Posted by: cousindampier | 25 January 2014

Travel to Learn: A Reflection From Paris

I am at a bar in Paris. It is loud, lots of chattering and mostly in English, which provides welcome confusion. Four months is not a long time, but it is long enough to feel a strange comfort in listening to strangers speak in a language I know. American football is on the television and the Seahawks are due to play soon and I feel like I am on a real, honest-to-god vacation.

I am tired. Apparently flying without sleep causes this, which is an unwelcome discovery, but my night had gone well and I was thinking of wandering home when I started up a conversation with a guy from San Diego. We roped in Nashville and Winnepeg and watched a Spanish crowd chant soccer cheers at their friends playing beer pong, and later that night I found myself sitting on the stone steps of a church at 3 am, frantically writing a story that came to mind because on that night, I won and isolation lost.

I travel to be uncomfortable. This is a strange thing to admit, because really, who the hell wants to be uncomfortable? – but what I’ve unconsciously learned during my time in Almaty is to be by myself. Being there is practice – to be frequently uncomfortable to become constantly fine.

Being away from home, and the people I know, and the network I had is uncomfortable, but that is only half of the notion. Four months ago, I was afraid before I left for Kazakhstan. Excited, but afraid. I worried I was striking out for a bridge too far, and the other part of that notion is how I was faced with learning how to live in an environment where I couldn’t easily communicate.

Every guy can write a book about things he’s learned from the girls he’s dated. When things don’t go well it is, as Robert Goddard would phrase it, “valuable negative information.” This is probably true of girls towards guys as well, and every book would be filled with stories mixing horror and humour; but during one breakup I was told that I was lucky, because I didn’t need anybody (and then I was promptly told off, but this is an entirely different story.)

I don’t know if she was right or wrong. Just as Theodore Roosevelt maintained that one cannot judge the man in the arena, sometimes it is difficult for the man in the arena to judge himself. The spirit of the comment remained with me, because it is that kind of issue which walks a fine line which I enjoy attempting to answer.

This curiosity comes from the seemingly opposite view this takes compared to the rest of life. To save money, you buy what you need and skip what you want. Yet, when it comes to people, neediness kills any relationship. It’s what a mentor once told me – nobody else is responsible for your happiness. In relationships – friendship or otherwise – wanting to spend time with somebody is key, and also a wonderful feeling. Needing to spend time with somebody is death.

Isolation causes neediness to strike, and every person who travels faces that to some extent. Sometimes it is welcome and sometimes it is oppressive. Sometimes you control it and sometimes it controls you.

My biggest fear is not loneliness, but neediness. It is being unable to enjoy the short time I get to spend with somebody else because I am afraid to be without them. I travel to break myself of that fear. I go to Kazakhstan to break myself of that fear, because Kazakhstan is a bridge too far and yet if I learn to conquer that bridge it is not that I return home a hero but rather I find where the next bridge is – where my next limit is. And while it is good to know your limits, it is equally good to know how to break them, to draw on the bridges you have crossed before to learn where to go next.

I don’t think I’m particularly needy, but we all have our moments, and much like how weird can be both good and bad, our moments can be both brilliant or horrendous, and sometimes both at once.

And so I travel to overcome that isolation, that sense of neediness, and that sense of feeling lonely. For as much self-discovery that may happen – and there is lots – no one discovery changes everything. What travel instead provides is the ability to practice: to learn the right situations to put yourself in to meet others, and the wrong ones to avoid (Hi, Istanbul!). It is the nightly practice of saying hello and threading a conversation, of learning to want the company of others and how easy it is to find, rather than feeling the desperate sense of need and the overwhelming weight of isolation.

I forget exactly how this came up, but as I sit outside at a cafe on the Rue La Fayette with the year coming to a close and reflect on everything I’ve learned, this is about as close as I’ll get to describing it all.

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