15 September 2009

Figuring it out: the personal journey

I noticed a few days ago that I've become a more confident traveler. Zurich was a tipping point.

Three weeks ago, in Copenhagen, I didn't eat a single meal in a restaurant; it was all either take-out or street food. Dining alone kind of frightened me. If I'd found a Frommer-recommended place that was still open (which I didn’t, aside from the really expensive one in the Tivoli Gardens), I would have gone in and eaten alone, miserably, pretending to write or read the whole time, dreading contact with the server.

That's basically what happened last year in Florence and Paris. If not for Arthur and this project, I probably would have survived on gelato in Italy and crepes in France. But you have to eat, and when you play by certain oddball rules, you have to put yourself out of your comfort zone and eat in historic restaurants with sometimes-historic, sometimes-grouchy employees. Eventually, inevitably, you learn that the waiters and bartenders can be interesting people, certainly more interesting than the company of pigeons in the park or Eurovision on television. Even introverts need to socialize. Sometimes it just takes a bit—okay, a lot—of effort. I started to learn that lesson last year, but the trip was short enough that I never fully adjusted.

In Copenhagen, I was still greeting each new day with trepidation, rather hoping that my efforts to find restaurants and sights Arthur recommends (to coin a verb, my “Frommering” efforts) would be unsuccessful so that I could retreat to a quiet park with a bag of pastries.

Of course, a major point of this project, or at least the self-centered point of it, is indeed to get out of my comfort zone and embark on a Personal Journey--to become smarter, savvier, suaver, sophisticated-er, sweeter-smelling, etc. Enlightenment and Self-Improvement and all that treacle. The profound epiphanies are still in short supply--and I'm okay with that; I was pretty happy with life beforehand, thanks very much. (And believe me, if I do figure out the Meaning of Life, I’ll let you know.)

In the abstract, though, in some ineffable way, I have become savvier, more confident, more competent. Certainly in terms of travel.

The change has come in part from the simple act of getting used to life on the road, life in an ever-changing, ever-unfamiliar environment. When you have to figure things out the hard way over and over, day after day, eventually even the hard way becomes slightly easier. You start to learn just enough words to get by, the rhythms of life, the subway systems, all the little markers of becoming at ease with a place . . . and, by extension, yourself.

Much of the credit, though, goes directly to Lee. Before he got here, I never set foot in a bar (on this trip, I mean), and it never would have occurred to me to sit at the bar and talk to the bartender. Our second night together, in Amsterdam, Lee did a shot of some exotic alcohol that was green and evil-looking and, according to the ads posted all over the bar, extremely potent. I looked on squeamishly, nursing my Heineken--the one drink I had that night, I believe--and worrying that, this being Amsterdam and all, someone might slip roofies into my beer, take my passport, and dump me into a canal.

By our last night together, in Zurich, I was demanding to Lee that we go bar-hopping. In one spot, I noticed on the shelf a bottle of Havana Club rum, a liquor that Lee, a bartender when not a sidekick, had never seen before. I presumed it was illegal in the States (Havana means Cuba means embargo), which made it all the more appealing. I informed Lee, in no uncertain terms, that we were doing shots. People who know me just did a double-take when reading that sentence, so perhaps I should confirm: that's correct, I ordered semi-illicit shots of alcohol. With glee.

I'd never ordered a shot in a bar--not Europe, not in the US. It's just not something that would have every occurred to me, to be honest. I'm happy to report that it was delicious: smooth with a nice little kick. A great complement to the various . . . actually, I'm not going to finish that sentence, for fear that you'll think I've become a huge lush. I have not. Promise. I have no desire to be like those women we met in Amsterdam, the ones who traveled specifically to get hammered.

I'm not sure everyone would see an uptick in bar-hopping as progress on my part, but believe me, it is. Or rather, it's a sign of progress, a symptom of it. I'm going out more and over-analyzing less. I've loosened up . . . a bit. Don't worry, I'm still charmingly neurotic and endearingly awkward and amusingly paranoid. There's still plenty where that came from. But the fears are a bit less absurd and a bit more fleeting, and they're tempered by some newfound confidence, a confidence whose very presence I frankly find amusing and astonishing. I have greater faith that things will work out in the end and, more to the point, in my own ability to make that happen.

Thank you, Lee, thank you, Arthur, for guiding me to this point:

Yesterday (Monday), after less than 24 hours in Vienna, I felt like I knew how to navigate the city, not just geographically but culturally. I'd already adjusted, at least to a large degree. I can't tell you how many times I had an internal dialog that went like this:

"Okay, so take the U3 three stops, then look for the big church, take a left, walk three blocks, go over the canal, and the place will be just past the park, on the right."

"Shouldn't you check the map a few more times? Or at least keep it out?"

"Nope. Not necessary."

"Are you sure you know what you're doing? Really?"

"As a matter of fact . . . yes."

"Oh. Well . . . all right, then. Carry on."

Of course, I also had the following thought, as my tram was going past the glorious neo-Classical parliament building, with its grand columns and statues of noblemen on horses: "Man, I have seen this building so many times in Europe. All these damn cities look the same! I am so over columns and horse statues."

So maybe I'm coming down with a minor case of Grand Tour Fatigue Syndrome, too, which is not exactly good news. . . .

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