world and heart, explorer slender; tracing lines both true and tender

daze

Posted on August 25, 2014

There is a lot you could say about travel. There is a lot, in fact, people do say about travel. They say that not all who wander are lost (Tolkien), that the world is a book and you must travel to read more than one page (St. Augustine). They utter clever things about the boredom, the lack of control, the discovery of travel. Proverbs tell us that it’s the only thing we can buy that will make us richer. 

That’s the funny thing about travel. It means something completely different to each person. It wears about a thousand different hats. And even more than that—if you asked a nomad what traveling meant to him five minutes later, he would probably give you a different answer (or I would, anyway); it is ever evolving.

It is inherently and deliciously unpin-down-able. It is like the boggart in Harry Potter, snapping into a different shape depending on who stands before it, looking, daring, dreaming. Travel changes as you do. And the unbelievably best part about it: travel is capital “G” Good regardless of who or where or why. I may get discouraged, I may be confused, I may feel alienated from my drunk, very-not-homesick fellow travelers, but this is a fact in which I have never lost faith. 

***

Something happened to me somewhere between Bulgaria and Croatia. I’ve been wondering with a kind of constant hum of curiosity if—or how, rather—I would change through my travels. I figured I might not even find out how until I returned back to the setting where I was someone else, months ago, until I could find a familiar backdrop to compare new Tiffany to old Tiffany. But I already feel different. 

 

“I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.” – Lillian Smith

 

On the twelve hour bus ride from Sofia to Zagreb, we paused in Serbia at a rest stop next to the highway. The driver gave us forty-five minutes to sit or stand or smoke. I didn’t have any Serbian money to buy a coffee, so I walked over to a large swath of grass and laid down under a big tree. As I put my hands under my head, as I took in the cool softness of the grass, as I stared at the blue sky and the gold evening light through the branches, I performed my habitual evaluation of self and soul. And you know what I realized in the quiet? That I didn’t have one measly thing to complain about. That I was completely at peace. It wasn’t a grand moment, it wasn’t sparkling or particularly special. I didn’t feel that weird, occasional sheen of contentment that coats the world in a splashy soundtrack and an overly forgiving optimism. I simply was, and everything that was, was good. That’s when I first noticed it. 

I think I might be attaining the thing I’ve been wanting all along: not simply being comfortable with travel, but being comfortable with existing at all. 

***

The American travel writer and novelist, Paul Theroux, said that “[t]ravel is glamorous only in retrospect.” I certainly understand the sentiment of this statement, as I am more often stressed, inconvenienced, and scrambling than I ever would be at home (though to be honest, I was also often going without, pushed to limits of resourcefulness, and uncaring about shower frequency even before I left). As I stood wearily waiting for a bus with two travel friends on the side of a dirty gray highway after a long, disappointing morning looking for a beach that never surfaced, one friend observed, “Travel is so often just waiting around.” I laughed and agreed. 

But in spite of these things, it’s remarkable how often I catch myself thinking, Gee wiz, Tiffany, you are one lucky duck. I pause and look around, blinking, almost disbelieving. I keep having those moments that are so beautiful and surreal you might have seen them in dreams, or maybe just movies. If you were to take pictures of these moments, they would be of the sort that used to make my stomach lurch in painful desire and envy when I saw them on my computer screen at home, at work. As one who strives for continual contentment, gratitude, and optimism and is therefore loathe to complain even in inconvenience and ill fortune, I might argue that traveling is every bit as glamorous as one would hope, even when it’s not. Because, even when it’s not, it’s still Good. It is not for nothing that travel is a subject so frequently immortalized into quotes like the following, after all:

“Travel does what good novelists also do to the life of everyday, placing it like a picture in a frame or a gem in its setting, so that the intrinsic qualities are made more clear. Travel does this with the very stuff that everyday life is made of, giving to it the sharp contour and meaning of art.” – Freya Stark

 

Pula, Croatia:

  • Tossing myself into the streets of Pula after twelve hours on a bus, six sleeping on blue chairs in a bus station, five walking around Zagreb, three on another bus. Getting caught in the rain, getting lost, getting an accidental ride and a new friend. Waking up to a warm woman and homemade Croatian liquor at nine am. Not knowing we should sip, instead of throw back. Putting “fire breather” into google translate and laughing in two different languages. 
  • Wandering around the ancient, seaside town full of warm yellow stones with an old friend. Delighting in company over twelve cappuccinos in a row. Deciding to go to the cinema in the evening, because why not, seeing a refreshingly excellent film and walking out into the balmy, starry, bustling night with a joy that rolls into involuntary laughter. A long, pretty day.
  • Sitting on a third story balcony of a charming labyrinth hostel and watching a yellow crescent moon rise. The flowers below are purple and pungent, the voices of vacationers bounce off cobblestones and hit me like a serenade. 

Rijeka, Croatia:

  • After squishing into a tiny apartment with thirteen other couch surfers, we made friends with two and went hiking up one of Croatia’s coastal monsters. Didn’t know starting at the bottom by the beach means hiking for over four hours and not actually making it up to the top. But we picked fruit off the trees along the way, sweat through our clothes and packs, talked about our lives, flexed our muscles and then came back down. At the bottom, we quenched our thirst with beer, our hunger with fresh grilled fish, our heat with blue water. 
  • Swimming in the Adriatic is spiritual. I’ve been practicing my breaststroke. The salt makes my bony limbs bob on the surface without any effort. I roll with the waves. I do all of this alone. When I’ve reached some deep outer limit, I peer down past my ghostly legs—blurry, like a vision—and regard the earth’s surface ten, twenty, fifty feet below; the sea never stops being wholly transparent. I face the deep and drink in all the enormous shades of blue that make up the water, the sky, and the mountains in between. From where I tread, I am immersed in God’s glory. I revel in my smallness, I let my heart sing praise, I give myself over in trust. 
  • Divine good pleasure would have it that we be accepted as couch surfers into the home of one bright spark named Iva (pronounced Eva), against most odds. Iva was also hosting Philip, equanimity incarnate. While the two make a delightfully magnetic couple, the four of us together make an equally merry and rapturous affair. I knew I was in love when Iva shooed us into the kitchen as soon as we showed up at ten pm to insist that we immediately start eating cereal. Fast friends, we conquered the town: huge watermelons, late night Croatian pastries (burek), playing and making up games on city monuments, a purring black kitten named Poe, porch side haircuts, lazy afternoon Disney movies, sneaking on the back of busses and then seeing who can stand the longest with no hands, diving into the sea, wondering about life and love, sleepy cocktails and serious talks. 
  • Staying in one place just long enough to feel like some small secret has been given to you.

“A journey is best measured in friends, not miles.” – Tim Cahill

 

Venice, Italy:

 

Venice is even more charming in real life than your idyllic brain could imagine, but dare I say, perhaps, too charming? Admittedly, my mother and our friends and I didn’t make it much past a small radius of San Marco Square, the most heavily touristy section of the city, but every perfect corner turned seemed to reveal another perfect alley or small square (campo) just like the previous one. It’s not that this is such a bad thing, but repetition and familiarity tend to breed apathy and ingratitude, and I don’t like to take even one minute in this wide world for granted. To top it off, the city is spotless in spite of the hordes, a fact which struck me as incredible and eerie. Such perfection comes off as contrived. It felt like Venice was bracing itself against the tourists, holding its breath until they all went away and it could return to itself. I don’t blame it for that, either; it is decidedly overrun. Of course I don’t actually have any idea, but the spirit of Venice that I imagine is much seedier. In the meantime, it is both alluring and suffocating. 

Naturally my favorite part was spending time with my mom. It was funny; being there with her made me feel as though I had stepped into a time warp or something, like I pushed a big red pause button on backpacking and was instead on another vacation with her like we always went on growing up. If felt uncanny, but okay. The apparent and sudden normalcy of getting what I’ve been craving—to be with my family (in Italy no less)—was a bit startling, especially since I knew it would end in a few days and I would be returned to myself, this new life. We spent our last evening just the two of us drinking white wine on the Grand Canal while the sun set, talking and treasuring.

 

The rest of Croatia:

  • Plitvice National Park is a sparkling diamond, as long as you can see it between the heads of a hundred other people squished on a tiny footbridge. Here, you will follow a path of thin wooden planks that wind across bright blue water—something like a fairy tale. Little schools of fish will hover by your feet. Waterfalls emerge from exotic looking greenery and mountain cliffs alike. It will feel like if you bent down and even touched the perfect water, some awesome and terrible consequence would suddenly befall. You won’t realize that you left your debit card at the ticket office until you try to pay for the hostel the next morning, in a city three hours away. 
  • What better way to finish a day traveling to Zadar than by going swimming at midnight? Walks down the pier turn into walks on the beach turn into sinking under dark water warmer than the air. Stars toss themselves across the black dome above, rocks glisten in the moonlight on the sea floor below.
  • Split’s got an old town to make the heart melt. It’s like some beautiful combination of Venice and the Caribbean. Sitting in the balmy shade of a palace’s ruins, drinking coffee and looking over the blue sea is made sweetest by the knowledge that I can stay here as long as I want, that there is absolutely nothing keeping me from enjoying this with everything I’ve got. 
  • A little bit gutsy and stubborn, we slept on the beach for two nights in Makarska. It was fortuitous: we found two floaties on the shore just waiting for us to use them as mattresses. Headlamps, sleeping bag, and wet wipes—what more could you need? We were completely prepared. The first night was interrupted by, in retrospect, a hilariously friendly hedgehog, and the second night by an enormous thunderstorm. The first morning we woke up and simply went swimming, immediately. The second we woke and chatted amicably with the man who let us take shelter under the roof of his open air cafe. A beautiful, crazy, practically obligatory experience in the roving timeline of a backpacker. I mean, let’s face it—I see some pretty amazing things in many of my days, but falling asleep under a navy starry sky to the sound of softly crushing waves in Croatia is pretty special. 

“Traveling is brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things—air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky—all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” – Cesare Pavese

 

***

I suppose out of all the differences wrought in me from June 4th until now, the biggest thus far is the one where I am no longer demanding what the heck but instead inquiring, calmly and peaceably, ok, what’s next, then? Ironically, I feel as though I am standing on solid ground. The path my feet take is still black and shrouded in mystery, but I step with more sureness than I ever have yet.  

To me, at this moment, travel is a means to live with intention. Before I left, I found the idea of being able to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, a bit appalling. And after I left, at the beginning, I was rent asunder by the fact that traveling—having no real plans, schedule, structure, industry, familiarity, community, and therefore distractions—makes every question and doubt you’ve ever had about your life and your place in the world that much more large and unavoidable. You are forced to face yourself head on; you can do whatever you choose, and you must. At the end of each day, none of it has or will matter, except to and for you. 

I have always tried to live intentionally, to maintain a habit of looking honestly at myself and striving for constant betterment. To live with intention means living each moment on purpose, each day decidedly, each second with forethought. It means not going through any motions, not slipping into unconscious habit. It requires discipline. It means changing, adapting, growing. It is awareness first, then choice, and finally, action. 

In travel, I have found this way of living to be both easier, and necessary. Honestly, it didn’t take me very long to get used to having absolutely no obligation to anything except myself. Each day is a blindingly white slate. And the key, I think, is in knowing that it doesn’t matter so much what I do, but how I do it. Life will always, after all, barrel on, but how I choose to act and react is entirely up to me. I realize these are not new ideas, but travel’s way of emphasizing this point is why I have come to like it so much. To me, traveling is like a beautiful marriage between freedom and opportunity. These things allow me to prod myself into exactly who and how I want to be. And, I think I might have some pretty good ideas about that whole business of existing. 

I finish writing this and send my greetings from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Today was perhaps my favorite yet, but I’ll tell you about it another day. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with one last nugget: 

“Adventure is a path. Real adventure—self-determined, self-motivated, often risky—forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of mankind—and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.” – Mark Jenkins

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bulgaria

Posted on July 30, 2014

Bulgaria has made me a spoiled fool. Three long weeks has replaced stamina with surrender, obscurity with family. Any firmness of mind or body that I’ve built up over the last month and half of traveling solo has been rounded out by profuse amounts of Bulgarian generosity and food.

 

Food:
If, instead of Israel, the promised land had been located in Bulgaria, Moses would have not have described it as flowing with milk and honey, but with yogurt and feta. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter what kind of edible surface you present to a Bulgarian; slap some feta on it and give them a glass of liquid yogurt to polish it off, and they will be happy as a peach. But speaking of honey, I’ve never been the biggest fan. Inasmuch as I have a rather dictatorial sweet tooth, I can appreciate it, but the flavor is somewhat off-putting. The local honey found in glass jars at stands on the side of the road in Bulgaria, however, is gold by the spoonful. I also think it would be a safe bet to say that I ate a salad comprised mainly of tomatoes, cucumbers, feta and oil (shopska salata) at two out of three meals, every single day. In fact, it wouldn’t be unusual to order this salad at a restaurant and receive it with the slices of tomatoes still warm from the sun, since most homes and businesses alike use their given property for flourishing gardens. It’s very fortunate that I’m not a vegetarian, else I forfeit a huge element of cultural cuisine (and I daresay, turn pink from tomato consumption). I was lucky enough to eat a couple excellent home cooked meals with rabbit and lamb, and on several occasions what I would liken to our version of hamburgers and hot dogs, except pre-cooked, highly seasoned and not necessarily warm. Funnily enough, Bulgarians aren’t too big on beef, because they claim it is too dry. Bread accompanies every single meal, but, bewilderingly, it’s generally just a sleeve of very plain sliced sandwich bread. You will often see a Bulgarian with an ear of corn in hand, or sunflower seeds between the teeth. They are exceedingly proud of their watermelons, and rightfully so. My favorite meals were navy bean soup made from scratch by Snejana’s hunched, hobbly, and firecrackery grandmother (from the navy beans just picked out of their huge garden in their tiny village), and the Bulgarian version of stuffed peppers. The simultaneously doughy and flaky breakfast pastry log filled with feta ain’t bad either.

 

Language:
My mom once told me a story that went something along these lines: as a tiny thing, I was very excited for the first day of first grade. I had been looking forward to it with the undiluted fervor of a seven year old, and got on the bus that September day with cheeks brimming over with smiles. So you can imagine my mother’s dismay when I came home to her later, wracked with tears. “What happened?” she cried. And I stammered out between sobs, “I thought they were going to teach me how to read!” Right then and there, she sat me down for my first lesson, and the rest is written history.

Snejana taught me the Slavic alphabet during my first few days, which allowed for three weeks of entertainment and satisfaction on my part. As someone who feels the most at home with her nose in a book, it’s a really interesting sensation to look at text and have to study it, to have to sound out each letter again, one at a time. No longer is looking at a word insta-comprehension. I spent my days having staring contests with menus and billboards, willing them to give up their secret sounds. I’m happy to say that I almost always won.

Maybe around half of their alphabet uses the same symbols as we do, but they stand for different sounds. These, as my lovely linguist host happily informed me, are called “false friends.” The trickiest part is not memorizing crazy new symbols that look like hieroglyphs, but remembering that the x is an h sound, that a B is a v sound, that c is an s, and so on. It’s an amazing thing to see a word that, at first glance, looks devastating in its unfamiliarity, but after a few seconds of studying reveals itself into “bistro” or “garage” or “vodka” (бистро, гараж, водка, respectively). I love the bluntness of Bulgarian spelling; there are no special exceptions or magical transformations. What you see is what you get, so if you can sound it out, you can say it. My delight at putting together the sounds “oo-ee-skee” (found in the world уиски) and realizing I was reading “whiskey” was boundless. Of course, more often than not, the words I managed to decipher weren’t anything resembling an English word, but this had no effect on the pleasure of my pastime. As it turns out, learning to read at twenty-five is just as awesome as it was at seven.

 

Favorite moments:

  1. It’s interesting to me that I didn’t realize until this trip quite how much I love being in the mountains, any mountains, be them Irish, Czech, or Bulgarian. So it’s not terribly surprising that my first favorite thing happened in the Rhodope Mountains in southern Bulgaria, when we visited one of the famous monasteries, ancient and solid, sleeping quietly between the shoulders of the hills. Almost the minute that we pulled up and put the car in park, the rain started. Scampering over the gorgeous stone ground and under the vivid berry trees, we found cover in one of the outdoor corridors that rings the church in the center. I stood under an archway and watched in awe as mist tumbled across the peaks, as huge bolts of lightning snapped and the thunder sounded like ripping sky. The rain transformed everything into its darker, wilder and more bewitching self: the surrounding forests, the striped towers of the church, the very stones of the earth. We waited for two hours for the rain to let up—slightly—and ducked into the church where we were greeted by smiling, bearded monks. We marveled at the artistry, pointed and spoke in whispers, craned our necks to see the painted ceilings. The walls are almost black, not because of some ancient fire, as we found out, but because of the millions of candles that have been burning smoke like patient prayers for years and years. I desperately wanted to walk around every corner of that beautiful stone place in the dark green hills, but it had already been three hours, the rain wasn’t stopping, and the courtyard was flooding. It was one of those rare experiences where everything is just as incredible as it sounds, where life in reality actually matches the dreams you’ve dreamt.
  2. Snejana’s father-in-law grew up tucked away in the some of these hills, along a river called Arda. He knows a place on this river that you can go, if you know about it, to sit along the quiet banks and take dips and relax in a very old-timey, simple, this-is-out-of-a-book kind of way. If you’re so inclined, you can bring picnic food, or beer, or a grill for barbecuing. Pitch a tent and stay the night, if you want. The water moves languidly slow, and it will be that perfect temperature that will never make you cold enough to want to get out, but is nonetheless perfectly refreshing. It’s clear enough to see straight to the bottom, flowing from a pristine mineral spring in the mountain, untouched by human hands the whole way down. The sand you sit on will be soft and warm from the sun, and the rocks you find here and there will be every color imaginable: blood red, caramel brown, robin’s egg blue, tiger stripes. You will probably spend the day floating on your back down the river and then doing breaststrokes back up. You will swim longer than you normally do, because it feels so good. When you do get out, you will lay on your stomach and let the sun dry you, listening to the sand crunch under your towel like you did when you were a kid. This makes you miss your family, but you think about how beautiful this is, how unexpectedly perfect, how lucky you are.
  3. Two days before I was scheduled to take a bus from Haskovo to Croatia, Snejana’s sister-in-law and her boyfriend invited me to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, since it was in the direction I would be heading anyway, and they were driving back that night. I could simply take the bus from Sofia in two days, stay with them in the meantime, and explore the capital. Sure, why not? Mariana and Kiro, like the rest of my adopted Bulgarian family, are lovely souls. My third favorite Bulgarian moment was spending the first evening in Sofia with them, walking around the beautifully lit up city as they pointed out everything they could think of to tell me about the buildings and the history, in either good or charmingly broken English. We got a 2-liter of beer (yes, they have those) from a walk-up window and sat in the park and drank it, because, Kiro said, I couldn’t drink in parks in the States. We were just another young group of friends among the many that sat around in the nightly gathering place, talking and laughing. We chewed and spit sunflower seeds, we discovered the hilarity of the word “cucumber,” we talked about all the things we would do if (when, says Kiro) I come back to Bulgaria. I suppose I don’t need to elaborate much why something so simple felt so damn good.

Everything else:
I am immeasurably lucky to have experienced the past three weeks as I did. I think I got a more varied, well-rounded Bulgarian cultural experience than most Bulgarians do in six months. Authenticity couldn’t have been more prevalent if it sat in my lap. Who else could have spent a leisurely ten days laying on the Black Sea, eating fish and ice cream, taking walks around town? What tourist gets to stay in a small city out of the way of every tourist destination, where hardly a soul speaks English, in a comfortable and cozy home chock full of family? Or who travels to one of the tiny, almost identical villages where the kids used to grow up before they all moved to the cities, where grandmothers still raise chickens and grow their own food and wear thirteen colors at once? And who, might I ask, can do all this and still have time to explore the capital of the country, completing a tour-de-force from sea to mountain to river, to suburb to village to city?

I got much more than I bargained for when I timidly asked Snejana in the height of my loneliness if I could come visit her while she stayed in her home country for the summer. I was folded into a family life unlike any I’ve seen on this Earth yet, and learned a bit about what it really means to take care of your family, no questions asked (and no blood needed, apparently). I became familiar with the black and white stripes that paint every pole and every sidewalk across the country. I learned about Bulgarian history, real estate, prices of cars, gypsies, social habits. You still might not believe me, but I swear I got a tan. I learned that Bulgaria is comprised almost exclusively of brick and concrete. I continued my European trend of being stuffed full to exploding. I relaxed, I slept well, I finished four books. I swam a ton, I went dancing. I nodded and smiled while the throaty sounds of Bulgarian floated around my head. I watched the village storks make their enormous nests on the highest point in town, and swoop after tractors in search of mice. I conquered another step in the mastery of photography. I sat under the shady ceilings of grape vines that climb every single establishment, public and private. I hardly spent a dime. I have completely and immeasurably indebted myself to a family that is generous as a rule, and would hardly comprehend repayment.

Off to Croatia to travel with my good college friend Sean for a while, who has been volunteer farming in Norway for the last two months. Feel free to check out his adventures over at beardlessfarmer.com, if you’re so inclined. And, I’ll be taking a brief jaunt to Venice to hang out with my mom, go figure. Where once I was alone, I am now inundated with companionship, and I couldn’t be happier.

I think we could call it all a success, yeah?

daily

Posted on July 15, 2014

The farther east I go, the happier I get. The cities get more dilapidated, and the languages get more alien, both of which things I find fascinating and charming.

Budapest is a real trip. My jaunt was only two short days, during which time I found things both to like and dislike. More time, I’m sure, would balance out the scales in one direction or another. At the very least, I can really get behind those baths. But who couldn’t?

I actually stayed in a hostel for once, which was an excellent choice, as it was in an ancient Hungarian apartment building, complete with rusting wrought iron railings and cracked marble stairs. It was tucked off a humid, tree-laden street that I liked the best out of all the streets. Despite my cold, I took a walking tour bundled up in the rain and thunder, got an excellent history lesson of Hungary, and made a friend to hang out with the rest of the day.

Of course I loved the central market, chock full of produce, sausages, souvenirs (which also get better towards the east), and authentic food. I ate the biggest lunch of goulash stew and Hungarian gnocchi and bread and wine and a cheese pastry, and ogled all the traditional fabrics.

My new friend and I ran over to one of the Turkish baths on the Buda side of the Danube before they closed, which was amazingly worth it. It was tiny and cavelike, dark and stoney. In each of the four corners of the main room were four different pools, each a different temperature, ranging from cool to scalding. The middle pool, the biggest and surrounded by thick columns, was perfectly warm and glistened under a ceiling of dark red and navy and amber stones, backlit by the sunset. I liked to lean back, slowly fill my lungs full of steamy air, floating and bobbing and staring at the jeweled stars.

It was also women’s day, and I have to admit that I admire Europeans’ seemingly complete lack of modesty. My favorite was the gorgeously plump Hungarian woman doing splits next to me in the water on the pool stairs, without one stitch.

Budapest also boasts of ruin pubs, which is one of the few ways, apparently, that you can get me to go out at night with enthusiasm. The country is pretty poor, even enough to prefer leaving crumbling buildings standing in favor of spending money to tear them down. So, a few years back, someone brilliant rented out an abandoned basement, added a few touches but mostly left the decay to speak for itself, and sold some alcohol. Meant to last for the summer, voila, ten years later there are ruin pubs all over the city, each with its own complete and varied personality.

I had a bananas train trip to get to Bulgaria. It took a total of 31 hours, which I wouldn’t have minded so much if there was toilet paper in any of the bathrooms. But as it turns out, yours truly is tremendously researched and took the advice of fellow travelers to always carry tissues, in general, but especially into bathrooms. Forgive me if my facts are a little hazy, but at various points in the middle of the night, I’m pretty sure I passed through 4 countries (Hungary, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria), which makes for 6 passport checks, one each for entering and exiting. This does not include copious ticket checks. I should also mention that upon arriving, Snejana had a hardy laugh at my delusion that there would be wifi on the train. I have been spoiled with all these touring buses; Eastern European trains are decrepit metal things, and the stations they stop at are literally piles of broken cement in the middle of dusty, blank, overgrown fields. I was supposed to transfer twice, but at each stop I made, I was told something different in something barely resembling English, and I ended up changing 5 trains and 3 different arrival times. However, I made excellent headway on my book and made friends with a Canadian and two Swedes (who had ice all over their faces but warmth in the surprising favors they paid me). My optimism was barely spoiled, save for anxiety over being late for my hosts.

And anyway, the duration was more than made up for by the infinite fields of bright faced sunflowers, spanning the rolling earth and being tucked in by a sleepy horizon.

It seems what they say about Americans and Europeans is true. Americans are much quicker to offer smiles and jokes and warm words, but once a European has decided to like you, you become, in the truest sense, bonded for good. And so shines through a truth of my own: I dearly wish we could just combine the best of the two. I wish that I could receive easy and reassuring countenances when participating in transactions in the public sphere, and that I could also find depth and intimacy and sincerity in the various relationships forged throughout life. This is a subject that I’ve thought about and discussed at length, and it’s even so much more complicated than it seems. It fascinates and saddens me to no end.

My friends in Bulgaria have not strayed from their culture; I have been treated like a daughter and sister with an obviousness that embarrasses me. In general, I have a difficult time being taken care of. I get flustered and internally troubled when my own blood does the normal things that families do to tend to one another, until I can calm my soul with some Tiffany-approved compromise of gratitude and contribution. Being here among a family with whom I can only speak half the members thanks to the language divide, and yet still being given unquestioning acceptance and consideration as though they have known me since birth rather than yesterday—this is a marvelous feat that confuses, blesses, and discomfits me. Offering money, cooking, or cleaning is not only refused, but occasionally offensive, and I am grieved that I can’t even communicate anything more than a measly thank you in the right language.

Save for one, these past days have consisted of waking up around eight or nine, eating a breakfast of bread and cheese and Bulgarian meats, throwing on suits and walking down the hill to the beach, where we stay til the afternoon. I am by far, without a doubt, the palest creature for miles and miles, though if you’ll believe me, there are now parts of me that more closely resemble butter or honey. Lounging and whatever and nothingness ensues for the afternoon, until I am introduced to something delightfully Bulgarian for dinner. I’ve eaten more cucumbers, tomatoes, and feta than I have ever eaten. Yogurt abounds: various strains of sheep, ox, and goat yogurt; cold yogurt soup with cucumbers; yogurt stirred with water and salt and drunk. Everything, everything is salty. At night we take walks around Sunny Beach or St. Vlas, eat treats and marvel at the parties and pleasantries. You can buy tiny fried fish (with skins and heads and tails, all) for a snack, or you can simply choose to put your feet in a fish tank for a titillating cleaning.

Yesterday we drove to Snejana’s tiny village where her mother’s house still stands. We picked fresh figs off the tree in the garden, and sat in the shade eating peaches while the juice dripped down our chins. She showed me an original part of the wall that was made solely from interlocking sticks and mud. The family relations and local men that are fixing up the house smoked cigarettes and told stories in a magical dappled sunlight.

Afterwards we walked over to a botanical garden in the same village, an unexpected trove of vibrancy in the midst of the neighborhood’s quiet abandon. An enchantingly short woman with round glasses and white hair and rubber shoes walked us through the flourishing entanglement, gabbing quickly in Bulgarian. Her family boasts over a thousand different types of cacti in their greenhouse, and she pointed out myrrh, lime trees, kiwis, eucalyptus. I am wholeheartedly seduced by the light, the heavy air, the green and the glass, the discipline and the dirt. I could have kissed the smiling wrinkled faces of the women under whose hands such life propers, as they sat among hanging gourds and outdoor sinks.

I apologize in advance; there have been several occasions already that I have forgotten my camera. It seems as though when I do bring it, I don’t use it, you know? Maybe when the iPhone 6 comes out (soon?) I’ll splurge and upgrade from the 3 to the 4 so that these pictures that I can snap from my pocket, at least, will be worth something.

My brain flits over plans and potentials most waking hours. My heart is receptive, and I’m trying to comb patience into the threads of my being until it stays there.

snapshot

Posted on July 7, 2014

My hands are bouncing as I type this, sitting on a business class bus bound for Budapest, Hungary. Business class means free water bottles and snacks, which is outrageously unheard of, and which I took immediate and enthusiastic advantage of, as evidenced by the crumbs covering my lap. My boots are tucked under my seat, the curtain is drawn over the window, I don’t smell awesome and I kind of have to pee. I am feeling tired, content, with hints of desperation. Welcome to backpacking.

The Czech Republic was lovely to me. I got lucky, as I so very often do. It’s so hard for me to tell if the places that I visit dictate my mood, or if my mood dictates my experience of the place. In any case, I have been feeling well and much more whole, thanks to this country or not. Prague is stunning, perhaps the most beautiful city I have yet to see in the world. It seems as though the Czechs’ taste for aesthetics is far reaching and spot on; it touches everything, even the mundane: streets, walls, ceilings, fixtures, paint jobs. Glittering flashes of gold wink from every other surface, laughing at the ages. Were I ever offered the opportunity to live there for good reason, I would accept without hesitation. The city’s spirit remains somewhat a mystery to me, but in a way that makes me want to sit down with it and drink coffee for a long time.

I had the good fortune of staying with a Czech man named Petr, to whom I owe a week of sincere wellbeing. More than his insatiable thoughtfulness and generosity, I loved making a friendship that traverses varying bounds of honesty, reflection, and laughter. For my part, at least, I have made my first friend since traveling that I would very simply like to keep for life.

I had been planning on doing a two week stint of three cities: Prague, Budapest, and Bucharest, as I made my way down to southern Bulgaria. But somehow the thought of repeated tourism, especially in urban areas, wore me down before I even started. Friday I spent almost an entire day inside, hunched over my computer to see if I couldn’t find a farm at which to volunteer on Sunday, and I did.

It’s called the Preserved Seed Farm, about 1.5 hours from Prague. It was beautiful, of course. They have sheep, goats, chickens, an apple orchard, a small vineyard, a homemade greenhouse, a huge garden, three horses, several trailers, two lodges, and two houses in a tiny village. Anywhere from 20 to 50 people live there at once, because as I found out a little late, the people there are part of a religious group called the Twelve Tribes. There is much one could say about them, but all I really have is a witness to their extreme sincerity and generosity. They seek to live a life of love, and that they do.

I spent one week doing more dishes than I could count, sitting and swaying amazingly high in a tree to pick (eat) gobs of cherries, learning how to make cheese, pruning tomato plants, and milking goats. I chopped dried herbs, I started fires for cooking, I hung laundry up to dry and then hung more. I gathered chicken eggs and brushed my teeth in rainwater. I slept in a humble trailer and took enormous pleasure in warm showers. I made faces at kids and held hands while dancing and I think I was full to exploding the entire week. Their food is to die for, that’s for sure. I think that every green growing thing had a different edible berry on it around every corner, and the farm attracted three wild cats, one orange, one black, one spotted, with whom they shared fresh, warm goat’s milk.

On the weekends they play volleyball and duck into the gigantic, neighboring forest to go swimming in a hidden lake. Every morning and every evening they gather together for fellowship, and I was soon accustomed to waking at six am. If something was offered to me, which was about every ten minutes, I rarely said no. I was unceasingly amazed to listen to their kids excitedly rush between Czech, German, and English, without missing a beat. They operate anywhere from candles, to solar panels, to regular electricity, depending on the building. If you get up early enough, the mist is still hovering over pale yellow and green fields like a spirit. I ate almost exclusively homemade bread, cheese, and fresh vegetables, and just as often drank roasted tea with local honey, and goat’s milk. Pretty much my idea of a fairytale.

Being around that many people for that long is a little trying to me, but it also kind of felt like bible camp that I went to when I was little. I seem to have developed a small sinus infection since the end of that week, but before I left, they pumped me full of freshly picked sage leaves, ripe red berries, herb tea with honey and drops of homemade echinacea, notes of encouragement included. I’m sort of terrified of getting sick while traveling, and I know I would be much worse off without their care.

I accomplished everything I wanted: slow down, save money, give back, help out, learn things, grow relationships. I’m on my way to Budapest to sit in the Hungarian pools and eat goulash for two days, and then I’m gone to Bulgaria for a handful of weeks, but I will certainly be farming again. Maybe in Greece, or Croatia, or Italy, who knows.

So, dear Czech Republic, here’s to you. Thanks for giving me stony, cool castles; gold plated halos; a walk in magical woods; a true friend; bridges and bridges over moat and memory; pretty money in the hundreds; an opera both quaint and elegant; expensive water and beer for a dollar; dropping me off in the middle of nowhere in the rain; a museum for communism; mild wine; quiet bookstores; a farm with a lot of soul; an expanded tummy and a thoughtful heart.

I spent my last Czech coins making a triumphant fool of myself at the estimable Czech post office, and on a new bar of European chocolate. I’m thinking about my spiritual enigma, and I still walk through crowded places and let myself imagine what I would do if your familiar face surfaced within the sea. Onward.

take two

Posted on June 22, 2014

Whew, okay. Got that last post out of my system. Sorry about that; that was pretty rough. I swear that I am not having a perpetual pity party all the time.

This is the third day in my travels so far, at least, that I have insisted on beginning rather wretchedly, and which has ended with some sort of miraculous turnaround, no thanks to me. I should take the pattern to heart and learn yet another lesson: it’s not over until the fat lady sings. Er, patience is a virtue. How about trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding?

My heart gets tired pretty easily, so I spend time by myself, or reading my bible, or mostly, by emailing and talking to you. After a while, I’ve noticed, I eventually rise out of it, stand up and jut my chin, determined again to start walking until I meet life face to face. And generally, it goes great.

Today I left my hostel in search of the tiny arts center on this tiny island, resolved to see something cool, and listen to music, gosh darn it. On the way, I noticed a man down on the rocks by the water, cutting fish on a plank. The sun was beginning to set, and it was all terribly picturesque. I made up my mind to go talk to him, and see what was what.

Image

Paddy greeted me warmly, and let me sit and watch him clean the fish he had caught earlier that day. He had taken out his kayak, a special one that you sit on top of, visited friends at the other island, and scored a dozen gorgeous fish. His knife work was quiet and exact, and we chatted about the specialness of the island, of the gold medals it had won for having the best practice of environmental management and community life in the world. He reluctantly submitted that he was the manager of the island, and proudly announced he would rather live no where else. He told me about the fish he caught, and how to clean them. He boasted of the stone masonry on the island, of all the people that come here to study it.

Basically, it was everything I could have ever wanted out of a trip to the Aran Islands. There, I did it. Something beautiful happened.

And then I went to the arts center and made friends with the woman there, and listened to music, and learned more about the culture here. After a walk and a sunset (and another of the world’s nicest horse), I went to the pub, got a Guinness, and was rescued from complete obscurity by an excellently wrinkled man with long hippie hair named Johnny. Johnny says the f word a lot, is both crude and gentlemanly, and plays the Irish drum like you wouldn’t believe. He kept cursing the other musicians who were playing in the group because they weren’t very good, and when, in an attempt for optimism, I asked him whether he’d rather play with poor musicians or not at all, he replied not at all. I was surprised, and then quickly realized that though I value positivity, I envied his passion. It’s like some sort of harsh purity, to love something so much that you’d prefer to abandon it than do it with mediocrity. I would like to feel this way about something. I’m not sure my modest life experiences thus far, and subsequently my philosophies have parameters for such extremes.

I read a book when I was a kid about a boy who adored chocolate. He loved it so much, that when some magical thing or another happened, he wished that he could eat chocolate all the time, and so it was. He tried to play the trumpet, but when he put it to his lips, it melted into dark brown oblivion. He became thirsty and drank from the water fountain, only to find syrup oozing down the drain. At the climax of the tale, a simple, well-intentioned kiss on the cheek turns his mother into a pillar of chocolate. I’m sure you can guess the moral. I could possibly be the biggest champion for moderation, but I am telling you in complete seriousness, I think I would find bliss if this story happened to me. I am convinced that any ailment of mine can and will be cured by chocolate, that happiness is found here, that chocolate brightens dark days and perfects already good ones.

I know that my questions will continue to follow me, and that I will continue to have dumpy days. But, I would like to say that I still know that what I’m doing is important, and that it is good. Be patient with me, because it has turned into something that none of us could have ever predicted. Something difficult and even more worthwhile. And duh, thanks forever, for being my squad.

Maybe it’s the Guinness, but if I didn’t have to, this might be the first place I would like to not leave so soon. I’m glad to feel this way, because that’s exactly the reason I came. I want to stand at the edge of the world and know that it is being held up, and that it is beautiful, beautiful.

q & pray

Posted on June 21, 2014

I’m sitting at a kitchen table, drinking Irish tea with Irish milk, on the smallest of the three Aran Islands, off the West coast of Ireland. It’s beautiful here. My pizza is almost done in the oven.

The people in Ireland never seem to shut their windows, no matter how they might complain about the weather. Also, I love how much people drink tea over here. And lattes are barely more expensive than coffee in Europe. However, instant coffee is all over the place for some reason. 

I’ve had a fun few days. I took two bus tours: one for the Ring of Kerry (a well worn circular route around one of the most beautiful counties in Ireland), and one for the Cliffs of Moher (huge, breathtaking cliffs, as seen in Princess Bride and Harry Potter). On the first, I befriended a hearty Australian guy, and I took the second with two lovely American girls that I met couch surfing. As much as I don’t like feeling like a sheep being herded around, I also like not having to think. 

I’ve been staying with a Brazilian girl for the last few days, and let me tell you, I can get down with Brazilian food. And Brazilians, for that matter, if they’re all as sweet as her. 

It is testament to my mental fatigue, I think, that I found so much relief being in the company of Americans. I felt my entire being relax, and I watched the worries of my mannerisms, pleasantries spoken or withheld, and vocabulary melt away. (Will someone understand what I mean when I say, “Bummer,” or should I quickly rephrase my sentence?) I think that I am overthinking.

I am in a perpetual state of debate with myself. For example, does my discontent and obvious searching serve a purpose that will eventually be fulfilled, or am I simply being a stubborn jerk and going about this all wrong? Does my complete aversion to being alone mean that I should work harder to be okay with it, or that humans, as I’ve thought for a long time, are not meant to live a solo existence? Why, for goodness sake, was I given this desire to catapult myself into the world if I’m simply going to be confused and vaguely upset the whole time? What am I doing wrong, and why? Why do I feel like I must be the only person in the world who is stricken with wanderlust and then completely disillusioned by the entire thing?

As I’ve mentioned, being with people are the best times. I have made lots of new friends, whether they last for an hour or a day or three. Even one that I feel I really connected with. I immediately give into the knowledge that I don’t have to think about my plight, or all my questions. I focus all my energy on simply being a companion. This is when I let go and enjoy the moment. 

However, I keep feeling this onward pressure. Even if I am offered the chance to stay longer with a new friend, I have turned it down on several occasions to continue the vague plans or inclinations I’ve developed. Even when I am enjoying company, there is something in me that says, No, it’s not here. This isn’t it yet. Keep moving. If you have any idea what the heck “it” is, something that I seem unable to give up looking for, I would be greatly obliged. 

And so, the debate continues. Is it good or normal or healthy to be looking for something? Should I continue to do this and will I see fruit from it, or should I take a freaking break and work to simply be content with what I am doing and where I am? 

I feel encapsulated by a huge what and an overwhelming why. I like making friends because they distract me from these things, but at the end of the day, that’s sort of all they feel like—a distraction. And this, possibly, makes me feel even worse. 

A good example of my baffling ways: I made three good friends in Galway these last few days. And, to my pleasant surprise, they were outspoken in their pleasure to be spending time with me. We were easy companions. I had been really wanting to go the Aran Islands, and all three of them threatened to come with me at one point, but none of them ended up doing so. I was invited to incredibly fun sounding events with each, but I turned them down in favor of traveling back in time to island life, even committing a whole night to it. I’ve been wandering around this gorgeous island all day, wondering when I would make a friend and never succeeding (yet). At some point, as I thought over my loneliness, I realize that this was entirely self inflicted. I had company, and events, and I chose to not only be alone, but I picked the smallest, least populated island of the three, in the hopes of finding something cultural and beautiful and unique. Now, for the first and probably last time on my whole trip, I have an entire hostel dorm room to myself. Certainly the night isn’t over yet, but, what gives, Tiffany? 

Anyway. Sorry to be such a sop. Can’t seem to help it though; I am daily plagued and wish that I wasn’t. 

I did have the best seafood chowder I have ever had, though. I think it might have been a bowl of butter, with enormous chunks of salmon and cod and clams in it. I even found a fish bone, so you know they’re doing it right. 

And today I climbed all over a real shipwreck. The entire thing was bright red from rust, including all the surrounding rocks. I like that there are still amazingly dangerous and cool places to see in the world and one is just left to one’s own devices in order to explore it, unlike in the States. I wriggled my way to the top of that dang ship to pretend I was a sailor, and the number of bad things that could have happened to me are somewhat staggering. And, how beautiful were the Cliffs of Moher without any fence blocking the view, or a tumble into the sea hundreds of feet below! 

I rode a bike all over tremendous terrain today. Bikes always make me feel like I am flying, and that’s why I like them so much. Oh, and I met the most friendly and beautiful horse, too.

I’m going to get a pint and listen to trad music and insert myself into people’s lives. I swear I’ll have better posts soon.

ground gain

Posted on June 18, 2014

When I was younger, I loved reading Choose Your Own Adventure books. Control or curiosity, for better or for worse, I would always read through every possible story until I knew all the endings. I suppose one could argue that it’s a waste of time, but I often like to play out in my head the possibilities of paths not taken (I imagine most people do). For me at least, I think it helps me figure out the path that I did, in fact, take. Where would I be if I had chosen to travel abroad the hundred other times I had talked about it? How glad I am that I didn’t stay with the Italian guy in Dublin, and met a girl who could possibly be my Asian twin when I stayed with the old Irish man instead. Or for example, I keep wondering (and have often wondered before) what my life would be like if I weren’t such things as a girl, or young, or white, or American, or relatively approachable looking. Things that haven’t even been a choice, just cards. 

Butterfly Effect, Multiverse, Choose Your Own Adventure. Whatever you want to call it, I think my curiosity is in hyperdrive. 

I realize that I am far, far from the first person to think so, but Ireland is pretty magical. Today I rode around in a bus for over ten hours, and I think I could safely estimate that 80% of what I saw was tumbling hillside and organic coast. How is there still a place left in the 21st century this beautiful, this uninterrupted save for fundamentals and modesty? Will such prime wholesomeness last? And that’s to say nothing of the complete and magical affability of the people who live in it. 

Those of you who know me best will find this unsurprising, but I think I could die for the dairy here. The milk, the butter, I could stick straws in it all. I’ve had ice cream twice today. So far.

Also, in recent months I’ve discovered that I have a pretty alarmingly awesome sense of smell. And, I happen to love it. Some people travel the world in pursuit of food or vistas, but I think I could just sniff my way around the globe.

It’s fascinating to me how often the topic of God has come up in my conversations with complete strangers, without any prompting on my part, even if I am always curious. Do Americans just avoid the subject (probably), or is there a reason for it (probably)? Belief or not, cynics seem to rule the world. However, it counts for nothing against my idealism except to make me say, “How interesting!”

 

 

Things:

  • I keep being told that I don’t have a strong accent, whatever that means.
  • I keep being told that I’ve packed extremely light for a trip with no definite end.
  • I keep being asked if I am traveling solo, and when I say yes, I keep being told I am “brave.” I wonder what this means to each person who uses that word.
  • People don’t seem to know much about America. But then again, I don’t feel like I do either.
  • A fact of constant wonderment: it doesn’t get dark here until at least ten thirty at night.
  • I forgot to tell you: all the Asians working in Paris at the Asian food take out places speak perfect French.
  • I wish I was more political.
  • Cork is much better than Dublin.
  • And, my metabolism has skyrocketed. 

Okay, I know I said boys are fun, but I really did mean it about girls and conversation. I’ve been hanging with a girl, previously mentioned, and we talk and talk. We joke and laugh and give insights. It’s gahr-geous, as the Irish would say. This is what I live for. Besides, boys are terribly predictable. Most of them have little windows in their foreheads. I like that traveling gives me the excuse to be talkative, to reach out boldly for friends or company (or forces me to, really). When you’re doing something you’ve never done before, you can kind of access a part of you that you’ve never been before. 

Last night I went to a pub with fireplaces on the first floor, and a homemade cinema on the second floor. I had a stout and watched Game of Thrones and we ordered a pizza to the pub. Oh and, when I was there, a guy walked in that I had met at a pub all the way in Dublin. We had only talked for a half hour maybe, but seeing him there, both foreigners, we greeted each other like old friends. Like we belonged to something, somehow.

One of the best things about experiencing all this is that I know I’ll be able to come here and tell you about it afterwards. Doing and seeing, solely for me, that would be okay, but somewhat hollow, I think. I am spurred by the thought of knowing you’ll be there to hear about it. If experience was dough, sharing with you would be the yeast that makes it rise. You turn something simply beneficial into something really full.