Monday, February 13, 2017

4 weeks down, 12 to go--some thoughts on the first quarter

So one quarter of my trip--29 of 113 days--is officially gone, which means I thought it best to take a moment to reflect on what's happened thus far. Although 84 days seems like a mammoth amount of time to continue living out of a backpack, I can tell already that it's going to slip by faster than I can even imagine--even the four weeks thus far have gone like the blink of an eye.

This is a doubly good time to take a step back, in that it's something of the end of a chapter in this trip. Until now, I've spent all of my time in Western Europe in countries in which I have at least some passing familiarity with the language. And while the UK, Germany, Austria, France, and Spain are all wonderful in their own individual ways, their worlds are not so far removed from the reality I normally inhabit, nor are they worlds that I'm incapable of navigating. This changes tomorrow as I set off on a two-day trip that ends with me standing, befuddled, on a train platform in Rabat, Morocco. Morocco is the first country I'll be in in which A) I don't at least somewhat speak the main language, B) is the first country I'll be in which doesn't use an alphabet I can read, and C) is the first country I'll be in whose culture completely diverges both from the one in which I was raised and the ones I've been touring up until now.

So it'll be an adventure. Until then, here are some brief impressions on what I've seen thus far.

-One thing that I absolutely can't capture in pictures is that each city speaks its own language--not just the people, but the buildings and the architecture. Everywhere I go is different in some subtle, ineffable way that doesn't show up in pictures, but is nevertheless present. It's the way that London is like a brownstone neighborhood of New York City if it had been sent back a few centuries in a time machine and then never washed again. Salzburg is the inside of an easter basket--all pastels and presents and chocolates, but then you look in a shop window and the Easter Bunny turns around and kicks you in the stomach. If the girl who was always at Hot Topic was given an unlimited supply of concrete and a children's primer on urban decay, Berlin is the city she'd have created--a defiantly ugly sprawling vivacious mess. Paris is like walking inside a miniature model of a city. And Barcelona is the sound a dress makes as it floats on the air, permanently outside of time. And this is to say nothing of the little towns I've been to, Fuessen (what the inside of Walt Disney's head probably looked like) or Rouen (if the Halloween and Valentine's Day sections of your local grocery store had a baby) or Lyon (a world in sepia). Pictures don't cut it, and I'm not sure words do either, but it's a heck of a thing to stand in it.
-Translators have one of the world's most important jobs. I eating dinner with a friend, her sister, and said sister's boyfriend, and we all did our best to communicate, but one thing led to another and the three of us ended up looking to my friend--the only one at the table who spoke both English and French very well. And without her, we couldn't have communicated the way we did--we'd have stumbled along, and stared manically into each other's faces, but it wouldn't have come to as much. Translating is an act of construction, and it's a vital one.
-that being said--good grief has everyone been patient with my language skills. No one tried to speak English with me in Germany, and they were just as patient in France; the only time someone switched to English (in a conversation that started in French) was after I said "I'm so sorry, my French is terrible." Even my atrocious high school Spanish has managed here and there. So people *are* willing to do their best to communicate if you can meet them somewhere along the way.
-it's too early to be sick of hostels, but hey, here we are. Hostels are fine, but I am so happy when I stay with a friend and I don't have to do everything in the dark, surrounded by nine strangers.
-speaking of friends: I probably need to come up with two different categories--'favorite city visited alone' and 'favorite city with a guide. I can get plenty out of a city on my own, but it pales in comparison to what I get to see and do with someone who knows their way around. SO massive, massive thanks to all the people strewn across Western Europe who've helped me along thus far.

A few stats:
I have visited:
               -6 countries (UK, Belgium, Germany, Austria, France, Spain)
               -heard 7 languages commonly used (Icelandic [during my layover in Reykjavik], English, Flemish, German, French, Spanish, and Catalan) (not to say anything of the smattering of other languages I've heard spoken by other tourists or locals--I think I've heard just about every language by now, but most common are Chinese and Arabic)
             -used two different currencies (the pound and the euro). I'm finally starting to figure out the euro coins, which of course means that I'll be switching currencies in two days.
            -number of cathedrals/basilicas/churches seen: 18 (two in London, one in Winkel, two in Salzburg, two in Berlin, two in Paris, two in Rouen, one in Chartres, one in Voiron, two in Lyon, and three in Barcelona). I'm probably forgetting a few. I've seen a lot of cathedrals. Points to Westminster Abbey in London for being the most historically interesting, points to Salzburger Dom for having the most intricate interiors, points to the Rouen cathedral for the best facade, and points to the Sagrada Familia for being the first time just looking at something pretty has made me cry.
            -number of museums seen: 10 (the British Museum and the Tate Modern in London, the Austrian military history museum in Salzburg, the Topographie des Terrors in Berlin, the Louvre in Paris, the Joan of Arc museum in Rouen, the movie props and miniatures museum and the museum of fine arts in Lyon, and the Museum of Barcelona History and the Maritime Museum in Barcelona). The Louvre wins all of these contests in a walk.
            -Favorite city thus far: easily Barcelona. Far and away Barcelona. I decided Barcelona was my favorite city about two hours after getting here, and nothing I've seen in the past 4 days has changed my mind.
           -favorite moments: walking along the Thames as the sun went down in London, spending 8 hours strolling the Louvre, happening on Roman ruins in Lyon and getting them all to myself, and seeing the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona
          -best meal: Again, Barcelona (sorry Elise)--I have a bunch of options here, but I think I've got to go with the tapas we got the first night I was here--a huge variety of food, the names of which I've generally forgotten, but the octopus was a standout.

So that's that--tomorrow I leave for Morocco, which means that by Wednesday I will have left the relative familiarity of Western Europe in favor of something new. And I can't wait. ...but I should probably figure out how to say "please help me, I have no idea what's going on" in Moroccan Arabic.

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