“Well, I flew into Warsaw and then tripped down through Eastern Europe—Budapest, Romania, Bulgaria, to Istanbul—and then down to Greece where I worked for a month. Now I’m tripping back up to Warsaw to fly home: Milan, through the Alps and Zurich to Munich, to Prague, and back to Poland. You?”
She lists off her countries, her companions, the buses, the trains, the travel woes. “And then we were on the train from Copenhagen and we didn’t know you had to take a ferry. And it was two hours—we thought it was 45 minutes and were wondering why people brought their sleeping bags—in the middle of the night!” Amsterdam. Berlin. Santorini.
“Munich’s not worth it.”
“There’s nothing to see in Athens. It’s dirty.”
“I loved Budapest. You have to go.”
What makes a city, a monument, a park worth seeing? How are “better” and “worse” quantified? Who determines how much time is “enough” to see a city, a country—and what “seeing” it means?
The bus to Munich dragged. The couple behind me spoke English.
“You’re trying the wi-fi again?”
“I can check—”
“We’re five minutes from the station.”
“I know, but—”
“You don’t remember the name of the hotel?”
“No. It’s four words. We’ll check at the station.”
“You didn’t write it down?”
“We should have.”
I have had that conversation with myself as many times as my train sighs into the station, my bus pulls into its space, my plane lands on the tarmac. Traveling is stressful, even for those of us who do it compulsively. How much money will this cost—should this cost—can this cost—if I am willing to sacrifice comfort? (I am the frugal traveler.) It’s a constant barrage of logistics: couch surfing addresses, money exchanges, train schedules, station transfers, when, where, how, and what am I going to do when I get there?
The why of it all is balled up with the socks at the bottom of my bag.
As a writer, I want to say I’m haunted by this question—why do we travel?—but just as with a list of faraway cities, the word “haunted” paints a haughty veneer. Even “travel” is a veneer. It’s scheduled wandering. Falling with style. Any city is little more than a city: someone else’s home. In reality I’m not “haunted” by the why of travel so much as annoyed by its insistence on being answered.
As Frederick Buechner wrote in Alphabet of Grace, “If an angel of God were to appear suddenly, the eyes that I beheld its glory with could light up little brighter than at the smell of coffee brewing in the morning.”
I have been more excited for bagels than the Parthenon.
And yet I travel. On rickety train rides I feel myself searching for beauty, for peace, for unity, for something Good. My feet walk when they should stop. Where others might dally, I plow forward. When I walk, I walk up mountains. I want to rest. But my feet don’t know how.
Again, Buechner: “Waking into the new day, we are all of us Adam on the morning of creation, and the world is ours to name. Out of many fragments we are called to put back together a self again. . . . [I]f you want to know who you are, watch your feet, because where your feet take you, that is who you are.”
Where my feet take me is who I want to be—cosmopolitan, adventurous, outgoing—but in so doing the motivation becomes a better reality. I become someone who, when she names the world, names it with grace and understanding rather than value judgments. I become someone who has climbed the exotic mountains of someone else’s home. And maybe, if I keep walking, at the end of it all will be something Good.
Elaine Schnabel (’11) spent her twenties traveling, blogging, and earning various master’s degrees. Now earning her PhD at the University of North Carolina in organizational communication, Elaine researches and writes at the intersection of religion and communication. You can find her blogging at Religious (Not Crazy).