[S]leeping can be a form of emotional escape and can with sustained effort be abused…[G]ambling can be an abusable escape, too, and work, shopping, and shoplifting, and sex, and masturbation, and food, and exercise…[A]nonymous generosity, too, can be abused. Having sex with someone you do not care for feels lonelier than not having sex in the first place afterward. It is permissible to want.
David Foster Wallace
If, at some point, you find yourself in a position where you are Twenty-Two-Years-Old and Fresh-Out-Of-College and, on top of all that, say, an English teaching assistant in Middle of Nowhere, France, you may find yourself perpetually on two-week vacations from the usual grueling Twelve-Hour Work Week you normally have to endure of miming the English language at classrooms of bored French students while pretending you Didn’t Know You Weren’t Supposed to Give Political Standpoints in the French school system because your Académie never actually gave you any formal training anyway. Luckily, in Middle of Nowhere, France, you may also be that One Lucky Bastard in your Académie who lives in a high school without rent, and, since you are Young and wanting to do the whole Self Discovery Thing, you are now afforded to leave said high school in order to Travel Europe for the two week “Winter Break” period in February that is a thinly laïc-veiled disguise for Lent.
Because, I mean, the apartment in the high school in the Middle of Nowhere is great, and probably the best place you’ll get for some time, but you really have to ask yourself sometimes what the history of your current fucking mattress could be. How it could possibly be as lumpy and painfully uncomfortable as it is. Why there’s that one perfect, lipped canyon running right down its middle that, if you accidentally roll into, has you suddenly touching its back side. Why, if you put too much weight on one end, the whole thing completely flips over and throws you out. It smells bad; you know why, but it’s still disconcerting.
You want to escape from this mattress.
You want to escape from this Middle of Nowhere. Even if just for a little.
You start by escaping to Stockholm, Sweden where one of your friends from the aforementioned recently-left college back in the US has recently moved to start an internship. In Sweden, you may sleep on a twin-sized mattress that is more comfortable than a piggy-back ride on God’s fecklessly smooth back-skin. The sun is gone most of the time up there too, and your friend and yours’s version of tourism mostly consists of large consumptions of alcohol over gossip and bitching and, later, when you are both reasonably comfortable being bad tourists, The Bachelor. These factors help foster the deepest cocoon of sleep you’ve had in ages, and help you trudge around Sweden’s dark, snowy cold to look at palaces and fjords and squares that you’re sure must be quite pleasant in the summer. You will try to buy food in Swedish, but spoken with a Danish accent that makes them just give you meat regardless of what you tried to ask for. As a vegetarian, this will make you uncomfortable in an accepting, polite kind of way that rips apart your digestive system. Sweden will make you miss the year you studied abroad in Denmark. Not the country of Denmark itself, but the time itself. Europe is teaching you, this time around, that your obsession with place is a misconstrued projection of experience, and that the two are not necessarily the same.
Afterwards, you will go to Amsterdam, specifically for the Vincent van Gogh Museum, because you bought a book of his letters in London and they really fucking spoke to you, man. In trying to get to your Dutch mattress late the first night, you will realize that you booked a hostel an hour outside of Amsterdam itself and struggle to follow its directions to “go to the lighthouse” in a country whose language sounds like a Sims dialect. You will wander around in the snow for an hour with all your luggage until somebody at the gas station gives you directions. You will find that the tourists in the Netherlands really like their mattresses too: in an All Day Long kind of way that makes it so you don’t really make the normal hostel friends that you might otherwise. The beds, to be fair, are terribly comfortable, if a little smelly and rattled by club music all night long. But you are exhausted from Amsterdam anyway. You will lose your first day in the van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum in an engrossing, inspiring way that makes you forget that you only have two days there. Van Gogh will be crowded, and you will be more into watching the security guards fight the tourists to stop taking Selfies and try to teach them that Technology is an Affront to Art (actual security guard comments) than perhaps the paintings themselves, even if you cry at the crows (which you clearly remember described in the letters as “vast stretches of wheat under troubled skies, and I didn’t have to put myself out very much in order to try and express sadness and extreme loneliness.”) The second day, you will go on a walking tour in the pouring snow and feel ashamed for not being able to take anything away from it save the memory of being desperately cold and fighting off the advances of an Australian who really wanted to go on a canal tour with you. Afterwards, you will think about buying drugs, but go and read in the library where it is warm for hours and hours instead. In the end, Jean Tinguely from the Stedelijk is This Trip’s Discovery: an artist who focuses on machines, movement, and modernism. His letters, in French, are on display about how love is an act of movement, how life is an act of movement, and they are moving in a way that stays with you, even as you say Goodbye to Another City That Must Be Lovely In The Summer and move on to Brussels.
Whose mattress is also quite nice, but whose pillow is of lesser quality than Amsterdam’s or Stockholm’s. You like Brussels immediately for being beautiful in a way you can tell doesn’t take itself too seriously. You will go to a Lenten church service in German for some familiar, High Mass Smells. You will be told “vous êtes belle” by a stranger who seemed sincere– and not drunk– on its steps outside. You will get film developed in what turns out to be a man’s living room. You will drink beer and eat chocolate. You will gawk at the beautiful Art Nouveau architecture everywhere. You will figure out why \it is an Art Nouveau City on a walking tour that teaches you that Belgium earned its wealth by killing half the population of The Congo at the turn of the century, when Art Nouveau was at its height. You will go to a Musical Instrument Museum that is actually not as good as the one in Phoenix. You will go to the Magritte Museum on surrealist painter René Magritte and realize that surrealism makes so much more sense when you read poetry, like you recently started regularly practicing. You will spend Valentine’s Day drinking alone, nostalgically, on the cold, hard cobblestones of Le Grand Place, and make a brief cameo on Brussels News for doing so.
In the Netherlands, you will subsist on Dutch Chocolate when you get hungry.
In Belgium, you will subsist on Belgian Waffles when you get hungry.
You will not feel very well.
You will, most importantly, take a wide and varying combination of planes, trains, and God Awful Overnight Buses to traverse Europe, and will fall deeply asleep on every single one of them. You will practice finagling your body into contortions your mattress in Middle of Nowhere, France does not ask of you in order to sleep, and your Morning Body will come to grips with an ache it almost never knows. It will just want to get to a hostel’s bed, or, even, back to the Familiar Discomfort nestled in the Middle of Nowhere’s lumpy mattress.
You will learn, here, what it means to Rest. Learn what it means to live in this Work of Escaping from Work and Adulthood, from the Real World and Home and the USA, you Twenty-Two-Year-Old Self-Discovery Stuffer. Learn that Escape gives you that ache that only comes with travel, the kind that wants nothing but Arrival.
If, at some point, you find yourself in this position, where you are Twenty-Two-Years-Old and Fresh-Out-Of-College doing the Whole Self-Discovery Thing, remember that life is an Act in Movement. When you are tired from travelling, ask what Rest you really get from your bed at home? The comfort you chose to leave because it was meant for leaving. Go. Travel. Get Away from it. All of it. When you get tired, lay down. And see where you got.