How Travel Opened My Heart
“Creo me equipaje esta perdido.”
That was the first sentence that I ever uttered in a foreign country in a foreign language, ‘I think my baggage is lost.’ The magic of this escaped me in that moment standing in the Barcelona airport. At the time I had more practical concerns, but the simple alchemy of it occurred to me later. There I’d been, alone and in a foreign country, speaking and solving problems in that country’s native tongue. It’s not a difficult sentence or concept, for millions of people moments like these are simply Tuesday, but for me it became a moment of ordinary magic and traveling has turned into a search for similar moments, whatever form they might take.
Somewhat less magical was what a circus recovering my bag turned into, but that’s another story. I also learned to say “la tarde proxima.”
I got a late start on traveling solo, taking my first journey in my late 20’s. Prior to that I had invented a stream of obstacles and reasons to put it off: money, my job, my other job, it could be dangerous, I didn’t speak the language. Finances, work, shame, and fear.
That was what it came down to in the end. I was afraid and then I was ashamed that I was afraid, ashamed that I didn’t speak any other languages, afraid to stick out, afraid and ashamed at the prospect of, god forbid, trusting or relying on anybody else and the horror of asking a stranger for help.
Growing up in New York City did not prepare me for openness and I was prone to seeing enemies and threats wherever I turned.
If it’s allowed the room to grow, a little fear can birth a habit that might fool you into thinking it’s a gift. But under that fear something else was evolving: a love of stories. I had started writing in my mid-20s and had recently branched out into writing more personal narratives instead of hardboiled crime fiction. As much fun as it is to write stories about idiot hit men trying to kill mobsters, it doesn’t encourage seeing inherent goodness in the wider world.
When I was twenty-eight, I got a small windfall from my aunt and my love of stories sprouted wings and refused to be caged. It might seem needlessly fancy or esoteric to speak of this impulse as a separate entity, but that’s the way it seemed. I didn’t want to read other people’s stories anymore, I wanted some of my own and I didn’t want them all to have a sardonic or violent twist.
After two weeks in Barcelona, I understood that this internal struggle hadn’t been between separate pieces of myself at all, but me struggling to shed my fear and paranoia, while they struggled to retain their grip.
I learned about the value of helplessness. I learned that the world was not out to get me. I smiled at strangers and held up my hands and shrugged when I couldn’t make myself understood while ordering dinner in Paris.
I’d been warned that the Parisians would be absolute pricks if I couldn’t speak French, and so I learned a little, but when that little was not enough, gestures helped and when the gestures failed I remembered to thank people for their help. Nobody was ever unkind to me, a little exasperated perhaps, but never unkind.
I bought fruit in a market in Istanbul by pointing and then holding out my handful of Lira toward the man in the market stall, allowing him to take the coins out of my hands. Me, a man who had grown up in a city where people brought weapons to school, where friends were jumped for wearing the wrong color jacket, where you hid your cash and looked over your shoulder constantly, even riding in a cab became a struggle not to get fucked over, I held out a handful of coins to a stranger and let him take what he thought was fair. The man I’d been only a few years earlier would have been appalled at how soft I’d gotten, would have called me a punk.
He’d have been wrong.
I was not cheated. I was not hurt. I was not mistreated. My finely honed New York edges had been blunted and I wasn’t even worried.
Ordinary magic, right?
At a hostel in Barcelona, a group of kids visiting from Italy and England invited me along to find a bar to watch the final match of the European League Championship between Barcelona and Madrid. We’d only met that morning and I found a welcome among them over dawn cigarettes while they smoked shisha from a water pipe, their fingers stained by the raspberry tobacco. Ironically, I ended up acting as a guide since none of them spoke Spanish but I remember being amazed by them, that they carried none of my shame or fear. They charged inside and looked for a table, blowing right past the flustered waiters and proprietor who already had a bar full of rowdy fans to serve.
As I sipped my beer and ate an olive stuffed with anchovies, I wondered what was wrong with me that I couldn’t do the same as them. I didn’t want their brashness exactly, but if I wasn’t with them I’d probably have still been outside, assuming the place was too full and would not seat me.
I rode a bus between Istanbul and Athens and the man sitting next to me explained with Turkish and gestures how to use the headphones attached to the television in my headrest, not because I asked him, but because he was concerned that I would want to and be afraid to say something.
The bus driver stopped to pick up a family along the road and the little girl ran up and kissed him on the cheek before they took their seats. They may have known each other, I have no idea, but I decided that it didn’t matter.
In getting lost, I became less afraid. I saw less ugliness in the world and in myself.
Each time I got lost, my reward was not shame but welcome.
I spent my morning after waking up in Istanbul huddling terrified in my rented flat. Terrified to go outside, terrified to try and speak to people, for Christ’s sake I was terrified to order breakfast. My otherness would single me out, I would be a burden upon the people of this city I was visiting, an obnoxious and foreign stranger in their midst.
I wanted to be invisible.
But then I smoked my last cigarette down to the filter and my craving for nicotine, caffeine and a general disgust at my own cowardice drove me out of the door.
I bought a twist of bread covered in sesame seeds from a street vendor, a can of Coke and a pack of Anadolu cigarettes from a newsstand. And there was magic in that bread. With each bite I felt a few of the cracks in my heart fill in and my fear fell away.
I had lost a little more of my baggage and this time I didn’t want it to be returned.