Czech Republic,  Poland,  Sept 2017

Learning the Ropes

It was 6:30 in the morning, and we were sprinting across Krakow as fast as our double-backpacks would let us. Despite the panic, we were feeling the thrill of boarding our first one-way train. We made it to the station with about 15 minutes to spare, stopped briefly to grab a quick bite of breakfast (and a shot of caffeine), and then jumped onto our train.

Done! Made it! We were officially on our adventure, our nomadic experiment.

The plan: in the spirit of a memoir I had read a few months earlier, our plan for the next few weeks, albeit for a couple plane tickets we already needed to purchase, was to wing it. We had spent hours listing, comparing, researching, and narrowing down our destination choices, mapping out a general itinerary, so we had a basic plan.

We’d weave our way around Eastern Europe by train across 4 weeks, hitting up Prague in the Czech Republic, Munich in Germany, Vienna in Austria, Bratislava in Slovakia, and Budapest in Hungary. After the 4 weeks, we were going to Oslo, Norway to visit my friend, and then jump over to Ireland to visit other friends, finally ending in our final destination for the next year: Montpellier, France.

It was a lot, but it was incredible how cheap tickets were to get between countries in Europe, and we planned on cooking a lot and staying in cheap places. Everything would be fine.

I turned to Kevin. “So, how long until we get to Prague?”

“7 hours.”

Stomach drop. “What?

I referenced my mental map of the space between Krakow and Prague and felt positively indignant that they could not possibly that far apart. Given these were two cities in different countries, but Europe. Small countries. Come on.

“Yup. 7 hours. We’re actually quite a ways away from the border.”

I opened my phone to check the map. They were quite a bit farther than I thought, but with European countries smaller than many US states, my little US butt assumed everything was, give or take, about two-seconds apart. First reality check.

But 7 hours

That was certainly well past when I’d be hungry. And I was already thirsty from sprinting to the train with my over-packed backpack. I had been so excited about our spontaneous adventure and nervous about missing our first train, bringing extra food and water hadn’t even crossed my mind. My current stores were the small breakfast currently digesting in my stomach and about 3 gulps of water left in the water bottle I forgot to fill that morning. Second reality check.

And the first panic of travel began.

Seriously, no one talks about these things when they talk about vacationing, backpacking, living, or doing literally anything on the road. You talk to someone about their latest vacation and usually they say, “Oh my gosh it was amazing. So perfect. We had such a good time.”

Very rarely will you get, “Eh.” Or more accurately, “There were moments of amazing but also many moments where I broke down in panic and thought the world was ending because I couldn’t eat lunch like I thought I could and also at the same time I had to pee and had to hold it while driving on a cobblestone road for 4 hours.” In other words, you don’t talk about discovering how much of a wimp you really are.

Being in a foreign country has a way of shoving a steady stream of, “Oh, shit.” moments at you that can challenge even the most go-with-the-flow of us. In the end it’s good for you, but in the moment, feels akin to plugging your nose and eating an animal organ (can you tell I’ve been spending time in France?).

The thing about panic is that once you start panicking about one thing, suddenly everything is panic-worthy. It doesn’t really matter if you’re panicking about falling off a cliff or whether you’re going to get your snack time, panic spreads fast.

In this moment, I suddenly became intensely aware that I couldn’t understand a word that people were saying around me. What else did they know that I didn’t? Then, I realized I absolutely no idea how a Polish-Czech train worked. Was there a snack car? Would we make pit stops? Is there a drinking fountain on trains? Is there a bathroom? How would I even know if there were? Were we on the right train? Were we even in Krakow? How do we know anything at all??

The thing that drove me the most crazy, and probably the reason travel tends to induce so much panic, is how little control I had over my situation. I was acutely aware that any solution would require a lot more creativity, courage, and effort than carrying out a solution in my own country.

And this is a lesson that travel bangs into your head until you finally surrender and say, “Uncle.” In other words, until you finally accept that you never had control over anything to begin with.

Since the train was about to leave, whatever solution there was would have to be after we had started moving. Kevin dove into working on his laptop, and so began to try and calm my nerves. I slipped my headphones in, opened my Calm app, closed my eyes, and turned the sounds wayyy up to cover up the talking and laughing around me.

I don’t remember which meditation I picked, but I still remember the message.

It changed the way I traveled from there on out.

The theme of the meditation was rain: that sometimes it rains and sometimes it doesn’t. But the one constant is that it is always changing, no matter what we do.

Sometimes we forget that it changes and when it rains, we worry that this might be forever—and so we panic (#me). We try to fight it and prevent it from raining and talk about how we wish it wasn’t raining or that we should have done something to prevent it from raining. But the fact remains: it’s raining.

Therefore, the best thing to do while it is raining is just to accept that it is and say, “It’s raining right now. But eventually, it won’t anymore.” Slowly, I felt the panic drain away.

After this train ride, this idea became my personal motto. I started using it not just for every new “Shit,” moment that came, but also the times of intense loneliness that travel brought and the uncertainty and self-doubt that entrepreneurship dragged me through in the coming months. I repeated it to myself when bad news arrived and when real fear took over rational thought. I became grateful for these moments in travel, because every little situation we overcame strengthened it. It was like a muscle that travel kept exercising.

We got to Prague 7 hours later. We were hungry, thirsty, and tired.

I’m not sure if it was because of our relief that beer and chicken schnitzel would soon be in our stomachs or because of the actual ambience, but upon walking up the subway steps and seeing Prague for the first time, it looked positively magical.

Leg one of our nomadic journey: complete.

Picture of me with a sandwich as evidence that we made it to Prague and ate and also survived.

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