Thoughts gathered while traveling abroad

There are a lot of them.

I thought whilst on vacation I might have more of an opportunity to do some writing, alas, I’ve been mostly too busy with other vacationy things, and when I haven’t been, I was so tired that all I cared to do was lay about and watch shows or read books I needed to catch up on. To borrow a phrase, “I am on holiday after all.”

Now on the final night of my temporary exodus from North America, my wired but unfocused mind is trying to encapsulate the whole experience, and is in what seems to be a neverending struggle to find some sort of balance with my heart. Where to begin?

I suppose the first thing that comes to mind is that it is a welcome relief to once more step outside my country and see the world from another perspective. Though I have remained plugged in to my friends and have had exposure to goings on in the news, the relief of being physically removed from America is palpable. I’m no mystic, but to me there really is a different energy when you step foot in a different country. The vibe is different. The air is different (read: cleaner). Food and drink doesn’t taste the same. Architecture, travel, culture, language, the engineering of society, is all seen with a different sort of eye than we expect in America.

My travels have largely been focused in Switzerland, a nation that strikes me as a smaller, idealized version of the United States. It is a Confederation of city-states bound by mutual gain and goodwill, each of which cooperates as a unit but still maintains its own culture and flavor. This country is a melting pot of sorts too, seeing as it is a home for peoples of German, French, and Italian descent, as well as taking in immigrants and visitors from all corners of the world. I am giving you an overly simple summary, as being here a week is hardly enough to gain a full understanding of this country’s culture, heritage, and history, but in that week, I can’t help but feel but this is what America could be like if we were truer to the bold ideals inked onto our Constitution and Declaration of Independence. I think this is more what we would like if we were more concerned with the welfare of our fellow man over profit, if we focused on a cleaner environment, safer traveling conditions, and better care for the citizenry.

This post is not about bashing my birth country, nor blindly extolling the land I am visiting. I think of this look outside the box as an acute reminder of American arrogance, and how our collective insistence about being the greatest people in the world really only serves to make us look like a bunch of pompous blowhards. That doesn’t mean we are (at least not all of us), but what we put out into the rest of the world, intentionally or not, can give a pretty unsavory impression to outsiders. Not to say that this doesn’t happen elsewhere, but I think our general lack of language skills (it’s rare for any of us to know anything other than English unless we seek out another tongue in higher studies; also many of us have tenuous grasps of English at best), our propensity to assume that everyone outside America behaves just like in the movies, and overall insistence that our way of life is best, well, it influences us and our mode of thinking. Even those of us with the best intentions can fall to this. Even if it could be tangibly measured in some way, or reached in consensus of opinion–that overall the United States of America is the greatest country on Earth–that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something from our friends, neighbors, and allies. I don’t think the U.S. is the greatest country out there. I don’t feel comfortable making such an arrogant statement as that without seeing more of the world. Do we have it better than other countries. Sure. Do we have more liberty than some parts of the world? Absolutely. Are we embarrassingly far behind in some respects? Yes.

In a week, I’ve already had to eat a few slices of humble pie. As an example, videos I used to think were worth a chuckle, about how absurd and angry German words as well as the overall language can be, I now realize are steeped in ignorance. To be fair, German does have some pretty crazy long and complex words, but the language is beautiful, especially to hear it from a native speaker. Anger is based on the person talking. Some accents can be thick, and perhaps intimidating as such to the untrained ear, but that is true of any tongue. In retrospect, some of the vilest things I’ve ever heard in my life were in English. Of late, I’ve heard German (especially Swiss German) that has been soothing music to my ears. I’ve heard French that I didn’t recognize as such because in media we’re taught to expect that stereotypical, overblown, pompous French accent. There’s nothing funny about making fun of stereotypes that have little basis in reality, or are gross exaggerations.

I already strive to be a humble person when possible. It doesn’t always work, but I try. Part of it is natural due to my reserved, introverted nature. Some of it is a sense of respect I feel is proper to give when in someone else’s home or presence. If I am in a friend’s house, I follow the rules they keep in their domain to the best of my ability, and do not exceed any limits asked of me. I did my best to carry that same mentality over to my stay here in Europe. I learned what German I could. My friend here in Switzerland, she laughed at my accent, effectively saying that it couldn’t be more obvious that I’m an American. I don’t know what an American accent sounds like to an outsider. I figure a German speaker can tell when it’s an American or a Briton (or Australian, etc.) using their language. I am frustrated with myself because I am unable to really carry on a conversation in anything besides English. I can order food, make limited, rudimentary requests, and give thanks in German. I can read and understand the gist of it better in writing, but to speak it or figure out what a native is saying verbally, I feel lost. I feel like a child all over again. That’s where I have to reign in the frustration, admit that I don’t have the ability to really converse with them, and not judge anyone because of the barrier. I still say danke after they switch to English and we conclude our business, and hope they appreciate that I’m trying, even if I sound like a bumbling child. I am a visitor in someone else’s home, and I don’t for a second think anyone else should have to change themselves, their rules or customs to accommodate me. Most especially, because of me being an American. I am fortunate that English happens to be the general lingua franca, something that is easy to learn the basics of, and a halfway meeting point for tourists and a sizable portion of the international community. The new level of humility I have been introduced to is something I see as an opportunity for further personal growth, and a way to expand myself as a creative writer.

So what else is swirling around my brain in relation to this journey of mine? As I bluntly disclosed in my previous blog post, it has been a year since what was easily my worst breakup ever. It hasn’t magically disappeared, as no true pain ever does, but hitting one year feels like the last big milestone. The hurt isn’t totally gone, but I am in a better place, and I do feel as though, finally, I am at a point where I don’t need to keep writing about it, to over and over let the wound bleed onto the page for a few moments of catharsis. I’m tired of writing about it. She made her choice, she let go, and I didn’t, at least not for a long while. It’s done. It can’t be changed, all I can do is learn from it.

The next woman I dated, I came to care for her even though it didn’t last either. Some of her reasons for ending it, they struck me as strange, irrational, but I could see at least some of where she was coming from. And her choosing to focus on being a mom instead of dating for the time being is not something I will judge, ever. We remained friends, albeit distant ones, really just cordial pen pals at most. It was only while I’ve been in Europe that I learned she is dead. More than two months ago, she died, and I had been going on, periodically sending her well wishes, not knowing I was trying to talk to the deceased. It was only a few peculiar details I noticed when last trying to check in on her that led me, ultimately, to an obituary. I was stunned. No one told me. I wasn’t with her all that long, so I guess there wasn’t much reason to, but… it still hurt. My thoughts went to her children, one of whom is only 5, a young boy who is so much like I was at that age: naive, quiet, sensitive, reserved. Would I have survived the horrid years of later adolescence and being a teenager without my mother around? It tears at my heart to think about what the kid will have to be brave against. It also gnaws at me, no, it goes deeper than that, in my bones, like some primal force, to think about her art, her writing, her desire to publish it someday, to make a career out of art. It makes it all the more important to me to keep on writing, and publishing, no matter what. Death claiming someone who is so young and has yet to show the world their talent bothers me most.

In the post I made about self-publishing, I was self-deprecating, taking some jabs at what I perceive to be by own shortcomings and bits of laziness about writing, about marketing myself as an author. But the shadow of this death is a splash of cold water on how I feel toward the whole process. Because it has now been made relatively easy to publish your own work, it is all the more important that I carry on, whether it is self-publishing for the rest of my days, or eventually finding a more traditional home because of it. I must do this for those who have been denied the opportunity in the most ultimate of ways. I don’t believe she, or anyone else who is deceased, is truly dead as long as we remember them, as long as we carry on what they touched in our lives. That ultimately ties together my writing and this trip.

I journey, I travel, I learn, I share, I write, for me, yes, but also for my friend, because she cannot. I do it for my sister, because she cannot. I do it for everyone who was held back by something, or whose time with us was cruelly brief. That sense of fleeting existence brings me to my last major thought of the post.

In the close of this adventure, as happy as I am that I came, that I met my Swiss friend for the first time in reality (and getting choked up at saying goodbye to her), as resplendent as this land is, much as I can see myself at home here, there is still something missing. I still have the tug at my heart and soul that wishes I could share my experiences with another. A friend would be great, but what I really miss is a life partner. I have pondered hard on why I seem to struggle with having lasting fulfillment with my own ventures, for my own sake. With creative writing, its easier to be proud and satisfied for myself. But generally, I feeling a longing to have someone at my side. I don’t completely understand it. Some people, I notice, seem to have to no problem finding their eudaimonia on their own, or are equally able to attain it solo or partnered. Am I wired to have someone to share the most powerful of my life’s experiences with? I do have a strong compulsion to be a caretaker, as well as to have someone I can share my most intimate thoughts and feelings with at any given time without judgment. Or is it because I went so long in life alone, then found my confidant, my best friend in the world who added a dimension to life I didn’t realize was possible, that going back makes me cognizant of what I was missing before?

I don’t have answers to all of these questions (or in the asking of them may have given myself some answers in retrospect), but I am closer to a deeper understanding of myself, and my view of the world has been broadened to an immense degree. I will stumble, I will make mistakes, I will probably say or do something stupid as some point in the future, but I will strive on, I will keep writing, keep exploring, keep learning, for myself, for those I carry in my heart and my memories, and for those who are waiting for me in the unknown future.


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