This post was originally published on Beacon Reader, an experiment in crowdsourced publishing that has subsequently ceased to exist. RIP Beacon Reader.
I’d forgotten what it was like to get dirty—not New York City grime-sticking-to-your-face-that-you-have-to-scrape-off-with-your-fingernails-in-the-shower, dirty. But filthy from a day of intense adventuring while discovering new things that inspire, horrify and delight you, then asking yourself why and pulling these threads out to examine them like a monkey fishing with a stick in a termite mound. Travel grime is different from monotonous life grime. It is the debris that coats your skin throughout the night and day so that when you run your hand over your shoulder, the dead lucky cells that got to experience this moment in time for their fleeting two week existence ball up and tumble away to make room for the new person you’re becoming.
Shedding my first layer of travel skin, away go the Moscow mules that liberated themselves through my pores while I danced to the frantic beats of Czech industrial techno in the smokey basement of a District 7 club until 4am; the smoke and pheromones of the two Italian men who serenaded me throughout the cab ride back to their apartment in the New Town and reminded me what I missed most about Europe until the sun rose, cooled by wind from the racing cab back home to my quiet neighborhood, pressed into my clean white hotel sheets while I slept for an hour and half before getting the call to run to the train station; the intense summer sun threatening to burn all the way through a country town once ravaged by plague, and the deathly cold air of the castles and churches housing calcified skulls silently screaming “mememto mori” at you through their hollow eye sockets. Away goes the borrowed sunscreen I put on that morning, and finally, the top coat of pollen from the thousands of new plants flying through windows greeting me whether I liked it or not on the wrong train back to Prague.
Last night when I came home to my little attic room, it felt like home rather than a dream for the first time in the 10 days I’ve been abroad. The paranoia prompted by last Saturday’s morning terror walk has morphed to the cool vigilance of a body on alarm ‘standby’ mode, being alert but not afraid. The Czech people I’ve met have both snubbed and enchanted me, the later far more than the former, but the former far less so than the average New Yorker (even myself) would do to a stranger stopping them in the night to ask for directions in a foreign language.
On June 11th, I took my morning coffee up from the breakfast hall to read Kafka in the garden, when Dragona, the desk clerk of my hotel—the nice one, not the mean guy who scolds us for taking breakfast dishes back to our rooms—came outside.
“I know it’s your birthday so I wanted to give you this.” She thrust the box into my hands. I looked at it for a minute, confused.
“It’s not my birthday,” I laughed, handing it back to her, but she made no motion to accept it.
“Maybe I mixed up your room number again.”
“Well here, give this to whoever’s birthday it is.”
“No keep it, I’ll get them another one.” She smiled mischievously at me retreated back to the desk. I opened my book again and imagined K. fussing at the inquisition in his living room for a few minutes, then Dragona reemerged.
“I figured it out. In your country you write month first then day, but here we do opposite.” It was true: today, June 11, was the inverse of my November 6 birthday. Once again I tried to give back the mistaken chocolates and again she refused.
“No, keep. It’s your birthday here today.”
Sometimes when you’re so far away, the smallest of gestures mean the world. So to celebrate, I gave myself the gift of beginning the process of shedding my old life and throwing myself at the mercy of the travel gods once again. While initially I was concerned, I’ve decided that it doesn’t matter that there are more Americans in my close proximity than I would usually prefer while traveling—it won’t stop me from doing what I can’t help but doing and exploring all the strange and unfamiliar aspects of new places, sometimes to the discomfort of others who would very much prefer to remain in their turtle shell of familiarity among the novel. I’ve fallen back into my mode of being the one who endures the journey, calm and collected, when everyone else is distraught by the question marks and feel compelled to ask a million questions no one knows the answer to instead of being useful and trying to figure it out themselves. The ones who haven’t will let go of their old skin too, eventually.
Fully acclimated, I’m starting to think I’m much better at being European than I am at being American, or maybe I’m just better at being me here. I’ve been smiling secret smiles at the little quirks that others may take as a point of frustration: that there’s no wall mount for the shower head in our hotel; the lack of prohibition of every kind of smoking in all establishments; the slow (by comparison to NYC, but everything is) service in restaurants; the refusal of some Czech people to speak English and the resulting confusion that unfolds and ropes in nearby bilingual strangers; the heat of a windowless train car; the uneven cobblestone; the subway doors that don’t open automatically—EVEN, even, the hotel WiFi going out periodically so that I am forced to read a book instead. They’re all just more puzzles to solve that lubricate the chronically underused parts of my brain.
After all, as Richard Grant recently wrote in an op-ed on Aeon Magazine:
Travel enables us to see our own culture more clearly, by contrasting it against others. And here we must make a distinction between travel, which takes the traveller out of his or her comfort zone, and tourism, which strives to maximize comfort and familiarity in a foreign setting. A good travel experience is not relaxing, but stimulating and taxing. The senses are on full alert. The mind struggles to keep up with the bombardment of unfamiliar data, the linguistic difficulties, the puzzles and queries and possible threats.
Ten days in, I’m physically changing back into my traveling self. My calves are expanding and my boobs are shrinking. I’ve shed five pounds of my New York City hibernation fat. I’m remembering that I am a hunter just as much as I am a gatherer, and that I can find anything I’m looking for in this world, even if I don’t quite know what it is yet. I’m sleeping normally again, which for me involves exploring in the afternoon, working in the evening, taking a nap and hunting for new delights until the light of dawn. I don’t feel guilty for it here.
The delights are everywhere: Czech coffee is served on a silver platter with a shot of water; the guy riding his bicycle while smoking a Sherlock Holmes pipe; knock-off snacks named “Love” instead of “Dove” and “Capri Sonne” instead of “Capri Sun”; the little poodle that stopped to pee in the post-rain grass while balancing completely on its front paws, and its owners amused face when she saw the contempt for this act of canine bourgeois behavior that I didn’t bother to conceal on mine; finding my local grocery store and discovering produce so fresh there’s dirt in the lettuce and $2.50 rosé; the mystery of why every third man here is named ‘Jan’—and how it’s apparently “the same name” as ‘Honza’, and learning from a Slovak couple over a midnight spliff that these Jans are known for wearing socks with their sandals.
I didn’t think I would ever miss the weird way the top of my feet itch after a day of walking until I’m ready to collapse. But I did. I missed it all. This is how I’m meant to live—filling my mind with new observations and getting fucking dirty all the time while doing it. Once home, I drew a lukewarm bubble bath and submerged myself in it, wiggling out of my old skin along with all the well-earned grime so I can steep my new self it all over again.