Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Experience of Imperfect Travel

When I write, I draw inspiration from experience and dream. Some of my paramount experiences have taken place while traveling. There is majesty in walking a city where cathedrals were built before this country was founded. There is mystique in knowing that the people you’re walking past most likely wouldn’t understand you if you speak. There is a certain freedom that comes with getting lost somewhere foreign.

Getting lost in Ghent

Not to discount domestic travel, but I’ve rarely felt out of place within America. I can blend in while hiking in Utah or lying on a Floridian beach or striding down the streets of NYC. I am at home in the US and even though accents may differ, the language does not. There is a feeling of safety for me, there is a known set of values and a relative understanding of the law. Abroad, however, these things can be fleeting. Values can differ. Language is rarely a common factor. Abroad, I know I don’t belong, which is when things get interesting.  

               “Travel is glamorous only in retrospect.” ― Paul Theroux

Walking along Omaha Beach
I speak of my travels with longing, but the truth is that they were not always enchanting at the time. I’ve run my hands through the sand at Omaha Beach. But to get there I rode in a bus with three dozen other twenty-somethings and slept in a hostel four people to a room. I’ve been to the top of a Swiss Alp, but on an overcast day, where the clouds engulfed us and the view was just fog, thousands of feet up. There were days I missed important trams and trains. There was overpriced food, and days of drenching rain. There were tears, uncertainty and the empty feeling that one can only know when thousands of miles from home.

Disappearing into the clouds in the Alps

That’s where experience comes from, the flawed days where you almost get stuck in an unknown Dutch city after dark. The days where you wake tired because the drunk Australians came back to the hostel at 2AM then snored until the sun came up. Or the day on the Brussels tram when British ex-pats make fun of your homestay mother because they thought you couldn’t understand them.  

Beautiful day in Antwerp
That’s where words come from, the experiences that are imperfect. The ones that were a trial at the time, but are now an amusing anecdote or appealing short story. Because the essence of a story doesn’t come from a pristine day hiking outside Dublin, but in the days of pouring rain and near failure. The imperfect days abroad helped shape me and my writing.


  1. I would love to see all the places you've seen! It's funny though, because I could say many of the same things, but my "getting lost somewhere foreign" involves the physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting days of being a parent (not as romantic as travelling, but very real). I could elaborate if you like, but I'll just say I could draw a LOT of parallels from what you wrote. (Being woken up at 2 am, knowing those around you don't understand your language, even feeling like you don't belong. :-))

    And yes, the days that were the most miserable or frustrating are the ones that I know could become the most amusing or important stories.

  2. Wow, that's a great comparison-- it totally makes sense! Parenting is very real, and (I'm guessing) more difficult than travel, especially since one can't (or shouldn't) just hop on a plane to leave. I'm sure the idea that the imperfect experience is more inspiring/educational/story-worthy could be applied to many other things as well. Hope you're doing well!