Under most circumstances my friend David Comden is a pillar of society, a responsible newspaper and magazine publisher with a publisher's wide range of serious views on serious matters. But when David talks about something that really excites him he waves his hands around in the air as if he is suddenly 12 years old again. When David starts waving his hands, I listen.
The other day David waved his hands and reminisced. His subject, in roundabout fashion, was life, though specifically he talked about the possibilities of travel and our inclination to put things off.
David told me that when he was twenty he worked for a gentleman with polio, helping this gentleman with simple things that aren't so simple when you are in a wheelchair. One day David mentioned that he was going to Europe.
"When?" asked the gentleman.
David continued on, talking about the places he planned on seeing.
"When?" asked the gentleman.
David gave a vague time table.
"Fine," said David. "September 19."
And that, David told me, was the exact day he left for Europe by himself.
And then David started talking and his hands started doing some serious waving about. He spent 13 weeks wandering Europe. Hopping trains and ferries he found his way to England, Scotland, Holland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, and France, living only as a traveler does. David recounted story after story, punctuating each story with "But I'm taking too much of your time..." before launching into the next story. I didn't mind. David's stories were fascinating and funny and honest and human. David has a keen sense of detail. "I don't know what it is," he said, "but I see all these things on the periphery." This is a fine trait for a traveler. Thirty-three years later David remembers minute details that would make Rain Man throw in the towel.
It is also possible David remembers his travels so vividly because he traveled alone.
"When you travel alone, you don't have any distractions," he said. "You're forced to absorb things. Traveling alone also forces you to reach out."
Something of a solo traveler myself, I know David is right. Traveling alone is very different. It is often uncomfortable and sometimes intensely lonely. As a travel writer I have visited many beautiful and fascinating places on the globe alone. Even in the most beautiful and fascinating places there have been moments of dark and profound loneliness. You try to find a response -- other than heartbreak -- when, a week into a five-month road trip, your seven-year-old son says, "When are you coming home, Dad? When you left, I started to cry." At times, traveling alone is loneliness beyond words.
But if you look hard enough, even the darkest cloud has a silver lining. Traveling alone forces you to reach out to others (sometimes in desperation), to ask for things you never would have asked for if you were holding hands with someone else. You find yourself in the company of new friends, in places you never would have experienced. Though you often don't know it then, you are making memories imbued with a magical light.
"The music of the world finds its way more easily into the heart grown less secure," opined philosopher Albert Camus.
Profound dark is often followed by heady light. At one point in his European wanderings, David found himself sitting on a train station bench in a small town in Germany at night. He had no place to stay. He didn't know a soul. His head was down, but he was still picking up details.
"You're in survival mode. What am I going to do? Where am I going to stay? Am I going to sleep on this bench? I'm looking down and I see this pair of Adidas walk by. I figured anyone wearing Adidas had to speak English."
David looked up. "Excuse me. Do you know a place where I can stay?"
"Yes," said the young Adidas-wearing man in fine English. "You must stay with my family."
David still remembers waking in a 400-year-old castle, cocooned in a warm, downy-soft bed and the breakfast that followed.
David's hands waved mightily and he added a foolish boyish grin.
"They served eggs in these little cup holders. The eggs had these little crocheted hats on them. The night before, I'm in a train station wondering where I'm going to sleep. The next morning it's like 'Alice in Wonderland' breakfast time."
In Germany, David also found himself locked out of his youth hostel. He was with a new friend. The night was very cold. There was snow on the ground. Until that point, the cold hadn't mattered much to David because the evening had been spent sampling many libations. But now it was just dark and very, very cold and the door to the hostel was quite firmly locked. Perhaps the friend had enjoyed a few more libations, for he opted to sleep under a bush. David, reasoning with slightly more lucidity, walked until he found an unlocked car. Opening the back door he crawled in. It wasn't much better than a bush.
"It was so cold," David said. "I kept waking up every five minutes and looking at my watch. I was freezing."
When the hostel opened up at seven, David walked numbly through the door. He draped his clothes over the heater and crawled into bed.
"An hour later they woke me up. Time to go. I'm exhausted, freezing and out in the street again."
Memorable travel is about both mental and physical discomfort.
David's hands, perhaps slightly numb from the memory, waved a bit jerkily.
"I only slept in that bed for an hour but it felt so good."
Such memories might seem small and inconsequential, but anyone who has traveled knows they are not inconsequential at all.
"Travel is the chance to confront the questions and challenges that you would never see at home," writes author and travel addict Pico Iyer. "Travel is the prospect of stepping out of the daylight of everything I know."
I think you understand.
David kept talking. He remembered so many things. Riding trains and ferries. Singing in the streets with new-found Aussie friends (David had always wanted to see Oktoberfest, and so he did). Stepping, more than once, through the doorway of a mundane looking church in a nondescript little town to witness a glorious, goose-pimpling art work inside.
"You'd just stand there stunned, wondering, does anybody even know this is here?"
David never said so, but I could tell he was proud of the fact that he had turned a dream into a reality, that he had gone out into the world alone and both survived and thrived. His hands waved and a light came into his face, a light we both understood, although both of us are now long past twelve years old.
Pico Iyer, a last time.
"We travel, in essence, to become young fools again -- to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more."
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