Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Is it really being lost if you like it?

To earn credit for the field study, I had to write a five page paper that was some sort of reflection on the experience as a whole. Mine is mostly marginally coherent philosophical mumbo-jumbo about loss: of possessions, of location, of self, of nations. Maybe you'll enjoy my perspective? Or maybe not, but regardless, I hope you don't find it too painful. Double-spaced, Times New Roman font for your viewing pleasure. My apologies for any and all grammatical mistakes; I never actually proofread it. Oops.

Being lost in a foreign country is simultaneously one of the most terrifying and exhilarating experiences that traveling the globe has to offer. One wrong turn can force you out of your comfort zone in the blink of an eye. Sometimes, the maps simply do not accurately depict the city, and language barriers make asking for directions no small feat. The prospect of remaining permanently lost in a land you do not understand is daunting, and the fact that it is in fact an unrealistic scenario does not seem to ease the disquiet that comes with such a situation. Despite how unnerving going astray can be, I have discovered that it is one of the best ways to discover new places and new people. Part of the joy of travelling is expanding your horizons and breaking out of your comfort zone, and endeavor that frequently involves losing the map and losing yourself.

Being lost physically is clearly a more changing experience than mere wandering. This is because truly being lost involves losing not only your current location, but also your sense of self, your culture and the mindset that comes with both of those. Being lost takes you off the beaten path; it keeps you from following mule-trains of tourists trekking from one must-see historical site to another. It inherently opens your eyes and your mind to another culture and another way of life. It is interesting to consider, too, the fact that the countries we explored have all suffered an identity loss of their own. All but Austria were located behind the Iron Curtain after the close of World War II. Even Austria suffered greatly though, as the Hapsburg’s Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved after World War I, then taken over by Hitler’s Nazi Germany, occupied at the conclusion of World War II, and finally freed as an independent, neutral nation- albeit a significantly smaller and considerably less powerful one than four decades earlier- in 1955. Today’s Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia all underwent similar dramatic metamorphoses during the twentieth century, with the addition of the Soviet regime’s significant influence to consider. The loss of identity- personal, religious, national, or otherwise- is a common theme in all of their histories. However, as governments changed hands and people changed their minds, a string of revolutions have enabled these countries to find freedom and a renewed sense of self in this modern era. And that, perhaps, is the most valuable lesson, particularly when applied to one’s personal journey. It is the hardships that most dramatically shape ourselves, and it is only when we experience loss that we find ourselves seeking.

Český Krumlov was an excellent place to start such a search in my own expedition. While it was a completely new town, I was still familiar with the language, which made navigating far less complex. Additionally, it was small, cozy, even, which ensured that there were fewer alleys to inadvertently wander down. While looking for ice cream during the evening, we wandered in the rain for quite some time. We always knew where we were, but where we were in relation to the ice cream stand seemed to be a perpetual mystery. In the end, we finished the evening soaked to the bone without any ice cream, but it didn’t seem to matter. We were perfectly happy just exploring the new place we had found ourselves in- and trdelník proved to be an absolutely delicious replacement for gelato! By leaving the main town square and setting off, we encountered incredible views of the palace at night, and experienced beautiful café lights strung over the Vltava. Suddenly, the beautiful sight rising before our eyes made enduring the frigid deluge and the confusion of navigation worth it. Awestruck, we gained a new appreciation for the majesty of this medieval town. Somehow, when you discover something for yourself, it becomes far more beautiful.

Of course, all good things must end, and as you know, we next traveled to the stunning city of Wien, or Vienna. I found Vienna to be just as impressive as Český Krumlov, just in an entirely different way. While Český Krumlov was quaint and quiet, Vienna’s splendor is almost overpowering. It seems as if there are extraordinary architectural feats around every corner, each building more striking than the last. This does, however, contrast with the grittier area near our hostel. Still beautiful, to be sure, but perhaps a little less well-maintained over the years than other parts of the city. That being said, I feel as if exploring these parts of the city- parts that remain largely undiscovered by the casual tourist- is what really adds to the experience of the city. To truly get a feel for a place, you can’t just see the highlight reel. You have to see it all, and that is precisely what I set out to do. In Vienna, we did not get lost per se, but rather, engaged in what I’ll call directed meandering. With a specific destination in mind, we proceeded to wander with limited use of a map until we arrived. It was in this manner that we arrived at the Spanish Riding School. As an avid equestrian for well over a decade, this was a must-see for me while stopping in Vienna. Seeing a place that had been such a part of my childhood rise before my very eyes was indescribably moving. I could have stood there in awe for hours, but I realize that the place does not hold the same magic for others. So we reoriented ourselves, and proceeded to make our way back to the hostel following a route different from the one we used when leaving. It is, after all, a bit bland to see the exact same sights over and over when there are so many new, fascinating places just waiting to be discovered.

Next on the list of enchanting places to discover was the Hungarian capital, Budapest. The Hungarians have a long and dramatic history as conquerors, and being conquered left a deep impression on them. Much of the twentieth century composes a dark and grim record of cruel regimes. The House of Terror, a museum dedicated to the memory of the horrifying terror created by the Arrow Cross Party- the Hungarian Nazis- and the communist State Security Police, both of which had their headquarters in the building where the museum is located- 60 Andrassy Avenue. I have seen some incredible museums around the world, but this is one of the most moving I have ever been to. Something about actually following in the footsteps of those who invoked immeasurable fear, standing in the shadows of a building with such a chilling purpose shook me to the core. From the shocking brightness of the propaganda room to the dark damp of the basement prison cells, it was easy to feel a fraction of the emotional turmoil of the era. Even that was difficult to handle. When we finally emerged into the gray, rainy Budapest aftertoon, we were emotionally drained. As we walked down the street, we pulled out our maps in an effort to determine where we were- and where we were going. We paused on a busy corner, trying to orient ourselves, when an older woman approached us, asking “Are you girls lost? I speak some English.” We were blown away by her kindness and her offer to help, something that rarely happens, regardless of what country you are in. If you ask for directions, most people are willing to help, but it is indeed unusual to have someone come forward voluntarily. She helped point us in the right direction, which we greatly appreciated. To me, it was a valuable reminder that we are all lost and searching at one point or another. Helping a stranger find their way in this world doesn’t take much time or effort, just a bit of compassion and consideration- and that helping hand can go a long way. Later that evening, we had another lesson in consideration, this time with regards to the language barrier. I must say, the Hungarian language posed quite a challenge for us all. We were hesitant to speak out of fear that we would butcher the language and inadvertently offend someone. But then, while searching for dessert, we stumbled upon a delicious looking bakery- where the workers spoke no English. The set-up was confusing, but we muddled our way through, causing much vexation amongst the ladies running the place. After we had all retrieved our various cakes, I stepped up to another counter to ask for tea. Stone-faced, the woman on the other side prepared the tea, then, after muttering something in Magyar, set the mug in front of me. She was not rude, but she certainly wasn’t going out of her way to be friendly. Then, I thanked her, saying “Köszönöm!” She looked up, surprised, and suddenly her face broke into a wide smile as she laughed. All it took to change her demeanor was one word, and a smile. That too, is part of the value of being lost: learning to step outside the comfort of what you know- your language, your lifestyle- so that way you can embrace something new and different.

In Bratislava, I encountered an entirely different type of loss. Somewhere in the market, I inadvertently set down my camera and forgot it somewhere. Getting lost directionally or philosophically, I can handle, but this was unexpected. In my efforts to locate my missing camera, I set off on a journey across the town: through the market, restaurants, the information center, and even the magistrate’s office. My broken Czech was good enough to communicate my point in Slovakian- and when my language abilities ran out, there were people around me more than willing to help me continue my inquiry. The girl working in the magistrate’s office made several phone calls to various local police stations, and one of the girls working in the market gave us directions to several places that she felt we should check. Everyone I spoke to was sympathetic, and helped me along my journey. Did I find my camera? No. But I did gain a respect for the genuine kind, openhearted nature of these people. And that, perhaps, is just as valuable- if not more.

In the end, I’ve found that in loss, you inevitably gain. Loss shapes the identities of individuals, as well as their nations and culture. Getting lost is about more than merely being turned around. It comes down to reshaping your view of yourself, and of your world. Expanding your horizons is a priceless experience, but it’s something only you can do for yourself. Perhaps others can impose loss upon you by taking what you hold dear- your freedom, your religion, your individuality- but only you can choose what you fill that empty space with. You determine what you become: where you find yourself, and where you go.


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