(Photo taken from atop the Kanonenplatz; Freiburg Stadt)
I remembered that night when I was packing the last of my things in, and we had to rush at eight in the evening to beat the traffic. It was already raining that day, as if the sky mourned with me. I couldn’t stomach the thought of being alone — in a country with a foreign language, with no friends, and my family was definitely not going to be there. I revisited that feeling when I arrived home, on the first day of my encounter with jet lag. It still brought tears to my eyes, and my heart constricted the way it did on August the first.
But three months after, I was back. And while I went through some great and not-so great times when I was away, I’d like to think the great outweighed the bad. I could honestly say so. And I wish I had the diligence to narrate every single day that happened, but we all know that just can’t be (unless I write a memoir, hehe) so in classic internet listography, I present to you the ten things I learned while I was away.
1 People may have broken me, but the solution to that is not withdrawal. It’s openness.
I’m not going to sugarcoat this. March, specifically, was the most emotionally tumultuous month this year. I promised myself that 2014 would be the year of happiness, and where else could I find that except in the circles I was familiar with? But imagine losing eight of the very people I thought I could depend on, both to betrayal and broken promises. I have forgiven two, but those are about the only people I could really think of mending fences with. What person wouldn’t go ballistic over that? And to think the dead was the only heavy real loss people go through. No one ever talks about the death of the living.
My friends saw a side of me I never realized I had: withdrawal, self-blame, and self-pity. All I could talk about was the boy who left me when he promised he wouldn’t, about the unexplained reasons why the friends turned their backs against me. I would find myself crying in the night’s silence, wondering what I did wrong to deserve such treatment from the people I placed my trust on. Even I was tired of that person I was becoming, but the thing about this kind of sadness is the wallowing is addictive. It gave me so many excuses just to lie on my bed and to see the world in a darker shade of gray, as if the world punished me in some way. But again, the world owed me nothing. It has no debt to humankind except to rotate around the sun, in the same exact place for four billion years, and to exist. That’s it. It provides, but it is not my friend. It is art, but it does not paint a picture for humans to enjoy.
And when I was told I was going on this trip, I thought it was another way of letting me go, of breaking me off with the life I was familiar with. I resented my parents, to be honest, I really did. Call me spoiled, call me irritating but what I went through just mixed with a decision I did not make on my own. But upon my arrival there, I met some of the greatest people — in Germany, in London, in Switzerland, in France, and in Italy — who taught me different things. I was caught between the extreme age groups: the seniors (the elders) and the young ones (babies to almost-teenagers). The young ones taught me to run around, to get off my phone, and to see life through the natural lens — my eyes. And the elderly ones taught me that while I had seen a lot life had to offer, it’s still not enough. It will never be enough. Life was too much to quantify. There’s just so much to it. And instead of withdrawing in my room, I began to open myself to whatever these countries had to offer. Let me tell you, there was beauty beyond Snapchat. At least when you stare at the sun, it doesn’t delete itself instantly after ten seconds or so. It slowly sets and rises, as is its purpose.
2 There is peace in solitude.
I can never be left alone — I can tell you that. I actually shake and hide away when I am not in the company of a friend. It was pretty difficult doing things by myself during the first few weeks of my stay, knowing that I was constantly watched over and accompanied by the people in my life. But I never really appreciated the peace behind lying down in my bed alone, reading the next chapters of my novel or cleaning my closet with acoustic Taylor Swift on. There was a silence that wasn’t so haunting. It was a silence that pushed me to relax, to let go of any negative thoughts that were sinking me slowly at the back of my mind. It was a silence that begged me to shut my eyes and to shut off the words that hurt me, that woke me when I was not supposed to.
It was not loneliness, but solitude. I knew the difference slowly, when I began to go to the gym by myself, when I ran errands, and when I went to my different classes. It was the biggest test I had to go through, and yet as the months turned to weeks, I appreciated the moments when I was by myself, when I could finally silence the mind that wouldn’t shut up. It was a slow process, and I still cling onto certain people, but at least I know I’m capable of being by myself now.
3 Vicarious living is beautiful if it were in books, but a vicariously lived life is not a life that is worth living the whole way through.
Imagination is my strong suit, and is a place most people would run to in a heartbeat. But even words cannot fully describe the beauty of a place or the experience of running after a punctual train or a bus (12:47 is 12:47, after all). Words are beautiful by themselves, but are limited. It isn’t enough to read about the punctuality of the Germans or the clear-as-glass lakes of Switzerland, you have to see it. You have to experience it. You have to experience life that is not found on the screen. And coming from someone who has her nose in a book constantly, this totally rings true.
4 All the pills in the world do not have a 100% cure guarantee. At least not in the way time does.
If I could take a Paracetamol or something legal that could have taken the hurt away from me, I could. If I could do what was advised of me — to move on and to forget — I could have. Although, everything is always easier said than done.
“Move on, man. He’s not worth it.”
“Sure, yeah, moving on.” I reply, as I scan his Facebook profile for the 100th time.
“Why are you still so hung up? He clearly does not care about you. Stop talking about him.”
“I know, I know,” I bury my head in my hands. “But remember that time he…”
Advice, like pills/tablets/medicine, are taken in doses. Everyone can give me an A-Z list of recommendations on how to get over this, how to move on from a mistake, etc but why does it take more than the recommended time I set myself on? It’s because while time moves too fast, it is the greatest healer. At least for me. No matter how many times I tell the story of him, it does not bring the dead back. No matter how many times I try to find the reasons why, my answers will always be echoes. It’s because I’m talking to dead air.
But soon enough, I realized that the story I used to love telling made me lose the passion that once colored my words. It was because time made me see that while I could tell the story of him and I, it was always just going to be coming from me. Not from him. And the wounds that used to hurt me have now become scars. Just because I’ve moved on does not mean I have forgotten.
5 Pride and Prejudice may have been Jane Austen’s greatest achievement, but it’s not a trophy worth holding onto.
My aunt said that “travel is the enemy of prejudice.” And traveling to Germany? Cue the long list of pre-judgments I made. Let’s not even get started with their history. And add that to the growing resentment I had. But three months of being surrounded by these people have erased what I have thought of them: cruel, rude, and cold people. Yeah, they can be unfriendly but only because they’re not the most open lot. But once you really get to know them, they can be the warmest people. I still can’t appreciate their humor though, but we can get to that later.
6 The strength you have been searching for does not come out by beating yourself up, but by restoring that belief within yourself.
Refer to the first realization: I constantly blamed myself for the things that went wrong.
“Why did I have to do this?”
“Was my attitude the reason why they went behind my back?”
“Was I too into it? Maybe I was. I shouldn’t have. Ugh.”
(Repeat cycle 100x.).
I lost that confidence I had before March happened, and I thought I would forever become the person who loved to sink in self-pity, begging for compliments and flattery left and right. I was too traumatized by the words, the repeating insults of my incapability to do anything that it suffocated that smidgeon of self-belief I had that could have gotten me out of that quandary sooner.
But being alone taught me that I can do things, that I can accomplish tasks as needs be. I can become who I am without anyone treading upon what I thoroughly believe to be true and right. I may still not know what I truly want, but knowing that I can is strength enough for me to get to that next step. How? I know so.
7 Words may destroy you, but they can also mend the pieces.
At The Guardian, our memoir class taught us to always tell the truth. And while I loved to pepper my writing with some slight exaggerations, I knew that writing always had to go back to its roots, to what really happened. Lo and behold, our first assignment was to write about the saddest event of my life. Surprisingly, I picked the backstabbing bit over August the first. I thought I moved on from the pain, but revisiting the events for the sake of my piece stung me again and instructor Mark McCrum (and the rest of my classmates) saw the sadness within my words. They too were crying because of their own work. Thank God I had enough strength to hold in the tears, but it goes to show that while the pain has diminished, the scars still exist. They remind me everyday of the capabilities of the person and at the same time the consequences post-mistake. But as the weekend came to a close, the last piece we had to make was a profile of an antagonist — and I wrote about the boy who broke me. Instead of having my classmates break down with me, we ended up laughing about the event. I injected some thoughts I never thought I could realize until I read them out loud, and over lunch my classmates told me how mature and hilarious I was for a twenty-one year old which I gladly took with stride. Just like in my intensive writing class, a classmate I have never spoken to pulls me by the arm and says, “you’re a damn good writer. You better make sure you continue it.”
The words I thought would betray me became the very bandages that healed me. Some stories may have outlasted their expiration date, but some still last on to be the very things that bring us back together again.
8 A place does not have to be the most popular to be the most beautiful.
When I go on trips with the family, we always make sure to go to Tripadvisor’s top 100 cities (or a list similar to that). Aside from us having this internal code of WE SHOULD NOT MISS SEEING THIS PLACE EVER, it also gives us some kind of security that “hey, at least this’ll be worth it. I mean, the whole world says it’s pretty awesome. Let’s have a go at it.” So, hey, New York, London, Paris, Tokyo, Prague, etc!
But being with someone who was more or less an expert in Germany showed me the places that were not as tourist-y, such as the Black Forest panoramic tour that was really a couple of bus rides that showcased the different areas of the Schwarzwald in all its tree abundance. Or riding the cable car up to Feldberg to see the Swiss Alps covered in snow. Or that time when we went into the St. Beatus Cave for an hour! I could name more. It was the same in London when my aunt and her husband drove me through the countryside of England, and showed me the castles, lakes, forests, and the golf courses. Who could forget the villas and the expensive towns? And believe me, they were even more beautiful than the top 100. Even the quaint cities, wow.
Beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder, but it takes a great deal to search beyond what is the world’s definition of beauty.
9 It is in fear that makes you question. It is in fear that eventually gives you the chance to open your mind.
London is a city that I love, but traveling alone for the first time there depleted some of that admiration. After all, my parents were almost rattling their heads off with their concern of safety and sketchy people and places. Their concern almost got me to want to cancel my flight. My fear worsened on the day itself when I was shaking in the bus station on the way to the Basel-Mulhouse airport. On top of that, the airport didn’t even have any wi-fi.
Just get me through without any problems, I prayed to God as the landing announcement came. The city was glowing — bright lights, big city — but my fright topped my excitement. I rushed through the crowd, went through immigration, hurriedly got my luggage off the baggage claim, and panted all the way to the Gatwick Express Station where the kind train conductor said, “Platform Six, love!” Even if I had to stand up the whole time I was on the train, I shakily sent a Viber message to everyone concerned that “I survived.” And believe you me, that was just the beginning of trying to.
London security was at its peak, when threats came in about bombing a major train station there. It happened once, it could most definitely happen again. Guards swarmed the areas with big guns and that to me was fear staring at me in the face. When I decided to go out after my class, I told myself, ‘Be back before the sun sets.’ It was still early September so the sun was to set at about 8:45 or 9 in the evening. My goal was to check out the nearest Waterstones’ and the one I remember distinctly was the one in Trafalgar Square. So instead of sitting in my room, I set out at 7:30 in the evening and wandered off into its center. It was like I was back in 2011 again, when I was here with my parents. But when I moved a little bit to take a photo of the traffic, I saw the Big Ben staring back at me. And before I knew it, I ran down the roads until I reached Westminster. I quickly photographed the clock in its dusky glow, and proceeded to run off again. I found the Trafalgar branch and lost myself in there for a while, realizing later that it was 9 in the evening. It was pitch-black. Whoops.
But my fear dissipated as I explored more of the city more, even when I was living in Bracknell in my aunt’s house. I would take the bus to the city, explore the parks with my Google maps and my portable charger, and go back home. I got to explore Windsor too, and I did that all by myself! The biggest test, though, was taking the Tube and the trains to get to my The Guardian Masterclass. I was avoiding the trains the whole time, but once I got the hang of it during the bootcamp weekend, I did it! It got a little crowded on Sunday going home (which was surprising?), but I s u r v i v e d.
If I hadn’t questioned what was beyond my hotel, if I hadn’t questioned what was beyond that corner, I wouldn’t have seen what I saw. And even if my fear of my phone battery running out wholly existed, it never would have made me explore different parts of the city I never had access to on my first visit.
I walked, I took the train, I took the bus. I commuted. I commuted in London. Oh my god.
10 There is such a thing as a good bye.
What made me realize this was during the last session of French class. Honestly, I really wanted it to end because not only was there no existing structure of teaching, it was taught to us in German. I was learning French in German. Don’t even get me started on the umlauts. But as I said goodbye to my professor and my classmates, I realized that I have been saying goodbye to every person I met during my stay in Europe. I said goodbye to friends, to strangers, and to cities I know I will only visit once.
David Levithan said that there is no such thing as a great goodbye (or a happy goodbye). It simply does not exist. And I thought that to be true (as I am in complete agreement of most of his beliefs) for a long time. But as I hugged or beso’d these people, made my peace with the walls and streets I could never touch again, I never felt this aching sense of longing or attachment. It was as if I was made never to hold on for so long, a feeling I was slowly getting used to as the days passed.
The only constant in my life there was my aunt in Freiburg, and that to me was the only not good bye I had to make. But the others? It wasn’t that I wanted to say it, but I had to. I was just glad that it didn’t hurt too much, as I was always in transit. I was a nomad for three months, and consistency was not something I should get used to. But having felt the feeling of a detached farewell was something I needed to feel. It was not because I needed to be distant, but because I needed to feel that such a thing existed.