Tourist to Traveler

I made my way up to main house attached to my modest yet perfectly comfortable apartment, where my host lived with her family. The door was open in preparation for my arrival and there was a child in underwear shrieking with joy about something; whatever brand-new beautiful thing his mind dreamed up, not yet crushed by the callousness of reality. A friendly woman approached the door when I came into view and smiled warmly, then was accompanied by my elderly host. I handed over the keys and then a man came to the door as well, a man with a face nearly identical to my host’s. He introduced himself as Boris, the man with whom I had been communicating for the past few days. We had a friendly exchange during which he translated for his mother, the host, about how polite and well-mannered I am, and he asked me about my further travel plans. “Portugal is beautiful,” he said with a drag of a hand-rolled cigarette. “The good thing about Europe is the division, you don’t get it in the States.” An exaggerated exhale. “Here in Europe, we all want to be the best. We want to be better than our neighbors. It makes for a beautiful travel experience.”

After a gracious goodbye, I grabbed my bags and set off down the broken cobblestone streets to the bus station, about a mile away. I could have taken a cab, but I needed the exercise. Cliff-jumping didn’t burn nearly as many calories as all the wine, bread and pasta consumed in the previous four days equaled. The sun was beating down on me in the eight o’clock light; a side of the sun I hadn’t seen in Croatia, a type of heat and humidity through which I had always slept. I was, though an ultrarunner, finding myself losing my breath.

Finally, I made my way to the bus station where people were all clotted every which way and suitcases served as roadblocks to foot traffic. It felt almost like the end of the world, or the end of the world as I always imagine: everyone trying their hardest to remain calm but at the same time frantically dash out of town. Everyone was sweating. Skinny girls wore “I LOVE SPLIT” tank tops sold by the vendors at kiosks all over town. Women wore sun hats and fanned themselves with their bus tickets. Men had scruffy, tan faces indicative of a holiday in the sun; far from the oppressive blades of the required razors of their work worlds. And I had on jeans, a long-sleeved popover, and glasses, hair in a topknot. I always dress for where I’m going, not from where I’ve been. And yet, feeling the heat infiltrate my clothes and begin to soak them through, I wondered if perhaps, today, I should have amended my adherence to my own personal protocol. I bought a ticket to the local airport for 33 kunas and waited, silently, among all the other passengers, just trying to evacuate.

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I finally got on the bus, air-conditioned and cushy, and sat next to an Australian. I asked him if I could sit down in the next seat, and he responded, “Yeh, of course,” with a strong accent, yet I knew he was Australian as soon as I saw him. Either Australian, or an American going to great lengths not to be recognized; he had the quintessential Aussie appearance. Shoulder-length blonde hair matted in mussed-up curls, a thick beard to match. A sun-faded red snapback and a dirty white tank top. Cargo shorts. It was everything that the movies depicted of an Australian twenty something. We didn’t speak on the way to the airport. He was too enraptured with the Croatian countryside for conversation, and I took a nap, feeling like I had been tossed in a saltwater brine and laid out to dry (which–I suppose–I was, for all intents and purposes).

I was headed back to Frankfurt for the night before departing for Porto in the morning. The snag here was that my flight to Porto is a Ryanair flight, and they’re too cheap to operate out of the whale that is Frankfurt International Airport (FRA). Instead, they use a smaller airport (HHN) that, despite having “Frankfurt” in the name, is closer to Belgium than Frankfurt. My original plan was to just stay in FRA overnight, utilizing the luxury of a 24-hour Delta Sky Club, and take a bus to HHN in the morning. And yet, my fatigue and general weariness was winning the battle against my brain. The Sky Club was in the opposite terminal, and I wouldn’t be able to get there without going through security. I conceded to hotels.com and looked at the silver lining: at least I could get a reward night and some extra reward points on my credit card. I booked this random airport hotel with a €7 unlimited shuttle, which, in the jam-packed departures terminal of Split’s airport, took me about thirty minutes on the spotty wifi.

Soon enough, I was Copenhagen. I’ve had an unrequited love affair with Denmark for the past few years, ever since I read that it’s the happiest country on earth. I’ve wanted to move there, to start anew, to cultivate this happiness that seems to flow through the airwaves and innately affect the Danish people, for a while now. Just being in the airport made me feel lighter, more ethereal. I had a nearly four-hour layover, and I didn’t mind at all. I came to a sort of mental clarity while I waited for my flight to Frankfurt. I did the thing I swore vehemently that I would never do: I contacted all the people that I had deleted from my life in hasty attempts to improve my mood at the time. I can hold a grudge until I die and I’m stubborn to a fault. But I realized in the airport in Copenhagen that holding all that negative energy doesn’t translate to me cutting people out of my life like cancer; it becomes a cancer in itself. And so, I made amends. And while some of the people didn’t want to hear it, the fact that I did my part to improve the social climate made me feel better. The ball of humility was no longer in my court.

And then I locked eyes with Daniel Radcliffe.

I saw him and he saw me. My brain registered, “Oh, Daniel Radcliffe, okay,” as he walked by with two men. And then, I made an immediate U-turn in my steps, following the trio in a manner that I hoped was subtle but was, more than likely, humiliatingly obvious. He pointed outside and they exited through a door to the sunny smoking patio. I went to the door and decided to ask him if I could bum a cigarette. Then I remembered that I don’t smoke. I thought that it might be worth it, just for a picture, just for the story. Then I realized that that was 100% crazy. I backed away from the door, bought a pack of Malboro Reds (my sister’s brand) labeled with a government-ordained “SMOKING KILLS” label, and a hot pink lighter, heading out to the patio.

The wind was whipping around me, a perfect excuse to stick my face in a corner and pretend to light the cigarette. I lit it, refusing to inhale, then turned around to this posse of people to whom I couldn’t relate, an outsider wondering if her behavior was utterly distinguishable as that of an imposter. I walked up the stairs to the second level, wondering what to say, how to mingle. And yet…there was no Daniel Radcliffe. No two men. There was a separate stair on the other side of the upper level that led directly down to the airstrip. Sighing, I realized that I was not going to be able to talk to Daniel Radcliffe. Oh well, he looked into my eyes. I stamped out the cigarette and put it in the disposal bin, tucking the cigarettes and lighter in a zipper-compartment of my purse.

Hours later, I was checked into my hotel in Frankfurt and headed back to the airport. I didn’t want to sit in the room. I wanted to go out, I wanted to walk in the lights and the night. I bought a subway ticket and waited for a train underground, studying the daunting map of Frankfurt’s metro system. I took the metro before, but I was led around by Patrick. I didn’t know where to go or what to do, but I referenced the catalogue of my memory to a street in the city center where we went a week prior and got off there. The scene was drastically different from the society-soaked street I was shown seven days beforehand. It was about 22:30, and the sidewalks were scant, inhabited, it seemed, only by those under the age of thirty in search of a good time. I made my way up to the panoramic viewing platform to get a view of Frankfurt by night. It was chilly outside, and my stomach was growling. After a quick survey of this city and all its illumination, I headed back down to Hauptwache in search of food.

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blind me baby with your neon lights

 

The street was damp and in its wetness, it gleamed under the golden lights of the street lamps. It was picturesque in a cinematic sort of way: a woman walking alone in a different country, on a different continent than where she was born, just trying to breathe it all in. That’s really what I was doing. Even if I hadn’t found anything to do, even if every business establishment had shut its doors for the evening, all I really wanted to do was walk and feel the city streets beneath my velveteen French bulldog flats. Walking gets me back to what’s important in life, walking is primal, it’s the best way to get to know the unfamiliar; be it a new city or a new person. Go take a walk and learn something new.

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I found a Thai restaurant on a side street and despite the kitchen closing in fifteen minutes, the owner graciously welcomed me. He turned away a potential four-top, but I was ushered inside. I ordered some sort of vegetable/tofu/noodle dish and sipped lychee wine, talking and laughing with the owner as the clock ticked along to midnight. There are no pictures, because this was the kind of meal and company that transcends petty images captured with an iPhone, only cheapened by the pause for documentation. As I made my tipsy departure into the black Frankfurt night–a far cry from the last time I ventured into the night alone in Germany–the rain began to fall. The owner of the Thai place popped out and gave me a newspaper to hold over my head until I could get to the dry, underground train station a block or so away. In that moment, Frankfurt was transformed in my mind from a place of unceremonious discord to a place where a near-stranger cared enough to run out into the rain to give me a makeshift umbrella for a 100 meter walk. The kindness of man will always prevail, if you let it.

Within the dry and welcoming arms of the Kornstablerwache subway stop, I studied the map of the local railway; how it branched out in different colors and directions like Frankfurt itself had veins. I didn’t know the different between S-Bahn and U-Bahn, and I didn’t know what the colors of the subway lines meant. Everything was, of course, in German. But the thing with subways is that, regardless of country or language, they’re all the same. They follow the map, and you just have to crack their own individual codes. Find where you are, find where you want to go, and follow the lines. I looked at the digital arrivals screen and located the end destination on the map, noting the code next to the German town name and realizing, all at once like a bump on the head, that the code denoted the color of the subway line on the map. Using this information, I was able to unlock the mystery of which train I needed to take and waited eleven minutes, getting on and sitting down, careful to subdue my satisfaction with my late-night critical thinking skills. It may not mean anything to some, but I spent my formative years in rural Alabama. The first time I rode a subway was in 2011 when, in a swirl of trepidation, I had my eyes glued to my routing app as I rocketed underneath Boston on a day that was simply too icy to complete my usual MO of just walking wherever I needed to go. Now I’ve navigated my way through Prague and Frankfurt, two countries where the landscape and language escape me, and to me, that means the world. Literally. It means being able to see a city in a different way; the way locals see it.

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“You can’t understand a city without using its public transportation system.” -Erol Ozan

 

And then, sitting in my seat and looking as entrenched in existential malaise as all the Germans with whom I was sharing the train, a couple got on and sat in the two seats opposite of me in the four-person pod. They were blond and gorgeous, each of them. They looked so typically German and yet, as they looked around them, their expressions were shrouded in confusion. Maybe they were tourists in their own country. The husband spoke English in a thick Southern accent and I felt a blast of nostalgia for my hometown. Not that I wanted to return, per se, but a reminder that it exists. That I used to be there, under the Alabamian sun, and now I’m here, on a German train in the middle of the night at twenty-three years old.

They were lost. I kept my distance, wanting to help but fearing that I would come up unsuccessful, just as confused as they were. Finally, the wife asked me if I spoke English. I smiled a knowing smile and said, “Yeah, I’m American too. Where are you trying to go? I might not be of much help, but I can try.”

They were going to the airport as well, so I told them to stick with me. I explained the color key on the map, and their graciousness was on par with how I felt when the restaurant owner gave me his newspaper. And me, feeling like I could help someone else find their way around a place that’s just as foreign to me; I felt, in that moment, like I had really and truly graduated from tourist to traveler.

We talked the entire ride about traveling; the wife used to live in Frankfurt when she was very young, and the husband was enjoying his first trip across the pond. As we got more deep into out conversation (as the airport was a good few stops into the black and rainy distance), they asked where I’ve been. I started listing countries and their eyes widened. “You’re really a traveler, aren’t you?” the husband said. I chuckled, laughed it off, but the truth is that it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard it. In Montréal, sitting on the terrace of a bar in the company of two strangers with whom I struck up a conversation (one Canadian, one Lebanese), I was told that I was really “well-traveled for an American.” The truth is that while I have traveled, I have seen different pieces and parts of the world we all share, I don’t consider myself well-traveled by any means. I still feel like there’s so much more to explore, so much more to uncover; that I’ve only scratched the surface. But, unfortunately, for most Americans, I would be considered well-traveled. And yet, in my mind’s eye, I’m still the dreaming kid from Alabama, poring over maps and planning vacations that I knew, as a teenager, I’d never have the chance to take.

IMG_2768.JPG We said our goodbyes and I slinked back to my hotel, awash in the energy of the night and feeling a new relationship to Germany and life as a whole. My, how things can change. Also, Daniel Radcliffe looked into my eyes.

 

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