After ten days touring Germany and Switzerland with a chattering group of Chinese middle schoolers, I needed a vacation from my vacation. Kids are great, but sheep herding is pretty tedious work. They got on a plane to go back to China, and I slept in. The plan initially was that an English friend of mine that I met in Vietnam allowed me to crash at his place for a week before I leave Europe. I was going to hop a train to Brussels and transfer to Euro Rail to cross the English Channel. Simple enough right?
Brussels looked like a really nice city and I have been since reprimanded for not spending the night. The fact that I simply passed through the craft beer and Gothic architecture capital of Europe is a great regret of my life. I have since vowed to return and clear my name. Don’t fight fate kids, because this misstep became increasingly apparent when I got there. It turns out that when I was up in the Alps, it didn’t exactly register that we were currently in the midst of the hottest Summer in European history. The heat (which, living in Southern China for the past year and a half, didn’t really feel like a big deal) seemed to have single handedly brought European train transportation to its knees. It was explained to me that there was a massive power failure along the Euro Rail line going into London from Belgium.
Fear not, they said. You can just take the train to Lille, France and transfer there. The problem is that anyone who wanted to go to England from Belgium that day (turns out a lot of fucking people) were sent off to a station in France to connect into England. If you’ve ever been caught up in a vast stream of aggravated human traffic on a historically hot day, but it’s a sweaty, grumbling mess. Syrian and South American refugees: my bad, you’re right, it’s awful, I’m sorry.
Anyway, 12 hours after having woken up in Frankfurt, Germany, a day after I was in Spietz, Switzerland, and transferring through France and Belgium that day, I arrived in jolly ole London, England. Once I found a seat on the Underground at 11 o’clock at night after leaving at 10 that morning, I felt an immediate sense of calm. Though I was still technically a foreigner, I found a certain sense of homeyness. It could just be as simple that I was in an English speaking city for the first time since 2017, but I still like to think that perhaps it’s a realization of the history and literature that I seep myself in throughout my education. I still had to admit, it was nice to order a cup of coffee in English.
In retrospect, Switzerland was probably the most supremely gorgeous place I have ever been. Although to my shame as an American, I haven’t seen the Grand Canyon or the Rockies, so to see something like the Swiss Alps for the first time was breathtaking. It makes me feel like I owe my own country’s natural wonders a visit, if only for the sake of comparison to something so extraordinary. In Switzerland, I was utterly mesmerized by the power and scale and beauty of nature that it took to make this place. It made me see my place as a human being, to see something so vast and dominating of the landscape that people had no hand in making. Something older than our civilization. Titans: the original gods. I have a titan of my own, being the ocean, but the ocean is mysterious. It’s flat surface is deceptive and its vast insurmountable beauty is hidden in it’s depths. Mountains on the other hand, are ornate castles and monuments of time and the chemistry in the belly of the Earth and the heart of the universe.
On the way into Switzerland, a woman boarding the train and I caught a glance and we ended up sitting in the same booth. She was a little older than me, but easily looked younger than me, there was something ancestral and profound about her beauty. Like she had come from beautiful people who lived in a beautiful place that looked at the world in a beautiful way. It’s as if seeping in it so long, the magic of this place had become a part of her being. I found out that she grew up here, but she doesn’t actually doesn’t live there now. She came to see her family and visit friends. She had moved to France as a helicopter marketer and salesperson.
Honestly, it felt like sitting across from an advanced alien species. She was incredible. I was doing my best to hold it together, and the conversation moved along smoothly.
I looked out the window at the cerulean waters of Lake Thun carved from glacier ice, whose shores were dotted with old orange houses dispersing up word into the piney woods and up to the snow of the alps. I couldn’t help saying (if not about her), “I can’t believe how beautiful all this is.”
She looked too and she smiled. She said that yes, it is nice to come back. You forget how beautiful it is up here. When you live here all your life, “you kinda get used to it”. To be honest, it took me off guard to see someone so hopelessly beautiful look on the most magical place I’ve ever been and think of it just as the place she grew up. I guess you can’t shit your pants every time you walk out the door and see the unbelievable mountains in your own backyard. But at the same time, it spoke of a certain irreverence for this natural and overwhelming beauty. Maybe in some capacity, it was to protect one’s self. If we are awed every day, does that cheapen awe?
We said our goodbyes, and we shared a smile. Hers let her know that I think she is outrageously gorgeous and an awesome person and that I’m kind of in awe of her. Hers let me know that I did alright, that bards are allowed to perform for queens, and that maybe – perhaps in another place, another time, another situation, another life – just maybe, I could have a shot at touching the sun.
I think it was plenty for both of us.
There’s also something else that I should let know about Switzerland: honestly, it is probably more expensive than Disney World. From the hundred dollar trains and laundry service to the ten dollar bottles of water and cups of coffee. It’s genuinely insane. Probably not to the knowledge of the teachers who planned the trip, but we ended up staying in a mountain resort town probably set up for skiers and millionaires and skiing millionaires rather than a group of middle-class middle students. It had all the usual sights for these kinds of places: large play areas for the kids with the over-sized chess board, faux 80’s bar full of baby boomers, shops that are just ‘oh so quaint’ despite their own corporate branding, you name it. Rather than go to the overpriced “where else are you going to eat because everywhere closes at 8 o’clock” restaurants, the Chinese teachers and students went back to their respective rooms and resigned themselves to this seemingly never ending supply of instant noodles, that they seemed always capable of producing from their bags.
I, perhaps being overly proud, went all hunter-gatherer on it and took to the streets of the resort turned ghost town at the falling of the sun. Wandering the streets like a summer-time ghoul, I found one place that looked like a diner scene out of an eighties movie. Plastic signs with the overly colored and unrealistic looking food, creamy white walls around a steel kitchen, and plastic picnic tablecloths topped with silverware, some condiments, and a plastic flower. The small place was packed and everyone seemed to be sharing a single conversation Swiss/German/Romanche with the cook. I walked up to the counter and after I didn’t get served for a moment, I panicked. Real or imagined, I was getting the ‘you don’t belong here’ vibe, and to my shame, I faked a phone call and scampered out of there. For maybe another 20 mins to half an hour, I looked for another place.
After deciding against two more closing old people bars, I thought I would bare the embarrassment and try to be the goofy foreigner in the diner again. Luckily a lot of the crowd funneled out and there were only a couple people left in line. I ended up behind a French guy telling the same story over and over again how someone was banging on the glass of another restaurant he worked at 5am asking for food. The French guy was the hero of the story because he went out and calmly explained to a drunk asshole how maybe they would have gotten him some food if he wasn’t being so rude.
The French guy steps off line and I step up to the counter. The large Swiss chief looked like the living example of a hockey team goon. I ask him for a menu and he gingerly responds that the French guy was in line before me. Already feeling super out of place, I embarrassingly hopped to the side and stood there like an idiot with a sad, confused, hungry look on my face while four people were served. I apologize the French guy, who say not “Don’t worry about it, mate. But look out because he’s only serving kebabs, fries, and chicken nuggets right now because he wants to close early.”
So I waited for my time. And when I finally stepped up into the line, the chef said they were closing. I asked if I could just get one more order. He looked at me with what I imagined was pity, and he says “What do you want?” Under the order of the French guy, I said a kebab, not exactly knowing what a kebab was. (Turns out it’s a wrap with lettuce, spicy sauce, and this greasy lamb bacon type stuff. Not bad, but hardly worth 20 bucks.)
He set me up a place on a side table and I became the last customer that night. While the chef was cleaning he turned away two more customers while I had this huge kebab hanging out of my mouth watching them come and go. I felt like a heel, but at least it wasn’t anymore instant f***ing noodles. When the placed cleared out and I was the last one in there, I ventured to apologize and said that if he wanted me to leave that it wasn’t a problem. He said it was alright and that he appreciated that I wasn’t pushy, that I was polite to the French guy. He said that he didn’t get that often with tourists.
I told him it was because I have been living in a foreign country for the past year and a half. I know that these places that I visit are not my home and that if I want anything out here, I have to live by the locals’ rules. He appreciated it. I tell him how gorgeous the scenery was and how it took my breath away on the way in. Again, I heard that answer: “Yeah, you kinda get used to it.” He says that he climbs the mountain every day by train to come to work and make kebabs for ill-tempered tourists.
He asked where I was from and I explained my over-complicated story about being an American teaching in China vacationing in Switzerland and Germany. “Oh,” he said. “Let me ask you something.” He confirmed my suspicion that there were an inordinate amount of Chinese tourists in these parts. Since we walked in the country, it seems as if there were more Chinese tourists than Swiss people. A big theme running in China right now with their recent success is this influx of nouveau riche pouring out all over the world. I won’t say that Chinese are awful tourists because that would be racially discriminating, but I will say I’ve never seen another culture be as ill-equipped at being outside of their home country as the Chinese. I know because I had been dragging 10 of them across Europe for a week and half. I’m not blaming them, but I will say that there is a heavy layer insulation between them and the rest of the world.
The Swiss chef said that he gets the impression that they are arrogant think that they think they are better than other people. I asked if it was because they only interact with each other and make very little effort to talk to any other race or people. He said yes and that he felt as though they looked down at the others. It felt a little weird to be in that position. Here I was, ready to stand up for the people who laughed at me when I used chopsticks and were disgusted by my beard. Maybe it was because I had become hostage to my situation out there and I had a bit of Stockholm Syndrome. Maybe I had legitimately found a connection to an otherwise prickly and xenophobic culture. Maybe I had seen enough of cultures being shitty to each other that I don’t tolerate blanket statements about anyone anymore.
I explained this the best that I could and how little access they have to English, which is why I’m there. They isolate themselves because in their culture it is embarrassing to be someone who is out of the loop socially. It is advocated for them to surround themselves with family and friends and be in control of their own language. They weren’t being pompous, they were being skiddish. He accepted this as a good enough answer and continued to clean the kitchen. I stuffed my face with oversized, greasy kebab while the chef turned down two more patrons. I finished up, cleaned my own table, and thanked him for having me.
While I wandered home, I happened across the French Guy again and he was with his German buddy. I thanked him for the heads up and how I got served despite him closing down. The French Guy asserted that he wasn’t close friends with the chef, but he asserted “He’s just being a lazy bastard.” He said how he and his friend were working here seasonally over the summer, taking advantage of the busy season and getting a piece of the grossly overpriced pie before going back to their normally priced homes. Growing up in New Jersey, I respected it, but it was odd to see people climbing mountains rather than flocking to the beach.
The French guy said that all the natives are like that and get very easily sick of the foreigners who pour into the small town every summer. The German guy finds an opportunity to add, “And they’re all racist!”
I thought about how much I had learned about being a foreigner and how misunderstood the position often is. It’s easy to lose patience on both sides because the whole process of communicating without common language is trying. But being in this situation for the past year and a half, I have gained a lot of humility in how reliant I am on English as well as a respect for those who venture to speak another language. You realize how much less our words matter than our posture, our attitudes, and the energy given off by the we hold ourselves. I wondered how many Chinese would extend me the same courtesy. Then I wondered how many Americans.
Ultimately, I decided the best thing to say was, “You kinda get used to it.”
People often tell me how lucky I am to be able to do all these things, and they’re absolutely right. I am blessed to have been born in this place, time, and health that I have a family whose decisions and hard work have made it possible for me. Then they say something interesting: “I’m so jealous of you, man.” I’m aware that most often times it is harmless and it is meant without any malign, but it still bothers me a little bit.
I felt trapped before I left. My relationship was failing and I was in the budding stages of a career that I wasn’t thrilled to pursue. An uninspired writer is a vagabond in his own home. The life I was living had diverged so far from where I imagined it being, that I couldn’t bare to look at it anymore. I ran away. I killed my old self.
I moved my home 8,000 miles away just to find out that anxiety doesn’t really go away and neither do your problems. They’re still there – your family, your issues, your unfinished novels – you left them behind marooned on an island while you went and saw the world. They’re still there waiting for you when you get back. They had been living in a parallel universe while you were transforming yourself. They’re not angry you were gone. They just don’t really understand what this was all about.
My answer when people say that they are jealous is that “It’s easy; to get everything, you just need to give up everything.” My nephew was born a week before I left. I held him in my arms as a newborn and then got on a plane to restart my life. Every time I come back, he’s grown bigger, his vocabulary has expanded, and he’s better at walking. If I stay in that strange world far away too long, he’s going to grow into a man and I’m just going be that weird uncle who lives in China and only comes home for Christmas.
What I’m trying to say is that you can have anything you want, but you need to come to terms with what the sacrifice requires. It’s all alchemy. Law of Equivalent Exchange. I am often jealous of people with careers and families. Most of my friends back home are working towards careers and have found long term relationships. A couple of them are married. A couple of them have kids. Sometimes both. They have houses and desks and work clothes, and here I am with a passport full of stamps and a camera full of memories.
I do believe it has benefited me greatly. I’ve always made fun of Eat, Pray, Love and these Buddah’s journey to find enlightenment by giving up earthly possessions, but now I’ve become the subject of them. I abandoned my post and my responsibilities to learn about myself and to grow. Considering that my discontent and unrealized dreams would have probably manifested in some sort of mental illness, I didn’t have a lot to give up, so all-in-all it seems to have been a good buy.
It could be said that “you kinda get used to it.” You take your lot, and you grow with it. I’m not sure what humans are, because no one has better than an idea, but I like to think that we are caretakers. We have been given a world and a conscious mind and the responsibility to make the best of things seems to be solely on our shoulders. If we weren’t granted it, then assuredly, we’ve assumed the role ourselves. Just don’t forget the beauty of what you have. Maybe your career is someone else’s mountain. Would you rather have a child or see the ocean just once? Would you trade a huge chunk of your future of your future for a thousand pasts? There’s no right or wrong answer. It’s always a trade. But don’t forget your values and the things you’ve made with your own hands and sweat. The lessons I learned out there, I could have learned here, but I never nutted up and grabbed them. I gave up my ocean for a city, even though they’re equally as beautiful, so the real teacher was travel. Don’t envy another’s career when yours makes less money but you love your work. Don’t have to leave the Alps to realize how beautiful they were the whole time. And for the love of God, don’t ever kinda get used to it.