Somewhere in Hungary en route to Slovakia
I don’t know if it’s the fact that my trip is a mere 4 days away from reaching its end, or some of the upsetting circumstances I saw many of Budapest’s inhabitants living in, but I feel compelled to speak about some of the less romantic aspects of seeing the world - the sobering realities that are just as important to take into account and hopefully do something about if one has the capacity.
Many of the accounts of my experiences abroad have been whimsical in their description, almost like being in a fairy tale at times. Though I have tried to be honest about my thoughts, doubts, and challenges along the way, I believe the bulk of my stories have been hued with a romanticism most often associated with exploring the world. I hope it has done more good than harm, even inspiring readers in some small way to find a way to pick up and go forth into the unknown boldly, but not recklessly.
Still, the visage of defeat wears on the faces of just as many abroad as it does back home. Life, I have discovered, is many things. It is meaningful, exhilarating, tragic, challenging, ever-changing, profoundly beautiful, but undeniably, a grind. And for many of the people I saw on my trip, the latter seems to be their permanent state of being.
This morning as I made my way on foot to Keleti Train Station I walked past a young man lying face next to a mostly empty bottle of beer. And yesterday afternoon, I saw an elderly woman’s look of despair as she sat on a makeshift bed made of cardboard, literally around the corner from a Zara department store as tourists casually sipped lattes just across the street.
These images led to a deeper reflection. For every 500-year old basilica mobbed by tourists snapping selfies and group photos there was a woman on the street selling her personal belongings to make ends meet. Around the corner of the 4th stop of a bar carefully placed on a Pub Crawl, there was a middle-aged man sitting on a stoop with a half drunken beer who’d been consumed by the afflictions of alcoholism. But the most disturbing part of many of these observations is how many seem to feel that traveling abroad gives them a free pass to be ambivalent, or worse, apathetic to the very real problems of the societies they are merely passing through. It would be glib of me to imply I hadn't been guilty of the same behavior.
As visitors from every corner of the globe bring with them different faiths, temperaments, beliefs, and social statuses, they trot through the streets, young and old, some with Osprey Farpoint backpacks, while others sport Louis Vitton suitcases, the link to all seems to be the shared sentiment that these problems are not theirs. It’s Belgrade’s, Sarajevo’s, Sofia’s, Bucharest’s, Tel Aviv’s, or New York’s problem. “I’m just here to have a good time."
But I fear it’s exactly that sentiment that leads to nothing ever changing. And as I don’t have all the answers for addressing the plethora of problems in my own country, I do not even know where to begin while abroad. Claiming that I did would be presumptuous.
Still, I am confident that it begins with making minor tweaks in our thinking and how we interact with people. This shift in behavior doesn’t necessarily need to manifest itself by giving every single homeless person on your journey all the money in your pocket, but it can begin with acknowledgement; a recognition of someone’s setbacks yes, but far more importantly, their humanity. Whether it is saying hello to the woman who cleans the restrooms at the Bratislava Train Station, or making sure you don’t treat the waitress at the popular Tel Aviv Café like a subordinate, I’m convinced these minor shifts can make profound changes and hopefully influence the way you treat those when you return home.
Yesterday, while having lunch in Budapest, the waitress bringing over my tea slipped and spilled hot water all over her hand. She was embarrassed, but my concern was whether or not she burned herself. I told her repeatedly to pour cold water over her hands, which she did. Afterwards, she came back and said, “You are so nice.” It was clear she hadn’t received such attention or consideration in a while, which deeply saddened me.
The perils of sharing such wandering thoughts are rife with pitfalls. Invariably, someone will believe you to be sanctimonious, or “preachy.” Neither are intentions of mine, but are monikers I have no problem taking on if it plants a seed. Go. See. Discover. And along the way, be good, do good.
Lana, a 20-something waitress I met in Slovenia shared this bit of advice with me: "So the philosophy I'm trying to live by is: Always have faith in life - places it takes u, challenges u have to face and people that influence u one way or the other. Even when life is scary and makes u sad. Especially then. So thank u for asking me this question because yesterday I was feeling pretty crapy about some personal stuff and then u kind of reminded me that I shouldn't give into fear."