People inevitably fall into one of two categories: those who enjoy traveling, and those who don’t. I, being the unique and singular creature that I am, fall into a third, independent category when it comes traveling, I could Either Take It Or Leave It. But as with most things (including, but not limited to, foreign films, a morning hangover, muscles, and a Joanna Newsom album), one is often recommended to experience something at least once before they inevitably (predictably, even) enter the group they anticipated all along: those who don’t enjoy. This is a plentiful group; enjoy your company. I often feel lonesome in mine.
It has been the subject of many works of writing and bad comedy — traveling, that is, and the inevitable nuisances that come with what the upper-class calls “Fresh Experiences” — but that is simply a testament to the complexities of its reception. Having graduated from University this past June, and having embarked on many travel experiences since graduating (an almost constant stream that began the Wednesday after my graduation ceremony, and continues even now as I type en route to Paris) I feel that I am in a position to not only throw my thoughts on traveling into the ring, but perhaps even cite them as definitive.
There is a rather horrific brow perpetually furrowed at the thought of ‘romanticizing.’ This is an act where one, rather justifiably, exits the parameters of rational reality in favor of a revamped reality. This is a reality that must be actively uninhabited to exist. Where a writer can own a brownstone in New York City (Carrie Bradshaw); can Vespa ride through Italian alleyways foot-traffic free (a Disney star’s first feature); and can smoke cigarettes freely with no concern for health, children, or zoning parameters (Paris in film, Paris in thought, Paris in tourism). This, as one will be reminded repeatedly, is not reality, but rather one that we prefer to be real; because the present is plebeian even when it isn’t, and it’s nice to not be here every once and a while.
The key to maintaining a romanticized view of Europe is easy if one is willing to work at it. To keep Europe romantic, one need only adhere to three rules, selected and analyzed by the most experienced of European travelers (namely, I, who can barley get on an airplane hassle-free):
The first rule is simple enough: Actively Avoid Anyone Who Has Actually Been There Before. People who have experienced things have a tendency to share those experiences with you, assumedly so that you too, upon return, will do the same with them. This is perhaps the true nature of Things: to facilitate collective experiences. Why else would one love so much to talk about traveling alone if they didn’t secretly hope that those listening would view it equally as exciting as they did, thus cementing the experience and accompanying feelings as “true?” Maintain distance from prior-travelers, if only to preserve the mystique of the overseas by avoiding ‘advice,’ ‘stories,’ and the inevitable travel slideshow (an activity that is, even with irony, unseemly).
The second rule is to Liberally Consider Avoiding Belgium Altogether. Former travelers seem to give only the type of advice that is either useless or altogether untrue, leaving such tidbits as “useful” or “necessary” simply to be desired. Imagine my surprise upon arriving in Belgium when I found the advice of needing to “find this one cafe with pesto ficosa” to pale in comparison to warnings such as “water costs money, even at restaurants,” or “bathrooms cost money, even at restaurants,” or even more importantly, “toilet paper is still a definitively Western ideal.” The horror upon my face when I was confronted with the decision of either paying €.70 to use the bathroom of a restaurant that offered obscene amounts of alcohol (presumably in an effort to break even through bathroom charges) is not one I will shake easily. Salvation eventually came from a surprising source: further traveling. Leaving Brussels, I was confronted less with “rules” and more with “recommendations.” One is allowed to use bathrooms freely [a right], but it would be wise to throw a euro in the tip jar [a suggestion].
(Note: Nothing is worse for the untrained traveler than ‘suggestions.’ They leave so much in the hands of major human weaknesses such as “choice” and “interpretation” that it sends even the savviest traveler back to the nether regions of square one.)
Belgium is to romanticized notions of Europe as carpel tunnel is to “life threatening”: accurate if you’re willing to settle.
And finally, the third rule in order to continue conjuring romantic images of Europe is a simple one: Don’t Actually Go. This will allow you to maintain the belief that when it is raining in Paris it is merely tender and not, as trained meteorologists may warn you, wet. It will allow you to be convinced that arriving at various cities can actually be achieved in montage, and not through mazes masquerading as train stations. If Europe is, and many believe it to be, the hub of “the old world” and the home of real creativity, then let its lesson be taught from a distance, leaving the traveler (that loathsomely self-assured character) with no bags (a lighter load) and simply the souvenir of imagination (expensive, still).