One fateful night in Switzerland, as we rounded the bases of Europe, a new friend and fellow globetrotter asked a serious question over a not-so-serious pot of bubbling cheese. Passing a square of bread into the abyss he inquired, “When we travel, are we searching for ourselves or are we finding ourselves?”
I had been grappling with my own existential version of this for the last few weeks yet I failed to offer an enlightened response.
Rewind to one month earlier: Zan and I were just setting out for an inspired seven week journey through Portugal, Spain, France, Switzerland, Sicily and Italy. Armed with my sketchbook and a bundle of new pens, the plan was to be at once totally immersed while floating above myself. I wanted to record everything as it unfolded, know where every interaction would lead before it began, tuck it neatly into the next as if it were happening to some idealized, fictional character gliding effortlessly alongside me.
And though our time was filled with extraordinary moments of discovery and self reflection, I forgot to leave room for the ordinary.
Some days we moved like we were blindfolded, tripping on minor adversities like stumbling through an agitated crowd. We maneuvered uncomfortable menus and impatient drivers, hit walls of cigarette smoke, unrelenting heat and confusing odors. We strained to interpret train schedules in another language, to convert kilometers to miles, meters to feet, Celsius to Fahrenheit, 24 hours to standard time...
How could I find myself in all this mania?
When would I even have time to look?
I started to panic. I wanted to start over, to be better prepared. I wanted everything to be better than I could have imagined or, if not, at the very least, as good.
I wanted the journey to be more riveting than a movie, more grandiose than a photograph, more romantic than a love song.
But none of this was reasonable, let alone possible, all of the time.
I didn’t look perfect in the photographs — not taller or thinner or more elegant. I had tired eyes and bad hair days. My wardrobe was neither trendy nor timeless and most certainly not hanging on the younger, fitter body I always dreamed I’d bring to Europe.
But this was me in the best of times, the best of places, doing my best. Moving and alive, constantly reconciling the familiar with the new. The only thing that could bring me satisfaction was letting that be enough.
One fateful night lying in a strange but comfortable bed, door open, breeze blowing patiently through unfamiliar trees, I began to sob uncontrollably. I was no longer confused.
I needed to let the little things get lost in translation so that I could learn to be present, without judgement.
After that night, I planned less, relaxed more and laughed without caution. I turned off the phone, tore pages from my sketchbook and put away the camera.
I opened up and out to others, sat at new tables and embraced my good fortune.
Was I searching for myself or was I finding myself?