Shiny Twists

Cambodia, Namibia, Greenland, groceries, laundry, and taxes.

James Charisma

March 31, 2014 | Gold | April 2014

shiny twists collage

Last summer, while travelling between weddings in Florida and Florence, I encountered an eight-hour layover in Frankfurt. This would be my first time outside the United States and I didn’t know what to expect. Luckily, the distant relative of a friend of mine who lived in Germany, Alex, offered to meet me for the day. We would go out, see the sights, and he would have me back to the airport in time for my connecting flight.

I met him at the Frankfurt airport. After some sightseeing and lunch in the central business district, we joined a few people he met at a hostel he stayed in the night before. They were a varied group—two backpacking brothers in high school from Portland, a girl taking a year off before college in California, a curly-haired college dropout who looked a little like a younger, mini-Bob Dylan, amongst a few others. They decided to go to the Main Tower in Frankfurt—a lookout point that surveyed the entire city—and Alex and I travelled with them.

The Main Tower was a magnificent spire that had an incredible view stretching out in all directions, and we stayed for almost an hour. I enjoyed my time in Germany so far, but still felt nervous. Alex had saved me from getting lost about a half-dozen times already; English wasn’t as abundant here as I thought it would be and the simplest tasks, like buying metro tickets or reading maps, were impossible. Additionally, I didn’t have an international plan on my cell phone (my fault), so I had no way to make calls or use the Internet for help. What was I going to do for the next three weeks?

On our way back to the hostel, I overheard a conversation between one of the girls in the group and Mini-Dylan. She asked about Mini-Dylan’s assorted paraphernalia—gold rings and necklaces and bracelets, a medley of colorful ribbons, woven straps, strings, and worn shiny twists of metal.

He glanced down at the items on his neck and wrist and arms, casually flipping through them with his hands, and mentioned stories and places as if reading from a list. One bracelet came from a bunch of monks in Cambodia, he said. This necklace was hand-sewn by a beggar in Budapest. Random children in Africa made this particular object on his finger. This other thing was once a sacred plant or something in Greenland.

The girl seemed thoroughly impressed, and so was I.

“Wow,” the girl said. “You’ve pretty much been everywhere.”

Mini-Dylan looked back up, not at the girl. “Pretty much,” he said.

His last comment ruined everything. Travelling seemed no more special than accomplishing a list of errands for him. Cambodia, Namibia, Greenland, groceries, laundry, taxes.

Travel changed for me then. How many cities and cultures did Mini-Dylan get to experience that countless others dream of? Travel seems to come attached to the notion that it ‘broadens your horizons.’ That by simply leaving one’s surroundings and going someplace new, the traveler would be instantly improved somehow. Changed for the better, and never the same. To travel is to rejuvenate one’s core, the experience imbued with instant value. Afterward, one is re-purposed.

Mini-Dylan’s words suggested a different interpretation: that in and of itself, travel was hollow. Not to say that it doesn’t have meaning or relevance, but that the simple act of seeing some new place didn’t have the ability to instantly transform anyone any more than eating a hotdog. Or sneezing. Or watching television.

Travel does have the power to change one’s worldview (hopefully more than the hotdog), but those qualities aren’t inherently a part of the experience in the same way that buying a car actually gets you a car. A change may be possible and substantial with travel, but it isn’t automatic or given and it has to come from within. For all the sights and sounds and encounters that Mini-Dylan may have been involved with over years of adventuring, he seemed to have emotionally retained none of it.

A short time after we returned to the hostel, I left and returned to the airport, which I was able to manage on my own. I thanked Alex—and the group—and we parted ways. Less than an hour later, I boarded another plane and was back in the air, on my way to Florence. Still unsure about how I’d get around, but Florence was supposedly much more English-friendly, and my concern turned into a personal challenge. Was I going to be helpless and confused somewhere, or would I push through and make this trip my own?

Sitting next to me on this plane was a somewhat elegant woman in her early thirties, adorned with all sorts of shiny rings, bracelets, and necklaces. They reminded me of Mini-Dylan’s accessories and I struck up a conversation with her.

We spoke for over an hour—she was a Swedish opera singer, travelling between shows in Frankfurt and Florence. Rushing to catch this flight, she came straight from the theatre and hadn’t bothered to take off any of her prop performance jewelry.

Sadly, she said, all the rubies and silver and gold were completely fake. I told her I disagreed; somehow, they were refreshingly authentic.

Collage by Kellie Hogan

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