Why do you do it?

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It’s been awhile since I posted anything here, and for anything this is interested, for that I deeply apologize.  I haven’t honestly been really into showing my feelings about travel for a while  now and for a very good reason (or twenty).  Aside from the fact that I have been incredibly busy with my day-job and have been doing a lot of baking, I have been in a real mental hard place for me, hence the topic of this post.

Why do you travel?  Really, why do you do it?  Do you enjoy seeing the sites or trying all of the different and unique foods that you find?  Do you collect things, like clothes or books or antiques?  Do you just love to have (collect?) new experiences and capture new memories that only you and you alone will ever fully appreciate?

I used to think that I travelled more for the sake of it than anything else, and I think that, some part of me feels that way.  I travel as often as I can; as much as time and money will allow.  I used to think that, if I could, I would travel all the time, just collecting those experiences that no one else will ever have.  Like getting lost in Helsinki and walking into a suburb and on the way home, accidentally finding their amazing amusement park and riding on the Ferris wheel.  Or being the first white woman to set foot on a small island in the South Pacific and learn what it’s like to really be the odd one out, in every sense of the word.

As I get older, though, I realize more and more that those really aren’t the reasons that I travel.  Here’s the real reason, truly shown to me as I started to cry (in public) reading a passage in a book from a woman much like me, who was in search of the same thing:

I travel because I am looking for my home.  My real home.  Not that I don’t like the place that I live.  I love my little condo.  It’s a perfect size and a real haven for me (when the dog downstairs isn’t barking, that is).  I live very near to my parents, with whom I am very close, and I really treasure that.  But more and more, I realize that I am not meant to live here; that this isn’t my real home.  I think that that explains, more than anything else, why I haven’t dated anyone since I moved back to the US from Europe the last time.  I just don’t get American guys.  Or most Americans, for that matter.  Why?  I don’t fully know, but I just feel like the odd one out and as an outsider here.  I want to sit at a sidewalk cafe in the evenings with friends, and people here don’t really do that.  I want to go out and drink for the conversations with companions that happens, and Americans haven’t learned how to do that yet.  I don’t understand baseball caps, tennis shows, shouting at waiters or the need to photograph, tweet and post to facebook every single aspect of one’s life.

I don’t know why people don’t go out, but rather, stay at home, binge-watching shows on Netflix or On Demand.  I get lonely, because no one but my parents wants to go to the museums and then to a cafe and discuss what was on display.  No one wants to just take a leisurely time at a meal.  Talking.  Eating.  Enjoying the atmosphere.  That doesn’t happen here.  Buildings are too new.  People have to drive everywhere.  People, especially where I live, aren’t interested in meeting people and making new friends.  Not after high school or possibly college.  They will be nice to you, but never will that really translate into an invitation to join them for a meal or a trip to a movie or anything like that.

And more than that, there is something singularly intangible that I cannot even put into words, but that makes me cry in the US and smile broadly in Europe.  Call it atmosphere, call it whatever you will, but whenever I am in Europe I just become lighter.  Almost another person.  I stop more.  And I mean that in the sense that I don’t feel the incessant need to always be *doing* something.  No.  Instead, I stop.  I have a coffee at a cafe or a glass of wine somewhere and just watch the world.  Or I talk to people.  And there, they not only talk back, they start conversations, invite me to their homes or out with their friends or even into the backs of their restaurants to teach me to make real dumplings, in the case of my time in Shanghai, China.

I travel because I want to find the place where I really belong.  The place where I just naturally feel comfortable.  Peaceful.  Content.  Where people want to be my friends as much I want to be theirs.  The place where I would be happy to just ‘be.’

I have come very close on a number of occasions.  Germany was the first, when I visited my brother while he we stationed there.  Austria was even closer.  I spent a few days in Vienna, and on accident I had a last-minute issue that prevented me from going back to Hungary, so instead went back to Vienna and never regretted it.  Ireland was close, but somehow, not as much as Norway.  There was just a sense of total ease that I felt in these places.  Even Paris, not speaking any French or even really knowing the true Parisian culture, I felt it closely, though I knew all along that it wasn’t *quite* the place for me.  Close, but just not quite.

In about a week, I am taking another trip.  I have chosen to keep it a secret to everyone bu my parents and two trusted friends, so forgive me for not mentioning it here.  I will say this, though.  I feel as though I am getting messages from the universe that this might be “it.”  The one.  I don’t want to jinx it, and I don’t really want to get my hopes up, at least any more than they already are.  But at night, and when I am having a rough day at work, I let myself say “maybe” a few times, and I dream.  Maybe I will meet a friend that I can stay in contact with.  Maybe I will meet someone “special” as my mother and grandmother would say.

Maybe I will, this time, not use my return ticket.  Maybe I will, but immediately file for a visa.  Or maybe this isn’t it, and I will check it off my list and start trying to find time and money to make another trip somewhere else to try it again; getting ever closer each time until I finally find it; sigh to myself, and make that call to my parents letting them know that I won’t be needing them to come and fetch me from the airport.

For anyone out there reading this – especially those that might feel the same way – wish me good luck.  And I wish all of you out there in the same position the same good luck.  I hope that we all manage to find our respective homes, wherever they may be.

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Being Sneaky in Paris

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You know, when I was little, I used to stay at my grandmother’s home when my family would go “up north” to visit our relatives every winter and summer.  The rest of my family got to stay at my uncle’s house, but I stayed with my grandmother.  I credit that with a lot of things in my life, from my love of cooking and more especially baking, to my fear of ever having my home be so warm that it melts candles (another story for another time).

One thing that I really remember, more than a lot of others, is the fact that I was raised as a Lutheran, much to my grandmother’s chagrin.  You see, my mother’s side was Lutheran and therefore so was I.  However, my father’s side was Catholic (mostly lapsed, now), and my grandmother; well, she was Mother Superior, in every sense of the word.  While the rest of my family was in my uncle’s house watching movies on Saturday evenings before we would meet for dinner, my grandmother would take me to Saturday night Mass at her church.  Even though I wasn’t Catholic, and really, even though I was too young, she would always tell me that I could go up to the altar when it came time for the sacrament and tell me that I could take it, because really, they didn’t know that I wasn’t Catholic, and honestly, God probably wouldn’t mind.  Secretly, I always thought that she just really wanted me to be Catholic and would try anything in her power to make me one.

Flash forward to my holiday in Paris a couple of years ago.  On one of my last days there I decided that it was time to go to the Basilica of Sacre Coeur in the Montmarte area of the north of the city.  I walked all the way there; all the way up the stairs, in the beautiful light of an early spring evening in Paris, with the birds singing and the other tourists flashing their cameras as they took photos of each other in front of the church and on the surrounding lawns that yawned out from all sides.

I hadn’t realized that I actually arrived right at the start of the nightly Mass there, but following in my grandmother’s footsteps and feeling that a) she would love to have been able to be in such a place at some point in her life and b) God wouldn’t really mind, I walked up front, in front of the tourists and those that were illegally trying to take photos with their cameras (it was forbidden to photograph inside the church itself, unlike Notre Dame).  I walked all the way to one of the first rows and sat next to a beautiful woman of some African decent.  She was deep in thought and prayer, on her knees while the priest spoke.  I tried not to disturb her, but she noticed me sitting down, flashed me a huge smile and gestured for me to join her on the wooden pew, third row center.  Although I had no idea what was being said (not only do I not know the traditional Catholic Mass, but I know it even less when it’s in French, since I don’t speak the language at all), I tried to imitate her as much as possible.  I knelt when she did, I crossed myself when she did, and when it came time for the sacrament, she gestured enthusiastically that I should join her when she went up for it.

Now this was a little forbidding – this was not just a small Catholic church in some small city in the Midwest in the US.  No indeed.  This was La Basilique du Sacre Coeur!  In Paris!  Now, those not familiar with Christian sacraments or denominations might not really understand, but the sacrament at Mass (the wafer and wine) are sacred.  Lutherans might allow others of the Christian faith to partake, but the Catholics don’t play that game.  if you aren’t Catholic, you can’t partake.  You can walk up and get a blessing from the priest, but not the actual wafer or wine.  At least in theory.  And I felt uncomfortable going up there, but this time, with this lovely French / African woman gesturing for me to follow her, and me not knowing nearly enough French to tell the priest that I shouldn’t be receiving the Mass, I walked up in the shadow of the grand, awe-inspiring dome of the Basilica, covered in a beautiful mural, with angels and saints watching me, and I stood before the priest, hands in a prayer (which is typically used to indicate that one is not taking the sacrament) and watched as the priest handed me a wafer.  And then the golden goblet in which was the sacred red wine.

There are times in life when one should follow the rules.  Certainly, when you are in Tunisia, you shouldn’t take photos of the police.  That’s not only frowned upon, but generally, well, it’s illegal.  However, it’s not like me taking the wafer and wine was technically illegal.  And the brief thought in my head said to me “I am sure that God won’t mind and has much more important things to think about than whether or not a Lutheran partook in the sacrament.”  So in a moment, I opened my palm to take the wafer and then found myself taking a sip of the wine, and suddenly turning back around and walking, solemnly, back to my seat, next to the smiling, now praying woman.

The Mass lasted only a few more minutes, and in that time, I felt flush.  Flush with a slight feeling of deviancy, but also of, well, I don’t know.  Not holiness, but something more akin to companionship.  In the community of the church, of the French, of belonging to a group, if only for an hour.

And as I walked around the inside of the church following the service and then out into the slowly waning light and rising moon, I felt somehow whole.  Somehow reminded of the love of my grandmother when she and I would go to Mass.  Reminded of a greater love that so rarely manifests itself, deep in one’s heart.  And for however brief a time, I couldn’t stop smiling.  And the evening air, the walk back to my hotel for dinner, the lights of the city turning on for the night – it was all beautiful in a way that I had only barely noticed before.

I love Paris.

La Fromagerie

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I spent a few years of my life (not my most enjoyable years, either, by the way) not being able to properly process cheese or most other dairy products.  Therefore, I spent a long time ordering pizzas without cheese, thereby confounding the person on the other end of the phone taking my order, not to mention entertaining those who saw me eat what was essentially bread and ketchup (with a little Canadian bacon for good measure).

However, by the time that I went on first real vacation in almost eight years – to Paris – I was fortunate enough to have overcome that hindrance and once again be able to enjoy, at least in moderation dairy products, from yoghurt to milk to cheese.

Now, I know, everyone knows that the French love and know their cheese.  I mean, really know their cheese.  In fact, this post was inspired by a book that I recently read on a woman from Wisconsin who, after my own heart, travelled all over France indulging in the still-traditionally-made cheeses of rural France.  This is a country that boasts no fewer than 300 types of cheese by most counts, and perhaps twice that many.

I was a little hesitant at first, I admit.  i had only recently been able to truly eat cheese itself without a lot of, let’s just say, digestive discomfort.  So, as you can imagine, I didn’t want to over-reach what my body might be able to handle.  At least, not the first time.  But like they say about drugs, it’s the first time that can really hook you for life.  And in my case, not only did it hook me, but it ruined me at the same time.

As most other Americans, I grew up eating cheese.  In fact, I remember many times when I would ask my mother for a snack after school or before bed and she would just cut a huge chunk of cheese off of a larger block and I would gnaw away on it for a while.  Happily indulging in it.  I also ate my fair share of grilled cheese sandwiches, made with the ubiquitous American cheese slices that melted so perfectly (or Velveeta wedges, if we were really good and Mom had remembered to buy those large blocks of creamy, salty goodness).  Little did I know, though, that there was a whole other world of cheese out there.  Real cheese.  Cheese that transcends the bland, dry “Mexican blend” stuff that is so familiar in the US.

The first night in the city, I discovered that there was a Fromagerie just a few dozen meters from my hotel.  I had walked by it earlier in the day, without noticing it, since it was closed and in the shadows.  However, by nightfall, as I walked by again, on the way back to my temporary home for the week, I strolled passed it and noticed the light on and saw an amazing sight:  Shelf after shelf of cheese!  Like I had never seen before in my life!  There are no such places in the US.  No stores where you can walk in and be overwhelmed by the smells of the salty, briny, rich cheeses that reside therein.

This was an epiphany.  I stepped through the door to the small (the size of a smaller-than-average bedroom) shop, populated by an older woman and the proprietor; a lovely middle-aged gentleman who didn’t speak more than a few words of English, which was actually far more than the amount of French that I spoke.

I think that I literally stepped in and immediately closed my eyes to take in the smells.  It was almost overpowering, but in the most blessed way.  And the cheeses!  from bright white to deep orange; from round wheels to bricks and slices; from stinky to tangy and from creamy and smooth to crumbly and bleu.  I couldn’t believe my nostrils or my eyes.  I didn’t know where to start, so I walked up to the owner and with a few hand gestures managed to purchase a small chunk of what turned out to be my favorite, a chevre.  Goat cheese.  Briny, a little on the off-tasting side (but in all the right ways) and perfect for spreading on a fresh baguette (which I happened to have just purchased from the local bakery down the block).  I took the chunk and the bread home and spent a few, very contented minutes just savoring the cheese and the crusty, flaky-crusted bread while watching the French version of some news show.

For the next nine days, I managed to eat my way through nearly every single type of cheese that they had.  I made it a routine.  I would stop by the boulangerie on my way home for the evening and pick up a loaf of baguette.  Did it matter that it was from the morning and all French people buy their bread in the morning, for maximum freshness?  Nope.  We Americans couldn’t make bread this good if we tried.  And we have.  Let’s just say that it’s not our strong point.

I tried every type that I could identify and many others that I couldn’t and still couldn’t to this day.  Brie, Camanbert, chevre; cow, goat and sheep cheese.  Oozey, gooey cheese.  Sharp, hard, sliced cheese.  I would buy a few ounces of each and spread them on a whole baguette so that every few bites were a flavor of a new cheese.  And I only ate the same one twice.  It was that first one, from the first night, that I loved the most.  Every night, therefore, I experienced just a little bit of Heaven on Earth.  There is just something about that simple combination of foods that makes you realize that it’s the little things in life that can make you happy.  That make you forget the smoking people in the streets; the dog poo on the footpaths; the closed museums that you spent ages trying to find.  It just makes like worth living just a little bit more.

And you can’t get those cheeses here in the US.  Why?  They are not pasteurized.  None of the ones that I tried were.  And now I lament that.  I lament that I can’t go into a shop, a supermarket or anywhere and get cheese like that here.  I try it sometimes; with mixed results.  We can get decent Danish brie, but truly, it’s nothing like what I had in Paris, and I miss it.  I dream of it.  Sometimes, I think that I can still taste it, if I think and focus hard enough.

But then, as I always say; always leave something to come back for.  I feel like taking another trip to France.

A Night Train in Egypt

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I was late.  The Air France plane that I was on from London to Paris was delayed, and despite half of the other people on my flight having booked onward passage on the flight from Paris to Cairo, Egypt, the airline refused to hold the plane for the ten minutes more that it would have need to escort us to it and onward to our respective journeys.

As a result, I got a whirlwind tour of Paris, as the airline made us all stay overnight in the capital awaiting the next possible flight to Cairo the following morning.  However, my misadventures in Paris that first time that I saw it (see:  trying to find the Bastille, even though it no longer exists) are a topic for another time.

I write this, because I recently re-found the object that triggered this memory for me.  Since I was booked on a group tour, compromised mostly of fun Australians, a Kiwi and one lone other American, and since the tour was meant to be kicked off in the south of Egypt and work its way north via felucca, missing that connection that day meant that I was forced to catch up to the rest of the group by taking a series of interesting “planes, trains and automobiles” literally.  First, the day-late connection from Paris to Cairo, packed with other people just as frustrated as I was, along with my first visions of women completely clad in black, but for their eyes, seated next to stern-gazed gentlemen.  Then, the hired car (from the tour company) whose driver I swear never took anything like a driver’s test to get his license, and who managed to narrowly avoid knocking over a bevy of pedestrians on the way from the airport to a temporary hotel (I was there only a few hours until the night train was scheduled to leave) and then to the night train.

Ah, the night train in Egypt.  First of all, the trains allow nearly anything to be accompanied onto the cars by those that had purchases a ticket, from goats to chickens to leaking packages smelling of spices and day-old meat.  I was lucky enough to have had my tour company find a space for me in a higher-class section, complete with *almost* reclining seats.  I say almost, because there was the assumption that at one time they perhaps did recline, but over time and with neglect of upkeep, they no longer functioned properly.  Instead, they were stuck somewhere between upright and slightly forward, making any position uncomfortable.

I was already tired, having been travelling for a day and a half at that point, and having tried to make the most of my unplanned layover in Paris by getting only a few hours of sleep and walking too much around the city I so easily got lost in.  Now, after being shepherded around Cairo by a crazy car driver, being held in a makeshift hotel in  a dodgy part of town for a few hours, all alone, and having to have complete trust in the people who had told me that they were part of the tour company, I was now swiftly (as the train was about to leave) escorted to a broken seat in this car for an eight-hour ride to the south of the country, through dead-black night; the desert seeming to suck up all light into its endless darkness and silence.

I made myself as comfortable as possible for where I was forced to sit and attempted to try to get at least a few hours’ sleep.  However, that was not to be.  Although there was another woman and her husband (?) next to me, the real problem came from the gentleman sitting directly across from me.

I should state right now that I am from Minnesota and that the phrase “Minnesota Nice” has many meanings; one of which is that we have a tendency to not be able to say no to a conversation when it comes from someone who seems well-meaning.  This a severe illness that I happen to suffer from terribly.

The gentleman, noting that I was obviously not from around there (how much could one woman possibly stand out?  Well, I am a head taller than even the taller men, so white that I glow in the dark and of course, I was wearing khaki trousers and a tank top, due to the heat – not exactly traditional Egyptian women’s wear), started to speak to me.  First in German (huh?  really?  German?  Okay…) then in English.  When he realized that I understood what he was saying in English he pounced on the opportunity to talk to me.  Endlessly.

Now, this happens to happen to me a lot, actually, but more on that later.  Normally, though I get people telling me their entire life story (this just happened again on my way to Finland).  This time, though, the gentleman was not interested in telling me about himself.  Instead, I was forced to spend the next roughly eight hours listening to him tell me about the advantages of Christianity (assuming for some reason that I had never heard that from anywhere before…being raised Lutheran and all), how wonderful Jesus was and how I needed to be saved.

Okay, I was alone, at night, in a foreign country, not being able to speak more than a handful of words in Arabic, and I was stuck in a small train car next to a couple that clearly weren’t going to come to my aid in getting me out of this conversation, and I was at a loss as to what to do.  I couldn’t pretend to sleep because no one could pretend that in the positions that we were forced to sit in, and I couldn’t run away, since it was a train.  I was forced to listen to this, nod my head and attempt to at least drift my thoughts away as much as possible, and dream of the sights that I would see once I connected with the rest of my tour group.

Near the end of his speech (how did he get the energy to talk that long?), he handed me something.  That’s the something that triggered the memory.  He handed me a small, business card-sized laminated picture of a Saint.  I still don’t know which one it is, having been raised in a faith that didn’t think much of Saints or icons.  But, out of Minnesota politeness and niceness, I took it, smiled and thanked him and slipped it into my wallet, where it fit snugly.  It was the wallet that I had purchased while in Florence, Italy and the one which I have used ever since (Italians really know how to make leather goods, I have to admit).

I don’t know why I chose to leave in there, or why I have never taken it out, no matter how many times I have cleaned out my purse and wallet.  Maybe it’s a desire to have a reminder of a trip that I took so long ago.  Maybe I am secretly afraid that God will smite me if I discard it.  Maybe I fear that he will somehow know that I discarded it, wherever he is now, and be sad and upset at me or all Westerners to whatever.  I know honestly know.  What I do know is that, I put it back.  Back right where it has always sat.  On it’s own, in it’s own slot in my wallet.  Just like it has for the last twelve years and likely where it will remain for at least another twelve.  Sometimes you don’t know why you do things, like talk to strangers on a night train, or keep seemingly random, meaningless tokens.  But sometimes you just need to.  At least, I do.