live here. Sheldon was a playwright, nearly finished with a feature-length film he was to pitch to a former drinking buddy turned famous actor. He was a kind man, well-traveled and experienced in psychedelics and hostel management. He mentioned that the world’s second-largest synagogue and Europe’s largest synagogue was a short walk away. I knew where I was to go that afternoon. I left the hostel eager to explore the Jewish Quarter. The walk was chilly and the skies were gray, a dreary day in Budapest. Hungarian Forints jingled about in my pockets. The synagogue was tremendous. I took a deep breath and unzipped my coat, drawing it inside out before the security guards and emptying its contents into a plastic bin. I laid my backpack down and walked through the metal detectors. I walked through the entrance and arrived at the Garden of Remembrance, an unlikely cemetery in the middle of the synagogue grounds. Covered in tall trees, the memorial was made for over 2,000 Jews whose bodies had been strewn on the ground there during the Hungarian Nazi regime. I saw tombstones with roughly the same dates — guesses and estimates only for unclaimed corpses. And I saw variations of my last name, over and over again engraved on stone. Silent snow began to fall lightly, dusting over the headstones. I walked slowly back and forth through the garden, reading each plaque and grave. My heart was heavy and my footsteps light. I walked again past the plaques and the metal detectors towards the entrance, where two wrought iron doors awaited opening. I pulled the first set of doors open and an older man held the second door open as a younger man collected my ticket. I took a deep breath and looked up. I planted both feet firmly in the largest synagogue I had ever seen. One that assuredly no videos or pictures could ever do justice. One that was so empty and yet echoed so loudly. I walked through its center, stopping to notice the signs with international flags spread throughout every several rows. I messaged my mother to tell her where I was. I intended on sending her videos and had already sent her a few photos. She asked if we could have a video call and promised to remain silent. I put my headphones in and called her. Placing my finger to my lips in a shushing motion, she nodded with an unfamiliar stoicism. I faced the camera towards the expansive interior of the synagogue, towards its four walls. I panned over the ceiling with its domelike mosaic structures, intricate tiles, and striking light fixtures. I stood and moved slowly through rows and rows of chairs. I watched as tears poured from my mother’s eyes. I felt tears well up in mine. I lifted my phone as I walked down the aisle of the synagogue, showing her each detail, each international sign, leading her towards the front of the bimah. Together, we walked slowly and with deep intention through the synagogue, tears streaming down her face. I had my mother with me then — a piece of my heart I could bring wherever I was. To have had her there with me felt whole. I told her I was taking her to the Garden of Remembrance and walked slowly one last time past every plaque as I read each and every word to her. We walked through the memorial, focusing on every last leaf as it fell from the tall trees, every gravestone. She held her hand over her mouth as she cried and cried. I felt her sadness, I felt my heritage. I felt years of tradition and hardship and struggle and perseverance. I felt proud.
Don’t you dare tell me that technology rips us apart. I had my heart with me from thousands of miles away in that moment. We were together in silence and I felt her presence pulsing through mine. I had my mother with me, my grandfather, my grandmother Lynn whom I had never met but was named after, and her parents, the Hungarian Jews from Budapest.
Please remember that everything does not happen in a vacuum.
Each experience, each memory, each location — everything is interconnected. Every encounter breathes life into the next. Everything is a lesson to learn, to bring to the next destination.
Omnia Omnibus Ubique
All things for all people, everywhere
I can navigate the London Underground in any direction and I can walk and walk and walk without growing weary. I brought myself to the Natural History Museum, to Harrods, and to the Saatchi Gallery. I purchased multi-colored pencils and wrote in rainbows for hours. At Harrods, I bought five decadent chocolates from the gourmet chocolatier’s shop with chili, lavender filling, lime ganache, juniper berry, mango, and caramel. A backpack full of chocolates and multicolored pencils — a secret only for me. I walked through luxurious halls of international designer collections, fine chocolates, steaks, meats, caviar, charcuteries, past the perfumery and the beauty apothecary and the florists and the bespoke tailoring lounge and the Christmas market and the Moroccan spa and the hall of cosmetics. And I walked past the second-floor private bank, where they sell gold bars off the shelf. Back home, I wouldn’t dare walk around a store like this. But here in London, I sauntered right towards the rare rainbow diamonds upon entry. I glided through Bvlgari and Cartier like I belonged there. I was far from my comfort zone and it was exciting. I walked to the Saatchi Gallery and indulged in a few of the chocolates on my way. Instinctually, I looked around in all directions to see if anyone else had noticed I was eating chocolates before dinner. Back in Amsterdam, Jess told me that I could eat my dessert before dinner if I wanted to. I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face. In life, the little things will always find a way. Each day can be filled with so much wonder if we let it.
Somewhere in Liverpool
No matter the city, country or province, I will always smile when I see a dog.
Everything. Everything was restored when I got to Edinburgh.
I walked and walked through Christmas markets (layers of them), up a steep hill past monuments and cathedrals and universities. I walked up to the Writers’ Museum and tried on neon leotards and leopard print skirts at Primark. And I took myself to The Voodoo Rooms.
My hesitation showed as I sorted through the custom cocktail menu. With great simplicity, the kind, impressively-mustached bartender told me to go with confidence. To order what I first wanted. It is, and can (sometimes) be that simple. It is not the overcoming of uncertainty, but the going it anyway.
I ordered a spicy cocktail with black pepper and chose a seat on a black leather couch in the corner. I took up space, though I’m not one to do so. I admired the opulent architecture while watching the inner workings of the bar like a voyeur. Edinburgh feels like home. It’s not familiar, not really, but I love it here. I haven’t even met Hero, the legendary bulldog I’m staying with! Back at the Airbnb, I snuggled up to Ash’s cats and took a deep breath in, holding the thin calico colored one close to my chest. I could make this home. I could make anywhere home.
It is not the trying and the (at times) failing, it is the perseverance
I could hardly catch my breath climbing Calton Hill earlier this afternoon. As I walked, wind rushing past and through me, unable to feel anything but the elements, ears ringing, intoxicated by elevation — I thought of life. Of whose I have been living. I am constantly reminded of why I chose this trip for myself. I am worthy, and I am deserving of this.
All at once, I learned myself all over again and for the very first time
I learned myself; what and who I love. As it turns out, I quite like gin. There’s a lesson to be learned in that. I had avoided gin for years because I was always told I’d hate it. I love rhubarb gin and tonics and butterbeer from The Dog House. I love pho with fresh lemongrass and cilantro and chilis and bean sprouts and wood-ear mushrooms and thick noodles and chicken off the bone. I love hot tea with chopped ginger and chai spice and squeezing lemon on to everything. I love freshly baked banana bread and treating myself to diet coke when I take myself out to eat. I love Christmas music in airports, in markets, in shopping plazas and lobbies. I love chicken schnitzel with onions and pickles and mayonnaise and ketchup and lettuce and tomato from Mr. Schnitzel in Vienna. I love how much I love modern art, and how I’ll choose it over touring Shakespeare’s Globe Theater any day. I love warm flakey croissants in Amsterdam. I love real ramen with seaweed crisps and chives and soft boiled eggs and chicken and the place in Budapest with communal dining and Shoryu in London. I love jam and eggs and I finally appreciate handmade pastries thanks to the Bakeshop in Prague. I love people watching and any kind of soup and the slow-burning heaviness of a spliff. I love good conversation and Bahn Mi sandwiches and I love me time.
Christmas lights and catacombs and port wine and the most beautiful bookstore in the world
This is not my life. This is someone else’s. I stood in awe at Livraria Lello for hours. I read poetry that moved me. I clung to a novel for an hour and read and read and read. Yesterday, I walked past a couple drinking champagne cocktails from delicate flutes in the Edinburgh airport and I thought to myself that I am not that woman, but I am. I am a thousand different women. And I will delight in mid-day glasses of port wine and sit in bean bag chairs and walk nowhere as I please. The clouds dissipate and I am elated just to be here. It feels reminiscent of a warm day in March, like the first day of spring at Purchase where we all blew soap bubbles outside of Paul’s apartment. Like hookah on the great lawn, like living. I feel the joy of Porto as I hear the nostalgic sounds of seagulls off in the not so far-off distance. Life can be like this. High on atmosphere, enchanted by the sounds. There is only bliss in this moment. I have had reoccurring dreams of being alone but not lonely in a foreign country, and I am living those dreams. I am not lost. I know exactly where I am.
The love spills off the enamored and into the bodies of those of us who walk through the city alone
Portugal is without a doubt the most romantic city I have been to. Everyone is holding hands and kissing passionately, caressing one another like they are the only lovers on the planet. There is a certain magnetism that I haven’t encountered anywhere else I’ve traveled to. It is contagious, it is alluring, it is palpable. An intoxicating kind of love. It is enriching to see love so visibly before you. An untamed, uncensored, untethered new kind of love that seldom shows itself. I am so glad to have witnessed it, to have looked up at love and admired it from just beside me, and from further away. Romance surrounds me, but I am not lonely or envious. I am reborn of myself. Porto’s paradox has been of love’s massive outpour and my solitude for the entirety of my stay. It has made love that much more potent. More simultaneously out of reach, and just within it. I have felt a love so strong here in Porto, only different — a love for literature, for port wine and warmer weather and solitude down by the river. I have felt the culmination of every emotion throughout my travels and I have grown each day of my journey. I have loved Porto, every moment here.
Tourists in Portugal
We covered all of Porto. We walked into the most beautiful train station and past countless churches and statues. Pedro brought us to the oldest part of the city and the new, and encouraged us to buy sturdy leather shoes (arguably better than Italian leather) and spoke passionately about why tourism is a great thing that should be celebrated. It is just people wanting to know more about other people, other countries, he said. We shouldn’t question gay or black — we shouldn’t question tourism. Why people want to see new places. When spoken through broken English, the sentiment held a lot more weight.
We bought fresh baked chocolate cake from Theresa in the old city by The River Duomo, and used the pristine bathrooms that smelled strongly of Nag Champa. The woman in charge of maintaining the bathrooms took extraordinary pride in her work and gifted me a stick of incense wrapped in paper napkin. She took me by the hand and told me about another New Yorker who was also astounded by her facilities and that there are hundreds of healing properties in a single lemon, she has a book on it. Hand-in-hand, she led me to the nearest bakery and warmly greeted every person she passed with a kiss. The unofficial Mayor of Porto.
The presence of the absence
By the end of the tour, Pedro promised we’d be walking through streets so narrow that we could extend both of our arms and touch homes on either side. As promised, down by the River Duomo, we did just that. The cobblestone steps and narrow streets reminded me of the Old Port in Jaffa by the suspended orange tree. This is where Pedro told us of saudade.
An untranslatable word, saudade is the presence of the absence. It is at once a profoundly melancholic desire for the beloved thing and happiness for having experienced it. Though painful, the sting of saudades is a reminder of a good that came before. One can have saudade for people, places, sounds, smells or foods. To kill saudades is to fulfill desire.
You can see the whole horizon from Barceloneta Beach on a warm day
I fell in love all over again in Barcelona; with the beach, with the sunsets, with gin and tonics and rooftop terraces and sundrenched, tousled hair and vegan cuisine and the feeling of being home, yet so far from it.
Two days before Christmas, I realized that human connection trumps everything time and time again. I found my people, and I was set to catch a flight on Christmas Eve for Florence. Andre, the hostel manager, asked if I’d be around for their special Christmas dinner. I couldn’t miss it. There’s a certain blend of exhaustion, serotonin, and bottles of wine where nothing in the world could make you leave.
That is how I felt, and that is why I stayed.
The things we wouldn’t miss for the world
I thought of the friends I made, and the lives they were returning to. Jess’s mom awaiting her arrival on Christmas Day with a new pup. Her boyfriend’s sister secretly in on the plan to sneak her back to him a week earlier than expected for a Mexican-summer-themed Christmas Eve at his place. The group from England I had met in Amsterdam surely stumbling back home by now. The sisters who sat behind me on the bus to Paris, eager to return home for Christmas by the pool, barbecued prawns on the beach and feasts of pints and parmies. And Jessie from Australia, visiting New York for her very first Thanksgiving, then hopping on a flight back home for her annual family vacation at the beach and her little brother’s graduation from grade six.
Every now and then, saudade washes over me like a tidal wave
Traveling unlocked something within me that I didn’t know I had, and opened my eyes to a life I never knew was possible. It transformed and restored me — it revealed the best parts of me. I was fearless, and I was happy. Confident, and in love with life. I loved who I was, and how my body carried me to the highest heights of every city. I loved myself throughout Europe. In Austria, and Paris and Barcelona. The trip changed me in ways I never could have anticipated. It simultaneously grew my maturity and independence while bringing out my curiosity, childlike excitement and lust for life. It taught me to rely on myself, and trust in new friends.
Travel begets travel
During the last week, I was certain I could have stayed for six more months. Curled up on the couches, reflecting on my journey, I told Eitan I thought this would be it. That I’d go on this trip and feel truly fulfilled. That I could go back to my life as planned, not needing to travel again for a long time. A one-off, a cure-all — enough. And for a while there I almost let the ‘once in a lifetime’ discourse get the best of me. I let myself believe that I could never travel again the way I had, that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and that I’d better make the most of it before I could never do it again. But that’s not how it goes. That’s never how it goes. Letting me in on the world’s greatest secret, he turned to me. Travel begets travel, he said. And that feeling, it’s not going anywhere. The truth is, I had only just cracked open the door, and there is still a world left to see just beyond it.
“You move forward with a smile on your face and your best foot forward, because that’s what we do.”
– On lost luggage at the airport, missing family dearly, and the bittersweetness of a months-long solo trip coming to an end. Jessie, my Australian roommate in Brussels.
Everyone told me that my trip would be a life-changing experience. I couldn’t pinpoint how, though — not until the end. Here is what I learned: I learned who I am, and who I’ll be on any given day, in any given country. I learned myself uninfluenced by routine, by the same external factors, by friends and family. I learned my brave. I learned to use it again and again in ways I never could have dreamt up safe at home. I learned my value — that others love me and miss me and want to see me when I return and while I’m away. I learned that I deserve much more credit than I’ve given myself. I learned that I will sign up for and walk through dank, dark underground vaults and willingly get locked in the poltergeist-ridden Covenanter’s Prison inside the world’s most haunted graveyard with a group of perfect strangers all in the name of the Double Dead Tour. I learned that celebrating Thanksgiving with a table full of strangers feels as much like home as anything else. I learned to dance and dance until the sun came up, and I learned that I’d write endlessly every day in new surroundings. Above all, I learned that everyone everywhere only wants to connect.