Travel and the Art of Mental Maintenance: VIII. Broken Down Somewhere in Belgium

This is part of a series I have been working on. The Introduction is here.

I can’t remember how it was I found out that the bus had broken down. What I definitely remember is that it was extremely cold.

The bus breaking down did come several hours into a long bus trip from London. From there, we went across on a ferry from Dover to France and into Belgium. From here, the intent was to pass into Germany and then head all the way down to Munich. Continue reading “Travel and the Art of Mental Maintenance: VIII. Broken Down Somewhere in Belgium”

Travel and the Art of Mental Maintenance: II. Madrid, the Arrival

This is part of a series I have been working on. The Introduction is here.

the arrival

I was supposed to take the train from Paris to Madrid. It was one of those things that I had planned out well in advance like the responsible adult I had thought I was. I bought my Eurail pass and everything.

If I remember correctly, it was an overnight train. In the planning stages, this was a good thing because it meant a night I didn’t have to pay for a hostel.

But then, as Paris wound to a close, all the ephemeral friends I had made in my hostel there were starting to drift away… some back to their everyday lives, some onto their next adventure. The loneliness was creeping back in. The tide was coming in again.

Suddenly, an overnight train journey was starting to feel a bit too much like claustrophobia. As if the train would trap me with myself and the bleak possibility of unwanted social interaction. Loneliness is strange sometimes in that you know social interaction should be good for you, but you fear it ever-the-more intensely.

This was the beginning of a pattern that would repeat over and over while I travelled, in one of those unearthly hybrids of art and mathematics.

So I looked up Ryanair. It was something absolutely absurd (like only 20 Euros) to fly from Paris to Madrid. So I booked it. I get irresponsible with money when faced with potentially anxiety-ridden situations. Anything to avoid it. Take my money. I booked a flight leaving that night. It would get into Madrid at about midnight.

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I took the Metro to the dying embers of central Paris where I had to catch a coach to this tiny little airport, the name of which eludes me. It was one big room lined with vending machines on one side, and windows on the other. You could watch the rickety planes come in and airport staff push the staircases up to them. For someone who grew up in a city with a major airport, this felt like time travel. As it I would see The Beatles descend at any moment. A pretentious, privileged thought, but one I had all the same.

Ryanair doesn’t book seats. It’s a free-for-all. I would come to learn the best entrance strategy (always go for the back set of stairs; most people rush the first), but at this point, I just went with the crowd.

I had my Lonely Planet travel guide and I spent the flight plotting my route from the airport to the hostel in Madrid. Easy peasy, it looked. Just one metro line, with one change. Doneskis.

But by about one in the morning, I discovered that part of the Madrid Metro was down for maintenance. I had to find the surface and find a shuttle bus. I got on the wrong one.

When I realized something was wrong (which took an embarrassingly long time), I got off the bus, and hailed a cab. I handed the address to a hostel over to the driver and he took one look at it and gave me a long, tired look. Without a word, he started driving.

Madrid in the middle of the night is an odd place. It is funny to compare it to other cities, especially my own, Vancouver, which shuts down at about one-thirty am, just after the last Skytrain pulls out of downtown.

Madrid is one of those cities that goes all night. Sure, it’s quieter than during the day. But there’s still stuff going on. It feels like an underground of sorts. Like you’re somehow complicit in this secret world.

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By two-thirty am, the cab pulled up at the end of a long alley. It was wide enough to know that it was a viable walkway, but narrow enough that the cab driver silently said no fucking way.

I gave the cab driver a look as if to ask where the hell am I supposed to go?

He pointed down this Spanish Knockturn Alley and said, “Down. Just little. On left.”

“Thanks.”

He looked solemn. By now, I had assumed this was his natural state of being, solemnity, but as I opened the cab door, he said, “Careful. Bad town. Very bad.”

I had sincerely wished he’d not said that. How could this have helped? Like now I could watched out for maniacs but before I would have embraced them with open arms? Did he think I was expecting the residents of Spanish Knockturn Alley to break out into a rendition of the Lollipop Guild at my arrival?

I side-stepped a few leering types, but I made it to the hostel unscathed. I managed to get a room and snuck up to it quietly, tiptoeing amongst the already asleep. So as not to cause unnecessary noise, I slipped off my shoes and slid into the bed fully clothed.

As tired as I was after such a long day, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t even close my eyes. I pulled the blanket up to my chin and stared at the underside of the bunk above me. My heart was pounding. I could feel my pulse in my ears.

Holy shit! How had I taken the events of the evening in such stride? I had been stranded in the middle of the night in a foreign city I had not even seen in the daylight. And I had been alone. Completely alone. No one had known I was even in the country.

How stupid could I have been?

Once I replayed everything over in my mind, it was impossible to calm myself down. I had to repeat over and over: You’re safe now. Calm the hell down. It’s over.

It was a strange day, but an important one. I realized I could handle it. Things would be thrown at me and I only had myself to rely on. But I could handle it.

And maybe I needed to be a little bit more responsible with myself… and my money. But I wouldn’t learn that lesson until years later.

Travel and the Art of Mental Maintenance: I. Paris, Versailles

This is part of a series I have been working on. The Introduction is here.

Versailles

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A few days into Paris—before the Australians, the honeymooners, the college kids, and the life-traveller; after the three asshole partiers, Matthieu from Montreal, and the nameless guy from Newport Beach—I decided to check out the Palace of Versailles. It was outside of the city and I was told to set aside a whole day. I took an RER train, nervously, I might add. This was still my first experience in navigating a non-English speaking public transit system that wasn’t as easily colour-coded as the Métro. I had been nervous about following the map from the train station to the palace, even if it was only a few blocks.

I didn’t have to be.

Continue reading “Travel and the Art of Mental Maintenance: I. Paris, Versailles”

Travel and the Art of Mental Maintenance: IV. Casablanca

This is part of a series I have been working on. The Introduction is here.

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I was exhausted and burnt out. For short trips, you rally. But backpacking is a marathon.

I dyed my hair from blonde to brown before I left Vancouver because I knew I was going to Morocco, and I’d heard warnings—mostly I’d ignored them, but my mother also heard those warnings. If she felt better, I could deal. However, it faded back into a dark blonde by the time I arrived in North Africa.

Continue reading “Travel and the Art of Mental Maintenance: IV. Casablanca”

Travel and the Art of Mental Maintenance: I. Paris, the Five Types of Travellers

This is part of a series I have been working on. The Introduction is here.

the five types of travellers

paris

My first week in Paris was a crash course in backpacking. The first day, wandering from my hostel along Rue Moufftard down to Place St. Michel, took me onto the Ile de la Cite, towards Notre Dame.

I’d been expecting a cathedral, damn it.

And that’s what I got.

Continue reading “Travel and the Art of Mental Maintenance: I. Paris, the Five Types of Travellers”

The Commencement of Commencement Advice Commences

There’s nothing more useless than unsolicited advice. 

I was going to preface that with When you’re young, but it’s really applicable to all ages. Unsolicited advice simply comes at a much greater frequency when you’re young.

As I age (like a slowly ripening then rotting apple; that is the metaphor I’ve chosen to age by), I understand this frequency. You get very caught up in feeling that you’ve finally figured somethings out. You feel wise at last. You’ve deconstructed the follies of your youth and learned from them. And thus the desire to share that wisdom is strong.

But don’t. Just… don’t. You cannot really be wise with your advice unless you know whether or not people want it. Do not forget when you were young and people tried to give you advice. There’s a fine line between advice and decree.

Continue reading “The Commencement of Commencement Advice Commences”

Travel and the Art of Mental Maintenance: Introduction

This is the introduction of what I hope will become a series / retrospective project / diary-after-the-fact / examination of memory-and-place-and-all-that-jazz. All the links to other posts about specific adventures and places are/will be below.

Whenever you get back from a long bout of travelling, the world always feels different (at least for a little while, until reality sets in again). For me, however, the world really was different. I was gone from August to November 2008. I have always meant to write more meaningfully about this trip. I’ve touched on bits and pieces here and there, but alas… I’ve never put together something huge.

I imagined that one day it would all be complete, as if I was filling in the pieces on a puzzle that would one day reveal the big picture. It seemed so easy, when I thought of it. That I would be able to simply sit and write. I would start at day one and then it would unfurl from there like a pulling the thread on a sweater.

Continue reading “Travel and the Art of Mental Maintenance: Introduction”

Black Paintings in a White Wing

Sometime in the late summer of 2008 – right before the crash – I was in Madrid. Madrid is home to one of my bucket list items (if I actually had a bucket list): Picasso’s Guernica.

Housed in the Museo Reina Sofia, Guernica is an absolutely astonishing sight to behold. The impact of such a piece comes not only from its imagery – rendered starkly in monochrome – but also in its sheer size.

I truly thought no other work of art would ever provoke such an emotional and visceral reaction from me. I actually gasped, my breath catching in my throat the moment I stepped into the gallery space. “Nothing will top this,” I thought, “Ever.”

But Madrid had a lesson in wait: checking items off a bucket list is one thing, but the moments that truly take us by surprise are often far more rare, and far more valuable.

Continue reading “Black Paintings in a White Wing”

So We’ve Yet to Find a Decent World Map with South Sudan

For my sixth birthday, my grandparents bought me globe. It sat on the desk, tilted at that attractive, precarious angle. I loved that the mountain ranges were palpable beneath my fingertips. Their intention with this gift was to aid my transition into the realm of proper education. I had just begun the first grade.

This was late September 1989.

Within two months, the globe was out of date in the most drastic way possible. (Until global warming inevitably creates Waterworld: The Sequel.) The Berlin Wall fell and half the Soviet Union descended into capital-R Revolution.

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But we never got another globe. That was the one we had in our house for years. Just this little piece of history, rotating slowly, collecting dust.

Continue reading “So We’ve Yet to Find a Decent World Map with South Sudan”