After it’s all over, the first and only question that crosses your mind is:
“Was all of it real?”
It’s a natural question, after all. The only thing that seems to change between then and now is that you’re driving away from the airport, not towards. And even with thousands of photos and pages of notes serving as proof, you can never quite shake the feeling that it was but an elaborate dream, a story of a life time with a single spectator…
For as long as I can remember, falling asleep on a moving vehicle has been as easy as breathing, if not easier. Cars, buses, trains, planes, whatever. As long as I’m sitting, I’m sleeping.
Not this time.
Buckled in my seat and squished between two strangers that looked equally uncomfortable as me, for the first time in my life, I couldn’t fall asleep on a plane ride. I had requested an aisle seat, because I have a small bladder and why interact with two people when you can interact with just one? Alas, I had decided to give that up just before take-off for a family that had somehow been broken up. Up until then, the flight attendant was quite perplexed as to how to deal with their request to be moved together. Well, this was as good of a chance as any for me to validate my brilliant decision of travelling alone. My good deed didn’t go unnoticed, however, as the flight attendant that I voluntarily relieved graciously bumped me up to “Option Plus”, which entailed a baby bottle of champagne, some extra snacks, and a free blanket. All of that, though, was not enough to redeem the lack of on-flight entertainment system, on the one ride that I needed it the most.
Flying never bothered me, probably because I’ve always been sleeping. But this time, it somehow dawned on me that I’m stuck in a tin capsule 30000ft in the air. What was more distressing, however, was that I didn’t have a fucking clue what I was gonna do for 4 weeks, or how I’m even gonna do it. It wasn’t the foreign soil that scared me, but more the foreign concept of complete freedom, a concept that I mistakenly took to be “too many decisions I’ll have to make”. It was either anxiety or excitement, and I’m not quite sure where the distinction lies. On top of all that, I already started to miss my family, friends, and girlfriend. It seems ridiculous that you can preemptively miss someone knowing only how long you won’t see them for, but yeah, you can. And I don’t know if it’s because Mei was heading for Africa the day after and that I subconsciously feared that I may never see her again, but it literally felt like I was parting with some kind of treasure, my life savings or something.
“Artificial separation,” I thought, “this is what I wanted, right?” Right. I was for some reason convinced that being scared meant that I was doing the right thing, and that voluntarily distancing myself from everything I had become so familiar with - my house, friends, parents, her, my “life” - will make me appreciate everything more when I came back. “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” is one of the few sayings that I buy into, and have had some experience with. So I figured, why wait till it’s actually gone? Why don’t I voluntarily go away for a while?
Artificial separation, I called it.
In truth, that was an ad hoc reason, something that came along conveniently as the day of my departure inched closer. Not that it wasn’t true, though, it just wasn’t what I intended to teach myself. Well, even before I landed on European soil, I learned the first lesson about myself, which is that I have zero capacity to forecast my own emotional response to something that I planned to do. I don’t know why I never realized this before, but it’s always the same. “Yeah I’ll just do it, what’s the worst that can happen?” Well, the worst at the time is a lot worse than the worst I could guess two months from flying out.
No, what I had intended to learn was the legacy the Old Masters left behind, the secret behind their conquests that we, Western civilization, are still feeling the ripples of hundreds of years later. I wanted to learn what made these men - kings, emperors, artists of the millennium, men of God- immortal, not only in the literary sense but in the literal sense as well. I wanted to learn, and more importantly, I hoped that somewhere along the way, I would “find myself”. This, perhaps, was a bigger cause for distress than the fear of getting lost. I desperately hoped that I would learn about myself, become different - different how, I wasn’t sure. Just, different. That, in its essence, was the whole purpose of this trip, and I had, once again, not a single clue as to how to become different, or different enough to make it all worthwhile.
As I sat there, ironically awake, I began to wonder if I’ll ever dream of the journey I was about to embark on…