Like many others — quarantined indoors while the summer sun shines outside — I’ve mourned the people lost, jobs terminated, goals postponed, and trips cancelled. And, like many others, I’ve reminisced about past travels and dreamt up future travels, finding ways to be anywhere but here, now, in this Black Mirror episode we’re all living in.
But then, I asked myself: What is it about traveling, really, that I find so enriching and worthwhile? How much of it depends on physical transportation, and how much of it is in the mind and spirit? Why is it that we look at our time spent traveling as precious, and our time spent at home as wasted?
To explore this, I started by reflecting on the most significant travel experience I’ve had to date. For one, it was fun to relive this adventure through my writing, as I hadn’t yet meditated on my takeaways from the trip.
I also found that the impacts of traveling and quarantining on my life, respectively, have been more alike than I’d thought.
I went on my first international trip last year, just months before my twenty-fifth birthday.
Before this, the furthest I’d ventured was Washington D.C. in high school, the first time my family of five boarded a plane together — a huge deal, compared to our usual road trips from L.A. to San Francisco or Sedona. Money, people, and time had never quite aligned well enough for a trip abroad, until May 2019. I’d saved up enough funds and vacation days to join my parents for ten days in Austria and Germany.
Until then, I had never been to a place where I didn’t read or speak the dominant language, which I found rather humbling. A reminder to the entitled American: the world doesn’t revolve around you.
We started in Vienna. Our hotel stood a block away from an opera house, where they projected the performances onto a screen outside for passerby to enjoy. I could hear sopranos and strings from our room each night. My parents and I are classically trained musicians. I’m the violinist, my mother is the cellist, and my father is the percussionist. Several iconic composers whose work we studied originated from this city. We made sure to stop by Mozart’s apartment, located not far from St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and the Strauss monument in Stadtpark.
As we walked around the apartment — the floor creaking beneath our feet, our voices echoing against the walls — it struck me that Mozart, whom I’d mythologized, was a real person. That’s what traveling can do: the physical world breathes reality into the history, culture, and people we can only read about.
The rain in Vienna was constant, which took some getting used to as an Angeleno, spoiled by sunny, moderate weather. My bulky North Face jacket and Nikes gave me away as a tourist, especially when standing next to the posh Viennese locals, with their polished coats, wide-legged trousers, and boots.
A European trip wouldn’t be complete without a taste of royalty, so we took a tour of Hofburg Palace, which boasted an impressive Silver Collection (i.e. a lot of fancy plates) as well as the personal belongings of Empress “Sisi.” As an artist, I particularly enjoyed the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s vast collection, including Brueghel, Klimt, Raphael, Rembrandt, Rothko, and Velázquez.
I had to try the coffee everywhere we went. In Vienna, the popular drink is the wiener melange, a shot of espresso topped with steamed milk and foam, served in a large cup. The wiener melange went perfectly with the sachertorte, a delectable Austrian chocolate cake, which we found at the famous Café Sacher Wien.
Some of my favorite meals on the trip were the simplest: breakfasts consisted of fresh breads and pastries with cold cuts, cheeses and jams, boiled eggs, sometimes with some muesli, too. My parents and I would tear open bread rolls with a quiet, sleepy delight as we discussed the day’s itinerary. I observed how the Austrians and Germans took their time with dining; waiters didn’t hand us a bill mid-meal like they do in America. I learned to eat slower, pausing to appreciate flavors and textures. It’s as if I’d been stuck on 2x speed, and someone finally brought me back to my original pace.
We didn’t practice our German very much beforehand, and while many locals spoke English, ordering food and asking for directions often entailed a lot of gesturing and interpretation, nonetheless. The conversations to my left and right in bustling restaurants and town squares were audible yet incomprehensible. Until then, I had never been to a place where I didn’t read or speak the dominant language, which I found rather humbling. A reminder to the entitled American: the world doesn’t revolve around you.
We proceeded to Salzburg by train, where we gave into our tourist urges and joined a Sound of Music tour. A bus took us through rolling green hills while our tour guide, a cheery blonde woman dressed in a dirndl, led us in a singalong. She even whipped out a goat puppet for “The Lonely Goatherd.” We stood at the edge of the lake that the von Trapp children fell into during “Do-Re-Mi,” and we enjoyed some ice cream while gazing up at the church where the wedding was filmed. So much green — I marveled at the lushness of the land, a stark contrast to the valleys of Los Angeles, crisp and brown from the drought and frequent brushfires.
Our time in Salzburg also included a visit to Mozart’s birthplace and a trek up Fortress Hohensalzburg — a trek indeed, up several staircases and steep hills, as my dad didn’t believe in paying the toll for the funicular. We sipped wine while the sun cast a golden glow over the rooftops of the Baroque historical district below us. The hike was worth it.
We concluded the Salzburg leg with dinner at a biergarten, where I ate a pretzel the size of my face. (I also consumed copious amounts of starch and meat on this trip, namely schnitzel and wursts.)
As I explored the cities of Austria and Germany, I noted the way people seemed to respect the space, as if they had the city’s future in mind.
When we arrived in Munich, Germany, soccer fans in red jerseys swarmed the town center, gathering in front of the Rathaus-Glockenspiel to celebrate a win. This liveliness buzzed throughout the city, where people crowded biergartens mid-afternoon, laughter everywhere. We enjoyed a drink at Hofbräuhaus, the oldest beer hall in Munich and one of the largest tents at Oktoberfest.
At the Munich Residenz, which was built in the fourteenth century, we walked through bedrooms and halls once occupied by royalty.
The preservation of places and things that I witnessed throughout our trip — what must seem normal, perhaps integral, in Europe — helped me see my hometown with fresh eyes. Los Angeles, grown on stolen land, is a relatively new city. It changes constantly. Destroy and rebuild, renovate and repurpose, push the old out and bring the new in — these are the modes by which my city operates. Cranes and scaffolding are just as much a part of the Angeleno cityscape as the skyscrapers in downtown. As I explored the cities of Austria and Germany, I noted the way people seemed to respect the space, as if they had the city’s future in mind. In L.A. you can’t be so sure this or that building will be around tomorrow. The people come and go, too. So, why worry about preservation?
Walking through these historic spaces, I wondered, what are the places and things that will tell the story of Los Angeles to travelers of the future? Will there be anything left?
I think it’s easy for us to grow desensitized to the places and people we associate with the everyday, with normal. Until it is stripped away, that is.
For the final leg of the journey, we set forth to Grünkraut to stay with my dad’s cousin, Debbie, who’d been living in Germany for decades now. The town, located in the district of Ravensburg, was much calmer and far less touristy than the others we’d visited.
Debbie took us to Museum Ravensburger, dedicated to the game and toy company founded by Otto Robert Maier, as well as an aviation museum. On our way to her house, we stopped by a few markets for groceries — one for berries, one for meat, one for bread. We enjoyed a homemade dinner with her family. Through conversation, I learned more about the German school system and work culture.
I may have German heritage, but to be German in lifestyle, philosophy, and spirit is something else entirely. Even so, these precious moments with Debbie reminded me that wherever I had family, I’d find a piece of home.
Our very last stop was Zurich, where I boarded a plane back to the U.S. and where my parents hopped on a train to Italy to enjoy part two of their European adventure.
On the shuttle from the airport to my parents’ house, I looked out the window, taking in various scenes of Los Angeles, which took on a different aesthetic and personality with each passing street. Metropolitan and suburban. Gritty and glittery. I peered out at the people on the sidewalks and in their cars, people with roots all around the world, who also call this city home. I’d missed it.
I think it’s easy for us to grow desensitized to the places and people we associate with the everyday, with normal. Until it is stripped away, that is. How peculiar it was, the mixture of relief and grief I felt when I landed on home soil, when I fell into my own bed that night, when I returned to my life.
While some lament “time wasted,” I’ve decided to treat this time as a journey in its own right, opening up my mind to new ways of experiencing the world.
Traveling exposes us to new people, foods, languages, weather, cultural traditions, and social etiquette. By switching up our day to day, we’re compelled to take a closer look at what our normal looks and feels like. My trip overseas inspired me to think more deeply about my relationship to places and things and my understanding of history and legacy. As the American in Europe, a first-time foreigner, I recognized more than ever how vast the world is — not only in space or in the diversity and multiplicity of people, but in time, with lifetimes before and after the point at which I stand, right now.
Traveling helped me see outside of myself.
I’ve heard many people speak of the past few months, the coronavirus lockdown, as the antithesis to travel. In literal terms, it is: those of us who abide by protocol remain quarantined inside the walls of our homes, except for grocery runs and the occasional walk. We think of travel in visceral terms, imagining the stunning views we can see, the flavors we can taste and smell, the music and accents we can hear, the climate we can feel.
That said, the coronavirus pandemic disrupted our sense of normalcy and forced us to examine our spaces, our communities, our culture, and our systems with more scrutiny than ever. The coronavirus highlighted: We exist within a world so much bigger than ourselves. Lockdown forced us to pause, step back, and rethink the way we connect with the world around us. A new culture is in the making, and we’re all foreigners, learning to adapt. While we’re not visiting new places, we’re interacting with familiar places in a new way.
It’s uncomfortable, certainly, and in many ways, unfortunate. We didn’t choose this. But I believe in finding meaning and opportunity in even the darkest of circumstances.
This lockdown period has been a transformative experience for us all. While some lament “time wasted,” I’ve decided to treat this time as a journey, opening up my mind to other ways of experiencing the world, just as I would if I were traveling abroad. If we learn to look past our convenience and comfort, open our minds to different ways of thinking and being, and look at the world outside of ourselves while we’re at home — not only when we’re on a postcard-perfect getaway — I believe we can live a fuller, more adventurous life, every day, here and now.
And when we do have clearance to rejoin the world outside our windows and cross oceans once again, we will appreciate it all the more.