Brian Yalta is a student at University of North Texas and an ISA Featured Blogger. He studied abroad with ISA in Paris, France.
Hunter S. Thompson said it best once: “No sympathy for the devil; keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride…and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well…maybe chalk it up to forced consciousness expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten.” This piece of advise serves well when you’re on your own in a foreign land. Fear shouldn’t get in the way of an adventure waiting to happen. It’s okay to be afraid of the unknown, but in order to acquire mental and cultural self-discovery, it’s necessary to overcome such a fear. The best way I got through it was by traveling alone without acquaintances to a place I wasn’t familiar with.
My destination would be Amsterdam. The reason: a concert. Einsturzende Neubauten, a German band that rarely tours the U.S, was performing at a venue called Paradiso on a Saturday night. I couldn’t miss this opportunity, so I soon began to set up my itinerary. I would leave Paris Saturday morning, take the six hour ride to Sloterdijk station, go to the concert, then walk the streets of Amsterdam ’til the morning after when I would walk back to Sloterdijk station and wait for the 8AM bus back to Paris. Ultimately, I decided not to pay for a place to sleep that night. I would be awake for more than 24 hours to both explore Amsterdam’s nightlife and save money. I wouldn’t say I was homeless, but essentially I had nowhere to be.
Being in an unknown place forces you to speak to locals for directions when you’re lost and when you’ve got nothing to verify your location, you simply must take the words of strangers as truth. And so I did as I took trains to and fro, station to station, place to place. I hit so many dead ends until I arrived at Paradiso. To belittle my fanatical nature, I’ll just say that the concert was great and even though most people in the venue spoke Dutch, there was a sense of sonic understanding when it came to the music. I was beginning to like the liberating feeling that Amsterdam ubiquitously emanates.
After the show, I had a long night ahead of me. I was perturbed thinking about how bored I’d be or how sleepy I’d get, so I got moving quickly to find something that may make my time go by faster. A succession of trains eventually led me to one of Amsterdam’s famous red light districts: De Wallen. I knew the reputation that the red light districts held prior to coming to Amsterdam but being naturally curious this was where I spent most of my time walking around.
The words of Jim Morrison haunted me when I began this aimless path. People did look strange, their faces did look ugly when I was alone. I was surrounded by all kinds of people, mostly tourists who could easily be spotted by curious minds absorbing new visual information. I was no exception, but I was beginning to learn how much I hated the preconceived superiority some tourists have over another culture’s norms, merely because it seems ‘weird’ to them. I had to adjust myself to this environment, and I did after meeting two Canadians.
We talked for a while when I stopped walking in one of De Wallen’s countless alleys. I found out they were around my age, in Amsterdam only for the night as well, so we grouped and explored what the city had to offer. I felt the liberty that Amsterdam likes to share. It’s a liberty different than the one in the U.S, for I felt that the people of Amsterdam took certain subjects more maturely than people might in the states. At any rate, I accepted this peculiar sense of freedom, not seeing it as weird but instead as an expansion of limits. We walked from the city’s busiest time to when it ends–2AM to 5AM–seeing dawn spring up gradually. I had never seen something as calm as the streets of Amsterdam after 5AM. Everyone must’ve been barely going to sleep after the Dionysian activities that were held. The end of a party. I parted ways with the Canadians soon after and made my way back to the station to wait for my bus. 24 hours had never gone by so fast.
Overall, when you’re on your own, you begin to understand yourself a bit more–what you like and don’t like, how you react to certain situations, how social you are. When you’re traveling with friends or people you’re somewhat familiar with, you lose track of that self-conscious comprehension because you focus rather on the relaxed social aspect you’re involved in. You worry more about trivial things like what to say when conversing as opposed to how you’re going to find your way out of strange streets. Without obligations to be around or talk to anyone you know, you condense a foreign world into your relatively small thoughts and observations, which then practically become a part of you. In other words, you should go explore a new area on your own to gain a special kind of introspection: tolerance for the unknown.
The world awaits…discover it.