The Experience Lives on, Long after the Trip has Ended

“Too low they build, who build beneath the stars.” – Edward Young

Edward Young’s quote in the Library of Congress

I sat in the front row of a bus, watching the pavement fly underneath the windshield. Jess slept next to me. Our combined worlds had separated when our morning conversation had withered. I was alone with my thoughts. DC was behind us and New York City stood somewhere ahead. The January sky hovered greyly over the land, wrapping our bus in a white fog. I thought of evergreen trees, and how there weren’t many compared to where I live in the Northwest. I thought about Jess’ life in Albany. I remembered when we had lived together in San Diego, and I remembered before then, when we had lived together in Madrid.

Early version of our advertisements
Early version of our advertisements

A three month trip to Europe in the later part of 2008 had turned into a nine-month life in Spain’s capital, where we spent our days conversing in English with locals who wanted to improve their conversational skills and our nights drinking rioja on crowded restaurant terraces. We had gone to Spain with barely any money and some dreamy idea that we would teach English to make money. Our lack of teaching experience, working visas and TOEFL certification prevented us from finding any employment with language schools, but we knew there was a demand for English in Spain. We knew that many Spaniards had learned English in school, but didn’t have an opportunity to practice what they had learned. With language, you either use it or lose it. So using grassroots marketing, we built a small “business” independent of any language school. We offered conversational English practice for less than a student would pay to a school, but for more than we would earn working for a school. Our job was to literally go to a coffee shop, drink coffee (or sometimes wine or beer) and have a conversation with a local in English. We were successful enough to stay in Europe, travel, hold seminars to show other English teachers how to do it themselves, and eventually “sell” our business to another American teacher before we finally returned to the States. I could ramble on and on about this period of my life. It is one of the most prominent points thus far. I will forever know that it changed my thinking about what I am capable of accomplishing.

Since then, Jess and I have traveled to several other places together, though not internationally and always in groups for weddings or birthdays or bachelorette parties. As I sat on the bus, I realized this Northeastern trip was the first real trip she and I had done together, without anyone else, since our escapades in Spain. Over the years, we have relived that beautiful time in our life through memories and photos and journal entries, but during this trip in the Northeast, I remembered things I had seemingly forgotten about our travels in Europe. When we were navigating through the subway station of Washington, DC with our big packs on our backs, alongside all of the locals on their way to work or lunch or wherever they were going, Jess and I glanced at each other with small smiles and wide eyes. I was instantly transported to another time.

A lot of my memories from that period were of cities we explored, festivals we attended, our students we would meet. What had slipped from the grasp of my recall were the countless periods of time spent aboard buses, trains, planes and subways. The mere glimpse of Jess standing on the subway platform waiting for the metro triggered remembrances that seemed to have been stored in the memory of my body. The weight of my backpack. The wobble of a brightly lit subway car careening through blackened tunnels beneath the earth. The relief of finding a spot to stand against a corner in an effort to get me and my large backpack out of everyone’s way, and then the annoyance of having to shuffle to a different spot when the train doors decided to open on the opposite side at the next stop. People flooding in, not caring about anything but getting inside and finding a place to park their bodies. The elevation in body temperature. Jess’ apparent cool calm, and my self-evident angst. My greasy, ratty hair. Jess’ pulled up in a clip. The sharing of shoes. The reusing of clothes. The eyes of strangers questioning where I came from. The hands of the universe determining where I would go.

Germany, 2008
Germany, 2008

Doing all of those things again, and alongside my travel partner, brought me right back. DC reminded me so much of Spain. I’m not sure what it was, and maybe it was just that I was traveling with Jess. I don’t want to always look back. I don’t want to visit a city and only think of how it reminds me of another city. But I realize it isn’t about that. When I was in DC with Jess, I was able to relive parts of the life I once lived with her in Madrid, but not in a way that deducted value from the current trip in DC. It only added to it. It only made it that much more special, and it’s the very reason I look forward to traveling with her again in the future.

Jess was the last person I traveled with outside of the United States (excluding Mexico). This year it will be four years since we returned home from that adventure. Too long, I feel, though my big international, life-changing travels seem to accidentally happen four years apart from each other. That means this year of 2013 is my year of travel abroad. I’ve told myself I’m going to South America in the later part of this year. I haven’t made any set plans, but usually when I plant a seed like this one, it means it will happen. But this time it will be different. I won’t sell all of my belongings and leave my job and walk out into the unknown for an indefinite period of time, though I often times want to do exactly that. But I have done that, and I know I can do it again. This time I feel good about leaving for a few weeks and knowing I will come back to exactly what I left. I’m realizing I can take more international trips that are “shorter”, rather than just one large trip every four years as I have taken in the past. And that makes me excited. It is a new way of traveling for me. Maybe I’m getting older. Or maybe I just like my life right now and don’t want to give it up. That’s not to say I won’t one day sell everything and go start fresh somewhere, but I’m interested in the attempt to balance both home life and travel life together, rather than choosing one or the other or combining both into one. That in itself will be a new journey for me.

Washington, D.C., 2013
Washington, D.C., 2013

I mentioned in an earlier post that there are certain points of life we can look back on and know that they changed our life forever. I went through the grandest one of those points in my own life alongside Jess. The realization happened for both of us at the same time because it was based on our combined belief and action. Together we accomplished things that seemed improbable or impossible, and we learned we could make anything happen if we wanted it badly enough and worked hard enough. If we believed enough. In retrospect, it seems our belief and faith in each other brought us more belief and faith in ourselves. Jess and I went on to start another business back in the States before eventually moving on to different career paths and finally to different parts of the country. In the time that has passed since Madrid, as we find our paths independent of each other, that “we can” attitude has shifted to “I can.” Her role in my journey to get to that point is invaluable.

I know Jess will not be accompanying me on this South America trip. Our timelines don’t seem to be lined up this time, but I know there will be many travels ahead of us. I look forward to the day we return to Madrid together, perhaps years from now with our own daughters. But for now, I’m excited that I will experience something new without her at my side. To carry that lesson we learned together and apply it to something else all by myself. And the next time we go somewhere together, we will be able to build on that trip with the experiences of past trips, both the ones taken together and those taken apart.

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