As I stepped off of the curb and down onto an old cobblestone street in the historic district of Innsbruck, I found myself musing. A few minutes earlier a light mist, far too mild to even be considered rain, had begun to drift down. I was surrounded by old buildings full of character, each with a wealth of stories locked away behind oft re-painted and restored walls. As my eyes scanned the street they settled on an old woman standing beside a water fountain. It was one of those postcard perfect moments. The type you travel for; that brings to life all of the magic moments you fawned over, dreamed of, and were raised upon. I paused and soaked up the details of it. It wasn’t until several days later, as I touched down in Istanbul and found myself wandering the storied city’s ancient and exotic streets, that I realized that perfect scene had been the harbinger of a significant realization.
When I made the choice to re-locate to Copenhagen for a two-year Masters program, I knew that a lot of things would change. Chief among those was me as an individual. One thing I never thought about or expected to change drastically was my relationship as a whole with Europe. True, I expected it to become more familiar, but I think at a certain level I expected that I’d just have more time to relish its magic and cultural diversity.
I now realize that in re-locating to Denmark, a large chunk of Europe has lost part of the exotic mystery that made it such an exhilarating and spectacular place to visit as a child and young adult. This shift hasn’t come entirely from the year and a half I’ve lived in Denmark. If I’m to be honest I think I can trace it as a gradual progression as I took each European trip.
The last year and a half has stripped away my innocence. It has, in a way, mirrored the shift we go through as we grow up and realize that parents can be wrong, that Santa Claus is mythological fiction, and that special effects are constructs and not reality. I hesitate to say that the magical has become mundane, because that would be a major simplification and, in truth, grossly inaccurate. Yet, it may, in part, get at the heart of what I’ve come to realize.
Istanbul offered me something that Innsbruck did not. That taste of discomfort, the raw unknown, the alien. It offered the exotic, the strange, the curious all in addition to the pleasures of exploring a typical city. There was a time when Innsbruck and the other German, Nordic, and British cities harbored that same allure. Now, though, they’ve become part of me. The architecture differs, but only slightly. The languages and people are different, but still close enough of a kind that they feel like kindred populations, strange cousins of a sort.
I suppose what I am getting at is that after nearly two years spent living in Denmark, that once-magical-fairytale land that was Northern and Western Europe has become an extension of the United States in my mind. Just as a trip from Arizona to Florida offered a taste of the exotic, but remained still very much a part of the world of experiences and flavor that is the United States. The same has happened for me within Europe be it Denmark, Austria, Prague or England.
It’s not a bad thing really. If anything it is a chance to better connect with and relate to these countries. I’m also not implying that Austria and Denmark are the same. Far from it. Yet, a part of me is slightly sad to see that period of innocent wonder lost…not unlike the loss of the innocence and wonder of youth. It also comes with the realization that to feed my addiction to the new, to the exotic, and to that sense of mystery – I’ll have to continue to explore other parts of the world I have thus far neglected.
As Asia, Far Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and parts of South America call to me I cannot help but be excited for the feast that is fresh discovery. Still, I cannot help but realize that it will never be the same as my early love affair with Europe. It is where my wanderlust was birthed, nurtured, and matured.
The lady by the fountain and countless moments like it also put my mind at ease. It reminded me that there are still an abundance of intimate moments to be experienced here in Europe. It is a wonderous place full of incredible experiences, delectable food, new surprises, and a lifestyle that most Hollywood directors would refuse to craft into their films, claiming it to be far to ideal to be believable.
This post isn’t about regret, far from it. It is merely about the realization of lost innocence. I would make the move to Copenhagen again in a heart beat. I am love with my lifestyle, with the city, and derive endless pleasure from exploring Europe’s historic districts, winding streets, and cozy alleyways. While every brick may no longer ooze mystery, the opportunity to spend my days casually wandering through real-life paintings is a true blessing.
In discussing this realization with friends who have pursued or are currently on a similar path, i’ve discovered that I am (perhaps unsurprisingly) not alone in this realization. It is, in a way, inevitable.
To those of you who are dreaming of, considering, or in the process of pursuing expat life – it is a wonderful, informative, and inspiring thing. Just be prepared and go into it striving to enjoy each and every moment while you can. Those memories are the foundations upon which great memories and life’s context are built.
For now, I’m off to toss my headphones on, listen to some classical music, and let it serve as a soundtrack to my next adventure.
The open road calls …