Sunday, March 12, 2017

Things I've learned, part 1

Today marks the official halfway point of this trip, both geographically and chronologically. I've got 8 weeks behind me and 8 ahead, and I've got one continent behind me and one ahead. So as I sit here in the airport, waiting to (essentially) leave Europe (guys, it fills me with so much existential anxiety that I don't know whether to classify russia as Europe or Asia), it seems like a good time to have a quick think about what I've learned. So here's follows a few random observations--all the things that haven't warranted their own blog post, but might be worth jotting down.

-speaking of blog posts; writing has gotten a whole lot harder since I lost (misplaced?) my Bluetooth keyboard in Venice. I've no idea whether it was taken from my room or if I left it (I don't recall if I left it out in the open during the day, and I couldn't find it checking out, but I *was* in a heck of a hurry). So that's a shame--blog posts will probably be more limited because I have to write all of them with my thumbs. Still, 8 weeks in and I've only lost a keyboard and one sock. That's some kind of minor miracle.
-I've been struggling to find the right words to express this since Morocco--I meant to do a whole post just about it (but see above re: missing keyboard)--and I'm still not sure I have them, but hey. My experiences in Morocco made me realize that, like it or not, I still carry an 'America first' narrative with me, subconsciously or otherwise--the idea that our country's narrative is the main story, and everyone else has to find a way to play into that. What do I mean? Long story short--I didn't like being in Rabat, I loved being in Marrakech. After some thinking, i realized I liked it because it was designed for me to like it. Rabat was no tourist city (i told a local i visited Rabat, and he said 'what were you doing there? That's not a city for you). Marrakech, however, was the epicenter of Moroccan tourism--the main areas were, in some ways, a pantomime of Morocco put on as a show. And this felt safe and comforting to me. It felt recognizable--because it was a version of an intimidatingly  different country that made sense in my narrative. Granted, there's nothing wrong with enjoying tourist stuff--if you exclusively avoid the beaten path you miss some amazing things--but it's worth critically examining *why* Marrakech felt so much safer and friendlier to me. This is something I'll have to work with for the rest of my trip, as I go to progressively more different places which may or may not cater to tourists. I'm hoping I'll have learnt something from Morocco and will be able to apply those lessons in, say, Mongolia or Southeast Asia. We'll see how that goes.
-it's probably for the best that I'm leaving Europe now. As amazing as Europe is, and as diverse as all these countries are, I've fallen into a bit of a rut of comparing. I'm seeing some of the most eye-popping and jaw-dropping things Europe has to offer--how can the other places compare. Too frequently I find myself being mildly disappointed that what I'm seeing isn't the best in the world. 'Sure, this is a nice museum, but is it as good as he Louvre?' 'Sure, this is a nice old town, but is it as beautiful as Salzburg?' 'Sure, this is a nice river view, but is it as nice as Budapest?' The answer is generally no--and that's not a bad thing. But after two months of seeing Europe, it's starting to blend together a bit for me. So it'll be good to change worlds, so to speak--to get somewhere for which I have no comparison.
-Lighter notes: some things I do seem totally innocuous to me, but are downright shocking to everyone around me. I was eating pizza in Rome, and the person at the next table watched me with slack-jawed disbelief. When his wife returned from the bathroom, he described to her in enthusiastic pantomime (complete with sound effects) in (what sounded to me like) Polish what I'd been doing. What had I been doing? Eating pizza with my hands, not with a knife and fork. But you know what? I will work with every cultural structure, learn about new ways of doing with joy in my heart, but I draw the line as eating pizza with a knife and fork, because some lines shouldn't be crossed. Sidebar: I think Americans are perceived as rude overseas (and overseas visitors can be perceived as rude in the USA) because we all assume that everyone has the same standard of politeness. But that's the further thing from the truth--everywhere (and everyone) has their own set of etiquette that thy assume isniniversal, and is generally broken purely by accident by re people visiting.
-quick notes on movie theaters in Europe--different and yet totally the same. In London, there were no ticket sellers; everyone used a machine. Then (in a development that would have literally killed my mother), the movie was preceded by close to 30 minutes of commercials and previews. Hungary and the Czech Republic were similar--biggest difference was that sets are reserved when you buy them. Apparently, the seats at the back are considered most desirable. I went to a theater in Prague--the guy working showed me the map of the theater and told me where the screen was. I picked a spot near-ish to the front. He looked at me, dumbfoundedly, and repeated himself: 'screen is *here*. I told him I understood. I think he ja a lot to think about when he went home that night.
-the 'off the beaten loath' sugggestjons on the jnternet are fairly ridiculous. While reading about Prague, I was told to 'skip those tourist waffles and find trdelnik, a dessert the locals love!' Sure, sounds great! I'm always up for being a dessert hipster. Much to my chagrin, however, there is a trdelnik cart on literally every street corner in the tourist sections of Prague. Don't get me wrong--trdelnik is delicious, it's like a churro-donut filled with ice cream, but off the beaten path it was not. I never did find those tourist waffles.
-an unexpected side effect of my speaking the local language: it hasn't made travel harder (yet), but it has made it slightly less fun. I loved going into every conversation like it was a tennis match, ready to serve back any language I was given. This was especially great in Morocco, where I could cycle through three or four languages in two minutes. Now I just start every conversation with a meek, poorly pronounced hello-equivalent and then try English. It's a bit of a shame.
-to that end, I decided it was a good idea to try and learn Russian just with the internet in less than a week. Spoiler alert--not so doable. It's been fun though.
-despite the fact that I have officially hit the point in my trip where I remember that I can get tired, I'm still profoundly greatful and giddy that this is my life. I will be totally exhausted and dead by May, but I went looking for an adventure and I've certainly found one.

Quick rankings
Top 5 cities this far--
1. Barcelona
2. London
3. Rome
4. Marrakech
5. either Budapest or Salzburg, depending on the minute.

Favorite experiences (can't bring myself to rank them)
-spending a whole day getting lost in the Louvre
-watching the sun set over the Thames
-finding a totally visitor-less Roman ruin in Lyon
-getting slapped with a massive Catalan culture festival in Barcelona
-haggling in the souks in Marrakech
-the Vivaldi concert in Venice
-eating dinner in the piazza Navarro in Rome
-and, of course, the overwhelming kindness and generosity of all the friends I've gotten to visit. Y'all are spectacular.

So then: 8 weeks, 11 countries, 2 planes, 1ferry, more trains than I care to count, and 585 miles walked. Wackiness.

Next up--traveling the trans-Siberian railroad, my mom's first overseas experience, visiting some of the niggest cities in the world, going back to Japan, and navigating Southeast Asia. Stay tuned.