I’ve always found the best time to write is while I’m in transit; planes, airports, trains, they’ve always provided me with a neutral ground and enough dead time to properly reflect on things passed, and more importantly, things still to come.
Yet, it’s hard to start reflecting on one journey when you’re not entirely sure you’ve made sense of another. I left snowy Trudeau airport in Canada five months ago to the date, and sometimes it all feels like one giant, drug-induced dream sequence. I’m always gripped with this terrifying feeling that I’m going to wake up one morning in my cramped room in Ottawa, sweating and raving about lunatic tales of a place called Europe. Sometimes it all hits me at once and I’m scared that it never happened at all. The people I’d met imaginary, the places I’d seen just part of some fantasy of the mind.
But despite a few patches of hazy memories, for reasons I’ll keep to myself, I think I can safely say that it did indeed happen, and after nearly 16 hours of non-stop travel, I’m just about halfway to Kigali. I’ve barely slept in days and I look like a rolled up newspaper that’s been dragged by children on the back of a bike through a dirt road.
As I sit in a crowded airport terminal in Qatar, smoking my last cigarette, the empty pack on my lap can’t help but remind me that “Roken is Dodelijk,” and I smile, thinking back on a few months ago when that might as well have been written in Korean for all I understood. It also makes me stop and wonder how long it will be before I find someone else who can read that, or share a laugh with me about Dutch weather or the majesty of stroopwafles.
So how do I look back on an experience like studying abroad and try to express it in a few words? How can I ever properly describe the feeling of listening to a folk band over howling winds on the Charles Bridge in Prague, or sipping Turkish coffee and smoking shisha in Istanbul as Arabic chants erupt from the towering minarets of a hundred nearby mosques?
How do I describe those hilarious little awkward linguistic or cultural gaffes that would send us into uproar as we sifted through cryptic, weathered, long-distance care packages filled with foreign foods?
Better yet, how do I describe the feeling as I left the international student residence yesterday morning, knowing that as the doors closed, I would never, in my life, see that same group of faces together again. In a way, despite the madness and sheer depravity that encompassed the period of my exchange, there is a certain poignant finality to it; none of those moments can be re-created or re-enacted, they exist only as themselves, now and forever unchangeable.
So in that regard, maybe I am ready for something new. Nietzsche once said that a true and good European should be stateless, homeless, with no real association to any crown or flag. The only problem with that is that I’m not European, despite being jokingly referred to more than once by my friends as “Euro-Trash.” So where do I fall now? I’m sure as hell not European, but I feel like I’ve lost a certain association with Canada. The patch I so proudly sewed on my overstuffed backpack before I left looks a little less shiny now, a little more torn, hidden behind a thousand low-budget airline and train tags I refuse to remove.
Maybe a time in Kigali might allow me to put all this into perspective. Who am I? Citizen of the world or man without a country to call my own?
Maybe a better idea is to get to Kigali first, and deal with the existentialism later. Sleep, after all, is the only universal evil I can’t seem to do without, at least for now.