March 19, 2011

Traveling to Europe Didn't Change My Life

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What is the issue?

When a friend of mine proposed a two month trip to Europe, I figured it would be the perfect distraction from my disturbing ambivalence towards post-grad life. In Europe, when you’re unemployed and go to the grocery store at 2:00 p.m. on a Tuesday no one will ask if it’s your day off, and you won’t have to falsely bemoan the fact that you always end up spending your days off running errands and doing laundry. You won’t run into any old high school acquaintances who will start to look really confused when you explain that you’re rooming with this adorable older couple which is actually really great because they cook a lot of meals for you and pay for your oil changes, and oh yeah, they’re your mom and dad!

Europe was my lovingly dog-eared, get-out-of-jail-free card. If you can’t get a cool job right out of school and you don’t have a boyfriend with really nice hair the only way to remain socially acceptable is to travel. I mean your definition of success might be confined to monetary gain and getting a ring on your finger, but I prefer to measure success by emotional development and cultural acumen. And also fuck you.

Travel is supposed to be this other-worldly experience. People always start looking all moony when they mention their travels, like suddenly they’re back in that musky tent in Morocco wrapped up in the paisley sarong they bought because they just, you know, really wanted to live it. They’ll explain that it was a really amazing experience that they can’t exactly put into words so why don’t they just show you the slide show they set to the music of Ravi Shankar? Super moving stuff but maybe the reason they don’t want to talk about it is because they’re afraid to admit that they came home exactly the same person they were when they left.

Europe was not my first trip abroad. A couple years ago I spent a summer teaching after-school art classes to underprivileged Guatemalan children. Some of them had never before had the opportunity to use paints. At the end of the day, the kids lined up to give me a kiss before they scampered off to show their drawings to Mami. It was precious. It made me feel like a good person. But some of those little kids were just as obnoxious as their American counterparts. And on more than one occasion, while I crouched perilously on a third world toilet seat deciding whether I was going to have to shit first or hurl first only to find that both situations had begun to happen simultaneously, I couldn’t care less about embracing the experience–all I wanted was to go home.

Once back in America, I opted out of writing the essay the organization that set up this little Guatemalan immersion program expected us to hand in. We were supposed to explain what we learned from hanging out with all those poor people and how it changed us for the better. But I felt exactly the same. Guatemala had been a dingy, grab bag of experiences; some bits were awesome and some bits made me want to die. I felt like I had failed. I did not emerge from those steaming Mayan jungles the beacon of humanitarian hope I imagined I would be. I had a lot of fun and I met some great people but that’s kind of it. And I would go back in a heartbeat.

So off I went to Europe. Still searching for the travel experience with the power to unveil the selfless and gracious phoenix goddess within me.

In Europe I learned many important life lessons. I learned that I don’t like one night stands. That spending the day munching on tapas and reading Patti Smith’s memoir in a local cafe, can be just as crucial as spending the day photographing every inch of the Sagrada Familia. I learned that most of the people you meet on your travels will be just as excruciatingly bland as the people you know on the other side of the ocean. They certainly won’t offer you any earth-shattering insights into the meaning of life, but maybe like five of them will be pretty amazing even without that information. I learned that not every moment is going to awesome. You will get on the wrong train. You will want to take a nap instead of going sightseeing. You will miss peanut butter.

Most people are finally able to admit that travel is more about meeting people than taking pictures of old shit–but they still don’t want to admit that the trip didn’t change their life. We shouldn’t expect to feel reborn. We should just expect to have some truly unforgettable nights clustered around a bonfire on someone’s rooftop deck where everyone is just the right amount of wine drunk and even though you could all be intelligently analyzing the situation in Libya everyone has decided to just laugh and have a good time instead. It’s basically a really, really expensive trip to a really, really cool bar. And that’s okay.

Everyone feels like they have to justify the $6,000 price tag by claiming that their trip altered them in a myriad of glittering ways you would have to experience to really understand. But why isn’t a fun night out with your friends worth that kind of money? I don’t really want to waste my time stressing about the secrets of the universe. I just want to go out on Friday night and yuk it up with my fellow man.

I’m finally okay with the notion that I went to Europe to have fun. That I went to Central America to have fun. Ultimately, my travels only ever reinforced what I already knew. People are pretty much the same everywhere. Yeah this guy grew up without any shoes and his roommates are goats, but he still just wants to get a girlfriend and make enough money to buy himself a popsicle every so often.

So yeah, I traveled around the world and all I did was meet a bunch of people who are just like me, so we partied together and did some sightseeing.

So worth it. TC mark

Caitlin Rolls

Caitlin Rolls is a writer/artist/graphic designer who also enjoys making online purchases and indian food. She …

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