Seriously. Have you noticed how serious and intolerant the world has gotten lately? That’s not to say that there are no serious issues confronting humanity that need urgent addressing, but any cursory review of history will show that this has been the case since Adam and Eve left paradise. Rather, the point is that no matter where I look these days around the world, people seem rather morose and depressed about everything around them. Happiness, and its pursuit, are taking a bit of a beating as negativism and mistrust continue to become the mainstream attitude for far too many people. And this is not the case of any particular country, mind you. It seems to be everywhere. Everyone hates their government, everyone hates their institutions, everyone hates the corporations, everyone hates the price-gouging retailers who charge too much for roadside food and trinkets, restaurants are killing you with butter and salt, vegans can’t stop criticizing meat eaters, meat eaters can’t stop mocking vegans, parents don’t understand the young, children are considered lazy and unfocused, hospitals everywhere are letting people die, etc., etc., etc. The list is endless, and it is gradually inducing mass depression on populations all over the world.
The world just needs to lighten-up a bit and remind itself that overall, humanity is perhaps living in one of the glorious era in the history of mankind. Problems all over? Sure, but so are solutions and resources. Most of the world is indeed at peace. Most of the world is not starving. There are plenty of reasons to laugh, to be optimistic, and to show compassion, love, and humanity like at no other time in history. Want to support a cause in faraway Nepal? You can do that, but don’t forget to look also around your neighborhood for opportunities to express your altruism. It will be a sad day when people stop actively looking for the good in things and just squander their time on earth interpreting everything as being bad. Walk around anywhere and it is the long, strained faces devoid of smiles that will confront you. Happy people? Where? Time to lighten-up a bit? Absolutely. A world that forgets that there are plenty of reasons to smile and be grateful for is a world doomed to live in self-induced depression and despair in spite of its riches. Perhaps Martha Washington was on to something when she said, “I’ve learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends on our disposition and not on our circumstances.” My sentiments exactly.
What is it with this nostalgia that refuses to leave us alone? I mean, why is it that we sometimes feel so unable to shake those feelings in our heads about times gone by and moments that will most likely never come again? I’ve heard it said many times that it is sometimes better not to see or hear some things because once they are inside your head, it is simply impossible to rid yourself of them. For travelers this is specially a problem, perhaps because once you get to see or hear of a glorious place, your life is never the same. The visions linger inside of you mercilessly, and before you know it, you begin to cherish those quiet moments in your life that allow you to sneak away into those faraway places from wherever you happen to be at the time. You are carried there by that classic feeling of nostalgia, by the “sentimental longing or wishful affection for the past.”
And that brings me to the “old world;” to the time, money, and effort travelers spend every year visiting all things old around the world. Sure, travelers also love the glittering lights of modern Tokyo, or the clinical modernism of a Singapore, but for the most part, their feet seem to take them to old Beijing, to Old Town Prague, and to the far corners of the well-trodden world in search of things that have been around for a long time. Dark, cobblestone alleyways around the world send our heartbeats into overdrive in a way that modern minimalism just doesn’t seem to understand. It’s not a value judgment, though, but rather an impulse lathered with nostalgia that seems to be the culprit. The modern, by virtue of its newness, will be around for a while, but the old may not be, and that alone seems to be reason enough for lighting a fire under our feet. We just need to “see it before its gone.” We just have to. And no, it has nothing to do with the logic of where it’s best to spend our limited resources. Rather, it has everything to do with the images that live inside our heads, with that feeling that can only come when strolling slowly in an old world whose silent history whispers in our ears the sweet, romantic songs of adventure and melancholy that make us the conflicted souls we all are. So here is to the old world, to nostalgia, and to a future that finds its highest expression in the past, for it is in that past that we so often find the windows to our future.
I find very few things as satisfying as walking around neighborhoods in Europe to find out what people are really like away from the tourist spots and the hustle and bustle of city center. I’m talking about those neighborhoods that never make it to travel brochures, but which are teaming with ordinary life like the one I leave behind every time I embark on a journey. Interestingly, I travel thousands of miles, spend more money that is prudent to spend, and put my joints through grueling day walks, just to observe and experience the lives of ordinary people like myself living ordinary lives like mine. Now, I grant you that this is not everyone’s cup of tea, or that it ranks up there with what most people would choose to do with their limited time and money, but for me, this relentless pursuit of “distinctive sameness” (how’s that for confusion?) is what has fueled more than 40 years of travel around the world. You could say that I am simply fascinated by all that is the common amongst the people of the world, but at the same time different. A narrow line marking the distinction between cultures and people, but for me, a demarcation zone that has fueled the pursuit of a lifetime.
In absolute terms, human behavior and culture, are rather similar. We all eat, enjoy art, labor, love, pursue happiness, experience sadness, etc., etc, etc. We just go about it differently, and that is where my insatiable interest lies: on the “unique” ways we all experience all these common traits of humanity as a result of history, culture, and geography. The Japanese people bow deeply with tears flowing down their cheeks upon seeing someone dear to their hearts after years of separation, while the Italians hug incessantly as if trying to fuse two people into one. Same feeling, different expressions. And it’s the same wherever you look, be it in what people eat, or what they do with their free time. A beautiful river with incredible landscapes invites contemplation and romance. An industrial city replete of square, concrete buildings, perhaps not as much. Thus, the factors affecting our adopted behaviors are indeed many and varied, and there’s no better place to discover these behavioral distinctions than in the neighborhoods where people disarmingly engage in them without a care in the world. In the process, I learn a lot about them, and without a doubt, a little about myself.
There are some things you just can’t have enough in life. For me, that’s traveling through Europe. That is because no matter how much I visit that continent, there’s something new to discover and experience. The fact that you can find a completely different language and culture by just driving the equivalent of crossing an US state line, just adds to the experience every time. But today’s Europe is not the same as the one I experienced during the days of the Cold War and before globalization. Today, it is a much-changed cultural landscape, where the old, great architecture is still there, but goods and services are pretty much the same as in any US major city. Of course, I’m referring to the large cities in the continent, because once you get to the countryside, the Europe of your imagination is still hanging on to culture and mores. Of course, this is not to say that the large cities have lost all manners of cultural identity (because they have not), but rather that the forces of globalization are a lot more evident in the great capitals than anywhere else in the continent.
But whatever the changed landscape, return to Europe I must. And just like every time before, what I found was quite incredible and left me (as always before) wanting to return as soon as possible. In true “slow travel” mode, I once more discovered that slowing down, venturing off-the-beaten-path at odd hours of the day, and taking time to absorb everything around me, made all the difference in the world. From the royal architecture of Vienna, to the cobblestone streets and towers of Prague, it is all fascinating to me. The quiet, precious moments at daybreak, when the majestic, war-scared buildings of Dresden were drenched in the lazy, yellow light of a new day ricocheting off the mighty Elbe, inevitably transported you to another century long the stuff of history books. And then, there were the Royal Gardens of Herrenhausen in Hannover. You could spend an entire day enjoying what has to be one of the great, and most romantic gardens of the world. New and old, coexisting for centuries. In Berlin while wrapping up this never-long-enough European tour, I couldn’t help but think of the incredible talent that centuries past created such works of beauty, and the incredible hatred that so often tried to destroy them in equal time. Human frailty and the human spirit, battling it out throughout history. We can only hope that the spirit continues to help preserve such gems for future generations.