That's what they told me. A married couple from Alabama, now teaching English in Romania.
"Teachers teach. Travelers travel. And you guys are travelers."
They nodded toward myself and another guy we had all met at the hostel. He was from Connecticut, but studying business in London. "You know how we can tell?"
"Because we're having this conversation sitting in a beer garden in Krakow, Poland."
Point taken. But even then, I didn't consider myself a "traveler." I mean, I enjoy traveling. I've seen the blue glaciers and orca whale from a cold boat platform in the waters off of Alaska. I've skied the fresh powder in Colorado and the icy slopes of West Virginia. I've been to countless baseball and football games in Atlanta, peeked into the window of the nation's oldest schoolhouse in St. Augustine, white water rafted through Eastern Tennessee and seen the grave of Elvis in Western Tennessee. I've toured the essential building blocks of our country in D.C., Philadelphia and New York City. I've caught yellow fin tuna off the coast of Key West, ate in an outdoor cafe in South Beach, watched the October leaves change color in in Maine, New Hampshire and the Carolinas. I've beaten the house in Vegas more than once and can walk the side streets of New Orleans with my eyes closed, guided only by sounds and smells.
I had spent the 5 days prior to this conversation losing myself in the narrow corridors of Prague.
And yet, I still didn't feel like a traveler. I'm not quite sure how to define it, but I was certain it wasn't me. There are people out there who have made a life out of it. People who have been to far more exotic places than I could ever imagine. People who have set their Myspace profile picture of them feeding a lion cub somewhere in Africa. People who have island-hopped through Greece and chewed on cocoa leaves in Machi Picchu. To me, THOSE are the true travelers.
So what makes a traveler? Is it a matter of time spent away from home? Or a minimum distance? The Alabama couple said even a day at a neighborhood park could make someone a traveler. As long as you have a desire to experience something different than the ordinary. Something out of the 4-walled comfort zone of your everyday domain.
I read a quote once that said "If it's hard to say goodbye, then you had a good time." Then there's the story of the guy who, after a good vacation, was sitting in the airport, waiting for his flight home. That morning, a massive snow storm had blanketed the east coast. He watched as the departure and arrival screens all flipped to "Canceled." Surrounded by angry groans and cries of disappointment, he quietly put on his backpack, stood up, smiled and calmly walked out of the airport.
So maybe it isn't about time or distance, but instead, the feeling you take with you. The memories and stories. Everyone has a place they've fallen in love with. A place that they cannot wait to get back to. I don't know if I fell in love, but I can say this: there is certainly a part of me that wishes I was still there. Still traveling. A New Zealand backpacker described it as a "schizophrenic chameleon: It's a party, it's an escapist, it's lonely as hell and it's beautiful." Someone from Scotland said "It intensifies every interaction. There's more urgency to become close and to create the familiar. This urgency is the most natural, exciting feeling in the world."
Maybe it was because I decided to go it alone, but I couldn't have found a better description. I'll blame it on my independent, yet selfish free spiritedness. It not only gave me a chance to do my own thing at my own pace, but it ripped me out of my Panama City Beach comfort zone and forced me to bond with total strangers from all over the world. I would recommend this to everyone...do it just once. Like cheering on your favorite football team in the middle of massive rain storm...it has to be done in life at least once. You might not know exactly what to think of it when you're going though it, but after it's over, you're really glad it happened. It's different. It reminds you what living feels like.
I wanted to blog about my 2 weeks in Prague and Krakow. It's difficult to put into words. So, instead, I'll just list some things that I noticed:
-Europeans do not have personal space, but they absolutely will not make eye contact with you on the street. It was very odd walking around town and wanting to naturally smile and nod at the people you pass. There, it is considered weird because no one does it. Score one point for the South.
-Saturday Night Live taught me two things: Adam Sandler is not funny. And German men dance exactly like you think they would.
-Eastern Europeans do not know how to stand in line. This is not a snarky observation, but a reality. I noticed as I stood in line, be it at a restaurant, a museum, or the train station, people would stand beside me rather than behind me. Some even blatantly stepped in front of me and thought nothing of it. It turns out, all those years under communism taught them that, after spending all day in line, it's quite possible to finally reach your destination only to find that they were out of whatever you were standing in line for. So if you wanted your bread or laundry detergent that day, you damn well better cut some people in line. 20 years later, this mindset still exists and it seems they have passed it down to their children.
-Judging accommodations based on a 2005, Eli Roth horror film is just ignorant. I would stay at a hostel again in a heartbeat. Nothing beats a full-liquor pub just a feet from your bedroom and having a place to sleep for just a few bucks a night. The people I met there were great. The Ozzy who got so drunk he literally shit his pants. The Brittish chick who fell face-first into our table of pilsner glasses. The German guy who did nothing but sleep and complain about how tired he was. The group of students from Warsaw who played the Hong Kong drinking game and introduced me to kebabs. The Italian guy who tried his damndest to communicate with me, to no avail. The Alabama couple and their local insight and the stories they shared of Romanian customs (more on that in a minute). The other Floridian with who I spent hours discussing the radio and independent music business. The Kiwi and her story about the mace she received at the train station. The Australian hostel worker who made me fried eggs and toast the second I walked in the door and forced me to try Vegemite (vile spread). His beautiful Polish coworker who taught me about her favorite types of vodka. The guy from Virginia who spent every evening grilling out for all of us. The chicken, hashbrowns and kielbasas were great. I would have met none of them had I stayed at a hotel.
-The death camp at Birkenau was massive. That's all I could think about for the 3 hours I walked around it. Nearly 450 football fields. When reading about it, everyone kept mentioning the sheer enormity of it. But those were just word until I actually saw it for myself. These words, and my pictures, do not do it justice and can in no way express the reality of the size and feel. And to think it was created for the sole purpose of killing people. If you travel to that side of the world, I think it is something you have to experience. I will always remember the smell that still lingers amongst the rubble and how odd it was to hear the birds peacefully chirping in the trees.
-On a lighter note, everyone in Prague looks like super models. Everyone. Even the female cops and cab drivers. There is no morbidly obese, like every other person here. People there actually care about what they look like. And right they should...although the Czechs are not known for their hospitality (some are downright rude toward tourists), among themselves, there is so much competition, they HAVE to be friendly and interesting. Here in the US, a super-model caliber woman is few and far between, so the real beautiful ones can afford to act like stuck up bitches and have no personality. There's no competition. In Prague though, this isn't the case. Every girl that passes is a looker. So much so that the local guys don't even notice them.
-Supposedly, Romanian females are taught not to wear short skirts or shirts that show their midriff. Reason being, (and doctors will corroborate) exposing your skin like that, in those areas, will cause the uterus to freeze and riddle a woman barren. Unable to give birth. True story. Also, Romanians have an irrational fear of the breeze. They refer to it as "the current." They believe, (and doctors will corroborate) that the breeze, be it from the air conditioning, a fan, or the wind itself, will cause illness. This belief is so stong, that they sit in school classrooms with no A/C and the windows shut in the middle of summer. They also drive their cars that way so that there is no contact with "the current." I'm assuming sunroofs aren't very popular there.
-Poles, like the Czechs, are very fashion conscious and the women there are quite beautiful. Krakow is a big university city, so I was able to experience some good eye candy during my visit. That said, there is an unseen dividing line that cuts the country in half when it comes to hair color. Most of the Poles from the north have blond hair, while the Poles in the south have very dark, almost black, hair. After my 4 days of completely superficial research, I have come to like the the darker-haired girls better. Dark hair + light eyes = natural beauty. And who am I to argue with nature?
-The Europeans have nailed it when it comes to outdoor drinking and socializing establishments. Here, we find a nice plot of land and put a bank or a Walmart on it. There, they toss out some picnic tables, a grill and a beer vendor and tell you to have a nice time.
-If you're using this as any sort of guide for planning your next get-away (which you shouldn't be) I highly recommend both Prague and Krakow. However, Krakow seemed more manageable, welcoming, cost effective and not nearly as "touristy." Prague is an amazing city with a ton of things to keep you busy, but it's a tourist trap, plain and simple. I felt totally safe walking around late at night, 3 liters deep in both cities.
They aren't like Miami, thank God.