The last few days, I’ve been feeling restless and unsettled as I sit at my keyboard. It’s pretty easy for an onlooker to tell when I’m a little agitated, as I’m one of those horrible, awful people who endlessly bounce their knee when they’re stressed. Then again, I do it when I’m relaxed too, so perhaps it isn’t that great of a barometer. But, anyway, if you looked at me and guessed I was preoccupied, you’d be right.
I’m writing this on Friday, June 5th. By the 7th, I’ll be more than six and a half thousand miles away from where I’m sitting right now, in a country where the language doesn’t bear the least resemblance to English. Want a hint as to where I’m headed? Here’s a question that I’ll be asking a lot: “İngilizce konuşuyor musunuz?” (Yeah, I don’t know how to pronounce it either.)
If you can understand that, well, then you’re part of the 1% of the world’s population that speaks Türkçe, the language of Turkey. And that’s where I’m headed–specifically, Istanbul, to begin with. I know next to nothing about the country of Turkey, despite the fact that it’s apparently the 6th most popular tourist destination in the world. Did you know that? I didn’t. And yet, it’s a city that just about everybody has seen in one way or another–just one example in recent years is when James Bond rode a motorcycle across the skyline of Istanbul (literally) in Skyfall, almost certainly triggering all sorts of insurance claims in the process.
But seeing a place on the big screen isn’t anything like actually going there.
I know that for a fact. At last count, I’ve been to… well, I’ve lost count of the number of countries I’ve visited. Let’s see. In the order I visited them, I’ve been to Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Italy, Ireland (the southern two-thirds of Ireland are a separate country from the UK–it even uses a different currency), Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany, and Belgium. That means I’ve been to… 13 countries (the official rules for word travel bragging state that you had to have actually stayed overnight in a country for it to count, otherwise I could throw another couple in there).
The irony of all of this is that I’m a home body by heart. I can happily go for days without getting into a car. Until 2008, I had never put much distance between myself and the West Coast. I had been to Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, and British Columbia (all car trips… well, except for Hawaii, obviously). But, relationships change everything, especially when you get involved with someone who’s a travel fiend. I spent the next couple years making up for a lot of lost time. In the fall of 2008, I visited the East Coast. And a year later, I headed back to the East Coast… and kept going, right over the Atlantic. And then I did it again, and again.
You know you’ve had some interesting times when someone can idly mention, “Remember when we wandered into the middle of that fascist rally,” and you have to stop and ask, “Which one?” Seriously. You would think by the third time you’ve wandered into the middle of a crowd equipped with bullhorns and matching outfits, you’d know better. Speaking of which, pop quiz: when a car in the middle of a fascist demonstration starts smoking and grinds to a halt, what do you do? Apparently, the answer is to get closer and take pictures. Even after it catches on fire. Yeah, that definitely kick-started the gray hair a little early.
In order to leave your culture so far behind without immediately popping a blood vessel or two in your brain, you have to be willing to be vulnerable.
You set foot into a world where just about anything you’ve always known to be a hard truth may suddenly no longer apply–even safely crossing the street may require you to unlearn what you’ve always known. But stepping through the looking glass has its peculiar, and sometimes hilarious rewards. You don’t expect the Croatian guy managing the hostel you’re staying at to suddenly get a crazed glint in his eye when you mention you’re from California, and suddenly find yourself being pitched a movie script. Because apparently, if you’re from California, then you know folks in Hollywood.
And actually, I highly recommend anybody from California traveling abroad to identify themselves as a Californian, rather than a mere resident of the US. The responses tend to be a lot of fun. I have very vivid memories of a pharmacist in Germany lighting up at the mention of my home state and enthusiastically remarking in deep, heavily accented English, “Oh, Arnold Schwarzenegger is the governor there, yah?” The cherry on top was that his voice happened to sound quite a bit like Arnie’s.
But, being vulnerable also leads you to discover just how tenuous your control is over your life.
While visiting Italy in 2009, a nasty case of food poisoning landed me in the hospital. Suddenly, you’re a stranger in a strange land, and your partner who doesn’t know Italian is speaking Spanish to a doctor who doesn’t speak English, and is then in turn translating for all the other practitioners who only speak Italian. You quickly learn that you’re entirely at the mercy of others. And yet, somehow, you survive. They spend a few hours pumping you full of fluids, and then they present you with a couple prescriptions and a bill for zero dollars, and send you on your way.
Once your own personal boundaries are torn down, all the other walls that you believed shored up your world begin to fall as well. You see that what we consider to be solid, everyday reality is really the thinnest of veneers. You see that you and those around you cling even to the worst aspects of your country and your culture–a social fabric that we wrap ourselves up in and take for granted. But fabric, by definition, is very thin. Without much effort, it can be torn apart. And when you travel, you find places where that fabric has been torn so badly that it can never really be mended, and you see what’s been hiding on the other side.
History isn’t staged against grand views and chanting crowds–it happens where people live, work, play, and sleep.
Sarajevo in Bosnia is one place where it’s easy to find the tears in the fiction of normality. You can walk through the main street of the city, and look to your right and see massive corporate buildings and a brand new multimillion dollar shopping mall. And then you look to the left, and immediately adjacent to the sidewalk are… graves. They startle you and they look so out of place and they’re different than any other gravestones you’ve ever seen–some are shaped like small smooth pillars, others are topped by ornate stone Turkish turbans.
You try and rationalize this incongruity: “Maybe this is a valuable historical site from centuries ago that the city treasures too much to destroy, so they went to the trouble of building around it.” But then you look at the death dates on the graves and that rationale shatters. The death dates aren’t from the 1600s. Or the 1700s. Or the 1800s. Instead, they say 1993, 1993, 1993, 1993… Occasionally there’s a 1994 in there. And then more 1993s.
Then you notice that occasionally the smooth surface of the sidewalk is interrupted by an irregular splattered red design that looks a little like a flower. In the street, cars drive over pavement that is occasionally punctuated with similar designs, no two alike. Then everything gels together, and you understand. And you immediately wish you didn’t.
But you don’t understand. Let me explain so that you understand… though maybe you’ll wish you didn’t.
Sarajevo was the site of some of the fiercest fighting during the Bosnian War that raged between 1992 and 1995. The war killed more than 100,000 people. The main roads of Sarajevo (and other cities) were extremely dangerous, with snipers hiding in many of the tall buildings lining the streets. They made no distinction between soldiers and civilians. There was no time to move the bodies of people who were shot in the street, or who were hit by mortar fire. When survivors could finally get to the bodies, they had to quickly bury the dead where they fell.
The red flower shapes are called “Sarajevo roses,” and mark where people were struck and killed by mortars. The scars left in the street were filled in with red resin, so that what happened would not be forgotten. That nobody would forget that there had been a time when, every single day, people left to go to school, or to work, or to visit their boyfriend or girlfriend, or just to find food… and never came home. Those that died on the street and were buried next to it are still there, a few feet away from where they were murdered, in the middle of a city of 400,000 people.
The scary thing is, those are the situations for which you can prepare yourself for to some degree. When you head to Sarajevo or Auschwitz or the sites of other horrible events in history, you have an idea of what you’re getting yourself into if you bother to glance at a book or two. But then there are the moments that completely blindside you. Towards the end of the massive 2010 Europe trip, we were going through a museum in Nuremberg, Germany, that chronicled WWII, and the trials that took place in the city afterwards. We came across one photo that brought us both to a halt. It was a fuzzy black and white photo of Polish Jews being hustled up a flight of stairs by a German soldier to a railway station platform, to be deported. What made us freeze was that we recognized the station platform–a few weeks prior, we had arrived by train in Krakow, Poland, at that same station platform. The station had changed so little in 70 years that it was recognizable at a glance. And at that moment, the world became a little more fragile.
These experiences tear down a lot of walls inside of you. But it’s only then that you can be built back up into someone who can see the world maybe just a little more clearly.
That’s when you can see all the unexpected, wonderful surprises that you might have overlooked or missed out on otherwise:
Riding a bus into Sarajevo near sunset, and seeing couples both young and very old walking through a park, with no fear of the dark.
Spending hours talking to two Swedish architecture students who probably speak better English than you do, while riding an overnight train to Prague.
Riding a local subway train in Budapest, only to have it suddenly stopped in the middle of town because a fascist rally got out of hand, and having to climb back up to street level and make an impromptu on-foot expedition to the closest operating line.
Learning that people in Quebec will absolutely, positively not admit to speaking English. And finding out that not a single %$*# street sign in Quebec is in English. Even the stop signs are in French. (Weirdly, a lot of non-English speaking countries have stop signs written in English. But nope, Quebec is a special, special place.)
Realizing that some time the day before, you lost a thousand dollar camera while walking around the island of Korcula. Then, spending hours retracing your steps, all to no avail. Losing all hope and deciding to check one last place: an ice cream shop you’d stopped at the day before, and having one of the women behind the counter look at you and then start laughing and pointing at you and talking REALLY fast in a language you don’t understand, but catching the word “camera” in the avalanche of completely incomprehensible words. Struggling to work out what’s going on, only to figure out that some dumb tourist forgot their camera in the shop the day before, and the gal behind the counter just so happens to recognize you from some photos she found on the camera. And then she reaches across the counter, handing you that thousand dollar camera you’d been searching for everywhere. (And subsequently crying in gratitude and trying to foist a pile of money on her as a thank you for being the best person ever, only to have her to refuse all of it.)
Walking by a bookstore in Croatia and cringing when you see a gigantic poster in the window featuring the Twilight series. (One of the Twilight movies came out that summer, and Europe was PLASTERED with promotional material for it. Our cultural exports leave something to be desired.)
Regaining a modicum of pride in said awful cultural exports when you discover that McDonald’s restaurants in Eastern Europe are some of the cleanest restaurants anywhere. Seriously. And they all had free wifi, which was a rarity in 2010, and even more so in Europe.
Arriving at a city in Montenegro in the middle of the day, only to find it absolutely, completely deserted. And after wandering around aimlessly for ten minutes, suddenly hearing the faint roar of the entire city cheering, erupting from every home and business in town… and then remembering that a World Cup game is being played.
Wondering what the heck an ice cream flavor called Smurf (“Hupikék” in Hungarian) is supposed to taste like.
Having Ireland live up to every stereotype ever by dumping rain on you for 4 straight days.
Trying to figure out why every single grocery store in Eastern Europe carries thirty brands of breakfast cereal that come in only two varieties: cocoa puffs and corn flakes.
That’s the joy of stepping outside of your comfort zone.
When you go through so much wonderful craziness, you learn how to handle surprises and take them in stride. What choice is there but to keep walking into the unknown? Those experiences have shaped how I approach my work. When I’m suddenly presented with a new project and asked, “So, do you know anything about the Bulgarian refrigerator market?” I can smile and say, “Nope. Not a thing. But give me a couple days and a dozen cups of coffee, and I’ll know it inside and out.”
I’ve talked an awful lot, but I think I’ve reached the end of this post. I guess all that’s left to say is, “See you in Turkey.”