I am recently returned from a much-needed and appreciated break from my Peace Corps life. For my birthday, my mother splurged on tickets for a boutique river cruise down the Danube River. We sailed from Passau, Germany, into Budapest, stopping for port visits at Linz, Durnstein, and Vienna. It was luxurious in every detail – from the gracious attentiveness of the ship’s crew to the sumptuous haute cuisine and 400-thread count bed linen, from the knowledgeable and humorous tour guides to the breathtaking scenery skimming by outside the window. It was a little taste of heaven.
And yet. (There’s always a caveat with me, isn’t there?) One of my personal objectives in joining the Peace Corps was not just to journey to some foreign land, but to actually live there, to make a home there – to integrate into a daily routine so thoroughly that it would feel like sliding into a pair of worn-out slippers whenever I returned to it. And I have achieved that; turning the key in the lock of my apartment at the end of my trip I caught myself thinking, “It’s good to be home again.”
And while this is gratifying to have experienced, it poses a whole new quandary for my nascent desire to keep wandering the world after my term in Moldova concludes. For I was suddenly, oddly conscious while I trod the cobblestoned streets of Passau, craned my neck to take in the spire of St. Stephens, stopped in awe in front of a Rubens, or ordered schnitzel in Vienna, that I was a touring these sites, and as such was unable to access the true experience of being in these places, being of these places . Traveling as a tourist is like skimming over the surface of a large body of water; oftentimes it feels as if the aim is to cover as much area as possible, rather than taking the time to stay still, immerse and dive deep. I saw what Vienna looked like, what Salzburg had to offer, what comprised Budapest, respectively, for a scant 4-6 hours at best. This is no way to catch the flavor of a place, a people, a culture, through such a miserly sip.
Robert Louis Stevenson once observed that there are no foreign lands: it is the traveler only who is foreign. In Moldova, I have had the time to understand that. Here, I have immersed, acclimated, no longer feel myself as ‘foreign’. And I realize how much more that has added to my experience and comfort in the world. I no longer look at a map and see the outlines of countries as delineations of strange, undecipherable exotica that could have no relation to me. Instead, they represent convocations of communities, reverberating lives, little houses and neighborhoods, corner stores, and office buildings. Cars drive down streets in those places. People do laundry and cook meals. Dogs trot across dirt roads, stopping to scratch fleas. Bicycles lean against buildings. Aromas waft across a breeze. Children laugh and hang from tree boughs. Women gather and talk on corners. Life is happening in every corner of the world. It is now conceivable to me that I could join in and participate fully, no matter where I found myself.
Quite by accident, I took a most interesting picture in Bratislava. We stopped in the town square to admire a memorial built to commemorate the synagogue that had stood for hundreds of years in the town square, right next to the Protestant church, until the Nazis saw fit to blow it up. Part of the memorial was the silhouette of the old synagogue etched into a sheet of smooth black marble. I didn’t realize until I was uploading my pictures at home that the marble reflected back the shadowy outlines of people milling about the town square, with the etching of the synagogue super-imposed over all, only briefly and barely occluding the activities of people going about their days . It was a lovely visual metaphor, conveying not only that any church, synagogue, or temple is comprised of more than just a building, but also that when we travel all the icons, museums, memorials, parks, palaces, bridges, castles, and fortresses that may fascinate us and be the images we return with for our photo albums, they remain only a backdrop to lives still being lived in these historic places. And the traveler is forever the foreign passerby, holding up a camera, skimming across the surface, dropping in to sample just a sliver of the pie.