An Intermission? Or Act III?

Racing along the fogbound coast of Connecticut — or we may have already entered Rhode Island, I don’t know — and I have to say: the performance of this Amtrak Acela Express train is quite nice. It’s not quite as snappy as the high-speed trains in Europe (we’re behind schedule: surprise, surprise) but it’s cozy, we’re moving now at a good clip and you don’t have any of the airport BS to deal with. Ought to be more of this kind of thing in this country.

That’s right: in THIS country. My country: the United States. I’m back on terra cognito, at least for a litle while. No, I don’t know how long. And no, I don’t know what’s next.

Ostensibly, I came back to the U.S. to check out a sailboat I saw listed for sale in Maryland. It’s a European-brand boat that you don’t see too often over here in North America, but I saw a lot of them this summer and I was quite impressed. And every time I sat on pondered “where to next” when I was still in the Olde World, I kept coming back to: “but what about the plan to buy a boat and sail away? Will you regret missing out on this boat as you have others?”

So with that in mind, I trucked it to Berlin (flights to the States were cheaper there as compared to Prague or Vienna) and endured a chock-full eight-plus-hour flight to New York City, America’s only truly world-class city and one of my least favorite places. Why fly there then? Well, flights to JFK were cheaper than flights to Boston, and my sister currently has some of her photos from the ’80s on exhibition in a gallery in Greenwich Village.

As a result, it made for a long day. I got up at 6am Berlin time Wednesday — midnight on the East Coast of the U.S. — got no sleep on the flight, then checked out my sister’s show (which opened while I was overseas), and it was right about midnight today when the tragi-comedy that is the Boston Red Sox finally ended. I managed to sleep for about four hours but couldn’t sleep any longer than that, and why not: at 4am East Coast time it was 10am in Berlin and my body was wide awake. So I walked to Penn Station and boarded this 6:20am train.

And in a couple more hours, my adventures of the summer of 2011 will come to at least a partial close. There are mixed emotions about this, on a lot of different levels.

On the one hand, I was really enjoying the time I spent in some of the great cities of Europe. But on the other hand, they were cities, and I’m very much a country mouse. While I enjoyed Prague, I longed for the solitary beauty of the islands of Norway or the northern coast of Iceland. And what about the planned-for places that I didn’t make it to? I opted for Prague and Berlin over the beaches and surf of Scotland and southwest France — was it better to have altered my plans and follow my whims or did I miss out by not going with my original strategy?

I also enjoyed being in places where English was not the primary language; but it can be tiresome when communication is so challenging. We take our everyday interaction so for granted, never realizing just how much background and “infrastructure” there is to being able to nonchalantly order a cup of coffee. When you have to struggle for the words and the currency and the transaction is filled with a lot of awkward pauses and “uhhs” and “ummms,” well, spitting out that Starbuckian mumbo-jumbo — “grande double mocha this, that and the other thing with two shots and room” — actually comes easily and makes sense (to a point).

And there are so many things about European culture that I find so “right.” The prudish way we in America treat alcohol is juvenile and, as statistics show, ineffective. How refreshing to sit outside at a cafe and enjoy a glass of wine. But by the same token, the staggering amount of second-hand smoke I endured over the past three weeks I’m sure scarred my lungs forever. And would someone please explain the concept of lines or queues to Euros?

All of which is to say: it was nice to be out of one’s comfort zone for a bit, just as it’s nice to be back in it for at least a little while. Sure, the old saying that the great part about traveling is that you get to go home is true. But in my current state, I don’t know what, exactly, I’m coming home to. A reentry into society and Corporate America? A reentry into Alaska/California/New England/take your pick? Or is there a new M.O. on my horizon, one I’m vaguely aware of but still means new territory?

There are also potential future steps that are new. What if that sailboat in Maryland (or another one I found a couple of days ago in Maine) works out, shall I head to the islands for the winter and get on with chasing that dream of old? Or maybe I’ll ditch a lot of the gear I’m lugging around, repack my suitcase (lighter this time) and head back out on the road: I could see some new territory that way, including those planned-for places I missed this time around. Hell, maybe it’s time for the southern hemisphere? I don’t know. I have to confess: the traveling, particularly traveling alone, is getting tiring. Perhaps it’s time to settle in, pick something and someplace and someone, and be content with one horizon. Or maybe there’s another sign just around the corner…

I always say I’m waiting for that sign from the universe and it occurs to me now that I’ve had my sign all along. It manifests itself in a myriad of ever-changing ways and one of my favorite incarnations is in a quote a friend sent me earlier this summer. It’s by the late comedienne Gilda Radner and it goes; “Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.”

That’s what I’ve been doing all this summer; hell, in the lead-up to this summer and practically for my whole life, too. When I moved to California in 2007 it became my ninth state driver’s license. On top of that, I lived in Germany and Finland back in the late ’80s. When others were settling down to contentment and that one horizon, I was packing up and going to check out another place that interested me. I’m not saying my path is better or worse than those others but I am saying it’s mine. This whole summer, whenever I was debating between next stops and next steps, I was “having to change” and “making the best of it.” I did the same when I decided to play hockey in Europe, to take a job in the ’90s with something new called “the internet,” to finally move to Alaska full-time, and even when I decided to leave Alaska. No, it’s not conducive to long-term planning and goal-setting, not when your time period is a lifetime or even just that part of a lifetime deemed “adulthood.” That lack of long-term vision has a price — witness my relationship track record for a detailed accounting — but “making the best of it” also has a benefit: a breadth of experiences and insights gleaned from those experiences that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Sure I envy some of my friends who’ve taken different paths, but in the end, as Robert Frost put it, “I chose the one less traveled and that has made all the difference.”

I love Gilda’s quote, especially when you realize it comes from someone whose life was cut tragically short. Gilda knew the finite nature of life in very clear terms: she was on her way out when she uttered these words. Fact: we all — every single one of us who has ever been and ever will be — wind up in the same place. If you can truly say that you’re “making the best of it” and enjoying yourself while you do, well, you’re having as successful a life as anyone possibly can. Congratulations and thanks for playing!

Oh, and one other good thing about this Acela Express train: onboard wifi. But I’m gonna hold off on publishing this until I get home…I’m planning on surprising my parents. That should be entertaining…

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