Returning.

01.07.09

11:38 a.m.  Houston Intercontinental Airport

I’m sitting at gate A15, watching Continental Express propeller planes take off.  Houston’s skies are covered in a thin layer of gray and white clouds and only flecks of blue are poking their way through.  I’m flying Delta, and the plane is not yet here even though it’s supposedly on time.  Also, it’s overbooked.  Packed.  Ugh.  Why do airlines do this?  It’s so miserable for the passengers, and yet, we keep coming back for more.  We keep needing to get from point A to point B, and we keep putting up with horrible service and discomfort.

After being in the U.S. a month, I’m ready to return to Europe.  This time, I’m ready for an adventure through Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and (because I’m an addict now) a bit of France.  First stop: Zürich.  Peter has been in Germany a month now after a trip to the Holy Lands (Israel/Palestine), and I can’t wait to be reunited with my husband.  When we started planning this year of travel and adventure, we knew that there would be periods of time when we would be separated, but I don’t know if we thoroughly thought through how difficult it would be after awhile.  I’m tired of going to bed alone, of waking up alone, of making my own coffee.  I feel like I’ve been missing an appendage that I am now going to retrieve.  I’ve operated just fine on, say, one leg, but I sure miss the other.  I’m surprised by how much work it is to be single, and while I know I’m perfectly capable of doing it, I’m beginning to remember why it is that people play the love-hunting game with all their strength.  It’s hard out there by yourself…

And yet, sometimes that realization escapes me when I travel.  Is it because I am busy meeting people?  Is it because I am busy staying alive?  All my effort is toward making it through to the next moment, the next meal, the next day.  It’s intensified living– and that’s why I love it so much.

So, off I go on another adventure.  This flight goes to Atlanta.  In Atlanta, I catch my long flight to Zürich.  After Zürich, I head to Munich to reunite with Peter.  And maybe, I’ll be reunited with the piece of my heart that I previously left behind.  We’ll see…

Today is the other day that I knew would eventually come, but I didn’t expect to feel quite the way I do as I sit in my window seat and look at the Swiss countryside fading beneath me.

This is the end of the first of three trips I will make to Europe over the next year.  But this is the only one that I have done largely on my own, without my husband or a particular traveling partner beside me.  I have chosen where to go when and with whom.  I have figured out train schedules and fares, restaurant menus and tips, and places to sleep and visit.  I have made friends with Germans and French people, Spaniards and Swiss.  And I leave this Continent with more of a sense of self than I had when I first stepped foot here back in that warm April day in Barcelona.

I learned, for starters, about the sorts of things that irritate me, both about myself and about others.  Traveling brings out people’s rough edges, those things we can safely set to the side when we’re at home.  I learned that my edges revolve around my fears and loneliness.  If I feel lonely or isolated, I tend to get more quickly annoyed with others than I ordinarily would.  And if I feel afraid or threatened in any way, I have a hard time admitting it to others or dealing with the war that wages in my head over shoulds and shouldn’ts.

I went for a long walk last night by myself through the vineyards and paths of Rivaz and the surrounding Swiss villages.  I was indeed alone, but I felt like I was on a walk with the Creator of it all.  I took my time strolling around, watching the incredible sunset over the Alps reflecting its colors on the surface of the water.  I could feel my tired body getting more tired by the minute, but I pushed myself further and further.  If there’s anything that I have learned about myself, it’s that I can indeed be pushed to limits that I never would have approached before– I can survive narrowly being pick-pocketed, I can figure out how to get from one place to another (even in a language I don’t speak!), I can power hike up a mountain to enjoy a quick but life-giving view, I can not let a rainy day ruin my enjoyment of beauty.

After this flight lands in Newark, I’ll be greeted by my husband who has been busy packing the belongings we’ve accumulated over the past three years of marriage.  In three days, we will both graduate as Masters of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary.  And in a week, we’ll be turning over the keys to our apartment– the only home we’ve known together– as we embark on the next adventures laid out before us.  Peter will be traveling to Israel and Palestine.  He’ll then travel to Germany, where, in one month, I will meet him for another month of travel.  I am eager to return to the U.S., where my husband and family call home, but I know that I leave a piece of my heart behind in Europe.  I hope that I can find it when I return.

Until then…

Adventure seeker on an empty street

Just an alley creeper, light on his feet

A young fighter screaming, with no time for doubt

With the pain and anger can’t see a way out

It ain’t much I’m asking, I heard him say

Gotta find me a future move out of my way

I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now…

Learned from Carcassonne:

– Let your history be haunting; illuminate it at night; let your hair stand on end as you hear whispers in dark corners…

– Let fat stay on the meat; the flavor is intoxicating.

– Be bold!  Make friends on the road! (People make wonderful companions…)

– Walk in the rain, even if it’s cold; don’t miss out on any experience because of “bad weather.”  There is no bad weather, only bad attitudes.

– Drink rose wine and eat good cheese.  Presentation of food is key.

– Some people are still really upset with the USA.  (Sidenote: Racism is not a uniquely American phenomenon).

– Drink everything in wine glasses.

Learned from Arles:

– A whistle is intended as a compliment.  Take it in stride.

– Be grateful always for your own bed, your own sink, your own shower, and — vitally — your own toilet!

– The French sure love their carbohydrates in the morning.  Tread lightly.

– Sometimes you end up at your destination by getting lost first.  And that’s ok.

– A dinner for one is not at all a lonely thing.  Eat alone more.  And eat well.

– Learn more about Van Gogh.  You might be soulmates.

– Get drunk on color.  Watch the light dance around you.  Marvel, and take pictures.

Learned from Avignon:

– Allow some time to become friends with a new place.  You always do.

– Your body can handle more than you think it can: walk, climb, push yourself!  You are sore everywhere, but you feel SO good.

– Views from on high are spectacular.  See them more.

– If the opportunity arises to live in a castle, you should really take it.  Even if you are a part of the clergy.

– People-watching is a cultural-immersion experience.  Partake liberally.

– Ask for help when you need it.  Don’t judge people based on how they look.

– Say “voilà!” more.

– Riding buses can be humbling.  Ride buses more.

Learned from Vaison la Romaine:

– Funky hotels are the greatest thing.  Always try to get a room with a view.

– Sometimes the journey is more difficult than the destination is worth.  Although, sometimes, they are about the same.

– Go to bed early.  And sleep.

– A boulengerie is a bakery.  It does not serve coffee.

– A quick jolt of caffeine can be all you need.  Then, start to hike.  All the good views are from on high.

I want to know the conversation the French have that prompts this kind of day.  And then, I want to have that conversation every day with the people I love.

“The weather is beautiful.  Let us forget anything we must do and go do the things we want.  Let us get food and wine and beer and sit together on the banks of the river.  And that is all.”

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Five beautiful French children are playing with sticks.  The people to my left are drinking Hoegaarden.  The people to my right are smoking weed.  Ah, the French.  There is not an overstressed person for miles.  Or kilometers.

But, then again, maybe I am projecting.  I need ice cream like an addict needs cocaine.  And I’m ok with that.

I arrived in Lyon with a flourish of activity.  The train station was buzzing.  It was Penn Station during rush hour, minus the English and the smell of hot dogs.  Chaos!  And I panicked.  I kept telling myself to wait and watch Lyon become my friend just as all the other cities had.  But we were not off to a good start.

I got on the subway, after an awkward encounter by the ticket machines with a woman begging for money.  She was smart, waiting for a tourist like me to come by and not know how to operate the machines.  Then, she stepped in and started pressing buttons.  I tried to decline her assistance politely, confident that I could figure this out, but she insisted, took the coins from my hand, and handed me a ticket.  Then, she asked for money.  The whole encounter was awkward and frustrating.

I exited the subway at the location I thought was correct and started to head up the hill toward my hostel.  Though I got lost for a while, I had the help of a few very kind French people who noticed that I was struggling, and I finally got checked in and claimed my bed.  The hostel is sketchy at best.  It has the delightful smell of a basement and feet, but it’s not nearly as lonely as a hotel room.  In fact, I almost immediately made friends and had a wonderful night yesterday, eating dinner with Jane, a traveling Australian grandmother, and Hannah, an American teenager of a “gap year.”  We chatted a bit and all decided to have dinner together at Les Lyonnaise, complete with a grumpy French waiter.  I so enjoyed the company of these women, and I was once again amazed at how easy it is to bond with fellow-travelers on the road.  We are strangers one day and soulmates the next.

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After dinner, we walked around the floodlit city at night.  It was so beautiful, and Rick Steves might be on to something when he says that Lyon is truly France’s City of Lights.  Utterly dazzling under a clear night sky, especially with a little French wine in the system.

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I had to catch a bus from Avignon to Orange and then from Orange to Vaison la Romaine.  The first bus ride was relatively uneventful.  I asked two ladies in front of me at the station which bus was the right one for me to board, and they took it upon themselves to make sure that I was safe and settled and knew where I was going.  Never underestimate the potential kindness in a stranger.

In Orange, the bus driver spoke no English, and so I stood at the front of the bus trying again and again to pronounce Vaison la Romaine correctly—or at least correctly enough so that he could understand me.  Instead, he kept giving me an irritated, “Eh?”

“Vi-zohn la Ro-mahn?”

“Eh?”

“Vi-zohn la Ro-main?

“Eh?”

“Vay-zohn la Ro-mahn?

“Eh?”

Vay-zahn la Ro-main?”

“Eh?”

Finally, I dug through my daypack until I found my guidebook pages with the name of the town printed on them.  “Ici,” I said.  “Here.”

I decided that I think the reason I find buses so intimidating is that you generally have to deal with a person up front, and, if you look foolish, you then have to ride in this small space with the witnesses to your humiliation for the duration of your journey.  It’s a little much, to be honest.  I sat on the second row, tried not to look behind me, and examined every road and stop to try to decode the schedule.  Fortunately, miraculously, I got off at the right stop, walked down the main road of the town, and found my hotel with no problem.

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The hotel was great—funky, urban-feeling, but small and intimate.  Hôtel Burrhus, it is called, and it seemed oddly out-of-place in this slow and ancient Provençal town.  After checking in, I asked the hotelier where I could get a good meal, and she recommended a restaurant two doors down from the hotel.  Though the service was great, the food was mediocre, a first for me in France.  But my waiter was extremely kind, and when he saw me wrapping my scarf around my neck, he said, “Oh, please, madam.  Come inside.  Warm up with your coffee.”  Then he brought me a small dessert—“from me to you, a gift”—and tried to impress me with his electronic waiter’s pad that allowed him to print my bill from a distance.  I played along.  Why not?  I love these people…

When I woke up this morning, I walked for about an hour trying to find the bus station and get information about my bus out of town.  I resorted to stopping people on the street and asking for directions, and, while everyone tried their best to tell me (complete with “et voila!” every time), I had a hard time finding it because it was in a strangely modern building.  Considering the surroundings—a gas station, a market, ancient Roman ruins—I just couldn’t recognize it for what it was.  When I finally got the information I needed, it turned out that I only had two hours to explore the town before my bus arrived.  I considered just sitting around and waiting, but I knew that this town had some incredible hikes surrounding it, so I set off—a coffee in one hand and a croissant in the other.

I crossed the ancient Roman bridge and set to walking toward the chateau at the top of the hill, where, I was told, I could see for kilometers and kilometers.

And indeed, this was my reward:
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