By Mara Soloway, I Start Wondering Contributor
It’s great when life affords you new opportunities just when you need them. I was feeling anxious about various aspects of my life and found a curative in a six-week trip to Germany, France and The Netherlands.
Removing the Barriers
The planning for this great summer adventure started in the spring when my husband, Rolf, who is working at a German university, was planning to attend a scientific conference in Paris in August. I had already failed to take an opportunity to go with him to Florence. I had been thinking that I would look back on my life and hate myself for not moving there with him and living an adventurous Euro lifestyle, which got side railed due to family issues and freelance writing opportunities in the United States for me, plus some inertia about moving. I needed to at least go for a long visit.
By the time of my visit, two of the sources of anxiety had been stilled; my frail elderly girls had both passed away within a few weeks of each other in the spring. My sweet dog, Lulu, had been declining for a while and my mother-in-law, Dorothy, who was living in a memory care facility, died in her sleep a few months before turning 97. I was free to travel. I needed to see Rolf and to revive from losing both of my girls.
Changing My Mindset
Like many, my first reaction when making a decision to travel is “I can’t afford to.” But for me, this year, at this time, it didn’t ring true – it sounded like a well-worn excuse not to do something. I decided to banish any self-hating and constraining thinking about this opportunity for adventure. Could I afford to go monetarily? Yes, with budgeting for the loss of pay and careful spending while away. Several months before I was going to leave, my austerity plan began. No shopping! I turned the air conditioning set point up so the electric bill would be lower. My publisher understood that I needed to go and was fine with it as long as I had certain assignments finished before I left.
The opportunity was there, I had enough money, my responsibilities for Lulu and Dorothy were over. I needed an adventure. I couldn’t afford the emotional duress of not going. We put travel plans together. Paris, here I come! How long should I be gone? It really isn’t worth the 11-plus hour flights unless you stay for a few weeks. I randomly decided to be away for six weeks. However, tropical storm-soaked roads and closed airports in Houston because of Hurricane Harvey made the trip last closer to seven weeks before I could get back.
I didn’t need to bring many clothes – Rolf has a washer and dryer and I have some clothing in a drawer there from previous visits. So I threw two pairs of pants, five t-shirts and my various lotions and potions into a suitcase. I boarded the plane to Germany totally amazed with my liberated mode of thinking.
Being Part of an International Community
A few days after we returned to Germany from Paree, we took the train to Amsterdam. Between walking around Paris for nine days and Amsterdam for four, I’ve seen what seems like tens of thousands of people I’ve never seen before. I’ve overheard their conversations in French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Polish, Dutch, Swahili, Romanian and others I don’t recognize. I’ve dodged around the slow-walking ones on the sidewalk as generally people moved in a sync that avoided collision. I stood in line for more than an hour with them to visit the building where Anne Frank and her family and others lived in hiding, which we all walked through in quiet retrospection. I jostled for position with them to better see works of art in the Marmottan (Monet), Picasso, d’Orsay, Brancusi, Van Gogh, Rijks and Rembrandt museums. I sipped cappuccino at street cafes almost daily and watched them pass by. And I took many of their photos because I intentionally waited for them to walk into my shot to help set the scene and scale. People wore African and Indian dress, headscarves, and the whole range from designer clothes to the typical traveler outfit: comfortable shoes, jeans and a top, including a few “Don’t Mess with Texas” t-shirts.
Every one of the people I encountered was alive and well and polite enough – we all had the sense of how to act in public. The worst activity came from the smokers who have no qualms about smoking right next to you at an outdoor café. (Thanks so much, my drink is much better with your ashes floating in it.)
Finding Common Ground
I was feeling a sense of kinship of being an international citizen. But also visible in Paris is a strong police/military presence, with small groups walking in fatigues and carrying machine guns. Before you can enter many shops, you have to let the security person look in your bag. The terrible event in Barcelona took place while Rolf and I were walking among the crowds in Paris and later Amsterdam. I think we reacted like many in Barcelona did after expressing sorrow and outrage; we will not let you compromise our appreciation of a free, democratic society.
Travel is liberating and confidence-building despite any safety and monetary concerns. I walked miles and miles — along the Champs-Élysées from Concord Square to the Arc de Triomphe, throughout Montmartre, La Marais and the Left Bank — taking Paris in through my senses. I also got myself around on the bus and subway without any problem once I learned from Rolf how to decipher all those lines of spaghetti on the map into stations and train numbers. (Although I’m impressed with myself, millions of Parisians do the same every day.) I had some great interactions with people in Germany. And just like Paris, I loved the vibrancy and sense of history of Amsterdam.
We’re planning to explore the United Kingdom next year. I won’t even blink or get dissuaded when I see the ticket prices or fret about being away from work for several weeks. Life is offering me some great opportunities. I really can’t afford not to take them.