On Lessons Learned from a 98 Day Journey

When I quit my job at the age of 26 to backpack around Europe alone, I didn’t know what I would find. To be honest, I didn’t even know what I was searching for. All I knew was that there was a persistent line of questioning in my mind that could be described as a crisis of meaning, and this was the best way I could think of to combat that feeling. Having achieved some version of the American Dream and also having acknowledged that I was one of the most fortunate people in the history of the world, I still had nagging insecurities that I was missing something. This something wasn’t things or achievements, but some mythical greater truth that I figured could only be realized by living differently for a bit. So, I packed a backpack with seven shirts and three pairs of pants and flew overseas for the first time in my life. I didn’t know what I’d end up with at the end of the journey, but I had faith that no matter what happened, I’d come out of the experience with a greater understanding of what’s meaningful to me in life.

It’s been five weeks since I returned to the U.S, and it was even more powerful of an experience than I had anticipated. I found stress, struggle, generosity, honesty, happiness, questions, answers, love, friends, memories, and perspective, among other things. Most of these things are difficult to share – an experience can’t be accurately described by any words or pictures – but perhaps some of the lessons learned can be.

People are the primary source of my happiness. This wasn’t necessarily a grand realization, rather a subtle acknowledgement that I often misjudge the amount of happiness different things bring me. I’ve often looked forward to getting a new gadget, only to find I inevitably and nearly immediately become used to owning it, and now have another material desire in mind. Having lived for 98 days on the contents of one backpack, I was absolutely overwhelmed when I returned to my apartment full of clothes and stuff. I was just as happy owning only a handful of items for a few months (and certainly less stressed). The more things you have, the more things you have to worry about.

Achievement and recognition are certainly more admirable sources of fulfillment, but I’ve found the feeling can be nearly as fleeting as material goods, especially if you don’t have the authentic relationships to share your joy with. It seems these days (or perhaps, at this age), it’s en vogue to be able to describe yourself as “busy.” Since it’s difficult to quantify success in one’s personal life, we may chase results and recognition in our professional lives in a never-ending pursuit of “progress.” If this pursuit comes at a significant cost to the time we spend with friends and family, we will almost undoubtedly have some remorse; as stated in my first blog post, two of the most common regrets of the dying are working too hard and not staying in touch with friends.

Not accurately assessing what brings me joy has led me to sabotage my own happiness in exchange for comfort at times. Living alone, there are days where I feel overwhelmed and want to retreat from human interaction. This was not possible while staying in hostel bedrooms that sleep 4-22 people, which was stressful at first. However, I found that not having the option to hide from the world forced me to interact with other people, which often led to a memorable evening, conversation, or friendship which undoubtedly lifted my spirits more than being alone would have. I’m aiming to prioritize more time with family, friends, and new acquaintances.   

Honesty and vulnerability are paramount to authentic relationships. One of the greatest advantages to not knowing anyone on the continent you’re inhabiting is a certain feeling of absolute freedom of authenticity. I had no reputation or ego that I felt I had to protect to complete strangers, and didn’t have a reason to be concerned about what they thought about me. It’s not as though I’m dishonest at home – just that I had usually been more guarded about what I’d share with people. Sometimes, we’re afraid to tell people the things that are most important to us – our desires, fears, hopes, and insecurities – because we prefer to maintain a certain image of “having it all together.” We’re afraid of appearing weak or as a failure, so we craft a social media presence that paints a perfect picture and omit anything that doesn’t fit that construct from our conversations with others. Keeping up this appearance in conversation can be stressful if we must actively filter our reality with what we’re willing to share with a particular person.

I refrained from this exercise while traveling, sharing my vulnerabilities and insecurities with complete strangers. I found that the honest conversation was much more rewarding than any pleasantries or small talk that would usually fill a conversation with a stranger. Further, people often commiserated or identified with what I had to say – sharing a similar feeling or advice on how they’ve approached a similar issue. I found relationships developed quickly as we trusted one another in no small part due to our obvious honesty. Someone I had only known for a couple of days broke down in a conversation with me about a friend who had recently attempted suicide, later thanking me for being there for him. This experience brought me closer to him than some people I’ve known as acquaintances for quite awhile. If you think about the differences between your best friends and other friends, I’d bet one of them is what you’re willing to share with each group. 

Bloom where you are planted and be extraordinarily kind to everyone you meet. I met the founder of a yoga studio in India named Sebastian who shared this piece of wisdom that had been passed down to him. It would continue to echo through my mind for the remainder of the trip, as I noticed and appreciated ordinary people who were exceptionally kind to others. There was the waiter at an Italian restaurant in Brussels who electrified the place with his energy – making the customers laugh, running out to hug locals walking by, and engaging everyone with a smile and uncommon positivity. There was the ticket agent at a train station in Copenhagen, who couldn’t have been more compassionate as she helped me find alternative travel plans to get to my destination since the tracks were under construction. There was the man on the metro in Paris who figured out that a couple he didn’t share a common language with were on the wrong train to get to the airport for a flight, signaled to them to follow him, picked up the woman’s luggage, and lead them to the correct train at the next stop. The memories of these people stick with me and inspire me to work to be more like them.

Sometimes, our frustrations with our personal or professional lives leak into our interactions with other people, and we thoughtlessly drone through the encounter. If instead we aim to be cognizant of our effects on other people and be incredibly kind and friendly, we’ll see an improvement in our own lives. Have you ever worked with someone whom other people frequently describe as “the best?” It’s not usually because these people are necessarily the best person at fulfilling their job duties, rather that everyone enjoys working with them due to their positivity, kindness, and desire to be helpful. No matter where you are or what role you’re in, if you regularly treat people in a manner that earns you this description, you’re going to grow and do well – and there will be plenty of people rooting for you and happy to help you out along the way. More than that, you’ll feel better about yourself and so will those around you.

Be grateful for now. You can find things to complain about or things to be grateful for. It isn’t uncommon that any moment is filled with anxiety or frustration as we rush from task to task. These days, we can’t even wait a few seconds for an elevator without needing to feel busy or productive and stare at our devices. One of the most obvious cultural differences I noticed while traveling was how much less time people spent on their phones, and how much more time they spent with each other. At first it was shocking to see: people sitting at a cafe table with no phones in sight, talking to each other or even sitting in silence while staring out at the world around them. If we’re always focused on what’s next and what’s wrong, we’re missing what’s here, what’s now, and what’s right. Slow down once in a while to appreciate where you are, what you have, and who you’re with.

Creating meaning in your life does not have to be some magnum opus that takes a lifetime to achieve. A big contributor to my crisis of meaning pre-departure was an oft-quoted phrase in the entertainment industry “we aren’t saving lives, here.” This is usually said in a “there’s no reason to get upset” tone. As I thought about the huge amount of time that have left in my working life (hopefully), I began to wonder if I’d look back on it all at the end and regret not doing more to save lives or measurably improve the world. Should I instead join a non-profit? What emerging technologies could have immense impacts on the future of medicine that I could become involved with? Part of me believed that to find some deeper meaning, I’d have to dedicate my life to one cause and relentlessly pursue it.

On the contrary, I now see that each day is full of limitless opportunities to create meaning for yourself and others. As I traveled and met people of different backgrounds and occupations, I realized that some of them had a significant impact on me. The strangers mentioned above had a lasting effect on my beliefs and attitudes, and I have the ability to do the same for others every day. I became noticeably more cheerful after only a few hours in the friendliest city I visited, Copenhagen. If you focus on bringing joy to others – be genuine, empathetic, uncommonly compassionate, and helpful for no reason –  you’ll feel no lack value in your life.

Take the jump. Many times, we have vague plans for something we’d like to do in the future (start a business, write a book, travel), which we never quite get around to. The reason for this is usually fear of failure, or more accurately, fear of other people thinking that we have failed. More than this, it’s just so easy to stay in our comfort zone and avoid the things that scare us  (most commonly, the unknown). If you conjure up the courage to take the jump, you may very well fail by superficial measures, but the rewards will well outweigh any disappointment. You’ll be proud of yourself for trying, you’ll learn a ton about yourself and the world, and you’ll expand your comfort zone, allowing you to more confidently approach bigger challenges. Most importantly, you won’t regret it.

 

 

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Musings 3

“A beer” should be considered 12oz or more. Anything less is only “some beer.”

Don’t take the things you see everyday for granted. Even surrounded by natural beauty, many people of Iceland wish they only had trees.

If you say “hi” to someone you pass on the street, 95% of the time, they’ll reciprocate, and you’ll both walk away feeling just a little bit better. Forget that other 5% of people.

Only eat half of that space cake. Really.

If you don’t jump (off of a cliff in Greece, out of a plane in Switzerland, or a metaphor of your choosing), you’ll always wish you had.

No, the waiters in Greece don’t hate you. There’s just absolutely no rush whatsoever for them to serve you.

You make the most genuine friendships when you’re 100% vulnerable and honest about your insecurities, desires, and dreams.

We’re wired to crave and be chemically rewarded by human interaction, even in it’s smallest form. Then, we put on headphones, stare at our phones, and ignore humans.

The river that shares your last name (and you assume could only be described as “mighty”) may be more of a creek.

There’s a difference between “vacation” and “traveling.” One is a lot more work, a lot more stress, and a lot more rewarding than the other.

If you’re a single guy in search of a relationship with a woman who could be described as “beautiful” and “friendly,” move to Copenhagen immediately. Those are your best odds.

The reason you are where you are right now is because you choose to be, whether actively or passively.

Why don’t we let cashiers sit in the U.S.? That’s just cruel.

After everyone I met and all of the memories I made over 98 days of travel, what sticks with me most is the desire to be more like the everyday people I met who inspired me with their positivity, friendliness, and genuine desire to help other people.

Your musings will become a whole hell of a lot more pretentious after taking the cliche (but still romantic) 3-month backpacking trip through Europe. Oops.

On Iceland

The final destination on my 14 week journey was Iceland, which I wanted to explore due to it’s spectacular landscape and geography. Luckily, Icelandair has a spectacular deal called the stopover, which essentially gives you a free flight to and from Iceland if you’re traveling between Europe and North America.  That said – don’t visit Iceland if you’re traveling on a budget. You’ll quickly find yourself sleeping in a Volkswagen Golf and eating pre-cooked pasta and rice for every meal.

My plan for Iceland was to rent a car and drive around Route 1, known as Ring Road, which encircles the Island, stopping at as many sights as I could. I had 4 full days to complete this trip and get back to Reykjavik, where I’d fly home to Chicago on Wednesday after 98 days of travel. When I picked up the rental car Saturday morning, the agent told me it was “crazy” to try to go so far in such a short amount of time. Well, this wasn’t the first time I’d been called crazy and I certainly hope it’s not the last.

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Route 1, AKA “Ring Road”

As I took off to find the the treasures that Iceland had in store for me, I had a massive realization. Not only was this the first time in 3.5 months that I was driving a car – it was the first time in 3.5 months that I was alone, in an environment that I controlled, without the possibility of someone else entering at any moment. As someone who lives alone in LA, it was quite an adaptation to live the hostel life, sharing bedrooms with 3-21 people each night, and never having any expectation of privacy. I had become much more extroverted and comfortable around strangers by this point, but I had to celebrate the return to solitude in the most appropriate way: windows down, blasting country music and singing along.

The scenery of Iceland feels otherworldly at times, such as this drive surrounded by geothermal vents and foot-thick moss covering a lava field.

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The most common sights in Iceland (besides sheep), are waterfalls. As spectacular as these are, a few locals said they’d gladly trade them for some trees.

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Skogafoss
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Skaftafell National Park

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Gullfoss

My favorite part of Iceland was the interactive part – geothermal pools called “hot pots” that people bathe in. These range from completely unregulated, free to use, natural holes in the ground, to resort spa-level amenities (and pricing). Seljavallalaug was the real highlight for me, a free hot spring pool built just a 10-minute walk into a small valley. I visited during the sunset and was rewarded generously with a beautiful view and a new friend, who stopped in Iceland before volunteering as a nurse on a Mercy Ship off of Africa for 3 months. It became clear why she initiated conversation with me after I learned of the name of her blog… www.beardedvision.com

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Seljavallalaug during sunset

The next three days were filled with adventure and lots of driving (I’d put on over 1,500 miles in 4 days). There were icebergs floating to sea, steep mountain climbs on gravel roads through thick fog, more hot pots, a German hitchhiker, a flat tire in the Westfjords, beautiful sunsets, and very few people.

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On my second to last night, I pulled over on the side of the road to sleep for the night and was treated to a meteor shower surrounded by thousands of pulsating stars. As I laid there – in the middle of nowhere, Iceland, watching the a meteor shower in the back of a rental car after 96 days of travel, I couldn’t help but be overcome by emotion. Sometimes we feel stuck or stranded in life – but at any moment, you have the power to make a decision that completely changes your situation. I don’t know if I ever thought I’d be where I was that night (along with many other places along this journey), but being open to new experiences and unafraid of the many things to be afraid of brought me there. At first I thought it was a shame that cameras (ok, my iPhone camera) couldn’t capture the beauty of being in that moment, because I wanted to share it with everyone. Now, I’m glad that’s the case. That moment was more than just something to see – it was something to experience – and I believe that is something one must earn.

On Amsterdam

Unlike many of the places I visited, I thought I knew what to expect in Amsterdam. In fact, my expectation (probably similar to yours, if you’ve never been) was close, but omitted a few factors. Yes, the Red Light District is peculiar and very overwhelming – walking through a narrow alley of one-room stalls with women behind the glass doors of each one trying to get your attention is not something that I was exactly comfortable with. Yes, there are plenty of Coffee Shops full of marijuana for sale (not as strange to us as it once was, thanks CO and WA!) and smoke exhaled from the many comfortable customers. Yes, the canals lined by trees and crooked buildings are beautiful.

I found a personal highlight in visiting the Anne Frank House. Growing up knowing the story, I had a particular idea about the famed attic and the conditions the families lived in. Perhaps because the conception of this idea was during an otherwise happy childhood, it was overly optimistic. Walking past the swinging bookcase and into the tiny, dark rooms was a somber moment when I questioned my own mental toughness. I’m not sure I could survive in such a space for so long, without knowing if it would ever end. The most heartbreaking moment of the tour was a video that featured Anne’s father years later, in which he essentially said that he had no idea that his daughter was capable of all of these complex thoughts. He followed this up with “I don’t think many parents truly know their children.” 

What I didn’t expect in Amsterdam was the massive population of tourists. On certain busy streets lined with fast food, shopping, and fanny-packed people, I felt like a visitor at an amusement park around consumerism. Unfortunately, the weather was disagreeable for most of my visit to Amsterdam, although I roughed it through some light-rain to take a bicycle tour of the city. There are certainly some worthwhile facets of a visit to Amsterdam, but for the most part, it seems that many people visit soley for its debaucherous reputation.

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Anne’s Bookcase-door

On Copenhagen

I fell in love in Copenhagen. More precisely, I fell in love with Copenhagen. All along my journey, people had asked me what my favorite city I’d visited was. Until this point, I didn’t have have a definitive answer: I loved the calm atmosphere of San Sebastian; Interlacken Switzerland was full of natural beauty and activity; and the western coast of Italy is simply breathtaking. Shortly after arriving in the charming capital of Denmark, I knew I had a new answer to this common question.

Before visiting, I had heard of Copenhagen mostly through different international city rankings, in which it regularly ranked near the top – quality of life, happiness, etc. As a sun-lover, I wondered what the secret this Nordic city with short winter days and an excess of overcast skies was hiding that made it’s residents so happy. It soon became clear that it was the people themselves that make this town so special. I was simply overwhelmed with how genuine, kind, and helpful everyone I met was.

I’d regularly get into lengthy conversations with cashiers, waitresses, and bartenders who had smiles on their faces and cheerful dispositions. It doesn’t hurt one bit that Danish people are generally beautiful. After only a day in the city, I found myself noticeably more chipper and friendly. It became clear to me that the attitude of any place is crafted by the attitudes of it’s residents; you have the power to influence how friendly those around you are by how friendly you choose to be to them.

Copenhagen’s visible beauty lies in the colorful buildings, blue canals, and plethora of bikers traversing the city streets. It has a distinct and pleasant small town vibe despite it’s considerable size, thanks once again to it’s considerate and friendly residents. If you ever get the chance, I highly recommend visiting Copenhagen and surrendering yourself to it in order to let it change you, if only just a little bit, for the better.

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Just try to not be happy here
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Nyhavn

On Germany

Munich

After weeks of traveling through places with absolutely no regard for the taste or quality of beer (I’m looking at you, Spain), it felt like a glorious homecoming to arrive in Munich, a Mecca for a beer-lover such as myself. After taking a tour of the city, I learned that just about everything of historical significance that has ever happened owes some part to beer (to be sure, these are largely myths and jokes that are made up to support the narrative, but I’m happy to support and believe in them).

 Since some ridiculous percentage of Munich was destroyed in the war (~80%), there are very few original buildings around the city. However, the reconstruction was largely done in the style of the buildings pre-bombing, which results in an incongruence of new, completely in tact buildings in the style of old, traditional buildings, which kind of makes it feel like MedIeval Times. But the star of Munich is the beer, and all over the city are stationed Biergartens, which remind me of the food courts of amusement parks – minus the whole amusement park part. In another win over Spain, the go-to sized beer is called a Mass and is 1 Liter (compared to 0.25L). I happily had a stereotype reinforced at Hirschgarten, “the largest beer garden in the World,” when I witnessed a grandma of ~70ish carrying a mass in one hand (these things are heavy) and a giant pretzel in the other. Who says noon on a Monday is “too early?”

The highlight of Munich was the Englischer Garten, a gigantic park full of nature, activities, and beer. Once again, surfers made an appearance in an unlikely place, surfing a permanent wave made by the river’s tumble out of a tunnel. Further up the river, people jump in and float along as other sunbathe, listen to music, and read. Of course, it wouldn’t be Munich if there weren’t multiple beer gardens within the park, my favorite of which, Seehaus was nestled next to a lake and had an unstoppable playlist of 70’s hits.

Berlin

It’s not difficult to imagine why Berlin’s culture is so unique – given the history of the city, it’s a completely appropriate response to be aggressively edgy, in-your-face, and without any societal limits on behavior as a way of saying “never again will we let someone tell us what to do.” It’s much more difficult to find someone in a suit than a man in a fishnet top, leather shorts, and strange hairdo. In fact, I first assumed that the extras from Waterworld retired here and never took off their wardrobe before realizing that most of these people probably weren’t born when Waterworld was released. What a shame.

I was extremely lucky to have a group of 4 locals to meet up with upon my arrival, thanks to a blog I read called Wait But Why, which had organized a global meetup day (forget that I’m meeting random internet strangers, and instead check out the above blog if you enjoy both learning and humor). My internet friends and I, aged 23-33, went to a large open-area beach-bar-esque area next to the river on the east side called Yaam. As we enjoyed some beers and Jamaican food, I asked a bit about the nightlife in Berlin, and was informed that there are two types of people who go out in Berlin: those who go out to the clubs at 2-3am and head home around 11am; and those who stay at the club for the entire weekend. Like multiple days. Without leaving. I was about as shocked to hear this as they were that bars close at 2am in California (but thankful as ever that that is the case). Walking down the streets, it’s normal to see young guys sitting on the sidewalk with three cups in front of them asking for money: 1 labeled “food,” 1 labeled “weed” and 1 labeled “LSD.” While the counter-culture lifestyle of Berlin is definitely not for me, being in a place where remnants of a wall which once kept people in still stands, and where all the atrocities we know of began, I was thankful for these people who are so utterly different from me. Along this journey I’ve seen my share of people who seem so foreign to what I know, but I’ve never once felt personally threatened or in danger, and almost everyone I’ve spoken to has been incredibly kind. So while our juvenile selves may judge others for leading radically different lives than what we may think is “productive” or “meaningful,” I can’t help but think that everybody is just trying to be happy, and we should be celebrating the fact that we live in a world (in some places, at least), where diversity is accepted and able to be out in the open.

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New-Old Buildings
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River Surfing
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Beer Garden / Amusement Park Food Court?
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Yaam – Berlin
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Internet friends I’d known for 2 hours

On Prague

Prague

I had not heard a single negative thing about Prague before arriving – most of the travelers I had encountered prior had preached about how amazing of a city it is. This had my expectations sky-high for the Czech city, which I hereby declare the Interstellar Mistake (Christopher Nolan, Matthew McConaughey, Hans Zimmer, reality-based space sci-fi… how could it have not been the best film of all time?!) When I only get to visit a place for a few days, my entire perception of it is largely dependent on the weather while I’m there (Ireland is beautifully sunny and warm, in case you were unaware). Unfortunately for me, my visit to Prague was accompanied by clouds, rain, and cold weather.

That said, it still is architecturally a magnificent place, thanks partially to it not being blown up by war. After all the historically significant, gigantic, celebrated churches I’ve seen over the past three months, the Gothic churches of Prague are far and away my favorite. The charred-looking stone and ridiculously intricate gold and black ornamentation stand out prominently above the other buildings of the city. The largest of these, St. Vitus Cathedral, sits in the middle of the Prague castle on the top of a hill overlooking the Vltava river. The castle itself is a pretty well protected peek into the past, with the palace, churches, shops, and residencies that once inhabited the space within the castle walls.

Another thing Prague does do well is public / street art. This is also most definitely in response to Soviet rule of the city. One particular space called the “Lennon Wall” celebrates the freedom to write anything on a public wall without an authority covering it up. Every day, hundreds of people come by and paint their own drawings and words on the wall, which is now feet thicker due to so many coats of paint. Beyond this street art, there are many humorous statues with implied political meaning, such as giant bronze babies with barcodes instead of faces, and two men urinating in a pool shaped as the Czech Republic. I don’t exactly remember the point of that one, but it’s funny nonetheless. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to return to Prague under clearer weather and lower expectations, and be able to thoroughly enjoy the beauty of the place. 

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St. Vitus Cathedral
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Lennon Wall