This semester, I went down the river with Huck Finn, explored India with Kim, and got lost on an island with the cast of The Tempest. I was in Literary Themes & Forms: Travel Literature, with Professor Matthew Heitzman. While I was exploring fictional journeys, I got the chance to reflect on my own. Some of the discussion questions in class hit a little too close to home. When I looked back on my travels during study abroad with a literary lens, I was able to understand who I had become as a traveler. I answered the questions we applied to our texts in order to understand myself.
How is the traveler both an insider and an outsider?
I was a student at a Scottish University and an American one at the same time. I’d spend too much time decorating a room that I’d only live in for a month. I knew every store on the streets but was still too afraid to go into most of them. I was often the only person in the movie theater, catching up on cultural capital but wondering if I’d missed a memo. I could navigate the maps and metros of unfamiliar cities, but I didn’t really know them.
What does the traveler lock onto?
Bookstores, metro maps, and secret museums. The things that other hostel guests talked about over breakfast that you wouldn’t find on Top 10 lists of Things to See in the City. Graffiti. Mistranslated options on an English menu. Performers moving cups, hiding balls and captivating tourists. What lights up at night. Streets that curve so that you can’t see what’s at the end of them. Words I didn’t recognize from last-minute flashcards trying to learn the language. The games old men played in the parks on Sundays. What people ate for breakfast.
How does the traveler construct a sense of self?
I was trying to escape stereotypes of ignorant Americans by learning as much of other languages as I could. Seeking out the forgotten parts of history and feeling guilty for not knowing the basics. Buying the most obscure, unexplainable postcards I could find. Finding a quest off the edge of the map. Knowing how to use the metro, if nothing else. Not drinking alcohol or caffeine, not smoking, not having enough vices for people to connect with. Learning how to explain that I was from California, but studied in Pennsylvania, unable to explain which one was really where I was from.
Is the traveler ever able to really come home?
I still have no idea where that is, and if I’ll have to make it myself one day. Is home my room in the renovated French maison du maitre where I stayed for a month, is it my hostel in Berlin, is it my dorm room in Scotland, is it my host family’s house in Italy, is it Arcadia, is it California where I was born? Is it between the pages of the journals I’ve been keeping, or in the Facebook photos? Is it in the posters I cover my walls with, or the stories I tell my friends? Is it in a never-ending journey East, or heading back West? Do I need to keep moving in order to find it, or will it only exist when I settle down?