We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.
Tolkien is perhaps my patron saint of travel; the one whose quotes about adventures and struggles through the unknown have carved my view of what the world should look like. I’ve always felt a bit of a kinship with the hobbits; we are both quite fond of our routine, adore second breakfast and elevensies, don’t really come of age until our 30s, and are generally shy but capable of courage when the need arises. I couldn’t help but think of dear little Bilbo when I stepped out of my door two weeks ago, backpack slung over my shoulder and passport clutched in my palm. I had never even made it 1,000 miles from home (the distance between my town and Disneyland is somewhere in the 900 miles range), I’d only ever set foot in 4 states- and 2 of those don’t really count because I live right on the border between them. Now my little band of adventurers and I would find ourselves over 6,400 miles from home, covering over 13,000 miles in our quest for excitement. Little did I know, I would come back a very different little hobbit than I had been when I left.
Tolkien famously said that not all who wander are lost. Truthfully, I think my roaming came about because I felt truly lost in all the ways that mattered, and shackled to all of the things that didn’t. It is no secret that this past year was a rough one for me; my first pregnancy loss in January left me shattered and unsure of how to rebuild a life with the broken pieces left to me. I struggled with the things that normally brought me solace and joy. I had once been so sure of my place in this world and the future I had planned was crystal clear. But then the Earth shook, the crystals shattered and cascaded around me, crunching under the soles of my shoes. I was lost, unsure if my feet would ever set foot on the path I had taken for granted. Where do you go when the road is washed away by an avalanche? You wander, you blaze a new trail and see where it takes you. Mine took me halfway across the world to a places with new customs, accents and languages. It took me to a life I could still find fulfilling, even if it wasn’t the one I had envisioned. It took me to a place where I learned to depend on myself, and not rest on my own expectations. It’s easy to lose track of what inspires you when you stare at the same four walls, and traipse through the exact same routine day after day. In Europe I rediscovered my passions. I stepped into castles where kings and queens once walked, ambled through the streets and pubs that famous authors and artists once frequented. I saw the place where Lady Grey and Ann Boleyn were murdered (though history prefers to call them executions).
In Westminster Abby I stood in Poet’s Corner over the final resting places of the great authors that still inspire my love of words. I stood in awe as I stared at the Rosetta Stone behind it’s glass case, and walked through exhibits of our histories and storytelling traditions that paved the way for writers like myself.
In Oxford I stood in the gardens that inspired Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I walked down the street that is said to have led to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardobe. And ornate door with a carved lion on the front with two golden fawns accenting either side of the door. You can look down the street to see the single lamp post that signifies the entrance to Narnia. We walked past the Eagle and Child pub that was once the meeting place for the writing group, the Inklings. Some of it’s members included Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and many others. For Harry Potter fans, Oxford has ties to the movie franchise (though there are few literary connections). In a less literary (though just as inspiring vein), we even got to see Einstein’s chalkboard preserved with his own handwriting, tucked away in the basement of a science hall.
After a week in the UK we found ourselves in Romania. There is nothing more humbling than finding yourself immersed in a country that doesn’t speak your language. The impacts of communism were brutally apparent, and many people can still remember the revolution that led to it’s overthrow in 1989. You listen to the stories of the food cards and starvation, desperate times that led to people literally fleeing across the border for a better life. Perhaps listening to these stories would give some of my own countrymen a bit more compassion with the issues we are facing. Look into someone’s eyes when they talk about being imprisoned for traveling illegally to another country to survive, observe the desperation that caused them to leave behind everything they ever knew. Drive through the countryside where people grow their own crops and livestock because they don’t trust that there will be enough food in the stores. The lives that we all live are stories of their own, we are each the protagonist in our own tale.
We attended a traditional wedding that carries on for an entire day (the celebrations often last well over 12 hours, which is a big change from the traditional 3 days they once were). It is amazing to see the cultural differences in the traditions observed. No wedding is complete without a bridal kidnapping and ransom for her return, traditional dances that everyone learns from a young age, fog machines and sparklers that are taller than I am.
In Romania we carried on with our unofficial literary tour by roaming the halls of Castle Bran, the supposed home to Bram Stoker’s infamous Dracula.
We ate lunch on the back terrace of the home where Vlad the Impaler was born. The village was called Sighisoura, and thr old protion has changed very little since the 1500s, though it is still a very active city. People continue to live in the same homes that were occupied hundreds of years ago. We saw firsthand how Vlad’s story is told in a very different way within his country. While we view him as brutal and cruel, he is a hero to his country, a leader willing to fight for his people.
It is a moving experience to see the world as others do, to experience cultures foreign to your own and acknowledge that you are the outsider in this beautiful place. It is compelling to see what humans have created throughout this world; the buildings, traditions, stories, and art we have brought into existence. Our art sustains us throughout history, leaving it’s mark for centuries to come. Though we may not always understand it (like the mysteries surrounding the Stonehenge), it will be there to be witnessed for ages. To walk through the halls of our past and pay homage to the lives that led to our own; this is a gift.
I stepped back through the same door to my home that I lad left from, backpack still slung over my shoulder, passport clutched in my palm. Yet, much like Bilbo after his return from the Misty Mountains, I was changed. My heart carried adventures, my mind held new stories yet to be told, my soul was lighter knowing I belonged to a greater human tradition. My home is still the same, the laundry I left unfolded is still sitting at the foot of my bed, my dog is still stretched out with his head on my lap, and I am still here clacking away at a keyboard. But I am not who I was. This lost little wanderer is finding her way back home.