I traveled Europe without a watch.
No one uses watches now and my cellphone doesn’t work in Europe so when the sun woke me in Iceland it might have been noon. But when I scrambled out of my tent and checked the clock at reception it was half past three in the morning.
In Berlin breakfast ended at 9:30 so I put my jeans on and went out to the street to find a parking meter with the time on it. Barely 8:00. (In Brussels they don’t want to serve you breakfast so they close the kitchen at 9:00 and you wake up at 9:10.)
At a flea market in Berlin I finally bought a five euro watch in need of a battery. But the battery seller couldn’t get the watch open so I returned it and soldiered on with a loose sense of time.
I didn’t need a watch to know I had a month in northern Europe. Denmark, Iceland, Germany, Belgium, Holland.
I remember meeting a Swiss guy in Delhi, India a couple years ago who wore languid, linen clothes and spoke with a certain calmness. He never travels for more than three months, he said, because for him the most important part of traveling is coming home.
When I landed last night in New York I hadn’t showered in 70 hours and three currencies. And as I walked east on 34th St what I noticed first were the faces. Northern Europe is a fairly homogenous place and the people looked like flowers of a certain species, all different but alike. But back in Manhattan last night the faces looked to me as if they’d been formed from chunks of clay, the lumps sculpted with determination into a face. You could see in the sculpting all the complex ancestry, assimilation and reunification of America.
In that walk I felt proud, or at least privileged, to be part of the group; as if the rest of the world were stuck back in a time warp of segregated DNA and we were living in the globalized, multi-cultural future. I thought maybe that was why the US is so rich and then I thought how much more complicated it all is.
Maybe that is what I get for my month away: a different perspective on a Manhattan street I’ve walked across a thousand times.
A SHORT LIST
I wrote last week that part of this trip’s purpose is to figure out if I want to keep traveling, so maybe I should think of what else I liked and didn’t like. I liked the canals in Amsterdam and loved the beer in Belgium. I liked very much meeting new people and becoming fast friends. I think I should stop the list there because I guess that’s the point; for me it is the alchemy of instant friendship that defines solo travel. It is a peculiar experience made possible by the hunger for connection you feel when you’re away for a long time.
I understood that more completely as I re-united this month with some of the friends I first met on my long trip. It was good to see them, but it was different. We weren’t held afloat by the common excitement of being somewhere strange and wonderful. There were jobs and boyfriends and appointments in the way now. The allure of someone’s spontaneity on the road became the annoyance of their indecisiveness at home.
“I wouldn’t travel alone again,” my travel friend Jens told me when he got back from 18 months out. “I just got so sick of having the same conversation; ‘Where are you from? How long you traveling?’ I hated it.”
I didn’t hate it, I told him. I never disliked meeting new people for a very short time. And if I look back at my favorite moments from the last month I think of an early morning campfire in Iceland with pork cooking slow and smoky and the group trying to define their country. I think of a couple Swiss girls trying to play it cool in front of the older American and the American trying to play it cool in front of the babyfresh Swiss. I think of the Dutch immigration officer driving me west from
Germany; he told me he has a heart, but at work needs to pretend he doesn’t.
I think now of the south Indians on the subway platform last night in Newark, who complimented my English. “You are very easy to understand,” they told me.
“I’ve been away from the U.S. for a month,” I said. “So I’ve gotten used to speaking slowly.”
Just then, waiting for the train, I hadn’t walked across 34th St yet and I still felt like I was traveling. The world was floating around me as it does while you’re away, like you’re swimming in the ocean far from shore. When you get back home your feet touch bottom and then the water recedes and you navigate that familiar, stable little world.
WHEN IT ENDS
Sometimes I search the web to see what people are saying about my documentary and I stumbled upon an interesting one the other day. An American woman in her 20′s had bought the DVD and liked the movie and felt somewhat inspired to go traveling. “I have struggled between the desire to wander around the world for a while in my “youth,’” she wrote, “and the even greater desire to be creating a life right NOW…that gives this gift to my family one day- a lifestyle.”
And perhaps partially as justification she noted two side effects of long-term travel mentioned in the movie: “They became numb,” she wrote, and “at the end of the trip they inevitably returned to ‘true reality.’ What a sad perspective.”
I wanted to scream–or at least post a rebuttal–but I refrained.
Maybe I’d like to tell her about the night two weeks ago when the German couple and the Nepalese couple took me out for drinks after a screening of the film. Nikki, an American on the last night of her summer in Europe, tagged along too; her flight didn’t leave until early the next morning.
It was the Nepalese couple’s third wedding anniversary and I was flattered they’d spent it with me and happy to offer them tips on cameras and computers. The Nepalese talked about the Maoists and the Germans spoke of the DDR and I’m sure at some point someone asked me about Bush. But we were in Potsdam and the bar finally emptied until we were the only group there.
Nikki and I walked to the train station and picked up a kebab and a beer for the ride to Berlin.
She had left her stuff at a giant Berlin hostel that didn’t know she wasn’t staying there anymore because it was so big. They didn’t know I wasn’t staying there either and we sat in the common room waiting for morning.
Nikki didn’t have a watch either and we didn’t need one because there was a clock to help her catch the 4:30am bus to the airport.
When she left I felt lonely and alive to know I liked her and would never see her again. It was cold and I’d been drinking but I didn’t feel numb.
Now I’m home and writing this on a bus that’s about to pull into Providence, RI. I flew home yesterday because my ten year high school reunion is tonight. I’m guessing that many from the class of ’97 have spent this decade creating a lifestyle for themselves and on this night they can be forgiven for displaying that lifestyle to the rest of us.
I think I might like to have a lifestyle some day. I think there will come a time when the allure of owning one pair of jeans becomes the annoyance of not really looking like an adult. “You can’t do this forever,” my British travel friend Jason said in New Zealand two years ago. “You can’t just leave your stuff at your parents place and keep traveling until your 40.”
But these days Jason is sending group e-mails from South America, having reconsidered appare
I’m not sure when it will end, or when it should end or even what will make it end. But whenever the time comes to stop doing this I know I won’t find out from a watch.
Previously on Across Northern Europe:
- Shining a Light on Iceland
- Lonely Love on Iceland
- Iceland Gone Wild
- A Trip to the Airport
- Why Bother Going to Berlin?
- A Perishable Feast
- Globians Film Festival
- The Elusive Dutch Drivers License
- Terror in Berlin
- Authentic Belgian Beer
- Two to a bed in Bruges
- A Coda to Travel Love in Amsterdam
- A second thought on museums in Amsterdam
- Couch Surfing Europe
Brook Silva-Braga is traveling northern Europe for the month of August and reuniting with some of the people he met on the yearlong trip which was the basis of his travel documentary, A Map for Saturday. You can follow his adventure in the series, Across Northern Europe.