Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road

About an hour ago my plane full of mostly Germans and Austrians erupted into applause upon landing in D.C. I don’t know whether it was the completion of a ten hour flight, the pilot’s silver smooth landing, or that they were genuinely excited to land in America, and, more specifically, in Trump’s city of residence. The fact remains that they clapped.

As for me, my feelings were a bit less black-and-white. When we were still pretty high up and D.C. looked like a bunch of trees and fields, I couldn’t help but immediately think it looked the exact same as every European landscape I’ve flown over. But then D.C.’s admittedly wimpy skyline cropped up and I couldn’t help but feel triumphant: I had made it home

And then I saw Lowe’s, and mega-casinos with full parking lots at midday, and I saw suburbia, and mega-malls with full parking lots at midday, and so much wasted space and wasted time, and everything became a little bit more mixed again.

I must admit, however, that upon deplaning and hearing the first card-holding institutional official speak English to me in 50 days threw me off. At first I didn’t know what to do and spoke to her like a child—like I spoke to people who needed slow and clear English in Europe, aka everyone. And she just looked at me blankly, with a bit of a narrowed brow. Then I realized my mistake and walked off, laughing along my merry way. She probably thought I was crazy. 

Getting through customs was another gem—dammit, you have to enjoy sweet, sweet, American efficiency. Afterwards, I promptly indulged in some serious Auntie Anne’s cinnamon pretzel action too gratuitous for Let’s Go’s PG13 rating. But by God, by the time I finished that pretzel I felt like a proud and true red-blooded American.

 I had been struggling to decide on what my last blog would be. Generally, my blog topics demand to be written. But this time I had started and stopped three times and was beginning to get cynical about my final blog. 

While I was devouring my cinnamon pretzel and walking through the airport pondering my mixed reaction to all things ‘Murica, I came upon this moment of solace when, for once, I had a satisfying answer and it all made sense. I promise I’ll keep this blog short, so here we go. 

Central Europe has been my home for 50 days. I’ve read books by Danzigers and dabbled in the Polish pierogi, and for 50 days I have been conditioned to a very different way of life.

I was on my own the entire time—I never ate a meal with another person or spent any time walking around with another person. I was alone, and that was how I liked it: completely at the culture’s whim. And I loved it. Even when I hated it, I loved it. 

The first year of college was the hardest year of my life. And strangely enough, it was remarkably similar to my 50 days in Central Europe. I can count the amount of meals I ate with other people on three hands—I avoided the dining hall built for 1,000 students like the plague because it made me feel genuine anxiety for the first time in my life. I did not travel with anyone throughout Boston once, save my high school best friend at MIT, and it was only midway through second semester that I began developing a friendbase, but seeing as my dorm was distant from theirs and I was absurdly crammed with work, we never got close.

I was utterly alone, completely subject to Harvard’s whim. I was crushed and scared and my creativity died when my second play was widely rejected by the entire Harvard arts community without their reading it. And to be honest, though I enjoyed the schoolwork, and second semester was genuinely better, my first year of college’s abiding emotion was loneliness. And I hated it. Just as much as I loved the loneliness of Europe. 

So what the hell’s the difference? Why was one kind of loneliness satisfying, fulfilling even? Why was another painful and disappointing? 

It’s at this moment that I’m really crunching on my Auntie Anne’s when I hear a voice from my earliest days in Budapest and see Andy in Toy Story 3.

First: I hear one of my first hostelmate’s voices. I don’t remember her name, but when she found out I was 19 traveling alone for 50 days and I was only on day two, this 24-year-old felt compelled to give me some wisdom that stuck with me. “Travelling alone is the best kind of travel,” she said very solemnly. “It’s the only kind of travel where you can just…” She thought for a minute. “Hand yourself over.” 

Second: Andy. I saw myself as Andy at the end of Toy Story 3, pulling Woody, and Buzz, and Rex, and all the other toys out of a crate and handing them over to Bonnie with a few words. 

But I’ll get to this in a minute.

I first want to circle back to college. I will readily admit I did not give enough people enough chances. I was judgemental and frightened, and I felt challenged and inferior at every corner—and I rarely, very rarely felt comfortable with another schoolmate like I had in high school. I hid in my work—I took 19.5 hours with three major extracurriculars second semester, and believe me when I say I had absolutely zero free hours in a week. And as much as I enjoyed my work, as much as I grew as an academic and came to love Shakespeare and love academic writing and hate physics (plot twist, bitches) and love math, I only grew more and more scared of ever making a friend. I was ready to get vulnerable. I like to think I always was and always am. I prize vulnerability. But at Harvard, vulnerability isn’t valued. At least, that’s what I thought. I never gave people enough of a chance for me to find out for real.

In my hostelmate’s language, I never “handed myself over.” 

To put it plainly, I handed myself over in Europe. Each and every city received my undivided, beloving, most careful attention. And in return I flourished—I felt newly independent at like I had redeemed my college failure.

In many ways, my extreme enjoyment of Europe proved to me that I can do the whole college thing. I can create productive relationships. Hell, in my head I already treat Prague like an old ex-girlfriend with whom I grab lunch every now and then. If I can get that far with a city in three days, if I can be that invested in a city, why not with people? 

For now, that’s my answer to the “travelling v. tourism” question. Tourism is treating a destination like a product, something to entertain or benefit you. Traveling is treating a destination like a person, like a friend. 

And perhaps that, more than anything, is what writing for Let’s Go and spending 50 days alone in Europe has taught me. When you create the transition from tourist to traveler—and I mean that in any area of life; I was tourist to my schoolmates and traveler to Harvard—you return with gifts. 

With toys. To give to Bonnie, to give to you. Stories to grow with.

This is Olomouc. Olomouc is a curious little city. You won’t find a more comforting place to stay for two days in all of Czechia, of that I’m sure. She’s got so many churches, and to a church nerd like me, I loved her for that. Olomouc also introduced me to beer spas, and it helped me rest after 32 days of unending work. Olomouc was with me for six days, through thick and thin. I even got to see Spiderman: Far From Home feature Prague in a Czech city, watching the Spiderman-dressed crowd erupt in a roar of pride. Hopefully Olomouc helps you rest too at the midpoint of your journey. 

Meet Győr. This isn’t just any small European city—Győr is the toy whose battery always runs out. It will just never turn on. And then when you try to tinker with it and put new batteries in, it bites you. But it was the second city I went to, and every now and then, if you cross your t’s and dot your i’s, Győr’s lights will turn on, the gelato shops will open, the churches will beckon, and the restaurants will flow with food. And maybe, just maybe, Győr will whisper a secret in your ear. It has lots of secrets. And then it will turn off again, perhaps forever, taking its secrets with it into silence. 

Kraków. Say his name. Kraków. Feel the power, the weight in that name? Kraków is named after an ancient dragonslayer king. He’s an old city, a city of immense cultural and academic wealth, a city standing testament to Poland’s strength against the most unimaginable terrors of our time. Kraków turns to nature to heal its wounds, it surrounds itself in blankets of Polish countryside, rivers, and mountains, and it invites you in to its eon old-land an honored guest. 

Karlovy Vary was passed down to me from my grandparents. It’s an old toy. Most young people never even find out about Karlovy Vary. But you’ll never visit a weirder, more fascinating and fun city. My KV calls the western Czech mountains home. She hosts an international film festival every year and spouts with 13 hot spring geysers whose “healing” blood tasting water is drank by tourists in droves. KV has some of my favorite hiking paths and is where I played my first game of poker at a casino. I got lost in KV’s woods and found my way out and made friends with a Russian oligarch while eating a bagel for breakfast. I’ll readily admit Karlovy Vary is the weirdest toy I have, but I love it a lot. So please, take care of her. 

Danzig. Gdańsk. Gdańsk and Danzig. He is the twin city of history, the German and Polish seaport city who took two days to capture my heart, but then wouldn’t give it back. I only spent four days with Gdańsk, but those were some of my favorite days with any of my cities. I visited Westerplatte with Gdańsk. I windsurfed and fell over 200 times into the briny sea. I ate the single best food in Central Europe, I grew to love a thoroughly Polish old town for the first time, I went on a shopping spree for colorful European clothing, I explored the first Shakespeare theater outside of England and I gave myself to Kashubian culture through and through. Gdańsk may look like an imposing toy, but he’s really a big softie, and he’ll never fail to keep you in good spirits. 

Oh, Warsaw. You crazy, wonderful, incongruous, mess of a city. Warsaw was destroyed at the end of WWII. Completely leveled. Imagine New York City, flat. But Warsaw, she built anew.

Out with the old and in with a few skyscrapers and neighborhoods that look like they’re from completely different time periods. Warsaw is everything I love about Polish culture: She has a long memory, she’s proud and resilient and determined to recover. Warsaw is a living example of a city’s rebirth—proof that She is idea just as much as skyscrapers and tram cars. I think I may come back for Warsaw someday, maybe to stay with her. So she’s on loan to you, you don’t get to keep her. So take very good care of her, because more than any other toy, Warsaw felt like mine. And I felt like hers.

And Budapest. Sweet Budapest. He talks a big game, you know. He tells the whole world he’s a party city, and he is. But he’s an artist too. Budapest’s eye for beauty is unparalleled in all of Europe.

Luke Williams | Lets Go

Budapest would work these magical sunsets, steeping its magnificent yellow and white buildings in a golden glow, letting the light and color mature—and the air would sparkle. The Danube is Budapest’s heart, the rushing, flowing center of the small, concentrated city. So full of history and hurt, but constantly stretching and changing, never giving up on its mission to be the world’s most beautiful city. Every nook and cranny Budapest takes you to will be home to a story and a secret, and he really is the best guide. The best introduction to Central Europe. I spent my first nine days with Budapest, and have spent almost every day since thinking back to the sunsets I saw on the bank of the Danube. 

Well, that’s it. That was my trip to Europe. I hope you enjoy my toys as much as I did.

What’s that? Another one? No, I don’t have another.

Prague? What about Prague?

Okay. I do. This… This is Prague. Prague has been my pal for the last 15 days. She’s brave. Like the cultural center of Central Europe should be. And kind. And smart. But the thing that makes Prague special, is that she’ll never give up on you. Ever. When you feel suffocated by Old Town tourists, when you feel lost in a city whose massive size is unparalleled in the entire region, when you spend every day walking over 20 miles trying to learn just a little bit about her, she’ll be there for you, no matter what. Always ready to reveal a new path to be explored, a new vista to be summited, a new kind of dumpling for me to try. You can explore with Prague for months and she’ll still be there for you, waiting for you to feel like you know her. But it will take a lifetime. There’s no other city so full as Prague. 

Whoever reads Let’s Go 2020, or reads these blogs, or dreams about visiting Prague, or whoever will travel to any of these cities as a traveler, not as a tourist, this has all been for you. These are the toys I leave you with. Each and every one is incredible in its own right, and I hope my experience with each is informative and rewarding. 

As my plane landed in Washington D.C., I couldn’t help but feel something. It doesn’t really matter what it was, disdain or pride, joy or terror, a mixture of any and all. But the fact that I was returning home after 50 days stirred something inside me, and that can’t be ignored.

And as we were flying over D.C., I saw myself five, ten, twenty years from now doing the very same thing: flying back home. But this time it was after two years of being away, or four, or six, and “home” had become code for “the place where I was born.” And in those fivetentwenty years from now I was scared, just like at school, but I was excited too. I knew I’d be flying back a different person to a different home—I already am, and it’s only been 50 days. And I will be soon, come September. 

No matter what fear I felt, or what excitement crept into my smile, in the instant I saw my older self all I knew with certainty was that I would return for the better, to be better. 

I’d have plenty of new toys to share. 

The trees and hills have nothing to say.

They will keep their dreams to another day.

Service to the thaw, he wondered why,

For this was the time of no reply.

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