Beer on our breath and marble cobblestone underfoot, our new friends accompanied us on our trek through Old Town towards the sea. Scurrying underneath Byzantium-era archways, we bypassed stonewalls that had kept the Republic of Dubrovnik safe for centuries. The ancient city streets ended where the Adriatic Sea began. Having acquired liquid confidence at an Irish Pub, we scaled the rubble of a crumbled section of the city’s fortified perimeter. It was early May, and the sea had been unseasonably calm for the duration of our time in Croatia. Tonight a storm loomed in the distance. As we made our way up the embankment, the sea turned violent beneath us—undaunted, we climbed on. We had ventured as high as we could just as the wind began to pick up. Like the ancient city, we found refuge in the embrace of the fortification. From the safety of the ramparts, we storm-watched while smoking Croatian cigarettes, drinking Czech beer, and exchanging Canadian stories for Scottish ones. Conversation was prominent throughout the night; yet, whenever our banter stopped to take a drag or a sip, we could not help but catch one another staring at the shimmering display projected on the ancient walls that surrounded us. The dying moonlight refracted off the turbulent waters and danced on the walls to the tune of the Adriatic’s deep rumble and the sporadic crescendos of crashing waves. After a lengthy silence, our collective gaze fixed seaward towards the neighbouring island of Lokrum, I mustered: “I’m glad to have met you guys.”
While overseas, I had numerous experiences similar to the one above, many of which instilled an overpowering intuition that I had experienced something life altering. This sentiment proves in line with many travel enthusiasts that I have spoken to, all of whom describe similar moments of apparent transcendence. However, when asked to pinpoint what changed within them, or what specifically triggered the change, they pause, think, and are unable to elaborate. The travel tales we tell one another often focuses on the then unknown. We can recall with astute detail the stunning vistas, the tastes of exotic cuisine, and the magnificence of foreign cities – but do they alter us? This feeling of change is just that: a feeling— intangible and illusive. With this in mind, I hold that traveling does not change us; at least not in the ways we might think. Too much importance is placed on the superficial but nonetheless picturesque backdrops that complement rather than forge our transformations. Our worldly wisdom comes not from experiencing the places themselves, but rather the freedom they grant us. Thousands of kilometers away from home, and on the outer limits of our comfort zones, the unknown challenges us, if not forces us, to shatter whatever limits we place on ourselves. Traveling tempts us to dive in with reckless abandon, to reevaluate who we are and who we are striving to be. With this in mind, why should travel be necessary? Why do so many of us fail at achieving this at home?
Traveling challenged me to reserve judgment.
Our Hostel was nestled in the heart of Dubrovnik’s stunning Old Town, which serves as a labyrinth for those courageous enough to venture off the main strip. We remembered its location as follows:
Take a quick left at Luza Square into an entrance adjacent the five hundred year-old thirty-one meter tall clock tower. Go up the stairs. Pass the market. Pass the bakery. It is the cast iron door on the right.
This hostel was a bi-level two-bedroom apartment — there were no dorm rooms or privacy. The first night my two fellow Edmontonians and I were alone in the apartment. We were ecstatic. It was short lived. I remember lying in bed nursing an apocalyptic hangover and being awoken by the screech of the cast iron door, the creek of footsteps, the clumsy rattling of keys, the incoherent babbling vaguely resembling English. Who were these people? I remember voicing my displeasure at now having to share our apartment. I promptly hid my laptop and phone and devised a plan to avoid them at all cost. I left my bedroom sometime in the early afternoon to learn, much to my delight, that our intruders had left to the market. Good. I sat at the table with my Canadian friends and checked the progress of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Again came the fumbling keys, the screech of the door, the almost incomprehensible English – in walked a young couple.
“Hiya, far hiv ya ben?”
Both of them, sporting what I can only describe as the goofiest, but most genuine smiles I have ever seen, gestured to what the young woman held in her hand.
“We taut you lot’d fancy a bevy.”
She placed a two-liter bottle of Ožujsko, Croatia’s most famous beer, on the table before us. Instantly relinquished of the morning’s negativity, I sprang up with enthusiasm, rifled through the cupboard for glasses, and began to kindle friendships that live on to this day – even if reminded only by a sporadic Facebook message. Their names were Martin and Morag and they “hailed frum Scotlend.” They were two of the nicest people I have had the pleasure of meeting. We spent the day sightseeing around Dubrovnik and topped it off atop the city’s ancient walls watching a storm roll in shortly after the sun had fallen into the Adriatic.
Martin and Morag, at least partially, illuminated how backwards my attitude was towards meeting new people. Being cautious of newcomers you are to share an apartment with is one thing, but automatically labeling them as a nuisance, or worse, thieves, is another. One does not have to look too hard in Edmonton to see this in action on a larger scale – just try walking up to a stranger at the bar. Try to engage them with genuine conversation. I decided to give it a try. My walk over was riddled with anxiety and my subject assumed I fostered ulterior motives and promptly told me to fuck off. Our bars are cliquey. Our society is cliquey.
After returning from Europe, I implemented what Martin and Morag had unintentionally challenged within me: I started reserving judgment. I listened. I strove to not be the asshole at the bar that tells people to fuck off. I put myself out there. Although I was not always buying what many were selling, I realized everyone has something to offer. As a result, how I felt about others, perhaps more importantly, how I felt about myself, improved significantly.
Traveling forced me to reevaluate my expectations on romantic relationships.
My Canadian romances always followed a similar pattern: months of banal correspondence, the occasional hook up, and when things got serious and ultimately failed, I floated on a sea of vodka until the tides put into motion by my friends and family brought me crashing back again to dry land.
Of all the random places to meet someone and have my perspective turned upside down, it is rather fitting that I met Maria in the middle of the ocean. We met in the hallways of a cruise ship as it sailed across the Baltic Sea from Stockholm, Sweden to Turkuu, Finland. We hit it off almost immediately, and after a mere few hours, she was calling me on my bullshit and intuitive enough to see aspects of me that took prior flings months to figure out – if they ever figured me out at all. We spent the next week together exploring Stockholm and Uppsala. I spent my last night in continental Europe with Maria between the neatly trimmed hedges that made up the garden of the Riksdag, Sweden’s parliament building. There on a giant tiger blanket, we took in the early-morning Swedish sunrise as it gradually illuminated Stockholm’s harbor. It was time to go home. My flight out of Arlanda airport was at 08:00, and I had to catch a bus far earlier. I will never forget our exchange that morning. I intentionally missed my first bus to sit with her for another half-hour, but the time came for her to say to me, teary-eyed, her lip quivering, all in an adorable Swedish accent: “I had so much fun with you, Keaton. If I never see you again, I hope you have a wonderful life.”
It was straight out of the third act of a fucking horrible romance movie, save for the inevitable sappy happy ending. We both knew I was not coming back. Although I failed to gauge the significance right away, I knew immediately Maria’s words would follow me all the way home, even when she could not. After numerous utterances of “one-last-hug,” I bid farewell and boarded the bus. There I sat. Completely alone save for the bus driver on a highway south that marked the beginning of the end of my trip. The last week a blur, memories rattled with the bus and evoked everything from thankfulness to despair. I knew I was lucky to have met Maria; however, I was plagued by the inescapable reality that it was over. It was not until I watched the many bridge-connected islands that make up Stockholm shrink into obscurity that I asked myself why I had to leave. Why did this sort of thing not happen to me at home? It wasn’t fair. Perhaps that is why relationships forged abroad resonate so greatly within us — they are all-too-often doomed.
Maria inadvertently showed me that romantic connections worth investing in are spontaneous and come to fruition not by texting or mind-games but randomly — a last minute decision to book a cheap cabin on a Scandinavian cruise, for example. Soon followed the realization that spontaneity is not exclusive to Sweden; it was dumb luck that I met Maria, and it will likely be a matter of dumber luck when I meet someone else. This realization was liberating. I no longer feared having to settle and effortlessly let go of the baggage of past toxic relationships where I put in effort and received nothing in return – and there were a lot of them. If I found an intimate connection on a random boat as it sailed across international waters, I can find it elsewhere.
When I look back on these experiences and countless others, I realize it was not the architecture of Dubrovnik, or the sunrise over Stockholm’s medieval harbor that changed anything within me. They served instead as a constant reminder that I was somewhere else – somewhere I sought to cram as many experiences as possible between a departure and an all-too-fast approaching return date. Perhaps traveling changes our lives because it demands we ask ourselves the question of why we need to board an airplane to feel alive. It challenges us to live within a span far grander than the dates printed on a ticket.
Photo courtesy of The Wanderer Online Photography Editor Antony Ta